What I Learned at Burning Man
When it really hit home to me that we were going this year to Burning Man, the mac-daddy of all festivals, my excitement was certainly tempered by all I had ever heard about the experience.
Many years have passed since I first came to know of Burning Man, but this was finally the magical one, the year I would experience it firsthand! As the day of our departure approached, those same “first day at camp” butterflies beat wildly once more in my chest. For those not familiar with the particular cultural phenomenon that is Burning Man, I’ll do my best to define it. The festival occurs once a year when participants create Black Rock City on a dry lakebed, or playa, out in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. For the time that it exists, Black Rock City is the third largest in number in the state of Nevada. It brings together creative people from around the globe and features art works enormous both in quantity and in physical scale. Each year an effigy of a man is created and burned at the climax of the festival. Other art works on display may be intended to burn as well. The festival touts radical self-reliance and radical self expression and the mantra of the city is, “Leave No Trace.” You are responsible for toting out everything you brought, including your bathwater. Volunteers stay on for weeks after the event, cleaning up every last bit of “MOOP” (matter out of place), restoring the playa environment to pristine condition. You’re also responsible for bringing everything you need to sustain yourself in the harsh conditions of the desert, which include extreme heat by day, freezing temperatures at night and intense choking dust storms that spring up without warning. In addition, money has no value at Burning Man, which operates on the principle of a gift economy. Gifting of your talents is highly encouraged, whether you’re talented at performing or welding or ring-mastering a flea circus (well, maybe not a flea circus: Pets are forbidden). As long as you seek to participate and contribute, without expecting anything in return, you are a valued citizen of Black Rock City. So, after a marathon day of cross-country flights and supply shopping with a short stop for sleep, not even a six-hour wait in the line outside the gate could dampen our enthusiasm. The gate had been closed due to the sand storm, a white-out dust bowl that enveloped us completely. Virgin burner that I was, my protective dust gear was buried in my luggage somewhere in the trunk of the car, so I was content to cower, wide-eyed in the backseat. I was incredulous to observe the human forms cavorting past the car windows, faces obscured, clothes powdered with dust, somehow still managing to sip from bottles of PBR. Feeling both envious and dubious of these fearless warriors dancing down the dust dervishes, I wondered what was to become of me in a sea of nearly 50,000 people with this kind of crazy enthusiasm. Fortunately my species has proved reasonably adept at evolution and as the week progressed, presenting us with the various harsh conditions promised, I’m proud to say that I adapted. Soon, the white talc that coated my skin within 30 minutes of showering and covered every inch of my belongings (and often the food I put in my mouth) was of little consequence. What is the inconvenience of a daily nosebleed or two compared to a fully articulated three-story pirate ship/art car sailing past you on a desert night beckoning you with shooting flames to come aboard and dance to the pounding techno beats produced within?
Sure, it’s a bit like moving to a strange new planet. Beguilingly enough, a planet inhabited by men who live in a 30-foot tall ketchup bottle with the brand “Burnz” proudly replacing the familiar logo, which from within they serve french fries to the masses each night? Best of all, you only get fries if you can answer a random trivia question the fry guys make up on the spot, just for you, turning a mundane real world transaction into improvisational performance art. My guy evaluated me slyly for a moment and then asked me if I could show him the measurement for six inches. (Aha, I know this joke!) I batted my eyes and held my hands about two feet apart. “Good girl!” he crowed. “Got something to show ya later.” Still more fun is carrying out your own planned contribution. We gifted bodypainting each day at Center Camp (the hub to the layout of the city) to any number of interesting people. It was a good choice. We enjoyed the company of individuals who wanted the experience of being turned into art, many for the first time. When we finished with them, the painted people went off into the city to thrill all who observed them. We even painted a bride on her wedding day who then warmly invited us to partake of her wedding waffle. It wasn’t such a strange invitation when we learned she was from Camp Bacon and Waffles, a food-gifting camp that had already gone through some 80 pounds of bacon by the time we met her. There probably isn’t anything you can’t find at Burning Man if you really look. A giant flaming flower sculpture a city block long? Sure, right over there. Want to ride on a magic flying carpet with a hookah for a steering wheel? Jump on. What do skydivers jetting trails of flame behind them in the nighttime desert sky look like? Look up, man. You’d like to take a workshop on spirituality, sexuality, psychoactive substances or sock monkeys? Here’s the schedule, read on. How about a beautiful smiling lass clad in glowing fur standing next to you who’d like to give you a hug and a piece of chocolate? Tell her how much you appreciate her gift. Like any city, there’s more to see and do here than you’ll ever experience in your brief stay. Unlike any other city, while you’re here, you have a sense of belonging and that you are part of the reason it all exists. Summer camp it isn’t, and calling it a vacation would be almost laughable. What it is, is a community and also an experience, one that you bring as much as one that you have. My experience through it all was largely one of warmth, caring, openness and creativity. What it inspired in me was a desire to let go of expectations and give more of myself to others. We’re all capable of offering joy to one another, whether through a trapeze performance or a giant mural or a slice of watermelon, what matters most is the intent. The zeitgeist of Burning Man has really brought that into focus for me and I’ll proudly display my “dual citizenship” from here on out.
To comment on this story e-mail Madeline Greco at Moxy@foxymoxy.com.