Burning Man is an event focused on community, art, self-expression, and self-reliance held annually in the western United States.Wikipedia
When I first went to Burning Man I went with my friend Diana. It was great to go with someone who had already been. The more friends I told I was going the more enthusiasm I received. People gave me tips and if they were going too they told me where they would be camping and how to find them.
Most who went were part of a themed camp. In the camp of friends we were with, everyone had a role to play. Some had been there since the week before setting up the bar, the kitchen, the lounge space, the shower, and establishing designated places where people would set up their tents or park their vehicles accounting for everyone who had said they were coming.
The two of us had spent weeks preparing, buying supplies, and talking about what we would need to bring. Something to give away was a big part of it as Burning Man was based on a gift economy, meaning once we were inside we would pay for nothing. I brought spritzer bottles with essential oils in them for cooling down since we would be in the desert. Diana made vegan cheesecake treats. We brought all of our own food and drinks but apparently, you could just visit other camps and they would offer up whatever they had to give. Most camps had a bar. At ours, people would ride up on their bikes or walk up in costume, spin the wheel and get a drink if they did what the wheel said to do. Usually, they landed on some game or engaged with other camp members. It was very playful and lots of fun.
I wandered off without taking note of where our camp was in relation to the tall structures and street names. I explored up and down isles of cars and people and was lost for hours. I eventually found my way back. After that, I was told to always take my goggles, face mask, and water in case I got lost again and if a dust storm should come through, which could happen at any moment.
There was a booklet with a list of classes and workshops, shows, and art displays all throughout Black Rock City- the name for this temporary city in the desert. There were only porta potties and the only thing for sale was ice and coffee. There was a center camp which was a giant circus tent. On the outskirts of Center camp there was also a medical center, and a station where you could charge your electronics. From there, the streets pinwheeled out, and camps arched in half-moon streets out and beyond the center like a clock. You could find where others were located by their street name and time on the clock… 3:00, 4:00, 9:00, etc.
The art installations erected by artists and their teams were set in various locations within the bounds of the clock. Some were miles out in the more vast areas opposite the city. Some were huge with stairs that went stories high. Some were designed to engage in, climb through, or sit upon. They all lit up at night and had some political, humanitarian or environmental message to convey or emphasize dramatically.
The magic really happened at night. The art cars and DJ stages came out blaring music, attracting random riders who could hop on and off or with an established crew to dance around and keep the mobile party going. If you liked the music or the art car you could follow behind on your bike. Everyone had to be lit up as there were no general light fixtures. You could be out in the desert miles from anything and if you were not lit up, a bike rider or art car wouldn’t see you without visibility in the pitch blackness of the desert.
The two consistent art features were the Man and the Temple which would both burn. The Temple they burned the night before they burned the Man. It is designed and put together by a different art crew each year. It has a spiritual context in that everyone comes to place objects and photos of those deceased or lost in years past. People came to pray and meditate, sing together, or just look around silently. It is always a sacred space.
That first year I went to see the Temple, I stood staring in awe. There was a man sitting in the dust nearby and we struck up a conversation. I learned he had flown in from Egypt just a few days before. “This is my first time in the United States”, he shared. “Where else have you gone?” “Nowhere else, I came straight here. This is why I came.” “Well, just so you know the rest of the United States is nothing like this.”
I felt it was important for him to know this.
In the years I went there after I camped in different camps which led to varying experiences. Wandering around the desert inevitably led to wild unusual experiences. There was constant music and entertainment. A roller skate arena, a man who would paint your body with brushes like an artist on a canvas. There were camps where ice cream was being served and bacon was fried, given away to any passerby. Teacups on top of a ladder on wheels that you could climb up into, a spinning hog people could clamber upon and ride. There were silk dancers, fire spinners, and DJs galore.
One year I camped with Abraxas, the huge dragon art car that blew fire. They were accompanied by the Dr. Bronner’s peeps who carted in a semi-trailer retrofit to be a large communal suds and shower event. Everyone would load in with goggles to protect their eyes from the suds and there were hoses that they’d turn on to shoot soap foam in every direction. Then the camp members on platforms in each corner would hose everyone down with water to finish the job. Laughter and childlike mayhem filled the air. As people filed out clean and refreshed, they had smiles on their faces, feeling connected by the crazy unique experience they’d just had.
Another time I camped with the French Maid Brigade. We’d dress up and descend upon random camps with dusters, cleaning as we went. The speechless campers were overwhelmed by the mass of maids that took over their personal space suddenly. Many were so flabbergasted and grateful they wanted to give gifts in exchange. Everyone thought it was hilarious because dust was EVERYWHERE and on EVERYTHING and could not be avoided or cleaned up EVER. Most vehicles that went to Burning Man were easily identifiable for weeks after returning to the world at large.
It’s a lot of work and it takes a lot of resources to go out to Burning Man. I would say it’s not necessarily the actual burning of the man that is even the highlight. Some people have terrible experiences, as is with anything. People are often pushed to their limits with the heat during the day, sudden dust storms, the cold at night, the all pervasive dustiness, the unending music bumping through the night and waking to it in the morning, the drama that rises up in relationships and friendships, the unabashed wildness in the behaviors of the participants.
People come from all over the world. I’ve seen Google’s camp set up. I heard another group saying this was their company trip. I could see that the anonymity available was a huge part of the experience. You could be anyone you wanted to in costume or in character. We were all covered in dust and trying our best to stay comfortable and enjoy ourselves in one of the most inhospitable environments. Bonded by the fact that we had all said “yes” to all of it regardless of the unpredictable outcome.
The last time I went I took my son who was 16 at the time. He loved art and was into the same kind of music they tended to play there. It blew his mind. When I asked him what the craziest thing he witnessed was, he noted the difference in how everything looked in the transition from day to night. He took contrast photos and presented them in a class project when he returned. It was a great experience for us both to do that together.
I don’t know if I’ll go again. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience for sure. It’s a celebration of sorts. A rite of passage. A journey. An undertaking. You never know what you’ll get from the experience and what is certain is that you will get something.