You know those one-sided conversations you have with little kids that are partly based on true happenings but with a generous touch of embellishment and wild imagination? The ones that go something like “and then we climbed on a humongous pirate ship that had real skeletons in it. And then a man in a parachute landed in front of me and gave me a high-five. And then I got a piggy back from a robot and he gave me a lollypop for no reason. And then a big dragon car breathed fire on me and made a noise like rooooaaaarrrr and I wasn’t even scared?” The best way to describe Burning Man to the uninitiated is imagine if everything this child is saying is true. And it is. And all this happened to me at Burning Man.
Despite the general public perception as a festival for hippies, Burning Man could be more accurately described as a gathering of like-minded people in a purpose built space, Black Rock City, in the scorchingly hot and dusty Nevada desert. A 13 ish square kilometre area known as The Playa (rhymes with “damn those mushrooms must be good, could you be any higher?” As opposed to “it’s getting cold outside, I think I need another see-through mesh layer”) hosts the most creative, talented, open-minded, spiritually-aware and compassionate people the world has to offer for seven days. Their sole mission is radical self-expression. Participants feed off each others energy and the creative art projects that materialise are mind-blowing and inspirational. Not an insect can survive and the only rule, and it makes a whole lotta sense, is that you can’t damage your living environment or leave litter (aka MOOP, or Matter Out Of Place).
A typical greeting among burners is “welcome home” followed by pseudonym introductions to all, known as Playa names. Examples include Short Bus, Rae Whispering Dubstep, Kitty Paws, Magpie (for her ability to get distracted by pretty, shiny things) and my personal favourite — Luke, not his real name. This is accompanied by hugs of more than a minute and rounds of compliments: “I love your lashes,” “where did you get your sequin hot pants?”, “those assless chaps show off your buns really well.” There are no awkward handshakes or people left on the outer. There is no “so, what do you do?” or “where are you from?” During Burning Man the only answers to these questions are “I’m a burner” and “I’m from Spin Cycle on Rods Rd and 8.15.”
A typical day can be spent hopping between the hundreds of Theme Camps such as Big Furry Yellow (for all things bug, furry and yellow), Lucky Ramen (serving you Ramen; if you are lucky) and What Would Duct Tape Do? You might like to attend one of the many free workshops on offer which can be found in your copy of the ‘What Where When’ guide handed to you on arrival. Choose from AcroYoga, personalised horn making, or a workshop on how to use Burning Man as a tax deduction. Considering over 40% of attendees identify as artists of some description, it seems a valid offering.
Typical attire is anything from testicular adornments to elaborate headdresses with flowing layers of Playa whites. Anything goes. Just not feathers cause they lead to MOOP.
Blogger Nick Bilton hits the nail on the head stating that trying to explain Burning Man to an adult who has never been is like trying to explain Disneyland to a child. No photo, interpretative dance, or human carcass wash could possibly do it justice. You just have to go. It’s the best party you’ve ever been to, multiplied by 10 and doubled. How so? Everything is gifted, everyone dresses up in creative and sexy costumes, (or not), no one is the designated driver and no one has to go to work tomorrow. You can strike up a conversation with anyone, the atmosphere is electric, social awkwardness does not exist and your home is a short stumble or bike ride away. There is something for everyone and the music is much more varied and eclectic than the stereotypical Dubstep. An experimental digital live violinist was the highlight for many of my campmates and has inspired a fellow burner friend to get back into her practice.
On the Monday night at sunset I’m present when a team of workers who have spent three months assembling the Temple of Juno put the final touches on its all-wooden frame (another David Best creation). They come together to admire their work and pause to pay respects to a fellow burner who recently passed away. As they cheer proudly in solidarity, the anticipatory crowd outside the temple reverberates their cheer and I shed my first of many tears for the week.
The following day on the Playa I witness an interaction between a camp-mate and a man with his genitalia on display. In no more than 17 seconds the two strangers walk towards each other, embrace, giggle, fondle and are en-route to a sex tent or whoever has the coolest temperate abode. It’s a GLBTIQ paradise; a rare city where difference is encouraged rather than just accepted; where there is always someone weirder and more alternative than you. I overhear a conversation between four burners as follows. Burner one: “I’m off to the Orgy at Comfort and Joy.” Burner two: “I’m going to go masturbate in the f-ck tent,” (a f-ck tent, quite cleverly, is a separate and private space for those sharing a rather un-private recreational vehicle or trailer to chill out, store their excess costumes or indulge in sexual pleasures). Burners three and four are off to the Tantric Touch for Intimate Partners workshop. All return to camp beaming. At Burning Man, sexuality is open and discussed as if it was a normal healthy behaviour and human need . . . gasp, could it be?!
A further note about sex on the Playa:
- Assume everyone wants to have sex with you regardless of their apparent sexual orientation, gender or relationship status. Polyamory is not a dirty word.
- If your tent is hot enough to cook an avocado, it is not an appropriate place to store condoms.
- Not everyone has the same wet-wipe standards as you do (shudder).
Having said all this, finding love on the Playa is common in an environment where as Oprah Winfrey would put it ‘people can be their best selves.’ Is it real? Does it last? Quite possibly yes, and many choose to publicise their commitment to each other with official weddings not uncommon, but don’t expect the bride to be in a traditional white dress.
A camp-mate at his sixth burn spent some time volunteering on the Greeters Station for new arrivals. He proudly claims that around nine in ten virgin burners (burgins) were coaxed out of their cars to perform dust angels . . . naked. I missed the baptism myself as I arrived during the busiest period, but found myself later in the week performing my own dust angels in a moment of elation during a hoop jam at our camp where the music, sunset and people created an ambience worth bottling. Back at the entry gate, despite their enthusiasm, many burgins could not name ‘the 10 commandments’ of Burning Man including the key concepts of Leave no Trace (LNT) and MOOP. So I was not entirely surprised when later in the week I was sitting on an art car (as the name implies, part car, part art) knocking back the cocktail creations of veteran burner Tim (15th year) when an all-too-clean young male asked me how I was ‘paying for my drinks.’ He’d arrived a few hours prior after receiving a free ticket and was void of anything resembling a Playa cup. I filled him in on Playa gifting etiquette and then filled him up with Tim’s concoctions.
By the fifth day the alkaline dust was in too many orifices and I opted to attend the Steam Bath Project in an attempt to get clean, if only for five minutes. While waiting in the Lavender Lounge I was receiving a head massage from a lovely half-naked girl from Sacramento. A third party commented that they liked her tattoo. “Thanks, it’s a lyric from a Roisin Murphy song.” Wait a sec, hold up, hang on. Could it be that this random girl of 52,385 attendees, whom I had been chatting and connecting with in the line, bore a tattoo of my all-time favourite Irish Songstress under her left breast? Likely the only person at the Burn with such a tattoo I had no choice to believe in forces outside of the human realm bringing us together. I blabbered out something about my bedroom shrine to the former Moloko singer and we chatted further before moving into the steam bath where spontaneous ommms and relaxed sighs were the order of the day. We appreciated the exchange for what it was without needing to trade default-word contact details.
On the penultimate night the pyrotechnics of the man burning and the spin-off smoke streams resembling mini tornadoes were enough to light up every face on the Playa. I buried my greeny thoughts about environmental pollution and enjoyed the moment as this purpose built structure, a symbol of unity and belonging—the 26th man to burn since the gathering began in 1986—erupted, exploded and eventually dissolved into ashes. To my surprise, the remnants were then charged at by the masses who encircled it in a quasi-tribal dance of victory and gratitude. Almost immediately I heard the call “the man burns in 365 days” (and a round of giggles). For Burners, the glass is half full.
The atmosphere is alive and a usually unusual train of events follow as my fellow Aussie partner in crime and I traipse the open Playa, letting adventure befall on us. With a bottle of straight spirits between us, I manifest some mixer. A man in a cowboy hat stops in front of me and ring pulls open a can of orange fizz which he pours into our bottle without a word being exchanged. A girl with good posture and intricate dreadlocks marches past holding a sign proclaiming ‘this is all a dream.’ An elaborate art car shoots fire from its mouth intermittently and its owners have rigged up a grill on a very long handle adequate to cook about 30 sausages with each expulsion. In seconds, an assembly line with a level of efficiency to rival Kingsford Chinese Restaurant, is distributing piping hot ‘Playa hot dog’ sustenance for burners. We climb a ladder attached to the exterior of a dance dome and slide down a three-storey slippery dip to the cheers and high fives of a team of people assembled at its foot. Two minutes later I’m skipping in a giant LED jump rope manned by burners standing on mini-platforms. Turning a corner we dance in a crowd of hundreds gazing at a robot on stage in a costume made entirely of sewn together LED lights. We play a round of twister on a live male wearing an invitingly interactive onesie. I lose and bowl over backwards when ‘chin on blue’ is called. On the Esplanade, the Thunderdome cage, a space for people to fight out their grievances while strapped to elasticized harnesses and brandishing foam bats, bears a sign ‘days since last injury: 0’. It fits in nicely with the burner motto ‘safety third.’ It’s a place where you’re allowed to break the rules. And bones, if the rumours about Thunderdome are true.
In the next 10 minutes I acquire a shot of whisky from a hollowed out lime wedge with a chaser of bacon, a spanking, a complimentary goggles clean, a frozen orange, a bag of popcorn with a seasoning of nutritional yeast (and a sprinkling of Playa dust) and some vegan ice-cream from a stand with dwindling cone supplies where the person in line in front of me generously takes their allocation in a Playa cup so I can crunch away on the last cone.
Despite the hedonistic nature of the gathering, I found it to be a pleasant antidote to a prior three months of self-indulgent travel through Europe. I became aware of not only people vocalising their needs but when their body language indicated they were lost, hungry, looking for something or worried and took every opportunity to help them. If someone did need to vocalise their manifestation to a group, every single member of the party would respond to their needs. “Does anyone have a head torch I need to go to the porta-potties?” “Here take mine,” “I’ve got some extra batteries you can have,” “I found this torch today so you can have it,” “I have some (bio 1 ply) toilet paper,” “take this hand sanitiser too” and “do you want me to come with you?”
For the closing ceremony of sorts, the temple burn, the moon rises full, round and orange on the horizon and a Mexican Wave of howling rolls through the crowd. Silence soon ensues broken only by the occasional larrikin, audible sob, or gasp as the crowd admires the falling structure as it burns to nothingness. In it are pinned effigies, photos, letters, promises, resolutions and stories of pain and suffering people want to free themselves from. One man has cut off his goatee of eight years after realising he was hiding behind it and it too goes up in smoke. My thoughts draw to my own penning’s: promises to myself and others, seeking peace from recent hurt and solace for grieving friends and family. They seem more powerful than any new year’s resolution and more likely to manifest as there is a community of burners to account to and an environment rich with promise.
Riding home with a doctor and a nurse we joke that a trip to Burning Man could cure depression, although establishing a research study, blinding subjects and randomising them to control and experimental groups would be humorously impossible. We settle for Burning Man being able to resolve all worldly conflicts instead. First up, Putin vs Pussy Riot in the Thunderdome. The people’s decision is final and binding.
Blissfully unaware of what was happening in the default world, we route to Reno in a dream exodus and Black Rock City radio announces “it doesn’t get any better than this.” We stop in Gerlach and pay real world money for sandwiches and the shopkeeper informs us that 85% of her annual cash flow comes from burners. Despite the obvious economic benefits, the environmental impacts are real. Bags of trash and empty plastic water bottles litter the highway upon exodus and sadly not all of it looks accidental. The carbon footprint of the burn comes mostly from bringing everything in, including people, to such a remote location. Despite mitigating attempts from organisers, theme camps and individuals, such as utilising solar panels, one estimate places the carbon footprint of the event at 27,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, the equivalent output of 7,100 average Victorian cars annually.
The future of Burning Man is controversial with ticket fiasco's, claims of cultural shifts and expanding populations threatening its survival and many veterans opted out of this year’s burn in protest. But for me the experience was magical. I leave Burning Man believing that people are fundamentally compassionate, generous, welcoming and non-discriminatory. Is it that Burning Man attracts such people or are all human beings capable of these traits? Perhaps it’s a combination of the two. Either way it’s an example of what people can achieve with collective consciousness and common goals. Oh…“and then a giant octopus car drove past and did a dance with its arms. And, and, and it had eyes on every side of its head and they popped out and it spat fire at me.” I know ya’ll saw that one.