Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Burning Man or Bust


Burning Man is coming up. We leave in a week and a half. Yipes! For those who have never been to this festival in the desert, it's pretty hard to describe. Burning Man is like a combination of camping trip, class reunion, art festival, music concert, spiritual retreat, gynormous bar crawl, and hippie love-fest all rolled into one - with costumes and 50,000 of your closest friends. Set in the high Black Rock desert north of Reno, it's usually described as an experiment in intentional community. For most of the year, the desert is as nature intended, a moonscape;  for one week out of the year, it's transformed into a working city, complete with its own economy (no money is exchanged) street signs, a police force, medical personnel, its own rules of conduct, a schedule of events, several radio stations,  a coffee shop, and even a beauty pageant. One Christian gentleman described it as "Satan's Birthday Party." It's more than an art or music festival, more than a retreat, more than a camping trip in a beautiful natural setting, more than a ritual, more than a gathering of hippies and freaks, more than a big party. You have to experience it to understand.

Last year was my second time, after an ill-fated first trip 8 years before after which I swore I'd never go again. A man persuaded me to go again, and this time, with the help of a wonderful new camp of friends, I had a transformative time. Still, Burning Man is not, at least for me, some carefree jaunt of parties and half-naked women. It's tough, too.  In the desert, I confronted my deep inner stuff. My fear of and discomfort around people, my deep inner insecurities, my relationship troubles, old grief, the gaping hole of need that I carry around with me, my judgments of others and myself, my fear of letting go. At the same time, I came back with a desire to live that creatively in the rest of my life - to be my true self, no matter how weird or different.

At Burning Man, you dress how you want - the more creative the better. Almost everything is participatory and nobody tells you what to do (unless you're a real danger to yourself or others). Art and self-expression are everywhere you turn, sometimes to physics-defying degrees. At Burning Man, you rely on yourself and your friends. You haul in your own food and water and necessities and haul the waste out again, and if you run out of something, there's no corner store to go replenish your supply. At Burning Man, there's music, dancing, yoga, meditation, art classes, lectures, nature walks, fire displays, bars, and performances 24 hours a day - and no money is exchanged. At Burning Man, you can't drive your car around unless it's a permitted "mutant vehicle" - a vehicle that's been modified in some creative sort of way.  People-watching gets raised to a whole new level as folks go by in outlandish outfits, sometimes no outfits, and often being transported by strange devices  (stilts, pogo sticks, unicycles, cardboard fish, cupcakes). In the desert, it's hot during the day (temperatures of 115 degrees are being reported) and cool at night, and sometimes the alkaline dust gets kicked up into whiteouts that shroud everything in what looks like talcum powder. Oh, and did I mention that there are no showers unless you bring them (and the water) yourself?

I've heard it described that at Burning Man, everything is love and there are no judgments. I don't think this is strictly true; on the playa - as the Black Rock desert is called - people are the same as they've always been. There are the assholes who get too drunk or high and act like jerks, or just generally don't act with common sense; there are the hotsy sexpots in their 15 revealing outfits a day who stand around and preen, and the lazy ones who disappear whenever work needs to get done. There are the flakes and the users, just like in the 'default world' (as Burners call where we are right now.) But in general, I would say that Burning Man brings out the best in people. Or maybe it's that the people who go to Burning Man are generally more open, more creative, more flexible, and more expressive than others. 

The experience of Burning Man begins when you get in the car and start the trip. You drive further and further from your life, and your entire new life is packed as tightly and efficiently as possible in your car, RV, or van. Civilization passes behind you. As the hours roll by, you pass green trees and lakes, and then you get further into the desert, and things get more sparse. The weather gets hot and dusty. You start to see other Burners on the road - vehicles piled high with bikes wrapped in pink fur, hula hoops,tents,  rugs, and other assorted items, the vehicles often painted with slogans or crude depictions of the Burning Man logo. The highway, your fellow travelers,  and the barren, hot landscape are all you see.

Then you hit Reno and it's like someone dropped a huge pot of gold paint onto the desert floor. It's so surreal to have this gigantic mass of lights and glittering buildings rear out of the desert that it seems like a mirage. In Reno, you finish buying supplies, the way the old timers did - stocking up on the essentials before heading out into the brush.

As you leave Reno at 4 am, you know you're heading into the wilderness. You hope you didn't forget anything. The air is quiet and cool, the stars sparkle. Others are on the move, too; the string of red lights ahead of you on the road tells you that. You're all heading to the same place. The further you go, the more Burners you run into, until they are the only people on the road - Burners and the people who serve them.

The closer you get to the playa, the more of the default world you slough off. Cell phones don't work (much), radio is spotty, there's no e-mail. You no longer care if the dust gets into your hair or your fingernails break. Your body adjusts to the heat. You braid your hair to get it out of your face, and you stop looking in the mirror to check your makeup. Then you're there, and the culture is totally different, with different rules and expectations. The first thing you see that lets you know you're on another planet now is a huge metal dragon the size of a bus - oh wait, it IS a bus! The guy getting something out of his RV in front of you in the line to get in the gate is wearing tight silver bellbottoms, platform boots with flames on them, and has a red mohawk. BMIR (Burning Man Information Radio) is the only station you get and it's pumping out music to welcome the hordes. You're not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

A week from this Saturday, I'll be on the playa trail. I hope for myself and everyone else who attends, that it's a vibrant, transformative, creative, challenging, fun, laughter-filled, connecting time. I hope for new friends and for old connections to be strengthened, for joy in the sun- and moonrises, for the time to sit in the shadow of the great, wrinkled mountains and absorb their calm presence. Have fun, y'all!

1 comment:

Mon said...

had stop and take in the sites when i read your bio. :)

wow, just reading all about the burning man get together. what a blast. i LOVE that no money is exchanged.

thanks for being honest and admitting there are users and jerks there. but yes, i've been to similar things, where it does bring out the best, or the best people go.

wow, i so want to go! but i'm in europe.

have the best time!