When friends or family have asked me to describe Burning Man, I am almost always reduced to a stumbling set of stutters and sighs. I can barely eke out more than a trite metaphor or a pained look of nostalgic bliss. For someone who talks so much, I get awfully quiet. But Burning Man conjures memories like a flood, and seems almost caged by words. Spectacular sights, sounds, citizens. Sensuality, circuses, sandscapes. Serenades, sunset circles…and these are only things that start with an “S” sound!
Burning Man has a rich and complex history, embodying distinct and radical ideologies. The event reaches out to an amazing cross section of not only the American populace, but the international community at large. And yet it has been reduced to so little! I have had more than one dull and horny Maxim reader comment, “Oh yeah, Burning Man! That’s that Slut Fest out in the desert, right? Lots of naked hippie chicks on acid, right? Dude. That rules.”
It all depends on what you\’re looking for. Burning Man is what you make of it. If you’re interested in bare breasts, you got em, by the thousands! But we were born with nudity! We were not born in three story tall temples built out of intricately carved balsa wood! We were not born where paper mache Easter Island heads are attached to porta potties, where gutted school buses are filled with waterbeds, where lovers kiss on stilts!
So let us get to the bottom of this. What the hell is Burning Man, anyway?
The Who, What, Where, When, and Why:
Who founded it?
Larry Harvey, now in his mid 50’s, is the executive director of the Burning Man Festival. He founded it way back in 1986, with his friend Jerry James, by burning a wooden effigy of a man on a San Francisco beach. Gallavanters with the city’s underground art scene, Harvey and James’ impromptu event drew an intimate crowd to watch the Burning of the Man. Something sparked that night, as friends and strangers united to celebrate the burn. Burning the man was an offering, a catharsis, a “sticking it to the man!” and lo and behold, a tradition was born.
Larry Harvey is supported by tightly knit office squad in San Francisco (where most of the logistics are taken care of) and a huge web of staff and volunteers that hail from all over. Apparently over 2,000 people volunteer to help BM (Burning Man) run as smoothly as it does.
So, who attends?:
I’d say the sky’s the limit– but some appear to have come from farther than that! There’s folks in spacesuits, and dressed in deep sea garb too. Mermaids, mathematicians, computer geeks, Cleopatras, pirates, bohemians, kids in chaps and frog masks, tarzans, grandparents in hotpants, your former next door neighbor you never thought you’d see again…you get the idea. Everyone’s invited.
Looking at it in terms of demographics though, it is largely American, largely Caucasian, and largely between the ages of 18-40. It is also gay-embracing, sensual/sexual expression and tolerance seem to be deep thematic undercurrents of the festival. I’ve also heard the term “techno-pagan” used to refer to this crowd…implying, I believe, those who are cyberculture-savvy, and spiritual, but not necessarily “into the whole God thing”. Regardless, it is a vibrant, reflective, adventurous community. You definitely belong.
Okay, this is the biggie. What is Burning Man?
Burning Man is a massive, weeklong festival. It is a gathering of over 25,000 people, who come to live together to form a rather radical community. This community is built, loosely or firmly, (depending on whom you speak to) on the principles of giving, participating, communicating, exploring, pushing boundaries, and I believe, dancing your ass off. There is also really huge art involved. Giving what? Participating how? Communicating to whom? you may ask.
Actually, gift-giving is one of the major precepts of the event’s foundation. There is no money at the festival, except for buying ice and some beverages at the center camp. This forces everyone to look outside our typical money/commodification lens, where we can be free of wealth or poverty, and see what it’s like to be given presents by someone we just met, simply because it makes everyone happy! Or perhaps one tells a story in exchange for an icecream…bartering is also widely used. However, gift-giving, in the pure and simple sense of just sharing or giving away, is highly encouraged.
I remember one day a woman whispered to her husband, pointing at my bracelet, “Ooooh, look at that gorgeous bracelet.” It was gorgeous – and unique, I bought it at a flea market in Hawaii. Eavesdropping on her compliment, I took off the bracelet and gave it to her, for keeps. She was stunned. I was stunned! I am such a materialist! And it all felt so good!!!
Besides gift-giving, other central tenets are the concepts of Radical Expression and Radical Self-Reliance. I’d hate to break this totally, wonderfully amorphous experience down into a string of dictums, but I do think the ideology is really important in understanding what Burning Man is about.
Radical Expression is the opportunity to be FREE. There is this collective emphasis on participating, instead of spectating. Spectating, as in, watching everyone frolic and snapping lots of pictures and not getting involved, is not only frowned upon, but it is looked at with confusion and disbelief. However, I understand that letting go is not necessarily as easy as it sounds! We are all from different places, lifestyles, conventions. What is radical to one person might be completely normal to another. But the underlying push to get people to participate is what keeps this festival flourishing. Most people don’t need any goading, or for some it just takes a little time. But when in Rome, do as the Romans do….and when at Burning Man, let yourself go!
This means wearing what you want to wear, forget matching, forget style, forget societal propriety and constraint. It is letting it all hang out – both literally and figuratively, however you choose. It is dressing as a monster, yodelling all day, performing at open mics, blessing people with “Holy Watermelon Juice”, competing in pole dancing competitions, getting over your shyness, dancing from sunset to sunrise.
A child reads Dr. Seuss’ “Oh The Places You’ll Go!” to a group of adults. They sit cross-legged, listening intently. Later, I see the same kid learning the Balinese Monkey Chant, while his friend complains to me that his mom won’t let him drink whisky before 5pm. This whisky drinking kid told me he was ten, but I swear he looked about seven. Radical self expression is liberating…and wild. And it can be illegal – but there is some (lax) law enforcement around. These personnel come in the form of Black Rock City Rangers. Black Rock City is the Burning Man community, and the land it occupies, for the duration of the festival. The Rangers are there primarily to ensure that everyone is safe and no one is bothering anybody else with all their radical self-expressing. Everyone tends to be really respectful. I didn’t notice any incidents myself, though I imagine there were probably some.
Radical Self Reliance means just that. You\’ll be living in the desert. You need to bring everything in with you, and everything out with you. This includes all your trash. Bring lots of water, food, sunscreen, everything you need. Living in the desert like this can be quite harsh. The sun, heat, dehydration, and overstimulation can be a lot for one’s body to handle. Something to consider: Whether or not you’re a regular drinker/substance user, getting hammered or high at BM might send one out of his/her skull! Again, depends who you are. The experience is so rich, emotional, and trippy (as it is) that you needn’t feel compelled to bring the “good time goods” just because rumors allege it’s a drug fest. That said, if you do, make sure you stay properly fed/hydrated/etc…the conditions may be unlike anything you have experienced before.
The landscape is a vast, flat canvas. Huge art sculptures, themed camps and villages, and fantastically adorned vehicles occupy (and traverse!) the terrain. The white caked desert provides a remarkable backdrop for the art, often gigantic in proportion. It is very, very surreal.
Okay, so flat desert canvas called Black Rock City…but where exactly?
Burning Man takes place in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, about 120 miles North of Reno, Nevada. The closest towns are Gerlach and Empire(NV), and there are daily buses that leave Burning Man to go into town if you need to make phone calls, buy very basic supplies, or regain your bearings with the help of “reality”. The bus fare is five dollars round trip. When arriving at Burning Man you can buy an “in and out” pass for your car which allows you to come and go for an additional $20. I believe you might also need this pass if you intend to leave before the end of the festival (Monday).
The Black Rock Desert itself is the second flattest piece of land in the United States, second to the salt beds in Utah. The festival takes place on what is called “The Playa” (pronounced Plie-ah) also an ancient lakebed. There are no insects! And no real plant life to be spotted either. There’s some shrubbery on the periphery. The point is – there is no natural shade, and it’s even to intense for the bugs. Plan accordingly.
The Burning Man website has directions for how to get from Reno, NV to Gerlach, found here. You can MapQuest the journey from your other driving destinations.
From Seattle to Black Rock City, it’s about 15 hours drive.
Vancouver- 19 hours
San Diego- 13 hours
San Francisco- 6 hours
(These are Mapquest approximations)
When does this awesome event occur?
This year\’s event takes place August 30-September 6, 2004. Burning Man is always at the end of August/beginning of September, which unfortunately makes it a difficult destination for most college students. The full event lasts one week. However, there are a number of approaches in participating in the festival. Volunteers are always needed and always appreciated. If you were so inclined, you could go to the festival before its official start and help with preparations. Go here to the volunteer page to find out more about such opportunities. Work includes everything from setting up art, recycling stations, working as a greeter, etc.
If you cannot make it for the duration of the festival, I believe you can go as late as Thursday. However, it is not possible to buy single day passes. Additionally, if you’d like to stay longer, after most have packed up to return, in a trance-like state back to their 9-5 jobs, you may stay as long as like to help volunteer with the clean up efforts, which is greatly appreciated.
Why should you go to Burning Man?:
And after all that, you want to know why?
Well, in case you’re not sold:
Because it is truly, I mean, seriously, an experience of a lifetime. How do you describe a fiercely sensory and splendidly carefree dream? Take every color of the rainbow, multiply that by a hundred. Every time you thought life had gotten boring, it’s zapped in an instant.
Go because there is no good reason not to. (Unless you have a really good reason not to. Medical condition?…But they are even handicapped friendly!)
Go because it is rare to have such an opportunity to play, in one’s growing age and expected maturity, with childlike ease, unbounded by societal taboo.
Go for the inspiration, the energy of art cars fueling, the rhythm of drum circle dancing, and fire spinning chanting. Go to get those creative, passionate juices flowing again. Tai chi at sunrise followed by a Wet T-shirt Contest after a pancake breakfast (for free–one of the theme camps makes it every morning).
Go because it’s Moulin Rouge meets Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters meets Mardi Gras meets Desert Safari meets Art Gallery from Outer Space meets Self Help Group meets People More Sympathetic than Oprah meets the Possibility of Meeting The True Love of Your Life!! People even plan their weddings so they get married at Burning Man. It is really beautiful.
There are so many reasons why you should go. Obviously, it is not for everyone. But for the people who are inclined, if you have the funds, take the plunge! I swear you won’t regret it!