4 Reasons to Return to the Burn – Burning Man Festival, Black Rock City, Nevada

“Welcome Home” states the strap line of the Burning Man official website. At first, I didn’t understand the significance of this statement. Camping in the Nevada desert with no running water or electricity is far from my usual concept of home. But living in this temporary city for a week, where participants make the art and festival come alive, and self-reliance and self- expression go hand in hand, you become part of this experimental community.

Here are four reasons I can’t wait to go back home.

To amaze my eyes

We reached the gates of Burning Man’s temporary Black Rock City at dusk, excited but very tired after traveling 2000 miles in 48 hours along the I-80 interstate from Chicago with not much sleep along the way.

People (burners) were going about their business. Some people were naked, some people were wearing tutus, cowboy hats, or bright coloured wigs, but everyone and everything was covered in dust.

Night and the pitch black of the desert fell. Bright neon lights twinkled in the distance. Small specks of colored lights flashed, flickered, and moved about the desert. Some grew larger, racing towards us and then disappeared in the darkness as burners whizzed past on bikes, decorated with illuminated wire and glow sticks.

Moving slowly across the desert were vehicles sculpted into dragons or spiders or pirate ships. The dragon had two levels and was packed full of burners dancing to the loud music blaring from within. Every so often, fire would blast from its iron mouth.

To be inspired

Black Rock City is built on a dried up desert lake bed and is large enough to be seen from space. Yet once all the burners have returned to what is referred to as “the default world” there will be no trace of the city left. Awe inspiring art and creativity is everywhere you look from the outrageous clothes adorned by burners to art vehicles and art installations dotted across the playa.

One morning, I decided to explore some of the art installations before the heat and crowds got too intense. Many burners were returning to their camps after a night of partying as I took my early morning stroll. I climbed the steps up to the top of the 99 foot tall wooden oil derrick at the installation known as Crude Awakening and looked down at the eight metal structures of humans adopting various prayer positions worshiping the oil derrick. Far below on the ground, burners were interacting with the structures and activating the different fire effects of each statue.

I looked out across the desert, taking in the size and complexity of the city. The semi-circular streets contained hundreds of theme camps, domes, tents, battered RVs, and converted buses all decorated in what would be bright colors had they not all been all coated with dust. Over 200 art installations were spread across the playa. I struggled to imagine how all this art, some of it of colossal size and complexity could be constructed in the desert. And it was even harder to realize that in just a few days, much of it would be burned to the ground and all evidence completely removed. A few evenings later I watched as a complicated pyrotechnic display culminated in the oil derrick being blown up, creating a giant mushroom cloud of fire 1000 feet high.

To be involved

Participation is encouraged and is really the best way to truly appreciate the experience and become part of the community. Participation can take many forms, from contributing to art projects, running or taking part in events, to painting your body for others to enjoy.

For me, the most interactive and emotionally stirring of the installations was the temple. Intricately constructed from wood, the temple was delicate, yet awe inspiring against the desert haze and dark blue evening sky. Every inch of the structure was covered with touching messages and photos of lost loved ones. I added a message for my Nan and my dog, knowing they would soon all be reduced to ashes as the temple is set ablaze as the festival finale.

Opportunities to get involved are in abundance. Upon entry, the greeters handed us a thick programme of events, activities, and workshops ranging from acoustic karaoke to a zombie crawl. Even without timetabling in activities there is always something to get involved in. On the playa – things just happen!

To be at one with nature – Leave no trace is an integral message throughout Burning Man, as is self-reliance. Everything you need you must bring in with you, including food and water, and when you leave, everything must go with you. With strong winds often whipping away things to be buried in the dust until another day, the motto is, “Don’t let it hit the ground.”

Some burners had rigged up homemade showers with trays to collect the soapy water. I joined others in chasing the trucks that occasionally traveled the streets spraying water from the rear. It was not the most effective shower but at least removed the dust, for a while anyway.

Camping is a great way to feel at one with nature, but regular tent pegs just won’t do. Tents are pegged in with foot long pieces of rebar, but even then they may not survive the daily dust storms. Although I had been warned, the dust storm on the first day took me by complete surprise. It eventually died down, only to hit again the next day and the day after that, but I knew it was coming, and each day I was better prepared than the last.
We lived off what we had brought with us, ate peanut butter and jam sandwiches every day and drank warm water from the carriers which sat in the sun. We didn’t text or phone or email. We didn’t cook, do laundry, or watch TV. We survived the harsh conditions and lived the simple life.

For a week we were part of a temporary, experimental community. I was amazed and inspired every second by the creativity and ingenuity of the people who built and made the city come alive. We lived for the moment and created memories that will last forever. The festival ended and burners dispersed across the globe. But I knew they would be applying their spirit, ethos, and creativity to their own “default worlds” until another year when they return home to Burning Man.

Follow Jo Bull on Twitter. All photos belong to the author and may not be used without permission.

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  • Nigel Bull said at 2012-04-14T09:28:40+0000: Well done Jo. Great article.
  • Matthew Falk said at 2012-04-13T14:10:56+0000: That's three....