I spent a week in the desert for Burning Man 2011.
Burning Man, by its nature, is hard to describe. It’s a festival of 50,000 people in the desert, where participants leave no trace and commerce or advertising is not allowed. It’s not a barter economy, but a gift economy – people give things away, ranging from food, to alcohol, to performances, to trinkets, with no expectation of receiving anything in return. The only things you can buy there is coffee and ice – you have to bring all your own food, water, and camping supplies with you, and all your trash out at the end of the week.
It’s a farmer’s market, for free, in the desert. Duh.
One of the most incredible things is how fully-realized “Black Rock City” is. There’s a post office, 3 publications (BRC Weekly, The Shroom, some other one), street names, villages, and police. One camp set up a farmer’s market, where they gave away fruits and vegetables, as well as serving up homemade chai and hand salads. Improbable, interactive art structures dot the landscape, inviting you to climb or contribute. There are incredible parties that happen at all hours of the day (whether it’s 3am or 10am). This is the land where drinks are free (just bring your own cup); the dubstep blasts at top volume; the people are gorgeous; and everyone’s respectful of your personal space. I felt a lot safer here at night than walking around around Boston during the day.
The environment is intense. The hot, dry air immediately wicks away moisture, which proved hellish for my skin. They recommend you drink at least a gallon of water a day, which isn’t an exaggeration. You have to carry goggles and a bandanna at all times in case a dust storm kicks up, reducing visibility to 10 feet.
The temple, before being burned
The temple, in a choreographed burn.
Conversely, it’s also some of the most beautiful landscape I’ve seen. Biking around the playa as the sun sets is breath taking: the gasoline-slick of sky slipping behind the mountains, bikers in fantastical outfits criss-crossing the desert while white dust rises like fog. Look around, and you’ll see a stunning two-story temple built out of wood (which will be artfully burned to ashes at the end of the week), a Trojan horse, and of course, The Man – a wooden effigy that is burned on Saturday night after a frenetic fireworks display and 200 foot-high mushrooming green flames, putting every action movie to shame. At night, the playa lights up in all directions, a cross between an amusement park and an acid trip’s rendering of Vegas.
Photo by Bruce Miles
Imagine all this, while art cars – moving vehicles you dance on, ranging from sharks to yachts to octopi – blast their best dance music around a screaming throng of thousands. Some art cars carry giant propane tanks so they can spew 30 foot high flames into the night sky while they serve you drinks. The heat from the flames is actually somewhat painful, reminding you that yes, this is actually happening.
Photo by Bruce Miles
I ended up at Burning Man on total whim. A friend of mine from Harvard was organizing a theme camp and described it as an “art festival in the desert.” I was looking for things to do in my year off after college, so I shrugged and figured going with her was a good bet. It wasn’t until after I bought my ticket that I had this conversation:
Me: So, uh, what about running water?
Natalie: Well, you bring all your own with you.
Me: Oh. So what about showers?
Natalie: There aren’t really any, but we’re going to have a solar shower for the camp!
Me: But there’s electricity, right?
Natalie: No. But some people do have generators!
Me: Wifi? Cell reception?
Me: AM I GOING TO DIE?
Me: [hysterical] I’M GOING TO DIE. AM I GOING TO DIE?
I haven’t gone camping in over ten years. I was more nervous than excited as I rolled onto the playa in an overloaded sedan with Natalie’s friends from Berkley, CA.
The car engine immediately broke into pieces. We fretted for a few minutes, then the 5 of us pushed the car for 3 hours until we reached will call to pick up our tickets. They wouldn’t let us push the car the last two miles, so we hooked up the sedan, all of our luggage, and all 5 of us to the back of a Budget truck with nothing more than nylon rope thinner than my pinky finger. Miraculously, it held.
It was an inauspicious beginning, and my first full day on the playa beat me up physically. Scorching dry heat and high altitudes make you feel like crap. I drank some water, wandered around, went to bed early. My tiny tent and sleeping bag that night felt more luxurious than any 4 star hotel.
The hardest part to deal with is not the heat. It is the superfine, alkaline white dust. It coats everything and stays there, even if you rinse off your hands with water. Your fingers are perpetually chalky, and you’ve never had a worse hair day. There’s a coating of dust on your cooking supplies, dust sneaks into your sleeping bag, and dust grinds in your contact lenses.
My skin revolted, my feet ached, my hair felt like plastic. I gave up on makeup.
To my surprise, I didn’t die.
I normally wrestle with a perpetual baseline of anxiety. Sometimes I’m aware it’s there, sometimes I can’t even perceive it. Like many others, I’m always attempting to control the world around me, and sorely disappointed when it fails to comply. Friends flake despite followup emails; it rains during a barbecue; my taxi sits in traffic before an important meeting.
Time exists fragmentally at Burning Man. Few bother with clocks. There are no cell phones, so you can’t text someone demanding to know where and when they’ll show up. Strip away the controls, and you find that social machinery still churns, with even more life and verve than before. I met the most incredible people by accident, and soon, accident became fate. People there, as a rule, are incredibly friendly and helpful.
At the same time, Burning Man only exists a week a year. The entire city is transient, burned or carried away with beauty and sullen efficiency. I caught myself pining for certain moments to be extended. It’s strange. So often, I feel saddest when I’m happy, because I’m thinking about how that particular source of happiness will end. That’s what I took away from the eponymous burning man at the end of the week: that beauty exists for a certain finite period in time. Its end is inevitable, even desirable. It is a gift to experience happiness, and it is wisdom to let it go.