Burning Man – the reflection

Burning Man is impossible.

The implausibility begins with the bare facts, becomes increasingly unbelievable in the build up and then there’s the moment you first see it in full flow.

I’m not sure there’s a single word for it. It’s like falling down the rabbit hole into a Mad Max film (thankfully without Mel Gibson), or perhaps what it might have been like inside JRR Tolkein’s mind, had he been selling tickets.

But possibly its most wondrous aspect is that this is a world designed by people we know. People you and I have access to and do conventional, everyday things with. People who lead what might be referred to as a ‘normal’ existence for 51 weeks of the year.

Now they’re driving a jellyfish-shaped mutant vehicle to a improvisational dance workshop wearing only a blinky-light tutu and goggles.

This is a prime example of radical self expression, one of the 10 principles of Burning Man, drawn up by founder Larry Harvey in 2004. Others include gifting, radical inclusion, civic responsibility, communal effort and leaving no trace.

They are quite fanatically observed by the event’s participants, and are the primary reason 65,922 human beings can co-exist in the searing hot Nevada desert for a week without anything much more inflammatory than a squabble over nipple tassles.

It’s not a total free-for-all. Federal and state laws still apply, but Black Rock City (which becomes the state’s third largest during the event) manages to largely self regulate, with increasingly enthusiastic encouragment from The Bureau of Land Management and undercover police.

It’s an environment where judgement is rare, oddness embraced and prejudice almost non existent. Upon arrival a Burning Man greeter delivers a warm; ‘welcome home’, reflecting the fact this is the only time and place thousands of the participants truly feel themselves.

That it only exists for a week every year in one of the most unliveable places on the planet seems rather inconvenient, but is also the key reason it works.

For many this is their annual pilgrimage to escapism, an alternate reality where they can be off the grid, off the map and occasionally off their head.

Everything takes place on the playa (pronounced plyer), a huge desert basin of fine alkaline dust that is frequently whipped up by high winds to create ‘white outs’.

Three times finer than talcum powder, it penetrates everything. Any effort to keep it out of your camp, equipment or self is futile – and acceptance of this fact is crucial if you hope to endure the week.

This year, mercifully, it rained. Precipitation is possibly the only thing that can win an argument with playa dust and, for two wonderful days temperatures were tolerable and goggles, masks and bandanas completely unnecessary.

However, the playa engineered not-so-subtle revenge by transforming into a sea of sticky clay, rendering all modes of transport completely useless and closing the city gates for a record 12 hours on the main day of entry.

Thousands were stuck in queues on the access road and hundreds of vehicles were turned back. After word of the closure spread on social media, enterprising Burners began to gather for pre-parties at nearby Pyramid Lake, Wadsworth and even the Walmart car park in Reno.

After up to 13 hours of creeping progress in vehicles, those who opted to pick up their tickets (including all international Burners) spent as much as another five hours standing in a box office queue – in the rain.

Despite such hardship, it wasn’t tales of woe which flooded the playa upon entry, but stories of impromptu celebration, enterprise and gifting.

The Tuna Guys – a camp of fishermen from Oregon who ice a catch before the event and serve seafood in the desert – reportedly fed hundreds at Pyramid Lake where there was also much booze and bonhomie.

Organisers weren’t overly concerned about the welfare of Burners in the line-up because, at this point, every vehicle is packed to the gills (and some do have gills) with supplies.

The whole idea is to bring everything you need as well as your ‘gift’ to the playa, but if the inclement weather arrived at the back end of the week when stocks are low and minds fragile, one wonders whether humanity’s uglier attributes might rise to the surface.

But I can only call what I see, and there was an almost total lack of negativity within Black Rock City.

As we all floated between Disco and Pisco Night and Kentucky Fried Cotillion or learned some new self-pleasure tips during the Orgasamator Experience in Spanky’s Village, I began to realise that immersion was the only way to truly experience the event.

Each camp, and individual within those camps, brings something unique to the playa and Burning Man is simply the sum total of its participants.

The city provides the framework within which this enormous pantomime can play out, but the event will only be what you make of it.

It doesn’t work everywhere (like Syria, for example), but I decided Burning Man called for gonzo journalism, and I’m sure Hunter S. Thompson would have agreed.

This, and not drug use, is actually the main reason people don’t get much sleep. There are other contributing factors, like your tent turning into an oven by 8am, but in Black Rock City there’s always somewhere to go and something to do.

Many of the larger sound stages don’t even ramp up until dawn, which is also the most beautiful time to be out on the playa.

The wind is down, the light is incredible and emotions are running high – especially in the completely non-denominational Temple of Grace.

Many a tear was shed here in what was designed by Petaluma-based artist David Best as a spiritual and sacred space for memorials and reflection.

I have never been a man of faith, but sharing the strength of feeling in that structure was a more powerful religious experience than any I’ve had in a house of God.

Thousands watched in respectful silence on Sunday night as the temple, and their tokens of transition, burned to signify the end of the event and perhaps as many new beginnings.

The sombre nature of this burn was in stark contrast to 24 hours earlier when, surrounded by a heaving throng in full party mode, The Man was engulfed in flame and (eventually) razed to the ground.

Despite the explosions, fireworks and collective will of 60,000 onlookers The Man stubbornly maintained his wide stance for what seemed like an eternity. When his charred frame finally crumbled to the playa it brought more of a Bronx cheer from those who hadn’t already refocussed their attention on full-blooded celebration.

It’s actually quite difficult to travel across the playa towards the end of the week without seeing something on fire.

Much of the artwork went up in smoke, including the popular Embrace, a seven-storey cathedral-like sculpture of two humans having a cuddle.

While teams of volunteers literally scour the playa on their hands and knees after the event for remaining moop (matter out of place) to ensure Burning Man does actually leave no trace, I began to ponder whether all this excess could be justified.

I’ve addressed this conflict more expansively in my article for Australian media, but there are very few Burners here to max out on debauchery and consumption alone.

Staging a hugely expensive event of mass capitalist excess in the middle of the desert while there is such disparity in the outside world presents its own dilemma but, when reduced to the individual, Burning Man seems to provide the outlet or illumination many require.

This was certainly the case for pilot Tom Speirs, who flew the 1,300km from Aspen, Colorado to Black Rock City in his tiny powered paraglider, just months after being diagnosed with cancer.

“I simply wanted to share the joy of flying,” he said.

Speirs gifted 87 flights to Burners in his glorified trike with wings and the spectacular topographical view of the city’s concentric circles made me realise why my quadriceps were so sore from churning through the dust on a banged-up second-hand bicycle.

“I’m off to New Mexico this weekend …..just lovin’ life right now,” he said.

Taking off in Tom’s trike was like skydiving in reverse – it seemed like my stomach reached cruising height a good few seconds after the rest of my body. Thankfully, upon arrival, it stayed in its rightful place.

A joy flight in a motorised tricycle with a slightly unhinged Scotsman is probably something I would think twice about in the real world but, at Burning Man, it seemed as natural as having breakfast.

Opening up to engagement and enlightenment on the playa seems easier because you have taken leave of your everyday existence.

There is sporadic cell phone coverage, no internet access and that virtual list of 10 things you really should be doing isn’t nagging away in the back of your head.

Arrangements are also more fluid. If you swing by a pal’s camp at a pre-arranged time and they aren’t around, the likelehood is you’ll just end up making a whole lot of new friends and heading off on an adventure with them instead.

Socially awkward situations don’t seem to occur and you become quickly used to hugging strangers and appreciating the simple pleasure most of us derive from physical contact.

Burning Man is also more overtly sexual than I expected a dusty, hot week-long event in the desert to be, but there is still a distinct line drawn between what is and isn’t acceptable in certain situations.

The line that exists between, say, Dr. Bronner’s Foam Party – a popular naked group shower experience – and Penis Worship with Snuggy B and Her Man, where you can perfect the sacred art of honouring your fella’s member.

It can take some time to process what these unique experiences you have had on the playa actually mean before you can even address trying to transpose more of that activity to your daily life.

“People come out and say; ‘I really feel like myself when I’m here’, but what we tell them is; ‘why not be yourself for the other 51 weeks of the year’,” Burning Man’s spokesman Jim Graham said.

Easier said than done, and most find it necessary to ‘decompress’ for at least a few days afterwards, easing the passage back to the real world. Burners head to various idyllic locations in the High Sierra while others party on in the casino hotels of Reno.

Many of the members of my theme camp decompressed in a remote cabin on the shore of beautiful Lake Tahoe, but it has been evident since that the Burning Man experience doesn’t end when you leave the playa.

After a conventional festival there is generally a flurry of ‘wasn’t that awesome’ group emails and associated visuals on social media, but the post-Burn dialogue was much deeper and thought provoking.

There were many first timers in our group and helping each other through the intensity of a week on the playa has established a strong bond.

There have been a few ‘what does it all mean’ threads, but the most beautiful communique was from a fellow virgin who composed a paragraph on each camp member, recollecting the events he shared with that person on the playa, highlighting what they contributed to the camp and the positive aspects of their personality.

This set off a long trail of reply-alls that were truly from the heart and it’s a wonderful exchange to return to when you’re at a low ebb. The group also met for a further ‘decompression’ in Vancouver in early October and its core is currently deciding what to do with a $15,000 philanthropic donation.

Whatever your ponderings over the genuine nature of Burning Man’s principles, our group has certainly embraced the concepts of community and communal effort and is continuing to practice them in everyday life.

The Burning Man organisation certainly seems genuine in its desire to spread the ideals of building community, gifting and artistic expression and is putting millions of dollars toward satellite events around the world.

But an ongoing and enthusiastic debate rages in the US and beyond about the apparent hypocricy of the 10 principles and whether they’re a feeble front to justify the undeniable excess of Black Rock City.

Click here to read an excellent post-Burn article which further explores the topic and also contains links to expand your knowledge of both sides of the argument.

Making sure all points of a debate are covered is something I tend to be a little obsessed with. I find it difficult to remove my journalistic skin because I am naturally inclined to take informed viewpoints, if I take one at all.

Fencesitting is all well and good but, in the real world, it just gives you splinters in your arse. People seem to want to be told how to think – many don’t have the time or inclination to form a rational opinion for themselves – and hence the mainstream media increasingly dictates rather than informs.

At Burning Man, the top of the fence is a lovely wide plateau with cushions where people actually go out of their way to sit and engage in intelligent debate.

If you present argument A and B to someone on the playa, the likelehood is they will put forward option C, a way of thinking that hadn’t even occured to you and temporarily blows your mind.

This is a whole desert full of humans who take as much pleasure from the journey of discovery as the arrival at a conclusion, if they reach one at all. These are my kind of people – a community which refuses to be spoon-fed existing answers and will instead use their collective expertise and life experience to establish a fresh perspective.

This is the line of thinking that enabled Duane Flatmo and his pal Jerry Kunkel to transform a 1973 Ford truck and a pile of scrap metal into a giant moving octopus which spews burning propane from its tentacles and head.

Flatmo says the main reason he shares El Pulpo Mecanico with any community, Burner or otherwise, is because; ‘he loves to see the gears turning in people’s minds’.

The existence of a two-storey high flaming octopus is a prime example of how a creative mind tends not to travel along well-trodden paths, and nowhere is this expressed more obviously than across the playa.

I think this is what I savoured most about being a citizen of Black Rock City – the joy of associating with and learning from such a smorgasbord of extraordinary people.

The fact it is a forum for so much debate about the future direction of our society is simply a consequence of almost every participant being well qualified to offer wisdom on the subject.

Burning Man is an enigma – people do seem to feel bound to try and decipher what it all means – but it doesn’t always have to be complicated.

It was something I discussed in a fascinating 75-minute interview with Tall Neil, one of my campmates and creative director of The Bleachers art car.

He detailed the wildly fluctuating role the Burn has played in his life over the last decade. It has saved him, almost broken him, frustrated him to the point where he binned all his gear and vowed to never come again – but his final words were;

“Every once in a while you’ve just got to say fuck it, let’s party, because we can’t be perfect.”

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