Burning Man is not a festival; it’s an experimental temporary society.
Burning Man is an annual event where a temporary city of 70,000 people is built in the middle of nowhere Nevada desert: Black Rock City. This experimental society has its own rules, principles, and traditions. The grounds are called the playa and the city’s grid is set up to mimic a clock. Every year, thousands of people come to the playa months before the event to start setting up this complex city with roads, art, civic centers, buildings, neighborhoods, and camps. And every year thousands of people work for months to remove all trace that the event ever took place. “Leave no trace” could not be taken more literally: after the event is over, the only thing left in the desert is dirt. Nothing is polluted onto the playa, not even water. All participants bring everything they need to survive with them and they take everything away– trash, waste, water you used for showering and cooking, everything.
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There is art, music, workshops, bicycles, classes, alcohol, drugs, food, sex, love, friends, and community, all on a bed of flat endless sand that is so thin it becomes dust with the tiniest gust of wind. The dust is alkaline and destroys everything. Burners bring Mad Max-style goggles and scarves with them everywhere in case of the inevitable dust storm.
The book of scheduled events is full of hundreds of classes and seminars about sexuality, spirituality, activities, connection, fears, dreams, goals, addiction, loss, and everything in between. There is literally a group, camp, or event for everyone. There are sex camps, there’s a Mormon camp, there are camps of people who dress like vampires and talk like pirates. Each camp is 100% self-sufficient. There is no cell service and photography is limited, so no one is walking around looking at their phone. There are no cars on the playa except for “art cars,” magical creations full of lights that carry people across the playa playing electronica jams and often serving alcohol. Citizens travel the playa on bicycles. There is no money exchanged on the playa (the only two things you can buy are coffee and ice in the center camp). Citizens operate on a gifting principle– some camps gift alcohol, some camps gift food (the MISO camp gifts 4,000 bowls of ramen each year!), some citizens gift their skills by teaching classes/seminars in their area of expertise, some make necklaces and give them to the people they connect with most throughout the week. This is not a barter, there is no expectation of anything in exchange for a gift. The gifters are all selfless volunteers who work tirelessly to create this incredible one-of-a-kind experience.
There is a DMV (Department of Mutant Vehicles) that registers the art cars. There are medical centers (with real medical staff). There are Rangers who are the type of police we all love “default world”– they are not looking for people doing anything wrong, they are 100% there to help and support the citizens of Black Rock City. Actual police are called in cases of domestic dispute or sexual assault, but otherwise, the Rangers just use their natural peacemaking skills to help people in need.
People go by their playa names, rather than their regular name in default world. It’s interesting to see how people choose to dress in this world: Mad Max eyewear, long colorful braids, kilts, rainbows, wigs, neon, faux fur, crazy hats, tights, makeup. Men dress feminine in Black Rock City. It makes me wonder if men wish they always could dress this colorful and expressive. It makes me wonder why they don’t do this in “default world.”
Many people hardly dress at all. I saw more breasts and penises at Black Rock City than I have in my entire life. Pasties are considered clothing. There are no lights at night except for the art and art cars, so everyone must cover themselves and their bike in LED lights or they risk being labeled a “dark wad” and criticized by the veteran Burner community.
Burning Man wasn’t rooted in the hippy mentality of peace and love; Burning Man was rooted in societal anarchy. Peace and love is everywhere, but so is screwing with people– “fuck your burn.” Black Rock City is where people go to be whoever and do whatever they please. It is reinvention and creation, it is going with your gut and authentically connecting with each other and the immediate experience.
In short, Burning Man is a lot like Van Life.
My virgin Burning Man experience was epic.
When I arrived at Black Rock City, I immediately realized that everyone looked a lot like me. I was surrounded by people with purple hair who were living in their vans. But for them, it was temporary dye and a temporary home for the week. When I explained to people that this was how I look and live in “default” world, they were shocked.
My first experience playing on the playa was a little more like “girls gone wild” than a spiritual awakening: I had sex with everyone and took all the drugs. But Burning Man is a lot more than sex and drugs. It’s a world where you look and dress however you want, reject societal norms, follow your heart, and open up to whatever the universe holds for you.
On my first night, I asked a veteran burner for advice. She said: go with the flow, say yes, don’t try to see everything, and follow your instincts. My first thought: I’m already in this mode. Since starting my vanlife adventure, I’m visually expressive (fuchsia hair), I don’t have a plan, I say yes, and being in the present moment has resulted in some incredible one-of-a-kind experiences. At Burning Man, everyone is in this mode. It’s a world full of figurative (and often literal) vanlifers.
The week was like vanlife on steroids for me. I saw art that blew my mind and had conversations that inspired me to my core. I cried a dozen times. I cried in a Red Tantra class staring into the eyes of a new lover. I cried at every ceremony. I cried in casual conversations with new friends. I met a captivating “playamate” and spent most of the week with him. I went to the Orgy Dome. I did sun salutations as the sun rose over the trash fence at the edge of the playa. I rode my bicycle miles and miles and miles. I danced and danced and danced. I tried acid for the first time.
Burning Man art is made for acid. Acid didn’t make me feel weird; acid made everything on the playa make perfect sense. The once-solid birdhouse structure became a moving stepping breathing bird machine. It had to be built for an acid trip. It was just too perfect.
Me to Dude in this photo (just a friend– not my playamate): “How much of this birdhouse is actually moving and how much is in my mind?”
Dude in this photo (slightly concerned): “Nothing is moving.”
Riding my bicycle through the flat never ending desert was like a movie, everyone with their crazy colorful costumes became characters in my visual cartoon world. Burning Man made the most sense on acid. I told everyone I met that it was my first Burn, first day of Burning Man, and first acid trip. I made a lot of friends. The playa is a very open place.
Burning Man is all about ceremony and tradition. At the end of the week, some of the art was burnt. On Saturday night, the Man burns. The Man is one of the only consistent structures on the playa. Designed by a different architect each year, the structure is built to burn. The burning is a celebratory event with fireworks, explosives, and partying. It’s the New Years celebration at Black Rock City. It’s the time to release to old and embrace a new start. People wish each other “Happy New Year.”
On Sunday night, the Temple burns. The Temple is the other consistent place on the playa: it is a spiritual place for citizens to go to honor lost loved ones and to release whatever is bringing them down. The energy at the Temple is palpable. It is covered with photos of people who have died and notes to these lost loved ones. Everyone is crying, moaning, praying, singing. It was a beautiful, painful place.
I could have stayed in the Temple for hours. I wrote notes to my mom all over the Temple: “Mom, I’m ok.” “Mom, I miss you.” “Mom, I’m so angry you were taken from me.” I left a pile of paperwork from the lawsuit filed by my ex-boyfriend over the van (which has now been resolved): “I am sorry for how I hurt you. I forgive you. I release you. Thank you for being a human in my life.” I stared at the ashes of the burnt Temple for hours (not on drugs, for the record). It was incredibly heartbreaking and uplifting. I felt freer after the burn.
Burning Man is all about reinvention and impermanence. The art is impermanent, the Man and the Temple burn down to ashes, the slate is cleared for a new year, a new you.
I am a citizen of Black Rock City and that was my freshman year. I can not wait to see how I grow and learn from now until I return as a sophomore. Fuck your burn.