I attended my first "burn" this year. I've wanted to go since learning about it from doc filmmaker Roko Belic in 2009. He told me, "Orion. You must go. There is nothing like it. I've gone sober all 10 years; the magic there is the freedom. You must go; it may not last forever."
What is it? Hard to say. You'll hear people call it a drug-filled week in desert... others a "music festival". Those are the two main simplifications I've heard; both only scratch the surface IMO. There is nothing else like it. The city that springs up in the desert is created by the participants. And not for monetary profit or gain. It's art and expression as gifts. Burning Man coordinates building "The Man" and "The Temple", lays out the streets/grid for camping, provides porto-potties, has a lost and found, medical tents, post office, a place to buy ice and coffee (the only commerce at Burning Man)... they create a strong skeleton: but the heart and blood and flesh of the festival is participant created.
There is nothing else like it.
Getting There: I had a "guide": my friend Geoff who has been 7 times. I blocked this time off more than a year ago; but he's the person that made it actually happen. I flew into L.A. with a backpack: he coordinated the ride up and schedule. He also equipped me with goggles (one set for daylight, the other for night), a copper cup with a carabiner (even when people are giving free coffee/alcohol you have to have your own cup), all the little details you need to know but don't know, some leather festive attire, and HE GIFTED ME MY TICKET. He told me his brother Dave did the same his first year; and now I have to pass that on.
It's important to note here that Burning Man has endless opportunities as an individual; but who you go with/camp with will have a huge impact on your experience. There's events, lectures, readings, games, lounges, dance floors, hundreds of art sculptures etc. You can fill your time and make new friends - but the friends you wander with are clutch. Roko told me that. So I'd say go with dear friends and good souls. Geoff and his girlfriend Barbara and my friend Jedidiah and the Camp Boring crew were my anchors. Moving on.
Here are the 10 principles of Burning Man (officially stated for the first time in 2004):
- Radical Inclusion
- Radical Self-Reliance
- Radical Self-Expression
- Communal Effort
- Civic Responsibility
- Leaving No Trace
Burning Man is not for everyone, but it's definitely for me.
The desert is hot (then cold), dusty, and storm-ridden. A 5 minute bike-ride (you bike everywhere) leaves your legs plastered with "The Playa": the smooth powdered chalk-like sand that dries out your skin. The dust-storms are little reminders that we're specks on the pale blue dot. I also kind of enjoy being dirty and fully immersed in the elements. The sun rising and setting over the ridge lines with the purple/pink blanketed skies are pure majesty. I watched the last 5 sunrises of Burning Man (got hooked after seeing the first one). The desert has always been a wilderness space to cleanse and renew.
I've always loved fire. From burning holes in carpet at age 8 to juggling coals around a campfire (present day): I love fire. Fire is in the DNA (and name) of Burning Man. Some of my favorite memories are tied to fire: in all it's glory and fury and light and pain. And on Saturday night (Burning the Man) and Sunday night (Temple Burn) I saw the biggest man-made fires of my life. Awe. Sadly this year someone ran into the fire and ended their life. Because of the magnitude of the fire-circle, I didn't actually know about it until the next day, but you could feel the weight of it as we watched the Temple burn (with a chain-link fence around it) the night after.
Decommodification: I'm still understanding the layers of this one, but Burning Man frees itself from any corporate sponsors or advertising. It's done to preserve the gifting economy. I used my phone 2-3 minutes a day (to set alarms); so I was truly ad free for the week. One of my favorite things of Burning Man. I enjoyed covering up my bike logo and not being inundated with brands. This value seems to be fading a bit as it grow (people not covering up RV logos, etc), but if you go - try to decommodify your person and your camp as much as possible. It's one of the things that makes the multi-thousand person event unique.
Participation: Art everywhere. I love art, but especially "everyday art" or "art-of-the-people". Things that aren't often in a museum but are honest-poetry. Burning Man is full of art. Sculptures set up in the desert. Some that burn. Things to climb and touch and interact with. Some of it takes weeks to construct and possibly years to design/create. And it's all more powerful because it's participants (anyone attending) that make it. Jed and I talked our first night dancing in the desert about how people having an honest dialogue with God are assuredly making art. I Imagine everyone that attends the event is overwhelmed with all the participant art at some point. Maybe during the day while exploring the playa or at night watching all the fire and lights circle and swarm around you.
The photos below are of my time volunteering for 3 hours at a "Burn Garden" on the final day of Burning Man. The Department of Public Works (DPW) lets folks drop off scrap wood from camps and/or creations and saves the usable stuff for building materials for next year. This is one of the many places where I experienced the Communal Effort first hand; the magic of many hands and bodies making Black Rock City work. It was hot. Approaching the large burns to toss in wood was extra hot. But I loved it. People brought us beer, Will took photos of couples by the giant horse fire-bin, and some kitchen somewhere made food for the volunteers. I'd recommend volunteering alongside the DPW a few hours if/when you make it to Burning Man.
The other place I experienced the communal effort is tied to the intense Leave No Trace value. It's one of the requirements the BLM set on the event from the get-go; but it's incredible how it still happens. Picking up MOOP (Matter Out Of Place) is a full-on effort at every single camp when packing out. Combing the ground for ANY matter out of place. Little pieces of straw, fingernail clippings, wood shavings... anything. Any other human gathering of 50K+ leaves an immense amount of trash. Immense. But because the participants all pitch-in, the culture expects it, and it's a reasonable request: it gets done. The contrast between the satellite images of Burning Man during the event and of the desert weeks after are truly remarkable. I confess that I messed up royally on this one. Heading in to Burning Man I heard that you could leave your bike on the playa and it would be donated via "Burners Without Borders". I intuited that this was not the case by around Thursday, but sadly I was indeed one of the thousands of people who left their bike. I made a mistake on that one that I have to own up to - and will change for future trips onto La Playa. But thought it would be worth it to be up front that I made some mistakes on my first burn: that one being the worst.
I talked a lot to long-time burners as much as I could. "How do you feel about it as it has grown?". I was talking with folks who continue to come, but I was still surprised by their optimism. I've read things about how "plug-and-play" camps that cost thousands to camp at are changing the culture. How silicon valley and/or sparkle pony ravers have changed things. Two interactions most influenced my current outlook. The first was the perspective of a new friend named Christian at Camp Boring (he just celebrated his 20th consecutive burn). He said that yes, maybe there's a small haze of bullshit that exists at Burning Man now, but the core that is "Burning Man" is is alive and well. He said that even 20 years ago people were complaining about how it had changed/sold out/etc. That has always been there. The second interaction I will never forget. Ranger Danger came to the Burn Garden to burn a chair he'd used for 16 years at BM. I asked him how long he'd been coming, "30 years... and you know what", as he leaned a little closer, "things are just getting started!".
I could say more, but it truly is something meant to be experienced. The "experiencing" and immediacy are where the transformative and impact-magic reside. If you are interested in going, I'd try to make it in your lifetime (sooner than later).