I had many friends who were long time burners but they told me very little about the actual event. I now understand why. Despite countless hours of reading and research, nothing fully prepared me for what I experienced on the playa.
If all you know about Burning Man is from photos and blogs then you might think its simply Dust, Drugs and Debauchery. I certainly had that impression as a drove towards the entrance gates. The reality was far different.
DUST vs DIRT
The Dust… The event is held on the playa of the Black Rock Desert. There is no sand, it’s an alkali dust that is finer than talcum powder. The dust is invasive, it is everywhere, you cannot escape it. It’s in (not on) your clothes, your tent, your RV, your hair, your ears, your eyes, your throat and whatever else you have exposed. When the wind blows it creates white-outs with zero visibility. The dust serves a purpose I did not fully understand at first. Why hold the event in such a harsh location? But it now makes sense. The heat, the weather, and the dust do not discriminate. They are the great equalizer. The dust doesn’t care who you are, what you’re worth, what you do, or whether you’re staying in a tent or in an RV. It will own you and you will eventually be forced to throw away your shoes and some of your clothes in defeat.
The Dirt… Leave no Trace is one of the 10 Principles of Burning Man. The community preaches about MOOP (Matter Out Of Place) and the community responds. I may have been in the dustiest desert on earth but it was never, ever dirty. There were 60K+ people having the time of their lives for over 7 days. Yet the playa was cleaner than Disney World. It was truly amazing. I never saw a single gum wrapper, cigarette butt, or sequin on the ground. And had I seen one, I would’ve picked it up.
DRUGS AND DOUCHEBAGS
Were drugs present at Burning Man? Perhaps but I didn’t see them, nor see people abuse them. Law enforcement was ever present but never intrusive.
Were douchebags present at Burning Man? Perhaps but I didn’t see them. I never witnessed anyone acting like an ass, never saw a fight or even a disagreement. All I saw were endless acts of kindness, goodwill, happiness and inclusion. In contrast, my 17 daughter went to a Taylor Swift concert in Dallas and within minutes some stranger threw up on her shoes. I never saw anything close to this during the week we were at Burning Man. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen but I always felt safe and relaxed regardless of the time or place.
In the days leading up to Burning Man you can read through the event guide and see hundreds of adult-themed camps and events from orgies, to BDSM workshops, to the “Critical Tits” parade. I assume these things really happen but it’s not in your face and unless you specifically seek it out you’ll never see it. I rode around 90% of the camps and playa and never saw anything I would consider lewd. There was nudity. Some women went topless and some men went bottomless. But overall it was a few people out of 60K+. Within hours of arriving it became so normal that it desexualized the act and almost made you laugh at why our culture is so enamored with breasts in the first place.
FIRST AND LASTING IMPRESSIONS
With my misconceptions behind me I began to truly appreciate the greatness of Burning Man, at least from my perspective.
Another one of the 10 Principles is Radical Inclusion. Everyone is welcome. I felt that from the moment we arrived. The standard greeting is “Welcome Home”. There were people from every financial level, ethnicity and religion. People were overtly loving and generous. It makes you wonder if 60K people can get along why can’t we get along in the real world? I have some thoughts on that but I’ll save it for a future post.
You can look at maps, you can watch videos, you can try to compare it to other events in your mind but I was still amazed at the grand scale of it all. During the day the dust obscures the horizon so your legs churning on your bicycle will remind you how huge this place is. And at night, when the dust settles down, you can see the neon lights of camps, art installations and hundreds of art cars for miles in every direction. It’s overwhelming.
My friends Trey Ratcliff and Cliff Baise do a great job of trying to capture the beauty and scale of the art located throughout the playa but even their amazing photography is no substitute for seeing, feeling and experiencing the art first hand.
The music is far more central to the experience than I understood. The music is everywhere, all of the time, and is always great. It’s mostly DJs, there is very little live music but the energy is always high and there is always a group dancing to the music regardless of the time or day.
The GIFTING ECONOMY
There are only two things for sale at Burning Man. Ice and Coffee. A block of ice can come in handy in the desert. And the coffee was excellent, albeit surreal to stand in line with a buck naked man that had just freshly rolled in the playa dust who was waiting patiently for his latte.
Everything else was a gift. It was not a barter. There was no this for that. It was refreshing to be at the world’s largest party and never have a vendor shoving funnel cakes or glow sticks in your face. Everyone, and I mean everyone, brought extras to share with others. I think the most amazing gift was the snow cones we received on a particularly hot dusty day. But I also appreciate the handmade bracelets and other items we were given.
The TEMPORAL NATURE
This “city” in the desert rises in 30 days, exists as a living organism for 7 days, and then disappears back into the dust without a trace left behind 30 days later. Beautiful (and huge) art installations that took months to design and create, are admired just for a few days and then are burned to ashes. It pushes you to absorb and appreciate things even more. It is a microcosm of life and relationships.
BACK TO THE “REAL WORLD”
It would be amazing if the suspended reality within Burning Man existed outside of it. Unfortunately we all returned to a world full of deadlines, bills, pressures, bosses, politics, mistakes and regrets. But even though Burning Man was temporary you can live out the 10 Principles year round and make your life, and your circle of influence, just a little bit better.