So many of my friends are baffled by my attendance at Burning Man. Others have never even heard of this bizarre annual festival on a dried lake bed, known as the playa, two hours north of Reno Nevada. There is simply no way to fully describe it. It is one of those things that you need to experience. For those who have heard salacious snippets – it is all true. Yet, it is so much more.
Burning Man is held annually the week leading up to Labor Day. During those seven days, 70,000 people descend on the beautiful, remote and inhospitable Black Rock Desert to form a temporary metropolis.
So to get past it – yes there is extensive drug use and nudity. There are raves that go on nonstop. There can be dust storms that rage for hours. A huge wooden structure of a man is burned on Saturday night along with a massive temple and many other structures that are immolated over the week. But there is also a guiding philosophy that deeply grounds this temporary community with shared values (see the 10 principles that range from self-reliance to radical inclusion to gifting to leaving no trace to . . .).
I stay with Duane’s Whirld, a camp that is assembled by an eclectic array of 40 friends and strangers to survive the week. We jointly purchase all the food and drink needed, share in a treasure trove of critical materials packed in a storage space in Reno that includes our bikes (you cannot drive once you reach BM so the main way to traverse the expanse is by cycling), couches, shade structures, kitchen equipment, etc.
As with most camps, we also plan some joint gifting.
Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift-giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.
There is nothing to purchase once you reach the playa, other than ice. You bring what you need. Gifting is deeply embedded in the culture. In your first trip, you’ll likely be confused by this principle and end up bringing some trinket out of desperation to hand out to everyone you meet. The truth is you don’t need to do so. A gift can be a hug, offering someone chap stick or sunblock, or inviting someone into your camp to eat a meal with you.
For our camp, we have two wonderful traditions. We bike out into the more remote sections of the playa with a chest full of ice-cold beer to hand out during the heat of the day. On other nights we pedal out the necessary paraphernalia and set up a station to make smores. One of my favorite camps, Northwest Mist, comes down from Portland Oregon and sets up a large tent with misters that lightly spray water from the ceiling to help you replenish after days in the desert. Another camp is filled with Mathematicians that “gift” lessons on math and statistics throughout the week.
The most momentous aspects of Burning Man are large art installations (scroll through slide show for a small sample),
the mutant vehicles or art cars that are the only motorized transportation allowed on the playa (They typically have extensive sound systems and astonishing designs, lighting and/or flame effects), and, of course,
the structures that BURN! The theme for Burning Man this year was IRobot so you can see its influence on the Man. The Temple is a much more sacred space that is filled with tributes to people that have died or are suffering and narratives and art reflecting the struggles of those in attendance. The burn of the temple on the last Sunday is done in silence as all of these tributes carry off their messages and reverence.
What stands out for me however is the relationships that are built. Typically, you plan a vacation or attend an event intending to experience it with your friends, co-workers or family. You deepen your relationship but it is a more insular experience with only limited interactions with strangers. At Burning Man, everyone enters with an intention to meet others. The principles of gifting, immediacy, inclusion, and communal effort leads you to strike up conversations with others continually and to build relationships. I’ll be in camp one day and someone whom I’ve never talked with will walk up and ask whether I want to bike out to a sculpture on the other side of the playa that they’ve heard about and an adventure begins that lasts all day.
Ben Von Wong is a great example. I met Ben and his partner, Anne, on our first day. They helped immensely as I organized a massive shopping expedition at a grocery store in Reno before our camp’s trek to the playa. Later in the week, I joined a small group he assembled to photograph images at sunrise. In the days since leaving BM, he has shared more of his life experience and I’d encourage you to view this TEDx Talk he gave on art and social change. My life is enriched by the opportunity to engage with a true visionary creative. For me, such opportunities are the greatest gift at Burning Man.