yesterday morning some time i found myself returning to LA in a massive, dusty, rented RV after a week in one of the most inhospitable environments on the planet.
i had initially planned to dictate my thoughts on each day at burning man into my phone, providing myself with a record of specific moments or experiences to make a bit more sense of the whole endeavour. like a journalist or something. come to find out that nothing on my phone will record my voice without being able to talk to the internet. a curious discovery, and one that resulted in me having to commit any and all details to memory alone.
but that might be better anyway. one can base one’s descriptions of the burn in any ‘facts’ one chooses, but the reality of the situation is that trying to communicate a succinct, accurate description via the written word, or even photo and video, is nearly impossible. i believe that burning man is something different for each person attending. at least for those who care to dig into it as more than just a week-long drug-fueled party. although it’s that too, for those who wish it to be.
the day after returning, i find myself in a deeply thoughtful, open-minded place. this is particularly rewarding for me, someone who has been, for the last year or so, focusing greatly on improving my relationship with life, the universe and everything. i am historically (and even currently) averse to overly-stylised versions of things like meditation, communal experience, and the complex, often damaging social frameworks we operate under as human beings attempting to find the elusive ‘happiness’ we all hear so much about.
by ‘stylised’ i mean that in many cases, the aesthetics, language and general concepts of these legitimate and profound concepts get appropriated and cherry-picked. in my view, this leads to at best a watered-down, obscured version of those profound concepts, or at worst, superficial fashion-based abstraction (such as instagram posts of meditation selfies.)
what finally worked for me in pursuing these ideas was a scientific, secular approach to the fundamental benefits of activities like meditation. i could probably write pages on that subject alone, but it’s important to understand that going in to burning man this year, i was pretty steadily on a path of recognising my own bullshit, and improving my own relationship with life. hopefully i still am - that’s an ongoing crusade.
the point being that as i mention above, burning man is something different for each person. and for me this year, it became more about digging into the things that make me who i am, and, hopefully, starting to see a path forward to being who i want to be.
but more on that later.
i should mention that i was a “burgin” this year. an unfortunate-sounding portmanteau to be sure, but as a first-timer, my expectations (though i tried to have none) were molded by youtube videos, first-hand accounts, and my own assumptions and projections based upon them. it’s pretty common to hear that you should have no expectations of what the burning man experience is, but now that i’m on the other side of it, i can pretty comfortably say that i wasn’t TOO far off on the basics. i mean, if you’re expecting (on the surface, at least) 75,000-odd people letting loose in the desert and getting dusty in the process, you’re pretty likely to have that expectation met.
it does seem to be true, however, that once you try to go any deeper, that surface experience can branch into ANY number of potential outcomes, adventures, or realities. and again, those looking to sleep all day, load up on mind-altering compounds of one type or another, and rage until dawn to (mostly) deep house music can certainly achieve that too. the experience conforms to you, and will go as deep as you wish. at least, that’s one of the biggest take-aways for me so far as i still sift through the fragments that my memory has held on to.
deeper thoughts aside for a moment, though, we can approach the burning man experience from a more practical day-to-day perspective. black rock city is very much a city. one of the things you have to get to grips with as a first-timer (and, i fear, likely a second or even third-timer) is the concept of a clock as a navigation tool. straight avenues run through the city from 2 o’clock through 10 o’clock, with an open gap where 11, 12, and 1 o’clock would be. there are then concentric circles starting at the esplanade (the ring on the inside of the circle, at the center of which you will find “the man”, provided he has not burned to the ground yet,) and extending alphabetically outward, ‘A’ being closest to the esplanade, and outer rings reaching (i believe) as far as ‘L’. so one begins to become familiar with addresses such as “4:45 and E” (in the case of my camp) and so forth. the whole affair is academically sound and a pretty creative and visual way to describe locations in the context of the city. this tends to fall apart a bit during 3-am whiteout dust storms, however, and can confuse the exhausted mind readily. of course, this can also lead to new and interesting adventures, but i digress.
each of these streets is dotted with any number of camps. as one reaches the outer ‘rings’ (letter-named streets) the amount of interactivity decreases a bit as the more ‘suburban’ areas tend to be more private campsites and folks trying to sleep farther away from the hustle and bustle of urban black rock city. even these paradigms are stretched to their limits describing the city, but the gist is there.
as one drives through these streets, either with some intention in mind or otherwise, there is an almost carnival-like atmosphere. barkers will attempt to entice you into any number of activities or food offerings. it’s not uncommon to ride your bike down a back street, only to be hosed down with a blast of water and then be cajoled or otherwise coerced into consuming a flaming shot of butterscotch and orange liqueurs. you may or may not witness a bare-assed flogging while consuming your drink. you may or may not also meet a neuroscientist who has also been shanghaied into the establishment. you may or may not have a discussion about the 5th layer of the visual and prefrontal cortexes of the brain and the role that hierarchical processing plays in the effects of psychedelics. you might also say ‘no thanks’ to the initial invitation and miss out on all of that, only to find yourself in another situation with its own unbelievable aspects.
even this description is inaccurate. i would imagine it’s possible that a standard-issue human could ride their bike the whole week round and encounter no such adventure. although that seems unlikely, so does so much of the burning man experience. in fact, the word ‘unlikely’ applies quite readily in a general sense.
for myself, however, the above scenario is what i came to find most profound about burning man, at least on the surface. my initial few days was spent with a few friends, taking in the art, trying to get my bearings. going out to the more-established and popular sound camps (which can, generally speaking, be thought of as clubs or perhaps festival ‘stages’ - where most of the endless dancing to four-on-the-floor primal beats takes place,) and napping where appropriate, or perhaps, more accurately, when possible.
it wasn’t until i ventured out on my own that i began to see the potential for my own growth and experience a bit more. it is often said that “the playa provides” (the ‘playa’ being the flat, dry lake bed on which black rock city rests, comprised of ancient materials and creatures long since pulverised into a fine white dust.) it is also said that you often might not get “the burn you want”, but rather “the burn you need”. this ventures dangerously into hogwash territory, but it does hold important truths. these sentiments themselves represent the balance that burning man seems to rest upon.
if indeed the ‘playa’ had designs and opinions on my experience, they were well received. as an introvert who allows himself to be demotivated and held back by fear more often than i might like to admit, the opportunities to confront and challenge my instincts in that regard are myriad. in the ‘default world’ (a semi-derogatory burner term for the actual world we all actually live in all the actual time,) i often find myself declining polite offers for any number of things. and i am consciously aware that i am shutting myself off to new experiences, connections, or possibilities in the process. at burning man, i encouraged myself to say ‘yes’ to things. in fact, i became determined to say ‘yes’ to things.
“come in for a vodka and spirulina cocktail with electrolytes!”
ok, hells yes. i’m in. and i meet an israeli guy in a bedazzled captain’s hat who shares some stories about his burning man experiences and sums it up telling me to never get married. i didn’t ask, but nice to get advice.
“hey we opened up our bee-themed bar at 3am because we were bored come in and have a bee-pollen cocktail.”
fuck it. i’m in. and i spend a half hour talking to a man in his 70s who has been coming to burning man for 10 years with his son making some astonishingly creative and delicious honey-based cocktails and beers.
the more i said yes, the more interesting and rewarding burning man became for me. that’s not to say every stop was an epiphany of wonder and joy. sometimes i just had a drink and was on my way. but i found myself eager to get out of my comfort zone. i found myself liking the authentically engaged and interested version of myself i seemed to be becoming. conversation didn’t feel forced or faked. i found new ways to interact with other people that felt natural, organic, and rewarding. and that’s already seeped into my ‘default world’ life a little. i hope it persists, but even if not, i’m making steps toward enriching my life in simple, tangible ways. and that’s thanks to some of the experiences i had just cruising the streets of black rock city with an open mind.
these adventures on the streets of the city can be had at just about any time, day or night. there are schedules one can peruse to try to make sense of it all, or ‘plan’ in the traditional sense, but part of the magic, at least from my perspective, was not really having a plan at all.
beyond the urbanite pursuits of the city proper is the open playa and the deep playa. the area inside the perimeter of the esplanade is a relatively wide-open space with the ‘man’ at the center. this open space is dotted with art installations, many of which encourage the beholder to climb, poke, yell at, or otherwise interact with them. some evoke profound concepts and are clear in vision. others are an open book of interpretation. many are the product of obvious hours of work, while others are simpler and more direct.
i will probably be among a very small percentage of people who imagined the physical dimensions of the ‘deep playa’ (the area of open desert that extends outwards from the 11-o’clock to 1-o’clock gap in the city,) to be larger than they are in actuality. this was just how i had envisioned it in my head after seeing videos of people aimlessly cycling in what appeared to be entirely empty desert for minutes at a time. camera perspective can be a tricky business.
now that’s not to say the deep playa is small. it is indeed vast despite my overenthusiastic conjurings. which is in no small part an essential component of something that was, for me, one of the most viscerally profound experiences of the burn.
round about the wednesday-region of the week, my friends decided it was the night to get a late start, and venture out to the deep playa in the wee hours of the morning to track down a couple of specific ‘art cars’ for a sunrise rave situation.
art cars are their own fantastic subject, but to stay specific to this particular experience, the sort we were after were of the 70,000-watt sound system variety. one in particular to start, the ‘mayan warrior’.
luckily, the thing is hard to miss. an RGB laser setup that puts most EDM stages to shame. flame cannons blasting overhead. the sonics of the soundsystem are utterly mindblowing when you consider you’re essentially looking at a bedazzled city bus.
we spent a half-hour or so taking in the mayan warrior. from the description thus far you might be inclined to believe i’d told you the best part. but that all started as the mayan warrior stopped the party, weighed anchor, and started to drive away.
a dust storm had started kicking up. one that ended up being the most severe of our time on the playa, at least. as the mayan warrior pulled away, steadily repeating a bone-shaking, primal-fear-inducing tone reminiscent of a cargo ship horn, the dust storm seemed to rise in intensity. within moments, the lasers and soundwaves from the warrior were lost in the dust. the storm further intensified. in conditions like these, things quickly degrade in the visual and auditory departments, and before long we found ourselves joining forces with a group of 10 or 15 other people purely to try to increase the amount of light our LED-studded bicycles might emit. this way, we might not be killed by a rogue art car.
sure enough, with our luminescent microcommune enjoying a 100% survival rate, the storm began to lift. one in our party shouted in earnest as they spotted the mayan warrior’s distinctive lights in the distance. having a visual target, we set off.
still not the best part.
we caught up with the mayan warrior as it returned to the edge of black rock city. we had no idea we were so close to ‘civilisation’, and as the storm settled into a consistent visibility of 20 to 30 metres or so, our group excitedly discussed all that crazy shit that just happened.
it was at this point that i properly met ‘robot heart’. another legendary sound-based art car. it looks very much like a post-apocalyptic bus from a terminator film, with a jagged, wrought-iron heart poking up on top, and i had seen it earlier in the week; dormant, undergoing maintenance. but what i saw at this moment was very different.
robot heart was heading out from its home base. as it began to slowly pull away from the city to head into the stormy deep playa, it played a single, massive, unending synth drone punctuated by a sub-bass heartbeat that would likely reconfigure your DNA if you stood too close.
this was pretty effective. the hair on the back of my neck stood up. it was, quite concerningly, as though i had no choice but to follow this thing to whatever it had planned for me. i told my compatriots as much. luckily they seemed to agree, and so they pedaled alongside me as we disappeared into the dust alongside the relentless pulse of robot heart.
it was somewhere in the next 10-15 minutes that my brain calmed down enough to accept that what i was experiencing was the kind of thing i had hoped i would experience at burning man. we crawled further into the deep playa alongside robot heart in a swirling dust storm, the vehicle slowly rolling forward, guided by scouts waving red-coned flashlights like they’re parking a 747, the bright LED screen illuminating hundreds of people riding alongside, set to the hypnotic drone and thundering pulse of the soundsystem. all the while aware that losing immediate sight of the whole affair was a distinct possibility if we had to so much as stop to adjust our goggles.
it was techno-primal - an aesthetic that speaks to me deeply and personally. to that end, this may have been more profound for me specifically, as everything about it seemed to exhilarate and inspire me.
and that was the moment. i captured a few seconds of it with my cell phone, just to give myself a little reminder of that sensation. that feeling of utter inspiration and wonder. something i don’t recall feeling that intensely for a very long time. and if nothing else, the wheels that moment started turning in my mind were worth every shred of energy and ounce of resources i poured into making it to burning man this year.
unfortunately for me, all of the magic and hypnotic charm that was robot heart exploded violently when it belched forth the same grey paste of atonal four-on-the-floor house beats i had come to subsist on for most of the week.
and if there’s one aspect of burning man i’d love to see evolve, it’s musical diversity. now to be fair, this is an utterly subjective matter, and 70,000+ people seem to think the music is just fine, thank you. and to be more fair, there is a fairly diverse range of music on display in the smaller camps and smaller art cars. and to be EVEN MORE FAIR, i didn’t learn about the 2-o’clock sound camps until much later in the week. the night the man burned, in fact. and it turns out that ‘camp question mark’ was dishing out not only stuff that i find generally more enjoyable, but even a couple of relatively obscure tracks that are personal favourites.
still, though, the bulk of the music heard at the more popular and well-appointed sound camps and art cars is almost comically narrow in scope to my ears. it does, however, serve the purpose of providing an unerring rhythm to the primal gathering aspects of burning man. to the point that there are moments where the entire city seems to emit that deep house pulse. as though it has a heartbeat. but that heartbeat is stuck at 125 BPM.
and so we move on to another concept of burning man. that of radical participation. this being my first year i tried not to stress too much about the fact that you’re not really fulfilling your potential as a citizen of black rock city if you’re not in some way contributing. i had understood this fundamentally, but perhaps it’s not until one sees the city first-hand and immerses in the culture that one can really grasp how important it is.
the economy of black rock city is based on gifting. though i think i prefer the term ‘giving’ to ‘gifting’ - as gifting implies celebration or ceremony to some degree, at least in my mind, whereas giving more succinctly describes how things work at the burn. when you stop to have a drink, or fried baloney sandwich, or bowl of delicious ramen, or get a new costume or hat, no transaction takes place. there is a common misconception that burning man is about bartering, but the truth is that there is no expectation of reciprocation for giving something, or having something given to you.
and that is why it’s important to bring something of yourself, in a general sense. i had a pocket full of brand new, sealed beeswax and ginger lip balm that i had intended to give out to whoever seemed like they needed it. and sure, that’s something that someone might need and be grateful for, but not only do most people kinda have that shit covered, but it’s also not bringing anything unique or special.
now that i’ve experienced burning man, i know that i want to have something that i’ve MADE to give to people. and depending on what your personal creative or engineering outlet might be, you can conjure up some pretty cool things that will be meaningful to those lucky fellow burners you choose to endow with them.
beyond this idea even, however, is the desire to bring something far bigger. to wield an experience or idea so compelling and well-executed that you inspire others with that same sense of absolute exhilaration and wonder that i felt chasing robot heart through the playa. and that might be a few burns away for me yet. but in the meantime, i like to cook. maybe next year i’ll make thai curry for an hour a day because food is approximately 70-80% more delicious when you’re living in a tent and mostly subsisting on protein bars.
of course there’s also a full community of established services and infrastructure that one can volunteer for. it’s easy to attend burning man as a spectator. to perhaps adhere to the principles of leaving no trace, and self-sufficiency, but to forget that there’s an entire functioning metropolis under your feet. the porta-potties are remarkably clean and well-maintained considering the environment and number of meat robots roaming the streets. that isn’t magic, it’s hard, unpleasant work. there’s a staggering medical infrastructure and capacity to deal with any number of emergencies in that regard. there are services to help folks who may have indulged in a substance that has left then in a fragile place. all of this is due to people giving of themselves. their expertise, their time. and black rock city would not be the place it is if it weren’t for those contributions.
and so we can wrap up, perhaps, by ruminating on the idea of black rock city as some sort of social experiment or model utopia. it is most certainly not the latter. burning man consists fundamentally of humanity, and that seems to bring with it a certain evolutionary inertia. particularly as the attendance numbers eclipse 75,000, it’s impossible to expect the purity of the 10 principles or the subtleties of the importance of participation and contribution to be guiding concepts for all of those individuals. black rock city has crime. there are assaults. there are conflicts. there are reflections of the ‘default world’; perhaps because essentially, even black rock city itself is truly operating in that default world.
where the utopia succeeds, however, is in areas like acceptance. if you feel awkward or out of place walking around black rock city, you can be pretty confident that it’s your own hang-up. just about every conceivable fashion choice is on display here, including a healthy dose of “none of the above”. it’s a place where, for the most part, judgements are suspended. i found myself interacting with some fantastically expressive people, some of whom are very likely lawyers, judges, human resources middle-managers and the like. but here, they can be the person they want to be.
and this extends to sexuality, gender, and people who authentically want to be stormtroopers. they're all part of the community and they make it what it is. one can attain a place of total self expression, and that kind of authenticity is catching. not to mention people tend to be a lot kinder to each other when they're not repressing things.
black rock city also succeeds in bringing out some of the best in human ingenuity and innovation. from meticulously appointed sleeping and shade structures, evaporation ponds, warm-water showers and communal tents to utterly unfathomable art cars that belch fire or allow you to become a temporary sheep suppository to costumes that surpass some of hollywood’s best offerings - creativity, engineering and perseverance are on display here in a way we seldom see in the world.
and in a time where 3D printing, hobbyist electronics and other readily accessible raw technologies are so prevalent, it's exciting to imagine the possibilities. i have seen negative comments about burning man's carbon footprint. and yes, a large number of people relocate their respective carbon output to the black rock desert for a week, but there exists (at least in part) a community of people who want to push the envelope of what it means to be self-reliant in such an extreme environment. and the challenge of engineering a habitat that exploits the available resources sustainably (solar power as perhaps the only real example), while being more comfortable than one might reasonably expect. this is part of the appeal for me, at least.
and so yes. before you ask. i’m going back. hopefully every year. it’s an utterly massive undertaking. from the planning and expense, to the logistics of traveling to north western nevada, to the potential 8+ hour wait at the gate, to the dust and the heat - there’s plenty to dissuade the unfaithful.
but it’s worth it. even when you strip away the amazing visceral experiences. the pageantry. the lights and sounds. look deeper. as with anything in life, you can dictate your own involvement. so big up the partiers, who just want to rock out and sleep all day. big up the ones who feel confined in their own skin in the default world, and get a week to release all of that and indulge their souls in whatever they desire. big up the artists who bleed and sweat and weep to bring their vision to life miles from any semblance of resources. big up the technically-minded who lash together the unlikeliest of things to enhance life in black rock city. big up the evolved who want to push the boundaries of self-exploration and the science of the mind.
for one week, they’re all in my city. and it makes me want to push myself harder than i ever have to just try to keep pace with all of them.