In our travels, we have experienced cultures that are totally alien to us, where the people live by different societal norms and interact in unfamiliar and unexpected ways. We’ve seen jaw-dropping works of art and architecture, witnessed intensely emotional spiritual ceremonies and personal epiphanies, and danced all night with new friends. We’ve wandered awe-struck through places that just don’t quite fit in with our conception of how the world works.
Sometimes, you don’t have to leave the US to experience that.
Enter Burning Man, a week-long festival in the northern Nevadan desert. It’s tough to adequately explain what Burning Man is, exactly. Every year, it grows and changes and evolves. Many traditions remain the same and for tens of thousands of people the concept of not attending just never arises, but at the same time there is an influx of creative new people that continue to shape it in new directions year after year. For Mika and I, on our first visit, we were totally blown away.
The event takes place on an ancient dry lake bed with a surface of harsh alkaline dust, many miles away from the nearest town. It is an unforgiving desert environment of oppressive heat during the day and cold at night, and is commonly subject to high winds that cause massive dust storms. For most of the year, the Black Rock desert is totally void of life; there are not even any plants or animals save a few raptors that fly overhead.
During Burning Man, however, the endless expanse of what is known as the playa becomes a canvas for a city to be constructed from scratch. Five square miles are enclosed within a boundary fence in a pentagon shape. Within that, a street grid is marked off in a huge semicircle, complete with numerical and alphabetical street signs. Hundreds of porta potties are brought in, and a center camp is built in the middle of the arc, at the edge of the expansive desert. Finally, the Man is built at the center of everything–an effigy on a platform that reaches 100 feet into the air, a landmark that can be seen from any point in Black Rock City. During this time, the open space of the playa begins to be populated by more and more installations of artwork, ranging from authentic-looking sunken ships rising out of the dust to flaming wheels of metal and fire to psychedelically neon works of light to a wooden temple of mind-blowing intricacy and grace.
Then the people arrive. This year, there were more than 53,000 of them. Burners come in all types, but they all share a few things in common–a dedication to the 10 Principles of the event. These commandments center around inclusion, decommodification, self expression, self reliance, and participation. Tens of thousands of people show up in the desert and build their own city of tents and geodesic domes and shade structures, to share in art and music and absurdity. There is no electricity or water other than what is provided by participants bringing their own generators and containers. Everything is built or brought by the citizens–radical self-reliance in practice. These are creative, passionate people, wearing outrageous costumes or nothing at all, and it’s obvious that this is no normal city they create. Theme camps spring up, stages for DJs are erected, the art multiplies. Normal cars are forbidden from driving around BRC, and most people rely on bicycles for transportation around the streets or the open desert. However, pre-registered “mutant vehicles” are permitted to drive around the event, leading to an abundance of artistic mobile creations. Most shoot fire, have huge sound systems, or both, and they range in size from modified golf carts to double or even triple-decker buses. Almost all of them light up with electroluminescent wire or other bright lights at night, and become moving parties overflowing with revelers. Throughout the festival and the rest of the year, this crazy scene is what everyone calls “home.”
There is no main stage at Burning Man, no schedule of centrally produced events. There is just spontaneous creation based around a philosophy of currency-free gifting, a system that encourages generosity with no expectation of getting anything in return. Wandering around the city on foot or bike, one comes across countless open bars, solar-powered bread ovens, snow cone stands, and craft workshops where all are welcome to imbibe, eat, and learn for free. Music is a big part of the culture, with live DJs spinning sets 24 hours a day at stages spread around the city or atop buses that have been converted into mutant art cars with incredibly powerful sound systems and rainbow lights. The Temple becomes a center for emotionally charged meditation, prayer, and reflection, and by the end of the week every surface in reach is covered by written remembrances, photos, and other memorials to people who have been lost. Sunrise is a popular time for riding into the isolation of deep playa, where one will invariably find silence, a huge party, an oasis of fake palm trees where iced coffee is being served, or a functional movie theater serving popcorn and candy while playing classic films.
The transformation inherent in building things only to destroy them is central to Burning Man’s philosophy. The Man, the Temple, and countless other art installations are burned at night in large ceremonies. When the Man is lit, it is accompanied by a staggering barrage of fireworks and even some bona fide explosions, accompanied by the howls of tens of thousands of burners waiting eagerly for him to fall. The following night, when the Temple burns, the crowd is mostly quiet. Everyone sits together, many crying or hugging, as an intensely communal energy washes over strangers, friends, and lovers. Impermanence is an important feature of Burning Man, and the intentional torching of artists’ and architects’ beautiful creations is reminiscent of the ritual destruction of sand mandalas in Nepal, India, and Tibet. When it’s all over, everyone packs up their camps and goes home, but not before erasing every particle of evidence of their presence. Every beer can, water bottle, hair, thread, and piece of glitter is picked up, water used for cooking or washing is funneled back into containers, and the participants take everything away themselves to dispose of in the “default world.” Black Rock City disappears back into dust, leaving no trace of the madness that occurred there for a week. The next year, it will be built again.
We can’t wait to go back.
Neil Hilton grew up in scenic Northwest Montana before attending Lewis & Clark College in Portland, OR. With a degree in International Affairs and some experience living in Beirut and Istanbul, he is excited to continue exploring the world and settling in new places. His interests include photography, snowboarding, debate, and traveling as much as he can afford.
Photo Credit: Mika Machálek hails from the island of Dutch Harbor, Alaska. She studied Political Science at Lewis & Clark, and spent an amazing semester traveling and studying in Kenya and Tanzania. After living with the Maasai, going on safari for a month, and summiting Kilimanjaro, an eventual return to East Africa is inevitable for her. She spends her free time reading, skiing, creating visual art, and cooking exciting new things.
They blog about their world travels at: http://wewanderers.wordpress.com.