After almost a full week of preparation and travel, we land in the Burning Man line. Burning Man takes place on the Black Rock Desert Playa…a vast dry lake bed in one of the most remote parts of the mainland US. You leave the pavement several miles north of the tiny village of Gerlach, Nevada, driving across the bare, dusty lake bed. Arriving Sunday evening, when most of the participants arrive, typically means a long line. I believe we waited for 4 hours, which is actually really short.
While you begin seeing all sorts of crazily decorated vehicles towing bizarrely modified cars hundreds of miles before you actually reach the event, the line is the first time when every single person around you is headed to Burning Man. People get antsy and climb on top of their cars and RVs to look anxiously at the line stretching off into the distance. About half of our wait time is in pure whiteout conditions, which is dangerous for driving. After all those hours, though, you finally reach the gate, and a big sweaty pirate pulls you out of your vehicle, embraces you with warmth and conviction, and whispers, “Welcome home, brother!” And you cry, and are filled with that unique sense of universal community that you’ve probably never felt anywhere else. I’ve never felt that welcomed and loved in any church anywhere. That’s one of the special things about Burning Man. You don’t need to “meet” anyone, because everyone there already loves you and treats you as if you’ve been best friends since kindergarten.
We arrive at our pre-agreed-upon camp location: I street at 7:50. Camp Potluck has called this location home for the past 3 years. It’s way out in the suburbs of the city, but we like it that way. Any closer in and it’s crowded, noisy, and as “mainstream” as an event like Burning Man can get. Out in the burbs you can spread out, commune with the other freaks and weirdos who enjoy a bit more solitude and breathing room, and venture into the insanity of the central city whenever you like.
It’s dark and chilly, but we have to begin the process of setting up camp. And this is no mere pitch-a-tent camping event. We have 2 stories of scaffolding to assemble…not easy in a dust storm after days of exhausting preparation and travel. Hours later, the scaffolding skeleton is set up, and we’re all just too exhausted to hang the roof and walls. So we pass out on the couches and mattresses we’ve brought for a few hours of fitful sleep before Monday arrives…the day when camp really materializes.
Camp Potluck this year consists mostly of people I don’t know. A first, for me. They are friends of friends. The little social paranoia that I tend to harbor gives me pause for a bit, but one by one as people arrive, I realize that I adore them all. We get the roof and walls of our communal structure set up, and then I get to work on the “kitchen.” One of the challenges of Burning Man is that it’s a leave-no-trace event. You can’t spill any liquid on the desert floor unless it’s clean water. Which means you have to carry away ALL the waste water from your camp. This makes kitchen cleanup incredibly challenging, so we quickly migrated from cooking at the event to pre-cooking and deep freezing everything, and using solar ovens to thaw and warm dinners before eating them. We use paper plates and chopsticks, and these get burned each evening in a community burn barrel. We eat dinner at sunset each night, and camp members typically bring new friends they’ve met that day, as well as folks from neighboring camps who prefer our food to their own. And this is what Burning Man is about for me. It truly embodies the spirit of celebration and community when a group of total strangers sit down to share a meal together. Even if the conversation is slow, to begin with…after a few minutes, the food and wine bring people’s souls in line, and the conversation buzzes until late in the evening.
And then it’s time to switch from day costumes to night costumes, which must be warm, and must light up so that you don’t get run over in the dusty, low-visibility desert night. (The daytime temps at Burning Man can soar into the low 100s, while nighttime temps plummet into the upper 30s sometimes.) Burning Man is a very different city depending on the position of the sun. During the day, it’s a combination of yoga, giant slip and slides, art tours, hot-pepper-eating competitions, snow cone stands, naked twister, musical and art performances, and workshops on everything from DIY solar power to juggling to grief recovery to pickle making. At night, it becomes a neon wonderland full of interactive art, mutant vehicles belching flames, people juggling and spinning fire, and massive dance parties. I happen to prefer the daytime to the night, but I typically venture out into the evening insanity a couple of times.
While only a select few images can capture the true feel of Burning Man, video tends to do a slightly better job. So here’s a 4 minute video I strung together of various Burning Man scenes:
The art at Burning Man is simply astounding. Some are twisted fire sculptures with multi-colored flames that change in color and intensity as you move around the sculpture, allowing you to directly interact with it:
We stumble across a massive pirate ship that looked as if it had wrecked into the desert centuries ago when this was still an inland sea. Exploring all the decks of the ship took almost an hour, rubbing dust off of bottles with preserved pig fetuses, taxidermied mongoose and owls, stacks of old books and maps, broken bottles, and frayed ropes.
Then it’s out into the Deep Playa. Miles of empty desert punctuated by art projects. From sculpture to sculpture we flit, until we are almost 5 miles from camp, at the border between Burning Man’s deep playa, and a stretch of uninhabited desert that extends a hundred miles north to where the mysterious Quinn River sinks into the playa in a sea of endless mud that will swallow a vehicle or human whole. At this boundary exists the Black Rock Bijou…a movie theatre.
“Welcome to the Bijou” sings a strapping, young, bare-chested lad with a bowtie around his neck and tuxedo pants, as he opens the door to this theatre on the edge of the universe. “Can I offer you some candy?”
He waves his hand at a glass wall, behind which is a treasure trove of old-fashioned candies…juju beans, red hots, and chocolate bars. Not a fan of candy myself, I graciously decline, but my friends stick out Halloween trick-or-treat hands, which are promptly filled with sugary sweets.
“Please,” says lad as he gestures toward a tiny door about 3 feet tall, covered with a thick velvet curtain. “Come into our theatre! The show has just started.”
Feeling a bit like Alice, I duck down through the tiny doorway, and emerge in a different world. A black-and-white film flickers on a silver screen at the head of the room. Velvet seats stretch from the screen backward and above my head, to the dual boxes on each side that are currently occupied by fairies and bunny rabbits, respectively, whose gazes are transfixed on the screen as they shovel juju beans into each others’ mouths. The woman on the screen…a young Marlena Dietrich by the looks of her…is indulging in a bubble bath.
It’s too much to process. Here I am in the middle of the most remote desert in the lower 48 states. I’ve just walked into a vintage theatre, 20 miles from the nearest road, through a tiny velvet doorway, and inside are people in the wildest of costumes, enraptured by a silent film. The Black Rock Bijou perfectly encapsulates the bizarre reality of Burning Man.
Then a visit to The Temple…always my favorite spot at Burning Man. The Temple is a grand structure, envisioned by a different artist each year and built by a legion of volunteers. The Temple means different things to different people. Some treat it as a place of religious pilgrimage…a sacred spot for quiet communion with their spirituality. For some, it’s a place for sunrise and sunset yoga. For others, it’s simply the nearest shelter from a dust storm. But for most, it is a place to bring their fears, regrets, losses, and triumphs from the past year (or decade, or lifetime), and leave them there forever. Because at the end of the event, The Temple is burned.
You probably remember my blog from last year where I shared with you some of the more poignant Temple graffiti. This year I’ve made a short film, but before that…a few teaser photos to help explain what The Temple is about:
This last one is so powerful to me. Burning Man is such an important event to so many people, that for some afflicted with terminal illnesses, it is their final earthly act before death. The person who wrote this is staring death in the face, and made a pilgrimage to The Temple to express their final message. In the video, you will see an envelope left by a young woman who passed on before the event, but who wanted to send some special items to be burned in The Temple after her death.
So without further ado, please sit back for the next 7 minutes and absorb the images from this film. They will make you cry. They will make you laugh. Some viewers will be offended. Most will be uplifted. Watch it 2 or 3 times. Then share it with someone you love.
In case you were wondering, the soundtrack for the video was graciously provided to me by my new friend Jordan, a young artist in the UK with an extraordinary musical talent. Not only does he have a haunting voice, he plays the piano, harp, and a variety of wind instruments. If you’re looking for some soothing music, check out his YouTube channel. (Thanks, Jordan, for letting me use your music. I’ve really enjoyed chatting with you the past few days.)
The Temple. This year’s Temple was easily the most stunning of any year I’ve experienced. The sheer number of delicate scroll cuts that it took to assemble this massive ornate structure just blows my mind. The artist/architect is David Best, who has designed 7 Temples at Burning Man. He simply outdid himself this year.
The Temple burns…The Man burns. Most of the art burns. Some critics of the event complain that it’s a waste of creativity and resources. I think it’s extraordinary. To be able to share the experience of a particular piece of art with only a handful of others, before the art disappears in flames, makes that experience even more cherished. Even more special. And while part of me would love to see my favorite pieces of art at Burning Man again year after year, the destruction of the art requires that artists step into creative roles again, and new wonders materialize each year.
Back at Camp Potluck, we prepare for our big Playa Potluck…held each year on Friday at sunset. We’ve all dressed in red for our parade to promote the event and invite the neighborhood. And then everyone is scrambling to set out food and prepare for the onslaught. We have a separate table that is vegetarian/vegan safe, and then a table that omnivores can enjoy. Guests begin to arrive, bearing their own leftovers, bottles of liquor…some come empty handed and look a bit sheepish. I hug them, put a plate in their hands, and assure them that, like everywhere else in this extraordinary city, all we ask from you is your presence. We are thrilled to share what we have to share.
For several hours, we feed people of all ages and Camp Potluck is overrun with conversation and celebration. And the exciting thing is that we are starting to establish a reputation. All around the city, our camp members (most of whom are experiencing Burning Man from the first time) are asked, “Where are you camped?” When they reply, “Camp Potluck at 7:50 and I,” they are starting to hear, “Oh, I love you guys! Your camp is so friendly. You guys shove food in my mouth every time I walk past!” Later on, at the burning of the Man on Saturday night, a young man that I didn’t recognize with a foreign accent, turned around in a crowd of 60,000, ran up to us and shouted, “Hey, Camp Potluck! Thank you! Best falafel I’ve ever had!”
It’s a far cry from my first Burning Man experience, when everything that could go wrong went wrong, and I felt like an outsider…an observer…like I didn’t belong there. Now, I almost feel like people will miss us if we’re not there. It feels good to be needed.
While surfing through Burning Man information this evening, I discovered a quote from Larry Harvey, the man who claims to have invented Burning Man, and who retains creative control over the event. (Needless to say, he’s a very controversial character.) But this is the single best quote about Burning Man I have ever heard:
“Burning Man’s concept is to blend life and art so you can’t tell the difference.”
I’d say it does a pretty good job of that.
Raspberry and Denis and I leave Burning Man at 5am on Sunday morning. And the adventure is not nearly over. I won’t be home for another week, and in that time I will experience a Russian bath house, a hot spring inside a volcano in the most remote part of Nevada, and a hidden Anasazi ruin that requires traversing a narrow land bridge with thousand foot cliffs on either side. So you’ve got a lot more to look forward to.
But for now, I leave you to think about your life. For those of us who “go home” to Burning Man each year, we come back to the “default world” and experience a strong disconnect. Now, we can’t act or look however we feel. There are expectations from our society, and if we act or look different than them, we are treated as “not serious” or even subhuman. Now, we can’t walk up to a stranger who looks like they’re having a bad day, give them a massive hug, and drag them out of the street and into our home, pour them a glass of wine, make them eat a plate of Pad Thai, without someone calling the police. Now, we have to think twice about how we answer the standard question, “How are you today?” Because, at Burning Man, you actually tell people exactly how you’re doing…because they genuinely want to know. In the default world, we have to say, “Fine, how are you?” otherwise people get uncomfortable.
Burning Man is a place where people connect in meaningful ways instantaneously. It is a place where everyone truly loves everyone else. Even if they’re loud, smell bad, say offensive things, or believe things that are diametrically opposed to what I believe. The world could learn a lesson or two from those crazy hippies who gather in the desert each year to burn sculptures…
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