So what is Burning Man? Is it people taking acid and running around naked in the desert? Is it wild sex orgies? Will I see the wildest, craziest spectacles I’ve ever seen in my life there? YES, YES and YES. But there is so much more to Burning Man. Burning Man is a place of amazing spiritual awakenings and human connection. It is a place like no other.
This year marks my third expedition to this unique and magical event. I describe it as the ultimate adult playground, a place where imagination collides with reality. For me and for so many others, Burning Man is a pilgrimage and it’s addictive.
For the uninitiated, Burning Man is an arts festival in the Nevada desert. Approximately 70,000 people congregate in a hedonistic celebration artistic of life where creativity is unbridled. Community is the beating heart of this place that couldn’t run without days, weeks and even years of work done by the many volunteers. To attend you must be an active participant and you must be willing to give something of yourself. It is only by collaboration that Burning Man as a concept can be realised. People build and express themselves through sculptures, instillations and cars – all of which are designed to be interactive.
It is a place to share ideas, food, gifts and conversations. Often these are ridiculous conversations about ridiculous things.
“What is that animal on that guy’s head?”
“I think it’s a prawn”
“I think it’s a crab”
“Shall we ask him?”
“Excuse me sir what is that on your head?”
“It’s a lobster!”
“Of course! I see it now”
With no mobile reception people live in the moment and stopping to talk to one person could lead to a fourteen-hour adventure and a lifelong friendship. There is an energy that filtrates from the dust and a warm spirituality from the surrounding wilderness and it permeates deep into your heart. It is this unique connection between nature and humans that create a joyous vibe that uplifts the spirit.
On the Saturday night the “Man” burns. This huge effigy is a landmark and sits in the absolute centre of the festival space. The night the Man burns is one of pure hedonism. It’s loose, it’s wild, it’s balls against the wall. But there is also spirituality in the process of watching the Man burn. The burning of the Man and many of the other art pieces is emotional and special but in my mind just one of the many amazing things at Burning Man. To me the heart and the spirit of Burning Man lies within the “Burners”, that is the people who attend the event.
Burning Man is the best of humanity. Black Rock City, the temporary city created during the event revolves around 10 principles whose core values are grounded in a spirit of community and generosity. Burning Man is a safe place to be exactly who you are, wear whatever you like and take on the persona of whomever you please as long as you are respectful of others. Unlike in the default world, that which is unique is celebrated, not negatively judged.
In my first year at Burning Man I remember being shocked as I rode past an elderly gentleman. I turned to my friend “Did you see that guy, stark bollock naked with a ball and chain dragging from his penis” to which she replied very casually “No I was distracted by the unicorn parade”. As a sun-safe Australian with very white skin, I always worry about the practicalities of being nude in the desert. Like have they applied sunscreen to their naked appendages? Friends have joked that as my gift I should offer to apply sun cream to the exposed penises; Slip. Slop. Slap. Whilst in theory I don’t mind the idea, there isn’t a lot of showering at Burning Man and no matter how hot penis owners are, who knows where those dry, dusty exposed cocks have been!
People who haven’t been often don’t understand that there is no currency. You can’t buy anything and you can’t sell anything. It is a culture of gifting. Food, drinks, performances, artwork, moments are all given freely. This year I was gifted a silver pocket watch on a chain. In everyday life I use my phone as a clock but as I don’t carry my phone around at Burning Man –this simple gift meant I could turn up to events, DJ’s or meet my friends.
Over the years I’ve been gifted many things. A scenic flight, cocktails, ice-cream, magic mushroom chocolates, perfumes, condoms, photographs just to name a few. I also have given gifts, cat ears & tails, shots, pancakes, hydration salts or my time to help in a construction project or to put up a yurt. Each time I’ve shared a beautiful but brief mutual feeling of joy and connection with the other person. Every day is filled with dozens of these moments and the cumulative effect is truly heartwarming.
The appropriate way of expressing thanks is a hug. In fact when you introduce yourself you don’t shake hands you hug. Freely and frequently over the course of the week you receive 100s maybe even 1000s of hugs. The toughest thing about coming back to reality is that nobody wants to hug you anymore.
Burning Man is not for the faint hearted. The playa is the name given to the space where the event is held and it is a harsh desert environment. It’s dusty, it’s hot and it’s dangerous. It’s easy to get sunstroke or heat exhaustion in the day. At night temperatures can drop to below freezing. Each year people are injured or die, often in preventable situations. It’s important to look after yourself and your friends if you attend this event.
There are “white outs” or dust storms where you can’t see even a metre in front of your face and navigating becomes impossible. Even when there isn’t a storm dust gets in your mouth and nose and ears and it can clog up your bicycle gears and chains. Very pale and very fine, the dust has an uncanny ability to sneak into every crevis and onto every surface you can imagine. It will sneak into your socks, undies, shoes, tent, RV and you will find it for weeks after the event. There is actually no way known to man to permanently remove it from any item that has been to the playa. For me the dust is a welcome reminder of some of the best times of my life but for others it is a nightmare.
Despite the difficulties, there is a saying at Burning Man and that is “The Playa Provides”. This means that whatever you need, in the moment you will come across it. For example if you’re hungry you will meet a stranger who cooks you dinner or if you’re having a bad acid trip you’ll stumble across the counseling camp or if you are in an excitable mood and you’ve met a handsome stranger, you’ll find the perfect little hidden love nest.
Every year I try to understand why this special place has such a profound impact on me but a I can’t really explain it except to say that the event is magical. Just thinking about Burming Man fills my heart with warmth at the whimsy and beauty of the event. I wish I could live each and every day with the courage and generosity of spirit that is displayed by the humans of that desert playground. If you’ve ever thought about going – do yourself a favour and go … I guarantee it will change your life.