If I am honest about my main motivations for doing pretty much anything, I would have to say they are: boys and having a good story to tell. While some people might think these motivations are a little shallow, they have always kept my life interesting and always made me more fun at parties than people motivated by more standard stuff like money, fame, fear and just plain sex. Last year, for example, my friend Pete Hickok (a boy) went to Burning Man without me and I turned my jealousy and sadness into a story about making the most of the "Burning Man Rapture." That was a good adventure, and a funny story to tell people who like funny stories, but the truth is, I still wanted to be able to tell the REAL story -- the Burning Man story.
So when the chance came up, a week before the actual event, to buy a ticket and head out to Black Rock Desert, I did it without thinking too hard about what that would mean. I told Pete I was going and that I was going with him, even though he could only go for the first couple days and I couldn't go for the whole time either because I have a job I like and you can't just leave those things behind forever. Everyone, including him, told me I should go for the last few days and see the Man burn but the truth is, Pete is the only person I wanted to go with. He's an artist, an awesome artist, and a really good camper and he's sort of been my muse for the last 10 years. I didn't know what this experience was going to be, but I knew I wanted to go with him.
So he assented and early Monday morning we headed out to the desert. I didn't get too many pictures, because I was too busy experiencing the experience, but here are some impressions, from a short-time visitor and a virgin, of Burning Man.
The Black Rock Desert just appears out of nowhere. You drive through an Indian reservation and progressively smaller towns until there is a haze of dust in the distance. Then boom, you turn off the highway onto a dusty road and zigzag around until you are inside that haze yourself, a city in a semi-circle, radiating out from the open desert, the "Playa" in the middle. Everyone talks about the heat and the dust but I didn't understand until I was there what a crucial element this landscape plays in the experience. It forces you to constantly be evaluating how you feel and how the people around you feel. It pushes you to a physical limit, which sort of breaks down all your usual emotional and mental walls. It also means you have no cell phone service.
Black Rock City is a temporary, controlled-chaos, art installation in which every single thing, every camp, every bike, every bar, every outfit, every meal is a form of expression. And this is before you even get to the sculptures and temples rising from the desert. It's 60,000 people doing exactly whatever they want, when they want to, which means some of it is epic and some of it didn't really do it for me, but all of it was art.
My favorite "sculpture" sculpture was a half sunken pirate ship attached to a long dock. The ship is placed in the sand in such a way that when you climb through its hold, you feel almost seasick and water sounds play in the background. Under the dock are hammocks and swings. At night, flames shoot out of its masts.
The Temple of Juno, built by David Best, was also a pretty great piece of recognizable art. It is the size of an actual small church, constructed completely out of intricately laser cut pieces of wood. It was one of the only quiet places at Burning Man, even though it was filled with people when we went on Tuesday night. The fact that such a painstakingly created structure is made to be burned adds something indefinable to the experience of walking through it.
These things are beautiful, sure, but the real art is the intention everyone puts into everything, which is partially necessitated by the environment. The real art is in how incredibly aware you are forced to become of what's happening around you. You keep every single piece of trash and you can't even pour out water onto the dust. If you don't drink enough water, you'll probably die and if you aren't carrying goggles, you will go blind in the dust storms. Your awareness goes from completely internal to 90% external really quickly, which means suddenly you are able to actually experience the world around you. In this way, the whole event becomes special and different from regular life, an evanescent transcendent experience, sort of like a week-long Baptist revival, a walkabout or an ayahuasca journey must be.
Yes. There is ALWAYS house music playing. And actually, I didn't mind it all.
4. The Magical Element of Nothing For Sale
Everywhere you go in Black Rock City, you bring with you a cup. Bars are scattered everywhere and everything is free. We drank at bars in tents, bars on platforms, in hammocks, on cars with swivel seats driving through the open desert at night. Everyone is just overjoyed to serve you (even the sadist who poured me a tequila and sweet tea) and we made millions of friends.
One of our most fantastic "gifting" (they call it gifting and I am trying to stop associating that word with the nausea of Christmas season McDonald's commercials) experiences was late on Tuesday night, when we came out of a pillow-strewn bar, incredibly hungry, and ran straight into a crawdad feast, which also included corn and onions. It was about 1:15am and we ate like maniacs.
I think the thing is that when nothing is commodified, everything becomes whatever it is, for the sake of that thing alone. Art, food, alcohol, bikes. You take what you need and you really start to enjoy things for their thingy-ness, experiencing them instead of consuming them, always anxious to get on to the next thing. This, I think, will be the hardest thing to bring back into default reality, since most of what we do is based on advertisers trying to get us to buy more things at a faster rate, and a lot of our worth is judged, by ourselves and by other people, on the things we own. I know it's not possible to always have everything be free, but thinking about it now reminds me of the day in eighth grade when it suddenly occurred to me that money causes all the problems. Without it, we really are freed up to be nice to everyone and take things that people give us, but only the things we actually need.
5. Speaking of Problems
Burning Man is not 100% perfect. It's mainly white people as far as the eye can see, for one thing. And some people are definitely just there to party their heads off (though with such a high bar for entry in terms of fees and getting there, you kind of have to respect that level of commitment to the party). And all this does happen on the beautiful Black Rock Desert, which would probably be better off if no humans ever stepped on it all. Or drove on it (something that happens there all year). But so would the whole San Francisco Bay Area be. In fact, this place would be pretty awesome without people. And Burning Man has a much better leave-no-trace policy than the City of San Francisco.
I think Burning Man has got to be a completely different experience for every person. I was there for approximately 42 hours and so for me it was condensed into a tornado of bike adventures, sandstorms, dance parties, chapped lips and Pete. The most important element turned out to be that last one. I was there, living fully in the moment, and I was doing it with another person, another person I know really well. In our real lives, we always have plans and places to go and text messages to send and the next thing we are trying to figure out in our heads, even when we are talking about something that seems important. But out on the desert, our only jobs were to stay alive, help each other stay alive and talk to each other about everything we were seeing. This meant constant feedback, team stream of consciousness, which made something very strange happen: I drove in with a person I knew as well as I know anyone, anywhere, and by the time we drove out, he was not that person anymore. Somehow, being so close, closer even than when we slept in the same place every night (we lived together for 2 years), Pete transformed from the Pete who existed mainly in my imagination into a real living, breathing human being.
I think this is how Black Rock City goes from being an art festival or a tourist destination to being a place that viscerally connects with so many people, year after year. There is so little these days that has the capacity to change us. We are bombarded by images and songs and stories all day, but we don't spend enough time on any of them to really take in their meaning and allow them to bring us to a completely new place. But being out in the desert, with thousands of people trying to stay hydrated, with electronic music thumping in your chest, riding your bike through a dust storm to what seems like the end of the world, you don't have a choice. There isn't a tomorrow or a yesterday. You become a conduit to all the things happening around you.
Here's a thing people say: "We won't have a revolution in this country until enough of us are truly uncomfortable." What that really means is nothing changes among pillow-top beds and TVs and hot showers and delivery BBQ. Why would it? Inertia is our preferred state. Out on the desert, though, I was truly uncomfortable for the first time in a long time, in the best possible way. And maybe I got more than a good story to tell at parties. Maybe I actually changed a little.