Burning Man made me remember.
So many people say that Burning Man changed their life. But for me, it made me remember that my life had changed already. After almost a year back in civilisation, I’d begun to grow back into London life. Working, commuting, buying, rushing, worrying. I hadn’t forgotten, but I had noticed that certain thoughts were becoming more distant. Lessons I’d learned were slowly becoming a haven of memory, a place to visit by choice, rather than the constant, immediate companions I’d been used to. Burning Man brought them back into the present.
I’d wanted to visit Black Rock City since I first heard about it. It’s described as an experiment in temporary community, and is often summed up by reference to its 10 principles:
- Radical Inclusion
- Radical Self-reliance
- Radical Self-expression
- Communal Effort
- Civic Responsibility
- Leaving No Trace
I knew that I valued inclusion and acceptance, freedom and respect, and I now knew I loved the desert. My friend and I heard about the late-sale Burner Express Bus Plus tickets, and found ourselves poised over the “buy” button expecting an instant sellout. We somehow messed up our first order, and everything showed as sold out on a second attempt. However luck was on our side and 8 minutes after the sale commenced, the other transactions that had gone wrong were released back into the ticket pool and we were able to buy 2 tickets for the event and the bus from Reno.
Planning is a vital part of the Burning Man experience. Without planning, it’s hard to achieve the Radical Self-reliance that the community embodies. Bring everything you need to survive the desert for a week. Water. Food. Shelter. Bike. Yes, you need a bike. You need lights. Whilst there is a “temporary city” with street lights of a sort, it’s still the middle of the desert and the desert is DARK.
So planning took the shape of a Wal-Mart order and a trip to REI in Reno. The minimal approach. We’d already got our camping setup dialled in from the previous week hiking in California, and I’d packed an additional ancient disposable tent that we’d live in for the week. Good job too, the playa is a harsh environment that would have killed my ultralight, super well-ventilated backpacking tent. We’d also have been buried alive in playa dust from the windstorms barrelling through.
Arriving relatively late in the afternoon, we started with admin. Built up the tent and pulled our heavy tarp over the top of it for shade and protection from the dust. Collected water from the tanks that the bus riders shared. Modded bikes. Finally we got out to explore the City and the playa around sunset.
The biggest artwork this year was the Catacomb of Veils. I’m not even sure they finished it. The top was left open, and instead of walls and a roof, the artists had draped flowing fabric streamers from the rafters which were entrancing. We visited in the middle of a huge dust storm, and could barely see it from the outside, so the inside was an astonishing oasis of colour and movement.
One of the other major art pieces was the Black Rock City Lighthouses. Three lighthouses with staircases, bridges and balconies from which to survey the whole playa.
One of the 10 principles is the concept of Gifting. I’d brought some handmade bandanas which I’d filled with water-retaining crystals. These take in water, swelling to many times their original size, and this evaporates over the course of the day. If you tie a bandana around your head or neck, the evaporation will keep you cool in the desert heat. I’d given out all 5 of my bandanas, so to continue contributing, I volunteered as a lamplighter. The lamplighters fill and light oil lamps, then parade around the Center Camp and main avenues of the City at sunset, hanging them from tall poles to light the City through the evening. They wear very cool costumes…
I also volunteered as a perimeter marshal for one of the artwork burns. Helios had been an intricate wooden sculpture, in keeping with the Renaissance theme of 2016 as it lit up when all of its platforms were occupied by people taking the “Vitruvian Man” posture. It burned in a matter of minutes, and I could not help but admire the artist creating something so involved, so well thought out, and so very temporary. Intended to be fleeting.
The theme camps are scattered throughout the City. Some offer workshops, like the German wheel workshop I went to at a circus camp. Some offer space to relax. Some offer refreshments, like the cucumber water on Esplanade, or grilled cheese, or cocktails. Some have trampolines. Some massages. Some music. All offer the chance to connect with someone new.
Center camp offered coffee, the only thing on sale in the whole City other than ice. It also had a jam space for acro, and also juggling. It had had an atmosphere all week but on the final afternoon it was almost empty so I took the opportunity to practise juggling whilst people went to prepare for the Man burning.
The Man was burned on our final evening the desert, and the fire performers in the community came together for a show before the main event. It’s hard to describe the sensations and thoughts of that evening. Transience. Change. Kinship. Connection. Loss. Generosity. Effort. Art. Creation. Destruction. Acceptance. Love. I thought about Leave No Trace, and the way the playa would look after we left, without the people, without the City. I thought about the people I knew who would appreciate this concentration of art, culture and counterculture, and love it all the more for its short duration. I thought about the moments of genuine connection and the hikers I’d met on my journey last year. About unexpected greetings and saying goodbye like it’s the last time. About accepting things today knowing they will end, and enjoying them regardless.
Burning Man is exactly what people say. And yet Burning Man is surprising. It is hard. It is uncomfortable. It is welcoming. It is entirely, unsustainably, outside society as we know it. It is persistent as only an idea can be. It is dependent on the people who show up. Burning Man won’t change your life. But if you want your life to change, Burning Man will give you the space and tools to make it happen.