One version of the American Dream
The myths surrounding Burning Man are many—but how many hold water in the desert?
Imagine a place where money is useless, where people give of themselves to complete strangers, where self-expression is not only accepted but expected. In our modern society, it seems, no such place could possibly exist.
It’s all quite a stretch from the white picket fences of the 20th-century American Dream. In many ways, though, this ultimate freedom and good will is what most people yearn for in a free country such as our own. And each year thousands of people trek out to the desert to create their utopia, if only for a week.
Burning Man, for those who have never been, is a bit of a mythical place. A week’s worth of food, a tent, some funky clothes and a $300 ticket will buy you entrance into a raver’s paradise, a place where nudity is welcome and drugs are plentiful. There’s heat and dust and art around every corner, and if you can afford a week off work, this entertainment mecca is just 270 miles away.
This year, after hearing myriad stories about the biggest party on earth, my boyfriend, good friend and I packed up our gear and ventured into the Nevada desert for the first time. We camped with veteran burners, who prepared us for the worst and the best. But nothing could truly get us ready for the sensual assault we would endure.
Some of the stories I’d heard turned out to be true; others completely false. So I decided to play a little Mythbusters game with all the information I’d gathered. In an area as big as Black Rock City, Nevada’s third-largest city for a week, everybody is bound to have a different experience. I speak from mine.
Burning Man is just five or six hours from Chico.
If you trust Google maps, it should take about 3 1/2 hours to get from Chico to Reno. Black Rock City isn’t on any map, unless you log onto BurningMan.com, but those who should know estimate about an hour and a half from Reno. We left Chico around 5 p.m. Sunday, hoping to make it by midnight, when the gates opened. We got to our campsite a little after 7 Monday morning. The hardest part was seeing the lights of the city in front of us and being powerless, waiting hours in line to enter.
Getting your tickets at will-call is the way to go.
If you’re prone to losing things, this may be true. But after waiting in line for two hours to get to the gate, we were rerouted to a parking lot, where we sat for another two hours while everyone there walked to pick up their will-call tickets. Then we had to get back in line. On the bright side, we got to watch the sun rise in the desert, drink a beer with other burners in the same predicament, and catch our second wind.
Black Rock City is a real city.
There are streets, with signs, and even a map. But there are no secure structures; everything is a tent or vehicle of some sort. More than anything, though, the city is a state of mind. It’s a place where you’re encouraged to let your freak flag fly and nothing bears a price tag—except coffee and ice.
Walking around town, the vibe was noticeably more positive than anywhere I’ve been in the world—and I’ve been around the world. People were just so happy to be there, to be themselves, and more content to give than to receive. Gifting is what Burning Man is all about. Whether you give a spritz of water or a put together a theme camp where people can relax or dance, the whole idea is to give back to the city that gives so much.
My campmates are part of the theme camp called Hookahdome. On the outside, it was all fire and Middle Eastern dance tracks. Belly dancers entertained both inside and out, and once inside the plush tent, the scent of shisha filled the air. This was their gift to the city.
One afternoon, we trekked a few blocks during the hottest part of the day to a camp whose sole purpose was to cool people off. Lawn chairs lined the large tent, which was equipped with misters, and sun-scorched people sat and soaked up the moisture while taking a break from the unrelenting heat. A young man with a broad smile walked around handing out Otter Pops, and one lucky lady was treated to a foot massage from a stranger while another got her face painted with ornate blue curlicues. The aura of giving was in the air.
It’s the biggest art gallery in the world.
Black Rock City is huge, and on every corner there is something amazingly bizarre to look at and play with. From a giant wingspan in the middle of the playa, fit for human interaction, to sculptures made of cable wire, the scope of the artwork ranges wildly from fun and funky to confusing or informational.
Several theme camps offered body painting, turning individuals into pieces of art. Others, like Picasso camp, offered a canvas and paint for interested passersby. Those who took the time to spice up their vehicles—everything from golf carts to buses—were rewarded with a pass from the DMV (Department of Mutant Vehicles) to cross the playa.
And, of course, there’s the fire art—flames shooting from every direction, poi dancing, tiki torches—and flashy lights that turn the dusty, dry desert into a full-on visual smorgasbord at night.
Burning Man is a music festival.
I can’t tell you how many times I told people I was going to Burning Man and was asked, “Who’s playing?” I’m not sure how this rumor got started, but Burning Man is not a music festival. There were musicians on the playa, to be sure. My friend and I stumbled upon a wonderful string band one evening, and a large stage was set up for anyone who wanted to play, open-mic style. But music festival it is not.
Nighttime at Burning Man is like the biggest rave you’ve ever been to. DJs from around the world crank up their techno beats. I’m no connoisseur of the genre (and to be honest, I could live without it), so I’m sure I could stand corrected that there was some jungle and other forms thrown in there. For a bit of respite, there were plenty of camps bumping classic rock and even classical music—but they were mostly confined to the outer circles.
You can sleep during the day and party all night.
If I ever return to Burning Man, it will be in a camper, for those with an a/c might stand a chance of sleeping through the most miserable part of the day. For the rest of us roughing it in tents, once the sun came up, we started toasting, and there was nothing to do but start the day. When the sun went down, and the hooting and hollering began, we lay down for a nap, which in at least one case lasted until 1:00 in the morning. But considering the party never stops, it seemed a perfectly good time to wake up. The nighttime was by far the most enjoyable. The temperatures were nice and cool, people dressed up in crazy costumes—we saw one guy decked out from head to toe in Christmas lights—and the art cars and theme camps sprang to life.
Naked people are everywhere.
For every five people decked out in leopard print and faux fur, there was a topless woman with her breasts painted or a man riding a bike in his birthday suit. Funny thing is, aside from a natural aversion to sitting on a stool previously occupied by somebody else’s sweaty bottom, the nudity was so commonplace it wasn’t even shocking—it was just part of playa life. But then again, we didn’t wander into the Red Light District, where the freaky-deaky shit goes down.
Dust gets into everything.
A dust storm greeted us the day we arrived in Black Rock City. We pulled out our goggles and face masks and trudged across the playa to take shelter in our sweltering tent. Visibility was almost nil. According to veterans, this was the dustiest the playa had been in years. Apparently this year has been uncharacteristically dry. So, instead of hard-packed dirt that scrapes the feet, the consistency was more like a fine flour, which was easily whisked away with the wind. It also made riding bicycles difficult, and I heard a number of the art cars were unable to ride because they sank deep into the playa.
By the end of that first day, despite seeking refuge in our sweltering tent, I had dust in my eyelashes and in my ears. My boyfriend’s hair had gone from dark brown to nearly white, and we had accepted the fact that we wouldn’t be truly clean for at least a week.
Drugs, drugs and more drugs.
Probably the only thing you could buy other than coffee and ice was drugs. The smell of marijuana permeated the air, and the night, with all the lights and glow sticks, was the perfect playground for partiers on ecstasy and psychedelics. But even for those of us whose drug of choice is booze, the entire city is like a drug. Lights flashing, fire shooting, fireworks exploding in every which direction. People dressed in elaborate costumes. Buses and cars decked out to resemble pirate ships and butterflies. It was like entering an alternate universe, no drugs needed.
You must leave no trace.
Everything you bring in, you must bring out. That includes the nasty hamburger wrappers and all the baby wipes you used on the days you couldn’t take a shower. The grease from the frying pan was bottled up, and cigarette butts carried around. Kind of gross when you think about it, but so much more environmentally conscious than we are in our daily lives. One could argue this aspect alone is an environmentalist’s American Dream.
Burning Man can ruin your relationship.
There’s an entire section on the Burning Man Web site dedicated to couples, offering advice on how to not break up on the playa. Lack of water, it says, is the biggest relationship killer, because dehydration makes people cranky. I can see how this could be true, but staying hydrated should be everyone’s rule of thumb in the sweltering desert.
If anything, a week of no TV or video games brought me and my boyfriend closer together. We experienced the craziness, the wonderful spectacle and miserable heat together. The same is true of our friends. We bonded in misery and ecstasy. We picked each other up when we were dog tired; we gave each other hugs and laughed when the vibe was cheery. That was the biggest, most precious gift the playa gave to me.
It’s all about the Man burning.
Watching the explosion of flames at the center of it all was no doubt a thrilling end to a brutal, but beautiful, week. But the experience of being there, living one version of the American Dream for a short while, was what it was all about.