It was early Friday afternoon, just after my fellow campers and I had emerged from a completely naked but surprisingly chaste group shower hosted by a soap manufacturer. Dr. Bronnerwhen the rains began in Black Rock City, the temporary metropolis in the usually fiery Nevada desert where Burning Man takes place every summer.
Have you never been attacked from above magic foam and water shooting out of car wash-style cannons while soaping and rinsing off a few hundred strangers after five days of sweat, sand and sunscreen?
I didn’t have it. I’m 60 years old and a libertarian with a penchant for extreme experiences and mind-expanding chemicals, so you’d think I’d spent half my life on the psychedelic at 37. brigadoon i.e. Burning Man, a mystical village that emerges from nothing for a week or so before Labor Day and then it goes away, like… well, magical foam. And this summer not only marked my first skin from Dr. Bronner, but also my first encounter The Magnificent Octopus (a giant fire-breathing mechanical octopus) and a BDSM tutorial (hosted by a key-winner New Jersey refugee who lives in the Bay Area and teaches under the name Burn “Bad Boy”) .
And oh yeah: I got engaged to the love of my life in the middle of the desert just hours before it turned into a giant mud puddle. In keeping with the alternative vibe of Burning Man, my fiance, Sarah Rose Siskindknelt down at the end of the event beach and she asked me to marry her. Easiest question I’ve ever answered.
You don’t need to be chemically altered to be totally blown away by an endless procession of art projects large and small, performance pieces and booming “sound camps” that shimmer and pulse on an alkaline plane so devoid of life that it is exceptionally rare to even spot a single insect. Most of the 70,000 Burning Man attendees have little internet connection during their time on the beach, adding a splendid disconnect from normal life.
At the end of the festival, everything is packed up, down to the last tent stake and wrapping paper, with the aim of collecting everything”matter out of place” or MOOP. Everything is allowed as long as it is consensual and leaves no trace.
As one of my fellow campers said, Burning Man is welcoming to everyone, but not rousing, an attitude much needed in the normal world. Often misclassified as socialist because trade is prohibited and gift-giving is encouraged, the event is in fact the ultimate expression of a capitalist economy that throws up so much surplus wealth, it is where tens of thousands of people they can gather to create self-destructing artifacts. Burning Man takes place far beyond Maslow’s.hierarchy of needs”, and its function is to remind us all to be intentional and inspired rather than reactive and routine in our lives.
The total amount of precipitation was less than an inch. But that was more than enough to transform them completely four square miles from the driest, dustiest place in America (think the surface of the moon, but with 90-100 degree temperatures and blinding sandstorms) to a mass of mud that sticks to everything, especially the shoes.
You couldn’t walk more than a few feet without the clayey mud sucking into your shoes and then sticking to them, building up so fast it looked like you were balancing on bowling balls, slipping and sliding anyway like Lucille Ball on the reel. roller skates and a heroic dose of LSD. Just a few days earlier, I had been cycling through whiteout conditions – dust storms so violent and complete that I couldn’t see three meters in front of me. Slowly, in the mist, shapes formed as the wind drifted away and I found myself looking at a 30 foot mechanical pegasus slowly flapping its wings, or a giant, talking tree made of flashing LED lights. About 300 brave and crazy souls (including my fiancee) even chose to run a 31-mile ultramarathon under these conditions, beginning before dawn and ending as the sun rose into the center of the sky, boiling everything in sight.
The mud ocalypse meant that the titular climax of the week-long event – Saturday evening’s burning of “the manThe structure that stood out there in the desert, was delayed not once but twice. The possibility of going out by car or truck was closed for a period and the participants (there is famous “without spectators“at Burning Man) were told to party closer to home instead of going all over town to go out Thunderdome (a battleground based on the 1985 Mad Max movie), Dome of Orgy (based on 3,000 years of human excess), or the Triple D Diner (serving grilled cheese sandwiches and a fast-casual twist based on post-war Americana).
Art Cars: Psychedelic Pirate Ships and Railroad Engines, Pac-Man Ghosts, mechanical pops with fire and music, giant penises—were forbidden to roam the streets. And we were all advised to stock up on food, water, and toilet paper to last us many extra days of being stranded somewhere with no more resources than what we brought.
Due to the weather, the presence of VIPs, death of one attendee (probably due to a drug overdose) and an excruciatingly slow Labor Day weekend news cycle, Burning Man became prime news for a hungry press of content
“Death is confirmed at Burning Man Festival as rain turns desert to mud,” said a Wall Street Journal headline, which continued: “Thousands are jammed into the Nevada event, which attracts a mix of free spirits, artists and Silicon Valley tech titans each year.”
I guess the rain, like the snow of James Joyce”the dead,” fell on billionaires and the rest of us alike. But the truth is, I didn’t run into celebrities or VCs dressed up as furries or road warriors or whatever I’m sure they were out there among the tents and RVs and change podsbut they were hardly the center of attention although some of them out in style (Chris Rock and Diplo hitchhiked). Burning Man is nothing but a multiverse in which you choose your own adventure.
Observers reveled in the apparent dislocation. “It’s always been ridiculous to organize a drug-addled street festival for helpless city folk in such a hostile climate.” he tweeted Chaos Monkeys the author Antonio García Martínez, sniffing: “I myself have gone to the ‘playa’, alone in the middle of summer, and I have gone deeper into Black Rock than any burner. It’s a tough environment that needs to be taken seriously, but anyone who’s properly unplugged can handle it.”
But here’s the thing: there was no crisis in Black Rock City more than there was Ebola. Those who documented themselves from afar called it a crisis, but that was a wishful thinking, not a report, because there is something frustrating about other people having a good time that brings out the Menckian puritanism in all of us The rain came down and messed things up royally, but no one starved to death or spontaneously combusted. People in general caught up in the event”10 principles”, which includes radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, civic responsibility, participation and community effort. Not only do we share food and supplies and dry spaces, but there’s usually hard-to-get Wi-Fi and Starlink access to be able to check in with loved ones and modify flights and travel plans.
My fellow campers and I decided to leave early on Monday and got about two feet before our U-Haul truck got stuck in the mud. We let the floor dry for a few hours, got a big push from our neighbors and left. We were no longer clean from our magical foam shower and we were exhausted from the heat and mud and lack of sleep. But we were also absolutely energized by a complete break from the routine we follow the other 51 weeks of the year and the random, unsupervised encounters we enjoyed with each other and complete strangers.
I’ll be digging dust and mud out of my clothes and gear for weeks, if not months, to remember my experience at Burning Man. Black Rock City is no replacement for New York or San Francisco or wherever you call home, but it’s a state of mind worth visiting regularly, regardless of the weather.
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