Burning Man. If you haven’t been there, trust me, you have no idea what it’s like. Pictures can’t do it justice. Mere words fail to enlighten. Trying to explain to anyone who has never been there why anyone would subject themselves to desert heat for over a week with no flush toilets, running water, or <gasp> internet can be an exercise in futility.
Suffice it to say, it’s more or less extreme camping in the most inhospitable place in the lower 48 states. Playa dust covers the water-starved hardpan and gets into every conceivable crevice you have in your body. It surely coats the inside of your lungs just as it coats everything you brought, including your food.
When the wind whips up, within seconds it goes from clear-as-a-bell to not being able to see your hand in front of your face. You better have a mask of some sort and goggles, or you’re going to choke to death or go blind.
And yet tons of people attend year after year after year.
But I’m not going to talk about all that. I’m going to talk about why Burning Man is a seminal cultural event that deserves serious consideration as one of the most important cultural events of our time.
What? Me being serious? Just what did Burning Man do to me anyway?
Before we get to all that, I must regale you with a short story about our overnight pit stop on the way to the Burn. Our stay was at a 100-year-old hotel in a tiny California town. We wandered in just before 9:00 PM, which is when the kitchen closed, but we got our food orders in just in time. After that it was all bar bill. We racked up a $700-plus tab, closed the place down, and staggered to our respective rooms for the first time, luggage in hand.
And boy I had to pee.
When you’re sixty years old and you gotta go, especially with your share of a $700 tab in your gut, you gotta go. And sometimes that means you gotta go RIGHT NOW.
So when the key to the hotel door didn’t immediately open the damn hotel door, panic began to set in. I was jumping up and down with my legs pressed together trying like hell to get the stupid key to work. I was mere seconds from one of the most embarrassing things that can happen to a grown man, except for maybe getting beaten up by a female midget.
In desperation, I looked to my left and spotted a door just a few feet away. I leapt at it with a hope and a prayer, one hand shoving open the door, and the other holding, well, you know. The door opened like the gates of heaven, complete with angels singing, right onto a fire escape.
Since it was the middle of the night there were no cars on the lonely highway, otherwise someone might have been treated to the sight of a man with an oddly satisfied look on his face, teetering on the fire escape, quenching a non-existent fire with a good five minutes of dousing.
Thus relieved, in more ways than one (trust me, if I’d had peed my pants you wouldn’t be reading about it here, but that was honestly my only other option), I plopped gratefully into bed. At about 8:00 AM I heard a soft knock on my door. I opened it to find one of our crew standing there, a young man nicknamed Funkhauser, or Funky for short. He asked if he could use my shower. Of course, but why? Because he hadn’t been able to remember his room number and so slept all night on the couch in the lobby.
Thus the 100 year-old hotel in a sleepy little California town received the indelible imprint of some Burners. Fortunately, both misdeeds went largely unnoticed, and so we’re certain the hotel still loves Burners. mostly because we paid for a lot of booze.
With that out of the way, for me, Burning Man consists of two parts. The first part is all about creativity. People make art for the playa; they make art out of cars and drive them around; they make art out of their camps; and they certainly decorate their own bodies in every conceivable artistic (and otherwise) fashion possible.
What the art and music of Burning Man shows me is that the creatives among us have a yearning to create just for creativity’s sake. Modern societies, in general, give sparse attention to the creative spirit. Especially in the United States, success is largely defined by money. Putting the word “starving” ahead of artist is mostly redundant.
But they continue to create. They crave artistic creation. Burning Man gives them an outlet to do so, even though there is no financial recompense or recognition. There is only the art. They share it after sometimes spending years just to create it. Just because they want to, or maybe have to.
By holding it in such an inhospitable place with a guarantee of no reward save the love of sharing, Burning Man proves that the human creative spirit is an amazing, unassailable thing.
Historically, societies are mostly remembered for their arts and sciences (unless they were particularly fond of blowing things up). History won’t judge the US based on how many McDonalds there were or what the top 1% of the populace sold to get rich. It’s the arts and sciences that prove the mettle of any great society. Burning Man shouts to the world that the creatives should be unleashed, because when they are, they come up with remarkable, amazing, and beautiful things, things that mere mortals could never even conceive of… all displayed in a place as barren as the Black Rock Desert. By the way, I never saw any black rocks. Just miles and miles of dusty playa. Unless the wind kicked up, in which case I could see nothing.
But I could always see the creativity, and it impresses the hell out of me. Why can’t we get more of this awesome stuff in the real world? Why don’t we hold the artists and the scientists aloft, encouraging the quest for knowledge and beauty with the same fervor with which we spend money on guns and financial gain?
The second part of Burning Man is the people. Those who attend do so for any one of a variety of reasons. Most love the camaraderie, at least as far as those I talked to. They love the freedom. They love to experience art and music like no other place on the planet. Sure, some like to party. But even those people are doing so because it’s a place that encourages freedom and creativity, and some people find that a little inebriation (okay, sometimes a lot of inebriation) helps them experience the art and music on a level they cannot while sober.
But the main thing is the camaraderie and fellowship. I spoke to a dozen people all of whom uttered a variation of the phrase, “This is what church should be like.” I couldn’t agree more. Here is a place with complete acceptance regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, height, age, or anything else. It’s a place where you get a thousand hugs, are given food and gifts without expectation, and meet strangers who become lifelong friends after chatting for just five minutes. It’s a place where you’re supposed to ask permission to hug, but no one does, because pretty much everyone welcomes them.
Of course, there are always exceptions, which is why we have to remember to ask permission if there’s the slightest hesitancy. During our camp’s “gift to the Playa,” consisting of a wienie roast with booze, Twister, and a large Jenga game, my job was to cool down those in line with a little spritz from a spray bottle. I generally asked permission, but one time as I was spraying over the heads of some willing recipients, some drops apparently landed on the skin of a young woman in line. She promptly uttered a sharp, “fuck off!”
It took me a number of seconds just to digest this. Was she joking? Did I accidentally douse her newly placed temporary tattoo? Did she have Tourette’s? I had actually only misted lightly next to her; I swear only a couple of drops must have hit her skin. But it was very jarring to be admonished so harshly in a place where love between almost everyone was the dominant theme. After digesting her rude reprimand, and seeing the sympathetic eyes of everyone else in line, I simply apologized and moved on.
In hindsight, I wished I would’ve taken the bitch down by throwing her on her back and pouring the water all over her spluttering face. Just kiddin’. Well, mostly.
After that, I made people sign a waiver before they got a spritz. Just kiddin’ again. The spritzees outnumbered the “no thankers” by about 100 to 1. But there’s always that one.
As a result of there always being “that one person,” societies create no end of rules to keep everyone as comfortable as possible. Which is why a society based on Burning Man would have a hard time lasting more than a week. Someone will steal something. Another will get hurt by someone else’s negligence. There will be disagreements. Tempers will flare. Some woman will be thrown on her back and have water poured all over her foul-mouthed face. And so we end up with the structure of society with all its rules and regulations.
But for just a week, in what is almost the worst place in the world in which to be, Burning Man demonstrates that people can come together and enjoy and love each other in harmony, and without reservation. Burning Man shows the world that a society can thrive with no money at all (well, except for ice and some drinks at Center Camp), while encouraging all who attend to give freely, without expectation.
One of the basic tenets of Burning Man is Radical Self-Reliance. This means despite all the largesse of free food, drinks, and hugs. you’re expected to make it all work for your own damn self. This ain’t no left-wing Socialist do-gooder free ride.
Nowadays some on the right enjoy denigrating those on the left with the term “snowflakes.” Let me tell you, while the 70,000 strong surely contains a large portion of said “snowflakes,” they prove they can out-tough anyone. Snowflakes wouldn’t last a split second in that desert. But these people survive and thrive.
Actually, the demographics of Burning Man skew toward the better educated with higher incomes than the average American. These aren’t hippies; they’re largely successful professionals. There was even a camp populated solely by doctors.
So while this kind of society wouldn’t make it in the real world for long, Burning Man shows us that even if just for a week, a completely different kind of society can work.
I think of it as if a scientist was able to create life in a laboratory. Even if that life lived for just a second, it would be proclaimed an amazing scientific feat. The scientific community would take that discovery and build on it, working on ways to make that short-lived organism survive longer. Only the small-minded would pooh-pooh the whole thing and say, “Pshaw, it was only for a second. So what? Big deal.”
But the scientist proved it could be done. We don’t stop there, we take that success and figure out how to make it last longer. Just so with Burning Man. Surely, this is but a moment in time, but every year Burning Man proves that a society built on love, trust, no money or advertising, radical self-reliance, and the embracing of creativity in just about every form, can in fact work. And with a lot more work, and by learning from this experience, it gives me, at least, some hope that societies can do a lot better than they currently are.
And then they burn it all and it all goes away as if it never existed (Leave No Trace). Because that’s all of our futures anyway. In a hundred years, no one will even know you were alive. So make the most of what you have. Burn in the desert. Explore the world. Create something. Live.
Burning Man is a metaphor for your life: you suffer, you love, you experience new things, and then you disappear forever.
I go to be reminded of all that.