A 10-story inferno erupts the desert sky, ignited by an orgiastic display of fireworks, washing a massive spasm of human flesh in a blaze of raw heat. Beaming smiles, teary faces, guttural roars and primal hoots accent the excitement of the moment as thousands of half-naked humans run towards the smoldering debris. Wild tribal dancing ensues around the crackling wreckage turned altar. The feeling is undeniably sacred as the dust beneath our feet becomes holy. The Man has burned this night, but our souls will forever be on fire.
Burning Man. The name is now globally recognized, making many “a things to do before you die” bucket list. Yet while the name is internationally famous, and infamous, the majority of the world has no idea of what it actually is. I was one of those people, until I went this year.
I never planned on going to Burning Man. I had heard about it from friends of friends who had gone, always spoken about with a half-whispered reverence and mysticism. Like most, I associated it with drugs and conjured shadowy visions of a desert rave. The truth, as I experienced it, is a paradox: that it is like this and absolutely nothing like this at all. Burning Man is its own universe, and while it claims origins in many historical and modern movements, cultures and influences, it is undeniably unique and incomparable to anything else. Anyone who says differently has never actually been.
For many “Burners,” the defining badge given to those who have experienced “The Burn,” Burning Man is the great mother of all “Transformative Festivals.” Why are they called transformative festivals? Simply put, because by the end of experiencing one, you are transformed forever. Burning Man is no exception, and there was not one single person I met, including myself, that said the event had not changed their life in some profound way.
So what is it exactly? Burning Man, according to the organization itself, “is an annual art event and temporary community based on radical self expression and self-reliance in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada.” It is a week-long (or longer for some), once-a-year event in the middle of the Nevada desert, about 4 hours outside of Reno, where this year, nearly 80,000 people from all over the world drove, RV’d, flew, walked, biked, hitchhiked and skydived (really) to reach. Once there, they set up temporary camps on the sand dubbed “The Playa.” Some of these camps rival many public works projects in their ingenuity and creativity. Camps can consist of hundreds of people with themes, stages and sound systems, to simple clusters of two-person tents circled around a campfire.
As it proclaims, Burning Man is about radical self-reliance. The location is brutally hot, frequented by intense sandstorms and barren of any vegetation. It’s also remote, and once you leave Burning Man, you might not be allowed back in. It is not for the timid, unhealthy, well-pampered or for those who hate roughing it in the dirt. You are required to bring a week’s worth of supplies, including food and water, lots of water. You cannot buy anything at Burning Man. Many camps and people will gift you things like trinkets, coffee and food, but they are few and far between. Unless your camp has a shower (often just a bucket and hose) you use the few communal showers available or shower camps where hordes of dusty naked people are soaped and showered together while dancing. Most don’t shower the entire week though, preferring to wear their grimy desert dust as a symbol of pride. Bathrooms, same deal: communal porta-potties that are sucked out daily or a private camp potty. While many scoff in disgust at all this, and some of it is disgusting, almost all Burners embrace these raw realities that defines the experience, bringing us closer together as a community.
Black Rock City, Burning Man’s official city name, is designed as a complex yet efficient grid system. It is a city of bicycles, the only motor vehicles allowed to run consistently are “Art Cars” and “Mutant Vehicles,” the mind-boggling creative and genius works of engineering art that bring mobile magic to the event. My personal favorite was the Pulpo Mechanico: a three story octopus car that shoots fire out of its rotating tentacles. You can hitch a ride on most art cars around Burning Man, which are usually playing music 24 hours-a-day, and some of them are so popular that they become massive dance parties on their own.
As the name suggests, fire is a fundamental component of Burning Man. Fire dancers roam the days and nights across the desert, swirling, twirling, spinning and spitting flames in front of crowds of spectators. Intricate and stunning art installations are burnt to the ground throughout the week in ritual celebration. Mutant vehicles and art cars spit flames in many directions and in creative ways. Fire is everywhere, and it’s not the sort of fire you experience anywhere else: it’s primal fire, like the original flame given to us to warm our skins; it lights up the otherwise blackened night, it hypnotizes you, beckons you to dance and release your inner noble savage.
I could describe Burning Man as a mixture of equal parts: Mad Max, Dr. Seuss, spiritual, bohemian, rave, artistic, science fiction, fantasy, circus, nudist, sexual, Game of Thrones, shaman and tribal. I could do that … but it still wouldn’t get it right. Everyone, men and women of all ages, are dressed in a variety of fantastical costumes, half-naked or totally naked. The attached photos and an abundance of media material covering the event will give you a much clearer picture than my words ever could.
There are ten core principles of Burning Man , some of which are: radical inclusion, radical self-expression, radical self-reliance, gifting and communal effort. These principles are the foundation for why this festival has been more successful, more life-altering and influential than any other. From my experience, these principles are carefully followed and practiced by the vast majority of Burners. My favorite principle is radical inclusion: it states that everyone, absolutely everyone, is welcome and accepted. There are no camps you cannot visit, no art installations you need to wait in lines to be screened for attractive coolness; everyone is your friend and family regardless of how you may want to judge them in your other life. This ubiquitous feeling of openness and acceptance left a grand impression on my heart, yet all its principles and their successful collective functioning, serve to make Burning Man a place many of us can only dream of as human beings.
At night, and most times of the day, the people dance. They dance all night until sunrise and even after they may not stop. I myself danced until three glorious sunrises. Somewhere at Burning Man, people are dancing. Music is everywhere, the vast majority of it electronic. The music lineup is organized in a booklet the size of a novella, and throngs of DJ’s roam the sands like an army of techno-traveling minstrels, looking for art cars and camps to spin their tunes in the hopes that wandering Burners get seduced by their grooves. Superstar DJ’s such as Skrillex, Diplo and Major Lazer also play secret surprise sets at the bigger theme camps. Burners dance together in swarms, small groups, with partners or utterly alone, but the energy is the same: complete surrender to the sound.
Is Burning Man important? Yes. Many dismiss the festival as a glorified hedonist excuse for mostly-middle-class white people to do drugs, dance and cast off the normal rules and limitations of the default world. This is totally true, however, anybody who has actually been there understands the greater underlying power, freedom, spirituality and connection we all shared that cannot be conveyed or articulated through words, photos or videos. It is something accessible only through direct experience. It’s energy and vibe are unparalleled to even a seasoned world traveler like myself. In my opinion, Burning Man and its principles represent a very real glimmer of a 21st century Utopian existence, however brief. It is not a sustainable existence, and therefore many are working hard towards finding ways of bringing more of that essence to the world.
I am now one of them.
Us Burners refer to the non-Burning Man world as “The Default World” because it’s the world most of us were given to live in. It was not a consciously-built community of like-minded people who chose to be there like Burning Man, but rather something you deal with by default because you have no choice or say in the matter. For many of us, when the event is over and the city rapidly disassembles and retreats from the desert, the return journey can be both sad and dramatic. Many of us are still processing the epiphanies experienced on The Playa to this day.
The morning you wake up in your own bed after the journey, when obligations and e-mails that now seem so trivial define your day, you cannot help but wonder: which version of reality should be the default ? For many Burners, the answer is simple.
All images courtesy of Ian Yee: Click on image to view full size.
Christopher Ponzi is the author of Counting Sheep in Chaos as well as a mixed-media poet. He is currently doing the Bohemian Hustle in the Village of Angels and co-writing a book on the 21st century fountain of youth.