Ah, Burningman….What’s not to love about a place where cheering the sun dipping behind the mountains is a daily activity, chess games with life-size pieces take place on a giant checkerboard under the blazing desert sun, and riding around wearing nothing but fairy wings doesn’t even raise an eyebrow?
Arriving at the desolate patch of desert that once a year is transformed into the thriving Black Rock City, ‘burners’ are welcomed to ‘the playa’ by costumed greeters who inspect each car or RV, opening up coolers, cupboards and closets to check for stowaways, collect tickets, and offer a ‘welcome home’ hug (a statement only understood after a week here).
First timers, called “virgins,” are escorted out of their vehicles to ring a bell and are handed cards that read “spank me,” — to be redeemed later. For the virgin burner, Burningman is an experience that defies words.
Amid the dusty white desolation are people from various walks of life, scurrying around in wild furry costumes — topless, bottomless and every other conceivable combination in between.
What looks at first glance like an indistinguishable mass of tents mixing incoherently with desert is actually a well planned city, complete with street signs, city blocks, a recycling center, post office and a radio station, all constructed and deconstructed again in a two-week time frame.
It’s an impressive feat. The streets in Black Rock City have names such as ‘fetish,’ ‘bipolar,’ and ‘catharsis.’ Only two items can be purchased there: coffee and ice. All other necessities and amenities must be brought or bartered.
A plethora of activities beckon, but just getting out the door (of your tent, that is), requires quite a bit of preparation. A day’s survival essentials include goggles, lip balm (preferably on a string around the neck), a dust mask or bandana, hat, snack, gifts to barter with, a backpack filled with water, and a generous covering of sunscreen. Once packed, it’s off adventuring.
Black Rock City is divided into communities called theme camps, each offering various services, diversions, or thematic activities. Everything is available from outdoor playgrounds, spa treatments, and tarot card readings to yoga classes and 12 step meetings.
Though camps often have scheduled activities at specific times of the day, ‘playa’ time is an ambiguous blending of moment to moment, often marked only by the rising or setting sun. One can go out with one destination in mind and be easily distracted by one diversion or another as hours slip quietly by without notice.
Somehow each adventure leads to another until a change of weather or a shortage of water demands a return to camp. The entire experience can only be likened to a passage from Alice in Wonderland, in which time is no longer linear but occurs as a series of unrelated events in which reality and fairy tale morph in and out of each other. Life on the playa is without to-do lists, corporate meetings, deadlines or harried time commitments, traffic, cell phones or television. It’s life back in the day when speaking to a neighbor requires jumping on a bike and riding over there.
Burningman is a big playground for adults left to their own devices. Anything imaginable can be found here. One can play in a giant roomful of balls, climb a tower, cuddle in a room of furry pillows, drum, chant, dance, spin fire, jump on a trampoline, or swim in a pool.
Beyond the freedom to run amuck naked or in costume without judgment and the joy of rediscovering the inner child and leaving behind the obligations and demands of a hectic lifestyle, there is a community vibe that’s reminiscent of the hippie era. People on the streets are friendly, a lost person is offered directions, a hungry straggler who wanders into camp is fed, a fallen biker is helped, and strangers may offer random hugs. It’s a place to relax and drop the defenses and stresses of the real world.
As the day turns to night, marked by the sunset celebration, it’s time to head back to camp to grab some dinner and swap out daytime clothing and gear for night essentials. Evening on the playa is a whole other world.
Preparation usually involves intricate prepping and primping of elaborate costumes, wigs, boots, make-up and such, completed by the donning of ‘bling,’ which, of course, is the jewelry, necklaces, earrings and bracelets that makes people glow in the pitch-black desert night.
Black Rock City vaguely resembles Vegas with a freaky twist, neon signs lighting up the night sky, a constant hustle, and elaborately costumed party goers running to and fro until all hours. The experience is both ethereal and surreal. In the darkness, bikes whiz by out of nowhere, ornately decorated cars strung with Christmas lights pick up people for a touring disco of the playa, glow-in-the-dark necklaces, bracelets and anklets walk by, seemingly suspended in mid air.
Evening activities include raves, dance bars, cuddle lounges, jazz cafes, fire spinners, and various other enclaves in which to pass the night away. Festivities continue throughout the night with DJs spinning until sunrise, when hard-core partiers may opt for a sunrise walk before heading off to bed for a few hours of sleep.
People come to Burningman for different reasons, and no two experiences can be compared. Some come to dance the night away and reconvene with friends. Others come to seek spiritual clarity or enlightenment.
The Burningman climax takes place on Saturday, after a week of festivities, when the wooden structure of a man, which stands at the center of camp all week, is set ablaze.
Some 35,000-50,000 spectators in glowing bling gather.
Fire spinners and drummers begin the ceremony. They’re followed by a spectacular display of fireworks above the man, and then an explosion sets the structure on fire. Crowds scream and celebrate, wishing the people around them a happy ‘new year.’ People’s reactions are not unlike the awe and anticipation children feel at Christmas.
Virgin burners stand wide eyed, mouths agape, grinning ear to ear at the amazing spectacle. The celebratory air lasts through dawn.
Sunday is a quiet day on which many people pack up camp to head home. Many others visit the temple, a wooden shrine erected in honor of those who have passed on. People come throughout the week to leave messages to loved ones and departed pets or to deposit memorabilia symbolic of experiences they wish leave in the past. The energy is heavy and sad. Notes etched onto the wood or taped to the structure bear the poignant words of pain, loss and lessons learned. The experience is an emotional one, and people can be seen crying or hugging one another. On Sunday evening, in a smaller, more solemn ceremony, the temple is set on fire, and all of the messages and trinkets are offered to the fire, in anticipation of a new beginning.Monday morning it’s time to say farewell to the people who have shared the experience, people who were stranger a week ago and now are like family. Suddenly, the meaning of the greeters’ ‘welcome home’ message becomes clear — in just a week, this crazy world of play and adventures, dust storms and porta potties, so far away from the world of stress and modern conveniences, has truly become home. With a few tearful hugs and feeble attempts to shake off the playa dust, it’s time to head out in search of a shower and a good night’s sleep. It’s time to rejoin the real world, already in progress, keeping the lessons learned and the spirit of Burningman alive for another 364 days.