"San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of... but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant... There was madness in any direction, at any hour... There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning... Our energy would simply prevail." --Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Evolution of an outfit: San Francisco'ed up for the chilly morning, playa'ed down for the warm afternoon, and Burning Man'ed out for the night. The only time I've ever felt self-conscious at Burning Man was in 2008 when I arrived on the playa in street clothes. I vowed never to do that again.
Burning Man is not a festival, it's not a concert, it's not a scripted event. No number of Lollapaloozas or Coachellas will give you the vaguest notion of what Burning Man is really all about. At it's most basic, it is camping in an extremely harsh environment and an incredibly free atmosphere where literally anything can happen. At it's most complex, it's a profoundly life-changing experience that alters your sense of human interactions and expression. In fact, I'd argue that if you attended Burning Man and your life wasn't changed, you somehow did it wrong.
Our camp starts to take shape.
Burning Man is really more of a culture than anything else; it's a culture that values self-expression, generosity, community, art, and self-reliance. Imagine this: you're pedaling along on your bike on a city street somewhere. A dirty, unshaven, and quite possibly drunk man steps out of his house to offer you some wine. He's wearing a vaguely vaudevillian outfit and maybe a threadbare top hat. It's 10 am. What would you do?
I can tell you what I'd do, if I were in the default world; I'd put on my stony, city face and ride right by, hoping he didn't leap out and accost me. But in the Burning Man world I stopped, said hello and yes, I'd love some wine. And he gave me the whole bottle. We chatted cordially for a few minutes, and then he excused himself so that he could go help his campmates clean up. At Burning Man you have to be prepared to throw away all your jaded, mistrustful city ways and accept friendliness and open-hearted sharing as if it's the most natural thing in the world. And when you think about it, it should be the most natural thing in the world.
A great way to keep your tent safe from the powerful desert wind: put it inside a steel-frame carport, anchored to the ground with long rebar stakes. The "floor" is made of long strips of burlap.
The luxurious common area we set up with our campmates: kitchen on the right, living area on the left. This was also constructed out of carports.
You might be wondering what people do all day (and all night, because the activity is truly nonstop) at Burning Man, and there's really no simple answer to that question. It's just like any other city in that there are as many things to do as there are interests to be pursued. Burning Man can be quiet and serene; you might go get a massage or learn how to do a craft, you might join a meditation group or construct a memorial to a loved one at the Temple, you might explore the art installations in the deep playa or just veg out in your camp during a windstorm. But it can also be incredibly high energy, where you might choose to dance all night, go roller skating, see live music, or watch a parade of hundreds of naked men. It is, in essence, whatever you want it to be, and many, many things you never expected.
This house drove by as we were setting up camp. Yep, you read that right.
They were serving up margaritas a few camps down from us, using a chainsaw-driven blender.
There's also a lot of pure silliness and light-hearted fun at Burning Man too, and everyone is encouraged to participate in some way. Our campmates Noah and Jeannie built an adult-sized Sit 'n Spin that we put out front for passersby to enjoy; one camp offered free Jewish motherly advice, and another hosted a Sharpie tattoo convention. One camp gave out thousands of pee funnels so that ladies don't need to hover in the porta-potties, another had naked hula-hooping, one had a pancake pajama party and another had a sock monkey workshop. The entire week is comprised of things that are created, built, coordinated, and maintained by participants. No one is paid for their contributions to Burning Man, and no money is ever exchanged for the services, entertainment or refreshment that is offered. The events that are produced, the art that is created, the music that is performed, the food and drinks that are served are all contributed by the participants and are given for free, for the simple joy of making other people happy.
The mutant vehicles offer an alternative to biking or walking around the 7-square mile city (no other cars are allowed to drive around Burning Man). Most have sound systems and are like mobile dance clubs.
This one meowed and made purring sounds.
Many of the mutant vehicles are best appreciated when viewed at night, when the playa is transformed into a completely different world. This butterfly car had an ethereal glow that was truly magical after dark.
The one thing that cannot be conveyed in any photos of Burning Man is the sound. The entire playa is a cacophony of sounds that pulsate nonstop night and day. Sitting in camp you'll hear music and voices coming from various campsites nearby, which might be temporarily drowned out by the passing of a huge mutant vehicle blasting old school country or a Lady Gaga-Culture Club mash-up. You might be pedaling along the playa and hear baroque classical music streaming from Center Camp, or perhaps you'll pass an art installation that sequences light or fire with different sounds.
And then there's the fire. Many, many things on the playa are fashioned with fire, from stationary art pieces to mutant vehicles. So you might be standing next to say, a giant bicycle that looks like a dragon, when suddenly it flings its head back, opens its toothy mouth and shoots forth a huge fountain of flame. And though the fire itself is impressive, nothing can compare to experiencing not only the sight but also the heat and the sound; the roaring, hissing sound of a powerful gas-fueled inferno erupting right next to you.
Yep, the giant flame-spewing dragon bike was actually real.
I have two more installations planned for my Burning Man report, in which I'll get to the main attractions: the fashion and the art. Stay tuned for more pictures from the playa! And if you were there this year, be sure to stop by and share your stories and impressions.