Burning Man conjures up all kinds of images for those who’ve never been. Naked new agers dancing till dawn. Polyamorous pursuers fueled by ecstasy. Yes, the Playa (the desert stage where the Man, the temple, and much of the art is located) is a culturally curious place, equal parts hedonistic and idealistic. But, amidst the hippies and Silicon Valley CEOs that populate this pop-up town, the common thread is an appreciation of the life-affirming nature of the artistic spirit.
This exquisite collection of art forms is one of thousands that occupies Burning Man’s participants in between the annual pilgrimage to the Playa. Just like the industrious Balinese toil away painting and constructing for their joyous village festivals, so do Burners. It’s ironic that Burning Man falls on Labor Day weekend because the amount of sweat and elbow grease that goes into creating these temporary art installations is staggering. The result is the world’s largest interactive display of art on a “lunar” landscape that gives an otherworldly flavor to the whole experience.
So, the next time someone snickers or blushes when you mention Burning Man, remind them that while sex, drugs, and all night dancing may be part of the Playa culture, there’s no more profound and profane celebration of art on the planet.
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The Discovery Channel
One of my favorite Playa pastimes is jumping on my beat-up $50 bike and riding to the far reaches of Black Rock City in all directions. This year, I even braved a ten-mile run around the fenced perimeter of BRC – quite an endeavor at 7am, after little sleep, and at 4,000 feet elevation.
Far off in the deep Playa is a tiny little movie house that’s constructed each year to play the oddest double features you can imagine (enjoyed “Hair” and “Lawrence of Arabia” one year). This year it was Joan Crawford in “The Women” meets John Wayne in “Red River.” Bucketfuls of popcorn and spirits flow throughout the evening with the truly hard core sitting in their classic theater seats until morning to experience the most impressive visual experience of the night: sunrise on the Playa.
Burning Man is all about discovery. One of my favorite discoveries this past year was a gong meditation experience where fifty of us, lying on the ground, were treated to a sound bath of bells and gongs – of all shapes and sizes – from all over the world. This ethereal event was offered daily, right after a “Sweat Your Prayers” dance-a-thon. What most people don’t know is that there are more then 2,000 free classes, workshops, and events offered each year during the Burning Man festivities, everything from Virgin Speed Dating to a Vegan Coconut Ice Cream Social to Understanding Personality Types.
There are all kinds of experiences that allow one to get naked or nearly naked at Black Rock City. There’s the Naked Bar, Manplay at the Down Low Club, and the Critical Tits bike ride. I love the Steam Baths in Nectar Village (the theme camp most dedicated to the healing arts) as, given how arid the desert is (and how rare it is for most Burners to get a real shower), standing naked in line with dozens of others to experience this lovely, make-shift steam room is quite a pleasure.
But, the highlight for me each time I return to Burning Man is an afternoon trip to the Fly Ranch geysers and hot springs less than ten miles from Black Rock City. With a half-acre pond full of 102-degree mineral water and volcanic mud, this is a major treat for one’s skin and psyche after bathing in the dust, sun, and wind that pervade the Playa. Here, my good friend Ping takes a photo of me – baking the mud in the 100-degree heat – while our friend Andrew takes a picture of her. The good news is that Fly Ranch may open up in the next year or two so and be more accessible to the public. Keep an eye on the Burning Man website for news of this, as it’s one of the most sublime and decadent experiences you can treat yourself to during your time in the high desert.
Much of one’s time at Burning Man is spent in art cars and theme camps while enjoying the luxury of time with good friends, but some of my favorite moments have happened serendipitously with new friends. My virgin year (2000), I was still licking my wounds from an eleven-year relationship that had just ended. I jumped on my bike dressed like some extra from “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” strapped on my Walkman full of Moby tunes, and meandered aimlessly out into the deep Playa.
At some point, a similarly bedazzled guy waved at me from his bike and began following my curvaceous ramble through the desert. I was crying a little. He noticed and, imitating Marcel Marceau, frowned and rubbed his eyes, then gave me a big smile and an air kiss. We continued like symbiotic twins destined for the same place for about 30 minutes, then parted with pink chiffon shimmering behind us, never to see each other again.
This year, one of the most popular Playa pop-ups was the Hug Deli where one could order a Bear Hug, a Warm and Fuzzy Hug, or a Gangsta Hug with a side order of a Tickle or a Pinch, all from a stranger who could become your best friend for the afternoon. Maybe they should try this booth at the United Nations to see if Playa diplomacy might help to create a more harmonious world.
The journey to Burning Man is like an odd reflecting pond of how we show up in life: persistent planners with meticulous checklists; community organizers expert at herding the cools cats who join their camp; those who easily meander for ten days in the temporary village of 60,000, and some who simply drive in Saturday morning; stay up all night, and then head home the next day. Most pitch a tent, others build geometric yurts, while RVs and trailers are the plushest accommodation (at this point in my Burning Man career, I wouldn’t do it any other way).
In 2012, my ritual upon arrival (I stayed 6 nights this year) is to find an elevated perch that will provide the best vantage point to survey this surreal playground. This pic was taken from inside the belly of the tall Man that will be burned. I’m facing the magnificent, Asian-inspired temple designed by architect David Best that will be burned the last night of the festival. Two years ago, my initiation was to go through a three-story macramé “birthing tube” naked, writhing and grinding myself to the ground while a small crowd applauded their approval of my arrival.
Burning Man is simultaneously simple and complex. It’s an adult summer camp, free and easy, immersive and discovery-filled, a place where both time and money are imaginary figments. And, yet, the sheer organization necessary to create this ethereal, utopian village – and its stunning art and architecture – is awe-inspiring. Let the joyride being….
There are myriad reasons I have a fetish for festivals, but one of the most resonant is the tribal nature of “collective effervescence.” When you are surrounded by like-minded humans feeling a common spirit, it’s easy to “lose yourself” in the best sense. And, with the starlit sky, the full moon (this year), and the fireworks that accompany the feverish pitch that leads up to the burning of the Man, the sense of connection with one’s fellow homo sapiens is, indeed, quite primal. Cavemen may not have burned an effigy, but I bet they celebrated big-time once they discovered how to create fire.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.” I know quite a few people who met the love of their life on the night of the Saturday burn.
This photo makes me grin because it reminds me of Disneyland’s Electric Light Parade. I was born just a few miles from the Magic Kingdom and I dare say that Burning Man is to adults what Disneyland is to kids. It’s our “grown-up” version Fantasyland. I just wonder what Walt would say if he experienced the spectacle of Black Rock City.
Twenty-five years ago, in my mid-twenties, I created a rock ‘n roll hotel out of a notorious, inner city, pay-by-the-hour motel. I called it The Phoenix after San Francisco’s official city bird – a mythological metaphor for the city that rose from its own ashes after the 1906 earthquake and fire. I was hoping this name would foreshadow the renaissance of a formerly hostile hostel…it worked.
Ever become transfixed when staring at a candle or a campfire? Multiply that by tens of thousands of people and flames shooting hundreds of feet in the air and you can only imagine the sense of awe that hangs over this scene. The Man is ablaze and then, after struggling to stay solid, tumbles to the ground like a proud prize fighter who should have hung up his gloves long ago.
Fire is perhaps the most transformative of elements. Many of us go to this festival annually as a pilgrimage to torch what needs to be shed in our lives, which allows new, fertile shoots to sprout. I find great solace in this communal experience and it gives me great hope that we, as a society, can burn and bury our baggage – that which no longer serves us – and allow fresh ideas, ways of living, and new heroes to emerge.