Just over a year ago I traveled deep into the desert to attend Burning Man for the first time. An experience that was so amazing it has taken me a very long time to get my thoughts in order and write something. Even then, I know that anything I write here will never do justice to the full spectacle that is “the Burn”.
So, rather than try to pen anything too profound, I have decided to simply share four of my most memorable Burning Man stories, along with some photos. Hopefully, for those who have never been, this will give a tiny inkling – the smallest taste, imperfect as it may be – of what Burning Man is all about. And for those of you who have been, I hope these little vignettes of mine bring back fond memories of your own, and make you smile.
But first, a little background info, for those not in the know.
Burning Man is an event that happens annually, for about two weeks around the end of August. It began in 1986 as a small gathering of a few mates on a beach in San Francisco, although in the 32 years since it has shifted location, to the Black Rock Desert, in the US state of Nevada, about 100 miles northeast of Reno. This is pretty much the same as saying Burning Man happens in The Middle of Fucking Nowhere, USA.
Nonetheless, it has also grown somewhat over the years, and is now a pretty big event. Specifically, 80,000 people from all over the world find their way there, and the Burning Man site (known as “the playa”) is huge, about 10 miles from end to end. So it is less a gathering than it is a whole city which spontaneously emerges from out of the dust, only to disappear completely two weeks later.
Many people think of Burning Man as being a “festival”, which is wrong because at Burning Man there are no performances to speak of, no program of events, schedules, or headline acts. It is also not run for profit. Rather, Burning Man is best understood as being a community of like-minded folks, who gather together once a year to create a temporary place where anything is possible, and where for a short time just about anything goes.
All guided by 10 core principles – the Burning Man credo if you will – that encompasses some pretty lofty and fascinating ideals. Including:
- Radical inclusion – everyone is welcome at Burning Man, and everyone is free to be. So if you want to get about buck naked, pretend to be a lizard, or fulfill a lifelong fantasy of dressing as a Japanese samurai (ahem), that’s your prerogative. If you want to sleep until 5pm and then host a late night backgammon tournament in a tent that resembles a scene from Aladdin, go for it. And if you want to do yoga in the morning, dance salsa in the afternoon, and then attend an all-night orgy, that’s perfectly fine too. Chances are that no matter what it is you want to be or do, there will be a bunch of other folks interested in being and doing exactly the same thing.
- Gifting and anti-consumerism – there is no money in use anywhere in Burning Man, and the whole place runs on what is called a gifting economy, a kind of semi-socialist ideal along the lines of “I give whatever I have to give, and in return, the community will provide whatever it is I may need”. No brands are allowed at Burning Man, no sponsorship and no advertising of any sort. So basically, there is a venue, public latrines, and a place to get ice. But apart from that, it is all up to you, which is pretty extreme. And given the world we ordinarily live in, being in Black Rock City (as the Burning Man city is officially referred to) takes a while to get used to. Although once you do, it is oddly, addictively liberating.
- Self-reliance and leaving no trace – you need to bring with you to Burning Man everything you might need during your stay – food, clothes, water, and shelter. There are no stores, so apart from what you bring with you, gifting is the only way to obtain whatever you may need. Then, once you go, you should leave behind no trace. And by that, I mean absolutely nothing – not the tiniest scrap of paper, smallest bit of glitter, or teensiest drop of waste water. Once you exit the desert, it should be like you were never there.
- Self-expression and participation – at Burning Man, everyone is assumed to have something worthwhile to contribute, and giving over your unique gifts and talents for the enjoyment of all is both encouraged and expected. “Burners” take this to heart, and at any given moment of the day or night there are parties, events, meetings, group activities, performances – an endless assortment of “things to do and see”, that you are always welcome to participate in.
And finally, the obvious background question: why is it called Burning Man? Well, way back in 1986, the two founders of Burning Man set an effigy of a man alight to signal the end of their little gathering on the beach. A tradition that has endured, although nowadays the grand finale, known as “Burn Night”, is a bit more than a modest burning of an effigy. Rather, it is the mother of all bonfires, where hundreds of art works and installations are set alight so that it seems a bit like the whole desert is on fire. All while 80,000 people gather around to watch, to dance, to party, and to generally go completely nuts.
That’s all clear? Great – time for a few real-life Burning Man stories.
At its core, Burning Man is about art. The original founders were all artists, and part of the early conception of Burning Man was to have a place where creative expression was given unfettered free reign. Roll forward to the Burning Man of today, where this artistic heritage means that literally hundreds of astonishing art works and interactive sculptures are scattered randomly throughout the desert, creating a giant, 100% free open-air gallery that is truly astonishing in terms of the range of art on display.
Often artists (or collectives of artists) will toil for months beforehand to create and then install their works. Some are also dramatically mounted on top of an assortment of moving vehicles (referred to as “art cars” or “mutant vehicles”), then set loose to roam around the desert at large. And many of the art works are made entirely of wood, to get torched on the final night of Burning Man. The idea being that they will exist only as a thing of beauty in the moment, and once Burning Man concludes they will be gone forever.
For me, this abundance of art was a real highlight at Burning Man, and my favorite time of day was between about 8.30am and 10.30am. Then, while the majority of folks would be fast asleep (most having only got to bed after sunrise), I’d set an alarm, wake up, hop on my bicycle (bikes are the main mode of transport around Burning Man), and ride off into the desert.
My aim was always to first find a coffee, although quite a few people operated coffee stalls as their gift to the community, so this was never especially hard, and the coffee always came with a chat, and usually a few hugs as well. Then, once suitably caffeinated, I’d try to see as much of the art as possible while the temperature was still cool, and also before the afternoon sandstorms blew in (recall: Burning Man is staged in a desert, beset most afternoons by ferocious winds that create blizzards of sand).
And on these morning art jaunts, I saw some of the most incredible works of art imaginable. Some were big, some were small, but all were jaw-dropping and moving. Things like a strange bathtub with lamps, standing on a tiled floor alone in the desert. Or a giant jellyfish made of stained glass that I was able to climb inside of. Or a massive pink flamingo; an equally massive wooden owl; an illuminated mushroom sprouting from out of the desert floor; a four-story high tower covered in thousands of hand-made acrylic flowers.
Often, I’d also get to chat to the artists, many of whom could be found hanging around their art works. It was all so accessible, and the raw creativity on display was staggering. But most of all, the fact that all this extraordinary art was there as a simple act of love – a selfless gift from the various artists to the Burning Man community – was both inspiring, and humbling.
Anyway, while riding around exploring art on my fifth morning at Burning Man, I passed a young girl who had set up a lemonade stand at the side of the path – her gift to the community. She could not have been older than 12 (there aren’t many kids at Burning Man – it is largely an adults type thing, but there are some parents who bring their kids along, and one area of Burning Man is even designated specifically for families).
As I biked past the girl called out to me: “Would you like some lemonade?”
It was getting quite hot, so I stopped my bike, shrugged off the dust, and sat down alongside of the lemonade stand. There was not a soul around, just me and the young girl. She poured me a cup of delicious, icy cold lemonade, which I sipped it slowly.
“Where are your parents?” I asked her.
She pointed to the tent behind her. “Still asleep.”
All of which, outside of Burning Man, would have probably seemed wrong and marginally horrifying. I mean, imagine leaving your young child unattended to work a lemonade stall and chat to random strangers on the side of the road? But in the safe inclusivity of the Burning Man community, there was nothing strange about this scenario at all.
“Do you like art?” the girl (whose name was Mindy) asked me abruptly.
I nodded, and Mindy reached under her lemonade stall and pulled out some large sheets of paper, and a box of colored crayons.
“Would you like to draw with me?” she said. I nodded again.
Almost an hour later, Mindy’s father woke up. As soon as he came out of the tent I immediately felt kind of weird. It suddenly dawned on me that I – a grown-up, adult man – had been “hanging out” with his kid unsupervised, which felt completely inappropriate. I began stammering a sort of apology to him – “I’m sorry, I stopped for some lemonade and we just got drawing and time must have flown by,” and hurriedly made to get up and leave.
But Mindy’s dad smiled and said I should stay, keep drawing, and have some more lemonade. He seemed not at all concerned by my presence, and in fact seemed pretty happy that someone had been looking out for Mindy while he slept.
“We’re all family at Burning Man,” he said, perhaps sensing my discomfort. “And I know she is always safe here. That is why we come back every year, and bring our kids. It is like what the world was once upon a time when we all lived in loving, supportive communities. When the world was still a village, and when we were all responsible for each other, and when kids were able to just be, with everyone in the village.”
Then he paused, thought a second, and continued. “Actually, it’s more than that. Burning Man is like an alternate reality. A vision of what we wish the world could become.”
He looked down at our drawings. Mindy and I had created a whole series of fantastical, multi-colored abstract images on a dozen large sheets of paper. Dad disappeared inside of the tent and emerged with some tape and string, which we used to join the sheets together and then hang them across the top of the lemonade stall. When we were done, Mindy, her dad and I stood back and admired our handiwork. Mindy clapped, and her dad patted me on the back.
I couldn’t help but marvel at what had just happened. A morning bike ride into the desert to look at art had led to a cup of lemonade and a drawing session with a young girl, in which we had created our very own work of art. In a world that was safe, filled with love, and brimming with endless possibility.
A quintessentially Burning Man experience, if ever there was one.
During the day Burning Man is about art, exploring the playa, activities, avoiding dust storms, and sleeping. But at night, the playa transforms into a spectacular sea of lit-up installations that stretch for miles, with DJs, pop-up dance “clubs”, and roaming art cars everywhere. The scale of it is beyond mind-boggling – a full-on assault of the senses – and the only way to take it in is to just throw oneself into the experience and go with the flow.
So a typical night at Burning Man involved biking around at random with a group of friends, maybe following an art car for a bit, then stopping for a while at whichever party most grabbed our attention, before moving on. Everyone else was doing the same thing, and everyone was open and friendly, so even if I got completely lost I was never alone.
All of which explained how at about 3am one morning I found myself at a random dance party in the “deep playa” (the name for the area of Burning Man that is far from where people camp, and so where all the loudest and craziest stuff tends to happen). Earlier I had got separated from my friends, so I was alone. But the music was very much the kind of trashy remixed teeny-bopper stuff I (most embarrassingly) like. So I had stopped for a bit of people watching, and perhaps a little bit of a guilty boogie.
After about twenty minutes I was readying to leave when the music switched and a new DJ began playing a set of Latino-inspired electronic dance music. Suddenly, someone grabbed my hand, and before I knew what was happening I found myself being dragged into the heart of the party by a complete stranger – a tall, dark, statuesque lady in a bright red flamenco dress.
“Excuse me, do I know you?” I asked.
“No, I am Maria, from Argentina!” she shouted over the thumping music.
“Um, so why am I here with you?” was my next question.
She smiled. “You look South American, so I thought you’d want to tango!”
Now, as with the lemonade girl, anywhere else in the world this turn of events might have seemed strange. But at Burning Man it was totally within the bounds of normal. And, if ever I was going to try my hand at tango, there would never be a better time. That said, I am not a great dancer at the best of times, so I somewhat sheepishly told Maria that despite my darkish appearance I was far from South American – actually Israeli-Australian, with absolutely zero tango abilities to speak of.
At which point Maria signaled to someone nearby – a bloke who was engaged with a woman in what had to be the most full-on erotic tango-like routine I had ever seen. The guy broke from his dance, sashayed over, and introduced himself as Matias. Also from Argentina, and kind of like, well, Maria’s husband.
Maria explained the situation to Matias, he nodded sympathetically, and next thing I knew, at 3am in the depths of the Black Rock Desert, I had become the sole student at an impromptu techno-tango lesson. I found myself being passed back and forth like a toy doll between Maria, Matias, and at least half a dozen other fairly proficient tango dancers, who came from all over South America. Each one of whom took great pleasure in trying to teach me the finer points of this most seductive of dances.
By the time the sun was rising, I had figured out a few of the steps, and much to my surprise discovered I was not a complete incompetent. I had also laughed non-stop for three hours, single-handedly advanced the cause of Australian-Argentinian diplomatic relations, and made a whole bunch of new friends.
But most of all, I felt elated, having been swept up completely into the immediacy of the moment. And which, after all, is exactly what is meant to happen at Burning Man, if only you’ll let it.
In a remote corner of Burning Man, at midnight each night, a pair of magicians from Las Vegas put on a magic show – their gift to the community. Specifically, it was a close magic show, where without any props or fancy gizmos the magicians made amazing things happen, right in front of the audience’s noses.
For the finale of the show, a magician handed a guy in the audience a deck of cards, then invited him to shuffle it, pick out a card (he chose an Eight of Diamonds), show it to the audience, place the card back in the deck, reshuffle the cards, and then place the shuffled deck face-down on his upturned palm. The magician stared at the cards for a few seconds, clapped his hands over the top of them, and then told the guy to turn over the top card. It was of course the Eight of Diamonds. A pretty neat trick given that the magician had not touched the cards at all, and it all happened right in front of me.
I was so impressed I made sure to return the next three nights in a row, determined to figure out how the magician did the trick. And each night, it was the same trick and the same reality-defying result (although not the Eight of Diamonds each night – that would have been too convenient!).
After three nights, I was no closer to figuring it out, and on the fourth night the magician recognized me and invited me to be the shuffler and holder of the cards. I went through the motions and when the magician clapped his hands the top card was, no surprise, the card I had picked.
But here’s the thing. The whole time I had been staring so closely at the deck of cards on my palm – trying to figure out what sleight of hand was involved – I was completely unaware that an audience had built up. But as soon as I flipped the top card over I heard applause all around me, and I suddenly became aware of people pushing into me from all sides.
At which point I looked up, and realized that three young women – I think they were probably mid 20s – were basically leaning over my shoulders, intently watching the trick. They were all incredibly beautiful, very tall, suntanned, and strikingly blonde. Their faces were painted with glitter. Oh, and they were also all stark naked, wearing not one stitch of clothing apart from their socks and boots.
I must have looked pretty startled (I mean, the young ladies’ boobs were quite literally pressing into me), because the magician smiled and said with a little wink: “Now that’s some real magic, hey?” Everyone laughed, including the three naked ladies.
And then they silently disappeared back into the desert, leaving me with a giant smile and a memory that will last a lifetime. Although I still don’t know how the damned trick works.
Sunrise at the Tree
Of all the art installations at Burning Man, by far my favorite was one called the Tree of Ténéré. It had been created by a group of artists and engineers inspired by a tree in the middle of the Sahara Desert that, until it was destroyed in 1973, was considered a landmark for travelers, and often described as the “most isolated tree in the world”.
So “the Tree” at Burning Man was similar – a massive structure standing alone in the middle of the desert, visible from miles away, built of fiberglass and hand-painted resin so as to look entirely life-like. It was also climbable, just like a real tree.
But, unlike a real tree, 175,000 LED lights were embedded in the Tree’s 25,000 custom-made leaves. And the whole thing was controlled by some pretty nifty interactive software, with motion and heat sensors that allowed for the Tree to be lit up at night, and then for mesmerizing crowd-driven effects to be created out of the lights. So depending on the sound and movement of the crowds around the Tree, the colors, patterns and shapes of the lights would shift and change.
All of which made the Tree of Ténéré, as the artists who created it described their work, “the largest interactive canvas ever created.” But that is a complete understatement because honestly, it was one of the most dazzling things I have ever had the privilege of seeing, in all of my travels.
The base of the Tree quickly became my “go-to place” at Burning Man – I think I visited there more than fifteen times over the course of a week. One morning I did a yoga session with a group of dusty strangers in its shade; one afternoon, I sat beneath it listening to a lone pianist tinkling the ivories (how he had managed to get a piano into the middle of the desert remains a mystery to me). And one evening, I lay under the Tree for an hour, watching the sun slowly set as a full orchestra played Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. It was so beautiful I almost wanted to cry.
However, my favorite Tree of Ténéré moment – and possibly my favorite moment from all of Burning Man – came early one morning, as the sun was rising over the desert.
Many of the “signature” art cars at Burning Man are mounted with huge sound and light systems, and some of the biggest DJs in the world often volunteer to play sets on these art cars – that’s their gift to the playa. At night these art cars therefore become a bit like mobile nightclubs – wherever they go, a massive dance party erupts around them.
Anyway, at about 3am one morning I had once again become separated from my group of friends, and with nothing better to do I made my way to the Tree of Ténéré solo. Only to discover that two of the largest, most famous art cars of Burning Man – known as Mayan Warrior and RoboHeart – had parked at the base of the Tree, linked up their sound systems, and one mother of a party was underway. About 1,000 people were dancing and stomping around in the dust, to a deafening electronic soundtrack while lasers strobed the sky.
It was, if truth be told, a bit overwhelming, and I was inclined to leave when, quite accidentally, I ran into a friend from Australia. I mean, what are the odds? But Burning Man tends to do that – even though phones don’t work well on the playa and the place is huge, you always seem to bump into the right people at the right moment.
My friend from Australia was there with a couple of friends of hers from San Francisco and they insisted I join their group. So I did, and we danced and laughed together for the next few hours, until the sun began to come up above the horizon. At which point everyone turned in unison to greet the rising sun.
Now, a Burning Man tradition is that you leave your “real world” name behind, and adopt a new name for the duration of Burning Man – your “playa name”, which is meant to mean something specific to you. Although you don’t get to choose your playa name, it must be given to you, the concept being that the “right name” with the right meaning will eventually find you.
Anyway, in my case a few names had already been suggested, although none had stuck. But standing under the pulsating lights of the Tree of Ténéré early that morning, I was telling one of my new friends about my traveling lifestyle and the fact that I wrote this blog. To which he replied: “Well, you’re a regular Carmen San Diego, aren’t you?” And that was it – my playa name had found me, just as the sun crested the horizon.
So picture the scene. Standing in front of me was a man wearing nothing but a ballet tutu, and another man in a full-body animal onesie. Alongside them was another bloke, standing on his own, playing a trumpet for no apparent reason. Meanwhile I, a.k.a Carmen San Diego, was standing quite still, next to a new friend – Shiny Object – and together we watched the sun rise. In the background music was thumping, and a thousand people danced. And all of this was happening in the protective shade of a giant, artificial tree, under a canvas of twinkling lights.
It was, really, a moment that transcended all sense of logic, in a place where there were no rules or boundaries, and where the only limit was the limit of human imagination itself. I was in a bubble of unconstrained love and beauty, where everything was different and wonderful, and where complete strangers could instantly become family.
And, as I so often found myself doing at Burning Man, I looked around and gasped out loud at the sheer magic of it all. At the sense of wonder I felt that such a place could even exist, and that I should have been so lucky as to be able to experience it for myself.
So there you have them – four short stories from my time at Burning Man. I have dozens more I could tell, and they are all equally special, but you get the point. And really, you can’t read about Burning Man, you have to experience it.
So if you ever have a chance, step outside of the world you know, put aside your prejudices and expectations, and find your way to Black Rock City.
It will blow your mind, guaranteed.