A Sophomore Year Burner’s Perspective on Burning Man

As a species, we crave ritual.

I just returned from Burning Man, my second trip in as many years to the famed arts and music festival based in the Black Rock Desert of northern Nevada. I’ve got some thoughts to share, but before I launch into them, I want to offer some …

Caveats and Concessions

To date, I’ve held off from writing about Burning Man because there’s already a vast body of literature, blogging and commentary about the subject, the majority of which will offer a far more knowledgable perspective on the event than mine. I’ve only been twice, so how can my thoughts compare to an old pro who’s been a dozen times? Or someone who’s been going since the events’s impromptu inception back in 1986?

They can’t, but all the same, I’ll offer my thoughts as a newcomer who dove into the festivities his first year before returning for a second year that was more challenging on virtually every level. I also offer this blog entry also as a invitation to anyone who’s curious about the event but who hasn’t yet mustered the courage (or the El-wire) to go, and I offer it as an on-the-ground guide to anyone who’s merely curious. (A high school classmate of mine made an informal request for such a write-up. I’m happy to oblige.)

Also, be aware that I plan to share some of my own personal misgivings about the event. I offer these thoughts from a place of love and respect. If there’s one thing I’ve gathered from combing through the vibrant array of blogs that discuss Burning Man, is that there’s no single “correct” perspective on the burn. (More on that later.)

So let’s get back to my lede:

As a Species, We Crave Ritual

Black Rock City, the temporary metropolis that houses Burning Man, is one of the most wholesome and deeply religious places in America.

As I write this piece, I’ll describe some misconceptions and preconceived notions about Burning Man that I think are off-base. I suspect I’ll unwittingly describe a few straw men along the way, but I’m going to hazard to guess that a great many non-burners (or anyone dubious of the enterprise) see Burning Man as a loopy free-for-all; a bacchanal dedicated to sex, drugs and a whole lot of electronic dance music; or as a weeklong middle-finger extended at all conservatives, red-staters and squares.

To be sure, it can be all of those things, but what struck me most about Burning Man, especially during my initial hours on the Playa (the Black Rock Desert’s burner nickname), was how unrelentingly wholesome it was. I’m not kidding — it’s like the neighborhood from Leave it to Beaver, but with 95% less clothing, 100% more tutus, and situated on the surface of the moon (but with slightly more oxygen). In Black Rock City, people wave to each other. They say hello. They hold conversations with strangers in a way that I’ve rarely seen outside the south. (Though to be fair, that observation is partly a product of my own personal prejudices, lingering nostalgia, and limited life-experience. In other news, I find the Oxford comma to be far more useful than I did in journalism school.)

Burning Man is also an experience built almost entirely around ritual, I’d submit. On arrival, first-timers to the Playa (“virgins,” natch) are asked to ring a bell and roll around in the dust. But even repeat visitors can indulge in ritual on entrance. Everyone who passes through the gates are met by volunteers who offer them a hug and a warm greeting — “welcome home,” a salutation that bears the slightest, affectionate whiff of cultiness and intersects with one of my personal misgivings about the experience. (More on that later.)

Ritual permeates the proceeding week. A half-inch guidebook outlines the hundreds of events that unfold at theme camps and villages around the Playa. The events include workshops on fellatio and cunnilingus, lectures on swinging and polyamory, classes on how to make the perfect pastie, as well as scores of other, goofier events that have no bearing on the nether-regions, including scores of kid-friendly events. (Side note: Burning Man is great for kids. One of the largest theme villages is Kidsville, which offers parents safe sanctuary for their children, as well as a zillion trampolines.)

During my two visits to the Playa, I’ve made it to woefully few of these daytime events, mainly because I’m just trying to stay alive during the oppressive heat. But I’ve had the pleasure to provide a gifting service both years I’ve gone. For me, these gifting events felt more like ritual than anything else I did or saw on the Playa; yes, even more than the myriad burns that punctuated the event’s final days.

(Note: Earlier, I described BRC as one of the most religious places in America. I meant what I said, and I’ll come back to that point later.)

This brings me to:

Gifting, Radical Candor and Knowing Someone’s Essence

Remember when I said that Burning Man was wholesome? Well, one of its central tenets is gifting. Black Rock City runs on a gifting economy, where everyone comes prepared to spend the week giving, with no expectation of reciprocation. Indeed, the idea of bartering is frowned upon. It takes awhile to get used to.

My Burning Man camp, Identi-T Farm, has been around for a number of years in one form or another. My lovely partner, Lauren Rock, ushered me into the fold in 2012. The vast majority of Playa camps and villages offer some kind of gift. For many years, ID-Farm only gifted Playa names. One of the pleasures of both my visits to Burning Man has been the gifting of Playa names. Let me explain:

Although it’s not a requirement, most burners assume a playful alias while on-Playa. The names all have a certain nutty-soaring-magical quality: Caretaker, Titan, Polar Bear, Megatron, Silverback, Spice Boy. Although I’ve been twice, I’ve yet to take on a Playa name. I’ve avoided it partially because a good one simply didn’t bubble up from the ether. (During my first days on the Playa last year, I heard no less than five triumphant suggestions of “Palindrome!” for my Playa name. I might’ve rolled with it if I hadn’t heard the “Bob is a Palindrome” joke 897,000 times since first grade.) But mostly I’ve resisted a Playa name because I didn’t really want one. (I did receive an informal one this past year while competing in the Mr. Pink Gym weightlifting competition: “Playa Bob.” Great. Perfect. That’s enough Playa name for me.)

In 2013, Identi-T Farm joined with two other camps to form a larger village, while also revising its gifting mandate. We offered a variety of concerige-style gifts throughout the week — foot-washing, massages — and I volunteered to give out Playa names, mainly because I couldn’t think of anything else to do. (Overall, I felt like I didn’t contribute quite enough to my camp this year, but that’s another discussion.) In 2012, I assisted a veteran Playa-namer, who provided me with a rough framework for how to go about the process. In 2013, I took on a more leading role.

This brings me to one of my personal misgivings, not only with Burning Man, but with — for lack of a better word — groovy counterculture in general. I hesitate to use the word “hippie” because it’s so intractably associated with Baby Boomers, plus the scope of the counterculture I’m describing spans generations and extends far beyond the borders of Black Rock City.

Here’s my misgiving: One notion I’ve encountered is the idea that you can “know” someone — that you can grasp the fundamental nature of their personal essence — in only a short while. I think this idea is bunk, and that lends an undercurrent of irony to the joy I took in giving out Playa names this past year. But before I talk about naming, let me engage with the idea of “knowing” someone right after meeting them.

I first encountered this idea in college. I was a journalism student who did a lot of theater back in those days, and quite a few theater types thought they “knew” me, even though their data set was the bumbling behavior of a skittish college freshman. Over the years, I’ve run into this perspective from time to time in the form of people who felt like they “knew” me or my friends after only a short while. And come to think of it, counterculture types have no monopoly on this weird idea. It’s pervasive and pernicious.

I submit this as an axiom: It’s impossible to know someone right after meeting them. Hell, most of my buddies continue to surprise me — and therefore evade being “known” — even after more than a decade of friendship.

So how on earth (or the Playa) could I presume to give out Playa names without really knowing any of the people who visit our camp? Well, I actively avoided making that presumption, while also keeping a skeptical eye on the foolhardy assumption that anyone has to really “know” anyone to give them a Playa name. (Note: I don’t presume to have arrived at an end-of-knowledge level of expertise in the arena of Playa naming. I also got a lot of help from my fellow campers.)

That said, giving out Playa names was one of the most emotionally fulfilling, joyous and flat-out holy things I’ve ever had the privilege to do. And again, the naming procedure itself was suffused with ritual. Burners come into these events ready for anything. They arrive fully surrendered and ready to unburden themselves of pain, past and present.

The word “radical” pops up a lot in the Burning Man ethos, deployed in its purest, most classical sense: extreme, far-reaching, complete. (Two primary Burner tenets are radical inclusion and radical self-expression.) When people came in to be named, they engaged in radical candor. In order to divine a Playa name, I asked a few basic questions to kick-start a conversation. One of my (seemingly harmless) questions unleashed the proverbial floodgates for one young woman. I felt bad, but she quickly assured me that she was delighted to purge some of her pain. Wow. She liked her eventual Playa name, too.

The rest of the naming went well, even though many burners proved difficult to name. Again, I don’t think anyone has to “know” anyone to offer them a proper Playa name, but at the very least, I wanted to generate their name from a workable pool of facts and imagery. Some burners only seemed willing or capable to talk about their significant others. Others couldn’t seem to conjure answers to my initial questions. (Don’t worry, I asked other questions.) My naming partners and I kept some people around for more than an hour in an effort to unearth a good name. Eventually, another veteran namer, Daniel Franco, tapped me out for the afternoon. Phew! I was bushed.

Again, ritual suffused the proceedings, as it does everything at Burning Man, I’d submit. Laypeople who’ve yet to visit the Playa have no doubt heard about the extreme weather conditions. Rest assured, the weather’s no joke. The days were blazing, although the nights were much warmer this year. There’s also the alkaline dust, the ages-old product of a dried-out lakebed, that covers everything and clogs your nose and lungs. Altogether, the mere act of being at Burning Man lowers your defenses and opens your receptors. I’ve never been on a visionquest, but I suspect that similar physical challenges accompany one.

There’s also the matter of Black Rock City being one of the most religious places in America. Here’s what I mean:

The Power of the Temple

While I was researching my first trip to Burning Man, I had a look at the map of Black Rock City. I was astonished to discover a marvel of urban planning that rivals Washington D.C. The roads are laid out in a series of nested half-circles, all radiating around — and pointing to — the titular man, who rises from the center of all those nested circles.

But that’s not the only primary structure. Sitting at the top of this imaginary circle is Black Rock City’s temple. Like the man, the temple assumes a different shape every year, based on the annual artistic theme. (The 2012 theme was “Fertility 2.0.” 2013 was “Cargo Cult.”) My own religious feelings vacillate between areligious and irreligious, but I also harbor a longstanding fascination with religion, having once been a deeply religious kid. In his book A New Christianity for a New World, the liberal theologian John Shelby Spong discusses the importance of ritual at length, explaining why he continues to hold mass and give communion even after the sea-change his beliefs underwent as he assimilated modern ideas and rational thought into his worldview. I’m wildly paraphrasing, but the general idea is that even though Bishop Spong doesn’t believe in the literal meaning of Christian rituals, he still sees them as a vital part of the human experience. I agree, with some reservations.

I imagine that Burning Man can seem like a pagan utopia to outsiders, defiantly free of the three Abrahamic faiths, but it isn’t. Don’t get me wrong — there’s a great deal of Gaia-worship (and related worship) that happens there, but it’s impossible to look at its current incarnation without seeing its roots in the world’s greatest religions. It involves an actual pilgrimage where a church awaits, and it’s packed with ritual from bow to stern. I don’t mean to be overly reductive, but for someone with my beliefs (or lack thereof), Burning Man sometimes feels one step more religious than I personally care for.

That said, my visits to the temples of 2012 and 2013 have been deeply moving. Anyone who’s ever browsed through a Burning Man photo gallery and been shocked at the rampant public nudity and all-night ragers would likely be just as shocked to visit the temple. By week’s end, the temple is covered with handwritten confessions, apologies, life-stories, and heartfelt missives to loved ones, living and dead. Photos of the dead, human and animal, cover every exposed beam and strut. Candles flicker from every corner. Burners meditate, cuddle and cry. It’s a monument to ritual, and like the man, it all burns down at the end of the week.

I’ll say that again: At the end of the week. Burning Man runs from Monday to Monday, typically the last week of August. The man burns Saturday night, and hoo-boy, is that ever a big party. (I had great seats both years.) But the temple burns Sunday night, in a lengthy ritual that stands in perfect contrast with the mayhem of the man burn. Most everyone sits in silence and watches the flames. You can hear the wood crackle and buckle as it disintegrates. An occasional hymn rises up from the ranks of solemnity.

It’s a magical place, which brings me to my next point. An anecdote, really:

A Perfect 24 Hours

Although my first burn was a blast, I missed out on a lot of stuff I wanted to do. One of Burning Man’s primary appeals for me is the magical way it deposits beauty into desolation. You can ride out into barren desert and happen upon artwork, art-cars and other wonders. Lauren and I made a point of seeing a sunrise at the temple this year, and that simple choice led off a wonderful 24 hours. Here’s how it broke down:

4 a.m.

Alarm goes off. We stagger around, putting on our nighttime gear and lights.

4:30 a.m.

Still dark outside. We ride around the central Playa, checking out the artwork. We buzz by the man, who stands atop a flying saucer in conjunction with the Cargo Cult theme.

5 a.m.

We’re at the temple. It’s my first time to the temple this year. It’s impossible to look at any of the inscriptions without getting misty. (That’s also a product of being completely fried after a week on the Playa, I’d suspect.)

5:30-ish a.m.

The sun starts to rise. We bump into a friend.

6 a.m.

The sun has risen. We run into even more of our friends. They’ve all gathered around our village’s art car, the famed Giant Cock Car — a giant chicken that rolls around the Playa, blasting EDM interspersed with squawks and clucks. Our friends have set up a griddle and are making egg sandwiches to hand out to burners.

6:30 a.m.

A bunch of us ride out to the Sunrise Saloon, aka “Six A.M. Bar,” which sits out at the edge of Burning Man’s boundaries. Pause for a moment and imagine a single bar rising from the middle of a flat, blank landscape. Such imagery appears in my own fiction with regularity.

After there, we ride out to another installation: The Dust City Diner. Burners have set up an actual working diner in the middle of the desert, all of ‘em dressed in waitressing gear and beehive wigs. It smells like a Waffle House.

7-8 a.m. (Or thereabouts)

The sun starts to get hot, so we retreat to camp.

8 a.m. to noon

Goofing around camp.

Noon to 4 p.m.

Naming. An amazing experience.

4 p.m. to 6-ish p.m.

Prepping for the evening.

6 p.m. to midnight and on

Most of our camp loads onto the Giant Cock Car to ride around the Playa. The car makes regular stops for dance parties. (Lauren and I had spent another night riding our bikes — well, I was on an adult tricycle — around the Cock Car, and it’s an incredible scene. I loved watching burners run out of the darkness to follow the car, jump on, or dance around.)

4 a.m.

We fall asleep, a day and night well spent.

I elided through a great deal of the evening, which included many stops all over the Playa, as well as chance encounters with the rest of our friends. Indeed, Lauren and I had many such chance encounters with our friends, resulting in what’s known as Playa magic.

Trouble in Paradise

But earlier in this essay, I hinted at another misgiving I have with the experience — one that springs to mind upon hearing the greeting “welcome home.”

I offer the following observation carefully, because I can’t even point to a single person who would qualify as an example of this misgiving. (Certainly no one in my camp, village or extended Burning Man crew.) I’ll describe it like this:

Burning Man takes a lot of time and energy, and I could very well see it occupying a central place in my life, when I don’t want it to. I’m happy with it augmenting and complementing my life, but I wouldn’t want it to become my life. Slate.com’s Seth Stevenson wrote a memorable account of his first visit to the Playa. In it, he offers:

I was also saddened by the large number of people at Burning Man with fairly evident self-esteem problems. They seemed to feel that they could only be happy this one week a year—within the warm bath of a loving, non-judgmental society.

Again, I can point to no single person who strikes me in that way, but all the same, I feel a ping of unease saying “welcome home,” because the Playa doesn’t feel at all like home to me. In saying that, I’m describing something that runs deeper than the mere physical discomforts I feel on the Playa. More to the point, I feel a real tension between one of — again, one of — Burning Man’s central themes and my primary creative calling in life, novel-writing.

Let me explain:

The man burns. The temple burns. The city rises from nothing. The city vanishes in a week. Burning Man is largely about the impermanence and transient nature of things — and that’s good. No one lives forever, and it’s worth being reminded that nothing lasts forever.

But one of — again, one of — the reasons why I pursue novel-writing is to find a permanent home in the firmament. I hope that my novels will long outlive me, delivering a sample of my essence to future generations. I have no illusions about my work outliving the heat-death of the universe, or even this century, but I’d love it if my stories could stick around for the next several decades.

Preparing for the burn this past year took up a lot of time and energy, not the least of which was devoted to me making enough to money to be able to afford the weeklong trip to the desert. When I got back, it wasn’t lost on me that I hadn’t worked on any of my writing projects in more than a month. To be sure, these were my choices, and the work I did — and that we all did — resulted in an amazing experience on the Playa. Our village was easily one of the most popular, with packed events every weekday and an art-car that was the talk of the Playa. More important, though, was how we all touched so many people so deeply with our gifts.

But that’s not all Burning Man is about, of course.

When I left my first burn, I felt puzzled. I’d been expecting to experience some kind of epiphany, but I hadn’t. I confessed to Lauren that I felt like a bad burner. She assured me that I wasn’t, explaining that Burning Man was less about what happened on the Playa and more about the ideals you brought back from the Playa: fellowship, generosity, spontaneity, mindfulness. This idea, to keep Burning Man with you throughout the year, reminded me of the song “Keep Christmas With You” from the Sesame Street Christmas Special:

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These are powerful ideas, worthy of exploration, meditation and regular revisits. Through Lauren and Burning Man, I’ve met and made some amazing friends, and on the Playa, I’ve had experiences that I couldn’t have anywhere else. Like any big experience, it invites debate, discussion and deep thought. If you’re curious about Burning Man, or if you were in my village and would like to talk further, please feel free to strike up a conversation in the comments below or on Facebook. These days, I’m all about the evolution of opinion, and I welcome an active discussion.

Odds and Ends

• One other misgiving: Burning Man remains a largely white, able-bodied event. Anecdotally, I can offer that I saw more minorities and disabled people this year. I suspect that was a function of the larger population — Black Rock City attracted more than 60,000 people this year, its largest ever.

• Pursuant to Burning Man being a largely white event: This year’s theme, Cargo Cult, was fraught with problematic, disturbing connotations. It spurred some burners to start petitions to have the theme changed. When I first heard about the theme, I liked it, but I also felt a sinking feeling that it would inspire some blinkered, cluelessly racist imagery from the participants. Happily, the Burning Man organization focused on the theme’s science-fiction overtones, going so far as to place the man himself atop a flying saucer. It helped, but I still had mixed feelings about the theme.

• I mentioned earlier that I “expected” to have some kind of epiphany on the Playa. For the record, I appreciate that I committed a blunder. If you’re going to the burn, you shouldn’t have any expectations.

• Here are some other excellent essays about Burning Man:

Whose Burn Is It Anyway?

An Emotional Survival Guide to Burning Man

• I’ll close (finally) with one of the funniest moments on the Playa for me. For the last few years, the artist Laura Kimpton has erected a giant word. This year, well in keeping with the theme, the word was “Believe.” Seeing the word gave me chills. Fox Mulder would’ve been proud. But there was also another giant word that Lauren and I didn’t discover until one night when we were out trying to find our friends among the swirling, glittering cacophony that is the Playa at night.

Lauren said, “Trying to find our friends out here is just insanity.”

At that moment, the Playa’s other giant word emerged from the dust: INSANITY.

Much love, everyone.