Burning Man Demystified (Part 1)

The Burning Man festival is the single most interesting and valuable cultural event currently taking place in the United States. Whoever can find time and money enough to go, should go.

I believe that the limited size of Burning Man is partly due to a reticence, among participants, to describe what Burning Man is. This reticence is supposed to hint at experiences which are truly beyond words; however, the truth is that, as with the fictional Fight Club, there are understandable fears about what will happen if it gets too big. Burners worry that a leap in attendance will cause the festival’s unique culture to decline. So the first rule of Burning Man is that you do not talk overmuch about Burning Man.

I am going to describe it as best I can. (By the way, I think the official Burning Man website does a hell of a job explaining policies and giving advice. It just maintains a very responsible radio silence about what, exactly, participants experience. When it does feature narratives, they tend to say things like “Burning Man is ruled by the Goddess Venus,” which may be subjectively true for the author but doesn’t quite explain why you should stop everything to go camping in an inhospitable desert.)

The setting

Burning Man takes place on a huge flat oval of unoccupied desert, on Federal lands. This stretch of land, known colloquially as the “playa,” does not naturally support life of any kind. There are no plants. There are no insects. There is nothing but cracked alkaline earth and dust. The dust is such a presence that it cakes in your hair, covers your skin and clothes, and settles in a slightly sour layer on all your food. Inevitably, at least once during the week, there is a dust storm of such ferocity that your skin prickles and you have to cover your mouth to breathe. The dust storm, from afar, looks like a pillar of cloud going into the sky. (Yeah, it looks Biblical.) When it hit us last week, I couldn’t see my friends at a distance of ten feet.

The only showers I took all week, I took by running in my skivvies behind an official truck spraying lake water to keep down dust on the roads. We did have a beautiful camp shower set up, but that only means a little nozzle leaking a single stream of water. I accepted being filthy with dust. It is exciting to be caught in major weather events, like dust storms. Beyond that, it simply didn’t matter. Everyone was going through the same trials. You got used to drinking from a canteen or a “CamelPak” backpack; the people who had those looked remarkably like the nomads in Dune.

There is no Internet access, nor cellphone service. Most electrical devices, unless they are somehow dustproofed, are ruined by the dust. It turns out that this, too, does not matter.

Around this oval in which the burners camp, make art, and play, are a ring of high mountains of dark stone. They are jagged, and the light makes paintings out of them. The sky is lucid, mercilessly so. Sunset, and sunrise, made me catch up my breath in awe. I saw the sunrise twice in a week. I was always sorry to close my eyes and sleep.

To be continued. Good night to you.