“Whaddya mean ‘Let’s go’? I spent all of last week trying to convince you to go, and you mumbled and waffled and made lame excuses and said no. Now, all of a sudden you want to go?”
“I changed my mind. Let’s go.”
“Just like that? Well screw you and your fickle ways. Let’s go.”
I had been aware of Burning Man for a couple of years before finally deciding to go in 1997. There would always be some article about the best parties in the world in a newspaper of record like Maxim (which totally kicked ass then, by the way). I’d make a mental note along the lines of “Hey, that does sound like a good party,” then promptly lose said note for its lack of adhesive quality in my cranium — and with it, the intention to plan this quixotic desert excursion.
But this time around, things were different. I was in my final year of medical school, which has all kinds of goof-off time built-in. My buddy Garrett (2008 TED mainstage talk; TEDx Maui talk; website), who was doing his physics PhD, also had a flexible schedule. And we were both up for an adventure.
So on that fateful night, we booked tickets on Reno Air (RIP) for $170 roundtrip. The next day, I rented some camping supplies from the UCSD Outback Adventures Club and bought a shiny cowboy hat from a store in Pacific Beach called Mileage.
We were on our way.
After landing at Reno Airport, we rented a Toyota Camry and started the 2.5hr drive east to Hualapai Flat. At the gate, we paid $65 each for our tickets, then parked the car and set up camp. Within 4 hours of boarding the plane in San Diego, we were at Burning Man. We made it!
Immediately, a succession of surreal never-before-in-this-lifetime experiences began. Within minutes of our arrival, a turbaned, topless girl offered Garrett a neck massage, which he accepted by lying down on the desert dust. A camera crew with a giant fuzzy boom mike materialized out of the ether to record the incident. Some time later, while I waited in a blazing-hot tent to have my hair washed – quite a luxury in the hot, dusty desert – a man fed all of us rum-soaked pieces of cold watermelon, aaaaahhhh. A shop loaned us bikes to use for the duration of the festival. At night, a bartender at one camp put a cube of sugar on a slotted spoon and made me a pint (!) of then-illegal absinthe, which I proceeded to drink and trip from till dawn. We discovered the nearby hot springs where we covered strangers in mud, then dipped back in to wash it all off – then do it all over again. We found Barzilla, the bar on wheels that you could hop on to, get a drink, and hop off. A bar on wheels! May the miracles never cease.
As fun as it would be to list all the nutty things that happened, this article’s less about the good times I had at Burning Man 1997 and more about what it was that made the experience so enjoyable.
First of all, it was a true adventure. We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. Second, the atmosphere was more welcoming, nurturing and permissive than almost anything we had ever experienced before. There were no detectable rules other than “no guns” and “no motorcycles”, a restriction instituted after a mishap in 1996.
Third, the amount of creativity, work and sheer love that had gone into building what we saw there was just astonishing. How do you even transport a giant 12-ft ball of ice/sundial into the Nevada desert? Someone had.
Fourth, even though building a working city of 10,000 people is serious business, an atmosphere of levity ruled. This was, after all, a big ol’ party.
With a group of friends, I attended Burning Man again in 1998, which may have been even more fun than the first time around. In 1999 I went with my 21-year old cousin and got him hooked, too.
In 2000, even though I already had a ticket to BM, I decided to sell it and go to visit Scandinavia instead. By then, I already felt as if the festival had gotten too big and impersonal. And frankly, there were other places I wanted to go. I didn’t feel compelled to go again until 2005, at the enthusiastic behest of my friend Christine, who was going for the first time. I have been returning to the Playa with some regularity since.
This year, I bought my ticket early like a good pilgrim would. And last week I sold it. I had many conversations with myself about that decision, which may or may not be a healthy thing, especially in public. Perhaps writing the whole thing up would put an end to the mental chatter and sort out the conflicting emotions. Ahh, cheap therapy.
Obviously I’ve been a big fan of Burning Man, and anyone who hasn’t been needs to check it out at least once. That said, these were reasons that kept me home this year:
One of the things I really appreciated about Burning Man was the equalizing effect it had on its populace. Everybody’s dirty; everybody’s camping in a tent that’s too cold at night, too warm in the daytime and perpetually dusty. Like in a Russian steam bath or any street in Sweden, there were no indicators of rank. Everyone’s at least partially naked, and their nondenominational crazy clothing doesn’t bespeak status, profession or education level. You’re welcome to walk into any camp, and they will feed you, quench your thirst, give you hugs and treat you like family. All for free, all the time.
You are all Burners now. Go forth and learn how to make friends again, thou jaded adults.
Well, it’s not like that anymore. Most people now come in mobile homes – understandably, since it makes a big difference in the quality of your sleep and food. But they’re much harder to just drop into uninvited. Year after year, these mobile homes have gotten fancier and fancier until there’s now a whole bunch of ultra-luxury buses like the ones rock bands use on tour. There are now compounds and enclaves of said luxury vehicles that are closed to outsiders, which is just plain weird (and weirder still, gets reported by the New York Times). Purportedly, some of them charge $25,000 per person for a fully-catered ultraluxe experience with “sherpas” to serve you.
Now there are some stupendously rich people who also happen to be long-time Burners (the names Bezos, Hsieh, Page, Brin and Musk come to mind). I’m pretty sure they’re not the kind of people who go for the Seven Star Experience, because they get it. And if they do – well dang, for the contributions they’ve made to the world, they can do whatever the hell they want. Love you guys!
But back to the rant: Dear Clueless Rich Fucks Who Just Don’t Get It — Burning Man is not a resort destination. And the Less-Than Feeling is a real thing. Way back when we were all hominids evolving on the savanna, we used to live small tribes of 150 or less. Everyone knew everyone else, and everyone knew their place. Yup, there was a hierarchy. And your place in the hierarchy determined your access to resources such as food, shelter, and mates. If you were the chieftain sitting at the top of the heap, you were doing well. Even in case of a food or water shortage, you’d still have your needs met.
But woe betide you if you were at the bottom of the pile. Because then any time the tribe got buffeted by disaster – famine, drought, invading tribe – your ass was on the line. Same if you made some kind of mistake. You were killed, expelled (same thing), exiled (same thing) or just neglected (same thing).
Even though we no longer live in tribes of 150, that basic programming is still firmly embedded in our hominid brains. How else could you explain the results of this psychological experiment: given a choice, people would rather make $50k a year when their friends make $35k than make $80k a year when their friends make $100k. It’s because people are exquisitely sensitive to rank at a deeply unconscious level.
So, Mr Clueless, when you have your multimillion-dollar camp, it gives everyone around you this gut feeling of not-enoughness, of less-than. Granted, perhaps one of the reasons you made the money in the first place was to give people precisely this brand of stomach cramp. But also keep in mind that this feeling of gross inequality is what led to the French and Russian revolutions, where heads of clueless rich fucks were used as soccer balls. Less-than feelings awaken survival instincts, which turn mere resentment into violent action. So either share your stuff with everyone – which will actually bring you even greater pleasure than hoarding it, psychologists say – or pretend like you’re on a budget like everyone else and make Burning Man be about the experience rather than the conspicuous consumption. Thanks!
As far as camps go, it used to be that you could just show up, pitch a tent on the playa and have a ball. Or, if you were willing to invest more time, energy and money and do something on a slightly grander scale with an informal grouping of like-minded friends, you’d join a theme camp. Nowadays, if you don’t join a camp, you’re kind of homeless. Moreover, there’s now a hierarchy of camps, just like San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York have nice and less nice neighborhoods. Upper West Side, Russian Hill, Brentwood, Bel Air, West Village, Pacific Heights – equivalents to those neighborhoods now exist on the playa. Hell, there’s even a poll to vote for the Best Theme Camp. Something about that kind of ranking doesn’t quite resonate with me.
For me, the festival died a little the year I dropped in on a party by Pink Something-or-Other. Soon after getting my boogie on, I realized that the camp had a series of strategically placed platforms and towers with go-go dancers. And those go-go dancers were indistinguishable from those you’d see at, say, a Hollywood dance club. The boys’ bodies were buff, ripped and hairless; the girls looked like strippers. Waitasec – this was a camp of pretty people! And with a little bit of research, I found that indeed, they did pick their camp members based on looks. Hey, it’s a free country and it’s your camp, but I really thought we were beyond that high school/frat house/nightclub/Vegas pool party horseshit at Burning Man. So much for Decommodification, #3 of Burning Man’s 10 Principles.
Yup, they’re there. Radical inclusion means that everyone’s not only allowed to come, but is even welcome. Alas, all extremism contains the seed of its own destruction. Let in enough douchebags, clueless zillionaires, fratboys, I-bankers and sorority chicks, and… we’ll see what happens, eh.
2. Flagrant waste and environmental impact
People bring way the fuck too much food to Burning Man. I’ve seen entire coolers of perfectly decent meat, cheese and fruit wilt away and die there, and wouldn’t be surprised if half the food people brought got trashed. Multiply that by a week and 70,000 participants, and you get something like 700,000 meals going to waste. That would feed a small elementary school for a whole year.
Moreover, the entire operation of bringing 70,000 folks with their tents, yurts, domes, scaffolding, rebar, street signs, lights, generators, sculptures, electrical wire, food, mattresses, RVs, trucks, semis and trailers when they could have been at home doing their needlepoint while watching Game of Thrones instead leaves a fucking GIGANTIC carbon footprint which is entirely optional. Once again from the 10 Principles, here’s #8, Leave No Trace:
Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them.
So there’s this greenish ethos going on here, but let’s do a quick calculation, shall we? Let’s assume there are 35,000 vehicles at Burning Man this year (the approximate number of vehicle passes sold). Let’s say that this mix of passenger vehicles, SUVs, trucks and hugeass trucks gets a collective 12 miles per gallon, or about 20L/100km. The roundtrip from LA to Black Rock City is 1100 miles; from San Francisco it’s 640 miles, and from East Bumblefuck, Ohio it’s 12 million miles, so let’s say the average drive is 1200 miles — probably a gross underestimate.
Let’s assume that everyone who comes to Burning Man would otherwise be driving the same 1000 miles per month they would during regular rat-race months, which would be 250 miles for that week, or about 10 gallons of gas for an average passenger vehicle that gets 25 mpg. That would mean that during that week, the 70,000 denizens of Black Rock City would burn through 700,000 gallons of gasoline. Yes, we Americans are the proud Sasquatches of carbon footprint, and we’ll gladly launch faraway wars against total strangers to keep it that way.
But now that these people have come to Black Rock City, they have burned 1200/12 = 100 gallons of gas for their 35,000 vehicles, which is 3.5 million gallons of fuel – 2.8 million more than if they had just stayed at home barbecuing on Labor Day.
But wait! We’re not quite done yet. Just because all those RVs are parked and sitting still at Burning Man doesn’t mean they’re not burning fuel! Something’s gotta keep that generator going to keep up the air conditioning and the lights. The AC is the whole point of bringing the damn RV in the first place! If we say there are 10,000 RVs going through another 10 gallons of fuel for the duration of the festival, that’s another 100,000 gallons. I’m not even going to count the fuel the freestanding generators need to power the whole party. It’s probably a lot, but it’s a mere rounding error in the 2.9 million extra gallons of fuel we’ve burnt so far.
But wait! People are also flying in – from LA, SF, NY, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Sydney, Cape Town, Paris, Bogotá, and of course, East Bumblefuck. Let’s make the underestimate that the average Burning Man participant travels 1000 miles roundtrip to get to the event. Air travel comes in at about 50 miles per gallon per passenger, so that’s an extra 20 gallons per person. Even if only half of the people use air travel, multiplied that by 35,000 = another 700,000 gallons of fuel.
Altogether, that adds up to an extra 3.6 million gallons of fuel burned because of Burning Man. Burning a gallon of gasoline produces 8788 grams of CO2; diesel produces 10,084g, so let’s just use the average and say 9.5kg of CO2 per gallon of fuel burned by Black Rock pilgrims.
Are you ready? This means that by a conservative estimate, the Burning Man Festival is responsible for an extra 34 million kilograms of CO2 released into the atmosphere every year. That’s 34,000 tons.
It’s not quite the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which clocked in at around 10 million gallons vs Burning Man’s mere 3.6 million. But it’s the same order of magnitude. Which means that, even with its well-meaning green policies, Burning Man delivers a 34,000 ton sledgehammer to the face of the environment every year – every 3 years the carbon footprint equivalent of a catastrophic oil spill.
Fuck Sasquatch – give me a Godzilla carbon footprint. Leave No Trace my ass.
3. Squares, skeevs and just plain uncool people
One of the best parts about Burning Man used to be that it brought out the best in people. You’re supposed to be friendly, welcoming and warm. You’re supposed to give strangers hugs. You’re supposed to share food, drink and spit. You don’t take yourself seriously. And you look out for one another and take care of people who are in trouble. We were a big, dusty, goofy, dehydrated, body-painted, mostly high family.
I’ll observe that this has changed. Picture the least earthy, yuppiest, most spoiled person you know, who went to college at some middling Ivy and, say, has a law degree, too. The kind of person who would never be caught dead in a Holiday Inn, let alone sleep on the ground. The kind of person who would publicly say that a Coach handbag means you have no class. Well, that person went to Burning Man last year. Festival over, or at least slightly dented.
I pray to the playa gods that this pilgrimage transformed their Hermès hearts and Zagat bellies into something kinder, gentler and more open-minded, but that’s not usually what happens to tourists, whether they go to Angkor Wat or Black Rock City. I’ve even seen entire Iranian families in civilian regalia blithely walking around, pointing at the freaks and taking pictures. No, sir, bebakhshid* – you in the khakis and polo shirt, YOU are the freak, ’cause it’s 110 degrees out here. Participants only; no spectators, geezus cripes.
That said, the squares are boring but usually benign, and even world-class asshole Grover Norquist or douchebag idol P. Diddy can’t singlehandedly do that much damage. But there are predators who show up to BRC as well. You’ll never be able to get rid of the skeevy old dudes with the camcorders at the Critical Tits Bike Ride – that’s just an unfortunate part of the landscape now. But when I hear about sexual assault on the playa, that just boils my blood. This is supposed to be a safe space for everyone, and if you think you’re going to the Playa to take advantage of women because they’re in a vulnerable state (e.g. half-naked, drunk, high), I will personally parachute into Black Rock City Airport to snap your little coward neck in two.
Burning Man is not a weeklong Halloween party. This is not about bringing 58 different costumes to look pretty (see sparkle pony) or spending 3 hours a day applying makeup. People, there are freakin’ life-altering experiences out there to be had – talks on expanding your consciousness, unhinged daytime dance parties with a Wild West-style open bar, workshops on female ejaculation, desert shamans dispensing mescaline and peyote, human carwashes, an encounter with your future ex-boyfriend. For fuck’s sake GO DO STUFF! Or do stuff for other people.
Another bizarre irony is how the Radical Self-Expression clause of Burning Man has devolved into a Burner Uniform. Fake fur, leather holsters and utility belts, corsets, wigs, pink hair extensions, fishnet stockings, sparkles, LEDs – is warmed-over Mad Max chic the best you could come up with, you little rebel you? Anytime someone’s dressed like that, I think, “Newbie who started coming after 2010, still trying to fit in.” C’mon people – if you’re going to have a costume, get original. Or just wear something comfortable, sun-shielding and functional that won’t get in the way of running full-tilt to hop onto a moving bus to dance your ass off all night long.
5. Crappy, soulless music
There’s all kinds of music for everybody at Burning Man, around the clock. But the overwhelming wattage drowning out everything else is the thumpeta-thumpeta untz-untz-unnnntz of electronic dance music. This stuff is undanceable, without any lyrics you can connect to. I suspect house, techno, dubstep, and the millions of varieties of EDM were created by white people to cover up for the fact that they can’t actually dance (exception: drum ‘n’ bass).
Basically, if you can have an emotional connection to a song or it’s ever been on the Billboard Top 200, you’ll never hear it at the big venues at Burning Man. For that, you must head to the Black Rock Roller Disco, which gets an unqualified rating of Fuck Yeah.
Here are the expenses for the first year I attended Burning Man:
- Ticket: $65
- Plane fare: $170
- Car rental (split with Garrett): $75
- Food and booze: $100
- Equipment rental: $40
- TOTAL: $450 or so
In 2014, just the ticket set you back $400* (or $670 if you were unlucky, plus a vehicle pass for $45). And Burning Man ain’t six times better than it was in 1997.
This year, the supercool-with-its-heart-in-the-right-place-camp I was planning on joining had dues of $375. That did not include food, which would be another $225 for two meals a day. And if you wanted semi-fancy housing, which they were kind enough to offer, it would be another $250. That’s $850. With the ticket, that’s $1250. And we haven’t even gotten to the Playa yet.
At a cost of $1500-2000 per person, Burning Man is starting to be out of reach for most people. As starving grad students, Garrett and I could have never gone at that price tag. Higher cost means less diversity, fewer young folks and students, fewer crazy hippies, and more yuppies and rich old fucks of the clueless variety (henceforth CROFs). And you already know how I feel about those.
In 1997, besides “leave no trace” and “no spectators, participants only”, we were told of only two rules: no guns, and no motorcycles. Apparently the year before, some seriously fried yahoo on a motorcycle plowed through a tent and people got hurt, hence the new rule. And no guns – amongst all the proscriptions you can have, that’s a pretty good one.
But over the years, there was this steady encroachment of rules and regulations. It has culminated in four different law enforcement agencies roaming the range (sometimes undercover), trying to bust people for things like smoking dope, underage drinking, public sex, and peeing on the playa. Now I don’t do drugs or copulate in plain sight much, but peeing on the playa? That would totally be a god-given right at Burning Man if there were a god.**
I’d even go so far as to say it’s a defining characteristic of the festival. It’s 3am, you’re dancing in front of some giant white truck/speaker system that says “Robot Heart” on it or something, when you notice that the fifteen drinks you’ve had in the past few hours have wended their way into your bladder. You walk a few hundred feet out into the open desert, in pitch darkness, with no one around. You release a warm stream of relief declaring your freedom from the strictures of civilization, and maybe even walk around to create a celebratory doodle, or inscribe in evaporating ink the name of your inamorata on the alkaline playa dust.
Tomfoolery aside, it’s the kind of thing that happens thousands of times daily on the playa and has essentially no environmental impact – urine is sterile, and there ain’t no plants to kill. Hell, the playa’s so damn hot in the daytime that the pee vaporizes before it even hits the desert floor. In fact, the giant water trucks that spray thousands of gallons of water on the main avenues to keep the dust down probably have more microorganisms and environmental impact.
And yet, this year, it is specifically written in the Survival Guide that they send you with your ticket: Thou shalt not pee on the playa. So sad.
8. Violation of its own operating principles:
Burning Man didn’t use to have the Ten Principles. But if a social enclave lasts long enough, eventually some kind of written ideology infiltrates it, no matter how anarchically it started. So the Principles came online in 2004, as described on the Ten Principles page:
“Burning Man Founder Larry Harvey wrote the Ten Principles in 2004 as guidelines for the newly-formed Regionals Network. They were crafted not as a dictate of how people should be and act, but as a reflection of the community’s ethos and culture as it had organically developed since the event’s inception.”
The authors of said Principles are careful to say that they are descriptive rather than prescriptive, loose guidelines rather than rules. Now I’m reasonably sure that the organizers earnestly believe in these Principles, but it’s not clear if they enforce them at all. And once the event gets as big as it has, they become nigh impossible to enforce. At the same time, the organizers, as keepers of the flame, shapers of the ethos, and recipients of about $30 million in ticket receipts, can do a lot, and I’m not sure they’re doing anything. Let’s go through the list, briefly:
- Radical Inclusion: BM’s pretty good at this, to the point of welcoming comic-book arch-villains such as Grover Norquist. Yet, radical anything contains the seeds of its own destruction (see #3 above on squares and skeevs).
- Gifting: In force and doing a great job. The more, the better.
- Decommodification: Burning Man is not a resort, a bucket list item to cross off, or some imprimatur of coolness. Also, stop it with the pretty people camps already (see above).
- Radical Self-reliance: see section above on sherpas, $25,000 camps and CRFS.
- Radical Self-expression: see section on Uniforms.
- Communal Effort: Doing a great job. Building a working city for 70,000 souls in the middle of nowhere is a miracle that will never cease to amaze me. Witnessing this is worth all the price and pain to get there.
- Civic Responsibility: Always been a little ambivalent about this. Less crazy Burning Man is not a better Burning Man. Kinda goes directly in the face of #4, Radical Self-Reliance, too, if you think about it.
- Leaving No Trace: This is militantly enforced and people tend to be pretty good about it. Hey, they wouldn’t get their permits renewed if they didn’t.
- Participation: Too damn many turistas. If you want to be a tourist, maybe you should pay more or apply for some kinda visa.
- Immediacy: You’ve only got a week, so things do happen immediately when they do happen.
Another danger of these principles is that instead of being an occasion for inspired folly, Burning Man starts to take itself too seriously. The viability of the festival depends on a balance between the child and the parent, the weirdness and the order. Luckily, there are plenty of participants who are very good at keeping things weird.
All told, 6 out of the 10 principles are getting pretty wobbly. Unless they bring in more regulations and more enforcement – i.e. unless they become even less like Burning Man – then the whole thing will further devolve and ultimately disintegrate. Kind of a Catch-22 if you think about it.
9. The clusterfuck factor.
Speaking of things collapsing under their own weight, it used to be that we’d get to the Playa and enter the festival on greased skids. We’d get a nice welcome from the ticket checkers, and bam! The party was on. No wait, no fuss.
Last year, it took us nine hours to get into the festival from the main road (after a mere 6hr drive from San Francisco). 2011 was the first year tickets sold out – a bizarre concept for any long-time Burner, like saying “Sorry guys, we just ran out of sunshine.” So now tickets have become scarce. When you also jack the ticket prices up to the stratosphere – six times the price of the 1997 festival, outpacing inflation and even college tuition by a huge margin – now you give even well-meaning people a big incentive to sneak in. So now you have to thoroughly inspect every car, truck and RV that comes through. And there are seven times as many of them in 2014 as there were in 1997, so what does this mean?
Unholy wait times, that’s what it means. And lest you think the problem is with the ingress security and ticket checks, realize that it took people 10-13 hours to get out of the playa last year. So now more and more people are staring to fly in, and then that’s going to get oversubscribed, and they’ll need a second airport and a monorail and and and…
Of course, all these wonderfully creative, welcoming people put up a huge number of amazing theme camps with cool activities that you want to participate in, but there’s only one copy of you and 25 simultaneous events you’d like to go to, so omigod how do I make it to 3 o’clock and D for the human carwash when I’m at 8 and B right now and then I want to go dancing at Distrikt all the way back at 9 and F but then there’s Dan Pinchbeck talking about psychedelics at Red Lightning and the nyotaimori sushi party over gaaaaaaaahhhh…
Welcome to Burning Man Fear of Missing Out, closely related to the same phenomenon at every conference I’ve ever been to (SXSW being the worst culprit, with something like 40 events scheduled for each time slot). This is where the paradox of choice as described by Barry Schwartz is most pernicious: the more choices you have (yay, more choice!), the more miserable you are (yay, more misery!… hey waitasec). Because you spend more time agonizing over your decision, and afterwards you second-guess the choice you made and agonize over that (“One of the other 24 events would have been better”).
Don’t get me wrong: it’s definitely a first-world problem of the highest order to have so many choices of fun activities. However, it is also undeniably crazy-making. Since this article is about my own reasons for not going this year, I’ll just say that I’m in a more contemplative mood these days and less interested in having that much unmanageable stimulus coming at me all at once. In fact, I’m writing this article from a placid perch in Maui overlooking the ocean, where the biggest decisions I make every day are “Should I surf or should I read?” A much better fit for my current headspace.
Let’s also remember that Burning Man is stressful. Inescapable heat in the a.m., butt-cold in the p.m., dust storms, dehydration, irregular meals, random food, sunburn, loudness, excessive alcohol, irregular sleep and running around like a maniac all take their toll on your body and mind.
10. Loss of community
When I go running on secluded trails or in quiet neighborhoods, almost everyone I see says hi. But once you go beyond a critical spatiotemporal density of people – say, ten per minute – it no longer makes sense for people to greet one another, because then you wouldn’t be able to do anything else. This is why people feel warmly welcomed in sparsely populated towns while feeling lonely on New York City sidewalks teeming with thousands of folks. Greater population tends to inhibit meaningful interaction.
I loved Burning Man for the fact that it felt like one big, warm, twisted, psychedelically-flavored family of revelers all having a ball together. Everyone spoke to one another, hugged, shared, interacted. Now, you go to some bigass dance party at some mega-camp like Opulent Temple, and for hours on end people don’t talk to each other because a) it’s too damn fucking loud and b) there are enough people to make it feel like any impersonal dance club anywhere else in the world. In other worlds, lame. I can get that atmosphere right around the corner in my own town without having to make a dusty trek to Middle Earth, thank you very much.
As communities get bigger, they tend to fragment into smaller, more manageable units, roughly following Dunbar’s number: tribes tend to be 150 people or smaller. So at BM your theme camp becomes your main social group. And those 150 people tend to be plenty interesting enough to keep you busy for a week. Still, I miss that sense of community when the whole event used to be much smaller.
In sum, Black Rock City has been exhibiting the symptoms of a major metropolitan area — y’know, like a city. Traffic, overcrowding, inequality, noise issues, anomie, overtaxation, overregulation, free riders, conspicuous consumption, crime — hell, I can already get those in my own town! The reasons to leave one city’s problems just to encounter a somewhat smaller, hotter, dustier city’s problems have become less compelling over the years.
Lest you think from reading this rant that I’m no longer a fan, or that I’m never going back – I’m all for the extravagance and ridiculousness of it all. But I guess we all have our limits where things go from good show to cloying to tasteless to obscene. In any case, for better or for worse, Burning Man is still the craziest thing that happens in the solar system. And the amount of sheer ingenuity, hard work and love that goes into building a city from absolutely nothing and populating it with mind-bending art and fantastically creative people is as significant an achievement as the pyramids of Giza, the Eiffel Tower or the Hoover Dam – which, in their day, I’m sure many people found quixotic and wasteful, too.
In its mayfly’s lifespan, Burning Man’s a week bursting with every aspect of the human experience – a microcosm of life, a weeklong salvo of sound against death, as well as a reminder of it. When you’re in the mood, come to be renewed, come to be reminded, and come to witness the expression of the human spirit.
See you next year, perhaps.
PS: Here’s a letter I wrote to my campmates at Ashram Galactica in 2006, more reflective of the Warm & Fuzzy phase of my relationship with Burning Man:
“Hey there, my superstars. On my drive back, I was thinking about you and the experience you created, and it brought back some memories of my childhood.
During the month of Ramadan (or Ramazan, as we said it in Iran), Muslims all over the world fast from dusk to dawn. For your fast to be accepted, you had to refrain from eating, drinking and smoking and set an intention to be a good person during the designated period. As a young boy, I wasn’t required to fast at all (and my family was secular in any case), but tried it out once for a few days, equal parts out of curiosity and solidarity. Although an empathy for those less fortunate — the ostensible purpose of the fast — does develop in the faster, the centerpiece of the exercise for me was the gnawing daytime hunger that relentlessly reminded me to keep my actions and thoughts noble. And perhaps, after four weeks of this discipline, some of these habits of mind would seep into my everyday existence as well.
I was only able to make it to Black Rock City and back through the help of friends. There was the one who introduced me to camp, the one who looked up a ticket for me in Reno when I had forgotten to bring mine, the one who lent me his jumper cables when my battery had gone dead, the father-and-son team who lent the booster car to resurrect mine — and many, many more. People were willing to help in measure of their ability, not their comfort, and the ethos of community was palpable in our camp and beyond.
Having lived like this for a week, we have a Ramazan-like opportunity to let these habits seep into our lives for good. And perhaps now is a good time to consider drawing the circle of community a little wider than Ashram Galactica, wider than Black Rock City, beyond than all the friends and family you already have. And may we all continue to live in this expanded family that we have created.
Peace, blessings and meticulous hydration to you all, Ali”
PPS: For those who have spent more time in Reno than they were bargaining for, here’s a writeup from 2005 which I never published:
“Reno is a depressing town. In fact, of all the ramshackle, run-down places I’ve been to in my life, Reno, with its multitudinous neon signs and membrane-thin veneer of gentility, is the most depressing. The arch over the main thoroughfare proclaiming it ‘The Biggest Little City in the World’, the cigarette-smoking seniors with their disability go-karts parked in front of the slot machines, pouring in their Social Security checks drop by silvery drop, the signs inside the casinos touting ‘Jeff Myerson won $205 playing Keno!’, the meth-heads milling restlessly in the parking lot of the $50 a night Flamingo Motel – the juxtaposition of the failed artifice and the obvious decrepitude create an effect of hyperreality. Which is impossible to miss, especially after spending most of the preceding week amidst what may be the most surreal environment in the world.
That would be Black Rock City, Nevada, home to the Burning Man Festival. And what is surreal about Black Rock City is that it exists at all. On a sun-cracked, flat and featureless desert 120 miles east of Reno, pilgrims build a circular city, with actual street names, street lights, sanitation, post office, police force, and multitudes of public art projects, and inhabit it for a week. As this year’s theme was The Psyche, the circular streets were named Amnesia, Bipolar, Catharsis, Delirium, Ego, Fetish, Gestalt and Hysteria. And how many pilgrims, do you ask? About 35,000 this year – enough to make Black Rock City the seventh largest municipality in the state of Nevada.
Once you get over the existence of BRC, then you can start to marvel at what’s in it: hundreds of art projects and theme camps. I never quite understood why people partook of hallucinogens at Burning Man, because just looking at the stationary and mobile art (aka art cars) is plenty hallucination for me. For example, how did that red London double decker with the killer dance DJ make it here? Or the accordion Muni bus? Or the magic carpet on wheels? Or the 25-ft tall Soul Train locomotive? Or the full-size pirate ship (also with DJ)? Then, of course, there is the tower with the central rotating platform, aka The Machine. The platform itself held about 40 people. Four turrets outside the tower had people turning the four turnstyles (hard work!), which in turn connected to gears and shafts which ultimately transferred their energy to a belt which connected to the central platform and rotates it. It took 18 months to build the beast, which was symmetric, impeccably finished, fully functional, and completely safe, in spite of the multitudes drug- and sun-addled punters clambering onto it. And there it was, in all its improbable, irrational (yet perfectly rational) glory, precisely in the middle of nowhere if nowhere were to have a middle.
There was also the working clock tower, with all its gears and cams fashioned from wood, and the vast labyrinth underneath the sculpture of The Man, and the flame-on-demand metal outcroppings known as The Phoenix, and the 20-ft metal Mother and Child with the concrete cast footsteps preceding them, and the 100-ft daisy sculpture hoisted by a crane, and… In the space of a day, it was easy to receive more stimulus than you would over the course of a year. Your brain is exceptionally good at filtering out the mundane – stop lights, strip malls, passenger vehicles, lawns and other hallmarks of pedestrian existence. At Burning Man, there’s nothing to be filtered out. You ain’t seen any of this before.
Because of the infinitude of stimulus, I felt the need to leave early and find refuge in the relative calm of civilization. So I split on Sunday night, before the Temple burn, as opposed to the morning after, because this perennially curious, novelty-seeking soul couldn’t deal anymore. I spent my waking daylight hours at Burning Man doing what I imagine most desert animals do: taking refuge from the unforgiving sun and preserving energy for the evening’s forage. Sure, brave souls meander across the playa in broad daylight, but Black Rock City truly comes alive at night. Temperatures drop, first slowly, then precipitously, lights come on, and the party truly begins. In 1997, the first year I went to Burning Man, there were perhaps five or six dance parties going on at any given time. This year, you just couldn’t count them. There were about 20 on the Esplanade (the innermost ring) alone, probably twice as many scattered all over the camps, and then another 20 in the form of roving art cars/dance clubs. So at about…”
*Persian for excuse me.
**Yo – I understand that some whiny-voiced yahoo out there is going to say “but the ticket was only $380.” Yeah, but the fine folks at BM LLC charged me $20 for shipping a 10-gram ticket via a three-toed sloth that took FIVE MONTHS to get to my doorstep, which makes it $400 out of my pocket.
**Keep #2 in the portapotties, please though – basic decency and hygiene still do apply.