Rites of Passage in the Nevada Desert
Every year over the course of 8 days, an entire city is built and destroyed on the open playa of Nevada’s Black Rock desert. For that week, tens of thousands of people from all over the world (over 55,000 this year) come together in Black Rock City to create, share, dance, play, love, meditate, and finally, destroy.
This year marked the 25th burn and was appropriately themed “Rites of Passage”. For the first time in the festival’s history, ticket sales reached the maximum allowed by their land use permit and the festival sold out. Burgins (virgin burners), long time burners, and artists alike went into a frenzy trying to find their ticket “home”.
I was among the frenzied, contacting hundreds of people in search of a ticket. One fake ticket, $400 down the hole, and one desperate 3-minute video plea later, I was gifted two tickets. Overwhelming excitement (and anxiety) about spending a week in the desert, where you only have what you bring, finally set in as we were already 10 hours into our trek to Nevada.
Like gifting, one of the ten principals of Burning Man is radical self reliance. You can’t buy anything on the playa (but coffee and ice); money is worthless, so you have to bring everything you need. And since BM is the largest Leave No Trace event in the world, you also have to take it all with you when you leave. Other principals include radical inclusion, radical self-expression, participation, and civic responsibility.
We left Denver, CO on a school bus and drove 25 hours until we reached the dusty road into the city. We spent much of the first day setting up- building structures, a kitchen, and getting acquainted with our new home. Black Rock City is 7 square miles, so it is best navigated by bikes, but many participants build mutant vehicles and art cars (which are like the public transportation of BRC, except you never know where you’re headed).
There is an overwhelming amount of stuff you can do in BRC, including numerous scheduled events at registered “theme camps”, live music at one of the city’s many sound camps, and checking out the hundreds of art installations across the playa. There isn’t a moment of boredom on the playa.
Events range from spiritual to sexual, playful to educational, social and silly to introspective. Some of this year’s many, many events (you receive a 160-page schedule book when you arrive) included Advanced Shamanic Technique, BRC Prom, Bike Playa-fication Workshops, the Strap-On-A-Thon, and pretty much anything else you can think of. Anytime we found ourselves thinking, “Black Rock needs a ____”, we could look at the map and find one. Hair salon? Check. Home brew bar? At 4 o’clock and Anniversary (addresses ranged from 2 o’clock to 10 and A through L).
It seems to be a common misconception that BM is a drug-fueled rave in the desert. While there may be people who went about their burn that way, the primary and defining feature of the festival was the way that everyone took care of each other. There were people of all ages there, from all around the world. I was constantly amazed by the kindness of strangers, and their contributions to the city and their fellow burners.
Because there is so much to do and see, Burning Man is a different experience for everyone that goes. I can only describe what Burning Man was to me, which is why it’s so hard to answer the question “What is Burning Man?”.
I started most of my days around 10 or 11 AM, when the temperatures would reach too high for sleeping and the events really got rolling. After breakfast I would hop on my fur-covered bike and head into town. Sometimes there would be a destination in mind, but a lot of the time we would just see what kinds of fun we could stumble into.
On our way to the Make Your Own Tutu workshop, we found the Kosmic Dust photo booth and took silly pictures. We accidentally wandered into a camp serving fresh baked cookies and lemonade, and then a camp where we all got Burning Man tattoos (temporary, of course).
Another day, we went to the Faux Mitz Vah, where you and 20 other birthday-suited burners get into a plexiglass room and blast each other with foam hoses then rinse off and dance yourself dry to a DJ (the best shower on the playa). After that, we shot pool, ate pickles, and drank home-brews at my favorite dive, Homebrew 4A Homebrew.
We were at an after party for the burning of the man at the Slut Garden when I pulled a man up onto the platform we were dancing on. He had traveled thousands of miles from Eastern Europe to be there for the first time and was totally elated. As we were talking about how our first burn was going he said “It’s so good to know there are people out there who are silly like me!” It really stuck with me. Faux Mitz Vah? Slut Garden? It all sounds so silly. But its the principles behind Burning Man that are the underlying theme for the whole event, and they are apparent in everything you do on the playa.
At night a whole other world emerged from the dust. Cruising across the open playa on my bike looking out at all of the lights, but not a single power line, I realized how incredible the city really is. And how crazy it is that in a week it will all be dust again.
Sound camps like Fractal Nation, Nexus, Opulent Temple, and BassCamp (to name a few) hosted DJs past sunrise every night. All of the shows are free, but since they aren’t put on by BMOrg, they can be kind of hard to find sometimes. We got our hands on a copy of the Rock Star Librarian music guide, something put together by other burners as their gift to the playa. Here’s just a fraction of the DJs who performed the night the man burned:
I spent the nights hopping from camp to camp, seeing acts like MiMoSA, Beats Antique, Heyoka, and dozens more. Between DJs I went to bars like Shamrock Bar, Hair of the Dog, Nexus, and Whiskey and Dirt. Some nights we would stay up dancing past the sunrise, others we would head back to camp and relax with our campmates, neighbors, or total strangers. One night we went to a neighbor’s camp where we got in on some group meditation and Thai massage. Another night we got back to camp at sunrise to find our campmates popping a bottle of champagne on the open playa beyond our camp and watched the sun come up. There was never a dull moment and the city was buzzing 24 hours a day.
The whole week (and the whole year, really) counted down to the night the man burns. At the center of the city is a >50′ tall effigy of a man that is burned to the ground in the biggest gathering I have ever been to. The entire city comes to surround the man as he burns to the ground. The burning of the man carries a different meaning for everyone, and can be taken however you like. The general vibe of the night was celebratory, and art cars surrounding the man pumped electronic music as fireworks went off and explosions set the man aflame.
The last night of the festival is the Temple burn. This year’s temple, the Temple of Transition, was 122 feet tall in the center and covered over an acre of playa. For the time that it was erected, it was the largest freestanding structure in the world. On the walls of the temple people write things on it that they want sent up in the fire, and outside there was a huge earth harp that was played at sunset.
When I went to visit the temple, there was an energy I can’t describe. I walked in and before I could even read anything on the temple walls I was moved to tears. People wrote messages to lost loved ones and to people who had hurt them but also about things they are hopeful for and want to happen. By the time I went to the temple on Thursday there was hardly any room left on the walls to write.
Sunday night people gathered, surrounding the temple. The atmosphere was far from that of the Man, and everyone sat in silence. As the temple was being engulfed in flames there was a lot of emotion in the crowd. Many people were in tears and it was incredibly moving. The temple fell piece by piece and as it laid burning on the ground people began circling around it in homage. To those with the misconception that there’s nothing spiritual about Burning Man, I ask you to imagine the feeling of watching the Temple burn.
The next morning we woke up and our city was disappearing. After we tore down our structures and said our goodbyes I got back on the bus, a different person than I was before. It may sound corny, but Burning Man was truly a life changing experience. I came away from it with a much different perspective and some new goals. For one, to carry on the principles of Burning Man in the “default world”.
As you can tell, Burning Man is difficult to describe, especially to someone who hasn’t been there. It’s not for everyone, but anyone who dares to brave a week in the Nevada desert to be a part of Black Rock City will find that there’s a reason the Burners say they are “going home”.
Photos by Heather Perry
Human Mandala by Josh Davis, HumanMandalaProject.com