I saw my first glimpse of Burning Man 2000 from a tiny plane. The ride was bumpy and while my travel mates were admiring the spectacular view of Black Rock City, I was counting the minutes until my feet touched the desert below. By the time we hit the ground, I was soaking wet with sweat and barely able to speak. Already feeling ill from the turbulent plane ride, stepping off of the plane and onto the Black Rock Desert was a challenge. The heat rising from the playa was an aggressive force that greeted me without pity. Planes land on the outskirts of this city, and cars are used sparingly, so there was an inevitably long walk that lay ahead for us. For me, that was a problem. I knew I couldn’t make it, nor could I verbalize that fact. Fortunately, before I knew it, a stranger was driving me directly to my camp, and another took responsibility for my belongings. I had arrived at Burning Man 2000, and within minutes had encountered its magic.
Burning Man is an event that takes place in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. This year, over 25,000 thousand people participated, ranging from CEOs to underground artists, and everyone in between. They came to camp in the desert, create the fifth largest city in Nevada, known as Black Rock City, and fill it with extravagant, bizarre and creative personal visions. Participation and interaction is preferred over being a spectator, and the land is to be returned to the exact form it was in before the event if its participants abide by the law of the land — Leave no trace.
Black Rock City is made up of various theme camps created by participants. Some choose to stay in tents and RVs while others choose to create forts and theme-based camps to call home. Each member of this newly formed and constantly evolving community is expected to take care of their own food and water needs. It was amazing to me how quickly a stretch of insurmountable horizontal desert had been transformed into a network of neighborhoods, thus creating a city.
Many of the art installations were burned on Sunday night at Burning Man. I found it difficult to understand why someone would invest so much of themselves for just one week of the year. I spoke with one artist who had spent months creating his sculpture. He spent a small fortune to rent equipment to bring his vision to fruition in the Nevada desert. When Sunday evening came around, like so many of his fellow artists, he willingly torched the entire piece, as crowds emerged to cheer him on. Initially, I couldn’t help feeling the sting of watching someone’s work go down so quickly, after taking so long to create it. Once this artist explained that the act of destroying his art was what he considered to be the final step in his process, I began to understand these sporadic bonfires of creativity. I actually came out of that experience with a new appreciation for living in the moment, and honoring the ‘here and now.’
There was a large cafe in the center of town where folks were able to purchase food and drinks. With the exception of ice sales, this was the only place where money was exchanged in Black Rock City. In every other case, attendees were expected to abide by another law of the land; gift-giving. Knowing this in advance, I traveled with a backpack full of candy and trinkets to give out to people. One day, while I was heading down the road on my bike, I lost a bolt. Knowing there was a bike camp, I cruised by and asked if they could help me. In exchange for fixing my bike, I traded a key chain containing a miniature deck of cards. He was pleased, and I was riding again.
Each year, this weeklong event culminates with the actual burning of the man, which is a large wooden structure in the shape of a man. The statue was burned on Saturday evening, in front of thousands. As the statue lit up the sky, crowds of people screamed and danced, while others laid back and observed. While I watched the burning, I got the impression that this ceremony meant something different to each witness. I appreciated this statue because it was the one time when virtually everyone in this temporary community came together. There was so much activity going on at all times, and yet it was so massively spread out, that there was no other time besides the burning of the man when everyone was focusing on the same object. While that object may have meant a different thing to each witness, the fact that we all experienced it together and simultaneously seemed to strengthen the feeling of community within Black Rock City.
“What is Burning Man?” is a common question I have heard from those who are unfamiliar with this event. The funny thing is, there are many possible right answers. It is more than an event or the burning of a structure. Some will attest to its importance as a social phenomenon, a giant orgy or pagan ritual gathering. To others, it is not just one week out of the year, but rather a community and a way of life. To others still, it is a big celebration, and an excuse to walk around a desert in a pink tutu. It certainly invites creativity and involvement, and who knows, perhaps Burning Man is a bit of all of these. Ultimately, Burning Man is challenging to describe because it is about personal experience.
The weather this year in the Black Rock Desert was at times difficult to endure. However, it threw me into bonfire conversations I would never have had on one occasion, and the cold rain of another evening led me into a warm and cozy cabaret which I had passed by many times before. Why did more than 25,000 people agree to live in these harsh conditions for one week of the year? When that many people are brought together, each sharing and taking part in that which they feel passionate about, a certain magical atmosphere results. Artists can meet artists without the usual barriers in the way. It is about everyone having equal opportunity to share their visions. The Black Rock Desert is a networking dream come true for artists, because the atmosphere breeds interaction, and while actual consumer transactions do not occur, it is a fertile ground for artists to network and get their talent seen by eyes that care.
When my weeklong journey through Burning Man ended, I headed home on the same plane that I had arrived on. As our plane lifted off of the desert and my last view of Black Rock City disintegrated, I began to reflect upon my past week. I spent much of the plane ride home in silence, my mind struggling to comprehend all that I had experienced, and wondering how I could possibly describe Burning Man to those who have never attended. Staring out of the tiny airplane window, I challenged myself to come up with an accurate description of Burning Man to bring home with me.
If you picked 50 Burning Man participants and asked each of them to define Burning Man, my guess is that you would get 50 different answers. Attendants arrive with their own expectations and objectives. The bottom line is that I found Burning Man to be what you make it. Each participant has their own personal reason to be a part of Burning Man and depending on who attends and what they bring