I’ve long been curious about Burning Man, the anarchic arts festival that has taken place for decades during the week before Labor Day in the harsh northern Nevada desert. At one point, Steve and I thought maybe the time was right for us to check it out. This was about 5 years after our older son moved to Reno (located about 100 miles southwest of the event). Alas by then its popularity had exploded. In 2010 more than 50,000 people attended Burning Man; in 2011 for the first time ever, tickets sold out about a month before the festivities started. In an attempt to curb the madness, the organizers created a complicated ticket lottery for the 2012 festival — the very year we targeted to attend. To our chagrin, we could only secure one ticket, so we gave up and resold it.
After that, the organizers abandoned the lottery system, but Steve and I were busy with other projects. Ironically, our younger son, Elliot, in the fall of 2017, independently happened to participate in a regional Burning Man event (YOUtopia) held on the La Jolla Indian Reservation in northern San Diego County. It engaged him so much he subsequently became involved with the local (San Diego) “burner” community (which has both formal and informal meetups throughout the year). Los Angeles also is home to a similar community, which organizes a 3- to 4-day campout called BEquinox. Elliot made plans to attend BEquinox this year with a friend, but then the friend couldn’t make it, so he needed to unload the ticket. Steve and I looked at each other 11 days ago and had the same thought: if we could find a second available ticket, maybe we should seize the opportunity to go. Elliot encouraged us to join him.
Amazingly, in short order we got the extra ticket, rented an RV, found sitters for the puppy we’re currently raising for Canine Companions for Independence, rescheduled appointments we had made for the five days we would need to be away (Wednesday, March 20, through Sunday, the 24th). Elliot planned to ride up and back with us in our rented motor home but sleep in his own tent. Instead of taking place near Joshua Tree National Park, as it has in years past, this would unfold on land the LA burner community recently acquired in the Mojave Desert, not far from Edwards Air Force Base.
At the end of winter, that patch of California is far more congenial than Black Rock in Nevada (site of the main Burning Man event) in late August. But the nights would be near freezing, we knew, and although we’ve done our share of tent camping over the years, we’re not crazy about it.
Now that we’re back, I can report that even with a nice RV, the environmental challenges were what I liked least about the experience. A rainstorm that preceded us had just blown out by the time we arrived about 4:30 pm last Wednesday. Every day after that was sunny, but fierce, dusty, bone-chilling winds whipped through the complex on most of Thursday and again on Saturday. After sunset the temperature plunged to the mid-30s. The BEquinox organizers had set up plenty of (very well-maintained) porta-potties to serve those of the 1500 attendees who lacked RVs, but that was the only utility provided. All attendees had to transport in all their own water and power and pack out every trace of refuse (“Leaving No Trace” on the natural environment is one of the ten sacred burner guiding principles). In our RV, Steve and I were so comfortable it was tempting at times to stay inside and cocoon. But each time we resisted that temptation, we were rewarded.
I still can’t report on what the big famous Burning Man is like, but after participating in a lite version, I can much better imagine it. Here are the three biggest insights I gained:
No one should attend Burning Man (or one of its regional offspring) unless the guiding principles appeal to them.
Steve and I enjoyed seeing how those principles animated this evanescent community. But someone who disliked the sound of any of them would be unlikely to enjoy the experience; might hate it. As expressed by the BEquinox literature, those principles are:
Radical Inclusion. “Anyone may be a part of our community. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.” I took this to mean participants do have to respect the core principles. I didn’t notice any Nazis in the crowd. But attendees ranged from toddlers to octagenarians, and they had a variety of skin colors and sexual orientations.
Gifting. “Our community is devoted to acts of giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.” Over the three days and four nights, we were given many things, including jewelry, alcoholic drinks (bars offering free liquor are plentiful), a lesson in tie-dying, 5 minutes (each) to talk about anything we wanted. (Steve discussed his ongoing science-fiction project, and I talked about raising puppies to be service dogs. At this event we also heard discourses on mountain-climbing, desert tortoises, cosmology, parenting, city planning, how to write a novel in 3 days, and more.) Free food was ubiquitous (though we had brought our own meals.) We could have gotten ukelele lessons, made jewelry and puzzles and buttons, been massaged, gotten a fire-spinning lesson, played a giant game of Scrabble, and done more that we missed. In turn, Steve and I gave away sweet, juicy, organically home-grown oranges. Folks seemed to appreciate them.
Decommodification. “In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising…” Steve and I have nothing against capitalism, but it was interesting to spend a few days in a community where nothing could be bought or sold.
Radical Self-Reliance. “Our community encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.” What’s not to like about that?
Radical Self-Expression. “Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.” This is the one I imagine might be most difficult for some folks to swallow. If some members of the community are expressing themselves by playing loud music or taking psychedelic drugs or walking around topless or naked (a small minority of the crowd, but a definite part of the scene), that’s part of the ethos. Consent, “the cornerstone of a healthy community,” helps to buffer some of the potential friction, but it seemed clear that by participating at all, one was consenting to at least being exposed to unconventional behavior.
Communal Effort. “Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration. We strive to produce, promote, and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that enable such interaction.” Seeing what this relatively small (less than 1500 people) and brief (three-day) community produced made me think the big Burning Man event must be staggering. Besides the huge wooden structure (the “effigy”) that was burned on Saturday night (top image), the BEquinoxers set up art works like this throughout the grounds.
They brought in wonderful “art cars” that roamed the dirt streets offering hop-on hop-off rides.
Some vehicles were tall…
One group set up an “Awesome Town” library, complete with potentially offensive books that participants were encouraged to burn on Friday night (after the effigy burning and before a dance party).
Civic Responsibility. “We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws.”
Leaving 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.”
Participation. “Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart.”
Immediacy. “Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value within our culture. We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience.”
A High Hippie sartorial aesthetic infuses the burner culture.
I never came close to being a hippie in the late ’60s and early ’70s. I was too young and way too straight-laced and conservative then. I had been vaguely aware that the costumes worn at Burning Man events were offbeat, but I was startled by how… uniformly most participants participated. Giant velvet Mad Hatter top hats, kilts and tutus, neon fur shin warmers, glitter, tie-dye, and onesies are the norm. Dressed in our jeans and t-shirts, Steve and I stuck out. That seemed okay too; no one appeared judgmental. But it was strange to feel a bit freakish by not dressing freakishly.
Everyone I talked with was interesting and likable. This event was like being at a giant three-day cocktail party filled with smart and interesting people who were ready to engage in conversation — chitchat that often quickly turned deep. We met doctors and lawyers and space engineers and software entrepreneurs and movie location scouts and covered topics ranging from camping skills to relationships. Of course we only talked to a tiny fraction of the attendees; maybe some would have been obnoxious. We’d have to return to another Burning Man event some day to learn more. We’re at least talking about that.