Burning Man: Did I Find My Circus Tribe?

        The theme of Burning Man 2019 was Metamorphosis, and this was reflected in everything from street signs and giant art projects to the stickers handed out by individual camps. But I suspect that title would fit any year. Burners build a city of 70,000 in the middle of the Nevada desert every August, where for a week-plus it becomes the third largest city in the state. What could be a bigger metamorphosis than that?

         I went for the first time this year and I’m quite sure my metamorphosis has only begun. This was the most creative and engrossing place I’ve ever been in my life and although it’s taken me more than a week to readjust to the “default world,” I can’t wait to go again. 

        Two of my biggest expectations were met: I expected to be bowled over by the scale and creativity of the big art projects scattered in the open desert around the central figure of the Man. And I expected that the 100-degree days, frequent dust storms, lack of WiFi and cramped camping (without the ability to buy anything but ice or coffee at the site) would frustrate and exhaust me. You betcha. There was also anxiety around the fact that I would inhabit a small tin box for 12 days with John Paul, a friend from high school with whom I had spent a total of 4 hours face-to-face in the past 44 years. We had reconnected on Facebook and bonded over the fact that both of our husbands had died and online dating sucks. But this was a huge leap of faith on both our parts. 

                  Here we are on our front porch, set up and open for company. 

       

        And here is me on Day 11 (having decided that 30-second showers every 3 days are no big thing. The playa dust makes my hair look thicker….)

     To be clear, John and I had our “WTF have I done” moments. It took me days to acclimate. We got there early because he had daily shifts at the Gate. This meant I had to plot my own wobbly beginner’s course. But I had the huge privilege of watching the city being built and populated before my eyes and came to understand the deep bond between the veterans who do the gut work that makes the city tick. John and I are both morning people with a default mode of cheerful problem-solving, which helped. He loved sharing his favorite burner experiences and sights and I loved his passion and generosity in doing so. I loved that he wrote on our whiteboard: “Widows’ Camp. Both Looking for Men.” And that he gave me a pink t-shirt reading “Extremely Huggable: Try Me,” to wear with my black tutu on Tutu Tuesday (it worked!)

       What didn’t I expect? Spontaneous magic and deep community.

       Every day, something amazing happened as I explored, especially in our neighborhood around 5:00 and Diana. Coming back from a yoga class one morning (and the class was in a beautiful tent with the sky overhead), I was startled by a real-sounding police siren. This tall guy dressed in orange told me to “pull over” and I was given a hot pink ticket for a “style violation.” My newbie bike didn’t have enough bling and I was directed to an area with bins full of beads, fake flowers, stuffed animals, ribbons and more, to reverse my infraction. It was jarring, then delightful.

 

         Another day, I biked around the playa exploring art with a campmate and she photographed me inside the letter “O” within a sculpture that spelled out the word LOVE. That night, we ate smoked meat cooked by an Australian chef at a friend’s camp and one of the guests had worked on that very sculpture. Thousands of bird shapes were cut from the metal letters and this guy had a pocket full of metal birds: he gave me one as a souvenir.

        Maybe my favorite magic morning was the time my front tire blew and it looked like I’d need to limp back to camp. Less than a minute later, a shirtless guy walked up to us and said, “Would you ladies like to follow me to that white van over there? Just give me 10 minutes.” If someone said that to you in NYC, you’d run the other direction but this guy was a skilled bicycle repairman, who fixed my bike in a flash. Free, like everything else in Black Rock City. And right after that, me and campmate Marsha found the Burning Globe, a camp of theater geeks whose thing is providing Shakespearean tarot readings. Whatever card you pick has a fitting Shakespeare quote on the back: you mount a stage and “perform” your quote while a trained thespian stands behind you, feeding you the words.

        Much of the magic came from private, one-on-one encounters but the big public events (listed in the 190-page WhatWhereWhen booklet we got on arrival) could also be amazing. The time I had the biggest grin on my face might have been when John and I went to experience the New Orleans jazz funeral the day after they burned the Man, joining the Second Line parade to the large flat burned-out spot where the Man once stood. (I’m going to post a minute-long video with sound on FB but here is a photograph of the parade starting out. Also, if you click on this link here, you can watch short videos of the jazz funerals at Burning Man in 2011 and 2015.)

          As I said, the artworks were spectacular. More than a single vast museum could ever house, they rarely had instructions and were often interactive. I could fill a dozen blogs just about the art but I’m adding on a video at the end that showcases an array of sculptures. I’ll just share one of my personal favorites, the Shrine of Sympathetic Resonance, a 40 foot tall, wooden building with 90 piano harps embedded in its walls. It was glorious and the morning I walked through, there was a lone man playing a trumpet inside. I spoke with him later and learned his playa name was Satchmo and he was from Philadelphia.

        Someone told me that Burning Man is “70,000 people who’ve let down their guard.” That makes for lots of hugs and open conversation. I especially loved the easy intimacy we developed with neighbors, people who walked past our camp to use the porta potties (the one decorated with New Yorker cartoons was a favorite). Camped near us were the Iron Monkeys, a collective of metalworkers from Seattle whose playa installation, the Plaza of Introspectus, included multiple fire-spouting structures. One of our beloved monkeys was Dave, who was often seen carrying a basket full of nail polish so he could paint the nails of random lucky burners.

       (A word about who camps where: unaffiliated people who manage to secure tickets are guided to open camping areas. The more organized camps, either work camps (the residents perform some vital service as volunteers) or theme camps (residents provide entertainment or goods/services to passersby) get placed closer to the front of the horseshoe-shaped residential area, where the action is. )

           Just wandering around and meeting people actively involved in building and maintaining Black Rock City made every day memorable. Like Andrea, the British artist whose sculpture of two giant dancing bees was “designed to be a jungle gym for grownups.” I met her randomly on the street but the next day found her polishing the copper ballet slippers on her sculpture, out on the playa.  Or Tito, one of a group of volunteers called Man Watchers who make sure no one tries to climb, ignite or otherwise disturb the Man before the Burn on Saturday night.

Me and Tito, under the Man

Andrea Greenlees, creator of the Bee Dance sculpture

         I could go on for days. How fun it is to travel around looking for the camp that gives out free ramen or the one near us, License to Chill, whose gift to burners is free snow cones (the daily special includes liquor), or the other where they’ll wash your dry, cracked hands with lavender water and then cover them with soothing cream. I stumbled across the Black Rock Public Library, where you take their used paperbacks out for a year and they use the Screwy Decimal System. I haven’t even talked about the Temple, a structure farther out than the Man, where people take items of remembrance from lost loved ones which burn with the Temple on Sunday night. I attended an amazingly powerful memorial service there, before the burn, run by a camp called ReligiousAF. I’m saving that story for another time and place.

Eating free ramen

Librarian at the Black Rock City Public Library

Outside the Temple of Direction before Sunday night’s burn

         People think Burning Man is all about nudity, drugs, sex and music and they aren’t completely wrong. There are multiple organized events for naked or topless cyclists but also an ultra-marathon for hardcore runners. There is free alcohol everywhere but you can also go to an AA meeting. Yes, there are massive discos with acres of flashing LED lights where DJs preside over thumping techno beats, but also cozy tented venues that specialize in bluegrass music or jazz. There’s even an orchestra that plays multiple times during the week. I might have imbibed a wee bit of cannabis and laid on my back with John Paul inside a geodesic dome whose mosaiced panels constantly changed color overhead and we definitely went to a burlesque performance. But I didn’t go looking for the Orgy Dome (for those who asked). It’s a no-spectators scene and you have to go with a partner(s) and get busy. Even with volunteers handing out lube and wipes? Not for me.

Critical Tits parade, 2003. Photo by Marc Merlins
http://marc.merlins.org/perso/bm/2003/

Please note: I didn’t take this photo. The Orgy Dome may or may not look like this.

        But then all of Burning Man is a “No Spectators” zone, which is partly what makes this place feel engaging and authentic in our passive, voyeuristic age. There’s a lot less FOMO being felt when each of us is deeply immersed in the thing we’re doing and the people we’re doing it with. Staying in a place where there’s nothing to buy, no WiFi, no television and no advertising, it’s astonishing how stimulating a simple conversation can be. People may dress up in outlandish costumes at Burning Man, but they also feel free to let their humanity hang out. Radical Self-expression is one of the 10 Principles, and so is Radical Inclusion.

So here are John and I watching the Man burn on Saturday night after fire dancers surrounded him, fireworks shot up from the ground and flames exploded from his chest. The crowd cheered when his skeletal form fell backward off the pedestal. I’m not wearing my light-up giant headdress at this moment, so the people behind us can see the action. Somehow, I don’t have a single photograph of myself costumed that night in white from head to toe, including white lace fingerless gloves. I was living so deeply in that rich, embellished moment, I didn’t make plans for Instagram.

The Man burns in 357 days!

Standing within an AMAZING and elaborate art piece/building called The Folly. Please Google it!

 

Want more? Here is a short video that gives a tour of the art. I like it because the “tour guide” circles each piece he visits. (Not comprehensive.)

 

 And this is a lip sync video that I think really captures the feel of the whole event. It will help you to understand that every person who comes to Burning Man, even first-timers, is greeted with “Welcome Home.” (And yes, there is roller derby at Burning Man.)

If you want to read more, including about the event’s history, why the Burning Man org hates being called a Festival, and how the 10 Principles shape everything, go here. 

Will I meet you in the dust next year?

 

Comments

  1. Liz Sonnenfeld says:

    No, you won’t unless it’s the dust of Tucson. You lost me at porta potties :(. Although if they build a Westin or a Hilton in that desert, I’ll reconsider.

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