Having visited Black Rock Desert on numerous occasions in its purest state of desolate solitude (including a campaign photo shoot for an outdoor clothing brand, 100 mph drag races across the playa, and many, many AK & AR rounds). I was a bit wary of what I was about to encounter during my virgin voyage to Burning Man. I asked myself, “Why would anyone dare to transform this majestic landscape into some outlandish festival and what is all the fuss really about?”
At first glance, Burning Man might come across as a hippy festival, a drug-fueled rave, or just some odd microcosm with too many of “those people”. Sure, many burners wear eccentric costumes and little-to-no clothing, and there is music invading your ears from every direction, but it is so much more. Burning Man is an individualistic utopia, with each day bringing a new choose-you-own-adventure chapter featuring things most of us would never encounter or envision in our wildest dreams. Burners embrace the Ten Principles (Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-Reliance, Radical Self-Expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leave no Trace, Participation, & Immediacy) to transform one of the world’s most hostile environments into a welcoming, generous, adventure-filled, hyper-creative alternate reality where anyone can find their niche and freely explore themselves and their true nature.
So what does it feel like to be in the desert, with extreme/harsh climate, in a temporary city, sharing this experience with 64,000 strangers? First off, you’re in a constant flux of sensory overload. As a photographer, I literally couldn’t put my camera down. It was like being on an odd and beautiful safari, encountering species of humans and landscapes that I had never seen before.
By day, the playa is littered with people exploring/climbing/swinging/playing with the fully interactive and immersive art installations or they are attending seminars/events such as: “Write Your Future Self a Letter” – “Sketchy Clown’s Drinking Contest” – “DIY Flying: What to do when the pilot is dead and the flight attendant is in full panic.” – “Banjos & Whiskey” – “Boob’n’Brownies” – “Slow Speed Dating” – “Filter Grey Water w/ Mushrooms”
By night, the playa transforms into a sea of multi-colored LED lights, HUGE fire displays, and pulsating music ranging from Death Metal, to Jazz, and every variation of electronic. Mobile bars appear like oases serving everything from frozen margaritas, to PBR’s, to warm straight charcoal-filtered vodka. The only requirement for consumption is a cup and an ID, as money is not accepted anywhere at Burning Man.
With a MOTUS mindset, I was naturally drawn to the extreme vehicles that zipped around, morphing from static vessels in daylight, to incredible glowing monsters in the dark. People spend years fabricating, welding, lighting, and perfecting their “art cars”. The craftsmanship, intricacy, and creativity is staggering. Most spit flames and are multi-level, most carry a DJ or an enormous sound system, and most are by no means deemed DMV safe. Art cars are a jump on/jump off experience, entertaining anyone willing to go an adventure with no predetermined end. I was transported on a fire-breathing dragon, a 30ft. long piñata that raised to almost 40ft., a Golden Gate bridge, and an Imperial Tie Fighter.
One of the Burning Man core values that continued to amaze me throughout the week was this idea of gifting and sharing — a concept that fundamentally contradicts the quid-pro-quo/capitalistic exchanges to which we are accustomed. At one point we had stopped in the middle of the playa to wait-out a massive sand-storm… three of us huddled together, with maybe six feet of visibility. Just as the storm broke a German man peddled over to us and asked if we would like an ice-cold beer. His gesture was totally unprompted and he expected nothing in return. These acts of generosity and kindness were not anomalies. I watched in awe all week as people gifted food, alcohol, ice, rides, candy, and just about anything you can imagine, always with open arms and a smile.
I re-entered the “default world” after five days of incredible sunrises and amazing experiences with new friends. The most priceless gift I received was a new affirmation that humanity is inherently good when all the messiness is removed. The phrase “words cannot describe” rings true as I have attempted to recount my experience to friends and loved ones. The question above that I asked myself prior to Burning Man was answered as soon as we entered the gates and were told “Welcome Home.” Burning Man is not a silly festival and the fuss is just. It is an enigma, a utopia, a place unlike any other I have visited. The complexities that exist in Black Rock City both metaphorically and literally are so deeply rooted once you leave those gates that no matter who you were prior, you will have a new outlook post-playa. I am re-energized and have an incredible new appreciation of goodwill and kindness.
After two weeks of reflection, I am starting to understand the beauty within the duality of Black Rock Desert. It’s a majestic place both with and without Burning Man. Each with their own unusual facets to explore and admire. Burning Man is not for everyone, but if you have the slightest inkling of interest, I highly recommend putting this on your shortlist of Must Do’s and to see and experience this phenomenon for yourself. It’s definitely one of my Top 5 life experiences.