At the risk of sounding like one of those insufferable bores who bangs on about Burning Man, I’m just going to go ahead and say this: everything you’ve ever heard about Burning Man, good or bad, is probably true. You can stop reading there if you want.
This was my first year, and I’d been avoiding it for a while. Too expensive. Not a big fan of the extreme heat, or camping in it. The dust penetrates everything. Too much hype, which automatically makes me suspicious of any event. But, enough people whose opinions I trust assured me this would be the festival to end all festivals, and with an open mind, and the opportunity to connect with some old friends on the playa, I made a commitment to go.
Burning Man and the culture it purportedly represents is one giant contradiction, and every Burner knows it. The notion of an anti-capitalist event which requires thousands of dollars of investment to adequately prepare for, is patently absurd. I have never spent so much money at so many major shopping outlets (Walmart, Costco etc); the idea of purchasing the necessary provisions at indie vendors is almost laughable when you consider the sheer amount of stuff you need to be comfortably self-sustaining for a week in the desert. Then there is the unfathomable amount of propane, gasoline and other carbon-based fuels which are burned in the process of transporting and entertaining 66,000 people in the desert, as inefficient, highly polluting 60 kilowatt generators drive state-of-the-art mobile soundsystems, military-grade spotlights and lasers, and an enormous mechanical octopus which spews fire from its eight tentacles, high into the sky. This is not an environmentally sensitive, or sustainable event, regardless of what you might have heard.
It goes without saying that the desert is an inhospitable place. You face dehydration and exhaustion during the day, and the nights are cold enough to induce hypothermia for the inebriated and ill-prepared. Black Rock City is *dangerous*, and yet mercifully devoid of health and safety officials getting in the way of your fun. It’s a very adult party, but kids are allowed. If you take the time to read the disclaimer on the back of your ticket, the over-arching message is that you are responsible for taking care of your own shit, and if you don’t, you might die… and sadly, people do. Certainly, injuries abound as you drunkenly careen around thousands of peacocking ravers or climb 70 feet to the top of an Alien-styled Trojan horse to watch the sun rise, back-lighting an uncompromisingly beautiful landscape adorned with impossibly grandiose man-made art.
The third night is when the sheer scale and scope of the event hit me, and it hit home hard. A wave of freak lightning storms on Monday caused a 24h delay in getting a good portion of attendees on to the playa… so by Wednesday night most had arrived and set up, and the party was just getting started. Standing atop one of the roaming art cars in the middle of the playa (Tree House, from Victoria, which had previously been struck by said lightning storm), I was treated to a 360 degree panoramic and witnessed the most incomprehensible, densely-packed melee of countless brightly-lit mutant-vehicles, towering LED art installations, enormous sound-stages, and tens of thousands of ravers on creatively illuminated bikes, all criss-crossing and interacting, as the din of a thousand bass-bins massaged the orifices on either side of my disbelieving little brain. The comical outline of a life-sized basking shark eating an enormous psychedelic carafe as a giant, mechanised scorpion mashes its pincers and spews fire from its stinger, is a sight difficult to process the first time around.
“They” say a bunch of things at Burning Man. “You don’t know until you go” is one of them, but I’m doing my best to describe it anyway… not that I would want my best description to be an adequate substitute for anyone’s attendance. They also say, when you arrive at BRC, “Welcome Home”. At first, I wasn’t sure what that really meant, but I think I know now: If you’ve made it there, you are welcome everywhere you go, as if every stranger you encounter is a friend or acquaintance you’ve known for years. Human-to-human interactions flow with a joyous ease which is difficult to fathom when compared with the insular, distanced relationships we typically endure in a 21st century urban environment. All it takes is a smile and a “hey, how’s it going?”, and you might find yourself deep in stimulating conversation for the rest of the day. The inhabitants of this temporary city are some of the happiest and funniest and most beautiful people I have ever encountered and it is that, more than the perfectly-teched soundsystems, 20w lasers, elaborate staging, and the world’s best DJs and performers, that makes a great party.
I laughed so hard, I cried, and I cried so hard, I laughed. I get it now, Burning Man is the greatest party on earth, it’s in a desert, and I am coming back.