Back at the turn of the century, I started to hear oblique references to an art festival that took place out in the desert of Nevada each year. News articles referenced it as the largest outdoor art gathering in the world, where performers, musicians, mechanical engineers, and public works professionals would come together to create a spontaneous ephemeral city in the dusty Black Rock Desert. The festival has principles centered around each person participating in creating the arts, performances and events that happen throughout the week. Because there are 70,000 people who attend each year, there are art projects scattered all across the desert sands and a non-stop schedule of gatherings, workshops and teachings by people across a huge array of backgrounds, disciplines and interests.
Black Rock City only exists for one month every year. The festival culminates in the last weekend with the ceremonial burning of a wooden anthropomorphic statue called “Burning Man” that looks like a giant robot figure towering above the dusty plain surrounded by concentric rings of streets where people reside in tents, vans or RVs.
It’s complex to summarize the experience of this festival. For those who attend, it can be a very transformative experience. Witnessing the creativity of thousands of people collaborating on architectural construction projects towering 50-60 feet off the desert floor is a profound thing to watch. It’s even more moving to think that the only reason they are doing this project is out of personal passion. As everything that happens at the event has to be taken down or destroyed by the end of the festival to return the alkali flats to their normal unsullied state. (The US Bureau of Land Management maintains public land use and grants the Burning Man organization a license to conduct the festival, so long as the sand flat is returned to its unsullied original state.) The appearance and disappearance of this city is part of its point and part of its charm. It’s a cultural experiment and celebration of ephemeral art and spontaneity.
The principles of the event are that everyone is supposed to create something or participate in something that contributes to the good of the community. While the event is spectacular, one is not supposed to be there just to spectate. Something of you is to be gifted to this community, somehow. This is one of the chief complaints I’ve heard about this community from those who don’t participate in it. It’s not just folks hanging out having a good time. It’s folks trying extra hard to push the limits of creativity, artistry, openness, generosity and fun. To many of those outside the community, this contrivance and effort seems too contrived. Yet I’ve seen that when you get a lot of people trying to collaborate to make something amazing, something amazing often does result.
There are 70,000 souls who join each year. And so there are as many unique experiences and perspectives. I can’t entirely summarize what it’s like, but I can describe it: During the early morning hours, you can walk across the expanse of desert, visiting different works of art that are spaced at large intervals apart from each other across the expanse of desert sand referred to as “the playa”. In the middle of the vast expanse of the playa, the art pieces are relatively close together. But out in what is called the “deep playa” you have to walk for two to three minutes before getting to another art installation. The spaces between sculptures feel eerily isolated because sound does not bounce off of anything. If you hear anything, it is typically your own footsteps crunching on clumps of soil nobody has stepped on for years.
Temperatures can range from 40 degrees at night to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the day. The area near the 6:00 position, on the clock-like orientation of the city, is where people gather at temperature peak times. Center Camp, as it’s called, is a massive shade structure of canvas suspended over wooden benches and small art installations. Carpet is laid out and fastened down over the desert surface so that people can relax off of the dusty plain, listen to the poetry and storytelling stages (where I often would go to share my mediocre poetry) or listen to the music performance stage which has a stunning array of musical styles: classical orchestra, jazz bands, beat-boxers, rockers, folk music artists and percussionists.
Of course because I am a drummer, that was my chief mode of participation every year. I would bring several drums and leave them strewn about Center Camp among a small group of folk who regularly practice drumming. Everybody likes to bang a drum every now and again. So of course people would stroll up, surprised to see a dormant drum sitting there, and they’d gesture the question asking if they could play it. Then slowly you’d see them find their way into the groove that the group was creating. I’ve participated in hundreds of communal drumming jams over the years around the world. But I’ve found these sessions that happen in Center Camp to be some of the most profoundly inspired and free-form, following percussion styles from around the globe, depending on who shows up.
One of my fondest memories from my first year at Burning Man was a very sunny clear day when I was in Center Camp. A wind picked up and suddenly the core area of Center Camp was thronged with people fleeing the open desert for the shelter of the tented area. The winds were moving so fast that the canopy above Center Camp did little other than slightly slow the wind so that all the dust fell out of the air onto the people in the center. The drummers were circled by dozens of people who started to dance. Because of the harsh condition, the poetry stage and music stage stopped. Someone asked us to move to the center of the camp. As we did, over 100 people gathered into the center to dance to the rhythms. Heavy rain drops started falling through the dust. Everybody dancing was covered in mud and dust from head to toe. We played until the dust settled and a beautiful orange sunset closed out the day over a once-again still playa.
One of the principles of Burning Man is radical spontaneous generosity in the way of gifting. You can of course trade things with people as you wish. Bartering is not encouraged. People will come up to you, get engrossed in a conversation about some aspect of your or their lives, aspirations, visions and hopes, and then they’ll gift you something. Usually the gifts are works of art the person has crafted. In my case, because I am a musician, I would give my music on CDs wrapped in zip-locked bags, so that they would still be playable when people got out of the desert sands.
One year, when I had attended the burn without any friends with me, I was invited to join a camp of two new-found friends, Ken and Kelly. They were the most meticulously prepared people I had ever seen at Burning Man. I was used to eating canned soup and tortilla chips for my sustenance. But Ken and Kelly would pre-cook elegant Thai stews which they would freeze before bringing out to the playa. They fed their camp-mates with some of the most gourmet food I have ever eaten on a dusty plain!
One day I was sitting in front of my tent eating tortillas with salsa with my father while telling stories. Suddenly the wind picked up to around 30 miles per hour and dust made it difficult to see even 20 feet ahead of us. My father scurried off to make sure his tent was going to stay on the ground. I looked back to see the silhouette of Ken holding a tent pole of his tent which was 15 feet or so in breadth. Trying to hold a tent of that size down in a wind that speed is against the nature of lightweight nylon air bags, which aspire to become kites. I ran back to secure the other corner of his tent. We stood there blinded by dust for about 20 minutes shouting to each other over the wind. Finally, the wind slowed. Clear sun came out above us with a little light drizzling rain. Battered, filthy and rather stunned, we started to stroll down the dirt streets toward the receding sand storm which looked like a dark wall of brown clouds in the distance. Turning the corner we saw a gathering of 30 or so people in an open space. Someone in the center had an ice cold keg of beer he was giving out. It happened to be incredibly good beer. The taste of cold hoppy beer when you’re thirsty and exhausted is a particularly stirring sensation. Moisture at the edge of the dust storm, catching the light of the sun, created a vast double rainbow to the west of us, spanning the breadth of the valley between the mountains. Being so worn down and being given these simple gifts at exactly that time felt like a very profound experience. Some gifts are most profound because of their timing. And the simplest thing can seem the most grandiose.
For many years after that, Ken was on a mission. He decided to bring that similar kind of experience to others. So he would brew several kegs of this award-winning home brewed beer and bring them to the playa. Knowing how much Kelly and I liked hoppy beer, he would brew a special beer for us called “Hopocalypse”. It was the bitterest sock in the kisser you can imagine, with a little bit of remaining malt sweetness to soothe as it went down. He would build a trailer for his bicycle called “The Keg-cycle” and ride about the playa looking for wandering pilgrims. He’d ask if they wanted to try amazing beer, to which the answer was almost always yes. He’d offer them a choice of brew style and then would talk to them about the flavor profile of each beer they sampled.
To make my small contribution to Ken’s delivery of blissful experiences, I decided that I would give culinary gifts to people in his wake. He’d ride ahead by bike and I would walk, carrying about 10 pounds of rare European imported cheese that I’d kept in ice-cold coolers. Typically, I’d have five kinds of cheeses to offer depending on the recipient’s tastes. Imagine being in a desert when Anthony Bourdain walks up to serve you an exquisite meal. That’s somewhat like the reception I would get. I’d offer 3 different types of crackers along with accompaniment of cold fresh vegetables: celery, red bell pepper, carrots as well as savory kippered herring, dates, hummus and olive tapenade. Ken’s beer in isolation is mind blowing. Having a palate-cleanser in between samples of fresh cool nutrients added to the surreal sense that people had of something entirely out of context of the playa. One year, we planted ourselves in the small huts at the foot of the man, offering our goodies to people who’d walked out there while my friend Sean played the drums and created melodic compositions for the visitors. Other years, we’d offer at Center Camp or out in the furthest reaches of the “deep playa” where nobody expects ice cold culinary treats. (Like this peppered-smoked-salmon on aged gouda and manchego)
The deep playa art works serve as oasis destinations across miles of desert, making way-finding in the sunset and deep dark nighttime hours of Burning Man into a tremendous expedition. The horizon line ahead of you is always a multi-color continuum of rainbow LED lights, lasers and fires around which people huddle keep warm and talk in small clusters. Once in awhile, brightly lit “art cars” drive by, bringing new pilgrims to the elaborately lit art installations in the deep playa. Jumping on an art car is like participating in a magical mystery tour of the driver’s inspiration. They play their favorite music for you and take you to their favorite art installations across the playa, where you have a chance to disembark, experience, and jump back on if you wish.
One of my favorite art cars was a gigantic Persian carpet that appeared to undulate in waves. It was resting atop a car that the driver would steer using a gigantic hookah pipe as the steering wheel. Underneath its tassels was a colorful led light that gave it the appearance of hovering across the dust as it moved. I often would jump on the front of the magic carpet in the midnight chill and ride it quietly across the playa.
My friend John prefers to experience the deep playa by foot at night far from the heart of Black Rock City, where a fence is strung across the desert to catch anything the wind blows. We typically had to wear heavy coats to endure the chill of the night air after midnight. Strolls to the edges of the deep playa could easily add up to 5 miles of walking between installations. These hikes were exhausting, but always very rewarding as this region is one of the least populated areas of Nevada, so light pollution is minimal and visibility of the Milky Way’s galactic center is high until the moon rises.
Sitting for hours under the stars is a very humbling experience, which Burning Man is replete with. Staring at the constellations, along with staring into bonfires is one of those elemental experiences that connects people of our time on Earth with millennia of our ancestors who experienced same awe and the same sense of vulnerability and inspiration before us. Some of my favorite discussions on the playa have been times when we’d stroll for minutes of dark silence until meeting a circle of other strangers around an installation or an impromptu fire circle at the edge of the playa.
The culminating days of Burning Man that take place on the final weekend are the central ceremonies of the event. It also happens to be the time of peak attendance when 60,000-70,000 people all congregate around the wooden effigy at the center of the city. All eyes fixate upon it during a fireworks display accompanied by fire spinners, drummers and ominously clad firemen in silvery thermal suits who create a safe perimeter at a particular distance from the man to spare them from the intense heat generated by the burn. The man burns over a course of an hour. When the last standing remnant has crumbled the firemen allow the “fire circle” of civilian attendees to approach the burning embers. For hours after, thousands of people come near to the coals, staring into them, talking, offering up prayers written on pieces of wood.
This first burn is the most Bacchic, cathartic celebration. I’ve talked to many people in the hours leading up to the man burn about what it symbolizes to them. There are so many interpretations you can hear or read about this. But a single common thread I’ve heard are stories of people seeking some kind of renewal of perspective in life and desires to get beyond hindrance and obstacles within themselves or in life in general. To many, the man burn ritual is one of self renewal and strength.
The second burn is called the temple burn. Over the weeks leading up to the event, a vast wooden temple is constructed at the 12 o’clock position of the city. People share pictures of loved ones who have died, pinned to the walls of the temple, often scrawled with messages of remembrance and love. Many people have ceremonial weddings here that celebrate civil marriages they conduct in their home societies as well. To be married on the playa and to be married in a church or civil office appear to be complementary modes of celebrating unions of profound love. Before the temple burn, there is no fire spinning or jubilant revelry like that which accompany the man burn. Out of respect for those who use this burn as a celebration of those whose lives are commemorated in the temple walls and temple prayer offerings, there is usually a woman who sings “Amazing Grace” before the temple burn ignites. As it is the last burn of the event, it is a chance to reflect on whatever insights, lessons and memories people have had over the past week. It is a symbolic farewell for people who consider the community there to be a home for them.
From the year that I volunteered at the entrance/exit gate I’ve also heard that it can be so stressful and unpleasant for some people that it can send them fleeing just a day after their arrival! It reminds me a bit of the film “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus”. It is not the place or what is there that is significant. Rather, it is what is inside the person that determines their experience. It can be very tough and sometimes unpleasant for people to endure in the desert for one week with no outside communication, comfort amenities, and with only supplies they’ve brought in their own vehicles. If you don’t have something you need, you have to ask for it, trade for it, or do without it.
Removing yourself from one’s daily context can force profound introspection, much like travel itself. When the clutter of everyday distraction and routine is abandoned we can feel rootless. The mind surfaces all inspirations, uncertainties and questions unhindered. People in life transition or in doubt in their normal lives see their issues as if with a magnifying glass when taken out of their daily habitual context. The answers people find can be encouraging, reinforcing or unsettling. When people endure past the difficulty that discomfort brings, it can help shift personal insights forward. Sometimes when people are most stressed and frustrated by the experience, they go through a sense of breakthrough and bliss, a freed state of renewed resilience and resourcefulness. Those people who have experienced this tend to come back to the burning man experience repeatedly, like an initiation ritual.
To some it’s like a pilgrimage to visit an oracle who gives you perspective on your life at that particular time. All the people you meet you may well also meet in the context of civil society. But for some reason, this context-less place brings about more conversations and openness than you’d have strolling down to a corner restaurant/cafe in the “default” world.
There are now dozens of similar style festival around the world. I’ve enjoyed attending many of them. While I don’t think going to Nevada should be a goal for everyone. I think finding a place that lets you escape your daily context, specifically to explore your creative expression unhindered, is a worthy journey for all of us to take at some point in our lives.
Peace to my people!
Take me home: Leapingaroundtheworld.com
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Around the Fire: https://theta360.com/s/l228FTCNvjzZKwCRXKtZ44M9w
Inside the Lighthouse: https://theta360.com/s/n8nEYog94pOOCGXsfNC3By95s
Deep Playa at Night: https://theta360.com/s/c4ehBlpRDGNxgfz1gzEXL9c00
Dusk at the Temple: https://theta360.com/s/dDO7V5pAJ4ZOpxZob3zhvLUum
Night Lights on the Playa https://theta360.com/s/2JxkdrICyZNgE61dWHV4eBR7w
Laser Light Show on the Playa: https://theta360.com/s/eEd9gR0swo2McXfqbkf1A5Tc0
Leonardo and the Man: https://theta360.com/s/qZNY1ZLi26qaSLW8bNr7zGWdU
Night time Temple view: https://theta360.com/s/rOcFJdKWpC6grzEVqs4cZUdWa
Meeting the Legendary Danger Ranger: https://theta360.com/s/fpI5fLbUtvw4CUz6iJgWoEGP2
Sagittarius and the Whale: https://theta360.com/s/lEy0tSnmNyAP1FyK1g2N6VS9Q
El Pulpo Mechanico (The mechanical octopus): https://theta360.com/s/lpkP36IWuqyHkZhGtcIbVADS4