What is Burning Man, though?

So I went to Burning Man. It was very good. If you’re reading this, you probably know what Burning Man is. If not, I’ll try to explain. It’s a big festival, first of all, without any one particular aim, and it’s kind of full of peace and love and etc. This leads a lot of people to think “Woodstock” or something, and therefore to think “sex, drugs, and rock and roll”. Let’s run with that and try to refine it.

Well, first of all, the music of choice is mostly techno. At any time of day or night, you won’t have to strain to hear thumping basses. Rock is not so preferred; the “concert” in which four people play and a hundred people watch is just not as fun to the “dance” in which everyone’s participating. Or maybe people just really like computers in their music. Whatever: sex, drugs, and techno.

Sex? Well, there’s probably a lot of that going on. There’s not a lot of clothing sometimes, you see people making out, there are talks and parties about all sorts of sexual things. All your major sexual orientations are prominently on display, as well as most of your garden-variety fetishes. In a safe, open, relatively-less-taboo atmosphere, which is great. Still, despite what you may have heard, it’s only there if you seek it out; Burning Man is not a big orgy. Bear with me, dear conservative reader!

Drugs? Yes, there are those too, but again, not as much as I would have thought. There’s plenty of booze, the familiar smell of pot, and I met a couple people tripping on something. Again, this is also great; whatever floats your boat. And again, it’s only there if you seek it out. So we’ve got a reasonable amount of sex and drugs, and an unreasonable amount of techno.

But if that were all, you would have a much lesser festival! First of all, there’s the art. Everywhere you go, and especially after dark, you will see incredible things! Amazing things! A 40-foot-tall art-deco rocket! A replica of the Thunderdome from Mad Max! A giant Rubik’s Cube! A cubatron! A grid of jets spewing fire into the air in choreographed patterns! And then there’s the namesake Burning Man. And did I mention the “art cars”: decorated buses, trucks, other mutant vehicles holding 10, 20, 30 people, playing music or serving drinks, looking like a dragon or a pirate ship or a Victorian mansion? Yes sir, if you could do nothing but gawk at art it would be worth the price of admission alone.

Pyromaniac much? You may know that they burn a big statue of a man. And I mentioned one of the “grid of jets spewing fire” art installations; there are others. A neuron that spits fire, a bug that spits fire, cars that spit fire. And fire dancers: there must be hundreds of folks who spin fire poi or fire staffs or fire swords or a long-fiery-thing-on-a-string or whatever you like. This is neat.

Burning Man is a camp in the desert. This is difficult but not painful. You have to build a shade structure over your tent so you have somewhere to be during the day and so that you can sleep past dawn. Dust gets in everything. It’s really hot during the day and kinda cold at night. But it’s not crummy, really. It’s dusty, but it’s not muddy, so it’s a very clean kind of dirty. It’s a week without a shower, it’s a week eating dried and canned food over a camp stove, but these are challenges, not ordeals. It surprised me how not-so-bad it was.

It’s a spiritual opportunity. I learned about a new kind of Buddhism there (more on that later). I chatted about the meaning of it all, how to live with more compassion, whether Christianity was really so bad (oh my gourd, it is actually pretty good, get off its case), different meditative practices, and all sorts of religious, spiritual, and quasi-spiritual things.

It’s an opportunity to do generally fun things too. Want to draw on a giant mural, learn to make kimchi, or paint your body all different colors? Run through an obstacle course, eat a grilled cheese sandwich at 1AM, listen to a kind of music you never have before? Dance like you never have before? Wear a different goofy costume every day of the week? Hell, wear no clothes at all, just because why not? You can do it, and nobody will laugh at you.

And there is the real magic of Burning Man. It’s so supportive and welcoming. The only thing you can do wrong is not do what you want. (and even then, it’s cool too.) The crowd is a little bit of a cast of misfits. It’s not just a nerd crowd, it’s not really a hippie crowd, but you get the sense that everyone there is a little outside the mainstream because the mainstream is a little unsatisfying. And because they’re a little outside the norm, they’ve been pushed around a little. And they react in the best possible way: by not pushing others back, indeed, but by opening up to others to a really unusual extent. It makes people like me feel like we’re really truly okay, more than anything has in a while.

So what is Burning Man? Sex, drugs, techno, art, fire, camping, spirituality, fun, a really fantastically open atmosphere, and that’s still not the half of it. As usual when I travel somewhere, I’d love to talk about it anytime.

(and if you’d rather hear it from someone other than me, this guy wrote a good post about it too.)


Pete -

Nice. I head the art was a huge part from a buddy.

I also heard price of living/drinking water was high?

Dan -

Well, there’s two answers to that. The first is that the price of making the whole thing happen is high. The ticket costs between $200 and $360, depending on when you buy it, and then you have bring everything: food, water, camping stuff, etc.

The second is that everything* is free inside the camp. You’re not allowed to use money; only gifts. This is another cool thing. You stop in to anyone’s camp anytime, they’re more than generous with food, drinks, sometimes a handmade necklace or something.

*the overseers of burning man do run 3 ice places where you can buy ice with money, and there is one coffeeshop in the center of the city where you can buy coffee drinks with money. The ice places make sense; I don’t really understand the coffeeshop, but whatever.

Kristen -

Ah sounds like such an adventure! I can’t even imagine (to the extent of what it really is).
And I really like the (almost) no-money thing going on. When you say you can’t use money, only gifts, does this mean that you exchange one thing for another? Or just that you are given these ‘gifts’?

Dan -

More like the latter. I guess you could trade stuff if you wanted, but everyone brings enough that they’ll survive fine, so it’s usually just token “gifts” like “hey you’re hanging out in our camp, let me get you a beer” or “I made a bunch of these necklaces, let me give you one.”

ps. you have a blog! I didn’t know. That is neat. (read read read)

Jessica O. -

It sounds like so much fun. The music! The art! I am planning to go next year. Was it at the end of August?

Hope you are doing well, Dan. xo Jessica

Dan -

Yeah, last week of August/first week of September. I guess it’s always the week before Labor Day. Cool, glad you’re interested!

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