I read somewhere that trying to describe Burning Man to a person who hasn’t been is like trying to describe different hues to a colorblind person. Now that I have returned from my own inaugural sojourn to Black Rock City, I can understand the struggle. Photos might show a technicolor rave, but don’t do much to explain the profound effect the Ten Principles may have had. A video of The Temple burning might reveal a great pyrotechnics show, but it can’t convey the impact of tens of thousands of people going completely silent to sit spellbound and reflect on the week that they have shared.
That doesn’t stop people from trying, though. Thousands of paragraphs have been written and millions of photos have been taken to try to illustrate the profound adventure that is The Playa. Now it’s my turn, and I feel humbled by the challenge of trying to describe my Burning Man experience in words.
Burning Man is often described as life changing, and so I laughed when a friend I met traveling in Indonesia told me in a whisper – as if the entire Burning Man community might be slinking around Gili Trawangan, waiting for an outlier to break from the official party line – that “the kind of people who say Burning Man changed their life probably didn’t have very exciting lives to begin with.” I thought of that conversation often throughout the week, doing a mental once over every so often to determine if in fact my life had changed, and if I was in fact the same wide-eyed girl who had driven through the gates a few days earlier. Would by family recognize me? Would my friends get me? Had I spontaneously developed dreadlocks? There was one thing I knew for sure – I’ve been around the world and back, but Burning Man was my first visit to another planet.
I’m sure by the time it’s all over I’ll have written several posts about my experience, ranging from attempts at poetic description to those of the most useful “I screwed this up, go forth and do it better” variety. But first, I’ll try to make a fruitless attempt at explaining to you what the heck this Burning Man thing is all about.
Burning Man is not just a bunch of naked hippies.
Burning Man is 68,000 different people coming together to spend a week in one of the most inhospitable environments on Earth – the Central Nevada Black Rock dessert. They are families with small children and elegant Canadian women celebrating their 75th birthdays. There are artists, musicians, college professors, lifetime ravers, TED speakers, construction workers, frat boys, unemployed drifters, CEOs, retirees, and hey, maybe a travel blogger or two. They are republicans and democrats, men and women and everything in between. They come from all over the globe. Some of them are naked.
Burning Man is not a music festival.
Burning Man is a celebration of art, self expression, and community. While music is happening all the time, there is no pre-assigned lineup, and no set of shows. Burning Man is more of a temporary city; an experiment in a purpose-built utopia. That said, one of my favorite moments of the week was running across The Playa asking anyone with a Burnier-Than-Thou look on their face where the main stage was and what time Kanye was on.
Burning Man is not a swap meet.
This was a major misconception I heard over and over again in the time leading up to my departure – that everything at Burning Man must be bartered or traded. One of the ten principles of Burning Man is gifting – nothing in Black Rock City is for sale, and instead participants give freely to one another with no expectation of anything in return. I can see how in our culture this is a very hard concept to grasp, and I think that’s where the confusion stems from. Several of the principles, including gifting, had a very profound effect on me and I have a post coming up on that subject.
Burning Man is not exclusively about “drinking and drugging,” as my mother would call it.
Yes, drugs are a major part of the Burning Man experience. But so is TEDx Black Rock City, and the Black Rock City marathon, and the number of sober camps and daily AA meetings that take place like they would in another city of this size.
Burning Man is not a wild orgy in the desert.
Okay, I mean for some people that is definitely a part of it.
Burning Man is not a week long, very expensive panic attack.
Well, I mean, you do kind of have a point there. Maybe we should just move along then, shall we?
What is Burning Man?
Burning Man is being an impromptu guest at a wedding officiated by Elvis.
Burning Man is unintentionally participating in a Bunny Parade, when you just happened to wear your bunny costume without realizing that several thousand others were planning on doing exactly the same.
Burning Man is Banana Yoga in a Yurt.
Burning Man is sunset confession time on top of the art car with your best friend.
Burning Man is twelve hour traffic jams turned parties at the gate.
Burning Man is a videogame come to life.
Burning Man is, quite literally, a man burning. A wooden one, anyway.
Burning Man is riding out a white-out atop of a steampunk art car.
Burning Man is watching an original musical worthy of a Tony at a popup luxury tent hotel.
Burning Man is the world’s biggest playground and/or most interactive art gallery.
Burning Man is new friends, old loves, and everything in between.
Burning Man is whatever you want it to be.