by James Hogan
Black Rock City is a city; and it feels like it. A city out of some bizarre post-apocalyptic future, perhaps, but a city nonetheless. Not a campground. Not a fairground or a festival. There are streets and addresses. There is an infrastructure. There is law enforcement. There is a post office. There are almost forty thousand people.
It is a city of creativity, openness, and warmth. It was founded as an art festival of sorts, broadly defined; everyone is supposed to participate in some form. Some people build massive five-story wooden dance halls in the desert and set them on fire. Some people open a modest tiki bar and serve mojitos with fresh mint – I mean really fresh – grown in a pot on the bar. Some people just wear wacky costumes. One guy I saw was wearing a suit and tie. Almost every person has come with the intention of giving and receiving self-expression – which makes for a beautifully friendly and warm community of people. Whatever your form of participation is, it’s OK. No, really. I mean it – it’s OK.
I was on the distant outskirts of town one evening, alone, looking at a tiny art piece. Silence and blackness all around. An older guy wandered over from the camps to talk to me. I forget his name, but he was in his sixties. He was a retired third-generation farmer who had just sold the family farm a few years back – an unlikely Black Rock City demographic all around. It was his third time at Burning Man with his wife. We had a good discussion.
“Some of these people have a disdain for ‘normal’ society,” he said, “but this whole event is the product of a very rich society.” And it’s true; Black Rock City is a city of consumption and excess. This I don’t view as a bad thing; in fact, it struck me as profoundly inspirational to see so many people spending so much of their time and wealth on a week of creativity and community. The world is a richer place than if everyone had bought luxury cars and extra value meals instead. Black Rock City made me feel proud and grateful to be part of a capitalist society with the wealth and infrastructure to facilitate such a beautiful event.
Was that ex-farmer a participant? No costume, no art piece, parked in his RV on the dark outskirts of town? To me he was. He didn’t keep a camera lens between him and the event, he reached out to the event – me – and connected in a way that helped define my week. You can participate. Just be yourself. Really. It’s OK.
The playa has a way of giving you what you need, if you’re open to receiving it. It doesn’t seem to matter if it’s the meaning of life or a roll of toilet paper. This effect is so profound and so unintuitive that if I were not passionately scientific, it would seem like magic.
It seems like everyone has a story. The Burning Man website is full of them. Someone needs a glowstick, or extra toothpaste, or a toolkit to fix their bike in the middle of the playa, and poof! A stranger materializes with the goods a few minutes later. A friend and I were trying to have a serious, thoughtful conversation during a bike ride and we came across a sofa in the middle of nowhere – a unique oasis of privacy and comfort, isolated about 1000 feet from the nearest camp. A sofa, in the middle of the fucking desert? We sat down and had a great talk. After a while I found an empty condom wrapper behind one of the cushions. Apparently we weren’t the only couple who found what they needed.
I think humans are generally way too quick to attribute greater meaning to common statistical flukes, but I’m telling you, this shit is weird. I think it’s the result of having so many people in close quarters who are unusually emotionally in tune with themselves and the people around them.
I was lonely at the beginning of the week. I was only close friends with a couple of people in my camp, and their Burning Man experience was fundamentally on a different track than mine; they’re a married couple with a 10-month old son. I’m a single guy. I was kind of clingy for a couple of days before I finally gave up and ventured out on my own. I biked in far, isolated areas of the city, feeling, well, isolated. Like I didn’t fit in. And that people didn’t seem to want to hang out with me.
My first evening alone, I bumped into a couple of acquaintances out in the city. My loneliness must have been palpable. I was met with huge smiles and hugs – just what I needed. Before I left, one of them gave me a necklace – a rainbow of brightly colored plastic beads she draped across my neck. I glowed and felt rejuvenated as we rode our separate ways. Less isolated, and a necklace to prove it. I had two new friends, even if I didn’t bump into them again.
The next day I stop by the Black Rock City Post Office. They let you send postcards to The Outside. There are four windows open, each with a phrase painted next to it: “Nice :-)” “Naughty,” “Love,” and “FUCK YOU.” I’m not really paying much attention, and amble up to the FUCK YOU window somewhat timidly.
“Hi… how does this work? We can send postcards outside the city here, right?” She sort of pauses. The FUCK YOU girl is not very attractive; she’s kind of overweight and looks a little unhappy, or bitter. She doesn’t really react to my question, but I somehow feel like I’ve annoyed her already.
“You have to bribe me,” she says. She doesn’t look like she’s joking. I vaguely have some memory of reading about this bribing game that happens at the post office, except reading about it seemed cute, and now it does not. I kind of don’t get it. I unzip my backpack and start digging around. I’m feeling awkward.
I offer a couple of items I find in my backpack. A cheap crappy photo album with Japanese cartoon characters on it, and a few sets of colorful plastic chopsticks. She doesn’t like them, and not in a comical, over-the-top FUCK YOU way. She’s just being kind of a bitch and acting mean and making me feel unwelcome. Maybe I should leave.
“How about your necklace.” I look down at it – Shit, not the necklace, I think. It’s even prettier during the daytime. But it seems like I’m out of options, so I remove the necklace and hand it over. Why am I doing this? It’s not worth the necklace. Fuck the postcard. I should leave.
Her humanity detects something is amiss and forces her to hesitate. “Is it special to you?” she forces herself to ask. The tone of her voice is far from gentle, but the FUCK YOU armor has shown a chink, and I’m a little surprised. Yeah, the necklace is actually pretty special to me, I realize. It was a meaningful gift at a time when I was feeling lonely.
“No, not really,” I say. The flicker of humanity disappears. She takes the necklace and hands me a stamped postcard in one fluid motion. “NEXT!” she screams.
I turn and walk away from the window, a little confused at what just happened. I sit down on a nearby wooden bench and look at the postcard. I have no desire to write a letter to my friend anymore.
“I can’t believe I just did that,” I breathe to myself. I feel depressed, stupid, and ashamed. But I’m also lying – I can believe I did it – it’s entirely fucking predictable, because I’m often not very good with conflict, and can have trouble asserting to others or even admitting to myself what I want. I know this about myself — but knowing something in your mind and knowing it in your gut are two different things. You can hear the same message a thousand times without having it sink in, but then something happens and you get it in a way you didn’t before.
Burning Man seemed to put me in a state of mind where I was “getting” things about myself on a regular basis, the FUCK YOU booth being one of my first such experiences. The FUCK YOU was a necessary step to get to where I was later in the week – a sense of much greater self-confidence and belonging. Losing the necklace was sad, but like Obi-Wan Kenobi, it was time for it to go. It had more to teach me in the afterlife than it did around my neck.
The playa does have a way of giving you what you need – if you’re really open to receiving it, which includes being honest with yourself and others about what you want. In my case, this phenomenon even extended towards teaching me to be more honest with myself and others about what I want. Did I lose you there? It’s OK, I think I might have lost myself, too. Fortunately the playa doesn’t require our brains to be particularly sharp to work its magic – just honest.
On Saturday night they burn The Man, and this is the “main event.” It’s an orgiastic, furious cacophony of fire art, with screaming and cheering from tens of thousands of people as the structure burns and falls. On Sunday they burn the temple, and this is quite different.
The temple is built out of wood each year. It is a vehicle for catharsis. People write their pain on the wood – there are messages written to people who have died; family, friends, lovers, pets. There are notes to people who couldn’t make it to the playa. There are anonymous apologies for past transgressions. On Sunday, the temple – and hopefully some piece of everyone’s pain – is burned, and the smoke rises to the heavens.
Three of us visited the temple on Saturday, the night before it was to burn. We wandered in at around two in the morning on a beautiful warm night. We split up when we entered the temple; reading what’s written there is sort of a solitary experience. It didn’t take long for me to feel like crying. I saw one pretty girl sitting on a bench, a strange expression on her face that looked both sad and peaceful. Someone else was lying on the floor under a bench and sleeping. They both looked like they had been there for hours. I wanted to join them; just being in this place felt somehow cathartic, and I wanted to sit down and not move for a while. It felt like it would be… sad and peaceful.
On Sunday, the temple burns in front of thirty thousand people. It burns for about a half hour before the structure collapses. The fire glows and crackles, and you watch. And reflect. Thirty thousand people sit in silence for a half hour – have you ever experienced that? – while the fire tries to help them move on. To some extent, it doesn’t matter whether you wrote anything there. I think it’s a little cathartic for everyone.
When I’d been in the temple the night before, I saw one of the saddest and most beautiful things of my entire trip:
Three weeks left to live
And I chose to spend one of them at Burning Man
I kept thinking about that message as I watched the temple burn, and wondering what that person was feeling while they watched the burn from elsewhere in the circle. I hope that person’s week was as full of life as they’d hoped. And I hope they found ways to make their final weeks wonderful as well.
To be brutally honest, I’m not sure even a handful of the 1,585 weeks I’ve lived so far would have made the same cut. For me, this was the biggest lesson of Burning Man: more fully coming to terms with this fact. And getting a sense for what I can do to change it.
The day after I returned – everything felt different.
The silence was profound. Silence? I forgot what that was – there’s always noise on the playa. Reminded me of the middle of the playa week when I went to fill out a census form and it asked for the date. Date? What’s that? I literally had forgotten we followed a calendar. Talk about a strange feeling. Experiencing silence in suburbia was strange – and thick and oppressive.
Whose house is this? Whose furniture? I felt like I was walking into someone else’s place that I’d seen on TV – and suddenly there it was, in real life. But utterly abandoned, except for me. Surreal. Why does this person own all this shit, anyway?
Did I really change that much while I was at Burning Man?
I guess that’s the next page I need to write.