About Burning Man
"If you've never been there - no words can adequately describe it, if you have been there - no words are needed."
"Trying to use words to describe the indescribable"
Although the quotes above seem ridiculous, the Burning Man festival is truly difficult to describe with any real meaning - because the experience is different for everyone. Although it is easier to describe what burning man isn't than it is to describe what it is, I will try to stretch my skills as a wordsmith to describe it for those who are curious and have never been there.
There are no casual drop ins to Burning Man - it can be a logistical nightmare and takes lots of planning. It is about as close as you can get to the proverbial middle of nowhere and once through the gate there are no stores - you must bring everything you will need for the week and just getting there with everything you need is an ordeal.
After being awake for over 27 hours and an exhausting drive down a road that cattle and jackrabbits regularly wander across you turn off the pavement. In the headlights you glimpse nothing but dust clouds to either side, but ahead you see the worst traffic jam you ever imagined was possible - it is 7 lanes wide, stretches for miles and moves very slowly. Slower than you would normally envision - progress can often be measured in feet per hour. But the mood in the line is joyous - more of a celebration than a long boring wait. You tune in BMIR radio and the first thing you hear is a song about a magical penis - you know you are not in Kansas anymore Toto.
After many hours in line you approach the gate where you stand, ticket in hand while a woman in the sexiest leather outfit you've ever seen searches your vehicle for banned items such as firearms, fireworks, or stowaways. Then you are on your way and approach the greeters station - at dawn if you are lucky. If it's your first time the greeter gives you an initiation involving ringing a bell and rolling in the dust. She then gives you a big hug and welcomes you home. You are so filthy at that point you strip down right there before reentering the vehicle to the amusement and cheers of those in line.
As you drive in and the sun rises you are confronted with an alien landscape that is almost inconceivable if you haven't witnessed it. Cracked, dry, and flat all the way to the mountains miles away. No grass, shrubs, trees, or even anything green is visible. "Home" lies straight ahead and looks like a refugee camp at the back gate of hell. You wonder what you've gotten yourself into and hope it looks better up close. Welcome to Black Rock City.
But there is no time for sightseeing yet - shade is vital to survival here so you pick a spot to camp and start unloading - beginning with your shade structure. It is so dry you have to pound back water constantly to stave off dehydration, but so hot you can down a 20 ounce water bottle in one or 2 gulps. Your appetite dwindles to nearly zero. As more people arrive you offer help them set up their camps. Within a day your block is filled and you have hundreds of new friends to meet.
As you start to explore the city, you are inundated by art. Not just art to look at like in a museum, but interactive art, performances, costumes, vehicles, camp decor, and more. Art pervades everything - it has been said that you live, breath, and eat art here. You don't visit Burning Man - you participate in Burning Man. Imagine a huge circus where everyone is part of the performance.
Everyone is extremely friendly - these are after all 50,000 or so of your closest friends. Everyone hugs and shaking hands is uncommon here. Walk into anyone's camp and say hello - unlike the default world there is no taboo about walking into someone's home to say hello here, it is expected behavior.
There are very few taboos here, the main ones are don't be judgemental, don't litter, and don't try to sell anything. You see people in all stages of dress up and undress. You see so much nudity it doesn't even register after a while. Men commonly wear skirts (yes even straight men), women often wear just lingerie, but how you dress is up to you. Everyone in Black Rock City is beautiful no matter what they wear (or don't wear).
The city has a gift economy although that is misleading - it is less of an economy and more of a gifting state of mind. Nothing is sold, and barter is frowned upon. Giving without expecting anything in return is the norm. A short walk anywhere in the city will produce offers of drinks, food, poems, trinkets, and so forth. Everything offered is always free and no payment of any type is expected aside from a sincere thank you. To non burners, this is the hardest part to grasp - bars serve drinks for free, restaurants serve free food, the concerts, night clubs, circuses, performances, bike repair shops, etc... are all free. There are even free stores to "shop" in for a new costume or whatever. Many burners scrimp, save, fund raise, and scavenge all year to be able to generously gift stuff during the event. You in your turn offer what you can when appropriate.
You have to embrace the filth. There is no way to stay clean here. The dust pervades everything. Five minutes after a shower you are as dirty as if you never took one. Your hair gets dry and brittle like straw, long hair turns into Playa dreadlocks. There is no stigmata attached to being dirty in Black Rock City because it is impossible to stay clean and everyone is in the same boat so to speak.
The city is large and transport mainly is by bicycle or walking. Although there are numerous mutant vehicles, they are usually filled to capacity and have there own agendas so riding one may land you opposite to where you wanted to go.
Night is a magical time there. Everything lights up in a way that puts the Vegas Strip and Times Square combined to shame. Not just structures, but the mutant vehicles and most of the people as well. Imagine what it would look like if a giant neon sign could constantly change its patterns in a random way and you would be close. Lasers shoot across the sky. Skydivers jump out of planes carrying flares and spiral down to the city. Nothing is too over the top at the burn.
It is no exaggeration to say anything (and I do mean anything) you could want or dream of is available in this city. For that matter things well beyond your wildest imagination and dreams happen here too. It is the most welcoming, comfortable, magical place on earth and most burners refer to it as home. It is truly a life changing experience and the only thing that really sucks about Burning Man is leaving - it is difficult to decompress back to the default world after a week of such bliss.
Some notes on several things that dominate the entire experience:
Radical Self Sufficiency - Surviving a week here is not easy. Nevada's Black Rock Desert is one of the harshest places in North America - your tickets actually come with a survival guide - READ IT. 400 square miles of dry prehistoric lake bed where even insects can't survive for long. It is not a desert as most think of one, but packed down alkali dust. The only thing that lives there are brine shrimp (you may know them as sea monkeys) which are dormant eggs in the dry season. Temperatures can range from over 100 F. to below freezing in a 24 hour period. Winds are high and gusts well over 60 mph are not uncommon. Bear this in mind at night because cold temps and high winds can cause a very cold wind chill factor. The winds also pick up the dust making dust devils and whiteouts - like living in a snow globe filled with talcum powder. It is so dry the moisture wicks right out of your body. Since there are no stores, everything you need for the week has to be brought with you.
De Comodification - Money is virtually useless here. With only 2 exceptions there is nothing for sale here so you have to plan ahead and bring everything you need for the week. The only things for sale at BM are ice and coffee. The proceeds of both go to help the local communities. It is quite a jolt when you first get back to the default world and the first thing anyone says to you is to ask for money.
Leave No Trace - Burning Man is the largest leave no trace event in the world. Everything you bring in must be packed out with you - with no exceptions. Just a few short weeks after the event all that remains are footprints. Even dish washing and shower water must be evaporated or carted away - there is no grey water dumping allowed there.
Black Rock City - Although temporary in nature, it is a true city in every sense of the word. At 60,000+ people it is one of the largest cities in Nevada - for the one week it exists every year. A full range of services just as in every city are available, medical, fire, law enforcement, transportation, and so forth. What isn't available are public utilities such as a power grid, sewer system, and running water. If you want electricity you have to bring it yourself, you must bring your own water, and bodily waste is handled by hundreds of porta potties which are emptied and cleaned twice a day (seriously these were the cleanest and least offensive smelling porta potties I've ever used).