Dream In The Desert: A Burning Man Report
by T.B. Leek
A Caveat By Way Of Introduction
This piece is especially daunting, as I am attempting
to describe an event that must be experienced to be understood.
People who attended Burning Man tried for years
to describe it to me; the result was typically various
permutations of Keanau Reeves saying, "Whoa".
Until I finally experienced the "Whoa" for myself,
I had no earthly clue what they were talking
I think the best way to describe the thing is
to break it down as much as possible, without over-embellishing
on what it all means - although I'm prone to
embellishment...we'll see how it goes.
I should add that this is one person's interpretation
of what Burning Man is about. If reality is an aggregate
of our collective perceptions; this is Burning
Man as viewed through my window. Some Burners (as Burning
Man attendees call themselves) may agree with
my observations, others may not.
If you haven't experienced a burn, hopefully,
this piece will give you inspiration to see if for yourself.
Burning Man is held, annually, in a stretch of
desert northeast of Reno, Nevada; it runs from Monday through
Monday, concluding on Labor Day.
The desert area is commonly referred to as The
Playa. "La playa", in Spanish, means "the beach."
The Playa is very much like the beach if that
beach were on the moon. The surface is (usually) dry,
hard and cracked - much like pictures of the
Martian landscape - a place totally devoid of moisture.
As a visitor, you are ripped out of your everyday
head space, almost immediately, upon arrival in this other-worldly terrain.
This year The Playa lived up to its name, as
two year's worth of sub-average winter precipitation left
the surface loose, like an actual beach. This
made transportation by bike (the preferred mode) tedious at best.
The loose surface also made conditions ripe for
dust storms when the winds picked up. 50-80 mph wind gusts
are not uncommon and can last for hours.
Two days this year there were white-out conditions for most of the daylight
One can't really be too upset at the conditions;
this is a desert, after all.
As my fellow Burner Chris points out, "A lot
of people forget that this is as much a survival event as it is a party."
Meaning, 'you could die'.
Everyone who comes must bring with them the basic
tools to survive: shelter, food and water. Most people
take the shelter challenge to the extreme, building
elaborate dwellings. This may lull the uninitiated into a false
sense of security. Make no mistakes, however:
Mother Nature is the boss here and she will seriously fuck you
up if you do not prepare or maybe even if you
Our camp's dwelling consists of eight portable
car ports, joined together to form an enclosed 'U'. The individual
tents are pitched around the outside of the 'U',
with the center being an open, covered common space. This provides
sanctuary from the burning daytime sun and dust
The guys who organize our camp have been doing
this for years. I would call them experts. They ensured that
all the components of our dwelling place were
securely fastened to each other and to the ground. The poles
were secured to the ground by hammering re-bar
a foot into the ground, then fastening each pole to the re-bar
with rope and/or electrical tape.
Still, on Monday, as fifteen of us took shelter
from a white-out, our shade structure was lifted by the winds.
Half of it sheared off from the rest and was
tossed like a child's toy several feet over into the neighboring
theme camp. Even the half that didn't get
ripped apart was moved a foot from its original position.
One could literally see the collective shift
down Maslow's scale by all of us involved, as higher comforts
were ripped away and the need for basic shelter
became once again the prime motivation.
As scary as it was, no one was hurt. In
fact, we all felt alive in a way one rarely does as an urban dweller.
An esprit de corps formed instantly as we worked
together to overcome this monumental setback.
Before the storm... ...and after
On the face of The Playa is erected a city, comprised
of the various encampments, art installations, etc.
Its name is Black Rock City, Nevada. For
the one week of the year it exists, it is one of Nevada's largest municipalities.
Black Rock City is, in many ways, like any other.
It has organized streets - a hub and spokes system.
The streets are positioned by the Burning Man
organizers, prior to the arrival of the city's residents.
The map is a clock, with The Man in the center.
The cross-streets radiate out from The Man and are named
for the time corresponding to their position
on the clock. Another set of streets ring the outside of the clock
in concentric circles. The streets are
alphabetically named, with the exception of the first ring, which is always
known as The Esplanade. The alpha street
names change each year to correspond to the theme for the year's event.
This year's theme was "The American Dream."
All of the streets were named after cars (I took this to be a
cheeky and/or snarky commentary on the American
dream, by the organizers). Our camp was located on
Fairlaine between 8:00 and 8:30. Every
theme camp is placed by the organizers into their street address
around the city, which makes navigation quite
Besides a well-engineered road system the city
has: a post office (fully functional with its own zip code);
a radio station; a police force (known as the
Black Rock City Rangers); medical stations; a department
of motor vehicles; and, an airport. The
Burning Man organization sets up one central camp in the
roundabout at 6:30. Center Camp offers
a common space for lounging, as well as stages for music,
performance pieces and topical discussions.
The theme camps fill in the city. There
are cafes, bars, nightclubs, galleries, etc. There is also a full
of activities sponsored by various camps.
A guidebook is provided to locate each day's events.
For example, our theme camp is Fairyland.
We sponsored three events over the course of three days,
e.g. building fairy wings, making tutus.
The sheer scope of the city is one of the hardest
things to explain to someone who hasn't been there.
Imagine a nomadic tribe of 50,000 people stopping
to camp on a desert plane. The encampment goes on
for 10 miles. At night torches blaze and
there is laughter and merriment all around.
Now imagine the same thing on acid. The
people wear colorful day-glo or post-apocalyptic costumes
- sometime lit up with twinkly lights, after
dark. At night there is neon everywhere (o.k. for this, one need
only think of another Nevada metropolis, Las
Everywhere you turn, there is something to amaze
a sense or two or three. It is Mad Max,
Alice in Wonderland and The Beatle's Yellow Submarine
come to life.
Black Rock City Map, 2008
Making wings in Fairyland
It's A Little Bit Marxist
In Black Rock City, no money is exchanged (except
in two limited situations - there is a coffee bar in
Central Camp and there are three camps named
Arctica, where one can buy ice; these are controlled
by the Burning Man Organization).
For example, if your theme camp is a bar, then
you bring in all the supplies necessary to run it.
Patrons are served at no additional cost to themselves.
Gifts are given by camps and individuals to their
fellow burners. Gifting is the community standard.
Each person does what they can to contribute
to the community. Each person is rewarded for their
membership in the community by the other members
of the community.
And A Little Bit Capitalist
But only in the best of ways.
Labor is divided so that no individual bears
the brunt of building the community. If your neighbor needs help,
you help them. If you need help, chances
are someone will be there to lend a hand.
A healthy competitive environment exists in Black
Rock City, as well - not in the sense that you screw
someone over to get ahead, but in the sense that
people see what others have done and strive to do
something a little bit better for the betterment
of the community. The reward for their efforts is the
pride they get when others in the community say,
Innovation and progress are the norms in Black
"A World of Pure Imagination"
Imagination is the cornerstone of innovation and
Black Rock City lives on imagination -- as in,
"let's imagine a city where there isn't one and
It starts with the individual. The citizens
of Black Rock express their imaginations in their dress.
They wear colorful outfits and costumes.
Everything around them becomes an expression of
themselves - their bikes, their camps, etc.
Art is an essential part of the Burning Man experience
- often on a very grand scale. The open playa
in the center of the city is one gigantic art
exhibition. The only large vehicles that can be operated within
the city are 'art cars' - rolling pieces of visual
For example, my favorite art car, this year,
was a giant, rolling disco called The Magic Duck (at least that
is what we called it - sometimes one doesn't
find out the artist's name for a piece and you call it what you will).
Built on the base of a reticulated bus, the main
cabin and top of the bus were converted into dance space and
a DJ booth. At the front, a giant rubber-ducky
head, mirrored like a yellow disco ball towered over the desert.
The duck had a comb of flaming jets on its scalp
and laser beams shot out of its eyes. It rolled about the playa,
stopping every now-and-then as people swarmed
about it to dance inside and out. Then it would pick up and
move to its next location, with people following
in-tow on bike and on foot.
Art in Black Rock City is meant to be experienced:
to be touched, played on and, even, burned (if the artist
so chooses). It is not fenced up in a tomb-like
building and guarded by humorless sentinels, whilst serving
as a self-serving advertisement for some wealthy
patron or another.
Black Rock City has its own arts foundation,
funded by donations from Burners and non-Burners alike.
Grants are bestowed on artists to underwrite
the huge amounts of time and money they put into their work.
The Arts Foundation also installs Playa art pieces
in exhibition around the country, for all to appreciate
(those that aren't burned, of course).
Corporations, from the outside, are welcome to fund artists,
but they are not allowed to emblazon the finished
products with their logos in self-congratulation.
In the end, beauty is temporal. What could
be more temporal than burning one's work after it has been beheld?
The Magic Duck
A Pagan Place
The star of the show, from which the event takes
its name, is known simply as The Man. The man is a
sculpture of wood, lined with neon sitting atop
a structure in the center of the city. He is literally at the
city's heart and figuratively its soul.
And every year, on Saturday night, he is burned
as the city's citizens cavort around him.
The pagan overtones of this ritual are evident
(and here I'm speaking of primitive ritual, not of
neo-pagan traditions, such as Wicca).
The story goes like this: the willing servant
offers himself for sacrifice by and for the community.
Prior to the sacrifice he or she (he in this
case) is treated like a god. In traditions practicing regicide,
he actually was the head of state and entitled
to the wealth and privilege. Whether prince or pauper,
in the end he goes to his death and with him
takes all the bad energy from the community, leaving the
community to prosper in the period until the
This ritual plays out much less barbarically,
when the willing victim is a sculpture and not an actual human.
On Saturday night, the community gathers round
The Man (the art cars form a circular perimeter, with the
community on the inside). A procession
of fire bearers parade and dance around his base. Finally, his arms
raise above his head to signal his willingness
as a sacrifant. Fireworks erupt and propane explosions trigger
his immolation. The crowd erupts into jubilant
cheers. There is much hugging, dancing and carrying-on.
The community is renewed for another year.
The Man watches over the city
The Man burns
Spirituality, However You Find It
While the burning of The Man may have pagan undertones,
spirituality of all stripes is present within the community.
Each year a structure is built directly above
the man (as one would travel towards 12:00 on the clock)
referred to generically as The Temple. Like The
Man and the festival, The Temple has different themes each year.
It is a non-denominational center for communing
with the universe. One may be as a believer in the divine or not
believe in anything - it stands as a place to
reflect on one's self and one's place in the greater design.
The Temple is second only to The Man as a hallmark
of the city, which further symbolizes the underlying
spiritual convictions of the community.
And as you probably guessed, The Temple is burned
In contrast to the revelry when The Man burns,
burning The Temple is a solemn affair: the community
gathers round the Temple; someone sings a hymn;
the fire is lit without fanfare. As the flames rise, people
may shout out names of those who have passed,
but most silently watch as the structure is engulfed.
When it falls, the crowd disperses quietly.
The American Dream
As I previously mentioned, Burning Man 2008's
theme was, "The American Dream." Some Burners
questioned this thematic choice on the part of
the organizers. In a ratio probably larger than the general
American populace, many of us are not happy with
the current state of our country.
I think the theme was entirely apropos.
America was founded by dreamers - dreamers who
were inspired by philosophers - the most optimum dreamers of all.
America's forefathers were students of the greatest
Western intellectual minds of the time, such as Locke
and Bacon - men who believed that all men exist
in a state of nature and that society should exist to protect
the individual and uplift the human experience.
This is, in fact, the kind of community that
Black Rock City is. The rules are entered into freely by the individual
and exist to maintain order and safety - not
to stifle expression or force a single morality down the throats of everyone.
Of course, Black Rock City does not exist in
a vacuum - the city is still subject to the laws of the land on which it
However, for the week of its existence, it embodies
the promise of what could be.
Systems Theory posits that, "every thing is related
to everything else." Every group of people, every organization,
every country has a direct effect on every other
group, organization and country and the effect is reciprocal.
The people who create and experience Black Rock
City bring its promise back to the systems in which they
operate every day: schools, businesses, churches,
governmental agencies, community organizations, etc.
They carry with them the knowledge that society
really can live up to the dreams of our America's founders
and their mentors. Like pathogens of hope, they
infect their systems with the promise that society can work
for the betterment of the human condition, despite
and because of the diversity of its individual members.
If there is anything that can be learned from
the current political season, it is that people still believe in hope.
People still dream The Founders' dream - even
if that dream has been corrupted by the moralists and the greedy corporatists.
Yes, America was built by dreamers and it is
time for the dreamers to take it back.
That is this Burner's American Dream.
The author, after the burn
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