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I wrote about my media detox over my vacation, but there was one story I couldn’t avoid: rain at Burning Man.
That’s because I was smack in the middle of it. And, as is so often the case, the media reporting was nothing like reality.
As some of my fellow campers huddled in my RV, sipping whiskey and eating homemade pecan pie, they were flooded not by the rain, but from texts of worried friends asking about their safety. Evidently we were trapped – like rats! – with social media rumors of Ebola and worries of starvation.
It was all nonsense. An inch of rain came down and made the desert there, which we call the Playa, too muddy to bicycle or drive a car through so they closed the roads for a few days, but that was about it. Oh, Chris Rock and some DJ hiked out, evidently another sign of apocalypse.
The media misrepresenting Burning Man is a yearly event. Depending on your outlet, it’s either filled with elite tech bros, celebrity Instagrammers, burned out hippies or pagan idol worshippers.
That, in turn, creates haters on all sides of the political aisle. Liberals were angry that we were somehow ruining a massive desert with all of our white, elitist privilege, and less-than-bright politicians cited “God’s judgment.”
We literally went as far away from civilization as possible, yet the media and politicos couldn’t let us have some fun without angst.
So what’s it really about?
In essence, Burning Man is a temporary city that rises in the inhospitable desert a hundred miles north of Reno, Nevada. It defines the term, “the middle of nowhere.”
For a little over a week – longer if it rains! – about 75,000 people live in RVs and tents, creating a unique community with some guiding principles. These principles encourage radical inclusion, participation, self-reliance, “leave no trace”, and decommodification.
The “decommodification” principle creates a unique, wonderful experience. In essence, money doesn’t exist on the Playa. You need to pay for an entry ticket, of course, but you then spend a week where no one’s trying to sell you anything; they’re trying to give you things or experiences. Gifts with no expectation or strings.
Sometimes that’s personal gifting, and my girlfriend bakes up about 50 baggies of (wonderful) homemade granola to offer new friends. Other people gift homemade jewelry or lip balm or something as silly as an “I pooped today” sticker.
Most people organize into camps ranging from a dozen to over a hundred people, and these camps give back to the community in larger ways. My camp of 45 people build a dusty bar serving picklebacks, which is a shot of whisky chased by a shot of pickle juice. You enter through our saloon “doors”, spend some time with us and, if you’re agile, can ride our pickle before you head down the street.
The number of camps is literally undiscoverable in a week, and the offerings are wide and wonderful: grilled cheese at midnight, grilled Lithuanian sausages, a karaoke bar, massive “sound camps” for dancing at all hours, an honest-to-goodness movie theater, a ride up in a full-sized hot air balloon. (I could go on for paragraphs, but this music video sums up the sights pretty well.)
There’s beautiful, sometimes massive, art projects placed throughout the desert.
Some bring mobile art cars, dubbed “mutant vehicles”, which offer rides and incredible sound systems.
Have you ever seen a 26 foot tall metal mechanical octopus shoot flames from its tentacles? Or dance in a decommissioned 747 airliner that people somehow pulled out to the deep desert? I have, and it’s difficult to describe the full range of sights and experiences.
Yes, some of it is very adult oriented, but nothing’s pushed onto anyone. Most if it is closer to this guy, who gave me some cotton candy in the midst of the mud.
Better than all of those spectacles, though, is the attitudes of the attendees. Thousands of people live for a week actually trying to give more than they take. It creates magic.
In a harsh desert that can change within minutes from hot, to dusty, to mud, including alcohol and certainly drug use, I’ve never seen two men become angry with one another, let alone get into a fistfight, behavior I routinely see at a typical sporting event. I’m not sure if it’s the guiding principles or the people or the difficulty of getting out there, but it’s a unique group of humans.
If someone steps on your foot, you’re much more likely to get an apology and a hug than a dirty look. It’s not perfect – we’ve had a bike stolen, and in any city there are inconsiderate, even evil, people. But the great-person-to-jerk ratio is the best I’ve ever experienced.
Near the end, we have perhaps the most spectacular fireworks show I’ve ever seen, punctuated with gasoline explosions. Then, we pack it all out and leave the desert just like we found it.
In the midst of the media freakout, one reporter – Claudia Cowan – did live shots with her cell phone. She reported it as it was, putting the “catastrophe” in proper context. (That’s my camp and maroon RV as well.)
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