Of course Burning Man is no longer topical as far as 2013 is concerned, but it’s taken a few months to shake the dust from the space between my ears and cast aside the rosy specs. The feeble tan has faded, I’ve rediscovered my hairbrush, and I am no longer surprised to see people wearing clothes as they go about their daily business.
It is difficult to sit on the fence when describing Burning Man. Depending on your outlook – and on your constitution – it’s either a ridiculous charade or a glorious epiphany. In the intensely inhospitable environment of Black Rock Desert in Nevada, once a year, for one whole week at roundabout the end of August, the dormant Black Rock City erupts out of the cracks in the ground and into life.
The desert is so alkaline that wounds refuse to heal; the dust storms sufficiently soupy to convince you that you’ll be coughing up acrid grey sludge till Judgement Day. The nights are impossibly cold, the days impossibly hot. Static art, human art, roaming art (“art cars” – vehicles that have been modified to look like anything from a can of SPAM to Charlie the Unicorn to a rubber duck to a tropical island – anything dammit, anything other than a vehicle), music, dance, erotica, merrily festooned bicycles, subverted creativity and fractured assumptions abound. Nudity is both ubiquitous and unremarkable.
As I hurtled through the desert on a bike that was decked out in yellow fur and fairy lights and sporting spokes studded with stuffed animals, I realised that I had sustained yet another nosebleed – not that I could see the blood through the dusty air, which is so thick you could almost chew it. My eye sockets were claggy, my hair was stiff and grey with desert matter, there was a wound on my foot which had been weeping non-stop for five days without a snowflake’s chance in hell of healing. I was delirious from dehydration and my shoulders were blistered from the dusty friction where my backpack rubbed. And you couldn’t have bulldozed the smile off my face for all the cows in Cornwall.
I gulped and wheezed my way through the white-out and almost cycled into an elderly chap wearing nothing but a pink waistcoat and a pair of moon boots, a top hat, and a backpack sprouting a plastic tube. We hugged with genuine affection, exchanged the customary B-Man pleasantries (which consist mainly of “You havin’ a good Burn?”) and he offered me the teat at the end of the tube, which delivered a refreshing hit of warm, flat Gatorade and vodka when sucked upon. The interaction didn’t mean anything particular. It didn’t have to.
The following evening my camp comrades and I climbed a scaffold to watch the sun set over the distant tapestry of mountains. As the last deep orange slice sunk and disappeared, thousands cheered. That night we bounced on trampolines and followed a stage on wheels through the desert as the crowd danced in its wake until the sun rose again from behind the opposing backdrop of mountains, eliciting the same reaction. The cheering didn’t mean anything particular. It didn’t have to.
When the man burned a few days later, we sat and sweated buckets in the heat and noise and glare of the gargantuan inferno. The spectacle didn’t mean anything particular. It didn’t have to.
Burning Man is almost in its thirtieth year now. Rumour has it that the whole shebang began on a beach in San Francisco back in the day, when a jilted lover expressed his sorrow by burning a wooden effigy of his ex-girlfriend with a few pals. Since then, a few pals has turned into >60,000, a beach in San Franciso has turned into the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, and the burning woman has turned into a burning man. Gender reassignment aside, you might call it the ultimate revenge.
The raison d’être of Burning Man has a reputation for being impenetrable until you experience it first-hand. A cold-hearted cynic to the core, and a seasoned grubby festival-goer to boot, I was determined not to get swept up by the hype spouted all year long by die-hard Burners. It’s just another festival. Sure, there are tutus and dust storms and stuff, but how different can it be?
Over the course of the week, my hard heart softened, and I’ll grudgingly concede that there are enough factors setting Burning Man apart from comparable binges of cultural hedonism to render it something quite special. The organisers have distilled these factors into a set of in-yer-face biblical guidelines: the Ten Principles. This might sound cheesier then a Bruce Forsythe fondue, but gotta hand it to ’em, they’ve really nailed it. The three most interesting – in my opinion – of Burning Man’s ten commandments: radical self-reliance (the only things you can buy there are coffee and ice), leave no trace (collect all your rubbish as you go, and take it with you when you leave), and no-strings-attached gifting (from cocktails to candy floss to snow cones, it’s like Christmas on every corner).
People come together from all ages and all walks of life – from tiny tots to nonagenarians, from professors to porn stars – and, critically, it doesn’t bloody matter. Conversation tends to bypass the small talk, transcend the norm, and shoot straight to the philosophical, metaphysical, wonderful and hysterical.
Whether Burning Man smacks of charade or epiphany, your eyes adjust to the riot of colour and nakedness. And it’s even easier to get used to the fuss-free friendliness of every person you meet.