Experiencing Burning Man

We went back to Black Rock City, Nevada, where we got married, to celebrate our second anniversary. Black Rock City? Where is that? It is not on the map – but that is where we wedded two years ago and where we returned to on the week before Labor Day.

Black Rock City is a “real life” Brigadoon. It officially appears in the middle of the desert at midnight on Monday before Labor Day and on that holiday it vanishes leaving no trace. For one week, Black Rock City residents – all thirty thousand – live like every individual deserves to live – in peace, love, harmony, sharing, art (oh … so much art), music, and unlimited creativity. There is no oppression or prejudice.

This festival of sparkling colors and surrealism culminates with the burning of a thirty feet statue of a “Man” amongst a tremendous firework exhibition on the Saturday preceding Labor Day. On Sunday it ends with the spiritual offerings at the Mausoleum’s burning – a temple made exactly for that purpose.

Many view this event as “paganism.” I disagree. Paganism carries negativity and “evil cult” connotations. That is not Burning Man.

What then is the truth about Burning Man? Somebody compared explaining this magnificent event to those who have never been there with describing colors to someone born blind. I am then expressing what it meant to me for it carries different meanings to everyone.

We arrived four hours before the festival officially opened – after a seven-hour drive. We realized we were in a very different place instantly: There were no grumpy faces making us return later because “We’re Closed.” Instead, a coed group of topless young adults, dressed in Catholic school pleaded skirts and fishnet stockings, warmly welcomed us. Early arrivals are mildly discouraged, except for theme camps – camp sites with visual art or entertainment centers. We were “somewhat” early – no big deal.

Setting camp in the dark and cold was a challenge but thanks to my husband, a determined skillful camper, we put the tent up and collapsed by exhaustion in little over an hour.

Next morning I noticed how similar I felt two years before, upon arrival. The four-thousand feet altitude played a tremendous part in my initial mood and physical disposition. We live in a semi-desert climate about forty miles from the Pacific Ocean. Like the first time, I felt tired and irritable. It seemed unacceptable that I could actually let go of stress and be myself for the entire week. This time however, I was wiser: I stayed out of my husband’s way and took naps while he set up camp. Unfair? Not really. The last thing he needed around was a whining inexperienced camper.

Oh … but I did help him. Together we battled a series of windy dust storms which were determined not to let our ropes be tied to the rebar poles around our tent and shade structure. It felt good, in spite of my inexperience. I felt like a naked cowgirl, long hair blowing in the wind, controlling a young colt in its first round in the pasture.

Incidentally, Burning Man is a clothes-optioned festival. My spouse and I, faithfully practicing nudists, wore nothing for most of the week. Thousands of Black Rock City residents chose to do the same. Thousands did not. Many modest but not necessarily gay men wore women’s skirts – it is a way to keep their privates free from the oppressive tightness of pants and be clothes-optioned participants. “Just wear anything you wish or nothing at all.” Costumes were popular for both genders. As a former dancer, I have boxed costumes forgotten in the depths of my closet and was glad to put them back in action – when I felt like wearing something.

Capitalism, profit, and greed have no place at Burning Man. You buy coffee and ice and the proceeds will go to the local communities – everything else you bring with you. It is a survival experience in the harsh desert conditions, but we all take care of each other through any forms of gifts we give and receive – there is no attachment to material things for the feeling of giving out things is tremendous liberating – we feel so free!

Every day was a different experience. In the daytime we would bike and follow our hearts through any of the make-shift streets, saluting neighbors, and looking in every direction – there was so much to experience. The colors, the art, and the people – they were there for us as we were there for them.

Meals were easy – it is amazing how little food our bodies need. Light non-perishable foods and lots of water were sufficient. Except for decorated art cars, bicycling and walking are the only allowed means of transportation, so we felt super-healthy.

Each night there were activities and parties at the theme camps. We consulted the provided guide for programs offered. But just biking around and seeing all the art made with lights – the colors, the glowing, the music, the joy was enough some evenings. Like many, our costumes and bikes were also sparkling with lights and colors.

On Saturday evening the Man burned. The fire effect surrounded by fire works and fire dancers was unforgettable. There was music and dance all night long – that was the climax of the week. And yet it was somewhat sad because it was all coming to an end.

The closing of the festival happened on Sunday evening – the burning of the Mausoleum. It was solemn, silent, and contrite. We could hear nothing but the strong and yet sweet melody of a woman’s voice emanating from the crowd. She sang like an angel. With the Mausoleum flames went the past, the pain, and the deceptions each one of us wished to release. For all of us, the only real time of the year had just ended.

The next day, Labor Day Monday, we all left. It is hard to imagine traffic in the desert but it took us four hours to reach the main highway, instead of the normal one hour. Slowly thirty-thousand people left the desert, for – like Brigadoon – it was time for our beloved Black Rock City to disappear. But in reality, no one really minded because we all knew that in just one year it will appear again on the same spot – we will then be able to come home.

by Cecilia Smrkovsky

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Tales From the Playa

Tales From the Playa are dreams and memories of events that took place at Burning Man, as told by participants. Submit your story here.