The time has come to leave Black Rock City, and it feels awful. And wonderful. And terrible. But probably most of all, it feels like it’s time.
For the past seven days, it’s been go go go go go. Even an hour away from the action brought on severe FOMO-induced anxiety. So you kept going, because dammit you can sleep when you’re dead. And by the end of the event, you DO feel like you’re dead, but oh wait a minute, you have to strike your camp and pack everything up and moop the ground and maybe make a 6- or 7- or 8-hour drive home, and the jungle drums of the real world are pounding in your head. So yes, it’s about time to go, no doubt about it.
But still a part of you wishes you didn’t have to.
People were bailing out of Black Rock City by the thousands even on Sunday, before the Temple burn and ahead of the cold and maybe the rain, leaving those of us behind in a thick cloud of dust.
Burning Man seemed to take a step back into the normal abnormal this year. There was a lot of work to do even as the gates opened, but people got to see just how hard it is to pull off this thing. It’s not Disneyland. You don’t punch your ticket and start going on all the rides. You have to build them first.
Every art project begins its life on the playa with a handful of people staring at drawings and putting tape measures in the dust. It’s a terrifying, exhilarating moment for something so fundamentally mundane.
The torch that Crimson Rose carries to the Man in the fire procession on Burn Night stays lit for approximately 17 minutes. The walk lasts a little longer than that, so by the time she’s passing the art cars in the outer perimeter, her flames have petered out. On Saturday, in the blowing dust and darkness, the journey seemed especially challenging.
Temperatures had cooled during the day, and forecasters had warned of an arriving front, one that would bring even cooler temperatures and maybe even some rain.
Sure enough, right as sunset approached, the wind kicked up and brought with it a mountainous wall of brown blowing dust, plus some “sky wetness,” as Chuck called it, because he didn’t want to use the dreaded “rain” word.
The dust was blowing so hard by the time the procession began from Center Camp, you couldn’t see a spire from the middle of the Esplanade. The stilt walkers and flame carriers had to be guided around the Whale at the keyhole, and the tenders had to chase art cars and bicyclists out of the way as the fire and drummers moved up toward the Man.
As we walked along, snapping our snaps, we thought about some of the things that had happened during the week that made this year what it was.
For the first time, the normal abnormal on the playa included cell coverage, and the world as we know it did not come to an end. In fact, after years of lamenting how horrible it would be if we were connected to the outside world while we were here, the impact was … barely noticeable.
There weren’t many faces buried in screens. Yes, there were plenty of pictures sent to Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat and all the rest, much to the consternation of some people on those sites, but to them we say, is it asking too much to just scroll on by if you do not wish to see what’s happening here? People like to share what they are doing, and this is a visually stunning place, so who wouldn’t want to press the button and share a pic? It’s just what people do, even here. It’s the normal abnormal.
Maybe some of you who were here know without a shadow of a doubt that you’ll be here next year, but we are never one of those people. We always have the existential choices dancing in our heads. We think of all the things we could do with the time and money and energy we expend on this place, and why aren’t we doing them?
Yes, we read the silly Business Insider piece that characterized Burning Man as a middle-aged cry for help. A minor but interesting research paper got twisted into a sweeping clickbait pronouncement, and everyone had to have an opinion about it. As if it were some great revelation that the sometimes-tedious nature of the workaday world is something we enjoy taking a break from. The thing is, moments of genius and inspiration are regularly accompanied by long stretches of tedium and repetition. Being parents or students or teachers or electricians or scientists or public servants or artists or writers is sometimes very hard work, but hardly the cause of our discontent. Our daily lives do not divorce us from the search for meaning and truth and beauty, but sometimes there isn’t much time to pursue it. So spending time in a place where 70,000 like-minded souls are also seeking release and inspiration is supposed to be indicative of a problem? We don’t agree.
As we walked through the dust during the fire procession, listening to the drummers and exchanging greetings with friends along the way, we thought of the memorial procession for Tom Sawyer that had taken place the day before. We walked with that group for a bit, maybe 25 or 30 people in all, as they carried their pictures and tokens and tchotchkes of remembrance. The group circled David Best’s elegant Temple, and passers-by seemed to hush at the group’s approach. They settled in at the southeast corner, where they attached their pictures of Wacko to the outer perimeter.
It was all too moving to maintain composure. For the past year, we’d followed Tom’s battle with cancer, and we were amazed at how many people showed their love and support with messages, acts of kindness great and small, and donations to help him get the alternative treatments that became his only hope.
In the end, the treatments weren’t enough to save him, but to watch the outpouring of love, affection and gratitude for having him known him was completely overwhelming. He touched so many lives, and for once, people got a chance to tell him thanks, to tell him they loved him, to tell him how much he had meant to them, before he was gone. Glowing memorials are usually reserved for the dead. But Wacko’s year was one long loving living tribute, and the force of that affection was plain again at the Temple.
As we walked through the windy fire procession, we thought again, strangely enough, of the DPW parade, which also took place in blowing dust, snaking its way through the city, visiting people and places that we’d never have otherwise seen.
There are so many neighborhoods in Black Rock City. Because that’s one of the things about Burning Man: No one constituency has taken over. It’s not ALL ravers and sparkle ponies and sound cars. It’s not ALL starving artists making big art. It’s not ALL about sexual and relationship exploration. It’s not ALL about meditation tents and body treatments. It’s not ALL about overindulgence in every conceivable way, because Anonymous Village is here, and many many people are sober. It’s not ALL about any one thing at all, which keeps the event vibrant and interesting, even while you judge some things you discover there ridiculous and abhorrent. And we assume the people we have nothing in common with are having just as good and challenging a time as we are. No one group or vibe dominates the event, although many individual people can rightfully claim that they have won Burning Man. And every one of them is right.
We also thought about the burning of the Lighthouse the night before, which was a stunner. It seemed that just about everything with Max and Jonny Poynton’s Lighthouse project was done well. It became one of the event’s all-time favorites, it opened pretty much on time, and did we mention it was beautiful? And oh, the burn. What a magnificent burn.
This burn wasn’t about pyrotechnics, but about the flames themselves: There was a cascade of green fire at the outset (maybe eerily reminiscent of the hellfire from Game of Thrones), but soon the entire structure, all three towers, were engulfed and roaring. After a few minutes of lovely, if typical, burning, things began to shift. The flames turned white — brilliant, snow-white white, from the presence of, we are told, magnesium. (You hear certain accounts of why things happen the way they do here, but few of them can be confirmed in a timely manner, and this will have to be one of them.)
The effect was amazing, so amazing that we had to turn to the person next to us and ask, “You’re seeing that too, right? It’s not just us?” No, it was not just us.
We even had a vision of the future of Burning Man this week. If not the future of the Burning Man event itself, then the future of the Burning Man Project.
We visited Fly Ranch, the oasis in the desert a few miles down the road, which the organization purchased in June, the culmination of almost 20 years of effort. What will happen there? No one knows yet, not even the leaders of the organization. Most definitely they have visions, there is never a lack of vision. But many groups of people were shuttled out to the geyser and hot springs to help formulate something great, something communal, something inspirational.
“I finally felt like I wasn’t a trespasser,” Will Roger said as he sat and looked out at the waters and remembered the day he first stepped foot on the land after the sale went through. No, he wasn’t a trespasser, or a visitor. He was an owner.
“When Rod and Larry and I used to dream about this for the last 20 years, we came up with and talked at length about every possibility that could happen, that made sense. In truth, this was bought as a gift to the Burning Man community, so my vision is that the Burning Man community, in their brilliance, will cause the next steps to happen, whatever they may be.”
To that end, various and sundry groups of people were brought out from the sand-blasted playa to the heavenly waters, to soak, to talk, to dream. Their comments and reactions and ideas were captured, and no doubt a summary of that brainstorming will be forthcoming.
“If you have a global community,” Larry Harvey said, “and you have a meeting place like this, it will be a little different” than Burning Man. “It will be in a minor key. … I’ll tell you one thing: We’re going to tell people, this isn’t the Black Rock Desert, is the Hualapi Valley. We have neighbors. … That means, turn off the rock. Turn it off. Let’s do acoustic. … I’ve told a variety of people that, and they grin.”
We admit that we were grinning when he said it, too. And we were thinking about the music That Damned Band played earlier in the week, way out in the playa at the Last Apothecary, out of earshot of the sound camps. It was only a fiddle, a guitar, a flute, an accordion and a washboard. Oh, and there were voices – the voices of the performers, and the voices of the audience, singing along. It was a cultural mashup of DPW types and LED-wearing passers-by, and they were all singing and dancing, and they could hear each other think. It was like nothing we had experienced before on the playa, and we thought now that it might not be the last time.
On and on the scenes came rushing through our head: the slushies and pop orchestra at the Frozen Oasis; the music at Star Star, our old friend El Pupo, who livened up every party and burn that it appeared at. We thought of the DPW takeover of the 747, another cultural mashup that might be a harbinger of what is to come. Unlikely collaborators, creating something new, something unexpected, something unique.
Eventually, after the fire procession circled the Man, and the conclaves performed, and the fireworks exploded, the Man was set ablaze. To the extent that burning a thing that so many people had worked so hard and so long to build is normal, it was the normal abnormal. The Man fell into a pile of embers in good time. The sound cars pulsed their beats but didn’t distract from the burn, friends held on to one another but didn’t rush the flames, and later, when the rowdy crowd moved forward to circle the dying flames, others moved back to a pop-up city of neon and sound at the art car perimeter. The normal abnormal.
Sunday night again was blowy and dusty, and at dusk the remaining thousands formed a circle around the Temple, waiting mostly in silence for the fire to be lit. David Best his own self circled the scene, kindly reminding everyone that his Temple would burn very very hot, and he asked people to be careful, to take care of each other. And for the most part, we did.
Our section was exceedingly quiet and respectful, the silence only disturbed by a hyperactive young guy who kept asking, loudly, if anyone would like some potato chips. No thanks, we’re good.
In the distance, from one of the sound camps over near 2 o’clock, a guy presumably in a DJ booth kept yelling at people on the Esplanade to slow down and turn off their headlights. He probably didn’t realize how far his voice would carry, and how out of place it would sound to the gathering at the Temple.
Kevin, the ranger assigned to hold the fire line in our area, was gentle and kind as he asked people to sit close together, the better to prevent anyone from rushing in too soon. When the potato chip guy stood up and gathered his things, as if to move forward, Kevin moved decisively to prevent him from hurting himself or other people. Good on you, Ranger.
The burn itself was lovely, quiet, and from our vantage point, uneventful. The normal abnormal.
And then it was back to camp, to a roaring burn barrel that fought the chill, and a communal feast of leftovers, drinks and freshly grilled cheese quesadillas.
And then it was really time to go, to pack up our dust-caked clothes and our dust-caked gear into our dust-caked cars and trucks and RVs and head for home. Even on Monday night, the line at exodus was seven hours long.
We will stick around for a few more days, gathering more bits and pieces, looking to weave another story or two. There’s much more to tell, of course, but at some point it all begins to sound like a travelogue, and maybe it’s not all that interesting to someone who wasn’t there. Do you like to look at pictures of other people’s vacations? Do you like to hear stories of their fabulous adventures? Let’s just say a little goes a long way, and we’ll keep that in mind.
Thanks again for following along this year, and we hope you’ll come back as we watch the desert re-emerge, and as we watch what happens down the road at Fly Ranch.