Written Tuesday, September 7, 2021
The last stragglers are still hanging out in the Black Rock Desert, not ready to let go of this year’s intensely personal Burning Man experience. There was no big art, but there was big heart. It was the biggest little Burning Man ever, and the general feeling was that it was one of the best (non) Burns in years.
There were no roads, there was no gate, there were no Portos. And it was no problem. The worst did not happen.
And does this prove that the Org is not needed?
No. It proves that the shared community values that have been promulgated by Burning Man for so many years are strong enough to live on their own. It was as if the Burners grew up and left home this year. They could look mom and pop in the eye and say, “We got this.”
The aftermath is still unfolding. Was there crap left behind? No doubt. But then, there is ALWAYS crap left behind. Will there be an effort, organized or not, to clean it up? We have yet to see.
But we can say this: Most people, the vast majority, kept their shit tight, both literally and figuratively. There was little to no MOOP blowing in the breeze. People picked up things that needed to be picked up, whether they belonged to them or not.
There was no Black Rock City this year, as Jeremy Crandell summarized so neatly, but there was indeed Burning Man.
People say, oh, this was like the good old days, when Burning Man was small and free. We are going to say no, it was not like the old days. There wasn’t the mayhem, there wasn’t the danger, there wasn’t the wildness. Oh, and the LEDs and sound systems are completely next level now. But the point is, the patterns of behavior held. Hell, even the shape of the city looked like Burning Man. People watched out for each other. They shared experiences, they cooked tri-tip and gave it away to hundreds of people. They put on dance parties. They made it fun.
For the MOST part, the dirt bikers and side-by-sides stayed out in the far playa. All the crazy that didn’t happen, all the organization, all the MOOP sweeping and all the personal porto buckets were there because of the culture that has developed around Burning Man over the past 35 years.
It did not start out this way. The push for some measure of safety at the event eventually split apart the group that started Burning Man on Baker Beach. What survived was the notion that if you are going to throw a giant party in the desert, you bear some responsibility for the outcome.
And this value is held so deeply in the consciousness and ethos of Burning Man that the Org wasn’t necessary this year. The right things happened because veteran Burners made them happen. What do they say about an effective leader in a corporation? If they do a good job, they make themselves unnecessary. For this desert campout, for this Burning Man Country Fair (thanks Paul), for this DIY Burn, the underlying and accepted principles of the Burner community made it possible. Plan B is already taking feedback and thinking about next steps. Gosh, that kind of sounds like an AfterBurn report, and where have we heard that term before?
The next logical question is, can what happened in Black Rock this year scale? I would say that it’s doubtful. What is possible for 13,000 or so people to do is not the same as trying to do it with 80,000 people.
A brief sidebar on the numbers: Wally Bomgaars, who has done population studies for Burning Man, who founded a security firm for big events like this, who took drone shots of the playa each and every morning this year, who studied traffic patterns in Gerlach, estimates that a TOTAL of about 13,000 people attended the event. The peak population, according to his analysis, was about 11,000 on Saturday night. (If you were there, you know that many people arrived early in the week and left before the weekend.) Even with these unofficial numbers, this was a much, much smaller gathering than recent Burns.
And what about COVID? Was this a super spreader event? We don’t know that yet, either. But we do know this: The Org made the right call in cancelling the official Burn, for all the right reasons. It is one thing to camp with your friends out in the vastness of the playa. It is entirely another thing to ask 1,000 core crew members to live and work in close proximity for six weeks or so to put on the big show. And it was the right call not to ask big art makers and theme camp organizers to pull their people together in the middle of a pandemic.
People ask, how can you spend all this time and energy and resources in the middle of a pandemic to put on Burning Man?
The only people who went to the desert this year were the ones who had the wherewithal to do so. Going there has evolved into a time-consuming and expensive proposition. It takes a lot to participate there. Not everyone is able to take part. It has always been thus, and will always be thus. Radical Inclusion is one of the 10 Principles, but not everyone will always be able to take advantage of being welcome to join.
• • •
The three women looked most definitely out of place.
It was midweek, and two of them had never even been to Burning Man before. And now here they were in Bruno’s, getting a snack before going on a supply run.
“Can you tell me where the nearest Walmart is?” Lucy, the one sitting next to me, asked.
We almost didn’t want to tell her that they were about an hour and a half away. We also knew that the closest Walmarts, in Fernley and Sparks, had been wiped out of supplies by other wanna-Burners on their way to the desert.
And, we thought, this is exactly why this whole Rogue Burn thing was such a bad idea. All kinds of people would be drawn to a wild and free Burning Man, and they wouldn’t have a clue about how to take care of themselves. Or take care of the desert.
But we were wrong about that.
When I first heard about the unofficial gathering that was going to take place in the Black Rock Desert during the time when Burning Man would normally happen, I mostly didn’t want any part of it.
It’d be a bunch of anti-vaxxer maskholes and “conspiritualists.” It’d be people with axes to grind and chips on their shoulders. “You can’t take my burn away! I’ll do what I want!” It’d be a literal shitshow by the ill-informed and the ill-intentioned, not to mention the unprepared.
Of course, that was part of the attraction, too. No one had any idea what was actually going to happen. It could be scary and dangerous. Who would want to miss that?
But then something amazing and maybe wonderful began to take place. People started to step up and take charge. The Black Rock Plan B group was formed on Facebook, and some knowledgeable veterans began sharing information that could lead the way to a safe and responsible gathering .
Still, this had every chance of turning into a disaster. The BLM restrictions had said that fireworks were not allowed, but they had said nothing about firearms. They spelled out what kind of structures could be built and what kind of vehicles were allowed, but they said nothing about speed limits.
Anyway, after we told Lucy how far away the Walmarts were, we asked her what she needed. “Well, we’d like to get some bikes. … And you know, just some stuff to eat.”
Oh, well that was actually pretty easy. The Empire store was only about five minutes away, and they had gotten lots of extra supplies. And the container park across the street from them was selling bikes. So no, there was no reason to be gone for half a day. But because she’d never been here before, we couldn’t help but ask:
“So what made you decide to come this year?”
She got a look on her face, pushed away her onion rings, and told her story. Earlier this year, her best friend, Austin, had gotten down on one knee and proposed that they go to Burning Man together. “It was so romantic,” she said. She had been wanting to go for 10 years, and this was the year it was finally going to happen.
And then a month ago, Austin died from a fentanyl overdose. That’s the other pandemic going on right now; many drugs are being cut with fentanyl, and it’s a deadly risk not to test your substances. Austin, her Burning Man partner-to-be, was gone.
But that made her only more determined to attend, even though she’d have to go alone. “I have a purpose to be here, for sure. … I was really hoping there would be a temple that I could go to to honor him. … I broke down crying a couple of times getting here. I’m being totally sober, and just feeling it.
“I really appreciate architecture, and I feel like there’s a piece of that missing. … However, I’m so blessed to be here, it’s a dream come true to … meet all the Burners and connect with everyone and with the energy. … It’s very moving and beautiful.”
We’re hoping that Lucy found one of the small Temples that eventually were constructed on the playa.
Edit: Lucy contacted us this week to say that she did in fact find a temple, and she sent along a picture showing that she was able to honor her friend with a drawing and a note:
• • •
THE FLY RANCH BURN
A Man did burn Saturday night, after all. Like last year, Burning Man Project got permission to burn a Man on its private land at Hualapai Playa, part of its Fly Ranch property.
There was the expected outcry when news of the Burn began to circulate. “Oh, that’s for the 1 percent. Oh, that’s for First Camp. Oh, that’s for the Plug and Plays.”
The permit allowed for limited attendance, so the selection process started with Goatt, who did most of the Man build himself, and some of the Man Krew who helped coordinate the effort. And then there was the technical crew that was in charge of delivering a livestream, so that everyone could see the Burn.
Marian Goodell, Burning Man Project’s CEO, decided earlier in the week to send out an electronic sign-up sheet to staffers and volunteers who had been in Gerlach for most of the summer, working on various projects that are aimed at improving Burning Man’s presence in the community, and making the event more sustainable. We filled out the form and crossed our fingers, and we got word late Friday that we’d be able to go.
The air had been pretty decent on the playa all week. The fires that you could never totally get out of your mind had sent drifting clouds of smoke over the desert, but it hadn’t been the choking, 300 AQI of previous weeks. But on Saturday evening, the gloom descended again, as the sky turned a brooding deep crimson.
“We are honoring our oldest, most central ritual,” Stuart Mangrum told the group over a megaphone. He was telling the crowd to be quiet, because, “We want the sound that they hear (on the livestream) to be the sound of wind, and the sound of fire.”
And so we sat in silence as Crimson carried a bowl of flames to the base of the Man, then lit his legs on fire. Dave X and his pyro crew had implanted what looked like red flares near the Man’s heart and extremities, and soon the effigy was fully engulfed in flames. As you sat and watched in silence, it felt like you were keeping vigil.
“It was my 28th burn,” Will Roger said later, “so of course I brought many memories, intentions and wonderment with me. It’s become my New Year’s celebration. … Release, transformation, transmuting, wordless awe.”
Just a few miles away in the Black Rock Desert, drones were creating a glowing, 100-foot image of the Man, and music from Robot Heart and other art cars sent the crowd, by all accounts, into a fittingly raucous Burn Night celebration.
“So we’ve got people over there,” Marian said, gesturing toward the Black Rock playa, “who are having a party, and there are witnesses here of something very beautiful, and there are a hundred thousand people watching online, and it’s all as meaningful, no matter where you’re at.”
The silence and the flames and the setting had put Marian in a contemplative mood, “And for the Man Burn, that’s not something you normally get. I usually sit at the Man Burn going, oh my god, it’s over!”
Did this one remind her of previous Burns? Was it a throwback?
“Well, I thought of Larry,” she said. “I remember my first Burn with Larry, holding his hand, and I had gone to two Burns (previously), and now I was sitting with him, and I loved that man. … And we were quiet! I remember just holding hands.”
And what about what was going on at the other Burn?
“Well, I was looking at it as an organizer, and there would be no roads, and terrible things would happen, and my girlfriend said—and I told her I’d credit her, because I hadn’t thought about it this way—she said, people needed it so badly, people needed the connection so badly. It doesn’t matter if there are roads or streets, it doesn’t matter if there’s no Man Burn … it’s the need to connect.
“People keep asking, what’s the future going to be like, and I say, I’m going to keep doing Black Rock City unless people tell me to stop, because (the other event) is not the way to build a society. That’s a super fun, radical birthday party.”
As we drove away we could still see the embers from the now-small fire out on the Hualapai. Heading back to the desert, we were happy that at least somewhere, the flames, the honest-to-god actual flames, were still burning.
• • •
There were lots of janky mutant vehicles on the playa this year, ones that never would have passed a BRC DMV inspection. And they were charming and fun, and it was great that they could roam around. The “Side Porch” was here, the little cousin of the iconic Front Porch art car. The BAAAHS car was also there in slimmed-down form, and at one point they were doing a mashup of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech over techno, and, insanely, it worked perfectly.
And there were a ton of things going on all around the playa. There were dance camps, great DJs, food and drink given away, massages, yoga … a lot.
But to these eyes, at least, much as we admired the skill and effort and creativity of the comparatively smaller productions, we did miss the big stuff. “Participation” and “Radical Self-expression” are named values of Burning Man culture, and call us spectators if you must, but we missed all the things that make us say, “Wow.” There was a lot to enjoy, but there just wasn’t a lot that was awesome. This was a great campout with great people, and the Burning Man way of treating each other was very much in evidence, but it simply was not Black Rock City. Fight me.
Maybe you prefer the smaller scale. You no doubt prefer the free admission. And the people that you met still somehow turned out to be the people that you needed to meet. But we will say it again: We missed the wow.
And we will also say this: If you had to get on or off the playa, especially at night, it wasn’t easy. On Saturday night, we saw cars all over the playa, some heading sideways across the desert, some aiming for the shoreline, but not where there were any access points. Were those people lost? Were they just motoring around because they could? There’s no way of knowing. But because there was smoke in the sky and you couldn’t see the stars or the hills, it was not easy to find your way.
There were also people who loved being able to drive fast on the playa, day or night. And that was scary. If you got behind someone sending up a plume of dust, you were blinded for as long as it took for the dust to settle.
And we’ll also say this: Without streets and placed camps, you couldn’t find the people that you might have wanted to find. The camps that separated themselves from the main areas were easier to locate, with the help of the What Three Words app. You could go three miles out, almost to Trego, to visit Spanky’s WIne Bar and listen to the Bootie Mashup, but if you wanted to find your pals from Gate, you had virtually no chance.
We loved that all of the artists and Burning Man Project workers were having maybe the best Burn they’d had in a very long time, because they, for once, didn’t have a million things to do. They could explore, have fun, actually go to Burning Man.
We don’t for a second mean to diminish in any way the huge achievements that were accomplished here — the camp that served hundreds of pounds of barbecue tri-tip, the killer music camps, the fantastic lighting setup at Reverbia. But it wasn’t the same. And that’s fine, because maybe you like it that way. And maybe, if there is an official Black Rock City next year, this is what Fourth of Juplaya might want to be.
For us though, as good as this Self-inflicted Burn was, and as great as it was to feel the connection with the creative community again, we missed Black Rock City. We want it to come back. We want to see you at this same time next year.
• • •
Here are a few more photos from the Rogue Burn: