What is Burning Man? My other-dimensional trip to Black Rock City

What is Burning Man? My other-dimensional trip to Black Rock City

CultureSeptember 28, 2018 By Sean Lawlor

Riding our bikes through the playa night, drifting through the changing lights, my Burning Man mentor and I stumbled upon a dark, maze-like structure. He led me to the dim glow at the center, where a book lay on a pedestal over the question, “How has Burning Man altered your perception of reality?” Feeling the booming beats from the Mayan Warrior, the laser-shooting art car nearby, I tried to make some sense of this incomprehensible gathering swirling all around…

Burning Man can be like CrossFit, where people talk about it with such wide-eyed enthusiasm they quickly appear culty and turn off everyone within a five-mile radius. But man, Burning Man is really something else. I’m not gonna pull the whole “I went to Burning Man and now I know, man!” crap. I went this year, but I’m nowhere close to understanding it. Still, I’ve got a few insights and anecdotes to share.

Burning Man happens every year in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Specifically, it happens in Black Rock City, the country’s largest — if not only — temporary city. Each year, it’s constructed in the midst of the barren desert. Weeks later, it’s deconstructed until nothing remains.

How to describe Black Rock City…

Other-dimensional. Extra-planetary. Consciousness-expanding. Possibility-revealing. Endlessly colorful. Really weird. Frequently terrifying. Synchronistic. Impossibly surreal. 

Picture a vast expanse of cracked, lunar terrain, bordered on all sides by distant mountains hazy from the unobstructed sun. Through the year, you see but the occasional crow scavenging for who knows what, until suddenly people arrive in diverse vehicles, from RVs to buses to dragons on wheels. They wear strange clothing and construct elaborate camps, massive art displays, and ornate wooden structures that will soon erupt in flames. Within days, over 70,000 people have arrived, and they roam about in fur and goggles, scarves and hats, leather and boots and spandex reflecting light from a metallic sheen. They zoom around on brightly-lit bicycles, and the night transforms into a circus of colors spinning through the starry darkness. They dance. They laugh. They express themselves in ways not seen in the civilization from where they come. They’re invited to be who they want to be. And then the city vanishes away. 

But that description’s a microgram of the ocean. Nowhere close to defining the whole. 

Let’s clear up some misconceptions. 

There’s music, but it’s not a music festival. 

There’s spectacular art, but it’s not an art festival. 

There’s dancing and Molly galore, but it’s not a rave. 

Even the word “festival” feels inadequate, which is why many Burners call it “that thing in the desert.

It might be described as an alternate way of being. Contemporary society — the “default world” — doesn’t always promote free expression. Jobs demand dress codes. Conversations about kink are taboo in many situations. Streets form grids, demanding 90° turns and pauses at red lights, confining vehicles to mapped-out lanes. 

There aren’t lanes in Black Rock City. It’s about six square miles of vast openness on what Burners call “the playa” — a combination of lava beds and alkali flats (a dry lake) where no plants grow. 

Wrapping the playa, a horseshoe of hundreds, maybe thousands of diverse camps lies according to an orienting system of letters and positions on a clock. (“Hey brother! Come to 6:30 and H for some ecstatic dance!”)

And “camp” is used generally here. My camp had tents, shade structures, and chairs, while a nearby camp housed a massive dome where hundreds of naked people lined up to get blasted with foam and hosed down while Alex and Allyson Grey painted a massive mural on the wall. Another camp distributed snow cones and hot dogs.

All day and night, Burners ride lit-up bicycles, onewheels, and other crazy vehicles toward whatever draws them. Maybe it’s a bumping beat. Maybe it’s a several dozen half rings forming a long tunnel emitting changing patterns of colored lights. Maybe it’s green lasers shooting across the sky. Whatever it is, it’s calling you in the midst of ten thousand possibilities. 

If you suffer from FoMo, Burning Man will be a real struggle. 

The more normal people dress, the more they stand out. Men wear bright-colored yoga pants and bras, banana hammocks and speedos. Women wear fur and platforms, glittering pasties and thongs. Actually, men wear those too. Gender boundaries quickly dissolve. And people also wear about four million other things, if anything at all. 

Lots of people walk and bike around nude, minus their boots. I once got lost in the depths of the camps and found myself surrounded by at least eighty naked people. I felt very out of place not having my penis on display. It made me nervous, but no one gave me any shit. Then I wondered why this made me nervous and figured I should loosen up. 

Speaking of penises, lots of people think Burning Man’s a 70,000 person orgy. Several experienced Burners told me the Have-Sex-At-Burning-Man vision misses the point. Then again, lots of people definitely have sex there. And you can participate in an orgy — there are several “orgy tents,” differentiated by sexual preferences (single dudes: bring a partner, or you’re not getting in) — but it’s far from necessary. 

I opted out for my first go around — though a man did invite me to the gay orgy tent. He was kind and intelligent, and we kissed in the Temple, and it was beautiful, but it was my first time kissing a man, and I wanted to take it slow.

You could spend the full ten days explore the amazing art. Or join strangers inside a tea yurt for a warm brew. Or attend lectures on psychedelics, consciousness expansion, and visions of technological transformation of the future — this year’s theme of “I, Robot” brought many talks on how AI is going to alter everything we think we know about life and we might be totally screwed. 

You might stumble into a bar for some whiskey. Or take a yoga class, or a meditation class, or a seminar on kink and BDSM. You might boof some Molly. You might even find your way onto a plane and fly over the city as skydivers leap out. You can do anything you want, and you’ll be hard-pressed to discover a better opportunity to explore new horizons of your identity anywhere else on the planet. 

It isn’t cheap to get there — tickets for the main sale are $425, but you can apply for a low-income ticket at $190 — but once you get there, money hardly belongs. You can buy ice and coffee. People think it operates as a bartering system. That’s not accurate. Black Rock City has a gift economy. 

A ride through the camps will take you past silly people inviting you over for coffee or hot dogs or quesadillas or booze or face-paint or massage or a bike tuneup or a Tarot reading or a million other things limited only by Burners’ seemingly-limitless imaginations. They don’t ask for anything back. They’re not promoting something — branding and self-promotion don’t belong out there. They are giving to give. 

Then the giving becomes contagious. As you receive, you’ll contemplate how you can offer more. You’ll plan what you can offer next year. Our default world assigns boundaries to possessions, forming borders between those possessions’ owners. (“This is my cookie!”). We hardly consider it could operate differently. On the playa, there’s a sense that everything is everyone’s. If you run out of food, hop on your bike, and you’ll find some. Burners like to say, “The playa provides.”

Are we getting somewhere? Maybe, but we’re leaving out so much. Like the layer of deep healing and transformation. Burning Man is challenging. For some, it’s incredibly isolating and no fun at all. The playa’s unpredictable dust storms obscure sight of anything more than a foot away. Even if no storms come, you’ll wind up extremely dusty, and so will everything you bring. 

And through the challenges, you’ll grow. Perhaps significantly. And you’ll grow through the delights as well. The experience invites you to release cognitive blocks reinforced by the default world so you might return transformed, better equipped to offer the world your authentic self. 

That brings us to the ritualistic layer. On the final Saturday night, Black Rock City converges for the Man Burn, where the large wooden effigy that’s stood as a guiding beacon at the playa’s center erupts in flames as fireworks alight the sky. People scream “Burn!” and cry out in celebration. People hold one another other, laughing, weeping, experiencing whatever they take the ritual to mean.

The Man Burn might be read as a metaphor for Burning Man as a whole: an event of subjective meaning that conjures a sense of something primitive amidst a powerful celebration of aliveness. 

I approached the Man Burn as a release, a burning away of outdated thought patterns, stories I tell myself of trauma and shortcomings that no longer serve me. And in that release, I, like the effigy, now burn anew with fiery passion for life and all of it’s love-fueled pleasures. 

I’ve experienced many beautiful nights in my thirty years on this planet. That one’s without a doubt way up there.

So what the heck is Burning Man? 

I’d say Burning Man is a subjective journey through something expansively collective. 

It’s a place, an event, a state of mind, an energy, a gathering of infinite potential for manifestation. It’s a reunion, an invitation, a challenge, a vast array of morphing expression uniting the primal and the technological. 

A massive circus of spontaneity. A land where dreams and reality collide. A place to which I’ll one day return. 

“How has Burning Man altered your perception of reality?” read the sign.  

I stared at the large book, and a response entered my mind as if from an intelligence outside my own. 

“Some things are meant to be experienced, not explained.”

I put down the pen and inhaled the cool playa air. My mentor goaded me onward, and we followed the changing lights and sounds through the night until the sun rose over the mountains, and the people applauded the coming of the day.