Burning Man: The Magic of the Disappearing City
“Welcome home!” our greeter hugged.
Some say home is where the heart is. Others say it’s a mirage town that exists for only seven days of the year upon the playa, an otherwise barren salt flat in the Nevada desert.
We were ten Australians in two RVs at the gates of Black Rock City, home of Burning Man. An exercise in temporary community; a festival of survival; shirt-cockers* in the mist… we weren’t sure what to expect, but we were ready for anything. We’d made sure of that over a harrowing 10 hours of shopping. Walmart hadn’t known what hit them. We had bought all of their bicycles, assembled them in-store, pimped them with fairy lights and terrorised the aisles like an eco-friendly road gang. We also had the requisite food and enough alcohol to start a fraternity.
*Shirt-cocker (n.): a man wearing a relatively conservative buttoned shirt and boots, but a conspicuous lack of any clothing between sock and belt.
To be fair, the alcohol was to share. This insta-town was a giant version of that housewarming party where you’re requested to bring a bottle of wobbly pop, platter of fairy bread or appropriate substitute to keep your karma in the black. There was everything regular cities should have: cafés and bars, a TEDx conference, a gym, a dodgeball stadium, a moustache see-saw and a Thunderdome with drones recording battles between armed individuals (the weapons were foam, the blood was real). But one amenity conspicuously lacking was banks. Our cash was good only for emergency ice bags and coffee from Centre Camp; instead, the official coin of the realm was karma and the cup I had carabina’d to my belt, my Mastercard, accepted at all good camp bars. And we intended to return the favour.
It took mere hours of cognitive acclimation before my shock gland was exhausted. After the fifth guy dressed like a gay Mad Max rode past on a penny-farthing, any “normal” mode of dress or transport started to seem weird. The city demanded that we let our freak flag fly. Occasional park rangers, paramedics, and police officers were extremely conspicuous in their adulting attire. On the whole, everyone was responsible, and when mediation was required, there were said officials, plus the Jedi knights.
Yes: the Jedi knights.
As a child, I’d wanted to become a Jedi. I watched Star Wars on repeat and tried to move small objects using the power of my mind. Teenage Luke decided that Jedi knighthood wasn’t a real career. My friend Maddy would later lament, “No! The adults won!” at that point, but rest assured Maddy: I was proven wrong when I discovered the Jedi Training Academy in Black Rock City.
Training after dark, padawans were given a lightsabre of their chosen style, and tasked with dodging or deflecting “blaster fire” in the form of small flashing frisbees from all angles. It was much more difficult than they make it look in the movies, and at no point did I chance lowering my blast shield. Still, I’m now more qualified as a Jedi than I’ve ever been, and even made a few deflections. The Force is strong with this one.
On the night of the burn, we were dressed in our finest weirdery. I was in the garb of a kind of hipster satyr, with white Vans, furry pants and a poncho. The Burning Man himself was standing atop a huge UFO four stories high. As the effigy caught fire, a party raged in the red light on all sides. I went for a stroll to take in the carnage. People were dancing – some clothed, some not so much. Art cars, the playa’s answer to public transport, were parked frontier-style in a ring, wheeled galleons and mechanical beasts (including a huge copper flame-throwing octopus), pumping out electronica.
After a short time, over the din I heard “G’day, Luke!” I turned around to find myself reunited with my friends, standing casually, beers in hand, stark naked. It suddenly seemed rude to be wearing clothes, so I stripped back, too. A cute, scantily clad stranger walked up to me, said “hello” and proceeded to pash me. “You’re my first kiss of Burning Man,” she said, before disappearing into the throng, never to be seen again. It was a good kiss and my body reacted accordingly, to my embarrassment. My friends would go on to coin (and gleefully overuse), the term “Luke-on”, meaning any man-part in a state midway between flaccid and erect. But my red cheeks were wasted on the burning crowd: nobody else really noticed or cared.
The following night saw a second burn, this time of the temple—a similarly insane bonfire accompanied by a very different atmosphere. It was a large wooden pyramid that had been full of meditators and power-nappers all week and was now completely covered in mindful graffiti – thoughts and feelings to be given over to the flames. My friend Joey had added a message apologising to his late dog. His family had often been aggravated by her seemingly lazy behaviour, only realising late in her life that she had had doggy arthritis and was only doing the most any of us can do with two or four legs: her best. Joey had always felt guilty about that.
Absent were the pounding bass and nudity, replaced by a vigil of sombre burners sitting quietly. The temple overseer, all grey beard, dusty robes and glowing crooked staff, presided over us, a steampunk Moses. When the pyramid burned, some sang hymns, some cried, some howled at the moon. It collapsed eventually in splendid fashion, the burning wood falling away to reveal a huge stone idol within.
On that note, we swept our campsite to remove MOOP (Matter Out Of Place), and added our RVs to the long queue of people returning to the so-called Default World. We never got through a fraction of our alcohol, on account of the very generous community.
For months afterward we would have conversations along the lines of “What do you MEAN you didn’t play the Dance Dance Revolution game that shot fire at you if you misstepped?” You’ve run your eyeballs over my fractional strip of the experience. Seventy thousand people and only seven days to explore: it is an immersion therapy against FOMO. I think I’m cured, but I’m excited to relapse this year.