People who haven’t been to Burning Man often assume the festival is full of dreadlocked drug abusers and hippy-dippy crystal worshipers. Yes, those folks are there, in droves. But consider: Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of Google, are big-time Burners (in fact the very first Google Doodle was of the man himself). Rosario Dawson is a regular (and who could not love and respect Rosario Dawson?). Even my own camp featured a few consultants from Bain and McKinsey, a wealth management guy from Goldman Sachs, a patent lawyer, a couple of librarians, and a mechanical engineer.
Why do all these sharp, high-powered, decidedly non-dippy people attend? They go because Burning Man offers oodles of joyful, goofy, thought-provoking fun.
There was, for instance, a snack glory hole. I am not going to explain what a traditional glory hole is. (You can look that up on the Internet—preferably when you are not stationed at a work computer.) As for a snack glory hole, it is a hole in a wall that you press your mouth up to. Some unseen being on the other side of the wall then shoves delicious mystery snacks down your gullet until you say uncle.
There was also a Billion Bunny March. This involved hundreds of people—sorry bunnies, journalistic ethics require me to provide a factual attendance estimate—dressed in bunny costumes, parading together around the city. OK, I hear you saying, cute, fine, whatever. But then people in carrot costumes show up to protest the march! With signs demanding bunny-carrot equality!
At one point I happened upon a wooden pier in the middle of the open desert. It was about 75 feet long, and 20 feet high at its furthest reach. Actual ocean-going yachts (they had been refitted with motorized wheels) pulled up to the pier and docked at it, sometimes three at a time. Passengers would disembark and party on the pier to the thumping sounds of a DJ. Then people hopped back on the yachts—often different yachts than they’d arrived on—and the boats pulled away and sailed off into the desert again.
When there were no yachts at the pier you could go fishing off its edges. A woman handed us a fishing rod with a small toy tied to the end of its line, urging us to dangle our lure and see what we might catch. After a few moments, a dude in a crab costume jumped out from beneath the pier and grabbed the toy in his mouth.
(For no clear reason I could discern, there was a nautical vibe all over the place. A boat shaped like a narwhal was roaming around, as were a flame-shooting octopus, a giant airborne shark balloon, and scores of illuminated jellyfish puppets. Among the smaller maritime craft was a motorized rowboat with “Gone Fistin’” painted on its transom. Even the musical acts joined in: One band played a song called “Shark Attack.” When they got to the chorus, accomplices in shark costumes suddenly rushed the dance floor to maul the startled, delighted crowd.)
I went without a watch all week, didn’t carry my phone, and never checked the Internet. I just floated around in a spacey, amused bubble, hopscotching from one surreal encounter to the next. One afternoon I went to the Period Bar, where a woman made me press my lips to a plastic vulva. She poured chunky red sangria through this vagina-funnel until my chin was dripping. Moments later, I hopped onto a car shaped like a peacock, with a 17-foot-wide hydraulic tail that could fan out or retract. The topless man and woman in the front seat were pretty clearly on their way to or from some kind of mutual sexual encounter. They dropped me off after a few blocks, inviting me to meet them later at a rave on the other side of the city. When people in my camp chatted about their itineraries each day, the conversation would go something like: “I’m headed to the slingshot tournament. How about you?” “Probably nude dodgeball.”
Burners work and plan all year to create this single week of bizarre experiences for each other. They ask nothing in return. Buying and selling are basically forbidden. Even bartering is discouraged. The “gifting economy” relies on everybody contributing and nobody expecting any recompense. It’s not a viable model in the real world, but at this event—for just one week—people have successfully eliminated economic competition and want.
I talked to one guy who’d set up a hot dog stand in the desert. He said he’d given away more than 1,000 dogs over the course of the event, working a few hours a day. He was thrilled to do it. Other folks had built a mobile 1950s-style diner, complete with u-shaped counter and round stools. They would drive around in the middle of the night, occasionally stopping to serve coffee and grilled cheese sandwiches to hungry wanderers they encountered.
People in my camp had the foresight to bring s’mores fixings—we roasted marshmallows over a fire in a barrel at a busy intersection, and then doled out s’mores to stoned and tripping Burners who happened by. When I handed a warm s’more to a ravenous woman and watched her devour it with glee, I’m almost certain the transaction gave me more pleasure than it gave her. (I believe there is a wise old aphorism that sums up the relative merits of giving and receiving, addressing which one is better.)
On the Saturday night at the end of the week, the man burns. This moment means different things to different people. The transit of the human spirit. The exultation of pagan ritual. The simple, ancient joy of fire. The culmination of a 150-hour party. Whatever its meaning, it is spectacular—a colossal, billowing inferno, with explosions and face-searing heat blasts, and people cheering and dancing and stripping all their clothes off. At this point, stuff gets crazy.
The partying after the man burns is laced with a wild-eyed, desperate passion. The touchstone of Burner society—and the city’s central visual landmark—has been burned to the ground. Order is disintegrating. Other structures will begin disappearing soon, one by one. Time is fleeting. Our little universe is evaporating before our eyes.
That night I ended up on the second story of a bar, looking out over the city and the still-smoldering embers of the man. This bar was lined with velvet banquettes. A DJ spun records in an elevated booth. A packed crowd of beautiful, half-dressed people writhed—obscured by a shimmering dust storm howling through the windows.
A week ago, there had been nothing but empty desert here. Very soon, all this would vanish, leaving nothing but empty desert behind. For just this one night, we danced with the sort of abandon that can only be summoned when a world is ending.