Why Would Anyone Go to Burning Man?

It's an Alternate Universe Without Brands or Money
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Sept. 22 2011 7:36 PM

Why Would Anyone Go to Burning Man?

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It's an alternate universe without brands or money

After the final structural elements of the temple fall the crowd slowly walks towards the flames.
After the final structural elements of the temple fall the crowd slowly walks toward the flames

There was a wooden temple at Burning Man, 120 feet tall, with steep buttresses and sky-high cupolas. The Burning Man administration donated $85,000 toward its construction, and I was told the full cost was easily more than twice that amount. Mechanized gongs inside the temple were programmed in a sequence, making a sound like a gamelan. People often lay on the dusty temple floor and meditated. One afternoon, I watched everyone become transfixed by a nude woman standing on an upper balcony. She had her eyes closed, and her face and palms turned heavenward, as she swiveled her hips in rhythm with the ringing gongs.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

Over the course of the week, people wrote tributes on the temple walls to departed loved ones. Sometimes just a name. Sometimes a story. Sometimes a regret. "Are you feeling agile?" an older man asked me one day as I walked through a temple archway. He wanted me to shimmy up a column and affix there the fraying shirt of his dead friend. I did, with a couple of pals helping to boost me up.

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On the final night of the festival the temple is set on fire. It is a solemn affair, nothing like the burning of the man the night before. The crowd falls silent. You can hear the crackle of the flames as the building slowly collapses in on itself and turns to charcoal. Some people cry. Some get naked and lie on the hot ground near the embers.

The temple burn signals the end of the week, and I was forced to contemplate what this experience had meant to me. I'd come to this place on assignment, not quite sure what I was getting into. I half-expected not to like it. It turned out I sort of loved it.

People strip of their clothes and lie near the embers of the temple.
The atmosphere is somber after the temple burns

That's not to say everything was perfect. There were a lot of irritating people. One grows weary of port-a-potties, dust-stiffened hair, and body odor. And the event's encouragement of "radical self-expression" leads to a lot of terrible art and music along with all the good stuff. (I watched a 25-minute, uninterrupted duet between a dreadlocked flautist and a man with a sound-effects machine. The machine emitted only horrific noises—like recordings of airplane crashes and whimpering children. I cannot for the life of me explain why I stayed for the whole performance. I think I couldn't believe it was actually happening.)

I was also saddened by the large number of people at Burning Man with fairly evident self-esteem problems. They seemed to feel that they could only be happy this one week a year—within the warm bath of a loving, non-judgmental society. I wished they could experience the same kind of contentment the other 51 weeks of the year, in what Burners call "the default world." I found I preferred to be around folks who had fulfilling lives back on planet Earth, and who had come to the desert simply to try on new personas, indulge in a bit of excess, and experience an alternate universe.

And as much as I enjoyed the "gifting economy," in which people work to feed, shelter, and amuse each other without requiring any compensation, I'm not sure how much relevance it has to real life.

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For reasons I won't delineate here, the only water bottle that I own says "Goldman Sachs" on it in big letters. I got it for free. I brought it to Burning Man thinking I'd be a responsible, ecologically minded citizen by not using disposable plastic cups. One afternoon, I walked up to a tent where a guy was offering people his homemade fruit tea. I handed him my empty bottle to fill. He looked at it sidelong. "Goldman Sachs, Nalgene," he read aloud, turning the bottle in his hand. "You got a lotta brands, man," he said with dry disdain.

In one sense, this guy was a total dick. What did he know about my life? Or how I came to possess this Goldman Sachs water bottle? Or whether I also owned a Credit Suisse baseball hat, which I almost brought but ended up leaving behind in my hall closet at the last second?

In another sense, this guy had a (rudely expressed) point. Part of the fun of Burning Man is discovering how refreshing it can be to live in a de-commodified society. People make an effort to keep Burning Man free of mass-market advertising and logos, and to generate as much handcrafted culture as possible. Interactions have an immediacy and intimacy. We weren't all watching the same big-budget TV show extruded from a corporate entertainment complex. We were endeavoring to create wonderful, fleeting, artisanal moments for our community. In the real world, most of us are too busy competing over resources and maximizing output to devote this much selfless attention to each other. (On a related note: It turns out that professional entertainers are generally better at entertaining.)

Many people claim to have experienced revelations at Burning Man. One woman I met out on the desert said she'd realized that she needed to take more control over her life—to mold the default world more to her liking. Another guy I saw writing in a notebook said he was recording a thought he'd had the night before, while tripping on acid. The thought was that if he wanted things to happen in his life he had to actually, like, try at them.

Perhaps not earthshaking insights. But you can see how they could mean everything to these people at a specific moment in time. I kept waiting for my own revelation to arrive, and at the end of the week, after the man and the temple had been burned, it did.

Whenever strangers at Burning Man briefly chat and then part ways, they bid each other farewell by brightly saying, "Enjoy your burn!" It occurred to me—as I thought about the desert dust that was the only thing here before this week started, and will be the only thing here when we've left—life is really just a burn writ large. We emerge from nothingness. We join together to create beautiful, temporary relationships, full of kindness and joy and love. And then we disappear again. Dust to dust. I grant you it's not a Nobel-worthy revelation. But it's mine and it meant something to me at the time.

A group of bikers rides around the outskirts of the camp at dawn.
A group of bikers rides around the outskirts of the camp at dawn

Sam the photographer and I got into our rental car early Monday morning, after the temple burned, and sped down the highway toward Reno. We passed an outlet mall plastered with logos. (You got a lotta brands, man.) At the airport, it took a moment to adjust to the fact that everyone was fully clothed. The rental car agent demanded a $300 cleaning fee because our car was coated in dust.

Sam and I were boarding different flights. We were mentally and physically wasted. We'd just shared a semi-mind-blowing experience, full of unique sights and sounds and emotional vibes. We hugged goodbye, and told each other what a great week it had been.

Sam's a young guy. He would soon be headed to South Africa, with a one-way ticket, to follow a girl. I wasn't certain when, or if, I'd see him again. "Enjoy your burn," I said to him, before we slung our packs over our shoulders and parted ways.