The truly interesting thing about Burning Man isn't the large-scale, neon, interactive art. Or the bowel-wobbling bass mixes from the techno DJs. Or the battle for survival against the blazing sun, the sudden dust storms, and the dehydrated desert air.
Don't get me wrong, all those things can be fascinating. Particularly if you're on mushrooms. But to me, the most intriguing aspect of the event is the group effort by Burners to create a new culture—one in which the rules of the societal board game have been slightly tweaked.
For instance, among the guiding principles of Burning Man is that participants must "leave no trace." This means, somewhat counterintuitively, that there are no garbage cans in any of the public spaces. You are expected to pack out of the desert any waste you create that hasn't come from inside your body.
Folks are serious about this. Cultural norms get enforced. People shout "MOOP!"—meaning "Matter Out Of Place"—whenever someone drops a glowstick or a set of fuzzy bunny ears on the ground.
This practice had profound effects on the way I viewed things like product packaging. Tearing open a granola bar for a snack while you're out wandering past 70-foot-long praying mantis sculptures means stuffing the empty wrapper in your backpack, bringing it back to your camp site, and eventually lugging it out with all your other trash inside your car trunk. Whenever anyone offered me beer I was of course grateful—but I also couldn't help but contemplate the fact that I'd need to crush the empty cans and tote them around in my pack all day. Even an apple core became an enemy.
There are several other deliberate cultural differences. Perhaps the most immediately apparent is the tolerance of nudity. Nudity comes in all shapes, sizes, and genders at Burning Man. Twenty-year-old women wearing nothing but sequined hot pants. Seventy-year-old men wearing nothing but pith helmets. People of every sort wearing nothing but knee-high, rainbow-fur boots.
At times the nudity can feel political. The "Critical Tits" bike ride featured hundreds of topless women, on bicycles, making a vague statement about torso equality. To my amazement, gazing at that many breasts at once actually managed to de-eroticize them. (For a few hours, anyway. And please let's not talk about all the dudes eagerly snapping photos or—it was rumored—engineering a bumpy stretch of sand to enhance jiggle-osity.) Most of the women in my camp remained fully clothed all week, but a couple of gals whipped 'em out on Critical Tits day in what seemed to be an act of sisterly solidarity.
The counterpart male bike ride, "Critical Dicks," was a tidal wave of schlong. And no one cared. Save perhaps for people who might wish to sit on those bicycle seats (many of them presumably rentals) in the future.
There was, however, one form of nudity that everyone seemed to agree had no place within the Burning Man community. This is the type of nudity known as "shirtcocking." Shirtcocking is when a man wears a top but is naked from the waist down. I have also heard this look referred to as "the toddler," or "Porky Pigging."
For reasons that are hard to fully explain—if you've witnessed the phenomenon you know this is true—shirtcocking is disquieting to the observer's soul. Visually disturbing to an extreme degree. People at Burning Man are so averse to shirtcocking that I saw several posted signs vehemently denouncing the practice. And yet there were shirtcockers.
Shirtcocking aside, the culture of Burning Man is generally free of judgment, and thus tends to encourage experimentation. People try on new personas. They take stupefying amounts of drugs. They make out with total strangers.
Sometimes the experimentation seems ill-advised. A campmate who went inside an orgy tent told me he saw two men near him engaged in what he termed "vigorous, unprotected sex. The kind that spreads bad diseases."
Other forms of experimentation seemed pretty harmless. "I got spanked today," a friend announced to us when he returned to camp one afternoon. "I figured I should see if I liked it. I mean, maybe I like to get peed on, too, but I've just never known that because I've never tried it."
"I doubt it," said one of the girls. "I think whatever you masturbate to, that's what you want. But whatever. Did the spanking do it for you?"
"Not really. It kind of hurt. It still kind of hurts."
For better or worse, I never strayed too far outside my comfort zone. One of my campmates urged me to give public nudity a try—on when-in-Rome grounds. He said he'd taken a leisurely, naked bike ride around the perimeter of the city and quite enjoyed himself.
I've never personally had the urge to just hang out with my wang out, and that hadn't changed since I'd gotten to Burning Man. But late one night I biked deep into the desert, turned off my headlamp, and removed some clothes. It may have been solely for the benefit of the Federal Bureau of Land Management rangers who surveil the desert with night-vision goggles. But let it be said: Reader, I shirtcocked. And I sort of liked it.
My favorite of Burning Man's 10 guiding principles (you can read the complete list here) is the directive commanding "radical inclusion." In practice, this means that everyone is welcome to take part in every formal event and even every informal shindig. No one gets made fun of—at least not publicly—for the way they look or what they wear or their preferences with regard to sexual congress.
It's pretty delightful when you see this actually work. For instance, gays and straights partied together all the time. (Absent the directive, I suspect that it's more likely the gays who would have shunned the straights than vice versa—the gays were way cooler.) When I went with some pals to the Madonna dance party at the suggestively named Pickle Bar, I never once felt the least out of place. This despite the fact that I was wearing a shirt, my pecs were not tanned and oiled, and I had on a pair of shorts with an inseam that extended past my testicles.
The overall warmth of the interactions at Burning Man is off the charts, fostered by an event-wide agreement that everyone endeavor to be kind and accepting. When one amateur musician's electric backing tracks crashed, and he was left nervously hemming and hawing on stage, a woman in the audience shouted, "We love you!" and ran up to give him a big hug. She was adorably dressed in a pink wig, pink windbreaker, and pink skirt, and as she started swaying around the stage the musician created an impromptu song to accompany her. The crowd clapped along, and laughed and cheered. This turned out to be my favorite live performance of the week. It wasn't because of the music or the dancing. It was because of the lovely moment of humanity we were all a part of.