The first year you go to Burning Man you are called a virgin and the first thing they do to virgins at the entry gate of Burning Man is to make you lie down on the dusty clay floor of the Nevada desert and writhe around for a while. I didn't writhe enough so the 'greeter' put his boot delicately on my back to issue me with a little extra dust. That was good, because you need to get used to the white dust.
I didn't want to go to Burning Man. My girlfriend made me do it. It takes place about 80 miles Northeast of Reno, even closer to lovely Winemucca. I never want to be in either of those two 'cities' so I certainly didn't want to be in what is called Black Rock Desert in between where dust storms in the 100 degree heat can be so bad that you're forced to hunker down in the fetal position until they pass. When told that a gas mask is a good thing to own and plan to throw away all the clothes you bring, it just didn't sound that fun, more like a weeklong Grateful Dead concert in unbearable weather without music. When a friend blew out her achilles tendon a few days before the annual pilgrimage and had to bow out, I was jealous.
So, you might be surprised to hear me say, I'm going back. I'm DEFINITELY going back.
When you ask 'Burners', 'so, what's the appeal?' They respond, 'It's just indescribable'. Even the website says "Trying to explain what Burning Man is to someone who has never been to the event is a bit like trying to explain what a particular color looks like to someone who is blind." And yet, it very much lends itself to description. It's part Mad Max, part Alice in Wonderland, part Willy Wonka and part the bar scene in Star Wars all at the same time. It's an alternate reality that brings the same wonderment and excitement as Disneyland for a child. Imagine the most exotic foreign place you've ever been. THIS trumps THAT.
And, that's before it gets dark (really dark). At night, nearly all of the 60,000 residents are on the move, in costume, lit from head to toe in lights. Las Vegas or Shanghai, but moving. Also moving, in slow motion, are the 'art cars', the size of London double decker busses, also dressed up. They have to comply with the DMV (Department of Mutant Vehicles) code, meaning they can't look like a vehicle. One elaborate example was a roving night club with a half million dollar sound system that attracted 5,000 people wherever it went. Many art cars (ours included) have huge propane tanks that fire off giant roaring flames, something like what fuels a hot air balloon, only bigger, with more power, and when ignited illuminates everyone and everything nearby for a moment in the otherwise pitch black desert.
From its origins, fire is a big deal at Burning Man. So of major importance are the giant wooden art installations that on the last 4 nights are set on fire. When something is set on fire at Burning Man, you can probably see it from outer space. The big night is Saturday night, where they burn 'The Man' -- a multi story wooden structure spread eagle (which is also the burning man logo). Like the other big structures, you can walk around all the floors, before they get torched. The temple, which burns on the last night, is a huge castle that has a spiritual vibe where people put photos and write notes to friends who have passed, the kindling version of the tree in the movie Avatar.
Participation at Burning Man is the key. Entertainment isn't formally organized. For most people, participation simply means dressing up in a bigger version of Halloween, night after night, for a week. But participation also manifests itself in art, often as a large scale sculpture, made just for the event. These seem to be randomly positioned around the big open desert in what is otherwise an incredibly well organized city with an easy to understand grid-like road system. The costumes are a little hard to categorize but a large number of 'burners' look like extras from a movie wandering around looking for a job. Some people don't wear any clothes at all, but they are interspersed with those in elaborate dress, making it feel less shocking and more like just another costume. I was clothed as something of a mad hatter, on most days.
As a virgin, I might not have known all the right places to go and see but I did take on board seasoned burner advice. I generally rested during the day in order to have energy to travel around at night. A bike is the perfect way to cruise, and almost everybody's bike is dressed up as much as the owner. During the day, there seemed to be a lot of performing art and instruction on various things, from tennis on a clay court (naturally) which looked totally out of place, to just across the road, instruction in tantric positions with your partner. I wanted to do both, but settled for mad hatter tennis.
Now that I'm a 'burner', and am supposed to greet others on my return with, 'welcome home' and 'enjoy your burn', I wonder if it will have lost the amazement of the first time. I did notice many of my seasoned burner pals delighting in my initial discoveries. So maybe that's how it'll go. But even seasoned burners gaped at the mobile two story mechanical metal octopus with flames coming out of each arm (my girlfriend's favorite) or the dozen 4 foot tall cupcakes, late at night, weaving in between us (turns out they were dressed up wheelchairs) while we rode our bikes out into the desert following the sounds and light of a thundering art car just before the mars-like desert dawn.
I had an air-conditioned RV and we heard it was the most benign weather in a decade, so i didn't need the gas mask this time. And even though I got lucky, I'm definitely going back.
Kipp is a partner in the film company Flashlight Films in Los Angeles prior to which he was a partner at Goldman Sachs in London and Hong Kong.
More photography by Jessica Menda can be found at www.jessicamenda.com