09/12/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Burning Man 2008 "American Dream"

Saturday night, the Man burned. Over 49,000 people watched. A windstorm had kept most of us captive during the day. Eight hours of white dust.

What brings 49,000 crazy people together to put themselves to these tests?

Burning Man, a part revolutionary, part art instillation, amazing visuals, part rave and party, and strangely, often surprisingly, moving. The final night is a culmination of burning the Temple of the Dead, where "Cancer sucks!" merges with "Dad, you died, and I still hate you."

It's stunning, hard and yet soft at the same time.

Legend has it that Burning Man 'founder' Larry Harvey started burning a fairly large Man on a beach in San Francisco, maybe twenty years ago, one Labor Day. A former girlfriend's new boyfriend? Something to do with his Dad? We don't really know. All we know is that twenty or so people showed up to watch his little project. Until the San Francisco police showed up, a few years later. The event was repaired to a remote site about 100 miles north of Reno.

'The desert is a place worlds away from that which most of us are accustomed, and is governed by physical laws that cannot be ignored. You must bring enough food, water, shelter and first aid to survive one week in a harsh desert environment. Participants are urged to participate in 'radical self-reliance.''

This year, 49,000 people showed up to watch the living art project. An art project that comes together for one week on a playa deep in Nevada, where there is not one can for garbage. No commerce -- except for coffee and ice. In fact, this years' choice of street signs, "Jeep and Hummer" caused countless Internet controversy. As did the "American Dream" theme, itself.

Yet, I found the art surprisingly, unmoving. A lack of fire. In fact, there seemed to be much less anger than there was last year, when the Green concept -- semi-advertising under The Man of 'green houses' -- caused one of the original founders of Burning Man to torch the Man on Monday night of the week (he went to jail), the ultimate act of anarchy in a place where it is the norm.

They re-built the Man during the week, last year.

And this year, amidst the endless windstorm, still and always The Man burned.

Sounds crazy. Crazy as it sounds, Burning Man has a center, a soft core. It's called the Temple, where just when the free booze is about to get you, an impulsive visit to the Temple due north of The Man is a somber reminder. Lutes, hugs for strangers, pizza and the leaving of notes for your dead (ten from me) is the somber vigil.

Yet, it's the conversation, one might say, that is critical. In fact, a bike ride called 'Critical Tits' at the end of the week which features topless women of varied age, shapes and sizes would cause (many very) interested male observers to become uncomfortable with the 'frat-like' behavior of some of the participants, and made them have actual, deep discussions.

Not for the weak.

Black Rock City, Burning Man's home on the playa, is for one week, the third-largest city in Nevada. Ticket sales after the weekend were actually frowned on this year, in an effort to keep people out. And Black Rock City may be home to the only set of Rangers who use bullhorns as the Man burned to yell at participants, on their feet, "Sit down so everyone can be comfortable!"

And yet, amidst the perhaps less-than-stellar art, still discussion reigned. Scratch a semi-nude man with a feather boa, and he can probably document the latest conspiracy theory about 9/11. A woman with a less-than-stellar body is not made to feel uncomfortable (and can discuss the evolution of European politics with the best of them).


Politicians -- not so fond of them. But these participants are participating, connected in a way to ideas that is often not felt, elsewhere. Ever.

That said, the rave atmosphere can sometimes overwhelm. Still, it's the many random gifts that are the big commerce at Burning Man. Gifts which are unexpected, and it's kindness that is the big commodity. (Trust me, that concept can prove very, very hard to wrap one's head around).

And still, even amidst all this discussion, 'everything' does prove to be a metaphor, as a great project called "AdAmendment" proves literally impossible to find, and almost doesn't go up because the participants are (literally) napping. Okay, this is following an intense duststorm; nonetheless, napping at Burning Man -- in this particular instance -- takes the place of the 'promotion' of this fine idea.

It feels like a metaphor. A mirror of society, perhaps?

Bob Shepherd, a nudist writer artist Burning Man 'face painter' agrees that the art showed a "lack of rage," reminding me that "Everyone in the room knows Britney Spears had no panties on, but no one could tell you the First Amendment!"

Still, participant Saul Schumsky does manage to write up a new amendment to the Constitution, with help from a lawyer staying in his own camp. Here in Black Rock City, we find the ultimate playout of the '60's mantra 'doing your own thing.' Go to an AA meeting, a Shabbat service, or happily drink the booze that liberally and freely flows. Missed your own 'Prom Gone Right!'? Want Merlot at 'The Barbie Death Camp & Wine Bistro'? An observation made about Burning Man, is that despite the many people drinking and liberally, there's never a fight.

And speaking of Moop, (weren't we)? Burning Man literally lives and breathes on the desert vow, "Leave No Trace." And it works. This giant living art festival is also a testament to mass co-operation, where things work when everyone co-operates ("If it doesn't come out of your body, it doesn't go into the potty") read the signs on the port-o-potties (where some happy participant has scribbled, "Burning Man -- Drink it in)."


There's Goatt -- who brought his own VIP Lounge, a two-story P-Cubed bar, all the way from Humboldt County, California. He dubbed his own VIP Lounge, "Voyeurism Is Participation!"

The Census bureau reports that 35% of people at last year's Burn voted for George Bush (causing a 'comic' at a microphone in front of Picasso's Art Camp to comment, "That means you should hit the person next to you and make sure there's not a third term!)"

Still, Schumsky's petition gets pinned to a board on the corner of the dusty Census center, itself, making each dusty corner of each intentionally thought-provoking idea at the playa important. "Acts which a person knew or should have known to have a significant adverse effect on society at large shall be punishable by law," it says. "Such acts include, but are not limited to, degradation of the environment and obscenely wasteful consumption."

Despite the desert and large population, "Leave No Trace" is the camp theme. No one litters. Not a person (did see some "Moop' -- Matter out of Place) at the Man, still, it's in another way, another look at mass co-operation.

'Welcome home' they say at the gate, with extra hugs for first-timers (Virgins).

Riding my bike went to heck this year (different playa dust thanks to global warming)!, so walking became my journey.

See, Burning Man is living the moment. Since many people there have high-powered careers (yes, it's true), this becomes crucial. Because of the size and the people and the whiteouts and the 'you just don't know what will be tomorrow,' learning to live in the moment becomes a great lesson.

Some people's journey can be literally staying by their tents, forming spontaneous families with those around them -- and the tents? Tents ranging from tiny almost-fit-your-body to the elaborate structures over a year in planning. Offers of health drinks and booze and exotic coffees and lobster -- or 'you just don't know what the next tent will offer (four-roasted turkey Thanksgiving dinner, complete with stuffing and rolls at Torvill's Tavern on the Thursday of the burn) offer incentive. It's impossible to predict what your journey will be.

Participant Christian, in the perfect sum-up, wearing a "Do you dream about Burning Man?" was told at the Dream Interpretation Clinic (of course) that, "Everyone has needs. That's what community is for."

This year? If it felt a little less friendly (visit the "Museum of It Was Better Last Year"), or a bit like a rave with RV's, still, there is nothing like it, anywhere in the world. And how many things can you say that about?


Reason I document the people and things that I did? Because that's where I was. Move your Burning Man one inch to the right or left, and you've had a whole different experience.

And in the true spirit of confessions, and speaking of random, the author happens to be last year's 2007 Burning Man Grand Prize winner for coming out of the port-o-potty (complete with tiara and red-carpeted ramp and 30 cheering fans) on the last day of that burn.