Is this the greatest show on earth?
"Welcome Home" are the not words I’m expecting to hear. Not when I've just travelled twelve and a half thousand kilometers away from home. Not when they're coming from a stranger as she wraps her tentacle arms around me. And certainly not when I'm in the middle of the Nevada desert, it's well past midnight and a growing dust storm is making it impossible to see anything in front of me.
But they are two words that I will hear over and over again from some of the 60,000-odd people who have congregated in the dry American desert for the Burning Man festival.
After years of hearing stories about the word’s most infamous annual gathering, this time last year I arrived at the dusty gates only to find myself in an unexpected embrace with a stranger welcoming me to a home I never knew I had.
This crazy social experiment is taking place right now on the other side of the world. Burning Man has been called many things over the years: a modern Woodstock, hippie commune, brainwashing religion, college tradition, pagan ritual, anarchic society, hedonistic party and an art and music festival.
In reality it’s a little bit of each; a temporary community that rises from the desert to create a fully functional city complete with its own post office, rangers and rules. This bustling city becomes the tenth largest city in Nevada for one chaotic week, and then completely removes any trace that it ever existed. It’s so steeped in infamy that TIME recently named Black Rock City - the imaginary city where Burning Man is held every year - as one of Civilization’s 100 Most Important Sites alongside the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal and the Kremlin.
Burning Man is also to the reason behind the cute cartoon animations that often replace the Google logo on the homepage of the world’s largest search engine. Now named Google doodles, the tradition was born out of necessity when founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page attended Burning Man in 1998 and added the festival’s logo to the Google home page to explain why no one would be answering the phones in case their fledgling site crashed while they were in the desert. Luckily Google didn’t crash and the multi-billionaires still return to Burning Man most years. In fact, after the pair unexpectedly hired Eric Schmidt as Google’s CEO in 2001, Brin explained their simple reasoning to the New York Times: “He was the only candidate who had been to Burning Man.”
It is legends like this that last year propelled me through months of trepidation, weeks of shopping and packing, three flights and eleven hours of hauling a 31-foot motorhome into, literally, the middle of nowhere (with only one minor casualty: a poor car parked too close in a Vegas WalMart car park).
I travelled to Burning Man with my two best mates. Zac, a straight-talking lawyer with a passion for surfing, and Vincent, a French filmmaker who came to Sydney seven years ago and never left. We were all fresh from turning 30, a rite of passage that gently presses on your dreams and urges you to turn them into reality.
There’s an entire lexicon at Burning Man that you quickly absorb. The area where it all takes place is the playa, the process where everyone’s shoes, hair, tents and everything you own become the same shade of pale dust is called playafication, rubbish is labeled MOOP (Matter Out Of Place), everything outside the playa is the default world, people who come to Burning Man are nicknamed Burners, and if it’s your first time here, you’re a virgin.
“Are you virgins?” asks our greeter as she unwraps her arms from my torso. We’re instructed to lay on the desert floor and roll around in the dust. “Embrace it!” she screams as I baptise myself with dirt. And so began one of the strangest and most inspiring weeks of my life.
BURN BABY BURN
From space, Burning Man resembles an alien village. The city is arranged in a giant circle with a diameter of two and a half kilometres. Three quarters of the circle is filled with tents, motorhomes and campsites all packed tightly together. Streets divide the concentric semi circles, alphabetically through the middle and lining up like a giant clock face around the edges. Directions like “I’ll meet you at the corner of Geranium and 7:30” start off indecipherable and then make complete sense once you have your bearings.
At the centre of Black Rock City, both physically and figuratively, is a 10-storey high effigy of a man. Directly behind him is the temple. Every year the design of the man and temple evolve. Last year the temple was a complex wooden structure with three interconnected towers that you could walk through during the week and read the thousands of hand-scrawled messages Burners leave on its walls. They’re all stained with emotions, and as the sun sets one evening I silently wander through the temple. Some are self-help slogans like “Don’t die while you’re alive” or the names of love ones that passed that year. One intensely personal scrawl hits me in the guts: “I am so sorry I was afraid to be your mummy,” it reads, “I regret it every day, please forgive me.”
This coming Saturday night, on the penultimate night of this year’s festival, the Man will burn to the ground as the congregations dances around it with a fireworks-fuelled party. Then on Sunday night it’s the Temple’s turn to burn, but by then the chaos will be replaced with silence. The only sound that will cut through the haunting final night is the cackle of embers in the air and muffled sobbing all around.
BEHIND THE MAN
Now in it's 26th year, Burning Man attracts a loose collections of some of the most interesting people on the planet: modern hippies, Silicon Valley refugees and an increasing number of Australians that travel halfway around the world to experience it first hand. In a way it's an attempt to create a utopian society. Once you drive through the 22km fence that surrounds the site, the rules you've learned on the outside no longer apply. In their place are a few principles that you must agree to abide by.
The first, and most revolutionary, is that there is no currency. My wallet gladly remained in my suitcase, and for the week it's a gifting economy. Different from bartering, gifting is about giving when and if you can. Some people gift their skills (massage, fire breathing, making music, hairdressing), others gift their time (washing up, volunteering), some gift trinkets, others gift alcohol, but there’s a constant circle of helping out fellow Burners that radiates from each participant.
It’s strange at first, hard to grasp why strangers are going out of their way to lend a hand, and then that feeling wraps around you and you realise this is what it felt like when unity was still a part of community.
The other main Burning Man principle is radical self expressionism, which manifests it for some in nudity, for others dressing like Mad Max extras, and for others spending months building “Mutant Cars” that drive around the desert picking up passengers for a random ride to nowhere in particular.
RITES OF PASSAGE
We became official Burners a few days into it all last year. In the middle of a dusty flat we stumbled upon a lonely tent, the type you'd see at a school fete selling homemade jams. Manning the stall is Frenchie, a 60 year-old Canadian grandmother who’s dishing out playa names - nicknames people are to be known as for the week.
After a small queue, I open up to Frenchie about my hopes and fears. She steps around the table and hugs me (“Welcome home,” she whispers). “You're sharp, you love words but there's a softness to you.” She attacks my right bicep with a thick marker pen. “I know your new name. You are Azure Blade.” Freshly inked, I take a trumpet off the table and blow into it. A sound like a wet fart escapes the metal and I proclaim my new moniker to the dozen people waiting in line. “I am Azure Blade!” The line erupts as people pat me on the back. Zac and Vincent – now known as White Shark and Freedom Maker respectively - do the same. We are officially virgins no more.
The most common conversation - between camp mates, complete strangers, new best friends, bike riders, toilet queuers, anyone you meet - is how do you put this into words? To butcher a well worn simile, trying to describe Burning Man in words is like dancing about architecture. Burning Man is the familiarity of seeing your family after a long absence, the warmth of sleeping in your own bed, a feeling. And everybody at Black Rock City feels it.
HARD DAY’S NIGHT
It is physically pretty tough at Burning Man. The intense heat of the day, the unexpected dust storms that force you to stop and wait it out, the freezing nights, the cloud-free sky, the constant music, the electrically charged nights, the emotional experience of the temple and art projects, the long bikes rides between camps, lack of sleep and the pervasiveness of the dust all combine to test your nerves.
Everyone commutes on pushbikes, each personalized by Burners with flashing lights and ribbons. To complete a full tour from end to end takes close to an hour of non-stop riding.
Living in a city of bikes as the only means of transport is downright refreshing. The pace is peaceful, the energy is alive. The only issue is that alcohol, bikes, dust and darkness are not the best combination and the battle scars grow each day with bruises, cuts and infections increasing exponentially.
At night, or for some all day, you just wander the streets and see where you end up. That’s the fun of it. Armed with your own cup that you take from bar to bar, you walk up to a crew of people and share drinks and conversation. All over Black Rock City, there are hundreds of gatherings all taking place. You take your cup, you ride, you meet, you talk, you laugh, you dance. And then you repeat.
One night, as a gang of my new best friends from New York and San Francisco are riding across the desert towards a symphony of fireworks that tore through the sky, I begin to cry. Trickles at first and then a steady stream. Complete tears of joy. Tears at the beauty that life can create when we cut out all of the crap. Tears for no reason other than real happiness. I couldn’t remember the last time I felt like that.
LEGEND LIVES ON
So what’s the point of it all? To answer that you need to ask founder Larry Harvey who started burning a small wicker man on a San Francisco beach two and a half decades ago. "We've given you all a chance to live like artists out here,” he explained in a rare video interview. “You can live like an artist, that means you can give everything away and live on the edge of survival. In a way it's a kind of poverty that you've embraced...the sole reason we plan any of this is to let this naturally occurring phenomenon of human interaction begin to live again in our world.”
My simple explanation is it’s one week of how communities can, and should, be – supportive, creative, inspiring and daring. Sure it might only be for seven days, but it’s enough to remind you that it’s the small ways we interact with our neighbours that make up the bigger picture.
There’s a story about the first Burning Man settlers arriving in the Black Rock Desert. Drawing a line in the ground at the edge of the sand, they were told that once they crossed this line “everything would be different.” It wasn’t until I returned to my real home, a comfortable little terrace in inner-city Sydney as far removed from the playa as you could possibly get, that I realised exactly what they meant.
Tim Duggan is the Content Director at the Sound Alliance. Follow him on Twitter.