It is cliche to say that words alone can't explain what Burning Man is like. But attempts to explain it abound on the Internet, in print and simply people talking about it. Words can be written. Pictures can be shown. Playa dust can be sniffed on the clothes, shoes and tents of those attending. Video (although discouraged) can show people moving around. But none capture the essence, the spirituality, the energy of actually attending Burning Man yourself.
This was my second of many years to come attending Burning Man. Last year I was told, "Burning man doesn't give you what you want, it gives you what you need." There is truth in that statement, much like there is truth in the motto of the Burning Man Post Office, "There is no 'Team' in 'Fuck You.'"
Over the last year, I have obsessed about returning to the Black Rock Desert two hours north of Reno, Nevada. On an ancient, alkaline lakebed is a pentagon-shaped space, not-so-arbitrarily placed on the flat playa, defining the perimeter of the city. The city is designed like a clock, with each street named for the time on a clock (2:30, 7:30, etc.) and the circular bands of roads named for the theme of the year. This year's theme was "The Psyche: the conscious, the subconscious and the unconscious."
Returning was nostalgic for me--granted, it was the fresh nostalgia of just 365 days ago, but nostalgic nonetheless. I wanted to take more photos, see more art, go to more theme camps, make my own art project. I had a plan and I was bound and determined to realize it. The lesson I didn't learn from last year was that as you pass through the gates, you subconsciously throw your plans out the window. The man decides what you'll do. And if you fight him, he'll punish you first, then destroy you later.
Surprises are encountered around every curve of the city streets. Getting there early in the week, one can see the city grow, from 5,000 people to over 35,000 by Saturday. The stereotype of Burning Man is that it is a hedonistic den of drugs, sex and sin. A proverbial Sodom and Gomorrah in the desert. Only God has already forsaken this land, turning the environment into a wasteland, a place no one else save a few would find beautiful.
While one can find sex, drugs and sin in Black Rock City, one can also find these things in any American city. The difference there is that judgments are cast aside. The societal guilt imposed upon people who express themselves openly in the real world is abandoned. Tolerance abounds. But the culture that results from a peaceful anarchy is also self-regulating. One does not see open sex happening on the playa. I've seen more hanky panky happening in the alleys of downtown Boise. One does not see (or smell) drugs openly being taken. I witnessed more drugs being smoked at the Willie Nelson concert in Ketchum last week than I did all week at Burning Man.
What one does see is creativity unleashed. People dress up, or down to their skin, openly, honestly and unabashedly. People are free to express themselves without judgment and are respectful of avoiding harm to others. It is a model of society from an ideal coming out of the '60s, although most participants were born during or after that era.
Each person's experience is unique. Over the last year, talking with others who attended, I was amazed to hear about things I did not see. Looking at other's pictures from 2004, I thought I was looking at a different event. I hadn't seen that piece of art, that performance or those costumes. But the people I spoke with hadn't seen what I saw either. The size and scope of the city is so enormous that it ensures a unique experience for all.
So while I can try to tell you what it's like, show you my pictures and let you smell my blankets and clothes still impregnated with playa dust, there is nothing I can convey which gives the 360-degree, 168-hour experience of Burning Man. You have to experience it yourself. But don't bother if you can't take it. It is not for the meek, shy, conservative or closed-minded. All I can do is tell you the tales of my experience. And here is the one I will share with you this year.