Featured Pilgrimage: The City in the Desert

Tell me a story, Love. No, not that story! I don't want to hear about princes, kingdoms, peasants and hardships. Tell me about the land beyond the city walls. Tell me about the waters... dance with me in the deserts... sing to me about the wind... remind me of the world that was forgotten.
What if I told you that there was a city in the desert that existed for only one week out of every year? What if I told you that 50,000 artists from around the world gathered in this city for a single week to make dreams into reality? What if I told you that this single week affects your life as you read this? Would you believe me? Because this is possibly the last great tribe of our species, and it's happening all around us!

burning man
burning man by Christopher Michel

For one week, Black Rock City is the third largest city in Nevada. In 59 days, our tribe will gather around the most beautiful temple on the entire planet... and we will burn it... and then the city will slowly disappear back into the desert. If you haven't been to Burning Man, then you have no idea what it really is. If I wrote you an entire novel about the city, you'd have no idea what it is. This city changes lives, including your life at this very moment. So come with me! Let me show you merely a glimpse into the City of Dreams... the last free city on the planet.

The Temple and Tasseograph at dawn
The Temple and Tasseograph at dawn by Mr. Nightshade

The temple on the left is the Temple of Forgiveness from 2007. The father of my blood was going to join my sister and I in the desert in 2007. Instead, my sister and I brought our father's ashes to this temple, sealed inside paper casings, wrapped in ribbons and with messages written on the paper from both my sister and I. That wasn't how we'd planned on bringing him here... yet now he's with us every year. And this is the temple. People don't hold back their emotions here. Written on the walls of the temple are messages and messages and more messages. A few are humorous, but most of them are raw emotions... pure and unfiltered. Reading enough of these words will break you down and open your heart. There's nothing else like it.

Burning Man 2010 - Metropolis: Eggchtropolis Bar
Eggchtropolis Bar by Extramatic

You see this bar? Guess how much a rum 'n coke will cost you here? No, seriously, how much? If you guessed "$0", you win a prize! I'll buy you your drink. Nothing's allowed to be sold in this city, with exception to the ice and the coffee that you can buy from the organization that runs the place. You bring a cup and a plate, and you'll be freely given the best food and drinks of your life: grilled cheese sandwiches, pancakes, bacon, food from every corner of the world, alcohol bars, juice bars, ice cream... the list continues ab absurdum. It really is absurd. In 2008, we were camped across the street from a man who'd spent an entire year trying to create the perfect pancake. His gift to the desert was bringing his secret recipe and cooking up one cake after another the entire morning... and they definitely tasted like the perfect pancake.

If you don't pay for anything during the week, then what do you pay for? You pay with your time, and you pay for your ticket, your tent, your travel and your water. You need these bare essentials to survive. The time is gonna hurt ya. The city exists for one week, with everyone leaving the city on the Monday of Labor Day. You read that right. If you're in school or if you're in the world of business, then this should definitely be a rather large annoyance. The ticket will cut about 200 or 300 bones outta your wallet (depending on when you buy it). You'll need a tent to survive, as well as a week's worth of water. And your travel? You're driving outta Reno, Nevada and into the desert... hours on the road. Me? I hitch rides and split gas with peeps. But getting to Reno means taking planes, or trains, or traveling in caravans of cars across the United States to get there. In the end, even after all the expenses, you pay far less for a week in Black Rock City than what you'd pay for a week's vacation in most cities around the world.

BURNING MAN 2010 by Sam I Am Photography

Burners! Goddamned dirty hippies and anarchists, the lot of 'em! Or are we? Just what makes a person a burner? We all have lives in the world outside of Black Rock City (aka, "The Default World"). A burner can be anyone, from the peep serving your coffee to the CEO of a Fortune 500. If you need to hear some namedropping, then I can just point to Larry and Sergey (the founders of Google). You know what a Google Doodle is, right? Those cute pictures that you find on Google for special occasions? Do you know what the very first Google Doodle was? It was the Burning Man [reference]. If you want to find some more burners, then walk down the best seller list at your bookstore (or indie bookstore), or go to a movie, or pull up some music... or you can pick up a hitchhiker like me and ask where the crazy goggles came from. A burner's just a peep who comes to the desert and lives by one or more of the guiding principles. My two favorite principles are "Radical Self-expression" and "Radical Self-reliance", but everyone's different.

Burning man 2010
Burning man 2010 by HannaPDX

It's almost useless for me to tell you about fire. Obviously, even the name "Burning Man" infers that there's going to be fire.. . but no description will ever prepare you for thousands and thousands of people working together with fire in unison... often with burning machinery and sculptures all around them. There's fire and a LOT of it! Moving on...

Burning Man 2006 The NeverWas Haul by NewerWas crew burningman 06
Photo by Dust to Ashes

Yes, you are looking at a Victorian steampunk house that is driving around in the desert. This is called a mutant vehicle. Mutants and bikes are the only vehicles allowed to drive around Black Rock City. There are city buses, but they are double-decker and triple-decker buses with parties happening on every floor, often with large sails and colorful paintings on them. There was once (and likely will be again) an amazing pirate ship sailing out in the desert. There are smaller mutants, much like Duane Flatmo's fire-breathing sculptures. His bike-powered gleaming dragon is legendary at this point, then he added the chimera (below) in 2010.

Lobster Dragon, Burning Man 2010 Dragon Art Car, Burning Man 2010
Photo by Michael Holden

Yes, this thing actually drives around and breathes fire. There are also plent of silly vehicles that aren't very artistic, then amazing vehicles that seem impossible. They're all mutants. There are also robots and robotic vehicles like the spiderwalker:

Burning Man 2010 - Metropolis: The Walking Beast at  MUSE
Photo by Extramatic

The majority of the art in Black Rock City is interactive. If it's music, you dance to it. If it's clothing and costumes, you wear it. If it's a tunnel with lights, you walk inside of it. If it's a tower with stairs, you climb to the top. But there's also plenty of art that exists solely to inspire, such as 2010's legendary Bliss Dance (below).

Burning Man 2010 - Metropolis: Bliss Dance at Sunset
Photo by Extramatic

Some of my favorite art is found in the projects that extend out into the world beyond Burning Man. The WDYDWYD? project had a huge impact on my very first year in 2005, and it continues from year to year... as well as in businesses and colleges around the world. Ask yourself: "Why do you do what you do?" Answer that question. You can always change the answer later, but WDYDWYD here in this moment? Then, look into the eyes of others who've answered and read what they wrote.. . one answer after another.

wdydwyd? - to save us all
Photo by Tony Deifell

Also, the Time Love Memory installation in 2009. A vintage typewriter in the shape of a beetle's head was set up in the desert where peeps could find it and type anything they wanted.

Should I even talk about music? Almost everyone's heard that there's music at Burning Man. In fact, I was so naive that I once thought Burning Man was just a big concert in the desert. Wow! I was very wrong. But there's definitely music! Personal favorites such as Kraddy, Bassnectar, Mochipet and R/D all call the playa their home. The desert is made up of playa, a hard-packed dirt that is completely flat and breaks up into layers of dust. It is built for music that's heavy in bass. The music at night is dominated by electronic music. In fact, here's a bit of Bassnectar performing at the Temple of Boom (Burning Man, 2010):

Now, get really clear about this. No one was charged a single dollar to watch Bassnectar play. The two speaker systems you see in the video are a Funktion-1 Sound System. This is the second best sound system in the world. Bassnectar wasn't paid to drive out into the desert and play music. He came out here because he wanted to and because the desert's his home also. His music is his gift to the playa... and we all have something to give. Everyone! If you're a burner, you've already "got" this... but if you're not a burner, then this is a point worth stressing the importance of. This city's our Home. We do this because dust is in our blood and because these lunatics are our tribe. Yes, even including these crazyheads below.

Stick figures at Burning Man 2010

Of course everything I just told you is merely an illusion... selective pieces of a whole that's been designed to tempt you. I made no mention of how the storms will beat your body to the ground and break you open... nor did I mention the odd coincidences (called "playa magic") that surround the city and the tribe... nor did I mention the scorching heat of the day and the freezing temperatures of the night. And I'm definitely not going to mention the overwhelming gratitude you feel when peeps won't stop giving you things. Consider all of that (and more) on the unmentionable list.

And, more than anything else, I'm not tellin' ya about the moment when you can't focus your senses anymore... when you can't register everything that's happening all around you... when you simply start accepting everything around you as real and you allow pure unfiltered reality to enter your body. That's called "burning", and we're not frakking talkin' about it here!

Moving on!

But, now that you've got a small taste of what's going on here, maybe these two videos will make a little more sense. The first is the more fast-paced crazy side of the burn, while the second is the slower, more spiritual side of the desert.

Oh, yeah, and we burn a wooden man the size of a building at the end of the week. We frakking burn the sh!t outta him! Love that guy. For a burner, there's the Home (with a capital H) that is Black Rock City... and then there's the home back in the Default World outside of the desert. I think Wolfe said it best, "You can go home again, but you can't go all the way home, and not all of you makes it there."

Song of the Day: [Free from Kraddy]
The Infesticons - Bombs Anthem (Kraddy Remix)
"Bombs Anthem [Kraddy Remix]" by The Infesticons
Further Reading:
• Landlore - How to Properly Issue a Ticket to a Police Officer in 5 Easy Steps
• Official Blog - Confused by Burning Man? You're goddamn right you are!!!
• MJMFilms - "You people have ruined me. Thank you."
• System Andromeda - The Thing about Burning Man
• Write-up by Audi: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
• Tim Ferriss - Kindness in a Storm

PS: Sending special thanks to David Best, the designer of 2007's Temple of Forgiveness. He brought the ashes of both his parents to this temple, and during the very same year that my sister and I brought the ashes of our father here. There will come a day when my own ashes will be brought to this desert. This is our Home. Thank you!

PPS: Self-promote your ass in the comments! I KNOW that I forgot plenty of great articles. If you've written about the burn or have a favorite article, leave a link in the comments.

PPPS: Can you see my middle finger? Good, good... that means "I love you" in playaspeak. Welcome to the desert! Welcome to Nowhere! Welcome Home!

Days Since Last Injury: 0