Arts

Free Shrugs:
Burning Man Then and Now

The playa contains exquisite beauty, as well as the most banal of bros
Black Rock City is a lot like any other city—full of amazing wonders and total douches.

The Burning Man festival, in the remote Black Rock Desert in northeastern Nevada, is viewed as shorthand slur for everything that's obnoxious about New Agers. It's also seen as a unicorn ranch, a social-sexual paradise where even the lowliest bro can find love.

"It can be an erotically-charged environment" warns the Burning Man Survival Guide. A corrective definition, from the side of the brewers' encampment RV, where volunteers poured very good ale for free: "Burning Man: It's Just Fucking Camping." Take caution when quoting a bar motto describing a town. Drinkers are like the cat in the Kipling story: all places are the same to them.

Black Rock City is a gorgeous chimera, a hallucination woven from ball bungies, duct tape, and propane. The repeated rules of self-reliance, of decommodification, of maybe getting your pretty face out of your iPhone for about five minutes—these are applied to a 70,000-plus population that contains a healthy amount of douches. Friction as well as ferment builds a metropolis. I never felt I was out of a city, but that's OK—I like cities. For every 100 "Free Hugs" signs, there were at least five people offering "Free shrugs."

One shrugs at worries of corporate pollution of an idealistic event, citing the private planes at the temporary airport, the pre-fab camps built by day laborers, and "rock-star" Winnebagos. Where, exactly, do you go on caravanserai these days without running into wealthy world-ruiners?

The alkali dust tends to blanch people's glamor. It blows in at severe speeds and tremendous volume. Goggled and masked, we trudged—playa-brained—to try to figure out where we were going next. Was the cocktail party at F and 4.50 at 4pm, or F and 4th at 4:50 pm? The only other person who'd braved the second-worst storm of the week was an apple farmer from southern Illinois. She apologized because she'd already given away all the dried apples she'd brought to share. Blown back to our camp, we watched the winds trying to rip the tarps right off the steel frame. The wind is so fierce you use three-foot rebars pounded into the dry mud in place of tent stakes. Despite all this wind-sweeping, the Burners make a ceaseless effort to make sure the playa is empty and clean when the fest is over. The many stringently enforced rules of cleanup include not leaving anything behind, even something as relatively clean as spilled dishwater.

The sparsely-occupied playa of 1995 and the vast, noisy Black Rock City of 2015 are two different stages in the life of a city, and I was lucky enough to see both. The one constant is the mountains and the million-acre beach, dominating the camps, the jeweled lights, the art, and the infernal machines. The burn itself is a pyrotechnical stunner, but the day before he goes up in smoke, a temple is immolated. This monument to the deceased contains messages and photos to those who have gone away. One of the saddest places imaginable, it's visited by bare-assed mourners. Eros and Thanatos share the bedclothes. Not so far away from it is a telephone booth where you can talk to God. He has a Scandinavian accent, naturally, and He handles the "Why did you give my mother cancer" question deftly: "Death is a hard lesson to learn and a hard lesson to teach."

In this city, there is room for solitude. Underneath Orion, beneath cold stars on a very cold night, I walked past miles of silent huts, illuminated with battery-powered Christmas lights, listening to the bicycles rattling in the dark as I headed for the edge of town. It's a walk I'd compare—for pleasure, for strangeness, for potential deathbed recollection—to any post-midnight walk in NYC, Vegas or Paris.


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