|PHOTO SOURCE: BURNINGMAN.ORG
By Gary Virginia
Many options exist for Labor Day weekend fun, from picnics with friends to Oakland Pride and Southern Decadence in New Orleans. But many LGBT folks have been preparing for months and are now packing their fake fur, survival kits, and fantastical couture and heading to the maddening Mecca of Black Rock Desert, NV, for Burning Man.
What began in 1986 at an impromptu effigy burning at Ocean Beach with 20 friends has evolved into one of the most unique experiments in social living, attracting close to 50,000 Burners (as participants are called).
I was fortunate to have been given a ticket to this event in 2006 and made the trek with a close friend in his parentsâ€™ RV. There would be no dusty tents or communal showers for me; and roughing it meant having to ration water and barter for forgotten necessities.
Thereâ€™s nothing I can write in one article that would make the diehard Burner satisfied with the depths of Burning Manâ€™s complexity. But perhaps I can offer a laymanâ€™s view for potential first-timers to entice them to place it on their bucket list.
For the uninitiated, the thought of traveling from all over the world â€” including San Francisco - to an ancient, dry and dusty lake bed in the Nevada dessert to set up a makeshift city for a week may sound absurd. Images of 40,000 oddly dressed people circling a huge wooden stick figure (nicknamed â€śThe Manâ€ť), which is then set afire until reduced to smoldering ashes come down, may seem a huge waste of time.
However, I can assure you that it is virtually impossible to spend 72 hours or more there without having your most basic beliefs challenged, and your life transformed.
Being a creative Pisces, I was blown away by the sensory juxtapositions of the barren landscape with the fire and imagination-fueled art, music, dance, costumes, libations, food and vehicles. Underlying this is the radical philosophy of self-reliance, of leaving no trace ecological ethic, anti-commercialism, and gifting and trading with disdain for currency. Thereâ€™s no corner convenience store, so much thought must go into packing for food, water, waste, toiletries, recycling and more. One misstep of forgetting toilet tissue can land you on the playa bartering your coveted water for a simple roll of Charmin.
The year I attended I met many of the famous characters of Burning Man. Dr. MegaVolt stands out among them with his human conducting of electricity atop his haunting, box truck. Imagine a couple of hundred thousand volts of electric passing through him in his mesh metal suit between two Star Wars looking pillars. Arcs of electricity can be seen for miles across the dark desert sky, and if close enough, you can hear and feel the buzz and smell ozone. Sorry, but this reminded me too much of being electrocuted between two bun toasters during my McDonaldâ€™s gig in 1977.
The Flaming Lotus Girlsâ€™ intricate metal dragon sculpture with multiple shooting flames was also intriguing. As was a massive, womb like cavern made of two-by-three wooden planks by 90 Belgians. Illuminated a neon green at dusk, it housed nightly dance parties featuring live musicians, DJs, topless dancers, and visits by a giant, mutant vehicle that looked like Willy Wonkaâ€™s Chocolate Factory. Like many wooden art installations, the Belgiansâ€™ masterpiece met its demise as a huge bonfire.
Bicycles are the preferred choice of transportation, but caution is required under the dark skies as celebrants dodge everything from mobile giant ships and sea creatures, motorized cupcakes and couches, and what appeared to be a person on fire riding a bike. Mobile pickle martini bars, geodesic dance floors, and huge, interactive sculptures all add to the miniature-golf-course-on-acid atmosphere. The nocturnal bass beats of camps such as Deep End fuel the rhythm of the endless party.
On a solemn sunrise bike ride, after having been absorbing music and merriment all night, I came across a lone man wearing a black suit grilling corn on the cob and hot dogs on a self-made barbecue grill. There wasnâ€™t a soul in sight and he almost scared the hell out of me as my internal compass had me lost and weary. That was the best hot dog I ever ate.
Iâ€™d be remiss if I didnâ€™t mention pioneering artist David Best and the many elaborate temples he has designed and guided to fruition at Burning Man. Streams of morning sunlight through intricate wood details converged with Burners depositing mementos, inscribing personal stories as sacred graffiti, and pausing in deliberate contemplation of life. The ritual burning of the temple at weekâ€™s end offers everyone the opportunity to transform and transcend whatever worldly attachments one may be harboring.
I could write volumes on the metaphysical, spiritual, ritualistic, daredevil insights one might experience in this land of contrasts. Truly, you learn to rely on each other to survive extreme temperatures, wind and dust storms, and no running water. And your mind is gradually expanded as people shed their societal norms and let their inhibitions fly high.
More than 2,000 volunteers make the magic happen annually. But it is the unlimited magic within us that gets ignited in the context of non-judgment, celebration of diversity, and responsible living as co-creators on Mother Earth.
To experience Burning Man once is not the question, but when?
NOTE: Recommended reading â€śBurning Book - A Visual History of Burning Manâ€ť by Jessica Bruder (2007)