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Burning Man

 Burning Man asks the question: What would a contingent of privileged 21st century people do if they could do anything, if they were given a blank slate – the vast, stark, featureless playa – to create an instant community? The answer, as I observed as a Virgin Burner last week, is complicated. They–we–create beauty and ugliness, generosity and self-indulgence, Eden and dystopia and live for a week in a world of breathtaking sunsets and choking dust storms. Burners wash your dusty feet, take drugs, practice yoga at dawn, party all night, give away hot dogs and gin and tonics, make noise, dress in utility kilts or bootie shorts or tutus or nothing at all. They make art, big, bright, hard-edged art. They make music. They dance. They mist your scorched skin with precious water when you ride by on your bicycle. They tinker. They invent. They create something where nothing was. They make life in a dead place.

But they do not live lightly on this stretch of alkali flats. They use enormous resources to create this city of 70,000: thousands and thousands of gallons of potable water delivered by trucks, thousands of gallons of gray water spirited away, thousands of gallons of gas to power the blazing Art Cars that traverse the playa every night, thousands and thousands of gallons of propane to power the generators that support each camp. Hundreds of porta potties serviced every day. This is a resource-gobbling, tech-heavy vision of the future.

And mostly, despite the hugs everyone gives everyone and the gift economy (no money changes hands on the playa) and the many small kindnesses you encounter–and those you perform yourself–it is a harsh vision of the future. A post-apocalytpic vision of industrial grunge and consensual hedonism, with hulking trucks and laser beams scanning the night sky and blaring noise and too-bright lights, a Disneyland meets Las Vegas meets Mad Max world where strangers wash your naked body and you can spend an hour in the Orgasmatron on your way to watching fights in the Thunderdome.

On my last morning in Black Rock City, I was riding my playa-caked Hammer & Cyclery fat-tire bike on Lustrate, the farthest from the center street, a long, dusty several mile horseshoe of a ride. I was watching the dawn clouds dissipate in the already blistering heat. On one side of me was the city, on the other, the open playa. On the playa side, there was a grizzled man riding a squeaky bike pulling a trailer with a vintage boombox bungee-ed to the frame. As he came closer, I could hear the music. It was Donovan’s “Catch the Wind.” The innocence of that music, its softness, its almost silly simplicity, the gentleness of it. I stood there, straddling my bike, and I cried.


1 Barb Bolsen { 09.06.17 at 5:42 pm }

Lovely. Looking forward to more!

2 Ruth { 09.07.17 at 2:18 am }

I had to play it, and it made me cry in ash and smoke choked Seattle. Just as I have all week, watching our states burn and my DACA students threatened and my friends evacuating from Broward county Florida. I know the past was not really simple, but it the edges seem less sharp somehow.

3 Lauren { 09.11.17 at 6:09 pm }

I know exactly what you mean, Ruth. I don’t think it’s romanticizing a past that never was or even nostalgia…but rather a desire for a bit of gentleness, edges a little less sharp.

4 Lauren { 09.11.17 at 6:03 pm }

It’s so vivid and descriptive, I felt as if I was there. I have often wondered what goes on at Burning Man, but I’ve never had the urge to go – thank goodness for the writers that continue to venture into the unknown.

5 Lauren { 09.11.17 at 6:10 pm }

So many worlds we can travel to, so many lives we can (sort of) understand through the power of nonfiction storytelling!! Thanks, Lauren.

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