Scenes From Burning Man

Grace Liew on Burning Man…

The temptation is simply to let the pictures speak for themselves. The rest—how, why—matters very little. Here is a fire mutant car, a giant Victorian antique tricycle rigged with gasoline, belching a massive fireball out of its minaret chute into the dark skies; And that? That is the Mad Max Thunder Dome, you climb in there, bare hands, with another person, and beat the shit out of each other, no exit until blood is drawn. Now look up, see the far horizon, where dry land below falls into sky above: It’s a desert, a vast, ancient dried lakebed called the playa, out in the middle of nowhere in Nevada, the state where deserts and valleys ring through for better or for worse. Every year, in the final week of August, a community—50,000 strong—springs out of this barren soil to make up Black Rock City, home to the Burning Man Festival.

To go to Burning Man is to go to another world and revel in a visual reality previously invisible to you, of whose existence you haven’t even heard. And when the week is up, back behind your worldly eyes, three measly primary colors would seem insufficient to paint the world. The withdrawal is very real.

My first Burning Man experience was a happy accident. It was a few days before the event when a friend, a veteran “burner” of ten plus years, had an extra ticket he needed to get rid of. With that, and nothing more than a vague notion of what Burning Man was (a festival where people do whatever they want?), I hastily packed my rucksack and set off to meet him in San Francisco. The drive from San Francisco to Nevada was going to be 14 hours. My friend’s dusty old station wagon, loaded from top to bottom, was quite a sight. Glow-stickered bicycles strapped haphazardly to the car roof, the insides bloating over with tents, backpacks, food, cookery, and assortments of costumes, glowsticks and lighting contraptions, all of which would prove to be useful on the godforsaken playa later on.

photo courtesy of Elné (


The car was a spectacle parked on the side of the road. Neighbors and pedestrians who strolled through immediately recognized our mission. Some patted our backs for luck, others shared a story or three. Those who couldn’t make it “this year” gave us big, wistful hugs. Burning Man’s legacy in San Francisco was clear. This was, after all, where it all started in 1986. Larry Harvey had gathered a few friends on a beach and lit up an effigy, a spontaneous act of delirium, out of which Burning Man grew. Today it is an event of 50,000 people, celebrating art, self-expression, music, and the human spirit completely stripped down. At the apex of the event, the Saturday of the week, a 40-feet-tall effigy of the Man is lit and burnt to ashes in an explosion of pyrotechnics.

As far as 25 miles outside the location, our car came to a standstill. The line was long. Vehicles straight out of the future and the past were lined up bumper-to-bumper, waiting to enter. Volkswagen vans, magic school buses, rumbling 30 foot-long trailers painted into psychedelic dreams. People poured out of their still vehicles, slithering and shimmying in excitement (“we finally made it home”), dressed in outrageous outfits, or else nothing at all.

I quickly realized that seven days was too little time. The first few days I was living a dream, unable to stop gaping, my mind racing in every direction, trying to take it all in. Every morning I woke up with the sun. By 9am I was baking like a dead chicken in my tent; by noon the desert was shimmering under the 45 degrees Celsius heat. Dust storms ripped through the entire playa like clockwork, and everything would disappear. The dust storms are a big part of Burning Man: everything freezes in mid-action—then they resume. A convertible full metal spacecraft mutant car rolled up next to a half chicken, half triple-decked bus at whose sides hung beer booster missiles. A collection of battered, fuel-powered sofas revved up side-by-side, ready to commence a race. Elsewhere a bunny art car chased after a carrot art car. With the sensory stimuli on top of the bodily depravation, dehydration and sunburn, I wondered if I had lost my mind. Finding my way around in a city as large as five square miles was no easy feat. One minute a woman painted in a full body sleek silver pattered up to me, licked my cheek, and handed me a token, which I was supposed to pass on to a next person after initiating a non-sexual contact. Then I was sitting in a sensory deprivation box, with my vision and hearing artificially removed, bending my already warped mind. Barely stumbling out later, I came face to face with a Dracula and Pac Man duo who shoved to me a handful of pot rice krispies and mushroom chocolates.

Burning Man’s mission is one and everything at the same time. Burners call it “home,” but only because at Burning Man you can be everything that you want to be. There is a reverence for the unspoken: you don’t have to define who you are. Like any conventional society, Burning Man has a variety of distinct social groups, each of them unique—but the similarities end there. Unlike in real life, there is no hierarchy to Burning Man’s social layers. Instead, the groups interact with one another as if moving through a fluid and intricately connected sphere. The lack of paper money—vending is banned at Burning Man—further strips away any remaining boundaries. Artists spend time and money to construct incredible art sculptures to be shared and (most of them) burned; entire theme camps exist at for no reason other than to give—noodles, margaritas, ice creams, massages, pizza, sushi, steaks, fortunes, entertainment—“free” in so far as you “pay” with a connection, a thought, a kind word, that primal ability of a sentient human being.

Walk around with a smile and an empty bowl and watch it fill. The temporary suspension of boundaries is liberating, but at the same time it terrifies and exhilarates: You are truly with yourself, covered in nothing (so to speak), and forced to deal with what lies beneath. At my best I found myself wondering about the ways in which I could actively participate and give back what I took, planning and plotting my next year at Burning Man, yet at my heart I knew that simply being present was participation enough. I was a part of the community just by being who I was.

Underneath the mayhem, Burning Man is perhaps the closest literal transfiguration of the phrase “organized chaos.” Even in the middle of a desert, Black Rock City runs like a successful city in many way that counts. It has a sewer system (over one thousand port-a-potties!), streetlights, market square (the “Center Camp”), yoga centers, dance floors, bars, restaurants, skating disco rink, fortune tellers, couple counseling, air strip, temples; and the entire five square miles is your art gallery. It even has a post office—for an earring and the shirt off my back I got stamps for my scraggly postcards that would carry the Black Rock City postmark out into the real world. By night, the scene transforms into a glowing Lewis Carollian dreamscape, where buildings, art cars, and humans light up and become self-illuminated participants of a collective crazy tea party.

The night of the sixth day saw the entire community gathered at the center of the city. The Man was going to burn. It took almost two hours for the fire to take off. Fireworks exploded into bouquets in the sky, amplifying the screams of 50,000 beating hearts, 1000 fire dancers courted and wooed the imminent, and throngs of drummers beat away with a frenetic energy. The effigy finally caught fire. A wondrous hush fell like a blanket over the sweating faces, before they immediately roared again, exultant and ceaseless, cheering with the sighs and crackles of the orange fire smoke, and after what felt like an eternity, the Man’s left leg buckled, bending metal shooting millions of sparks that rained like confetti into the night, then its right leg followed, folding right before our eyes and finally the structure collapsed into a giant heap of metal, wood, and ash, which continued to burn bright, illuminating the bodies of the people dancing in circles around it, relentless until sunrise.

The sky was a soft dark gray when I wrapped a blanket around myself and finally slept, close to the endless pile of hot white ashes. On the next night, the Temple burned. The Temple is a monument effigy for commemoration. Spontaneous expressions of memoriam—words, photographs, art—flood its insides. If the burn of the Man is a euphoric celebration of life, then the burn of the Temple is a solemn appreciation of the same thing. Each stands to attest to the other. The noisy crowd from yesterday stood watching the fire today in a silent awe. Instead of last night’s dancing, the crowd swayed and cradled with the flames, and by dawn I found myself once again falling asleep right next to the ashes, lulled into dream by the soft singsong voices around me.

Like any event that inspires consensus, Burning Man also attracts antithetical accounts. There are more than a few “demystification” claims that try to unpack the dream, to get to the “meaning behind it all”—that it’s simply a bunch of naked people running on drugs in the desert, claiming mysticism as a crutch—as if there is something like a real truth out there, and once the right needle comes along the balloon will burst.

But as I shook out my dust-caked hair and folded up my tent, I was rattling with an immediate, simple understanding, far, far simpler than any demystification claim. Substance-aided or not, mysticism or not, love or not, Burning Man itself is a mind-altering experience. And the mind, being an astoundingly adaptable thing, will soon find the sight of a man in a T-shirt to be more astonishing than a naked body, the sight of a plain sedan more jarring than a painted dragon bus. Yet these shifting paradigms are threaded together by an everyday normalcy.

The woman wearing nothing but a thin loincloth will lament the weather or the stinky bathrooms with you, then bid you a good day with a smile. The guy in the Satan face paint driving a medieval carriage is also a school teacher. He chats with you about “kids these days.” The guy giving out free ice creams in a skirt is also a volunteer paramedic for the event. Sometimes the juxtapositions are so startling that, whether or not you choose to subscribe to it—that rare moment, that flicker of mysticism—there it will be, dangling without stipulation, ripe and ready to offer you a glimpse into what lies beneath, but remains dangling until you choose to pluck and unfold it.

And that is just what Burning Man is: one of the few things in life that can make students out of even the most reluctant learners.
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