BLACK ROCK DESERT, Nev. – The underground is not deep. From basement conception to unprecedented genius to sales rack at Wal-Mart, it takes about five years for North America to commodify and devour any meaningful artifact of its counterculture.
So why does Burning Man continue to burn 18 years after creator Larry Harvey lit the first wooden effigy on a beach in San Francisco?
Burning Man is about the burning man and it isn’t. It isn’t clear what the actual burning man represents and it isn’t cool to ask. Yet this week, 30,000 of the oddest and friendliest people in America are here in the cream-coloured alkaline salt pan of northern Nevada’s Black Rock Desert to honour the multiple pleasures and meanings of the man.
On the playa, which is what burners call the floor of this dusty white oven, there are no sponsors or corporate logos. With some carefully applied paint, U-Haul trailers become O-Hell trailers.
There is plenty to experience and acquire and devour, but nothing is for sale but lemonade and coffee and ice.
At the same time, due to the nature of Black Rock City’s gift economy, nothing is free.
You can have your bike chain replaced on the playa or drink cocktails all night, get a massage or take a yoga class or receive a charming portrait of your genitals. But you should be prepared to plug your talents back into the community. As long as you give something, you can take everything.
Aside from the fact that a four-storey wooden man standing atop a giant sphere will be burned on Saturday night, there is no centrally organized entertainment.
However, art abounds. The playa is a moving gallery of cars shaped like sea creatures, enormous pink bicycles and elaborately painted bodies slathered with sunscreen and white dust.
Participants spend thousands of dollars and thousands of hours to build sculptures of wood, steel and light — only to tear them down at the end of the week.
VANITIES IN THE BONFIRE
In short, Burning Man is an exaggerated version of everything that contemporary North America is not. No one is getting rich here, or even all that famous.
“Burning Man reminds me that people are innately good,” Kerry McLean, sitting at a table in Edmonton’s Sidetrack Cafe, said a few hours before she hopped in a van to drive down here.
“On the playa I remember that life isn’t about having things. When you give to this community you think, ‘Oh, yeah, this is what it means to be a human being.’ ”
McLean, whose playa name is Tarzie, volunteers at Burning Man as a ranger. Her job is to be a liaison between burners and the official Nevada police and medical crews who patrol the grounds.
She is the Edmonton regional contact for Burning Man, bringing burners together and working to ensure the spirit and philosophy of Black Rock City leaks into society at large, all year round.
In Alberta, she is a community development worker with the County of Strathcona. But for McLean, and thousands of other burners from across North America and the world, Black Rock City is more than a holiday.
When photographer Greg Southam and I arrived Tuesday afternoon, it was hot and dry and windy in Black Rock City. Whorls of white dust obscured the oval campsite, its roads named according to the planets.
NAKED CAME THE GREETER
The man, standing far in the distance, was like an office tower in the middle of a forest fire.
We drove slowly, to avoid whipping up any more dust than necessary. At the entrance, a huge gentleman, covered in dust and wearing nothing but ski goggles, approached the driver’s side window.
“Welcome home,” he said.
We tried not to stare at his package. In our research, we learned this merry greeter would not be the last naked man we would see on the playa.
We learned that, to burners, this was authentic life and the other 51 weeks of the year constituted a tasteless mirage, a pacific struggle against the backwardness of middle America — consumer culture, bad politics, Fear Factor and fear thy neighbour.
After speaking to the naked man as though he were wearing a pinstriped suit, a woman from Seattle handed us a copy of the Black Rock Gazette and repeated the time-honoured Burning Man regulations.
Leave no trace on the playa. Drink five litres of water a day. Don’t put foreign objects in the porta-potties. Talk to strangers. There are no spectators (a difficult regulation for professional spectators). She gave us our first gift, a white garbage bag.
A BELL FOR ADORNMENT
The woman from Seattle asked us to get out of the van so we might ring the virgin bell, and we did. Then she hugged us and said we belonged here. We tried to be cool about hugging a stranger. This was not the last stranger we would hug on the playa.
Burning Man has a post office, a department of public works, a recycling depot, two daily newspapers, a couple of radio stations, cafes and nightclubs, a city hall and — in the distance, a mysterious church for secular humanists that will burn down at the end of the week.
We found Alberta camp and met several people from Western Canada. McLean arrived in her khaki ranger mini-skirt and she hugged us. We felt like squares because we weren’t wearing silver Speedos, eye makeup, bunny costumes or our birthday suits.
A 16-metre boat in the shape of the Loch Ness monster drove by, playing an early James Brown hit. A dust storm came up and ruined my contact lenses. People offered us free coffee, beer, bottled water, margaritas and manifestoes.
WHEELS ON FIRE
The multi-racial naked of all sizes rode bicycles.
At the media camp, where the satellite connection wouldn’t work, a man asked in an earnest manner if he could just hang out with me. I had a flashback to kindergarten.
As I finished this introductory piece about Burning Man, in mind-crushing late-afternoon heat, a young Canadian sat across from me. I endeavoured to stop panicking about the satellite for five minutes.
I asked why he spends his holidays every year in the middle of a desert, eschewing showers and televisions and discount shopping and all the other modern conveniences of modern life.
“Dude,” he said. “Are you kidding?”