Burning Man is not wonderful, but it is full of wonderful things. It is brutally hot, shop-vac dusty and full of inanimate things that want to bite you if you traverse the event in the dark. You wonder why you are there and why you come back and why you didn’t come sooner or stay longer. It’s complicated, but Burning Man is not wonderful. It is full of disappointments, fallen-short expectations balanced out by accidental wonder; but Burning Man is not wonderful.
I just got back from my 22nd consecutive year and might have to go back for another 22 to figure it out or die trying. Or, I should say “dry trying” because every year I come back feeling like a piece of already tough beef jerky subsequently put into a dehydrator and then later into a freeze drier and wrapped in sand. The first post-playa shower just takes off the patina to reveal my critically Caucasian skin; the second shower gets down to soap burn all the nicks and cuts; the third shower keeps my hair from breaking off like the needles on Christmas tree left up till February. Burning Man is not wonderful.
Burning Man is not there 11 months out of the year. “There” is just north of the map-speck town of Gerlach, Nevada. I get to that nowhere 10 days early when it looks like five Home Depots exploded in a desert and volunteer minions like me try to sort it into the structures, art and services that will support the 70,000 visitors yet to come. Burning Man really isn’t Burning Man until one week before Labor Day.
Like “Soylent Green” (obscure movie reference), Burning Man is about people and the shared joys and indignities. The pizza and cold water you have there becomes the best, you’ve ever had. You form relationships that last and some that should remain temporary. You wonder if “On a May afternoon in Portland would this person find me remotely interesting or I they?” Burning Man is not wonderful, but it makes you wonder about a myriad of things.
Burning Man has a real traffic problem except the traffic is promulgated by cars that look like neon-lit whales, space ships, giant cats, schooners, dragon flies, dragons, octopi and all manner of tetanus shot reminders. During rush hour you sometimes have to wait for 13 seconds to get across the street. Yes, there are streets because you have to find a way to place and later locate 70,000 people in a KOA with only a few campground hosts and zero swimming pools.
I’m not sure there is such a concept as “macrocosm,” but if there were I claim it as describing Burning Man. Everything in this small place is bigger, louder and more intense than it should naturally be. Small things set off your anger and smaller things set off you sense of whimsy. Everyone is both prettier and uglier depending on the time of day. Maybe I’m crazy, maybe I’m a genius, but I get to try out both faces when I’m there with only a modicum of judgment.
Burning Man is not wonderful. People die, but nobody says that we should stop playing baseball because someone died in an accident on the way to a game. Nobody says we should ban clowns because a clown at Burning Man assaulted someone even if that someone is me.
I question my motives every year I go and plead with myself to give myself one more chance. I tell myself that it will be different and the parts I love will be the same. It is an abusive relationship that abuses nobody but myself. Burning Man can be wonderful.
Dennis Hinkamp always welcomes your questions and criticisms of Burning Man. There are few things he knows as well.