Burning Middle-Aged Man
Dedicated to a former Burning Man Tourist Who Made this all Possible
BY DON PORTOLESE
I have finally shaken all of the dust and sand from my weary bones. Four days at Burning Man, in one of the most inhospitable places on Earth, and I am still trying to make sense of my experience. For more than twenty years, from the last Sunday in August to the first Monday in September, people have been coming to Black Rock Desert to join a community of people who share the principles of self-reliance, radical self-expression and mental alteration. My buddies and I were there to celebrate a good friend’s 50th birthday and indulge in a bit of all three of those principles.
From the Reno Airport, we were taken by car to our destination. Unfortunately, our driver neglected to mention that he would not be taking us all the way into Black Rock City proper. We were left on the side of the road in the desert sun with far too many supplies to carry the remaining two miles. Preparing for this event is a serious thing. Without the right gear: goggles, face protection and proper clothing, your life can be hell in this barren wasteland. Between food, booze, survival supplies and zany costumes, we were weighted down and would not be moving from that spot until someone was kind enough to take us further.
We explained our situation to one of the rangers. He in turn radioed his supervisor, who soon arrived in an empty pick up. Rather than give our sorry outfit a ride into the city, she gave us a dressing down for allowing ourselves to be put in such a predicament. I’m sorry but, Burning Man or not, you allow some people to don a uniform and they generally transform themselves into over-officious nincompoops. Fortunately, Steve, a veteran Burner, pulled up in a near-empty RV and offered to take us the rest of the way. The spirit of the Burn had been ignited.
As we drove in with our new friend, the dust kicked up fiercely making it impossible to see the cars in front of us. Steve explained that the dust and heat could get pretty bad in the desert. Some years the wind wails through this vast open space and people are barely able to leave their shelters during the entire festival. The brave at heart ride their bicycles through the whirling sand, unable to see more than three feet in front of them. We would soon discover that, at night and under adverse mental conditions, this could be quite a feat of daring.
We were greeted at the entrance by a beautiful hippie chick: “Welcome Home,” she said as she hugged each of us. If this was home, it was time to move house, I thought to myself. As virgins to the Burning Man experience, we were required to become one with the sand. We rolled around in it and were instantly impregnated with a layer of soot that we were unable to shake off until days after returning from the desert.
The dust blew into any orifice that wasn’t battened down. Yet, many wandered around the desert completely naked. I wondered how I was going to deal with four days of dust and mystic hippie shit. As with any alternative scene, there is the same hipster hierarchy. I remember it from my Grateful Dead days when everything revolved around how many shows you had seen or bootlegs you had. The same was on display at Burning Man: “Oh, dude, this is only your first burn?” As first timers, we were referred to as tourists. People who had been there fifteen minutes longer than us seemed to think themselves in some way superior. Thankfully, there were enough people who didn’t buy into this freshman/senior dynamic to counteract that nonsense. I was pleasantly surprised to experience a very different vibe and less wind the following days.
While the scene is not altogether hippie, there is still some of the old spirit. Gifting is the means of exchange here. There is no buying or bartering at Burning Man. You give something and you get nothing in return but the satisfaction of having given. You need not expect anything in return and will receive more for not doing so.
Our first night we were gifted an amazing dinner prepared by a five-star chef from L.A. We had just arrived and were immediately invited to dine with complete strangers. We in turn gifted wine and all gelled in eating, drinking and conversation. Most of the people in our camp were middle-aged, software cats from California who had been coming to Burning Man for years. Others I met later on were from every age, nationality and walk of life.
After dinner, we adjusted our goggles, water packs and mental state, hopped on our bikes and made off toward the playa. Art cars, anything from a decked out golf cart to a full-on 747 fuselage, roam this part of the desert. A Chuck Taylor shoe whizzed by. A huge schooner sailed past. Others were straight out of some sort of daffy “Mad Max” set. As they floated along the dusty floor, techno poured forth from their massive speaker systems. Art cars park in random places and bend the minds of fellow burners with deep house music and flashing lights. These impromptu raves happen all over the playa, often lasting into sunrise and beyond. With some gifted assistance, I managed to drag my middle-aged behind right through till dawn almost every night
There is also an array of other structures that people bring in from long distances and spend weeks to build before Burning Man begins. Sculptures are to be touched, climbed on, used as shelter. Some of my favorites were a beautiful whale installation complete with soothing whale sounds, a huge boar and the six-ton head of Leonardo da Vinci. There were also many other wonderful sculptures by artists from around the world. The Man and the Temple are the spiritual anchors of this gathering and are burned at the end of the festival. The Man had barely been constructed by the start of the event and was burned a few days later. The Temple, as large as many Buddhist temples I had seen over in Thailand or China, also burned shortly after its completion.
The burning of the Man was symbolic of rebirth. The burning of the Temple something more personal: loss. People were encouraged to write messages to loved ones who had passed away all over the structure. There was an atmosphere of intense sadness when I visited this temple. People were openly wailing within its walls. For many, when it burned, so too did their pain.
With so much to see, you really need to bring or rent a mountain bike. Black Rock City is about the size of Manhattan. It is set up like a clock that runs from 2:00 to 10:00. Each Avenue is a different hour, and letters from A to L (Arno to Lorenzo) mark the streets. It is almost impossible to read the street signs at night or when the sand is blowing, so you rely on things in the landscape to orient yourself. Unfortunately, things don’t ever seem to stay put. As the days move forward, things begin to disappear. Bars, camps, sculptures, etc., all vanish in the sand. The landscape is transformed. And when you’re out of your head and trying to figure out how to get back to your camp, this can be extremely confounding.
Yet, that is the most impressive thing about Burning Man. It is a gathering founded on the realization that we must reconcile ourselves with our own impermanence. It embodies the transcendental notion that all things are in constant flux. Life is evolution, and we can rely on only ourselves to navigate it. For as things disappear from our personal landscapes, we must learn to cope with our laments and loss; understand that it is only we who can exact change in our lives. And it is this that leaves me still pondering this whole experience, weeks later.
Like the dust, Burning Man has gotten under my skin. That spirit ignited on the way in has not extinguished itself. I feel a strange desire to return next year to see if anything or everything that I experienced was real; to see if I can make my experience better; to see if this bizarre human experiment continues to grow while at the same time remaining true to its core principles of self-expression, self-reliance and community.
Many say that Burning Man is no party. (Judging from the amount of people out of their gourds, I would beg to differ.) Nevertheless, it is a celebration. A gathering that fetes a way of life that may only flourish in a place where nothing else does.
Burning Man 2017, anyone?