Once a year, people by the tens of thousands, gather in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert to create a 7-day city dedicated to fun, art and self-expression.
I was waiting patiently in line at the “Costco Soulmate Trading Outlet” the other day when the topless woman ahead of me turned around and jiggled, “Are you here to get a trade-in too?”
“Yes I am,” I responded politely. I was there to find a new soulmate. Sure, I had doubts; finding a soulmate is a deeply personal and somewhat random quest, unlikely to be satisfied on the personal items aisle of a big box store. But as I rolled up on my bicycle and saw the collection of provocatively dressed (and provocatively undressed) men and women milling about, I thought this just might be the place.
This particular “store” is open for business at the Burning Man Festivalin Black Rock City, Nevada, a weeklong Bacchanal attended this year by more than 53,000 people from all over the world who gather on a two-mile-wide circle of dusty, dry lakebed referred to as the “playa.”
A woman from Vancouver, who I met some 30 minutes before, guided me to the soulmate outlet. We agreed to be a “couple” for the purpose of trading each other in for new soulmates. Hundreds of others were there too, trying this same unconventional approach to finding true love.
Soulmate trading is one of the milder activities that take place at Burning Man. Unlike the Thunder Dome, where wannabe gladiators fight to the end with plastic and foam battle sticks, or the dungeon where you can get tied up and tormented, soulmate trading is tame by comparison.
Yes, there is a lot of sex, drugs and rock and roll, but there is also the softer, cultural side — the art, the yoga, the meditation, and did I mention the art? It is very tempting to pigeonhole Burning Man, but there’s never been a “pigeonhole” made that can hold it. For those who are brave enough to venture out onto the alkaline lakebed some 100 miles northeast of Reno during the hottest, driest part of summer, it is whatever you want to make it.
It’s not always easy to know what is serious and what is just seriously fun at Burning Man. Irony, satire, sarcasm and simple humor are in your face at every turn. I admit at first, I was reluctant to go. The stories and videos of dust storms, the fact that you have to bring everything with you, including your water and toilet paper, the long, long drive out to the playa, all those things sounded awful from my safe little seat in Santa Monica. Yet if you look past all that, at the people, at the art, and at the big smiles on all the faces, it melts your resistance.
What finally convinced me was the list of events. The “What Where When” booklet — the program, if you will — has 20 pages of events that happen every day. For instance, there’s a sunscreen station to make sure you don’t burn; a Voodoo Shooting Gallery where one can play with blow guns, darts and voodoo dolls; a tattoo station in case you want to get something to remember your trip forever; or you could drop by the Open Dungeon, a play station for the BDSM crowd. (Personally, I find the dungeon crowd to be too serious.)
Need more incentive to Burn? There are another 110 pages of events listed in the book. I went to a beer tasting, I attended a Tantra class, there was a workshop on acetylene gas welding, and lectures by a variety of speakers on topics from psychology, engineering, sexuality, to psychedelic drugs.
I had to go. Not everyone feels this way, obviously. There are plenty of skeptics. Some dismiss it as a gathering of old hippies and young party animals looking for a place to be outrageous. A woman friend of mine friend just sneered at the mention and said, “That’s where everyone runs around having sex all day,” as if there was something wrong with that! Others object to the stories of widespread drug use. And about 10 years ago, local residents and environmentalists charged that the festival was destroying the desert.
But for me, it was like running away from home and joining the circus for a week. There were freaks, clowns, acrobats, dancers, carnival barkers and even a fun house mirror. It opened my eyes, my heart and my head in unexpected ways and was easily the most profoundly free, creative and inclusive gathering I’ve ever experienced. When you drive through the gates, the greeters give out a loud, “welcome home” and offer hugs to anyone who wants to stop. From there, tens of thousands of people converge, organize themselves, create a temporary city and interact with almost seamless elegance.
And it most certainly is not just a collection of old hippies and young hipsters. It is a well-known playground for Silicon Valley bigwigs like Sergey Brin and Larry Page. A friend of mine who works for Tesla Motors told me his boss credits Burning Man with changing his life and giving him the inspiration to found his revolutionary car company.
Even our camp neighbors, three lovely 50-something ladies from Vancouver, were there on an academic assignment to study the Burning Man crowd. Yes, there were plenty of 40-somethings, and people in their 50s, 60s and even 70s, so it’s not just a festival for the young. I also met people from Canada, Mexico, Bolivia, Great Britain, Ireland, Denmark, Germany, Spain, Greece, Russia, the Czech Republic and Australia.
Burning Man even attracts the occasional celebrity. In past years, Robin Williams, Sting, Joan Baez, and Eddie Izzard were spotted there. There was a rumor that Anne Hathaway was at this year’s festival. Since everyone is in costume most of the time, Burning Man is the perfect place to go incognito.
Whether it’s the giant scale of the art or the minute detail of the costumes, the average Burner plans and executes the trip with a level of ingenuity and creativity seldom even tried in the default world. Bicycles get as much attention as the clothes. Because the playa is a large area — a couple of miles across and with many miles of streets and alleys — most people bring a bicycle. My crew had a bicycle “pimp and primp” party the week before the Burn. Covering a bicycle in fur, lights, glowing neon wires is standard.
Those who try to capture the essence of Burning Man are likely to fall short. I can assure you that this little scribble has done nothing but scratch the surface of what Burning Man is all about. I simply don’t have the tools to describe the depth of awe I experienced.
Poets and artists are much better equipped for the task. Still, I hope I have made it clear that Burning Man is a unique and singular experience, unlike any art and crafts fair or music festival out there.
By the way, I didn’t find my new soulmate. I returned to the “outlet” too late — after closing time. (It’s tough being on time when no one’s watching the clock.) Thankfully, I did manage to touch souls with many of the Burners I met. My most enduring memory will be of a deep sense of belonging and inclusion. It really was like coming home.
Copyright © Rick Ruiz/2011 Singular Communications, LLC.
Check out this video montage from Burning Man 2011: