A week ago I was on the playa, amidst a swirl of light, sound, dust, and tutus. Until a week ago, I was a virgin (burner). I am now older, wiser, dustier, and intimately acquainted with what must be one of the most unique cultural experiences on the planet: Burning Man.
This post won't however be another exclamation about the wonder and magic to be had in the desert. When I got into my car two weeks ago I had done my best to remain totally agnostic as to what I would find, and without expectation for what the experience should hold. After all, the epithet "mind blowing" only conveys so much on the umpteenth recital, and the only commonality that people's stories seemed to hold was the utter uniqueness of each person's experience. If I were to offer one piece of advice to virgins out there now, this would be it: be open, be excited. And don't read anything about Burning Man.
This post is instead about the week that has followed. As the haze faded and life in the default world has picked up where it had been left, the airwaves have been saturated with story after story: the celebrities, the techies, the politicians, the changes. The common theme: "Burning Man is running on fumes." It's sold out. It's a board meeting and a networking session and a giant bacchanalian party, all rolled into one. It's a giant hypocritical mess.
Even the burners have gotten into the game (playing the other side): "Outrage is cheap. Art and whimsy are precious. Burning Man is a generator for Art and Whimsy, making it a pearl beyond price. We can afford to be misunderstood, so long as we have that."
That quote is from "Caveat" - a lot of folks on the playa go by pseudonym, if only because they can - and it's from a longer piece posted yesterday to the burning man blog. "Burning Man has become a cultural touchstone," Caveat writes. And if Burning Man is going to have an effect on the world, then those misunderstandings are unavoidable. "We can't fix the world while holding it at arm's length."
I think that's a beautiful sentiment. I don't know that Burning Man has changed me - I don't think it has - but it was an amazing experience, and one that I would recommend to anyone that isn't afraid to spend a week dirty, overwhelmed, and in love. But the risk of Burning Man becoming a cultural touchstone isn't that it will be misunderstood, at least in my book. It's that people like me are denied a chance to go in with their eyes and hearts open, ready and excited to experience something wonderful.
Has Burning Man changed since the early burns on Ocean Beach? Probably. Were there tech stars and corporate sharks, wheeling and dealing amidst the art? Maybe. I didn't run into them, but if they were there I hope they had a great time. Was it an amazing experience, despite the accusations of selling out, the self-righteous vets, and the omnipresent dust? Absolutely. Burning Man is a celebration of immersion, immediacy, and intimacy; of finding, not seeking. So ignore all the media and get out and experience it for yourself.
Photo Credit: Trey Ratcliff