My brother, Edward (who lives in London), mentioned going to Burning Man to me earlier this year quite out of the blue and, whilst not on top of my things to do list, there were enough images and thoughts in my mind collected over the years of this enigmatic event for his suggestion to resonate with me. It would be a long trip from Singapore to Black Rock City, Nevada and not inexpensive so when he didn't mention it again, I decided to let that be that.
Weeks later I booked a trip to the UK punctuated at either end with visits to some old friends together with a trip to Devon for a surf week and a trip to Ireland to see my mother sandwiched in the middle. There was a gap in my plans though during this planned time in the UK (completely coincidentally), and that gap was the 2 weeks when 50000 people gather in the middle of the desert in Nevada and burn a man. The timing of that gap was not lost on Edward and it wasn't long before arrangements were beginning to fall into place.
This is not the place to give you the history of Burning Man (BM) or go into much detail of what it supposed to be but rather an excuse for a brief indulgence and sharing of my own experience. To help it all make a bit more sense, a bit of background is pertinent at this stage I think.
I suppose you could say that I had quite a liberal youth. I had plenty of 'hippy' type friends and was exposed to most things (and indulged in quite a few) by the time I was in my mid teens. I remember them as good times, quite bohemian and occasionally hedonistic, but have become increasingly skeptical and cynical towards anything 'new age', 'alternative' or radical in my advancing years.
It was with these feelings that my brother, my cynicism and I attended a BM 'newbie' event on my second evening after arriving in London. This was run by some experienced 'burners' all with there own Playa names (names used only in connection with, and whilst at, BM) all of whom seemed kind of decent but, at the same time, the quite cliquey atmosphere and my jet lag combined to irk me and, towards the end of the evening, had me feeling less than optimistic about the whole thing.
And when talk turned to the subject of the people who stand and wait for rides to BM from the nearest town, worries and thoughts about Edward and I sharing our RV with some random stranger who'd bummed a ride with us rose to the surface. This led to a pretty raw discussion between my brother and I during the cab ride back to his place, but we were agreed that neither of us wanted that. We were both on board with the giving and contributing notions that form some of the underlying principles of the festival, but this was as much our time together as it was time at BM and giving up space to strangers wasn't part of the deal.
A couple weeks later (those weeks being mostly filled with Brick Lane shopping trips for fur coats and Amazon orders for glow sticks, face masks and head torches) Edward and I were in our RV driving the last stretch of road before we reached Black Rock City (heavily policed by law enforcement officers basically having their Christmas and collective Birthdays in this part of Nevada for a couple of weeks in the middle of September). We had arrived in Los Angeles 3 days before. It had been a good few days but this was it. This is why we had come to the US. The road was the classic two-lane blacktop almost deserted for the majority of the year but today, despite our arriving at BM three days after it started, it was a steady stream of RVs, pickups and other assorted vehicles.
We passed through the last town, Gerlach, and purchased a couple of pairs of additional goggles to protect us against the dust storms. (One pair was covered in fur and had dangly bits – very BM). We then headed out for the last eight of our six hundred plus mile drive and as we rounded a couple of bends we could see a vast expanse ahead of us and the dust being kicked up over a large part of that expanse and some fireballs exploding in the air above it told us that the majority of the expected 50000 people were already there.
With various musical accompaniments from Faithless and The XX blaring out of the stereo we followed the signs and were directed off the road into one of 6 lanes arranged on the dusty playa. Fairly empty now, these lanes would have been chock full of vehicles a few days earlier as huge numbers of burners arrive hours before the event starts. Shortly after turning on to the Playa a car came towards us and as it sped past we could tell that it was a real BM car – no roof, all beat up and multi coloured it was driven by a guy with no shirt sporting a great BM beard. Edward and I laughed and I enthusiastically banged down on the horn to say hi to him and we were both, if we hadn't been already, firmly heading towards a BM state of mind. The laughter slowly subsided but would return many times but the smiles and grins remained and, for the next four days, they rarely left our faces.
To be continued…