Burning Man: Radical Ritual

A couple years ago I was sitting in a cultural anthropology class at Los Angeles Valley College when my professor shared her experiences about Burning Man with the class and I was enthralled. Her photos, videos, and explanations of what this magical event was left me with only more questions. My biggest takeaway was that this was NOT a festival, which I had no problem accepting because I avoid any type of festival like the plague. My partner and I immediately decided upon meeting each other this year that we’d go to Burning Man 2017. We shared a curiosity for this mystical event and wanted to share this experience with one another. Months prior we did research: documentaries, blogs, BM (Burning Man) message boards, and Pinterest boards. The research we put in aided us immensely. If you plan embarking on this journey do these things! We also came across blogs that made Burning Man sound like a total drag, but we found ways to prevent mishaps. Burning Man preparations require a whole heck of a lot of work months in advance. Our biggest fear was becoming a “Spark Pony” and having to rely on others. Sparkle Ponies are unprepared Burners who needed to rely on better prepared Burners for survival needs and other necessities; the community message boards did not take too kindly to these types of Burners.

Since I can remember, I’ve refused to put any sort of expectation on anything that related to traveling and other-worldly experiences. Everyone has their own unique stories. We travel to create our own and not recreate. I recall planning a trip to Italy and meeting someone who told me that Venice was a pile of garbage, they weren’t wrong about its actual garbage problem, but they also weren’t being “punny” either. They discouraged me from visiting the city and regardless of the warning I went, I loved it and I encourage you to go too. I really struggled with the idea of creating a post for my first burn; I wanted to participate fully without being a student of anthropology needing to photograph & document the radical experiences unfolding before my teary eyes. Burning Man strikes curiosity into the hearts and minds of people who have never been, many people were asking me “So, what is Burning Man?” The problem I’ve ran into with trying to describe BM is that I didn’t even get to experience everything BM had to offer and yet I experienced so much that it’s overwhelming to explain, leading me to get really hyped because I want to give people a play-by-play. I wanted to make it sound like something everyone should experience once in their life and that’s a lot of pressure to put on myself. I realized upon the inception of this post that I shouldn’t focus on trying to convince anyone; if it sounds like what you need then that’s what you’ll get from this.

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As we approached the gates, my partner and I shared a huge smile. Our first interaction with someone in Black Rock City moved me to almost shed a tear but I had to hold myself together or else I would be setting the stage for waterworks that week. This encounter was just at the check-point where they made sure no un-ticketed persons were in our vehicle. The gentleman leaned into our car and told us that he saw two individuals with a lot of love and compassion to share in BRC (Black Rock City) and that when we left, we needed to take that love and compassion and share it with everyone we see; “because God knows this world needs it.” He endowed us with the kindest of words that served me better than any mindful mediation I had done leading up to Burning Man. I felt welcomed, I felt cared for and I was ready to share that compassion with others. We left him in a tiny little cloud of Playa dust as we trekked forward into this temporary city.

Black Rock City becomes the third largest city in Nevada during BM. This ring-shaped BM Mapneighborhood is set up in such an intricate and thoughtful way. If you’re interested in the city plan, click on the image and find 9:00 & B (Breathe) that was where our camp was setup and how we’d exchange info with other Burners we met on the Playa about our camps location. Whenever my partner and I weren’t participating in communal efforts, we’d hit the city and explore other camps. We’d get flagged down by various camps offering us foods and drinks. We’d pull up on our bikes, hop off and get in line for some pizza or pulled pork sammies. Some camps contribution to the Playa was food related or conversation based, others contributed water/refreshments, some offered live entertainment, others focused on yoga & meditation, and popular ones focused on radical self expression and exploring open relationships with your partner. The list of what camps can offer is lengthy and all this to say that there is something for everyone and something you might of never known you needed.

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Welcome to the Red Herring! (Photo by Morgan Schmidt)

A red herring is a false anecdote or clue in a book that is intended to mislead the reader. Our camp was just that; from the outside it looked like a bland space. White tarp covered the outside walls and a red door with a herring nailed to it was the only signage our camp had. The inside was a magical oasis that offered shade, a “special 8 leaf tea blend from around the world” (Lipton tea), a bed and chaise lounge chairs, as well as a weed sprayer that misted our guests with lavender scented water. The Red Herring offered a stage for booked acts as well as improv ones. We had DJ’s, opera singers and an 11 year-old junior magician. It was a truly special place that was curated by some of the most dedicated and charismatic Burners I had the pleasure of sharing this space with. Our camp consisted of about 80 Burners that hailed from all over the U.S and abroad, half were virgins and the others were veterans.

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The kindness and consent we found in our camp was something we found when out in the Playa. Burners were always smiling and greeting one another and I carried this with me back home after the Burn. I read so many beautiful eulogies at the Temple that weretemplemusic dedicated to mothers and fathers, friends and pets. I cried so much I could not catch my breathe. The Temple was the most quiet place I had visited in BRC. Burners held each other while crying into those embraces. It was so humbling and I walked away feeling grateful for every being in my life.

 

When climbing, exploring and taking in art instillations we Speakeasyencountered Burners that I knew I’d probably never see again but shared special moments with that I do not typically share with people in my community back at home. Consent is key at BM, and whenever you met someone it was customary to ask permission for a hug or to engage in any other sort of debauchery. There was  a tendency to ask how many years someone had been Burning for. There was so much love for first time Burners and excitement as we were asked how our first Burn had panned out. Conversations started organically as we’d leave a camp and others would walk in; we would share our favorite parts and then get into a twenty minute conversation. Leaving a beautiful camp known for its delicious chai-iced tea, shaded and cushioned resting space that provided live music, we ran into Burners who had been hunting this space down PianoPlayduring their time at the Burn. As we got to talking I detected a familiar accent from some Burners and realized they were Colombian. You can instantly feel at home in Black Rock City. There was so much more excitement in my experience when I met Burners that reminded me of my other home, back in the technological and instant gratification world that harbored a lot of stressors and consistently depressed news from media outlets. We all went to BRC to get away from that and share good times without needing to be engrossed on our phones or talking about politics. I was asked about the drug scene at BM and an ongoing joke that took off for my partner and I was that there was a lot of pharmacy (he being a pharmacology major) and a lot of anthropology (cultural observations) taking place. Burners shared their stories FullSizeRender.jpgwith us of their recovery from a hard-nights trip or a trip that lasted longer than a day. Some Burners engage in that behavior to enhance their experience. As for my partner and I, a sobering experience was the route we took. It’s what our body and mind called for. The overstimulation of the event itself was enough to leave us feeling euphoric.

 

Our days consisted of seeking shade in other camps or our own camp lounge that had big pillow beds. We brought 15 gallons of water for two people and used 6 gallons for showering throughout the week. Sleeping in your tent past 9am was a death sentence so we slept in camps that had various nap-like stations. Swing City was a camp on the 9:00 block that reminded me of Santa Monica’s muscle beach. They had hammocks spread out between their first, second and third stories that also made for awesome viewing areas to watch aerial flow yoga, rings that people swung on while getting completely undressed, and tightrope walking. BM has federal cops from the Bureau of Land Management on-site. The federal cops we encountered seemed just as excited to be there as we were. Our first visit at Swing City involved a cop doing the rings, obviously not undressing but he received a roaring support from us Burners as he completed the course. Burners asked him for hugs after jumping off and as he hugged Burners the cheering got louder. BRC shared a huge respect for Law Enforcement and the medical staff, especially at night when responders seemed to be out the most.

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Photo by Morgan Schmidt

When the sun set on BRC, a psychedelic playground and light show that rivals Disneyland ensued. My partner and I were blown away night after night as we discovered interactive art and clubs. We roller-skated on the Esplanade, jumped onto a momentum operated swing set, joined a parade of art cars and mutant vehicles being escorted by the police on the Playa, and found a speakeasy by the trash-fence. We jumped around in mazes and I gave myself the gnarliest bruise of my life. We tried delicious brews and a concoction consisting of coffee, horchata and kailua liquor called a ‘Porkchata.’ Burners told bartenders jokes or took a “spanking” to receive drinks because again, this is a gifting economy and some form of entertainment in good fun was always appreciated by the hard working Burners.

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Tree of Ténéré (Photo by Morgan Schmidt)
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Photo by Morgan Schmidt

Burning Man allows you to come into its city space and be someone you’re not, but have always wanted to be. It brings out bubbly personalities. Creative Burners threw up temporary marvels like a makeshift French Quarter camp on the Esplanade that had a bakery, wine tasting room, bar/lounge, and a room for live jazz music. All these beautiful creations and artist sharing their passions with others. These 1900 words do not even conclude my feelings and time at BM.  I hope this serves as a tiny dose of useful information into what Burning Man can be and its thriving culture. It’s inviting, electrifying, filled with loving humans, and can be anything you want it to be. I’d like to extend a thoughtful thank you to Morgan Schmidt, a fellow Red Herring Burner, who allowed me to use some off his fabulous images for my blog, the featured image is also a photo of his. If you enjoyed his art, please visit his website: Morgan Schmidt Photography. As always, thanks to any and all readers. I’ll leave you with photos from the night when the man burned (beautiful witnessing human civilizations connection to fire through stories) and some 5am photos from when we watched the sunrise. Namaste.

 

 

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