I seldom talk about what I do on vacation because the place I visit carries more baggage than it takes to go there for a week. So I use a set of euphemisms instead, referring to it vaguely as That Thing in The Desert, That Burning Guy or The Festival 90 Miles North of Reno.
Its copyrighted name is Burning Man. Its un-copyrighted description is usually “that hippie, bacchanalian/drug/alternative/naked rave/fest.” So when I tell people what I did on my summer vacation I have to talk them down from the ledge of titillation about a legendary exotic event they never have attended. Or I just flash an evil knowing grin and whisper, “You have no idea.”
The sad truth is Burning Man is becoming middle-aged and most of the wilder rumors are akin to an old athlete’s embellished stories about how good it all used to be. There is nothing to be ashamed of in this; after all, none of us will ever be as young again as we are right now. This year there was a Taco Bell commercial featuring Burning Man, and George Clooney’s girlfriend blabbed about it on some talk show, so I guess it has lost most of its subversive cachet.
I have the same wistful illusion about Amsterdam, a place where all illegal things become magically legal. From all accounts even Amsterdam isn’t Amsterdam anymore. There is no perfect “free place” where you can be and do whatever you want, except maybe in the deep sludge of your imagination, or, for the truly desperate, the backstreets of Las Vegas. And that is probably what Burning Man is for most people – an imaginary place where everyone is having more fun than you have ever dreamed of. These truths should be self-evident: Anarchy really isn’t much fun for anyone except the anarchists, following your bliss costs a lot of money, and every free spirit needs parents with a basement. There is no pure freedom.
So why do 69,614 people — this year’s attendance — keep going? I’ve been participating for 15 consecutive years, which makes me about as obsessive-compulsive about it as any other thing in my life. I have become a Burning Man carnie of sorts. I get there early to help set up, watch the people come in, glance at their faces to see if they are having a good time, and then I leave.
Like the circus, Burning Man is temporary. A month before the event there was nothing there and a month after the event there is nothing there. In between, thousands of volunteers build a complete city with a fire station, hospitals, police force, Internet service, limited electrical grid, sanitation, and a commissary. For a brief time it is the fourth-largest city in Nevada.
My particular project is building a corral and sanctuary for the 400-plus members of the media, who come each year to write or film the most original story ever created about Burning Man. My role as a builder is part of Burning Man’s ethos of letting you be someone else, if only for eight days. In real life, I work in academe and dabble in home improvement. At That Thing in the Desert, I can strap on a tool belt and be the captain and campground host of my own temporary arcade. This 40-foot-by-20-foot structure complete with a deck is called Media Mecca.
The tired, dusty, huddled media masses come by in search of happy hour, battery chargers, interview appointments, high-speed Internet and all the red-carpet treatment they are accustomed to in the real world. What we give them are plywood benches, cold cups of water, shade and directions to the nearest port-o-potty. Here, there are no back-stage privileges for the camera-wielding hordes.
That Thing 90 Miles North of Reno is hot, dusty and in the middle of nowhere, but it is a nowhere that becomes a reunion and a home for people from all over the world. It’s sort of like a homecoming where you burn down the campus afterwards and then rebuild it in time for next year. The parts are all packed in shipping containers where they will overwinter until we build it all back again in August 2014.
Burning Man highlights the fact that all things are temporary. Maybe it’s a monument to that moment when the electricity flickers, and you suddenly realize you should have saved your document five seconds ago.
Dennis Hinkamp is a contributor to Writers on the Range a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Logan, Utah.