Before I left to Burning Man, I expected most of the people there to be hippies and stoners, with some party girls/boys mixed in. And to be fair, there’s certainly a fair share of those people. But I was surprised just how many very accomplished and respectable people attend!
In hindsight, I’m a bit ashamed of this prejudice. First, there’s no reason accomplished, successful people wouldn’t enjoy Burning Man. The perpetual group-flow-state of the entire festival is enjoyable regardless of one’s background. The excitement of temporary deprivation is probably more appealing to people who usually have plenty. And there are a great many highly intelligent people who consider psychedelics to be a useful tool for self-knowledge and various mental tasks (Sam Harris comes to mind immediately as a strong proponent).
Furthermore, I probably should have expected this, because Burning Man isn’t exactly cheap. The total cost of going for someone going extremely low-end (like I did) is about $1000. It just goes up from there. Even low-income tickets only help a bit, because the ticket was a bit less than half of my cost. Plus most people in lower-income jobs can’t just take eight days off of work. So yeah, someone really dedicated could save up and go, and I met several starving-artist types who did exactly that. But most of the people were professionals of some sort. And getting to meet them was an absolute treat. Here’s a sampling:
I met a rocket scientist who’d worked for NORAD. He related the tale of how his participation in a system-wide WWIII-simulation scenario caused him to reevaluate his life.
I met a scientist that’s recently made waves with his hypothesis of land-based origins of life on Earth. He’s a member of the groups advising/pitching NASA on where to land the next Mars rover. He let me hold a rock he brought that is 3.5 billion years old, and contains fossilized traces of the proto-life on earth!
I stood within arm’s reach of a professional opera singer as she performed a brief, beautiful piece for me and eight other people in our camp. You don’t really get any more intimate of a venue than that. :)
It wasn’t all great – I met a shamanistic healing guru who traveled the world spreading woo. At one point he expressed delight at what had happened in Houston, because that city had “toxic energy” and this would help everyone who lived there to get in touch with their spiritual lives. I was playing host at the tea house, so I couldn’t be too confrontational, but I let him know that glee at human misery is wrong. Also the culture of togetherness and understanding made it very hard to be contradictory. I should have pushed back sooner. I wish I had been more forceful. A thing to remember for next time.
Overall, though, lots of positive experiences with meeting people. Between the Art and the People, this is an awesome experience for those of us going straight-edge. :)
The Playa is the term for the Burning Man grounds (spanish for “beach”). At night it transforms into a completely different place. First, ALL the lights come out. There is no public lighting, so it’s your civic duty to keep yourself lit up so people on bikes or art-cars don’t crash into you. And this is a place of art and beauty, so everyone is encouraged to light up in pretty colors and patterns. The effect is DAZZLING. I took a few pictures, but I really cannot do the effect justice, so I won’t post them. Maybe an actual photographer can capture it. Imagine a sea of neon-glowing life criss-crossing the dessert and congregating in clumps.
The sea analogy actually isn’t bad. Some of the sound cars start near the city at sundown and then slowly drive out to Deep Playa where they can blast music a great volume. The weave back and forth slowly, like an angler fish luring prey. Great numbers of humans in lit-up bikes swarm along side them, pulsing in and out like a school of minnows keeping pace. It’s mesmerizing to watch.
The inner-most road of the city is Burning Man’s main strip. It is the boardwalk. The camps that get these high-profile spots always put great effort into creating amazing frontage, full of lights and music, often several stories tall. Not only do they glow and gleam, but every one of them has true heart and emotion in their creation.
All these lights and sights and sounds make one feel like you are living in a post-human cyber-paradise. The Playa at night makes Las Vegas look like a pile of shit. And I realize that’s not hard to do, what with Vegas being kinda shitty anyway. But man, I don’t know how to put into words the neon-electric awesome.
The city has a heartbeat at night. There is music pulsing from all over, and across a distance the bass all melds into a low-level thruming rush. The land itself feels alive.
Much of the music is basic-as-fuck House, unfortunately. I understand why, it’s easy as hell for anyone to dance to. I said earlier that Burning Man is what you make of it, and I’m sure if I went looking I could have found music more to my taste. There was at least one Jazz camp, and one Goth/Industrial camp. But that wasn’t really what I was there for this year, so I didn’t seek it out and I was mostly inundated with boring House. Could be worse. I could be stuck in a dust-bowl desert. :)