Last Thursday was a typically atypical day at Burning Man, and the last day before a series of atypically atypical days. For me, it all started with riding my bike to the temple with some friends to enjoy an orchestral performance. Burning Man is named after the large statue that burns in a raucous feast on Saturday night. The next night, most of the group sat in silence, watching a wooden temple, with a different design every year, go up in flames. Beforehand, people filled the temple with messages, wrote on the walls, and nailed photos and personal belongings to the structure. I went in and perused the community contributions. Many of them commemorated lost loved ones, but the one that hit me hardest spoke of the pursuit of self-love. “To my past self,” one message read. “You’re more amazing than you realize. We did it.” The end of the note hinted at the future: “Bye. Haha.”
I was in a good mood and burst into tears. I spent an hour reading. Then I headed to the temporary airport at Burning Man where I needed to reschedule my volunteer shift. Airports are contentious places: Earlier this week, climate protesters blocked the road to Burning Man to protest the increasing number of private jets flying into the makeshift metropolis we call Black Rock City. Communities have grappled with how to deal with the influx of money for years. The wealthy have contributed to some stunning art, mutant vehicles, and playa-themed campsites, but cash also allows people to isolate themselves in RVs built for hire. The Burning Man Project reported in an official newsletter that it “took action” last year against 70 campsites that sold accommodation, amenities or services. “The BRC does not allow convenience camping (formerly known as turnkey or plug-and-play camping), which is completely contrary to the values of our community,” its website reads. Burning Man is supposed to be hard.
As I returned to camp from the airport, I passed a photographer who had set up a white tent to capture portraits of burners. I stopped and bought a copy. Then I met a friend from New York who helps run Kostume Kult, a theme camp that provides fancy outfits and hosts parties and fashion shows for anyone who wants to strut their stuff. We played Jenga, received alcohol-infused Capri Sun bags, and filmed people for a sing-along video he and his wife made. Back at my own camp, Deep Playa Surprise, I was recruited to ride my bike across the city to a foam bath party. We arrived too late and had to eat the shaved ice distributed by the kids. Just as I was about to walk back, a sandstorm hit. I could barely see anything in the vast whiteness, and could only navigate by following the distant beat. The extreme weather at Burning Man is unpredictable: you learn not to leave camp without goggles and a dust mask.
I got back in time to see the “Dildo Olympics” about to begin at the camp across the street from us, run by a bunch of Australians. I joined a team and then our own activities came along for the day. We served cocktails and had a discussion with NiNo Alicea, the first Puerto Rican artist to receive a Burning Man grant; his work this year, “ATABEY’s Treasure,” is a silvery fish whose head and tail appear to have come from the desert Peeping below the ground to a height of about twenty feet. (Burning Man is gradually becoming more diverse, but it’s still home to a large number of wealthy, college-educated white people.) We rode up to the sculpture, where a couple who looked like Instagram influencers were having fun with each other. Photos were taken; an apparently professional ballet dancer soon arrived and began posing for another photographer, jumping around in a thong.We returned to camp and two friends on the way to No Holes Barred, a comedy club down the block, told us they would just engaged. Earlier that week, one of them ran a desert ultramarathon on acid.
Black Rock City is shaped like a bitten donut: the human is at the center of the hole, the temple is in the bite, and the art fills the hole, the bite, and the space outside for about a while. mile. After dark, a group of us went out on bikes to look at the glowing art scattered around the beach. In a large piece made by my friend from Kostume Kult and his wife, there are four stacked rings, each about five feet tall, that rotate on an axis; by pulling the rings with a string, one can mix and match the animals’ Legs, body, head and ears. We see a two-story heart-shaped chrysalis burn, revealing a steel butterfly inside. Farther on, we found a miniature airstrip with rocking chairs in the shape of airplanes; we climbed a tower—a vertically oriented plane with a lounge and an open bar serving tea on the lower level. (All bars at Burning Man are open bars.) I’ve often thought that Black Rock City has some of the best contemporary art in the world, from large-scale installations like the Temple to small pieces like a lone mirror that writes itself : “Don’t look condescending.”
After a few hours of artistic tours, we headed to a dance party at a camp called Ashram Galatica. I met a friend who was building a retreat in Costa Rica. We then rode back to camp through a nighttime sandstorm.