Burning Man doesn’t give a flying fuck if you live or die. And that’s one of its best qualities. (That’s not to say the volunteers who’re there trying to help keep you safe don’t.) It’s right there on the ticket – in bold capital letters. “You voluntarily assume the risk of serious injury or death by attending this event and release Burning Man from any claim arising from this risk…” Whether it’s from the inhospitable landscape, climbing the sky-scraping art, or playing with fire on an apocalyptic scale, folks die every year. In the decade between my last visit and this one, there only seems a small handful of new regulations about safety. Which is fine by me, for the most part, I hate rules. No, Burning Man doesn’t seem too concerned whether you survive the experience, it does however seem to care a great deal whether or not you are entertained while your there. Remember everyone, safety third.
If modern culture with it’s; radios playing in every store, TVs staring at you while you pump your gas, movie screen billboards, the internet always within arms reach, and whatever else is about to explode onto the scene, is designed to keep us from thinking our own thoughts, than Burning Man is the culmination of this. A glorious assault on all the senses. A hedonist with ADHD’s wet dream. Incontrovertible evidence that America is going down in a blaze of glory holes. If you wanted to hide something in Black Rock City your best bet would be to cover it with colorful flashy lights, play strange music at a volume that’d make random inanimate objects bleed, and have it ejaculate burning-fossil-fuel-holes deep into the night. Then it’d be, as the saying goes, different, just like everyone else. At night, while looking in from deep playa at the strange no-holds-barred competition to see who can draw the larger crowd, it’s hard not to hear Tool in your head. “One great big festering neon distraction.”
Watching people in outlandish costumes, soar along the moonscape in their mutant-vehicles, bopping from one over-the-top theme-camp to the next, I couldn’t help but wonder; if Burning Man doesn’t even care if burners, give-up-the-ghost while there, what does it care about? The die-hards you meet there can chant the 10 principles with an almost cult-like precision, many you come across can’t remember them, or are so fucked-up they can’t even count that high using their fingers. But all seem to sort of short-circuit when confronted with uneasy questions about the festival. “For something that’s supposed to be all about decommodification, how many millions do you think it generates every year in new; tents, sleeping bags, toiletries, flashlights, costumes, first aid, toys, food, water, fuel, lube, rent-a-cars, air travel, etc?” Or another tough one, “How seriously are we really supposed to take the whole civic responsibility thing?” Officially the organization says we “must assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state, and federal laws.” Come on! Really? And Does the idea of leave no trace go for Reno too, or just the desert? Because Reno after the burn can be kinda a shitscape of garbage cans choked, and overflowing, with camping equipment, toys, and unopened food and water. Because everyone is too hungover and strungout after partying for a week straight to figure out where to donate to before catching their planes back to their real lives. Not to imply that I haven’t been there.
I don’t know why I’m sounding like such an old fuddy-duddy (and using terms like fuddy-duddy). I mean, there are still seven other good principals, and even if there weren’t I just love a good party. And Lord knows, I’ve got better things to do than survive. I guess it all just seems so glaring because this year I’m not here to party. As I mentioned, I’m on a mission. to the Temple. The Temple doesn’t light up, move around, or play music but it’s allways the most powerful thing at the festival. Even more so than the Man itself. Every year some astonishing artist(s) puts their blood, sweat, and tears, (quite literally) into building an intricate and awe-inspiring cenotaph. A monument to all those who, due to a slight case of death, couldn’t make it out to the Playa. All who’ve lost someone since their last Burning Man bring pieces of their loved ones; scraps, pictures, memories, and ashes, and place them here. This is the first year I’ve come with a real purpose.
Like most, the first time I stumbled across the Temple was mostly out of curiosity, only hearing of it as a beautiful piece of artwork. On the days leading up to the big event you can feel it before you can hear it. The heaviness is palpable. You choke on it even if you’ve never really lost anyone. You notice the silence and the wind. As you get closer you see writing all over the wooden structure. Names, messages, remembrances. Moving further in you hear the sniffling and stifling of tears. The soft prayers and sendoffs. You stagger around surrounded by; photographs, love-letters, toys, and all sorts of personal-history-memorabilia, trying not to look too close and intrude on someone else’s solemnity. Now your close enough to hear the soulful sobbing. You try and force yourself to stand your ground, as not to appear chased off. It seems rude to say, “Oh shit, this ain’t the party I was looking for! Y’all enjoy that mourning shit. I got a pocket full of XtC and I hear the Orgy Dome screaming my name!” So, for what seems like an eternity, you stay and pretend your ribcage isn’t being slowly crushed by the depths. Then less than a minute later your back outside the permitter gasping for air, and won’t find yourself back there until they torch the fucker. The night of the Burn the weight still hangs in the air like rainforest-humidity but now you know to take shallow breaths to keep the desperation from getting too deep inside. Even after it starts to burn it’s still silent except the weeping and the crackling of the blaze. Then, e-fucking-ventually the Temple collapses in on itself, and everything everyone’s put into it is lost in the flames, smoke, and ash – And thousands of shouts roar up into the night, over the wind, over the inferno, over the despair. And the heaviness lifts, the tears turn to laughter, and the tempest passes.