Hot Days at Burning Man. The Authors Collection.

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NOT LONG AFTER SOMEONE KNOCKED on the door to our RV, said “Hi” and quickly came inside to search for stowaways without tickets, we emptied out onto dusty ancient lake bed and met our official ‘greeter.’ Revealed as a first-timer – a ‘virgin’ in Burner parlance – I was invited to roll around in the alkaline dust that sticks to you like talcum powder, pound a hollow steel cylinder with a heavy hammer and scream: “I’m a Burner!”

Of course, somewhere in there was the first of many full-body bear hugs I would be a part of over the next few days.  And with that, my Burning Man week began.

In the middle of it, someone asked me to describe my three main impressions of Burning Man.

Robert B. Lowe's introduction to Burning Man.
Robert B. Lowe’s introduction to Burning Man.

First, I said, was the enormous amount of effort people had put into the art installations, vehicles and camps they created, largely without regard to any profit motive. There were hundreds of “art cars” that were everything from huge moving sound stages to small vehicles based around a van that looked like a ship, a castle, an octopus, a piranha, a mutated tank, etc.

Art pieces were scattered about on the Playa – the open desert measuring a mile across by some four miles deep. Some were huge and built by the organizers – like the Burning Man itself which was some 15-stories high, or the Temple that looked like a small, open-air Taj Mahal. Both would be consumed by flames by the end of the week.  Others were smaller and built by a single artist or assembled by teams that had spent the year since the last Burning Man building their sculptures in some old warehouse – elaborate works of passion and camaraderie.

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The open desert was their canvas and the few days of Burning Man were the entirety of their art show before the works were dismantled or destroyed.  The energy of creation permeated the entire 60,000-plus Burning Man community. Everyone admired each other’s elaborately decorated bicycles, costumes, body paint and whatever yurt or geodesic dome they had dragged to the desert and assembled. It was as if your street was closed and all the neighbors dragged out of their garages these wild, crazy inventions they had spent years devising so they could finally show them to the world.

My second impression was of the stark environment in the Nevada desert which was a big part of the scene. The ancient lake bed turns into clouds of choking dust when the hot winds kick up. I thought the Mad Max style of goggles, respirators and pirate-style head scarves was an affectation. There is some of that. But I soon realized you needed all that to function in the middle of dust storms so severe they call them ‘whiteouts.’

The harsh environment also pulls everyone together, like survivors in a natural disaster.   In some ways, the week reminded me of the backpacking trips I made in the summers during and just after high school. There is a kind of bonding that occurs in such an extreme and different environment that sticks.   And it also screens out people who aren’t willing to surrender to a few days of constant dirt, sweat and heavily trafficked portapotties.

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My third impression was the reverence a lot of people at Burning Man feel toward the event and the place. I really felt it at the Temple which I visited three times. As the week wore on, the inscriptions and posters became more and more numerous. Often, I’d see people kneeling in tears. There were photos of parents and loved ones who had died or were fighting cancer. Many references to relationship changes and personal travails. It was a very emotional scene.

Many of the people I met during the week told stories of how Burning Man had been transformative for them. It seemed like the friendships formed there had replaced family ties for many. Of course, there were lots of marriages being performed – many in front of certain venues like the temple, the more romantic sculptures, in the camps where people had met or other meaningful spots.

Burning Man has a reputation for lots of drugs, alcohol, nudity and casual sex. I can attest to the alcohol and nudity. A lot of the camps set up theme bars where you can go and be served whatever they offer – Margaritas, wine, etc. I met some guys who had brought two kegs of beer.   They planned to tow them around the camps, giving out free suds to everyone. It was their contribution to the week.

There were lots of bare breasts and a few complete nudists. A lot of these were sixty-plus guys who looked as if they woke up and said, ‘Screw it. I’m not getting dressed today.’ Mixed in with the freedom of it, there was a certain defiance as well. There’s a traditional bare breast bike parade each year that draws hundreds and I imagine it’s an amazing and freeing moment of sisterhood for a lot of participants.    There is plenty of sexual energy and a sense that a lot of people are there hoping for casual hookups or something perhaps longer lasting.

One of my party – an attractive woman in her 40s – devoted a fair amount of energy dodging a series of men openly hitting on her like desperately hungry trout.  But there is also a tongue-in-cheek quality to the sensual side as well. For example, a place advertising S&M might be more about dance performances involving chains and suggestions of bondage rather than the real thing. Someone told me that in a past year one of the several venues with some variation of “slut” in the title was a tent full of bare-breasted women – all of whom appeared to be well into their seventies.

I read an account by someone who was been attending Burning Man for twenty years. She kept thinking each year would be her last as she watched the event grow in size and become less genuine and intimate.  “But what else would I be doing during that week that would be as interesting?” she finally asked herself. Having now lost my virginity, I suppose that’s why I’ll be back, too.

Please click the book cover image to read more about Robert B. Lowe’s latest novel, Megan’s Cure.

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