Burning Man – Glossary of Terms
Playa – The site where Burning Man is held. A vast alkali flat.
Playa Dust – Powder-like playa “dust” that stirs with the wind.
Burner – Current or former participant of Burning Man.
Default World – The world outside of Burning Man.
There is a man who walks in our town. The larger-than-life banded statute “Astride, Aside” (The Walking Man) who resides at South Pasadena’s Gold Line Station.
The man I’m going to tell you about doesn’t walk. He stands up, straight and tall.
The home of “Burning Man” is Black Rock City, Nevada, about 600 miles north of Los Angeles.
The man is made of wood, towers 30 feet high, and lights up in neon at night. He is set on fire and rebuilt every year since 1986.
I visited him for a week in late August.
I arrived at the city gates at night in a dust storm.
The greeter welcomed me to Black Rock City, calling me a Virgin Burner. He invited me to leave my car and join him on the playa with the other new arrivals. I was instructed to lay on my back against the powdery flat surface and told to sweep my arms from my sides up over my head.
I made a dust angel; a tradition for first-time Burners.
Then he handed me a metal wand and asked me to strike an iron-cast bell mounted on wooden stakes. I hit the bell with a firm whack. Its singular toll announced my presence on the playa and was quickly swallowed up by a jet stream of airborne earth.
I returned to my car and switched on the interior cabin light. Bummer. I left the window down and now the dash, seats, and floor were covered in playa dust. I barely recognized my reflection in the rearview mirror through the grayish haze.
My first impression of the Black Rock Desert reminded me of the Eagles’ song Hotel California: I was thinking to myself ‘This could be heaven or this could be Hell.’ My mixed emotions played out in the moment; my excitement for reaching my destination after eleven hours on the road, and my distress upon arriving at the Gates of Hell.
Black Rock City, Nevada (home of Burning Man)
The classic line from the movie Field of Dreams “If you build it, they will come” applies to this 7-mile windswept desert playa. People have been coming to build and burn the man here for over 30 years.
Annually, about one hundred thousand people log into the official Burning Man website hoping to be one of the lucky 70,000 ticket-seekers to get half-naked and play in the dust. The “golden ticket” costs anywhere from $425 to $1,200. Entry passes sell out immediately leaving nearly 20,000 at the mercy of Craigslist and other unreliable sources.
Black Rock City is a temporary community situated in the foreboding desert. The playa is wildly unforgiving at times. Extreme temperatures and dust storms are common during the summer months.
The harsh environment and intense participatory experiences set Burning Man apart from other mega-events and summer festivals. Burners prepare year-round forming theme camps, giving and taking to survive and thrive.
The 2018 Burning Man theme I, Robot pays homage to Isaac Asimov’s collection of short stories about a world assimilated by human-like robots with positronic brains. The book is known for a set of rules called The Three Laws that govern robot interactions with humans. Asimov later added the zeroth law which states: A robot may not harm humans, or, by inaction, allow humans to come to harm.
White Out and Playa Dust Magic
After the monsoon season, shallow lakes become muddy flats. They soon dry up forming fields of fractured clay that stretch for miles. The landscape resembles potato chips scattered across Nevada’s sun-scorched earth. Just beneath this littered plane is a powder-like alkali known as Playa Dust.
Without invitation, playa dust enters sleeping bags, tear ducts, and butt cracks. Hair stiffens. Engine wiring and leather become permanently damaged. Exposed metal blisters and bleeds rust.
I frequently had to navigate the playa during “white out” conditions when wind gusts are so thick with dust vehicles and people on foot and bikes are forced to stop and wait. Usually a few minutes later the sky turns blue again.
The Playa dust is also magical – changing people of different colors and backgrounds into one tannish hue.
Lovely, and poetic.
Playa dust magic does contain properties for spiritual awakening and personal growth, but also releases the same human inner demons that exist in the Default World.
Much like a fallen angel whispering in your ear “what happens on the playa stays on the playa” urging the urban restless to push their inner boundaries and give into temptation, there is a corresponding myriad of official rules (and unofficial rules found online): The 10 Principles of Burning Man, Do’s and Don’ts – Burning Man Survival Guide, The Strangest Rules You Didn’t Know People at Burning Man Have to Follow, and The Endless Rules of Burning Man.
When night falls, Black Rock City becomes a Burning Man wonderland.
The pitch-black playa lights up spectacularly teeming with mutant vehicles, art cars, and bicycles. They cruise around in patterns that resemble a Jackson Pollock painting.
Multi-color LED lights and El Wire wrap around everything and everyone.
Burners dance, meditate, and climb up and down giant art pieces (some belching fire) strewn over the expansive playa. EDM (Electronic Dance Music) emanates from art vehicles and the major camps along the city’s esplanade. The persistent pounding beat resonates in your chest.
A Tale of Two Burns
On the final weekend, the event reaches its climax with two massive burns: Burning Man and Temple Galaxia.
The pilgrimage of Burners reaches its peak when the man burns.
Burning Man (Saturday burn)
In 1986, the first Burning Man event took place on Baker Beach in San Francisco. There were only 20 people in attendance to watch the 8-foot tall namesake go up in flames.
In 2018, attendance climbed to 70,000 with over two hundred fire dancers forming a circle around the 30-foot-tall lumber man before setting it on fire. Dazzling fireworks reached deep into the night’s sky from its 50-foot platform followed by the first spark that ignited the Burning Man. Soon after, the man was consumed by a torrid of flames. Cheers went up when his limbs began to fall off and his body collapsed into the tumult. The final act: the massive base structure erupted into flames kindling a spectacular bonfire.
Temple Galaxia (Sunday burn)
The wooden lattice structure spiraled upward, ascending to an open ceiling.
Burners are welcome to enter the temple and move freely inside. Those who suffered the loss of a loved one bring photos, personal items, and messages.
Hundreds of visitors fill the temple without making a sound. They honor the space instinctively. Very few take pictures or videos and almost no one utters a word. And yet, the silence of Galaxia is emotionally earth-shattering.
I brought a picture of my friend Amanda. She and I left work with corporate careers that spanned three decades apiece. Together, we took early retirement. Six months later, Amanda died of an undetected brain aneurysm. My friend was 56.
The uplifting sense of gratitude I felt when the temple burned later that night, I cannot put into words. Even now.
What Burning Man Is (and is not)
Before traveling to Burning Man, I read a variety of personal accounts online and poured over photography art books.
Nothing prepared me for this.
I was blown away by the enormous scale of Black Rock City, and how the jagged mountains cradled the playa.
Sunrises and sunsets are breathtaking, eliciting a joyful chorus of howls from my brethren Burners. Likewise, the sensory soak that I experienced during my stay is unlike any other. It is impossible for me to put into words, and for some, it should remain unspeakable.
Since my return to the Default World, people have asked me to describe my experience.
Maybe the best way to explain what Burning Man is to simply say what it’s not.
It’s not a music or arts festival. Not a Coachella. It’s not a cult gathering or a nudist colony. It’s a bit of the above and as a whole its none of the above. To refer to Burning Man as a counterculture movement or happening or festival also misses the point.
Black Rock City is a fully-functional experiential urban construct with its own vital infrastructure, airport, six medical facilities open 24-hours, three ranger stations, and a post office. The city is temporary. Inhabitants stay for only nine days. Parts of it burn, then all of it disappears without a trace, except in photographs, videos, and memories.
No money is exchanged, except to purchase ice or a cup of coffee at the Center Camp Café. Where I spent many late nights, due to my caffeine addiction.
Burners bring supplies from home. They also come bearing gifts. Individuals and camps voluntarily participate in “gifting” providing such things as buttons, back rubs, whiskey, snow cones, tea (Skinny Kitty Teahouse “Turning tea to pee since 2003”), and so on.
Playa gifts are given freely without receiving anything in return. The human capacity to accept a gift is viewed as equally important to the act of giving.
A 189-page booklet with a map is provided containing a curious mix of free event offerings: “Talk to God” phone booth, Competitive Whistling, Intro to Rope Bondage, Pre-apocalyptic Meltdown Party, High Noon Storytelling, Consensual Butt Touching, Playa Sunrise Bike Tour, Sunset Goat Gallop, to name a few. There are well over 1,500 activities open to everyone (except when designated as adult-only).
Burners around the ages of 25-40 enjoy the costume party vibe of the playa awash in a pounding EDM beat with a circle of fire dancers and a giant wooden man that bursts into flame.
Not so much for the old-school Burners who long for a return to the wild early years.
In the mid-1990s Burners patterned themselves after the movie franchise Mad Max – lawfully discharging firearms and cruising the playa in battle-ready rat rods. Today, they hang out at Thunderdome to watch hipsters swing from bungee-tethered harnesses trying to bash their brains in with foam covered bats.
All Burners, young and old, yearn for the “Tomorrow-morrow Land” promised in Mad Max. And yet, as in the movie, it already exists. It’s the Default World we all must return to after the man burns.
The Seekers of Burning Man
Nearly everyone I talked to was open-minded and willing to try new things; test preconceived notions and stretch personal boundaries. A Burner (playa name “Powderpuff”) put it to me this way: “I’m a seeker searching for the best expression of authentic hyper unreality. When I find it, the dream will feel sooo f’n real I may never wake up.” She smiled broadly, adding “If only for this week.”
Burning Man is a safe place to bare one’s soul without being judged. Instinctively, though, we fear this level of inclusion may not be a permanent state of mind – that its somehow unique to this place.
Still, we dream.
Because we are all seekers in search of a better way of living. Its locked into our DNA. The seeker in us all requires a loving community of like-minded believers to make it real.
On my fifth day, I was looking forward to a shower rather than my daily routine of “playa-bathing” using baby wipes.
I joined the exodus, leaving Black Rock City after Sunday night’s Temple burn. While inching my way back to I-80 in a caravan that stretched dozens of miles, I challenged myself with a question: Can I apply what I learned at Burning Man in my life away from the playa?
The spirit of gifting, unconditional acceptance of others, and radical inclusion – can something like that be bottled and taken home?
Before leaving, I walked out to the Deep Playa to be alone with my thoughts. I scooped up handfuls of playa dust placing it into a freezer bag. So, yes, you can take it with you.
Burners have faith the magic of playa dust is real. They have seen it. They have breathed it in and slept with it.
When once misfortune enters a house, silence is in vain.
― Maurice Maeterlinck
Transformation at Center Camp
Nine days at Burning Man can be a life-altering experience. For many, a personal transformation occurs. Mine came at Center Camp while listening to the heartfelt stories of those who struggle with mental health issues.
Their personal stories of misery, redemption, and renewal were inspiring. I am quite familiar with their suffering. No one can talk you out of that feeling except for the voice in your head. And that’s where the pain is coming from.
I spoke to a woman with a shirt that pictured her reconstructed male genitals as a vagina. She talked to me about growing up, getting married, having children, and building a career – spending her adult life as a man. Until she almost died. Several times. Now she has found inner peace after sex reassignment surgery, living openly as a woman. She invited me to touch the lump on her spine where a bullet remains from one of several suicide attempts. Her message: be who you are.
I began to connect the dots in my own life.
I’m passionate about giving back to the community. I authored four books on local history. And I took early retirement to pursue my passion as a writer. I came to Black Rock City to do research for my novel People of the Dust. I took copious notes, never thinking I would become part of the Burning Man narrative.
I realized that lasting change in our society can only happen if we dare to share our personal stories. Acceptance of new ideas and new ways of living and thinking come from keeping an open mind. My writing allows others to see themselves and recognize what is possible. Little sparks happen. They burst into flame when the cultural winds blow.
I sometimes go back in my mind to my first night at Burning Man.
While the engine idles at the entrance gate, I am invited to make a dust angel in the din of tiny churning dust particles. Several greeters appear from the steely-gray darkness to cheer me on, then surround me with smiles and hugs.
My greeter embraces me warmly. “Welcome home,” he says.
Final Words (Will I go back?)
The Burning Man event evolves as human culture does. Still, for many Burners, the event has become a tradition, more like an annual summer camp for the urban-weary.
Several Burners told me the second burn is the best. They knew what to expect and planned accordingly, taking their participation to the next level. Some describe successive burns as profoundly personal and transformative weaving the experiences from the annual pilgrimage into their daily lives.
Will I come back to Black Rock City? I think so, but I won’t come alone next time or be sleeping in my Honda again. I’ll go with others, join a theme camp, volunteer, and bring playa gifts. Maybe I’ll rent a luxury motorhome with an auxiliary generator running 24 hours that powers all the comforts of the Default World.
Photographed, Written and Produced by R.R. Thomas