Millennial Brigadoon

The annual Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert invents a hyper-real space, a republic of drugs, nudity and spectacle.

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On the West Coast, Burning Man is a religion, almost a reason for living for thousands of freaks, pyromaniacs, artists, hedonists, survivalists and would-be modern primitives. The weeklong bacchanal in the Nevada desert has also, for the three years that I’ve lived in San Francisco, been a black cloud hanging over my life. Each year after Labor Day, I would hear dazzled reports of mind-blowing technological marvels and ecstatic 4 a.m. communion. Whenever I went to a party, it seemed, some zealot would gasp condescendingly, “You haven’t been to Burning Man? Well then, honey, you’ve never really lived.”

Still, a week — or even a weekend — on a scorching salt flat with no shower and no bathroom seemed like more than I could bear. I’m a neurotic princess, an urban girl who’s never been camping and has never wanted to. I’ve traveled all over the world, but from city to city, always landing in places where I wouldn’t have to face the world until I’d been showered and powdered and plucked. West Coast living has never erased my sense of my body as oozing, out of control and repulsive unless properly tamed. It’s been at least a dozen years since I’ve gone a day without a shower, and I’ve always been sure that if my friends or my boyfriend saw what I was really like without all my ablutions they’d quickly spot me for a skank.

None of that has ever really interfered with my social life, as I’ve never had much of a desire to visit a world without plumbing. But as Burning Man’s influence mushroomed in California, for the first time I felt that the cultural center of the world was way out of my reach.

During Burning Man last year, I went to every party in San Francisco in a sad attempt to convince myself that I wasn’t missing anything. I danced to soulful hyper house at my favorite disco and I chilled at a glam lesbian club where people hung from the ceiling by flesh hooks piercing the skin of their shoulders. I even went to a party on the beach held by old-school Burning Man devotees who’ve grown disillusioned with the event’s exponential growth. In between, I sobbed my eyes out. My shrink, I think, has heard more about Burning Man than about my unhappy childhood. So this year, determined to purge myself of uptightness once and for all, I hopped into a rental van with five friends, 50 gallons of water, canned food and a bag of illicit substances and made the pilgrimage to the millennial Brigadoon.

See, Burning Man is more than just a colossal party. It began 13 years ago on San Francisco’s Baker Beach when a guy named Larry Harvey torched an 8-foot wooden man with 20 of his friends. The fire soon turned into an annual Labor Day ritual, and in 1990 Harvey and friends moved it to the Black Rock desert, 120 miles northeast of Reno. For one week every year since, that vast, lunar land, where the white clay floor is cracked into trippy fractals and rung by parched, forbidding mountains, becomes Black Rock City. Looming above it is the Man, a 40-foot effigy glowing with neon and stuffed with fireworks.

The name Black Rock City isn’t just a conceit. The place is a (sur)real temporary metropolis founded on utopian principles, replete with neighborhoods, street signs, an airport, over a dozen radio stations, movie theaters and a daily newspaper, all built by participants and run on generators, batteries and stunning ingenuity. After the $100 ticket, there’s no buying or selling at Burning Man save for coffee and ice. Thus the reigning ethos is circus, not commerce. An intricate, generous barter culture develops, one that forces you to meet your neighbors. People trade pancakes for guitar picks, cigarettes for beer, back rubs for body paint, drugs for other drugs. At one point, my boyfriend Matt and I were wandering far from our tent and we finished all the water in our canteen. We offered someone a joint in exchange for a refill from the tank in back of their truck, but he said, “At this point, we’ve got much more pot than water.” He gave us some anyway.

With capitalism on hiatus, the dominant motive is to delight each other. It’s the exact opposite of the alienating top-down culture that produced the Woodstock conflagrations. Groups build theme camps arranged in concentric semi-circles around a massive expanse of flat, bleached earth dotted with huge art installations. Pasha palaces and dance floors, vaudeville shows and homemade rides vie with each other for the attendees’ awe. Xara, for instance, was an enclosed synthetic jungle the size of a large diner with a floor made of real grass carefully tended with massive amounts of water. Two huge flaming torches marked the entrance, and fluorescent flowers and vines twisted throughout.

There was a hair-washing camp where grateful, dusty revelers got massaged and shampooed in salon-style basins. A pubic-hair shaving station offered to etch designs in your bush. A circus tent was turned into a porn theater showing golden-age classics like “The Devil in Miss Jones.” One camp built a gigantic seesaw that took you 20 feet in the air. Another constructed an enormous bi-level swing set in front of a sideshow, so that if you pumped hard enough you could watch a man put a needle through his cheeks from high above the surrounding crowds.

The most marvelous spectacles were electric, the actualized fantasies of tinkering, fire-happy grown boys. A man called Megavolt stood atop a 30-foot moving Tesla coil in an astronaut suit, touching it with a metal pole that caused bolts of Frankenstein electricity to shoot across the sky. A roving, towering rose-lit tree made entirely of animal bones traced paths to each night’s most stunning sights. Mechanized couches darted through the landscape, as did a stocked mobile bar complete with stools. Bicycles were adorned with leaping neon animals, so that from far away you could see a school of glowing clown loaches swim through the night. As with a real city, it takes hours to walk the perimeter of Black Rock. When you’re in the center, the outskirts blink and buzz against the skyline like a world capital, a subcultural Las Vegas. The sensation of the outside world is condensed into one hyper-real space surrounded by nothing, a blank slate built on fantasy, unconstrained by tradition or industry — a republic of pleasure.

When we arrived last Thursday my amazement was dwarfed by terror. My friend Morgan, a world traveler who has hiked and biked across much of Asia and India, said that Burning Man was the best thing he had ever seen. I agreed, but my mind was in the toilet: I was so badly shaken by the reality of four days of porta-potties ahead that I grew too fixated on my bladder to appreciate the wonderland. Worse, I became acutely aware of the excruciating shyness that city life allows me to pass off as hip aloofness. Public displays of enthusiasm mortify me, and as everyone about me whooped and chanted and threw their arms around each other my self-consciousness built. I was shut off from what seemed like the greatest raptures available to my generation. If, that first night, someone had offered me a ride back to San Francisco, I would have taken it.

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Before I left S.F., some acquaintances had suggested that being in the desert, away from showers, gyms, scales and mirrors, would help me get over my paralyzing appearance anxiety. It turned out quite the opposite — at Burning Man, I felt greasy and ugly when everyone around me seemed plumed and fabulous. The creativity there extends to costumes and make-up. Stilt walkers are everywhere, including one who jumped a flaming rope that kept tripping him, threatening to set his wooden legs ablaze. People wore evening gowns and carried parasols. During a topless female bike ride called Critical Tit (after the bike protest movement Critical Mass), women painted their breasts to look like daisies or adorned them with flames and spirals. Some were pink or silver from their hair to their toes, and a few naked girls were drawn about in a bike-powered chariot. I tried to feel elated by this celebration of female beauty, but instead I felt completely inadequate. Others said how wonderful it was that there were nudists of all shapes and sizes, but all I saw were the girls who were skinnier, perkier and lovelier than me.

As the event wore on, my distress at my failure to relish everything mounted. I kept wincing at the pot-bellied middle-agers strutting joyfully about with their penises waving and wiggling, and then I winced again at my own prudery. The flamboyance rebuked my quietness. At one camp, the Jyna Tree, women were invited to step into a lavender booth, take a beaver-shot Polaroid and hang it on a mesh wall. Dozens had already done it. Meanwhile, I tried to summon the courage to put on a bikini and wash myself with the solar shower we had brought, a plastic thing that looks like an oversized colostomy bag.

At Burning Man, there’s a freedom in the air that comes, I think, from not knowing anyone’s clique or creed, from the erasure of normal social hierarchies. For some who feel constrained by their quotidian lives, this is undoubtedly liberating. “The flame we carry away from this playa is perhaps our greatest treasure,” someone called zman wrote in the Black Rock Gazette, the Burning Man newspaper. “We must cherish and protect it from the sterile unreality we are about to endure.” But without my carefully constructed armature of civilized cool, I felt flayed and vulnerable. At Burning Man, what matters is your body and your charm. All my accomplishments in my world meant nothing there.

And then, somehow, on Saturday, the day of the burn, things started to change for me. I grew used to the filth in the bathrooms and on my skin. My boyfriend was an angel, and he built me a shower stall out of a tent pole, cardboard, blankets and a van door. We took our bikes and rode far out into the desert, escaping the lunatic hordes for a majestic emptiness. We visited the landing strip and wandered among the tiny private planes and bizarre homemade flying contraptions and truly felt we’d landed on the moon.

Back at our tents, we heard that a friend of a friend who was staying in a deluxe camp with a tricked-up piano bar needed a hit of ecstasy. We had an extra and traded it for some pot and slices of the best vegetarian pizza I’ve ever had, loaded with broccoli and mushrooms and feta cheese. He was thankful, and it thrilled me that I had something to give, even if it was only drugs.

And it was drugs, finally, that opened Burning Man up to me. My whole group dropped E for the culminating ritual. After sundown on Saturday night, everyone made their way across the playa to the Man, and it was marvelous to see freaks for miles — somewhere around 22,000 of them — stop whatever they were doing and move like pilgrims toward a single point. The MDMA bathed my brain and my superego went to sleep. The banging drums that had seemed so hippie-pagan cheesy in the days before were suddenly deep and resonant and heart-quickening. The build-up tingled. A guy came around playing a honeyed, plaintive melody on a saxophone and it sounded so beautiful I wanted to give him anything I had, but he just wanted a cigarette and before I could get my pack dozens were being held out to him.

Then the Man started to burn and I screamed without knowing it. Everyone was dancing and I was too, my body feeling like liquid, moving unconsciously. My friends were hugging me and saying how much they really, really love each other and not caring that such behavior is an E cliché. Lasers shot across the sky, leading the way to a huge stage where psychedelic images swirled on giant screens and drum ‘n’ bass throbbed from enormous speakers. A woman climbed onstage and asked everyone to make an ommm noise and I did it without sneering.

When it was time to leave, I asked everyone I’d come with — all of whom had dived into the event without my hangups and reservations — whether they would have loved Burning Man if they hadn’t been on drugs. No one said anything for a moment, and then Bjorn, one of only two Burning Man veterans among us, said yes, but not nearly as much. Despite what the organizers say — that you don’t need drugs because the festival is already an altered reality — many of the attractions would have been incomprehensible sober: light tunnels that made the world look like a giant kaleidoscope, a sensory excitement chamber filled with feathers and brushes and beads.

But I’ve been on better ecstasy than the pill I took in the desert, without feeling nearly as exhilarated. Drugs made me receptive, but the place did the rest. We had planned to stay until Monday, but after the burn everything felt anti-climactic, and we packed up for the seven-hour drive home. I was tired, burned out and cranky, but I also felt a kind of post-orgasmic calm. I never, ever want to go camping again. Next year, I’m taking an RV.

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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