24 Hours At Burning Man...
Followed by a week in a trauma hospital in Reno.
The Playa/The Art/The ER
Burning Man. Man Oh Man. Words or photos will never be able to accurately describe this most surreal temporary metropolis and the 80,000 participates who call themselves “Burners”. My desire to attend this annual infamous “radical self expression” art and community festival was on the urging of my 21 year old daughter and a very spontanious decision on my part. A mother/daughter experience of a lifetime, I thought.. lets do it. Within 48 hours, I had booked a flight, rented an RV, pack a weeks worth of food, water and supplies and began our venture out to a dried up lake bed with two of her friends in the Nevada desert to a place called Black Rock City. But 24 hours after my arrival I found myself with a fractured pelvis in three places in a hospital in Reno, Nevada, no cell phone service and no one even aware I was missing. Not the “burn” I was looking for…but my God it was a adventure.
So here is my story, a virgin burner...
AND THE MOST SURREAL 24 HOURS OF MY ENTIRE LIFE.
First, What is Burning Man?
Simply told it is a week long art and community festival in the desert. But that is way too simplified. That is like if you described the Rolling Stones as some boy-band. The festival plays out each year in Nevada's Black Rock Desert where 80,000 people build a city in a week, burn a giant wooden effigy of a man, and then restore the arid playa to its original state.
To try and further describe... it is a radical inclusive, self reliance utopian city that looks like a cross between post apocalyptic Mad Max and Terry Gilliam’s Barron Von Munchausen. Throw in a little Star Wars Cantina Bar and you are just getting to the beginning of it.
This pop-up city is almost completely created entirely by its citizens and the idea is you bring in everything you need for a week in the desert and you leave nothing behind when you go, no trace. It is described on their website as a laboratory. "Not every experiment works, but we'll never know if we don't try". It has been know to draw celebrities and billionaire’s like Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg or Telsa's Elon Musk who's mutant "art car" was an adapted ship that was put on wheels with a reported half a million dollar sound system.
It draws the tech world's CEOs, top doctor's and leading surgeons in America all coming for a week to let their freak out. Except wait, it's actually a bunch of dusty, acid-tripping naked hippies. Or is it candy-tripping techno ravers? People even bring their kids. Seriously, who are these parents???
Its attendees are all of the above. Celebs like Katy Perry, Susan Sarandon, Paris Hilton and super model Cara Delevingne were all in attendance this year. It is, and always has been, ruled by all kinds of techno-smart futuristic punks rather than nostalgic hippies or dippy ravers. But all groups are certainly represented. It is even rumoured that some of David Bowie's ashes were sprinkled at Burning Man this year.
The only modes of transportation once you are in is either cycling (I will be coming back to that) or mutant art cars. For accommodation you are either camping in tents or an RV.
When we arrived in our RV it was 4:00AM after waiting four hours to get in. We were in the middle of a dust storm. We could not see the hood of the car and the fine playa dust was already so thick we had to put on our face masks in the RV. They came into the RV waving their flashlights to look through the foggy vehicle to make sure we were not smuggling anyone in without a ticket. You were then met by "greeters" with dusty goggles and scarves covering most of their faces who greeted you with a hug that lasted just a tad too long... and said, “welcome home”.
We were invited out of our RV in the middle of the dust storm, masks still in place and then asked to bang the gong to announce our arrival. You were then encouraged to roll on the ground in the desert sand (not I...not yet). We were here, we had arrived and I have to admit that was the first time (not the last) I thought, oh crap what have I signed up for?
In the light of day I was blown away by the scope of this place. I know I only saw a fraction of the grounds. People had set up camps for as far as you could see... and beyond. Little villages within this pop-up city in various camps, themes and groups.
As I went out to explore, one of the Burning Man themes "radical self-expression" was evident everywhere. In how people were dressed (or not dressed), their camps, their bikes and the content itself that they were expressing. Some of the more overt camps were places like the Orgy Dome, The Spanking Bar and The Sanctuary, a incredible tent where one could have a beautiful safe guided acid trip. I could not have felt more like Dorthy being slammed down right in the middle of Oz...Oz on acid.
That afternoon I spontaneously became part of a group wedding proposal. I joined a herd of a hundred bikes I saw moving somewhere across the white desert chanting Erin, Erin, Erin as we approached a girl in a green satin evening gown who was stunned as her boyfriend (and 100 or so burner on-lookers) proposed.
I explored some of the incredible art installations in the desert.
I then joined a group guided meditation at dusk. Now voluntarily lying on the desert floor I avoided when I first arrived. Feeling the energy of the warm earth and the hundred people I was surrounded by and surrendering to all things dust.
I had made friends with two doctors from the suburbs of Palo Alto, Brian and Ryan who had set up camp beside our RV. They were struggling with their tent and I had cold beer. So embracing one of the other themes of Burning Man, "gifting" I brought them ice cold beers and we later made plans that evening to go and find the playa party that suited us best, a Prince Retrospective was where we were starting.
I never made it to that party.
On our way, with my bike decked out with dragonfly lights and neon necklaces I sweved to avoid a stoned biker who was weaving back and forth and not paying attention to where he was going. I made a hard left and I hit the ground even harder. I knew something was seriously wrong. Once again, but involuntarily this time I was on the playa ground, desert dust and its strange spawn of desert people surrounding me.
Now if you thought that the people watching was interesting on the outside on the Playa it was nothing compared to the inside of the "M.A.S.H" style emergency tent that housed the damaged burners. It was all in shades of white and beige, blending perfectly into the white desert sand. I learned that most of the doctors and nurses were there volunteering some of their time in trade for a ticket supporting yet another theme of the festival "communal effort" and "civic responsibly". In the 10 hours in emerge I saw all sorts of fascinating looking people come and go, most wearing some sort of funky fur article of clothing and supped up goggles. Thinking I wish I could take some photos because this must be the most unusual, insane ER in the entire world.
7 people that night I was told had been airlifted out with serious injuries. Learned from Dr. Rick (everyone's on a first name basis at Burning Man) my handsome ER doctor who I thought nothing of him wearing a rainbow ballet tutu and leg warmers over his scrubs that the number one common accident at Burning Man is ....wait for it...bike accidents. One girl even had fallen off her bike and she wasn't even moving, so I felt a little less stupid. Next common accident Dr. Rick told me about were people totally drunk or high or both thinking that jumping or leaping off multi-story art structures or trapelines would end with them actually taking flight. I did have a celebrity sighting in the ER. I am almost certain I saw a very, very drunk and dishevelled Matthew Perry (Chandler from Friends) come in while I was there but legally I will not stick my neck too far out on that one and lets say there is a 5% margin of error that it might have been someone else (not a chance).
So while my daughter was dancing in the desert at dawn with Paris and Cara (yes she was) I was in the back of a ambulance for a three hour ride to Reno.
I am now back in Toronto recovering from my accident. 24 hours at Burning Man, 10 Hours in the ER, 8 days in a trauma hospital and 6 to 8 weeks recovery.
The question most asked after all I went through was, would I go back? The answer is yes, but with these conditions. I call this Burning Man Lite. First, I think I would need a few of my friends there so we could create our own age appropriate camp. As much as I love my daughter and her friends we rightly will have a slightly different idea of what is fun in the desert. Some will overlap for sure but for the rest lets bring in my troops.. I would go for three nights midweek, not a full week and not dealing with the crush and line-ups getting in and out of the festival. I would pay to join a luxury camp like one called White Elephant. They do everything. All the necessities brought in for you, hot showers, meals, champagne...I even heard mention of sushi... none of this roughing it for me anymore..
...And finally (and this was my daughter Sam's suggestion) my own mutant art car so I can get across the desert in style and.... safety. The hell with bicycles.
This art car below will do quite nicely. Like they say in the desert, enjoy your burn and for 24 hours I burned ever so brightly.