Conventional wisdom tells us that nerds are good at math and non-nerds are good at having fun. But the truth is that when nerds have fun, the fun is optimized with obsessive precision. That’s kind of what Burning Man is: Silicon Valley showing the world that there’s nowhere it does not have the last word.
The week-long event is a party like no other, but the story doesn’t end there. It’s a retreat away from comfort and into a shared survival situation. And, for some people, it’s also a strategy for staving off nihilism in a modern world where all needs are met and God’s existence is no longer likely. The word “spirituality” can approximate such a strategy in the postmodern sense: the signifiers are there, detached from what they once signified. This probably works for a little while. But sustaining the distraction from meaninglessness is the one place where the Valley’s ethic cannot reign supreme.
I didn’t exactly know what to do on the first night of my first Burn. Each of the 50 souls in my camp was as warm as could be—two German fellows with a rented RV had gone far out of their way to pick me up from the Reno airport at the last minute. But I was still in a lousy mood, being half-equipped in the desert. The friend with whom I’d planned the trip wasn’t arriving until the following afternoon due to work-related matters. He was picking up bikes, the essential mode of transportation in the 70,000-strong Black Rock City.
The sun’s light scattered through the dust into hazy caramel as it withdrew behind the mountains. The city found its luxurious life at night, when cool air allowed for layered outfits and vigorous movement. The starkness of daytime was replaced by silhouettes and neon geometries, and my anxiety melted into indistinct warmth. There’s something cozy about those vague senses of unease, like you can become a part of the sinister atmosphere.
So I suited up: an animal-skull mask, a three piece suit (sans jacket), arm garters, and a bowtie outlined with smoldering, battery-powered white. The plan was to find a bar to tend. This wasn’t a place to worry about plans, though, and I was content to chain smoke low-nicotine cigarettes at an intersection to creep people out for a while. One of the tenets of Burning Man is radical self-expression, and self-expression deepens into a desire to be looked at.
My impassive stand-and-smoke ended when two girls, rare pedestrians, said that I looked creepy (mission accomplished?) and invited me across the street to their little camp. It had a free—everything at Burning Man is free—liquor bar as its “gift to the playa.” Just shots; no mixers allowed. On the playa it wasn’t unusual to counterbalance freeness with whimsical edicts. Nudity was mandatory at the wine and cheese party that I had attended during the day. Naked bodies pervaded the week to the point of mundanity, and that was refreshing. It desexualized, without contradiction, a debaucherous place.
One of the girls named Bambi—her playa name—accompanied me on a trip through the stretch of desert at the center of the city. There were no camps, only oversized sculptures. Lost and amazed, we wandered bikeless from installation to installation. One was a tree, a latticed hyperboloid calmly undulating with LEDs. It had no boughs, though. Those were formed by the black expanse above us, giving viewers the feeling of being enfolded by the noiseless canopy of Lothlórien. It was a bona fide “tripper trap”: everyone was sprawled out on the desert floor, their eyes drawn upward.
Bambi asked which “shiny thing” we wanted to go to next, like she did whenever we’d soaked up enough of one spot. I scanned the distance and saw an enormous strobing pyramid; a duck atop a 100-foot spire; a heart-prism pulsing concentrically with red; all pieces in the riotous puzzle of color stretching around me. Some of these constructs crawled across the sand, thumping with music: art cars. They were buses, each stripped and repurposed beyond recognition in their own way. All of them had at least a neon setup, ranging from a few lights to sophisticated LED matrices displaying images. Some spit jets of flame into the air. They were like spaceships from a post-scarcity society, iridescent and swimming through the stars in search of novelty. Revelers in full regalia—fetishwear, steampunk, raver—would jump onto the vehicles and dance in a teeming mass of ghostly luminescence. Everyone was so good at dancing. Instead of looking for a destination I tried to find a concise way to explain Burning Man to friends back home. A Satanic carnival, I thought, where everyone is a carnie.
A little further into the open desert at the mouth of the C-shaped city, we ended up at the Temple. It was made of pieces of interlocking wood, spaced like the ridges on a honey dipper. We entered and the walls tapered upward into an open cone. A reverent stillness, different from anywhere else on the playa, was observed by the crowd, broken only by the blinking body-wire of a heedless tripper. Pictures of deceased loved ones, some of them five feet wide, were taped all around with messages. There was crying, restrained to be in line with the Temple’s characteristic hush. It affected us, too. I embraced Bambi. I felt weird and stopped. She told me it was fine and pulled my arm back over her. The photographs would burn with the Temple on Sunday, as part of the process of “letting go.”
Sentimentality left us soon after we made our way out. I think that’s the point. The quest for novelty took wing again, and we found a lonely array of pyramids, each with an empty space for sitting. We piled inside one facing east and waited for the sun to rise.
The stale heat woke me up after a few hours of merciful sleep. Nobody in a tent slept past 9:30 or so—air conditioning was the main advantage of splurging on an RV. After a breakfast of protein bars and jerky, I cooled off with some campmates under the long, tented canvas that was the dining area. A doughy bearded fellow, no older than 25, came by from another camp for shade and conversation. This was normal—there aren’t really borders between living habitats at Burning Man like there are back in the real world. The answer to “mind if I hang out here?” is understood to be “yes.”
Someone else asked how his burn had been. Great, the young man replied, before noting that he had had metal hooks driven into his skin the other day. His girlfriend was into that sort of BDSM, he explained, so he decided to check it out. He lifted his shirt, showing four dark red spots where the hook-wounds had been cauterized. There was a burst of confounded chuckles. I told him that he’s a guy who likes to take things up to eleven. Eleven! Eleven, I told him, was his new playa name.
This kind of conspicuous carnality only has a little bit to do with my tongue-in-cheek description of Burning Man as Satanic. That term sprung to mind because of how like a Hieronymous Bosch painting the night felt, confusing in its eldritch, flickering asymmetry.
What makes the slur barely accurate is that Burning Man is, in part, a quasi-religion of self-care. “Letting go,” the supposedly spiritual purpose of the Temple, is actually therapy. Healing emotional pain is a strategy for removing barriers to enjoyment. This isn’t a bad thing, of course. But hedonism becomes profane when it’s married to a “spirituality” meant to provide moral or mystical justification of living for oneself. A lack of prohibitions is sanitized not only as permissible but in fact instrumental to enlightenment. As “correct living” is the fruit of spirituality, “living how you already would like to” is affirmed by pseudo-spirituality.
This isn’t to indict burners as being morally deformed. Modern man’s crisis of purpose is laid bare on the playa, but not because its denizens are more affected by it. It’s just that convention-defying problem solvers are enthusiastic about finding the most effective ways to route around it, and being the furthest along the hedonic treadmill means that you’re closest to its disconsolate end.
The most effective hack that burners have against nihilism is very old: community. An atavistic thirst for human closeness was unspoken but palpable. We cooked together in a cramped tent-kitchen and ate meals together at cafeteria-like tables. For a week, we were bound to each other in a survival environment like sailors on a long voyage. “Radical inclusion,” an official Burning Man principle, isn’t empty sloganeering. Living in close proximity to the whims and shortcomings of others, with no easy withdrawal, makes it easier to see into the soul. For a week this was all normal and obvious. But it seemed more like a cathartic dream than a real experience by the time I returned to the crowded isolation of the airport.
The reflective mesh sheet, which gave our tents shade, caught a dust storm like an enormous sail. The camp rushed to brace the aluminum supports, but the poles buckled nonetheless, ensuring that the structure wouldn’t be salvageable. That was annoying; mornings would be even hotter now. But as we formed a circle to discuss the cleanup, most of us were left beaming at the wonder of it all.
A few hours later, the friend from home greeted me by jumping on my shoulders, interrupting a conversation. After it became dark, we met up under a canvas lean-to with virtual strangers from our camp. Under the soft illumination of string light, we discussed the excursion we were about to embark on together. The invitation felt more natural than polite: that we were included was an unquestioned assumption.
On another day we’d ride through the dust-caked streets. People hawked gifts as we passed: massages, Turkish coffee, margaritas. It was a town of neighbors nodding our way, high-fiving us, knowing us without recognizing us. Amid the rhythmic blur of pedaling I came to understand why the greeters at the entrance of the playa had told me “welcome home.” This was home as it was known in a younger world.
Robert Mariani is co-founder of Jacobite. Follow him on Twitter.
A version of this article was previously published at The American Conservative.