Cooling embers

Many people leave Burning Man with a new notion of community after a revelatory week on the playa

San Francisco Chronicle/September 5, 2005
By Chuck Squatriglia

It's over.

The Man has burned, the camps are coming down and the RVs are rolling out.

After more than a week in the desert, the 35,000 or so who gathered in this sprawling city beneath the sun are heading home, tired and dusty and reflecting on their time on the playa.

For some, it was a week to party like never before. For others, it was a time to view artwork so massive, or outlandish, that it simply can't be shown anywhere else.

And for still others, it was a time to express themselves in a way that whatever constraints they might feel elsewhere don't allow them to.

That's the beauty of Burning Man -- everyone takes something different away from the playa, and no two experiences are quite the same.

"I realize it's not any one thing," said Emilio Gonzalez of San Jose, who attended his first Burn. "People always want to categorize Burning Man. They say it's a big rave. Or it's a big art festival, a big sex party or a freak show. It's none of those things and all of those things."

It is the "virgins" -- as those attending their first Burn are known -- who were perhaps most impressed, if only because they had little idea what to expect. Veteran burners can tell you about Burning Man, but nothing they can possibly say could do Burning Man justice. It must be experienced to be appreciated. One could spend a month on the playa, the name given this barren expanse of the Black Rock Desert, and still have to rush to see it all.

"The magnitude of Burning Man is just overwhelming," said Cindy Grant, an Oakland resident attending her first Burn.

Grant said her friends had told her just how big Burning Man is, so she thought she had some idea what to expect. It didn't take her long to realize she could walk around until 4 a.m. each day and catch only half the sights before they all came down.

But seasoned burners say Burning Man isn't about the sights, it's about the people and the feeling of community they bring to the playa.

Black Rock City is the kind of place where strangers will invite you to dinner or pass the bottle your way, help you find your tent after you've had a bit too much good cheer, or give you a jump start when your RV dies.

By week's end, the donation center for the victims of Hurricane Katrina was overflowing with cash, two-way radios and a long list of burners willing to open their homes to those who no longer have one. It seemed everyone with a laptop was only too happy to turn it over to someone from the Gulf Coast so they could get word from their loved ones.

"People can show you the beauty on the inside if you allow them to," said Kurt Lorenzo Kornbluth. He came up here almost on a lark, hopping on his motorcycle and riding from San Francisco with nothing but the clothes on his back.

And yet he not only survived the desert, he thrived. Somehow, he found everything he needed.

Many hope to take that sense of community, that feeling that we're all in this together, home with them and perhaps change their lives.

Burning Man founder Larry Harvey has said that many who come here each year completely reshape their lives afterward -- some even go so far as to quit their jobs. Though not everyone may be so zealous, many burners say they try to take some of what they found here back with them.

"I feel like I've been blown up with hope and life and inspiration," said Linda Brunjes of Boulder, Colo. "It gives me hope for the human race."

Of course, attending Burning Man isn't easy. It's hot. It's dusty. It's loud. The nearest grocery store is an hour's drive away and doesn't have much on hand anyway, so if you forgot anything, you may well be out of luck.

"It's survivalist camping posing as an art festival," said Adrian Roberts of San Francisco.

But for those who endure, it can be a uniquely rewarding experience where you learn something new about yourself.

"I was afraid I'd be lonely, but I met so many friendly people," said Sarah Hausemen, who drove here alone from Dallas, Ore., in her 1971 Volkswagen Beetle. "I did everything at my own pace and taught myself that I can be self-reliant."

For others, though, a week on the playa is just too much. After a while, the constant thump of loud music, the long lines for the portable toilets and the other truly minor, if irritating, inconveniences take their toll.

"I was thinking of leaving today. Frankly, I'm sick of the place. I just don't fit in here anymore," said Chitta Nirmel, a 67-year-old nudist who spent a week driving in from Hancock, Md.

But for all the challenges, for all the sunburns and hangovers and dust found on your body in places that have no business being dusty, a good number of those who come to Burning Man leave vowing to return after the next year beyond the playa.

"Now it's time for me to go back to being a suburban housewife," said Grant, the first-timer from Oakland who was overwhelmed by the experience. "But first I just want to sit in a bathtub for four hours and drink bottled water."

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.