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On the long drive back from Burning Man, my friend Patrick and I discussed our week on the playa and about our many experiences. We had a lot of laughs and a lot of Irritating Moments. We decided to write up a review and post it on my blog to share with the world. Patrick, an English professor, did the lion's share of the writing but the humor was a joint process. Keep in mind, this review was written in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way. It's heavy on the satire and shouldn't be taken too seriously. If you love Burning Man and are totally pissed about this review, please read the review follow up piece. — Tim
Achtung Hippie! : Reflections on the Burning Man Scam
The idea of holding a massive event in one of the hottest nastiest driest places on the planet seems stupid on the face of it. Why would almost 40,000 people pay over $200 for a ticket and probably $1000-1500 total to suffer in this godforsaken place for a week or more? For years my common sense kept me away, just as it has safely helped me avoid backpacking in Afghanistan, running an ultra-marathon in Death Valley or eating bacon wrapped hot dogs from the vendor carts in Tijuana. Though my common sense seldom fails me, my friends often do and they conned me into wasting a week of my life and about $1500 to attend Burning Man 2006.
To be fair, my friends had been conned themselves by glowing reports of the “magic” of this overrated hippie love fest at the gates of Hell. “Burning Man changed my life, man” was the word. Hey, we all want to change our lives: stop smoking, lose weight, quit drinking, fall in love. The promoters of Burning Man promised all of this and more in their feel-good web accounts of dull people who now lead exciting lives, thanks to taking the Burning Man cure. These absurd claims had the hollow ring of cult indoctrination, but I was hooked. I wanted to drink the spiked kool-aid and search for magic in the nothingness of the Black Rock Desert.
Nothing could have prepared me for the stupidity of this event, except perhaps an honest account of how truly awful it was. I’ve been unable to find such an account, online or elsewhere. I offer my dissent to the pretense that is Burning Man. I hope that my eyewitness report will save potential burn victims a week of vacation and at least a grand in misspent cash.
Few communities want 40,000 yahoos drinking, drugging and fornicating in their backyard for a week. I know I don’t. As such, Burning Man is held in a dry ancient lakebed known as a “playa” in a state where gambling and prostitution are legal, respectable businesses and 24 hour boozing is a protected right: God Bless godless Nevada. When the gold ran out and most of the Indians had been murdered, they turned to exploiting human weakness to earn their daily bread. Promotion of vice is the state’s stock and trade.
Whatever Burning Man supporters claim, know this, the event is a 24/7 bacchanal of booze, drugs, nudity, S&M, public sex, and bad art, all done in a scorching flat dry oasis of misery that reminded me of the surface of Mars. This drug orgy is translated by event promoters on the BM website as a “radical experiment in self-expression.” Wasn’t that Jeffery Dahmer’s excuse when asked about the body parts in his fridge?
From San Diego, the Black Rock Desert is exactly 900 miles on my trip odometer. The three of us arrived just past sunset on the first official day, Monday the 28th of August. As we descended onto the site, we could see the flat and vast playa, ringed by the Jackson Mountains and Black Rock Range. Stark and beautiful, yes, but thousands of cars and RVs, combined with the constant wind, had kicked up a massive storm of alkali dust. Dust masks are required gear at all times though many do not wear them. Even with a mask on, it is impossible not to inhale alkali dust at Burning Man.
We waited in the Will Call ticket line for 30 minutes in this storm. Most of the Burning Man staff are volunteers and seemed stoned and disorganized, though cheerful. Most Burning Man tickets go for $225 if you buy them a well in advance. As “the burn” approaches, the prices steadily ratchet upwards.
While we waited in Will Call, a staff member announced that all the $325 door-tickets were sold out and that the price was now $350, snickering as he made the announcement. There was now little pretense that this was not a massive grift. The only service included in your $225-$350 admission is overflowing portapotties, often devoid of toilet paper. That’s it. In what universe is that not a grift?
Prior to entering the BM compound, all vehicles are searched: not for drugs, guns or explosives (bring as many of those as you want), but for stowaways trying to avoid the $250 ticket price. “Don’t try to grift a grifter” is the point here.
Finally reaching the front of the line, we were met by a greeter: “Welcome home!” she gushed. Good acid, I thought. She must have mistook us for black rock beetles, the only living thing that calls the playa home, surviving mostly on hippie skin and other organic matter blown by chance onto the playa.
After a two-hour traffic snarl at the gate, we arrived at our camp: exhausted, surly and coated with a fine layer of alkali dust. If the founder and King Rat of Burning Man, Larry Harvey, had been present we would have gladly taken turns shocking his balls with a car battery, Abu Ghraib-style. We were that pissed. Larry was likely in St. Bart’s spending our money, or perhaps in a fabulous underground lair built by enslaved hippies from previous burns, or maybe just laughing from his Lear jet above in his trademark white Stetson. The man seems a curious cross between P.T. Barnum and Jim Jones, conning the same moon-eyed Bay Area seekers whom Rev. Jim hypnotized so tragically.
The first full day at BM felt like the worst jet lag of my life. I was tired from the 900-mile trip, exhausted from the heat, the dust and the 4,000 ft altitude and thin air. The word “nausea” barely covers the full body ache you feel when “acclimating” to the Martian landscape and punishing heat of Burning Man. You can’t move, you can’t escape the dust or heat and you are surrounded by some of the most perverse and deviant people you will ever meet. Everywhere you look a “porno-copia” of sagging balls, flopping peckers, hairy asses, flabby breasts and other uninvited unattractive nakedness will strip away any remnant of goodwill you may feel towards your fellow burners as the caustic alkali dust strips away your exposed skin. What gives these naked perverts the right to expose their ugly fucked-out carcasses? If being forced to view hundreds of hairy ass cracks as you gag down breakfast sounds fun, Burning Man is for you.
In the mad heat of Burning Man at 2pm on Tuesday, parachutes opened 6,000 feet above and I imagined that Pope Benedict, former child Nazi, had jumped in, leading a brigade of storm trooping Cardinals and castrated choir boys, his Vatican banners streaming yellow smoke from his Luft-Commando parachute, to lecture these folks on the spiritual benefits of wearing clothes.
The Black Rock Playa is about as far as you can get from the Garden of Eden and still be on the planet. Adam and Eve were said to be naked and perfect as God made them. Most of the Black Rock nudies were much less so, and could have hung signs around their necks reading “Behold the Ravages of Time.” At least viewing their tanned and leathery hides reminded me to apply sunscreen.
Then I saw a naked fat man walking alone across the playa into the dead oblivion of the Jackson Mountains, a Barbie doll sticking out of his ass. Ok, I got dehydrated and imagined that one. Still, the official Burning Man web site would welcome Barbie-Ass Man since “There are no rules about how one must behave or express oneself at this event.” When in human history has “no rules” ever been a recipe for harmony or peace?
The overheated Burning Man playa is subject to dust storms that may appear as slow whirling tornadoes or a massive wall. Though you can often see them coming, escape is impossible and winds can top off at over 70 mph: hurricane force. Shade structures and scaffolding with steel frames can be pulled from the ground and may hurt or kill you.
There are thousands of temporary steel framed structures, secured loosely to the playa, that may go airborne without warning as dust devils assault Black Rock City. Note to future burners: You may be injured or killed at Burning Man. The climate and weather of the Black Rock Desert is wholly unsuited for an event of this size with thousands of steel framed shade structures.
Burning Man Wednesday to Friday was a cauldron of dust, heat and shabby monster trucks (some absurdly labeled as “art cars”) crammed dangerously with partiers blasting bad music from blown speakers. Every day the noise and number of yahoos increased as the weekend approached. The post-apocalyptic spirit of Mad Max and Beyond Thunderdome were all around: monster cars, noise, chaos and intimidation.
Imagine a shabby, somewhat dangerous crew of NASCAR fans, bikers and other bullies looking to inflict their lifestyle on your camp site, then circling for hours and hours all night for another round of megaphone ranting and stupidity. These are the people who tailgated us at 80mph in overloaded RVs hurtling recklessly down the infamous Donner Pass toward Reno. These are the people who complained when firearms were banned from Burning Man a few years ago. If you want to live in a trailer park with 40,000 people where insane drinking, drugging, public nudity and lawlessness are the norm, Burning Man is for you.
The Department of Public Works (DPW) is the rowdy but hard-working crew of roughnecks that sets up and breaks down Black Rock City. They spend months on the playa in rough conditions with low pay to build the city’s infrastructure and return it to a pristine state, post-burn. During one rare moment of comic relief during BM 2006, the DPW paraded through the streets in their beat-down trucks, raiding each camp and demanding cold beer. We gladly surrendered our beer to this heat-crazed and desperate bunch. I have nothing but praise for them, as would anyone who prefers not to be tracked down and killed. “Fuck your day” was their motto: now it’s mine too.
Despite its pretensions as a wacky art project, Burning Man is not about art. Most of the art was terrible with garish acid-inspired images and other peeks into Hell. Any random collection of Toto and Yes album covers would contain better trippy art than all of Burning Man. A few of the “art cars” were inspired and brilliant, though most were just chicken-wire enclosed golf carts kicking up dust on the esplanade and trailing a few Christmas lights and dusty faux fur.
Burning Man is not for non-conformists. You must wear a Burning Man outfit or risk constant abuse. I did not wear any silly costumes at Burning Man, or dress in drag, or hang my ass in the breeze, nor did my friends. Surviving the heat was plenty: we had no spare energy for playing dress up. For this breech in burner protocol, weirdoes in furry suits chided us that “jeans are not a costume.” These “furries” dress in full fur suits, like comic characters in the Ice Capades or that big rat at Chucky Cheese, and like to do drugs and have sex in their suits while in character. If there is anything worse than a pervert, it’s a self-righteous druggie pervert, dressed as a chipmunk, offering unsolicited fashion tips. If you want catty advice on how to dress from a crowd of Rocky Horror Picture Show rejects, Burning Man is for you.
Despite pretensions of forming an “experimental community” the Burning Man demographic is whiter than the crowds at the Republican National Convention: Dick Cheney white and twice as mean. I saw less than a half-dozen black people all week and only a few Asians. This proves my theory that blacks and Asians have way more sense than whites. The lack of diversity and total indifference to this lack seem odd considering the pretensions of many Bay Area residents and other burners to racial and ethnic inclusion. There is nothing new or experimental about an all-white community.
I doubt that the white bullies who dominate Burning Man and define its aggressive personality make non-whites feel welcome or safe. If you are white and prefer to party with whites only, Burning Man is for you.
The climax of this neo-hippie hootenanny is the burning of a 40-foot wooden effigy, known as the Burning Man. Before his destruction, this blue neon lit figure is the center of attention in the middle of the Esplanade, the central plaza. I love fireworks and enjoy burning things so I had hoped that this final orgasm of flames and destruction would somehow mitigate the misery of my worthless trip.
The burning of the man is 90 minutes of fire dancers and neo-pagan ritual, all centered on a god-like central figure, with his arms raised in triumph towards a frenzied, expectant crowd, clearly united in some dark purpose. This finale of Burning Man is a kind of hippie Nuremberg Rally.
As the Burning Man burns, both his arms eventually fall to his side. Curiously, his left arm dropped first, leaving his right arm raised in a straight-armed Nazi salute. At that moment, a spontaneous cheer went up a thousand right arms were raised as one over the smoky playa. Heil hippie! No shit, I have it on film.
Despite my disdain for Burning Man, many claim that the event is “magic” and “life altering.” For some, this “magic” comes from their first Ecstasy, acid or mushroom trip. Powerful mind-altering drugs are consumed in mass at Burning Man. People are very nostalgic about the first place they got really, really high. This is part of the affection many have for the event: nostalgia for a first high.
Though not officially a sex party, Venus rules Uranus at Burning Man. The young get laid because they are young and older horny guys can get laid using drugs and booze as a lure. Sometimes their prey will stumble into camp pre-drugged, always a bonus. For many creepy middle-aged guys, Burning Man is a week long frat party where they get their last real shot at nailing women half their age. Lone women are easy prey. The darkness, disguises, anonymous playa nicknames and extreme intoxication that occurs at Burning Man makes it a date rapist’s Disneyland. Of course, if sober and fully consensual sex is your thing, there are several approved swinger and sex-themed camps at Burning Man too.
If you did not get laid, high or loaded at Burning Man but still claim you liked it, then you may have been infected by their magic pods and are now a self-deluded supporter of the Burning Man cult. The cult mantra is that Burning Man is “magic.” I guess, but so is cocaine if you do enough of it. I imagine that the supernatural success of this event could not happened without some special help from the Devil himself, who I’m told holds the deed to Larry Harvey’s soul. If Hell is half as nasty as Black Rock City at noon, I’m going to start being good soon. If you love the Devil and the events he supports, Burning Man is for you.
If you read my review of Burning Man and assume I’m some hung-up religious prude, I can assure you this is not the case. My factual description of the event is accurate. I wrote this review because I could find nothing truly critical of Burning Man online. This is incredibly suspicious. Mother Teresa was considered a living saint yet there are many critical essays about her, but none on Burning Man? Many supporters of Burning Man defend the event as fervently as Tom Cruise defends Scientology. Anyone that is critical simply does not “get it.” Tim responded in kind to a BM supporter when he replied “Is it possible I got it, but ‘it’ actually sucks ass?”
Though a Burning Man “virgin”, I’ve been to a dozen weekend campouts with music and partying and have enjoyed each one immensely. None of these events cost more than $75 and often included meals. All were held in beautiful locations with plentiful water, usually in the mountains. No profits were collected and none of us were burned. Most of the participants were beyond friendly: downright open, affectionate and loving. This was not the case at Burning Man.
Note to hippies: Burning Man is not run for hippies and not run by hippies. It is run by thugs and bullies for the benefit of thugs and bullies. It is a festival for the Freudian Id, the sub-basement of the human psyche. Hermann Goring would have been in heaven here with the drugs, freaky sex, cool costumes and torch-lit rallies. If we all spent one more week in this dark utopia, I’m certain cannibalism and goose stepeping would have been de rigueur, then mandatory.
Too many at Burning Man were not even civil or respectful of their fellow burners or themselves. In a sad way, the event reflects our current national temper, a country controlled by red-state yahoos, led by a reckless bully who refuses to change course despite the pile of bodies in his wake. Burn on W. Burn on.
We packed in darkness at 3am Sunday morning, the day of resurrection. The road was empty and I was exhausted and wanted to escape before anyone sobered up. Perhaps this was the magic of Burning Man: surviving an annual death cult rally and returning to the joys of hot showers, air conditioning and dust-free living: civilization never seemed more splendid or necessary.
I reminded my passengers that we had spent one week in a desert hell but no one had shot at us or tried to blow us apart with an IED. Servicemen in Iraq are deploying for a year or more and are in constant peril. Severely injured and maimed Marines have become a common sight in my favorite Oceanside, California poker room. Black Rock City is better than Baghdad, that’s for sure.
The wind was rising, carrying the scent of the last bonfires into the Calico Mountains. I murmured a prayer for everyone. What else could I do? The whole world is bleeding but you can only burn off so much bad karma in a week. The Buddha urges patience in these matters. All is passing, everyone we love, the rights we enjoyed before 9/11, basic civility and human decency, all gone now.
The America I was raised in is dead, replaced by a monstrous pretense of democracy. I drank a Red Bull and kept my eyes on the road. I could not stop crying.
As we headed for Reno across the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation, my friends drifted to sleep as the muffled voices of Native American spirits reminded me to stay awake and the horizon glowed with the heartbreaking blue light of the desert before dawn.