Wednesday, September 15, 2010

"Experiencing the burn ... HIIH takes on Burning Man"

What can be said about Burning Man? I’m not near enough the writer or poet ... I’m but a brown hair protruding from a freckle on the belly of the black fly resting momentarily on the spectacles of the capable man who could even approach a satisfying description of the magic and wonder that is “Burning Man”.

50,000 plus people gathered in the northern Nevada desert for one week to fully participate in an experiment whereby the awakened human imagination is turned inside out and set loose upon a vast, empty and very dry desert lake bed plain. A single mass of human beings from all over the planet gathered to create a week-long mandala of full-on human expression bursting forth in ecstatic dances of hot molten fire, brilliant metals, dry dusty earth, ferocious dust-devil spawning winds, and water, water, water ... never enough water ... people walking and bicycling between heart-wrenching art pieces scattered about the desert floor, art pieces that require ... even demand ... your active participation.

This experience gave me hope for mankind. I won’t go into all the philosophy of Burning Man. You can read more about that elsewhere (links at bottom).

I will tell you that Burning Man is both highly personal, and brilliantly communal. Although you pay to get in the gate, once inside, there are essentially no concessions. It’s built on a completely “gifting-economy”. You are there to share your gifts, whether that’s giving massages, making music, making snow-cones, cooking food, fire-dancing, creating art sculptures, painting faces, giving hugs, or whatever else you wish to offer the community ... with the clarity that nothing is expected in return. Everything given from the simple joy of giving it.

There are no trash cans anywhere. You pack it in, you pack it out. “Radical self-reliance” they call it. It’s a massive functioning city - with airport, recycling center, radio station, clubs, wine bars (barbie death-camp wine bar was my favorite), yoga and healing camps, kid camps, and a seemingly infinite variety of adult play spaces (not necessarily meaning “erotic”) designed to connect you more intimately and passionately with your own life force - that grows to 50,000 plus people in a matter of days, and then virtually disappears in about as much time. For most of the year, it’s an empty, flat desert lake bed that stretches for miles and miles towards distant sage-covered mountains ringing the plateau. Nothing else in sight.

But for that one week ........ wow.

My first night out on the “playa” - the massive empty space around which the whole city-camp is built in a huge arcing 270-degree semi-circle, and in which sits “The Man” at the very center - will remain one of the most memorable moments of my life. I rode out to the playa on my bike just after sunset, exhausted after our epic 16-hour overnight journey from Portland but unable to sleep until I “saw”.

As I stood in the dark with my bike, in the middle of this vast desert extravaganza, my heart beat wildly with wonder and fascination. Spinning around 360 degrees, both near and far ... in every direction wild ghostly fires blasted, melted, poured, roared, shot, danced, wept and exploded all around me in brilliant contrast against the black moonless night. I nearly wept in complete awe.

As far as I could see ... from every direction I could hear ... a wild cacophony of otherworldly sights and sounds erupting from deep within the human imagination ... all set free to wander the desert night.

It was all more than my open brain could process. It was sheer, unfiltered brilliance. Remarkably beautiful and inspiring.

As I said, I’m not the writer to sufficiently convey what I experienced there.

It must be experienced. Make it a pilgrimage.

It is our generation’s Woodstock.

Here II Here would perform there 4 different times. The first 3 times, I found myself wondering whether we should have come as a band. There is so much art on display, so much to experience in this vast city. It’s not the kind of place that you know what you’re going to go see before you see it. You just kinda happen on experiences there. And so it was with our audiences. They happened mostly to be people happening by, with a few die-hard fans who made a point to come see us. But because YOU are part of the artistic creation, it is really not the kind of place you go to see your favorite band.

And it was NOT cheap for us to get there. We were deeply blessed to have been gifted tickets by a friend. Still, we invested about $1500 in tents, bikes, water, camping gear, gas, food, etc. just to get there and survive desert conditions for the week.

While most of the guys were equally in awe of the experience, it was not comfortable. Kaz was ready to leave 5 minutes BEFORE we even got there. He never quite adjusted to the dry, dusty environment, although he was a brave trooper and stayed there for the rest of us to have the experience and to get some good performance opportunities out of it.

In fact, while I was off decompressing from 8 months virtually non-stop "managing the magic" and living out my own magical week, Kaz stepped up and got us a performance at the “Center Camp” stage, the best performance spot in the whole city, on the very last day. And the guys nailed it. It was one of the most inspired performances I’ve seen them give ... and in the midst of a near white-out dust storm that blowed for most of their 90 minute set. I took some great pictures of that (link at bottom). The sound guy told me afterwards that it was the most magical performance he’s ever seen in that space. Kudos to Kaz for managing his own magic.

I just can’t go into too many more details here. I would need to write an entire book to really bring you into the insights and adventures I experienced that week.

This festival gives me hope for mankind. It’s the most massive gathering I’ve ever witnessed - or even know about - of appreciative human beings celebrating authentic human expression in all its forms. People walked around naked, and they walked around in all varieties of “unusual” clothing. People built fascinating “art-cars” that skipped, slithered, slid, and danced across the playa ... I remember one moment riding my bike when all of a sudden the Roman Coliseum quietly floated past me. Another day, while watching the sun set over the mountains, a giant caterpillar ridden by about 40 dancing humans slithered hurriedly past me, apparently on its way to some distant desert outpost. I wouldn't be surprised if, when it arrived, it burst into the most magnificently colored metal butterfly!

Burning Man is to be experienced. It is a world of awakened dreams. It is otherworldly. And yet it is all very much of this world.

Burning Man is testimony to what is possible when the awakened heart sets loose its wildest fantasies. As one man said (paraphrasing), “Burning Man is the real world. Out there ... in our ‘civilized’ cities ... is the dream world.” This is where human beings can simply be and move about with no shame or worry that who they actually are is not good enough ... It’s important to note that this ethic is always honored with a corresponding respect and love for your neighbor’s right to be who they wish to be, as well.

At the culmination of the festival are two “burns”. On Saturday night, they burn “The Man”, symbolic of leaving the past Self behind. It’s basically a huge party of tens of thousands of people gathered around an enormous bonfire that lasts all night.

And then Sunday night, and this is what I want to tell you about, they burn “The Temple”.

The “Temple Burn” is easily one of the most heart-wrenching experiences available on this planet. All week, people come to the Temple, a large, elegant wood structure that models natural canyons and is built far out on the desert playa (it’s different every year). Throngs of people wander through as if on pilgrimage to this Temple, and they write on it. Walking about, you can read thousands of messages, pictures, little items stuck to its walls ... peoples’ hopes, prayers, longings, fears, sorrows. People say goodbye on these walls to loved ones lost. They lament failed relationships. They write poems pulsating to their hearts’ deepest rhythms. The entire human experience is played out on the Temple walls.

As I would walk through reading the walls, I repeatedly experienced the entire wellspring of human emotions surging through my body. My own deeply buried emotions would sweep up through my chakras, powerful geysers thrusting long dormant (or suppressed) energies out through trembling lips and a throbbing chest. My eyes would swell up with dusty tears that quivered hesitantly for a single moment before overcoming my own sorrowful resistance to barrel down my cheeks in a stream of catharsis.

This Temple held the shared human experience in its undulating caverns. Countless people were clearly witness in their most intimate, vulnerable truths to my inner-most longings and fears on this planet at one time or another. How could I ever be unkind to anyone, seeing here first-hand all the travails and challenges they also knew, just like me???

(yes, that is actually Gumby standing in front of the Temple ... even Gumby has to get stuff off his absurdly flexible chest)

When the Temple was burned on Sunday night, I was with the band; we were perfectly downwind. The fire was even bigger than The Man the night before. The 20,000 or so people who stayed to witness this experience were solemnly silent during the burn. The Temple burn was so massive and powerful that for about 10 minutes it spawned swirling vortexes of fiery ash and ember that danced and curved their way towards us, once sending a few hundred of us into near panic as they swept right through us. I was right in the middle. I have a scarred hole in my desert camo pants bearing witness to these mystical cyclones of dancing fire.

20,000 people in complete silence watching the Temple burn ... witness to their own human stories of tragedy and triumph being carried towards starlit heavens in fiery prayer.

It was truly a breathtaking, Holy moment.

We left Burning Man after sleeping 6 nights in the desert. I think collectively we took about 6 “desert showers” that week (there were 6 of us, you do the math). Our clothes, our beds, our instruments, our truck and trailer, our fingernails, nostrils and bones ... were full of white, dry alkaline dust. I actually left with a pretty nasty spider bite on my ankle that swelled up my ankle and created a festering open raw hamburger-meat wound that grew into and united with the dirty sock I hadn’t taken off in 3 days. Imagine my horrified dismay discovering that when painfully peeling off that nasty sock in a Denny’s parking lot in Reno. Yikes!

But I‘m ok now. And we’re all cleaned up. Kaz said he took four showers the first night we were outta there.

You gotta go. We went for a week. Go for at least a couple nights. It will renew your faith in humanity. It will throw fuel on your creative spark. Burning Man even becomes a religion of sorts for some, not that I encourage religion in any form.

Burning Man may very well change how you experience your life on this planet. At the very least, you’ll have a renewed appreciation for showers.

I’ll see you there. ... ... I SEE you now.

Better descriptions than I can offer:

And here are our remarkable personal pictures of Burning Man 2010. You need to login to Facebook to see 'em.


  1. Bryan. I am in awe. So you're not a poet?
    Your words drew me into your experience so perfectly, I was in bliss as I read - smiling and SO happy!
    I haven't been to the Burn yet, but I am making it a priority for next year. After seeing a documentary on the "founding" of the first Burning Man festival, I was convinced that it was for me!

  2. Yes ... Go! Lotus Go!!!! It IS for you.

  3. Bryan..... This was so eloquently written...... Every visual expression clear and vibrantly described.... Every emotion evoked in every moment...
    Thank you so much for sharing this!!
    I am a camper... Year-round... With little or no notice, foresight, or preparation.....and this sounds absolutely divine!!
    See you there next year??!!!!!!

  4. Somebody drank the Kool-Aid! I so know this experience, Brother. I wrote about it on the BMan website after my first time
    Thank you for so passionately capturing an indescribable event. "The once in a lifetime experience you can have every year" and longer if you commit to taking it to the greater world. And I know you to be one committed guy. Love You!

  5. Oh, and you should read Brian Doherty's book - This Is Burning Man if you want to learn about the origins of this extraordinary event.

  6. Not a poet? Oops, what's with the expectations? Are these your expectations? We're all poets in our own right... that's the point. Now I want to go even more...thanks for the in-spired writing! That is the best form of poetry. :-) Love you! Yesi