Burning Man 2012: What Facebook Photos Don't Show
Obi was speaking to a gatekeeper outside his window who looked like Eddie Izzard after a fight with the Sand Man. At our final checkpoint, the man stood covered in dust, appearing as if he'd been waiting weeks for our arrival. After a nod of approval, Obi turned to us and said: "Get out."
I read about the welcome ritual of first-time burners into the city, but I didn't know it was taken very seriously. We arrived almost at midnight after the second day of the festival and I assumed I missed it. But with out fail, myself and the two other virgin burners aboard the RV filed out to be inaugurated into the community that is Burning Man.
I introduced myself to the dusty guard and noticed his company—a female counterpart with magenta hair, torn fishnets and five-inch platform boots I haven't seen since the Spice Girls peaked in 1997.
"All the way down, virgins," she told us, speaking with assertion and pointing to the fluffy sand-like desert ground burners call "the playa."
Without hesitation, I'm face down in the dust. It doesn't feel dirty, just dry, and from what I read online, my week would be dictated by this ubiquitous Black Rock City element, so I embraced it. Rolling over on my back, I start fanning my arms and legs, in and then out, making sand angels with playa dust.
I get a glimpse of the star spotted desert sky and a smile breaks through—I made it. After nine months of research, planning and mental prepping, I was finally going to experience this fabled celebration.
The lady with pink hair lifted me up by one hand and put a metal rod in the other. She points to a circular gong hanging from a wooden frame just to the right of the RV.
"I want you to hit that and yell as loud as you can," she commands. " Yell—‘I am a virgin no longer!'"
With a nod of compliance and my hardest swing, the initiation was complete. The pink-haired lady, now slightly less domineering, turns to me with her arms outstretched and says the phrase I've heard a hundred times from burners but never understood.
A week since my return, and the burn still lingers. I hold tightly to the relationships I made and the community that welcomed me because that is what remains of my passing experience. Black Rock City, while reaching over 50,000 residents at its peak, evaporates into thin air after Labor Day weekend. Not a trace is left behind (one of ten Burning Man principles) and the city is left deconstructed for another 11 months.
It can be lonely thinking about a mythical city, but a Google search is just the cure. Without fail, there's always the internet to flood my laptop with digital reminders of the experience. In small fragmented ways, the temporary city can be relived all year with photos and videos -- and that I'm thankful for. For the first time in my life, I'm thrilled to see friends tagging me in slew of photos unbeknownst to me.
But after a few laughs, the social media cynic in me comes out: What do people who weren’t at the event see in these photos? Half naked hippies and cars spiting fire can easily be taken out of context. I know my own misunderstandings about Burning Man were fostered by bewitching images of unusual structures and characters. I heard about Burning Man by word-of-mouth before I saw photos. Everyone said the event was more complex than what meets the eye, but that didn't stop me from inundating myself with the intoxicating portraits.
The Burning Man website says: "Trying to explain what Burning Man is to someone who has never been to the event is a bit like trying to explain what a particular color looks like to someone who is blind."
When I first read this I'll be honest - I thought it was a load of existential nonsense. But there is truth behind it. People are blind to see culture independent of society, and in a sense, that is Burning Man—a celebration of humanity without politics or economy. Whether through art, music, entertainment or social interaction, the ideologies of the community are fiercely practiced in the Black Rock City limits.
What I fear is an observer interpreting snapshots and misconstruing the collective's larger purpose and passion. The people in the photos aren't just artists, they're visionaries. The structures, sculptures and costumes—they all exist as radical expressions of the people and their appreciation for the Burning Man community.
That isn't to say that everyone in attendance must be an artist or engineer. I’m not. Black Rock City, at its peak, becomes the third largest city in Nevada and functions seamlessly like the others, only with a gifting economy. Theme camps offer a range of goods, at no cost, from coffee and pancakes to champagne and massages. A functioning post office delivers mail between camps, and there’s even a daily paper printed every morning.
Shortly after my arrival, I realized how lucky I was to be invited into a theme camp as a virgin burner. Not only did it help me reach a level of preparedness I wouldn't of had otherwise, but it also granted me an outlet for which I could immediately give back to the community.
Camp Ego Trip at 9th & Geranium took shape as a beautiful vintage bar and decent sized sound camp where burners could escape the dusty heat and sit down for a glass of egotistical "Vaini-tea," or “Conceit-ade.” Throughout the week we invited DJs to perform on our stage and hosted some of the best-looking parties on the playa.
We entertained a sunset party my second day at Burning Man. I had barely met anyone yet, except those in my camp, but as I was getting dressed for the night my friend told me someone had requested me at the bar. When I emerged from behind the bar I saw my RV driver, Obi, sitting on the other side. He took note of camp’s location when he dropped me off and returned to see how my first burn was going.
"You managing the dust, okay?" he joked.
Excited to see my first and only friend on the playa, I skipped around the bar, wrapped my arms tight around his neck and deeply sighed, "It feels like home."
For more photos check out coverage from Rolling Stone.
Reach reporter Lauren Foliart here.