Letter From America: Burning Man, The Uptight Shed Their Inhibitions

I hadn't even gotten out of the car, but already I was having grave doubts. A pack of fat, naked, middle-aged men in body paint had just cruised by on bicycles. A bedraggled guy nearby shouted poetry. Men in animal costumes strolled casually along, trailed by a skinny, longhaired camper wearing nothing but tennis shoes. "Look at all these freaks!" muttered my new friend Matt, a fellow first-timer. "They ought to roll this place up and make it into a golf course!"

We had finally arrived at Burning Man, a weeklong festival of fun and psychological meltdown that takes place every year on a desolate swath of dried lake bed deep in Nevada's Black Rock desert. We had driven hundreds of miles to get here and, it felt, traveled just as many hours. Matt had come from San Francisco, I from New York. But now it was hard to escape an existential question. Who were these weird people, and what were we doing here? Little did I suspect that by midnight I'd be resplendent in a sparkling polyester wig and dancing to rave music. Or that Matt would be clad in nothing but a borrowed red sundress and a fuzzy wool cap.

But I get ahead of myself. Burning Man is famous for getting uptight people (like me) to shed their inhibitions. It began back in the 1980s, when a loon named Larry Harvey invited a select group of friends to watch him torch an eight-foot version of what has since come to be known as "The Man" on a San Francisco beach. He'd just broken up with his girlfriend, so torching a crude stick figure seemed just the thing to do. Over the years it grew--this year it towered 70 feet--and so did the crowds. By 1990, what once seemed a lunatic fringe was such a sensation that it decamped to Reno. This year's "burn" drew 25,000 people.

You can only consider it a rite. Why else would someone sweat the days away in temperatures of 100 degrees Fahrenheit, then dance through the night in acid-influenced raves and desert soirees? At Burning Man, you party down and whack out, 24/7, amid a sort of tent city of theme camps. Like "Haiku for Beer." Or "Karaoke Trampoline." Think of it as a Woodstock for the New Millennium, a locus of what psychobabblists might call a "transformative experience." At least that's what one shrink told me. But he was wearing a black wig and a dress. The idea is to shuck "societal expectations," as the good doctor put it, and "connect with our true selves." For some, of course, that means drugs. But it also means other things--getting naked, shouting bad poetry, hugging sweaty people you would normally avoid and dancing all night long to earthshaking techno. Round about dawn of the second or third day, Burners have epiphanies. Hence the posters lining the road to the entrance to the festival: if you're not living on the edge... you're just taking up space.

What could a Yuppie New Yorker do but have faith? Taking heart in the weird histories of those who'd gone before, I screwed up my courage and plunked myself down at a card game. As the temperature rose and my money dwindled, word came that a "Critical Tits" party was underway nearby. Some 200 people--women sans shirts--bounced to funk music. Men waved signs in the air: we support you. Then came a cocktail party. For some reason, I decided it was time to don the red wig. A pair of dot-comers from Seattle bragged of a satellite uplink in their camper. Costumed partygoers viewed slides from nearby "Camp Dickface," featuring photos of men sticking their U-No-Whatzits through the nose holes of wooden George Bush and Bill Clinton cutouts. I drifted off to "Spectator Camp," where I sat amid a reclining crowd on a bleacher and shouted at passersby. One stopped to quote Biblical scripture; others mooned us.

Was it that night or the next that I stood in a huge circle of revelers facing a crude wooden man? Its limbs were traced in neon. Scantily clad figures danced around, twirling sticks of fire. Skyrockets shot into the desert sky. Suddenly flames engulfed the towering structure, blasting us with heat and creating dust devils that spun out of the fire and twirled sand high into the air. The crowd erupted, yelling, dancing and cheering.

Damn, I thought. I still hadn't had my epiphany. Then it came. The people around me, I discovered, were not dyed-in-the-wool hippies. They were ordinary mainstream types who are just as stressed as me. Naked Blue Guy, the one with his penis tied to the leather strap around his waist? He comes from Colorado, a maintenance man for a clothing outlet. And Dr. MegaVolt, dressed in stainless steel and shooting arcs of electricity from his hands and head during nightly shows? He's an engineer in Santa Barbara. Burning Man is not a fire of sticks and plywood. It is our mortgage, our job--more important, our angst and fears. We'll cope, we're free!

It might seem trivial, even childish, this cavorting. Especially after Sept. 11. But it's not. To the contrary. Burning Man would welcome bearded mullahs. They'd be part of the scene, their sermons listened to. They, on the other hand, would consign us to the ever-burning fires of hell. Standing in the desert wearing a sparkling wig surrounded by crazy office workers in strange costumes, I realized, isn't some wacky social aberration. It's the point.