Virgin Burn: How One Week in the Desert Changed My Life

by: Lindsey Gavel 

“So…uhm…what is this…Burning Man?”

The way my mother said “Burning Man” told me that she’d already googled the fuck out of it and was convinced beyond a doubt that I was heading off to a week-long, hedonistic, drug-filled hippie orgy in the middle of some desert in Nevada – and that I would return to society with a head full of dreadlocks and a strong addiction to several mind-altering substances.

Despite her fears, on the evening of August 22nd, I set off on a 2-day road trip with three other friends in an SUV with a 12ft trailer, packed to the gills with more baby wipes and sunscreen than I’ve ever seen in one place at one time. I drove out of Illinois, conquered the cornfields of Iowa, slept through a good portion of Nebraska, fell in love with Wyoming, coasted through Salt Lake City at twilight, and rolled through the middle of Nevada before arriving at my destination: Black Rock City.

Black Rock City is the fourth largest city in Nevada – for one week out of the year. Prior to thriving as a bustling metropolis, the alkali lakebed this city is built on is arid and barren; no running water, no humans, no animals, and no vegetation. But just before labor day, 50,000 people – carrying everything that they need to build, survive, and flourish for a week – descend on this lakebed to partake in an experiment in temporary community. It is an exercise in immediacy, built on the principles of radical self-reliance and radical self-expression.

It is absolutely mind-blowing, and I am at a complete loss on how to describe it.

If there was ever anything that you truly had to experience to understand, Burning Man is it. I didn’t take a single picture, much to the chagrin of my coworkers and friends. But the truth is, you can find pictures all over the internet if you want to see photographic evidence of amazing art, crazy costumes, and thousands of people dancing. What pictures don’t convey is the atmosphere, the scale, and the sense of all-inclusive community.

I helped build a camp, in a temporary city, in the middle of a desert. I watched the city skyline grow and change, flourish, and then slowly disappear without a trace. I got up early every day, worked, took a siesta with the rest of the city during the hottest part of the day, and then got back to working and playing.

I managed a sound stage, got over my fear of dancing in public, and hugged more strangers than I care to count.

I fixed bike chains, helped build a shade structure for a neighboring camp, and taught a friend how to fix his flat tire.

I walked along a life-sized pier and climbed to the top of a life-sized pirate ship at dawn to watch the Black Rock 5K go by. I stood with a group that morning comprised of a middle-aged photographer, a businessman, a 72 year old grandmother, a self-proclaimed hippie from San Francisco, and a 14 year old boy who had been to Burning Man 3 times before.

I did the pocket check every time I left camp. In Chicago, pocket checks confirm the presence of a wallet, keys, and a cellphone. In Black Rock City? Pocket checks involve water bottles, sunscreen, goggles, and a dust mask.

I wandered over to the Black Rock French Quarter on Tuesday evening for Mardi Gras. I was given a steaming bowl of gumbo, beads, and was invited to dance to a swinging brass band. I cheered on the Second Line, and deeply regretted leaving my trumpet at home.

I biked, walked, or hopped a ride on a art car whenever I needed to get somewhere. Cars are not allowed to drive in Black Rock CIty during the event – it is a city devoted solely to pedestrians and bicyclists. The only exception to this rule is art cars; intricately decorated motorized vehicles that host DJs, fully functional bars, and/or live bands.

I looked down at my feet one night while dancing in a giant dome for a friends DJ set with maybe 1,000 other bodies and was floored when all I saw was dust. Not one cigarette butt, not one empty beer can. Had there not been hundreds of dancing bodies around me, there would have been absolutely no evidence of human activity in that very spot.

I watched new friends race across the desert during a sand storm to chase down and capture a wayward piece of tarp that had come loose in the wind and was threatening to create litter. We are a “Leave No Trace” community.

I exchanged pleasantries with a celebrity who had shown up at our camp to take advantage of our silk-screening booth. He asked me if there was an opening on our sound stage, because he plays blues harmonica and would really like to perform for us. I said yes, and got to enjoy 3 talented musicians sharing their abilities that evening, simply because they loved performing.

I saw a lot of naked bodies. I saw a lot of fully clothed bodies. I saw a lot of people in costumes. I saw a lot of people in jeans and t-shirts. And I saw a lot of tutus on Tuesday, because when it’s Tutu Tuesday, what else are you going to wear? Not one person was given a second look, because no one out here gives a flying fuck what you wear, or how you look. It’s a city of radical self-expression; if you want to dress in full Victorian-era dresses all week, you do it.

I helped cook meals for our camp in a fully functional kitchen, set up in a carport. Fresh dinners every night, hot lunches every day – for 80 people. In a desert. With no running water. Run completely by volunteers. WIth a compost system, and a process for disposing of greywater. Unreal.

I didn’t see one performance, one piece of art, or one costume made to impress people or to make a profit. Everyone in Black Rock CIty creates and shares because they love to create and share – nothing more, nothing less.

I participated in the massive party surrounding the Saturday night burning of the man – complete with fireworks, fire dancers, and an overwhelming sense of joy. On Sunday, I sat in total silence with 30,000 other people as the temple, where many left heart-felt messages and memorials, burned to the ground. The only sounds heard during the temple burn were cries of “I love you” to the memories of lost loved ones.

There is a Center Camp. There is a yearbook. There are medical tents, and emergency medical services. There are radio stations, an airport, and public restrooms. There is a temple. There are bars, restaurants, dance halls, and a roller disco. There are bicycle repair shops, yoga studios, and cafes. You can run in a 5K. You can take classes, listen to lectures, and participate in workshops. If you have a craving for pancakes and bacon, there is a camp for that. If you get a flat tire in the middle of the playa, someone will be there to help. The DPW and the Black Rock Rangers are the folks to look for if you are lost, or have a question about anything at all. It is a fully functioning city based on a gifting economy, not the exchange of money. The only things available for purchase in Black Rock CIty are ice and coffee – and the profits from those sales are used to fund large-scale art installations, the building of the city itself, or given to charities that directly benefit the tiny neighboring town of Gerlach. It is a city of participants, not spectators. Everyone has something to share, and they share because want to – not because they expect something in return.

Returning to society after an experience like that is rough. Really, really rough. People don’t talk to strangers – not because they’re unfriendly, but because they’re deeply absorbed in their cellphones, ipods, and other activities that devalue the concept of basic human interaction. Returning to a society where money is the necessary for survival and everyone is out to make a profit is depressing; we don’t live in a world where people give freely without expecting something in return. But instead of reminiscing about a life-changing experience, I am doing my best to impart the knowledge I’ve gained into my everyday life.

That, and counting down the days until I can return to the desert and once again experience the magic.

Lindsey Gavel is an outspoken and opinionated atheist, existentialist, feminist, and cyclist living in Chicago. She graduated from Columbia College Chicago with a BFA in Acting, so naturally, she has a day job slinging lattes. She “works” around town as an actor, theatre production-er, musician, and writer, and is a huge nerd for anything sci-fi. Disclaimer: She’s a Daywalker.

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4 responses to “Virgin Burn: How One Week in the Desert Changed My Life

  1. Very cool. Pretty much captures, as best as possible, something that can’t be captured in words. See you next year!

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