The next instalment in Geoff Dyer's A-Z of travel: a festival that has no merchandise, showers or litter
B can only be for Black Rock City, home of the annual Burning Man festival (which, like everything else, is not happening this year). I first went in 1999 when very few Europeans made the trip to the Black Rock Desert in Nevada.
My girlfriend and I were hoping for a week-long desert rave; we came back as raving evangelists for a festival where nothing was for sale, where there was no main stage (no “featured” acts of any kind, in fact), no showers and, at the end, no litter (unlike Glastonbury which, despite its Eden-in-Albion mythos, always wound up looking like a New-Age rubbish dump in the process of formation).
So what was there? Everything! But that “everything” was made up entirely of what the festival-goers brought to the party, as gifts. Since the majority of those people were from the Bay Area, it was also a glimpse of a technological frontier. Every night the temporary city was lit up like a glimpse of a possible future.
Ditto its citizens in amazing El Wire costumes that turned them into pulsing neon, sci-fi figures. Our own personal lights consisted of a dozen glow-sticks between us. We were hopelessly ill-prepared in some ways and, in others, we were in our element – along with everything else it was a desert rave, after all.
Between that first expedition and 2005 I missed just two years. I then stopped going until 2018. During that 13-year intermission I had no regrets. Wherever I happened to be while the festival was in progress I was happy to find places where, in exchange for money, someone provided food and lovely clean shelter. These places are called restaurants and hotels.
I returned in 2018 for multiple reasons, not the least of which was the death, in April, of co-founder Larry Harvey. Harvey was that distinctly American type, the can-do visionary. Given the life-changing impact of the festival on so many people, his avoidance of any kind of cult of personality was a considerable achievement in itself. Still, the fact of his passing meant that 2018 was bound to be an emotionally charged year. And so it proved.
I knew that the festival had grown and grown (from a population of about 25,000 in 1999 to 70,000) and had heard (from people, naturally, who’d never been) that it had become “too commercial”. Well, it was certainly bigger but in some ways it was better than ever and the core values remained intact: radical self-reliance, no retail, no spectators, leave no trace.
Yes, there were lots more people but, in the scorching expanse of the desert, it never felt crowded except in circumstances where one wanted it to feel crowded: at some of the huge sound systems, for example. The single greatest improvement was in the art, much of which was way more beautiful and inventive than any of the inflated dross served up by the respected likes of Anish Kapoor in the past 10 years. In all sorts of ways, in fact,
Burning Man has become probably the most culturally influential gathering on the planet – it’s just that even people who feel the effects of that influence do not know where it has come from. And how about the lights? Well, think of how your bike lights have improved in the same period and you’ll get a sense, in miniature, of how Burning Man now sets the darkness reeling in ways that were inconceivable even by its own unimaginably high standards in 1999.
Remember also that any changes that have occurred at Burning Man have unfolded in the sublime emptiness of a desert which has remained unchanged for millions of years. That combination of the transient and eternal is crucial.
As had happened on previous occasions I spent as much time in 2018 moved to tears by the profundity of the experience as I did either weeping with laughter or just blissed-out by hedonism and pleasure. The brief interlude, when the Man’s arms were raised shortly before the Burn on Saturday, offered a vision of all the religion I am ever going to need in this life (which is also, of course, the only life).
There is nowhere that I am more pleased to have gone, nothing that I am happier to have done. So my return to Black Rock was the opposite of disillusioning. On the contrary, I believed again, absolutely. But I knew, absolutely, that I would never be going back again.