Each Labor Day weekend, tens of thousands of people from around the globe descend on the Black Rock Desert, northeast of Reno, Nev., for Burning Man.
Coming into its 27th year, the celebration — with a focus on life, humanity, all things beautiful and artistic — remains a beacon of light amid uncertain modern times. To try and explain what it is to someone unaware is like describing colors to a blind person.
In 2008, I was a rookie reporter in Teton Valley, Idaho. Spending the better part of that year running around the high desert of Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, my subjects ranged from a blacksmith to a 92-year-old Mormon farmer, professional skiers to honky-tonk musicians, park rangers to old cowboys. The West truly is wild, and its temptation to a 22-year-old recent college graduate was as every bit alluring as it was real.
I found myself playing horseshoes one afternoon at the Timberline Bar & Grill in Victor, Idaho. Talking to a friend of mine, she mentioned that a local photographer, Andrew Wyatt, was looking for a writer to cover music/art festivals. He coincidentally was at the bar that day.
Andrew was a 39-year-old ex-Southern Baptist preacher from Virginia who ended up in nearby Jackson Hole, Wyo., following his passion for photography. His colors, angles, themes and subjects were completely unique, which is a very difficult thing to achieve in such a cluttered industry. He was readying himself to head out to Burning Man. I had heard of the celebration, but it was only the usual rumors of it being a drug-filled orgy or extravagant music festival.
“It’s nothing like that at all. It’s about people and coming together, exploring the endless possibilities of creativity and humanity,” he said. “It opens your eyes to the world and in turn you’ll walk away with the greatest experience of your life. When you go to Burning Man, you’ll never be the same again – I can promise you that much.”
I was immediately sold on the idea, but had already made plans to head to Tijuana with a couple of friends. Andrew needed a ride to Reno, so I offered to take him en route to meet my Tijuana entourage in Lake Tahoe. By the time we rolled into downtown Reno, Andrew convinced me to scrap Tijuana and head for the Black Rock Desert. A day later, my two friends followed suit.
Leaving Reno, we rocketed down I-80 East. Exiting the interstate, heading north on a secondary road to the celebration, our cell-phones lost reception. Small towns dissolved into a barren landscape resembling the surface of the moon. We were immediately flung into the chaotic paradise, a never-ending space of unique people, places and things. Thousands milled about. There was no money involved, all barter system. No one spoke of what they did outside of Burning Man – here you can be whoever it is you want to be, or really are. It’s anarchy in its purest form, which is there are no rules, but one must respect everyone’s personal boundaries.
Setting up my tent amid Camp Gallavant‚ the rum-drenched pirate brigade from Reno, I raised my arms in utter ecstasy as the horizon before my eyes was filled with glowing‚ sparkling and blinking faraway dots‚ as if they were a lighthouse directing me home.
During the celebration, I took cover during a dust storm and was invited to join the American Steel camp for dinner; stood in awe at the “Thunderdome‚” the Mad Max replica‚ where participants battle in an all-out frenzy of dust‚ sweat and lukewarm booze – first sign of blood declares winner; was stunned by explosions from flamethrowers and pyrotechnics being launched in every direction by fire dancers‚ jugglers‚ sword swallowers and avant-garde performers; conversed with friends and strangers that became friends from across the United States, Lithuania‚ Australia‚ British Columbia‚ England‚ South Africa‚ Nova Scotia‚ Spain‚ Russia and Ireland; slept on a trampoline under a canopy of stars so clear‚ so bright‚ I never knew such illumination existed from the heavens above; ate Kansas City barbeque and Alaskan smoked salmon‚ fresh from their native lands‚ while the sun set over the jagged peaks to the west; was poured a fresh cup of French roast coffee during a majestic sunrise‚ the rays of light cascading down ancient rock and ultimately upon my joyous aura.
I awoke‚ after 10 days in the desert‚ to a rebirth of my soul. I discovered inner peace‚ and my long lost inner child‚ as I headed back home‚ back to reality‚ for now at least‚ until my next venture into the desert.
1: Merle Haggard plays the Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing Arts in Franklin on Sept. 6.
2: Metal sculptor Grace Cathey unveils her latest work during the Waynesville Public Art Commission installation in downtown Waynesville on Sept. 6.
3: Monks from the Drepung Loseling monastery will demonstrate the art of mandala sand painting and perform sacred music and dance on Sept. 9-13 at Western Carolina University.
4: Acclaimed columnist Susan Reinhardt will discuss her first book at the Macon County Public Library in Franklin on Sept. 12.
5: Poet Thomas Rain Crowe will present his new book at the Jackson County Library in Sylva on Sept. 7.