Last Thursday was a typically atypical day at Burning Man—the last before a series of atypically atypical days. It began, for me, with a bike ride with some friends to the Temple for an orchestral performance. Burning Man is named after a large effigy that burns in a raucous extravaganza on Saturday night; the next night, most of the same crowd sits in silence watching a wooden temple, of a different design each year, go up in flames. Beforehand, people fill the Temple with messages, writing on the walls and stapling photos and personal effects to the structure. I wandered inside and perused the community’s contributions. Many of them memorialized lost loved ones, but the ones that hit me hardest addressed the search for self-love. “To my past self,” one message read. “You are more amazing than you realize. We’ve made it.” The note ended with a hint at the future: “See you there. xoxo.”
I was in a receptive mood, and tears streamed down my face. I spent an hour reading. Then I headed to Burning Man’s makeshift airport, where I needed to reschedule a volunteer shift. The airport is a somewhat contentious spot: earlier in the week, climate protesters had blocked off the road leading to Burning Man to protest, among other things, the increasing number of private planes flying into the temporary metropolis that we call Black Rock City. For years, the community has struggled with how to deal with the influx of money. Wealthy individuals contribute to some stunning art, mutant vehicles, and theme camps on the playa, but the cash also allows people to insulate themselves in R.V.s set up by hired hands. In an official newsletter, the Burning Man Project reported that they “took action” last year against seventy camps for selling accommodations, amenities, or services. “Convenience camping (formerly described as turnkey or plug-and-play camping) is not permitted in BRC, and runs totally counter to the values of our community,” its Web site reads. Burning Man is supposed to be hard.
As I headed back to camp from the airport, I passed a photographer who’d set up a white tent to take portraits of Burners. I stopped in for one. Then I ran into a friend from New York who helps run Kostume Kult, a theme camp that gives away flamboyant garb and hosts parties and runway shows for anyone who wants to strut. We played Jenga, accepted Capri Sun bags injected with alcohol, and filmed people for a sing-along video that he’s making with his wife. Back at my own camp, Deep Playa Surprise, I was recruited for a bike ride back across the city to visit a foam body-wash party. We arrived too late and settled for shaved ice handed out by kids. Just as I started back, a dust storm rolled in. Blinded in the whiteout, I navigated by following the sound of a distant beat. It was the kind of extreme weather that’s predictably unpredictable at Burning Man: you learn to not leave camp without goggles and a dust mask.
I made it back in time to see that the camp across the street from us, run by a bunch of Aussies, was about to begin its Dildo Olympics. I joined a team, and then our own event for that day followed. We served cocktails and hosted a discussion with NiNo Alicea, the first Puerto Rican artist to earn a grant from Burning Man; his work this year, “ATABEY’s Treasure,” was a silver fish whose head and tail appeared to peek from below the desert ground to a height of about twenty feet. (Burning Man is glacially becoming more racially diverse, but it’s still heavily populated by wealthy, college-educated white people.) We rode out to the sculpture, where a couple who looked like Instagram influencers were photographing each other; an apparently professional ballet dancer soon arrived, and began posing and leaping around in a thong for another photographer. We returned to camp, where two friends on their way to No Holes Barred, a comedy club down the block, told us that they’d just got engaged. Earlier that week, one of them had run a desert ultramarathon on acid.
Black Rock City is shaped like a doughnut with a bite taken out of it: the Man is in the center of the hole, the Temple is in the bite mark, and art fills the hole, the bite, and the space beyond for about a mile. After dark, a group of us biked out to see the glowing art scattered around the playa. In a large piece made by my friend from Kostume Kult and his wife, four stacked rings, each about five feet high, rotated on an axis; by pulling on the rings with ropes, people could mix and match animal legs, bodies, heads, and ears. We watched a two-story heart-shaped chrysalis burn, revealing a steel butterfly inside. Farther out, we found a miniature airstrip with rocking chairs shaped like airplanes; we climbed up a tower—a plane pointed vertically with a lower level containing a lounge and open bar serving tea. (All bars at Burning Man are open bars.) I often think that Black Rock City has some of the best contemporary art in the world, from big installations like the temples to little pieces of mind-fuckery, like a lone mirror, set up on its own, that read, “Don’t look high.”
After a few hours of touring art, we headed to a dance party at a camp called Ashram Galactica. I ran into a friend who was building a retreat in Costa Rica. Then we rode back to camp through a nighttime dust storm.