August 31, 2015

At Burning Man, pretty much anything goes

Burning Man participants visit the site's temple, which will eventually be set on fire. Visitors leave notes inside and in the walls of the structure, hoping the cleansing fire will set them free.
(Photo: Trevor Hughes, USA TODAY)

Trevor Hughes

BLACK ROCK CITY, Nev. – A young woman stepped into the dusty glare of my headlights, and I realized she was topless. And pantsless.

The only thing she was wearing was a playing card strapped on by a clear rubber band around her waist.

And a giant smile.

"Welcome home!" she said. "Is this your first time?"

Yes. Yes, it is.

I'm spending the week embedded in the annual Burning Man festival, reporting on the newest tech trends, the dust storms and the luxury camps that drew criticism last year. The temporary city we've created is called Black Rock City, and for this week it will be the third-largest place in Nevada.

First-timers like me are pulled from their vehicles to celebrate. In my case, the young woman ordered me to remove my shirt and make dust angels as lights flashed and music drifted on the wind. I banged a bell as my greeters yelled "not a virgin" to mark my transition in the encampment.

Burning Man draws 70,000 people annually to the Nevada desert (God forbid you pronounce it Nevaaaaaada, by the way) for an almost-anything-goes event. A sign at the entrance warns arrivals that all laws apply, but there's a lot of people and not a lot of cops.

That's kind of the point: Organizers create and encourage a freewheeling experience in which many people take illegal drugs, and casual sex is not only common but widely condoned. Many of the themed camps seem intended to confront and then contort societal norms. But norms are reserved for the outside world, the Default World.

Here, creativity is everywhere. Elaborate sculptures reach toward the sky. Others blast flames. Endless electronic dance music pumps across the encampment as neon-lit vehicles circle. Strangers hug you without warning.

And the outfits. The outfits! This is a place for extreme personal expression in a way that might make many Americans feel uncomfortable. Here, lots of people go shirtless, and there's a fair few wearing even less than my greeter.

Media access is tightly controlled, and the organizers use copyright law to enforce the rules –-- photographers must sign a contract agreeing not to exploit people's images for personal gain. The last thing Burning Man organizers want is to see participants' images used to sell stuff.

And while it took me a whole day to notice, now I can't stop marveling at the complete lack of stuff being sold or marketed. Corporate logos on rental trucks are usually covered up or altered, and there's no one hawking, well, anything.

It's a welcome relief from the constant pressure of consumerism we face every day. Gone are the messages to buy buy buy. Instead, we're asked to simply be. (There's no official Internet provider, and mobile phone coverage is iffy.)

Don't get me wrong. Virtually everyone has spent a lot of money to be here, and spending a week requires lots of logistics. I watched as participants stocked up on cheap plastic junk in Reno, pouring millions of dollars into that city's economy while allowing Burning Man to maintain its reputation as the world's largest Leave No Trace event.

Here, the entire economy is based on the concept of gifting. People give you things out of the kindness of their heartsAND, with "gifts" ranging from the sculptures to free booze and Tantric massages.

Sunday, a young woman handed me a beaded bracelet she'd made, with each colored bead a piece of Morse code.

Unfurled, if you know how to read it, the bracelet quotes Shakespeare: "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players."

And for the next week, this remote Nevada desert is the biggest stage of all.