SUMMER’S end is right around the corner, which means so is The Burning Man festival. And for many outsiders, or your regular germaphobes, the annual festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, conjures up images of free love, recreational drug use, wild orgies, freaky art installations, all sans the luxury of conventional toilets and plumbing. Dehydration and the smell of B.O. creep in just thinking about it. So what is it about the popular fête that continues to allure tens of thousands of people to the hot desert year after year?
“Trying to explain what Burning Man is to someone who has never been to the event is a bit like trying to explain what a particular color looks like to someone who is blind,” according to its website. The elusive week-long merriment, “dedicated to community, art, self-expression, and self-reliance,” brings people together from all over the world to celebrate, well, what exactly?
To better explain the infrastructure and the mass appeal, a seasoned Burning Man veteran Christina Castro, explains the magic. A Los Angeles resident, Christina has been making the trek to the festival with her husband Andy for the past two years, the first year in an RV. Both former “ravers,” when the underground scene that had brought them together was falling prey to the mainstream and getting old, they craved a new experience. They started reading about the festival, and even to their free-spirits it raised skepticism and red flags. Christina remembers her husband saying something like, “it sounds kind of cool, but on the other hand it also sounds like it could be just a bunch of naked hippies riding around on bicycles in the desert.” But for the most part, they were mistaken.
At her first Burn (how the regulars refer to it) in 2012, she was overcome with the open environment. Driving out into the big, open space miles away from much, and far from the congested city of Los Angeles, was liberating. And it’s not just the freeing open air that’s intoxicating. It’s the open feeling that becomes almost tangible. The experience encourages creativity, to let go of the monotony that can take hold with work and everyday life stresses by exploring your inner child, all while connecting with others in the process. For the hardened pragmatist this might sound like a living hell. But as she puts it, the experience helps “tear down the walls” that we all tend to put up around ourselves.
And when it comes to the wild and crazy urban myths about what goes on at BM, Christina says they’re for the most part true, but that you are at no point forced to participate. In her first year she visited the Nectar Village, which offered unisex steam baths. While she and Andy only went because their RV shower was busted, they joined in on the nudity. As she waited in line butt-naked with a bunch of strangers, she cringed inside. “When I approached the door I heard a lot of funny sounds coming out of the dome, I thought an orgy was going on, but it just turned out to be a lot of people really excited over the steam — but who knows,” she confessed.
Once you overcome the awkwardness of optional nudity, or tripping over people having sex in the dirt as the sun rises (that actually happened), Christina says the weirdness fades. Being married and not interested in the debauchery, she was more mesmerized by the “mind-blowing” art installations and the live performances sprinkled throughout the five-mile spread of desert.
One performance in particular that caught her attention at her first Burn was when she stumbled upon a stage called “Camp Questionmark.” An ethereal female performer with a shaved head was fire-hooping on the stage before her — spinning and twirling a hula-hoop doused with kerosene that was lit on fire. Throwing fire into the dry, hot desert air in the middle of August sounds counter-intuitive but, for Christina, this was a life-changing moment that sparked her curiosity and desire to spin fire.
Although she’d bravely dabbled in fire-throwing before, that performer’s exhibition drove Christina to start practicing more diligently. And last year she signed up for the L.A. Fire Brigade, which is an L.A. based Burning Man conclave made up of over 20 people that perform a choreographed piece at the festival.
And this year, at her third BM, she will be performing on Burn Night, the big Saturday night performance when they set the “Man” on fire, the big effigy in the middle of the event.
“I’m both excited and nervous to be a part of the conclave. I’m actually going to spin fire at Burning Man two years later after talking about it,” she said.
Burning Man may sound like a hippy-dippy nightmare to some but, for people like Christina, it’s proven to be a positive experience opening a gateway to conquer personal fears and celebrate freedom and self-love.
Image Credit: Andrew Torr