Burning Man lives on after fire goes out
Blakely Slater, a freelance photographer, has made the annual trek to the Burning Man festival four times. Here are her pictures and story of why she and other "burners" return.
Black Rock City, Nev.
The streets are gone. The structures removed. But for the few remaining volunteers, most of the thousands of participants have returned to their homes from around the world. Yes, all is back to normal at this ancient lake bed, 110 miles north of Reno. Except the spirit that is the community of Burning Man 2014 lives on.
For a seven-day period — Aug. 25-Sept. 1 — that stretched over the Labor Day weekend, I was among the more than 66,000 people — affectionately called burners — who had trekked to this desolate site to build the temporary metropolis that is home of the Burning Man.
The event, an annual art festival based out of a city totally created from scratch each August. The community was created and staffed by hundreds of volunteers who manage all elements of the community from transportation, art work, fire safety, emergency services and law enforcement.
The visible wonders on display and captured by camera include massive pieces of artwork, mutant vehicles, individual costumes and a well-documented party atmosphere of this throng. Much less obvious, yet considered the most important element of this festival, is the observance of the 10 principles upon which the event is based. Those principles include radical inclusion, self-reliance and self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility and the concept of gifting.
For Louis Moga, a software engineer from Ann Arbor, this was his sixth "burn." "What the general population doesn't understand is that through the last, close to 30 years, Burning Man and the people who attend this event have become a (micro) civilization," he said. "For a week every year, attendees get to experience their own society, based on specific rules, expectations and foundations."
"Burning Man is created by the attendees for the other attendees — it is a legitimate city which is almost 100 percent created by the people who show up. Tens of thousands of people, put in thousands of their own dollars, and tens of thousands of volunteer hours so that their fellow burners get to have the experience."
In addition to building the city, burners created theme camps that provided an array of experiences from circus-skills training or drum making to others offering yoga and massages. Some of the camps built mutant vehicles that look like animals, ships or other things to ride in and some volunteers create pieces of artwork to look at or climb on.
Moga went on to explain what burners experience in their self-created society, "It is a place where it is common to see people being pleasant to one another or help each other without agenda or expectation."
The idea, Moga said, is to build human connections.
Human compassion is commonplace where gifting is the expectation. In turn, lives are changed when one is immersed in a society where rules of radical inclusion and unconditional giving are at the core.
'Changed my life'
It was still dark and six hours before the event gates would open, I found Doug McGoon, of Claremont, California, standing guard of the man — the hallmark wooden structure that would be burned on Saturday near the end of the event.
In the 43 degree temperature, McGoon was wearing a sarong, gloves and a sweatshirt with the Ranger emblem on it. Rangers are the Black Rock City equivalent of law enforcement. It is a volunteer position — like most of the staff positions — that involves hours of training and more hours of field work during the event.
McGoon explained why he volunteers as Ranger each year: "This event changed my life. After experiencing the way people treated each other here, I went home and quit my job as a property manager." McGoon, a seven-time attendee, now runs an incubator kitchen.
"I originally came for the art," McGoon said, "but keep coming back for the people."
'Be in the moment'
After a night of dancing under the stars at one of the sound camps, Ruairidh Strange, a Detroit-area quality consultant, met with me Tuesday morning.
The mask he wore that evening hung around his neck as he explained the significance of his experience. "While I'm here, I am able to step out of what the default world expects of me. ... Expectations like what kind of clothing someone should wear, are suspended," he said.
"This has provided me with an immense amount of freedom and has allowed me to find and become the person I am on the inside, without the stereotypical expectation of society."
Strange, who was attending his second Burning Man, said he had become a stronger and happier person after experiencing this community.
Before we had finished the interview, Strange put his mask back on and began a light jog with his fingernailed-painted hand outstretched to the people biking and walking toward us: Strange shook hands, waved or gave each a high five — I didn't see his face, but each person he touched, rode or walked away with a smile.
I found two first-time burners from Metro Detroit who explained how the event is much more than what you see on camera.
Mark Pleatman, an Oakland County physician who worked on the emergency services team, said: "The event affected me at an emotional level that I wasn't expecting and am still trying to make sense of."
Betsy Miller, an interior designer and college faculty member from Ferndale described "feeling a depth of emotion than I haven't felt since childhood. When you have to break down walls to let in the love and lightness, it leaves you open to the things you hadn't planned."
Perhaps one of the more telling scenes was watching one burner pull a cart through inches of thick "playa dust," a powder-like substance that covers the ground and takes to the air during the frequent dust storms. The handmade cart contained a cooler and hotplate.
After maneuvering the rig into my campsite, John Vance, a freelance software engineer from Phoenix, flipped over a sign announcing the "Intrusive Mobile Diner" and began making grilled cheese sandwiches in the 100-degree heat of the desert for anyone within reach.
"Burning Man restores my faith in humanity," he said. "It takes 357 days for me to become disgruntled with the human race, and I come back each year to have my faith restored. "
But why make grilled cheese for strangers? "To give back," he said, as he handed me a perfectly browned sandwich.
Blakely Slater is an attorney practicing in Oakland County and a freelance photojournalist