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  • Nathan Riley, MD

This Is Burning Man

Updated: Jul 20, 2019

Every August, Burning Man Organization lays out the framework for a city. This infrastructure includes streets, emergency medical services, a radio station (BMIR 94.5), latrines, and a center camp where ice, coffee, and other non-alcoholic beverages can be purchased. Once complete, over 70,000 people descend on Black Rock City (BRC) and call it home for a week. The city’s daily operations are performed through the generosity of volunteers, long-time burners who are so in love with the concept that they dedicate themselves to making sure it runs smoothly. There are no rules in BRC, only principles, and these 10 commandments comprise the ethos that has allowed the event to live on perennially since 1986. The Organization does not cater activities for the city dwellers. Rather, the colossal art projects, sound stages, workshops, lectures, and parties are provided by the city’s inhabitants, people who have paid an entrance fee for the sole opportunity to display their talents or provide a service. This is Burning Man.

As you might expect, the city is massive, with more goings-on than you could possibly fit into a week. Participants navigate the city primarily by bicycle, and a typical day might include breakfast sandwiches, mimosas, learning to throw knives, workshops on tantric sex and neuroscience, a psychedelic experience, yoga, and bouncing along to the bass-driven set of a world-renowned DJ at sunrise. The lack of structure, the intense sexual energy, and the liberal use of drugs and alcohol might lead you to think that the event is ridden with crime and violence. On the contrary, most attendees — women included — feel safer in BRC than they do in the “default world”, the euphemism for life outside of Burning Man. Acting outside of Burning Man’s 10 principles is nothing short of blasphemy, and violations simply aren’t tolerated.

So what’s the deal? How could such an inhospitable place, with its dust storms, lack of running water and electricity, and constant loud noise conceivably be experienced as a utopia by its ever-growing number of devotees?

Lastly, no rundown of BRC is complete without an introduction to the gifting economy. No currency is exchanged in BRC; nor is bartering expected. The Playa provides for all of your needs. A grilled cheese sandwich, ice cold lemonade, or aspirin is never far from reach exactly when you need it. When an entire city operates on the principle of giving unconditionally without expecting anything in return, egalitarianism develops naturally, and, as such, its citizens are happier and wealthier as a whole.

My wife and I plan to return next year and every year that follows. Our first burn was magic. We were reunited with our late fathers. We mustered up the courage to enter the Orgy Dome. We gifted and accepted prized possessions. We shared our most personal insecurities with strangers. We danced ourselves dry after showering in a room filled with people of all ages, sizes, and colors. We made numerous lifelong friends. And we realized that we have been deeply in love for many lives past.

This is Burning Man. See you in 2019.

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