Burning Man: At home in the weirdest and most wonderful festival of all
Deirdre Mullins goes 'home' to Nevada for the desert festival to end them all.
A partially naked woman greets me at the gate, pulls me into her bosom and shouts 'Welcome home!'
Beside me, a 'virgin burner' rings a bell and rolls around in the dust with excitement. I'm at the entrance to Black Rock City, the setting for Nevada's Burning Man festival, and the only place in the world that welcomes each citizen with a hug. I'm returning after 15 years, and it feels like a homecoming.
Burning Man began in 1986 with just 20 people on Baker Beach in San Francisco. Since then, it has evolved into a week-long festival and a bona-fide cultural phenomenon. Every year, thousands of 'burners' gather in the Black Rock desert, transforming the barren landscape into a working city that overflows with creativity and intrigue. It's the wildest and most wonderful party in existence.
Throughout the week, the playa is transformed from near-empty vastness into a busy pop-up metropol; a city that is populated by mutant vehicles, DJ booths, impromptu performances and numerous outdoor art galleries. Every attendee is invited to take part in the festival as per the principle of 'participation' - whether it's in creating a piece of art, doing a performance or offering a gift.
It's just one of 10 guiding principles. The other nine are 'radical inclusion', 'gifting', 'decommodification', 'radical self-reliance', 'radical self-expression', 'communal effort', 'civic responsibility', 'leave no trace' and 'immediacy'. People go to extraordinary lengths to embody these, especially through creativity and sharing. That's what makes Burning Man so special and incomparable to any other event in the world.
Deirdre on her bike at Burning Man
My first Burning Man was in 1997. I made the journey as a wide-eyed and somewhat innocent J1 Visa student. On Day One, a naked man approached me. "Can I draw on your leg?" he asked, in a wistful California accent. After my hesitant 'yes', he proceeded to draw a flower on my thigh. I froze self-consciously - up until then my experience with body paint had been confined to my face at Halloween.
Once I overcame the initial shock of immersion in this counter-culture, however, I became enthralled by it. I was amazed by the bohemians who flocked to this inhospitable desert environment and made it such an inspiring place to be. They were so open, diverse and exciting. I was addicted, and for three consecutive years in the 1990s I returned to Black Rock City every summer to get my fix.
Last year I travelled back after a 15-year hiatus; wiser and more worldly (this year's event runs from August 30 to September 7). My excitement was tempered by an anxiety about the festival being ruined by becoming too big and 'mainstream'. But I was hopeful that the 10 Principles guiding the event meant that it hadn't deviated much from its old spirit.
The size of the thing was the most striking difference. On my first year, there were 10,000 'burners'. This time, I was one of nearly 70,000. Inevitably, the growth has taken from the intimacy, but the flipside is that there's more cool stuff to experience. There were fewer naked people, too - probably thanks to social media. Electronic dance music dominates, with acoustic music a little harder to find. Today, there are large-scale sound camps featuring 'big name' DJs that draw crowds of around 7,000 per night.
The gift economy seems more robust, though. My first of many playa gifts was a delivery of piping-hot stone-baked pizza. In true, Burning Man style the delivery girl disappeared before I could thank her.
Desert tips: wear sunscreen!
Another drastic change is the emergence of 'turnkey camps', where Hollywood stars and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs pay for the privilege of a luxury camp. While most of us experience stinky portaloos and survive on a diet of super noodles, these multi-millionaires fly to the desert in private jets, sleep in air-conditioned yurts and have personal chefs. My camp fees were $200/€180, but some of the elite spent $25,000/€22,500.
Initially, I was worried that they would take the festival away from its hippie origins. But to be true to the 10 Principles we must remember 'radical inclusion' - and how can we discriminate against the rich for 'radical self-reliance' on their wallets?
One thing has certainly stayed the same. If there's such thing as an average day at Burning Man, it remains fabulously irregular. It may include getting your hair washed by a stranger, riding in a shark-themed art car, seeing people beat each other with foam sticks or fighting for 'Carrot Power'.
It was - and is - the most sensory-stimulating place I've ever been.
Burning Man has changed, but now it's even greater than I'd imagined. On my last night, I cycled out into the darkness of the playa and looked back at a city sparkling like a glittering utopia. The metal octopus art car, El Pulpo Mechanico, lumbered through the desert blasting flames from its tentacles. Strobe lights criss-crossed over the city where I'd just had one of the most mind-blowing weeks of my life. It's a place where creativity prevails and the focus is on giving rather than receiving, and it still touches deeply.
I'll definitely be going home again this year.
What to pack
A bike is essential to get around, as is a head torch for finding things and LED lights to decorate your tent, bike and self! Bring goggles and a bandana to protect your eyes and mouth from sandstorms. Bring Ziplock bags, toilet paper, wet wipes, hand sanitizer and something to gift, too.
Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) flies daily from Dublin to San Francisco with fares starting from €349 each way including taxes and charges. To learn more about Burning Man and for information on the Burner Express Bus, visit burningman.org.
Where to stay
The Irish collective Secrets Sounds Festival (secretsounds-festival.com) has renovated a fleet of old American school buses, and offers tailor-made packages including the return journey from San Francisco, bunk bed accommodation, contribution to the camp's art installation, food and water from $970/€883.
Lake Tahoe, Nevada
The 10 Principles
In 2004, the founder of Burning Man (Larry Harvey) set out 10 principles to reflect the community's ethos and culture. They are radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leave no trace, participation and immediacy.
Ignore the FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). You simply can't get to everything. It's tempting to dance 'til dawn every night, but this is a seven-day festival so you have to pace yourself. Wear closed-toe shoes to protect your feet from alkaline dust and protect your skin with a spray bottle of water and lemon.
Reno's Grand Sierra Resort (grandsierraresort.com) has become host to the official Burning Man after-party. Burners flock to the hotel to dance by the pool to festival DJs. For something a bit more relaxing, head to Lake Tahoe (above), a large freshwater lake in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.