By Donn Swaby

I’ve just started reading the works of Joseph Campbell, the late great scholar, writer, and teacher who in his lifetime amassed an amazing amount of knowledge of world cultures and mythologies. In his book, the Power of Myth, he talks about the need for a new global mythology, a world identity encompassing all people, all religions, all countries, as well as all living things on earth. He believed this was to be our next and most necessary step in the ongoing process of human evolution. He believed this would bring about the return of human beings being in harmony with the rest of the natural world. As I continued reading the profound, eloquently stated thoughts of this most amazing man, I suddenly began to think of The Burning Man Festival.

I can clearly remember my first time two years ago when I made my trip to Black Rock City, Nevada, three hours outside of Reno, Vegas’ knock-kneed and cross-eyed cousin. This was an event I had been hearing about since college (most of my friends then were from California). Yet, till now I never had the opportunity to attend this annual “party in the desert”, this “rave of all raves”, this “wild week of weird wonders.” I had no idea what was in store for me until I was actually there, engulfed and warmly embraced by the pervading spirit of unity and oneness that is the foundation upon which this magnificent place is built from scratch every single year for the last seventeen years. Would a city boy like me suffer without my worldly comforts such as my cell-phone, my bed, my refrigerator, my air-conditioned home? Would I see tons and tons of naked flesh decorated in every which way and just lose my mind to pure bacchanalia? Would I understand the philosophy behind 30,000 people coming from all over the world and converging in an atmosphere simultaneously peaceful and extremely stimulating? Would I get it?

There is a saying; “If you have never been then no explanation will suffice. If you have been to Burning Man then no explanation is needed.”

It wasn’t until I found myself in the city along with one of my closest friends, Lorenzo, surrounded by people, our new neighbors, who warmly greeted us, gave us food and drink, and helped us put up our tent (we’d been in the city only fifteen minutes.) I remember first visually taking in the entire place: the different camps with their imaginative designs and themes and the wonderful artwork that seemed to be everywhere and touch everything from tents to bikes to motorized vehicles to peoples’ bodies. I remember the breath-taking backdrop of mountains surrounding the city, and the inhabitants themselves with their elaborate/simple homemade costumes and body paint. But these were not the reasons I was so taken aback.

Nothing could have prepared me for the sheer amount of positive energy emanating from every face that greeted mine. There was such openness, such emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and physical freedom where no one was judged for being and expressing their true inner selves, regardless of race, sex, religion, or nationality.

At Burning Man, what you have is what you bring with you: food, water, clothes (it gets really cold at night), and first aid are just some of the things a Burner pack with them. Sun block, lip balm, some type of foot covering (to prevent the acid in the desert from eating your through your skin), and plenty of water are all a must. Unless you have an RV, most people build their own simple but effective (and fun!) showering facilities. After a week of being in the hot desert with thousands of other sweaty souls and temperatures easily reaching over 100 degrees, a twice-daily trip to the port-o-potties can be quite a daunting, anxiety-ridden experience. And did I mention it gets cold at night? Well let’s just say Burners had better be packing some sweaters and/or jackets along with shorts and sun hats or they will soon find themselves having to cut their nights of wild adventurous revelry short due to involuntary shivering and violent teeth chattering.

As far as total expense, most people spend at least $800 to $1,000, minimum for the trip (not a light fee for some). But it’s the kind of place where a person could walk in with just the clothes on his/her back and they would be provided for and cared for all week.

Nothing is sold or bought at Burning Man except coffee and tea at Center Camp. Everyone gives freely and shares everything. There is an incredible respect for others and the land the city rests upon. Burning Man’s M.O. is Leave No Trace. When all 31,000 participants leave the festival, they carry everything back out with them.

There really is no typical day at Burning Man, nor is there a typical experience. On any given day burners can go to any particular camp and experience: a glorious foot or back massage, a philosophical or spiritual discussion, cold libations and spirits, dancing, body paint, music, singing, or poetry. They can catch a ride from one end of the city to the other on the many amazing art vehicles cruising around the desert, and a million other things.

Burning Man is ultimately what you make of it. “You have what you bring with you” not only refers to physical supplies. It refers to your mindset. A mind and heart that are open to life, love, and friendship may have the ultimate Burning Man experience; one gathers together with all these other people to watch a 60 foot figure burn under the night sky and share in the tradition of ritual and community. The man is the sacrifice, the reminder that from death comes life, that all life is connected in that way.

I wonder what Joseph Campbell thought of Burning Man. I am sure that even if he had never gone, he would have “gotten it.” It is the kind of spirit he had been writing and speaking about. And as I continue to read his work I look forward to my next trip to Black Rock City, when I am greeted once again by fellow Burners with the beautiful words, “welcome home.”

For more on Burning Man click to view issue 7




© Melt Magazine 2003