BURNING MAN 2010 | PHOTOS

BURNING MAN 2010 | PHOTOS

Contributing Writer & Photographer : Andrew “Dirty Santa” Wyatt [ TheRFW.com/blog/DirtySanta]

My face felt as if was pelted by hundreds of darts. Sand choked my throat and lungs. The wind blew 60 miles per hour around me, and I couldn’t see people and objects just feet in front of me. My outstretched arms were no longer visible.

The wind blew so hard I began to wonder if I even existed. This was my introduction to the environs of the Black Rock Desert of northern Nevada this year for the annual Burning Man Festival. For one week in late August every year there, the barren northern edge of Nevada becomes Black Rock City, playing host to the crucible of festivals in America: Burning Man. It’s a sprawling city ornamented with towering, ornate art structures and populated by 50,000 people in elaborate costumes.

Like Jonah’s whale of the Old Testament, it can swallow you whole, only to spit you out disoriented and physically and emotionally drained. The festival, with a teeming population that makes it the fourth-largest city in the state, pushes its participants to plunge head first into a valley that, at one ancient time, was covered in deep seawater. It’s an experience that can be crude, spiritual, silly and self reflective.

CREATIVITY, HOPE

The Black Rock Desert, surrounding mountains and nearby Pyramid Lake are normally home to a handful of small but hearty communities and a major Paiute Indian Reservation that stand up to the desolate winters and withering summers. The average daytime temperature in late August is about 104 degrees Fahrenheit. For good reason, the people there pride themselves on living their lives and raising their families under such natural extremes. But many still view the area as desolate and devoid of human existence. To many, the desert is a place where remnants of long-lost mining operations, gold diggers and the petroglyphs of once thriving native tribes mark the boundaries of where human contact ends. Much like receding floodwaters, the northern Nevada desert seems only to reveal the watermarks of previous civilizations. But for those who attend the festival, the mountainside watermarks reveal a rising tide of creativity, idealism and hope.

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PARADOX

So what is Burning Man? Even after nine years of making the pilgrimage to one of the most unforgiving landscapes in this country, I find this to be one of the most stubbornly unanswerable questions in my life — right up there with past lives and time travel. Explaining Burning Man is like trying to explain how light can behave as both matter and waves. It’s a paradox.

The festival began in 1986 on Baker Beach in San Francisco, when a handful of people led by Larry Harvey burned a stick-figured effigy. Some speculate that he intended to memorialize a lost love or dead relative. Today, Burning Man has grown to be a haven that attendees call “radical fre

e expression,” filled with sculptures, art galleries, restaurants and weddings both legal and non-binding. This year’s festival showcased a towering 40-foot metal sculpture of a woman dancing, entitled “Bliss Dance.” The festival draws a wildly diverse population, including engineers, gypsies, computer programmers, hip-hop artists and airline pilots. There are hotel owners, bankers, hippies, lawyers, actors and actresses. And for no two people is the meaning of the experience the same.

As one “burner” paradoxically put it to me last year: “Following the Man means following yourself.”

STRIPPED CLEAN

As the gale-force sandstorm ripped away from the desert floor my first day at Burning Man, bands of dust-covered people were revealed, clinging to tent poles and metal beams of dance-club domes and bars. Under suddenly clearing tatters of cloud and a double rainbow, I suddenly realized the electric feeling crackling in my bones was the feeling of the earth, still in its place spinning on its axis, but my body, my mind and my heart were stripped clean. That night, Black Rock City, lit like the Las Vegas Strip, perched in its familiar place on the edge of the galaxy, blazing in its calm rotation through the whirl of stars; it was my soul that was sent spinning to the edge of its limits. As Henry David Thoreau once put it, I finally realized, “Our truest life is when we are in our dreams awake.”

Burning Man, on the dust-choked desert, is my dream with eyes still open.