On August 27th, 2001 I woke up at Burning Man for the first time. It was hot and early; the art/life/wackiness festival takes place in a desert where the sun burns bright and there wasn’t a speck of shade anywhere. As soon as I opened my eyes I immediately crawled out of my 2-man pup tent already drenched in sweat. I grabbed a bottle of lukewarm water out of my cooler, poured it down my slaking throat and took a look around.
Next to my camp was a group of tents that had set up a body-painting service which consisted simply of a couple of inflatable kiddie pools and a bunch of spray guns loaded with glittering liquid rainbows. Across the dusty street an enormous circus-style tent had been erected that would soon be the home to a giant all-gay pickup bar called Jiffy-Lube…they were just in the process of assembling their large, graphic (and somewhat controversial) mechanical sign that moved back-and-forth (or in-and-out if you get my meaning). Kitty-corner across from them was a stand of RV’s who’s occupants were no doubt still sleeping thanks to the droning hum of their air-con generators, a consistent growl that contributed to the mass arising of my newfound crew of co-tenters.
When I arrived the day before I had forced myself upon this group of western Canadians that had proudly stuck a small Canadian flag in the ground. They were a diverse crew of seven from White Rock, British Columbia (“From White Rock to Black Rock”) that were unified by all being rather awesome people. There as Stacey and Andy…I believe Stacey was a dancer; Ed (who was definitely a dancer – like, practicing the art – and they were both really good): Ben who was an actor (he was in that Lotto 6/49 commercial where a guy who has just won the lottery [Ben] walks into his boss’s office and “meeps” him on the nose), Jenn and Corwin (to date the only “Corwin” I have ever met), and Jenn’s mother Barb.
I was rather surprised to find that someone had come with their partner and their mother, but then everything at Burning Man surprised me. For example:
Early in the week I had fired up my Coleman stove for some lunch and asked if anyone would like a hot dog. “Sure,” replied Jenn. As we were both munching away on our dogs Barb sat down and after a moment she asked Jenn what she was eating. “A hot dog,” Jenn answered.
“A real hot dog?!?!?” Barb asked, wide-eyed.
“Mmmm-hmmm,” came the reply, as Jenn chewed ever-so-nonchalantly. “It’s good.”
Now, I’m not sure if I would have believed this if Barb wasn’t there to confirm it, but this was the first time in Jenn’s memory that she had ever eaten meat, having asked her meat-eating mom if she could become a vegetarian way back when she was just three or four years old.
I’ll say that again: This was basically the first time in her life that this twenty-something year old had eaten meat of any kind. And it was a hot dog. Crazy. I wonder if she is still a vegetarian all these years later. Could be that hot dog was her one, single foray into the domain of the carnivore…
Crazy. Cool; proper; moral; environmental; humane…and kinda crazy.
But what of Burning Man itself? you might be asking. Well, as I mentioned before it is something of an art/life/wackiness festival that is also rather cool, though not necessarily proper, moral, environmental nor humane…though it’s definitely kinda crazy. And one of the many things that is rather cool about Burning Man is that it runs almost entirely on a gift economy*.
A gift economy is exactly what it sounds like…if you want something you pay a gift for it, it’s as simple as that. It’s not really a profit deal, though you are pretty much guaranteed to go home with a sizeable cache of leftover pins, stuffies, bracelets, stickers, books, feathers, crystals and comic books, along with any number of unimaginable trinkets, whatsits, and thingses. If you’re thinking barter and trade, well, it’s not that. Most transactions fall deeply under the “thought that counts” category, as one might offer an old hockey card in exchange for a slice of pizza or maybe a smiley-face button for a half-hour massage.
For example, one evening I was at Funk Camp and ordered myself a margarita. I had never had a margarita before and the bartender was very proud to blend one up for me, and of course it was delicious. To pay for the drink I had given her a little trinket from my pocket that someone had given me for psychiatric help**, but the margarita was so good that I ran back to my camp and retrieved a shot glass imprinted with a Canadian flag and gave it to her for my next round. That dinky little $3 shot glass was such an impressive gift/payment that she front-of-lined me the rest of the night for free margaritas and wouldn’t let anybody else serve me.
There are countless other cool things about Burning Man but watch this space as I’m-a-gonna be stretching them out in somewhat random yet loosely-connected narratives to cover the entire eight days of my BM adventuring.
*The only exceptions to the gift economy were the daily selling of coffee and bags of ice for actual money at Center Cafe, which was run by Burning Man Inc. itself. I suppose people pay actual money for drugs as well, I really wouldn’t know.
**I spent the week running a Peanuts-style Psychiatric Help booth in exchange for trinkets and nickels, but that’s a whole bunch of other stories.