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Why Would Anyone Go to Burning Man?

Entry 1: It's just unshowered vegans, jet-setting art freaks—and me.

This week marks the 26th celebration of Burning Man, an annual summer art festival dating from 1986 that seeks to create a temporary utopian community in the Nevada desert. Last year, Slate sent Seth Stevenson to partake in the running water-free revelry and to answer the question: Why would anyone want to go to Burning Man? He replied with this series of dispatches.

Twenty-five years ago, in the summer of 1986, Larry Harvey and a few friends built an 8-foot-tall man out of wood, dragged the sculpture onto a beach in San Francisco, and set it aflame. A small crowd of strangers gathered to watch. It couldn't have been more than 20 people. The wind pushed the flames in one direction, and a woman ran to the unburning side of the man to briefly hold his hand before the spreading fire engulfed it.

Harvey isn't quite sure, if you ask him now, what he was trying to accomplish that evening. He has hinted that he was mourning a traumatic break-up with a girlfriend. He's also suggested it was simply a random act—inspired by his lifelong fascination with sacred ritual, and steeped in the bohemian, Bay Area subculture he counted himself a part of in those days.

Whatever his purpose, Harvey burned the man again the next year, and each year after that. Word spread and the crowds built steadily until they numbered in the hundreds. When the ceremony outgrew the beach, in the early 1990s, the burn was moved to a barren alkali flat in an empty corner of northwest Nevada. Still, people came.

Click to see a slide show of Burning Man photos.
In 1993 there were 1,000 participants. In 1996 the attendance was 8,000. 1999: 23,000. 2006: 39,000.

This year, for the first time, the event sold out. Despite face-price tickets ranging from $220 to $360. (Scalped tickets soared to well more than $500.) The population of the weeklong festival this year—according to Burning Man's volunteer media relations team—reached a peak of 53,000 on the Saturday when the man was burned.

Among the faces in the flickering firelight were me and my photographer pal Sam. We'd been sent by Slate to explore a phenomenon a quarter-century old, yet still expanding—and one that, to most of America, is still either a mystery or an easy punch line. What, I wondered, could lure a population roughly the size of Biloxi, Miss., out to a remote desert encampment providing no plumbing, no food, no trash service, and almost nothing in the way of commercial entertainment? What was this cult of unshowered vegans, ecstasy-gobbling ravers, nerdy techies, and jet-setting art freaks?

People covered in body paint run through the Black Rock Desert at an early Burning Man in 1998.
In short: Why would anyone go to Burning Man?

Well, for one thing, you get to baffle your friends. "Which bands are playing?" pals would ask me when I told them I was going, thinking the event was something akin to Coachella or Bonnaroo.

"No bands that anybody has heard of," I'd answer. "It's more about creating a new kind of utopian society that exists for only one week each year. Also, there's some weird, interactive art. And a lot of drugs and nudity. And no running water." This last part was generally met with open-mouthed stares. "Think of it," I'd helpfully suggest, "as a combination of Woodstock, Jonestown, and the Park Slope Food Co-op."

A good friend who's been to many Burns but (to his tremendous disappointment) couldn't make it out to the desert this year insisted that I visit him at his New York apartment to receive some pre-Burn instruction and advice. "Burning Man is an effort to reinvent the culture of Earth," he told me, in dead serious tones. "If you go, you must surrender to the spirit of the endeavor. You have a duty to participate. You can't just observe. You'll bring everybody down." He then solemnly handed me a white fur vest, a spangly blue cowboy hat, and a pair of ski goggles. I wasn't sure what I was meant to do with them. He assured me all would become clear soon enough.

Lines of cars waiting to get into the city. Mel, a four year Burner and a truck driver in the "default world," unlocks peoples cars as a gift to the community.
The flight out to Reno featured a female passenger in rainbow dreadlocks and six-inch platform boots, and a man wearing a top hat with a red rose tucked into its band. They nodded at each other knowingly. As Sam and I drove our rental car north on two-lane Nevada highways, we passed an increasing flow of buses and RVs with psychedelic paint jobs and strange objects lashed to their roofs—40-foot-long bamboo poles, giant stuffed animals, bicycle frames covered entirely in thick, purple fur.

At the gates, after we'd rumbled down a long dirt road in a caravan of Burners, a shirtless man in a tutu commanded us to hop out of our car. He told us his name was Sweet Cheeks, and he had us ring a gong and then threw some desert dust on our clothes. "You're going to love it here," he said. "Where else can a straight man wear a tutu and look right at home?" As we got back in the car he yelled after us: "Remember, no means no. And yes means yes. And if you're at all on the fence about it, you should probably say yes."

The plan was for us to meet up with a large camp of people who'd be providing us shelter and food for the week. But as we pulled into the encampment—really a makeshift city—we couldn't find our group. And the sun was setting. We gave up, parked the car, and began to wander around.

And this is when my brain melted a little.

Nothing is too weird to wear at Burning Man.
Out in the open desert, beyond the tents and cars, we encountered the most bizarre, most visually stimulating environment I've ever seen. A giant metal octopus rolling across the sand, with actual hot flames spewing out of its tentacles. A pirate ship blasting eardrum-crushing hip-hop music, with a slew of bare-chested women writhing atop its decks. A frigging full-scale Thunderdome, complete with shrieking spectators rattling in its rafters, and a pair of gladiators in animal costumes attacking each other with Nerf bats. Lasers careened across the sky. Choking dust storms howled into our eyes and noses. Everyone was in aviator goggles, and knee-high leather boots, and fur vests.

At a road-blocked intersection labeled "Terminal City," people started shouting at us with bullhorns. A half-naked woman demanded my identity papers. I stammered. "We accept bribes," she said with a wink. I gathered I was now supposed to engage in some sort of improvised scene—I should kiss her on the cheek, or recite a poem, or show her my wang. But I wasn't yet ready to be anything more than an observer.

Sam and I wandered away. We had no lights or glowsticks on us, and when a bicyclist nearly hit Sam because she couldn't see him she angrily shouted, "Watch out, darky darktard!"

We still couldn't locate our camp, so we went back to the rental car and slept in the front seats. Techno music boomed outside all night. The dry desert air stabbed at my nasal passages each time I spasmed awake.

When dawn came, we unfolded our limbs and stumbled out into the quiet morning, still dazed. We'd only walked a short way when a bearded man in his 60s came out of his RV and strode right toward us. He was holding a tray of individually wrapped cinnamon buns, which he offered us with a smile as kind as any I've ever seen. He told us his name was Chuck. He asked if we'd been to Burning Man before—though I'm certain he could deduce from our shellshocked faces that we hadn't. We hungrily munched on our pastries as he recounted his first time here, more than a decade ago.

"It was a happening then," Chuck said, his eyes in a faraway place. "It was all new, and primal, and pagan. Now it's an event. It's a re-creation of what it once was. Everyone sits around and waits to say 'huzzah' when the man burns."

But you're still coming here, we pointed out.

"It's still the best place on earth," he said with a laugh. "This is the real world, out there is fake," he proclaimed, surveying our freakish desert city with pride.

We thanked him for breakfast and ambled away. A short while later, I finally spotted our camp. We were welcomed with hearty hugs. I felt tranquil. At home. Ready at last to play my own part in this madness.

Entry 2: The nicest, nakedest people on Earth.

This week marks the 26th celebration of Burning Man, an annual summer art festival dating from 1986 that seeks to create a temporary utopian community in the Nevada desert. Last year, Slate sent Seth Stevenson to partake in the running water-free revelry and to answer the question: Why would anyone want to go to Burning Man? He replied with this series of dispatches.

The truly interesting thing about Burning Man isn't the large-scale, neon, interactive art. Or the bowel-wobbling bass mixes from the techno DJs. Or the battle for survival against the blazing sun, the sudden dust storms, and the dehydrated desert air.

Don't get me wrong, all those things can be fascinating. Particularly if you're on mushrooms. But to me, the most intriguing aspect of the event is the group effort by Burners to create a new culture—one in which the rules of the societal board game have been slightly tweaked.

For instance, among the guiding principles of Burning Man is that participants must "leave no trace." This means, somewhat counterintuitively, that there are no garbage cans in any of the public spaces. You are expected to pack out of the desert any waste you create that hasn't come from inside your body.

Folks are serious about this. Cultural norms get enforced. People shout "MOOP!"—meaning "Matter Out Of Place"—whenever someone drops a glowstick or a set of fuzzy bunny ears on the ground.

This practice had profound effects on the way I viewed things like product packaging. Tearing open a granola bar for a snack while you're out wandering past 70-foot-long praying mantis sculptures means stuffing the empty wrapper in your backpack, bringing it back to your camp site, and eventually lugging it out with all your other trash inside your car trunk. Whenever anyone offered me beer I was of course grateful—but I also couldn't help but contemplate the fact that I'd need to crush the empty cans and tote them around in my pack all day. Even an apple core became an enemy.

There are several other deliberate cultural differences. Perhaps the most immediately apparent is the tolerance of nudity. Nudity comes in all shapes, sizes, and genders at Burning Man. Twenty-year-old women wearing nothing but sequined hot pants. Seventy-year-old men wearing nothing but pith helmets. People of every sort wearing nothing but knee-high, rainbow-fur boots.

At times the nudity can feel political. The "Critical Tits" bike ride featured hundreds of topless women, on bicycles, making a vague statement about torso equality. To my amazement, gazing at that many breasts at once actually managed to de-eroticize them. (For a few hours, anyway. And please let's not talk about all the dudes eagerly snapping photos or—it was rumored—engineering a bumpy stretch of sand to enhance jiggle-osity.) Most of the women in my camp remained fully clothed all week, but a couple of gals whipped 'em out on Critical Tits day in what seemed to be an act of sisterly solidarity.

The counterpart male bike ride, "Critical Dicks," was a tidal wave of schlong. And no one cared. Save perhaps for people who might wish to sit on those bicycle seats (many of them presumably rentals) in the future.

There was, however, one form of nudity that everyone seemed to agree had no place within the Burning Man community. This is the type of nudity known as "shirtcocking." Shirtcocking is when a man wears a top but is naked from the waist down. I have also heard this look referred to as "the toddler," or "Porky Pigging."

For reasons that are hard to fully explain—if you've witnessed the phenomenon you know this is true—shirtcocking is disquieting to the observer's soul. Visually disturbing to an extreme degree. People at Burning Man are so averse to shirtcocking that I saw several posted signs vehemently denouncing the practice. And yet there were shirtcockers.

Shirtcocking aside, the culture of Burning Man is generally free of judgment, and thus tends to encourage experimentation. People try on new personas. They take stupefying amounts of drugs. They make out with total strangers.

Sometimes the experimentation seems ill-advised. A campmate who went inside an orgy tent told me he saw two men near him engaged in what he termed "vigorous, unprotected sex. The kind that spreads bad diseases."

Other forms of experimentation seemed pretty harmless. "I got spanked today," a friend announced to us when he returned to camp one afternoon. "I figured I should see if I liked it. I mean, maybe I like to get peed on, too, but I've just never known that because I've never tried it."

"I doubt it," said one of the girls. "I think whatever you masturbate to, that's what you want. But whatever. Did the spanking do it for you?"

"Not really. It kind of hurt. It still kind of hurts."

For better or worse, I never strayed too far outside my comfort zone. One of my campmates urged me to give public nudity a try—on when-in-Rome grounds. He said he'd taken a leisurely, naked bike ride around the perimeter of the city and quite enjoyed himself.

I've never personally had the urge to just hang out with my wang out, and that hadn't changed since I'd gotten to Burning Man. But late one night I biked deep into the desert, turned off my headlamp, and removed some clothes. It may have been solely for the benefit of the Federal Bureau of Land Management rangers who surveil the desert with night-vision goggles. But let it be said: Reader, I shirtcocked. And I sort of liked it.

My favorite of Burning Man's 10 guiding principles (you can read the complete list here) is the directive commanding "radical inclusion." In practice, this means that everyone is welcome to take part in every formal event and even every informal shindig. No one gets made fun of—at least not publicly—for the way they look or what they wear or their preferences with regard to sexual congress.

It's pretty delightful when you see this actually work. For instance, gays and straights partied together all the time. (Absent the directive, I suspect that it's more likely the gays who would have shunned the straights than vice versa—the gays were way cooler.) When I went with some pals to the Madonna dance party at the suggestively named Pickle Bar, I never once felt the least out of place. This despite the fact that I was wearing a shirt, my pecs were not tanned and oiled, and I had on a pair of shorts with an inseam that extended past my testicles.

The overall warmth of the interactions at Burning Man is off the charts, fostered by an event-wide agreement that everyone endeavor to be kind and accepting. When one amateur musician's electric backing tracks crashed, and he was left nervously hemming and hawing on stage, a woman in the audience shouted, "We love you!" and ran up to give him a big hug. She was adorably dressed in a pink wig, pink windbreaker, and pink skirt, and as she started swaying around the stage the musician created an impromptu song to accompany her. The crowd clapped along, and laughed and cheered. This turned out to be my favorite live performance of the week. It wasn't because of the music or the dancing. It was because of the lovely moment of humanity we were all a part of.

Entry 3: You can meet God—and his name is Larry.

This week marks the 26th celebration of Burning Man, an annual summer art festival dating from 1986 that seeks to create a temporary utopian community in the Nevada desert. Last year, Slate sent Seth Stevenson to partake in the running water-free revelry and to answer the question: Why would anyone want to go to Burning Man? He replied with this series of dispatches.

I have been to a variety of press conferences in my years as a journalist. There was the somber one at the 2010 Winter Olympics, held right after an athlete died on the luge course. Or the one I accidentally stumbled upon in Dubai, where I learned all about the fresh water situation in the Middle East (BREAKING: There is very little fresh water in the Middle East). Until now, though, I had never attended a press conference at which the reporters wore bikinis and bustiers.

Such is the nature of Burning Man. Even the press corps, with its mandate to observe, is encouraged to get in the spirit and participate. A few journalists used the pronoun "we" when referring to Burners in their queries. And I was a bit startled when a friend and colleague from the East Coast media elite—a guy I've only ever seen wearing jeans, business casual, or suits—suddenly appeared behind me in the media gaggle, adjusting his floral-print dress as he stood to ask a question.

With its temporary population of 50,000, Burning Man ranks among Nevada's largest cities (if only for the week). Like any city, it has its amenities and its community focal points. There are press conferences, held by the volunteer media relations department. There are multiple newspapers released during the week by Burner press collectives. There's a tiny, 18-seat silent movie theater at the far reaches of the desert, where—because there is almost no exchange of money at Burning Man—admission and even candy concessions are free. There's a temple, where people mourn loved ones they've lost during the past year. There are also various academic institutions that pop up around the city. Some of these present talks on philosophy and politics. Others list courses like "How to Give a Perfect Handjob."

(Somewhat relatedly, overheard at Burning Man: A middle-aged woman introduced herself to a man on the street, brightly saying, "My name's Mountain Mama!" Her new acquaintance, a muscular guy in nothing but a g-string, said, "Nice to meet you, my name's Handjob!" I can only hope he was the presiding lecturer at the above-mentioned educational offering.)

There's security at Burning Man, too. With scalped tickets going for $500 or more, there are teams of people whose job is to prevent freeloaders from sneaking in. One security guy said he'd confiscated the best counterfeit ticket he'd ever seen this year. He explained that it was flagged by a deaf woman who works in the ticket office—when she held the ticket in her hands she noticed, presumably employing her heightened senses, that something was slightly off about the paper stock.

As for real cops, they're on site but largely out of mind. I chatted with a couple of Bureau of Land Management rangers sitting in their SUVs on the outskirts of the madness. They said this assignment was a good gig and that they'd returned after working Burning Man in previous years. If you smoke a joint right in front of them they'll arrest you. But they told me they don't go looking for drug offenses.

They do, on the other hand, go looking for boobs. I noticed they showed up for the Critical Tits topless bike ride exactly on time and close to the action. Watch your back, potential topless malfeasants! Because the rangers will be watching your front.

The Burning Man medical center featured the strangest hospital lobby I've ever seen. There were at least two topless women filling out induction forms on clipboards, and a fully nude man in a cowboy hat was accosting an EMT. I noticed one patient chart with the words "staples in arm" hastily scrawled on it. A very sweet RN named Wendy described for me a few of the incidents they'd dealt with during the week. Lots of sprained ankles and "broken tib/fibs," as, for instance, 35-year-old women on ecstasy decide to scale the Thunderdome to watch the sunrise—and then inevitably crash to the hard desert floor. There was at least one cock ring accident (apologies, but I'm not totally clear on the mechanics of it) that swelled a man's testicles to the size of a bowling ball, necessitating transport to a nearby real hospital for draining.

Worst by far was when a man—clearly high on some sort of psychedelic—barged into the medical tent shouting, "I'm so stuuuupid! I'm so stuuuupid!" He'd hacked his thumb nearly all the way off with a machete. It was dangling by a ligament. Bummer of a trip, man.

Meanwhile, high above this busy civilization sits its creator. I refer, of course, to Larry Harvey. The first Burner. The O.B.

I interviewed Harvey on the high-up platform in the center of the camp where he spends the week. His perch looked out over the whole, impromptu city, to the open desert and the mountains beyond. Born in 1948, Harvey wore a Western shirt and his signature Stetson hat as we spoke. He ashed his cigarettes into an empty Altoids tin.

Harvey is a thoughtful guy who loves to talk about things like the radial, "enfilade" design of the 9-square-mile city (which presents dramatic views of the massive wooden man at its center from every angle). He held forth on the role of the wooden man himself—how any community, religion, or nation needs some sort of rallying point, and how the man serves that purpose while allowing adherents to imbue him with all manner of meaning and resonance. "I don't think we'd inspire the same sort of feelings if we were burning a giant toaster, like a postmodern joke," he says, responding to the notion that the man is an arbitrary stack of kindling. "At the same time, if I were to declare what the man means, people would commodify that—try to make it into a capsule so you can pop it."

In 1996, there was a struggle for what Harvey calls "the soul of the event." Some saw the week in the desert as a platform for total chaos. "There was this anarcho-punk-renegade faction with a transgressive sensibility. They wanted to act recklessly and disruptively. Their idea was to set up warring fortresses and fight each other with flamethrowers." (He's not exaggerating. I talked to a few Burners who remembered the old days when people would toss live grenades around and fire machine guns from the back of pick-ups.) "The side in favor of civility and civilization won out. We were more interested in fomenting community."

Recently, the New York Times ran a story outlining the slightly opaque business structure of Burning Man. Harvey owns the festival in a partnership with a handful of other people, but he is now converting the operation into a nonprofit tasked with administering the event and sponsoring art projects. He will take a cash-out as part of the process and will sit on the board of the new foundation. Given that the event must be grossing something on the order of $15 million a year, Harvey could be a wealthy man if he wanted. But he says his payout will not make him rich and he will still have to work for a living.

More interesting to me than the potential for money is the realization of power. Sitting up there serenely above it all, hidden under his big hat and sunglasses, Harvey seems a bit like the Wizard of Oz. Or maybe even something more.

He created this entire civilization from nothing. He decreed its 10 principles (though he says they are not prescriptive but descriptive—an attempt to codify the norms Burners themselves created together over the years). He continues to shape this hermetic world and rule over it.

"No, I don't feel like a god," he chuckles when I ask him. "People imagine the power, but they never imagine the responsibility part. 'I will be powerful! I will attend endless meetings! I will be blamed for everything!'"

I suppose he's right. But when the man burns in a raging inferno at the end of the week, it's sort of easy to see Larry Harvey as the Father sacrificing his Son—watching the flames reflect in the eyes of his growing flock.

Entry 4: Where Else Can You Try a Snack Glory Hole?

This week marks the 26th celebration of Burning Man, an annual summer art festival dating from 1986 that seeks to create a temporary utopian community in the Nevada desert. Last year, Slate sent Seth Stevenson to partake in the running water-free revelry and to answer the question: Why would anyone want to go to Burning Man? He replied with this series of dispatches.

People who haven't been to Burning Man often assume the festival is full of dreadlocked drug abusers and hippy-dippy crystal worshipers. Yes, those folks are there, in droves. But consider: Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of Google, are big-time Burners (in fact the very first Google Doodle was of the man himself). Rosario Dawson is a regular (and who could not love and respect Rosario Dawson?). Even my own camp featured a few consultants from Bain and McKinsey, a wealth management guy from Goldman Sachs, a patent lawyer, a couple of librarians, and a mechanical engineer.

Why do all these sharp, high-powered, decidedly non-dippy people attend? They go because Burning Man offers oodles of joyful, goofy, thought-provoking fun.

There was, for instance, a snack glory hole. I am not going to explain what a traditional glory hole is. (You can look that up on the Internet—preferably when you are not stationed at a work computer.) As for a snack glory hole, it is a hole in a wall that you press your mouth up to. Some unseen being on the other side of the wall then shoves delicious mystery snacks down your gullet until you say uncle.

There was also a Billion Bunny March. This involved hundreds of people—sorry bunnies, journalistic ethics require me to provide a factual attendance estimate—dressed in bunny costumes, parading together around the city. OK, I hear you saying, cute, fine, whatever. But then people in carrot costumes show up to protest the march! With signs demanding bunny-carrot equality!

At one point I happened upon a wooden pier in the middle of the open desert. It was about 75 feet long, and 20 feet high at its furthest reach. Actual ocean-going yachts (they had been refitted with motorized wheels) pulled up to the pier and docked at it, sometimes three at a time. Passengers would disembark and party on the pier to the thumping sounds of a DJ. Then people hopped back on the yachts—often different yachts than they'd arrived on—and the boats pulled away and sailed off into the desert again.

When there were no yachts at the pier you could go fishing off its edges. A woman handed us a fishing rod with a small toy tied to the end of its line, urging us to dangle our lure and see what we might catch. After a few moments, a dude in a crab costume jumped out from beneath the pier and grabbed the toy in his mouth.

(For no clear reason I could discern, there was a nautical vibe all over the place. A boat shaped like a narwhal was roaming around, as were a flame-shooting octopus, a giant airborne shark balloon, and scores of illuminated jellyfish puppets. Among the smaller maritime craft was a motorized rowboat with "Gone Fistin'" painted on its transom. Even the musical acts joined in: One band played a song called "Shark Attack." When they got to the chorus, accomplices in shark costumes suddenly rushed the dance floor to maul the startled, delighted crowd.)

I went without a watch all week, didn't carry my phone, and never checked the Internet. I just floated around in a spacey, amused bubble, hopscotching from one surreal encounter to the next. One afternoon I went to the Period Bar, where a woman made me press my lips to a plastic vulva. She poured chunky red sangria through this vagina-funnel until my chin was dripping. Moments later, I hopped onto a car shaped like a peacock, with a 17-foot-wide hydraulic tail that could fan out or retract. The topless man and woman in the front seat were pretty clearly on their way to or from some kind of mutual sexual encounter. They dropped me off after a few blocks, inviting me to meet them later at a rave on the other side of the city. When people in my camp chatted about their itineraries each day, the conversation would go something like: "I'm headed to the slingshot tournament. How about you?" "Probably nude dodgeball."

Burners work and plan all year to create this single week of bizarre experiences for each other. They ask nothing in return. Buying and selling are basically forbidden. Even bartering is discouraged. The "gifting economy" relies on everybody contributing and nobody expecting any recompense. It's not a viable model in the real world, but at this event—for just one week—people have successfully eliminated economic competition and want.

I talked to one guy who'd set up a hot dog stand in the desert. He said he'd given away more than 1,000 dogs over the course of the event, working a few hours a day. He was thrilled to do it. Other folks had built a mobile 1950s-style diner, complete with u-shaped counter and round stools. They would drive around in the middle of the night, occasionally stopping to serve coffee and grilled cheese sandwiches to hungry wanderers they encountered.

People in my camp had the foresight to bring s'mores fixings—we roasted marshmallows over a fire in a barrel at a busy intersection, and then doled out s'mores to stoned and tripping Burners who happened by. When I handed a warm s'more to a ravenous woman and watched her devour it with glee, I'm almost certain the transaction gave me more pleasure than it gave her. (I believe there is a wise old aphorism that sums up the relative merits of giving and receiving, addressing which one is better.)

On the Saturday night at the end of the week, the man burns. This moment means different things to different people. The transit of the human spirit. The exultation of pagan ritual. The simple, ancient joy of fire. The culmination of a 150-hour party. Whatever its meaning, it is spectacular—a colossal, billowing inferno, with explosions and face-searing heat blasts, and people cheering and dancing and stripping all their clothes off. At this point, stuff gets crazy.

The partying after the man burns is laced with a wild-eyed, desperate passion. The touchstone of Burner society—and the city's central visual landmark—has been burned to the ground. Order is disintegrating. Other structures will begin disappearing soon, one by one. Time is fleeting. Our little universe is evaporating before our eyes.

That night I ended up on the second story of a bar, looking out over the city and the still-smoldering embers of the man. This bar was lined with velvet banquettes. A DJ spun records in an elevated booth. A packed crowd of beautiful, half-dressed people writhed—obscured by a shimmering dust storm howling through the windows.

A week ago, there had been nothing but empty desert here. Very soon, all this would vanish, leaving nothing but empty desert behind. For just this one night, we danced with the sort of abandon that can only be summoned when a world is ending.

Entry 5: It's an alternate universe without brands or money

This week marks the 26th celebration of Burning Man, an annual summer art festival dating from 1986 that seeks to create a temporary utopian community in the Nevada desert. Last year, Slate sent Seth Stevenson to partake in the running water-free revelry and to answer the question: Why would anyone want to go to Burning Man? He replied with this series of dispatches.

There was a wooden temple at Burning Man, 120 feet tall, with steep buttresses and sky-high cupolas. The Burning Man administration donated $85,000 toward its construction, and I was told the full cost was easily more than twice that amount. Mechanized gongs inside the temple were programmed in a sequence, making a sound like a gamelan. People often lay on the dusty temple floor and meditated. One afternoon, I watched everyone become transfixed by a nude woman standing on an upper balcony. She had her eyes closed, and her face and palms turned heavenward, as she swiveled her hips in rhythm with the ringing gongs.

Over the course of the week, people wrote tributes on the temple walls to departed loved ones. Sometimes just a name. Sometimes a story. Sometimes a regret. "Are you feeling agile?" an older man asked me one day as I walked through a temple archway. He wanted me to shimmy up a column and affix there the fraying shirt of his dead friend. I did, with a couple of pals helping to boost me up.

On the final night of the festival the temple is set on fire. It is a solemn affair, nothing like the burning of the man the night before. The crowd falls silent. You can hear the crackle of the flames as the building slowly collapses in on itself and turns to charcoal. Some people cry. Some get naked and lie on the hot ground near the embers.

The temple burn signals the end of the week, and I was forced to contemplate what this experience had meant to me. I'd come to this place on assignment, not quite sure what I was getting into. I half-expected not to like it. It turned out I sort of loved it.

That's not to say everything was perfect. There were a lot of irritating people. One grows weary of port-a-potties, dust-stiffened hair, and body odor. And the event's encouragement of "radical self-expression" leads to a lot of terrible art and music along with all the good stuff. (I watched a 25-minute, uninterrupted duet between a dreadlocked flautist and a man with a sound-effects machine. The machine emitted only horrific noises—like recordings of airplane crashes and whimpering children. I cannot for the life of me explain why I stayed for the whole performance. I think I couldn't believe it was actually happening.)

I was also saddened by the large number of people at Burning Man with fairly evident self-esteem problems. They seemed to feel that they could only be happy this one week a year—within the warm bath of a loving, non-judgmental society. I wished they could experience the same kind of contentment the other 51 weeks of the year, in what Burners call "the default world." I found I preferred to be around folks who had fulfilling lives back on planet Earth, and who had come to the desert simply to try on new personas, indulge in a bit of excess, and experience an alternate universe.

And as much as I enjoyed the "gifting economy," in which people work to feed, shelter, and amuse each other without requiring any compensation, I'm not sure how much relevance it has to real life.

For reasons I won't delineate here, the only water bottle that I own says "Goldman Sachs" on it in big letters. I got it for free. I brought it to Burning Man thinking I'd be a responsible, ecologically minded citizen by not using disposable plastic cups. One afternoon, I walked up to a tent where a guy was offering people his homemade fruit tea. I handed him my empty bottle to fill. He looked at it sidelong. "Goldman Sachs, Nalgene," he read aloud, turning the bottle in his hand. "You got a lotta brands, man," he said with dry disdain.

In one sense, this guy was a total dick. What did he know about my life? Or how I came to possess this Goldman Sachs water bottle? Or whether I also owned a Credit Suisse baseball hat, which I almost brought but ended up leaving behind in my hall closet at the last second?

In another sense, this guy had a (rudely expressed) point. Part of the fun of Burning Man is discovering how refreshing it can be to live in a de-commodified society. People make an effort to keep Burning Man free of mass-market advertising and logos, and to generate as much handcrafted culture as possible. Interactions have an immediacy and intimacy. We weren't all watching the same big-budget TV show extruded from a corporate entertainment complex. We were endeavoring to create wonderful, fleeting, artisanal moments for our community. In the real world, most of us are too busy competing over resources and maximizing output to devote this much selfless attention to each other. (On a related note: It turns out that professional entertainers are generally better at entertaining.)

Many people claim to have experienced revelations at Burning Man. One woman I met out on the desert said she'd realized that she needed to take more control over her life—to mold the default world more to her liking. Another guy I saw writing in a notebook said he was recording a thought he'd had the night before, while tripping on acid. The thought was that if he wanted things to happen in his life he had to actually, like, try at them.

Perhaps not earthshaking insights. But you can see how they could mean everything to these people at a specific moment in time. I kept waiting for my own revelation to arrive, and at the end of the week, after the man and the temple had been burned, it did.

Whenever strangers at Burning Man briefly chat and then part ways, they bid each other farewell by brightly saying, "Enjoy your burn!" It occurred to me—as I thought about the desert dust that was the only thing here before this week started, and will be the only thing here when we've left—life is really just a burn writ large. We emerge from nothingness. We join together to create beautiful, temporary relationships, full of kindness and joy and love. And then we disappear again. Dust to dust. I grant you it's not a Nobel-worthy revelation. But it's mine and it meant something to me at the time.

Sam the photographer and I got into our rental car early Monday morning, after the temple burned, and sped down the highway toward Reno. We passed an outlet mall plastered with logos. (You got a lotta brands, man.) At the airport, it took a moment to adjust to the fact that everyone was fully clothed. The rental car agent demanded a $300 cleaning fee because our car was coated in dust.

Sam and I were boarding different flights. We were mentally and physically wasted. We'd just shared a semi-mind-blowing experience, full of unique sights and sounds and emotional vibes. We hugged goodbye, and told each other what a great week it had been.

Sam's a young guy. He would soon be headed to South Africa, with a one-way ticket, to follow a girl. I wasn't certain when, or if, I'd see him again. "Enjoy your burn," I said to him, before we slung our packs over our shoulders and parted ways.

"Tresor never sleeps"

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