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TODAY

Saturday, June 23

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Detour

"You mean, Self-Indulgence-in-the-Desert Man?" said she, bred of Chicago, teethed on the corn of southern Iowa.

Said I, no, it's not like that, you see.

"...I mean I will go," she softened, "if it's something that's important to you."

No, see, said I. You're camping of course, and that's good, and it's an arts festival, and it's got the sort of carnivalesque thing going on. Radical self-expression. No spectators. Let me, hmm, show you these pictures, they look a little small on the website...

It smacked vaguely of "The King and I." She played the put-upon Anna, regal as Deborah Kerr's version, but flaring her patient nostrils like Jodie Foster's. I was the spry Yul Brynner pulling earnestly on her arm, trundling her down the gangplank, the better to display my elephants and coolies.

It worked: that Labor Day, we made the passage into western Nevada, to Black Rock City, a temporary home for 25,000 people. (For a week, it's the fourth or fifth largest city in Nevada. Then it ceases to exist.) And the following year, we went back again. Burning Man is something we do now, together. In 2003 we skipped it, but that's because we were busy getting married.

So another year has come around, and January is when Burning Man entrance passes go on sale. It's time to buy them if you're on a budget. 2004 will find us, Jodie and Yul, back in the Black Rock desert. Who else will make the trip this year, and why?

You have probably read by now about what Burning Man is. The news has been broken many times, from Wired magazine's cover story, written by sci-fi writer Bruce Sterling nearly 10 years ago, to page-three coverage, now routinized, in the Salt Lake Tribune and the Des Moines Register.

Yes, yes: The punks are serious, the ravers delirious, REI and Thunderdome equally at home. Collected also are the more wakeful of our country's nerd supply, our cleverer hippies, more cynical romantics, and every Eagle Scout that has ever gone bad. Fringe America, flowering away.

12052003_building.jpg

Fig1. Despite its transience, Burning Man inspires people to do great things.
Like build incredible structures.

Yet bonfires, hipsters, carnies, sculptors, theremins, giant chess, and a wall of Etch-a-Sketches affixed together notwithstanding, this surely cannot be the hip thing to do anymore. The secret is out, MTV has got their hooks in, and even talking about it will just make it worse. Have we not learned by now that AP wires and CNN stock footage are the grave markers of an authentic cultural movement? Whatever bloom Burning Man might have had is given the lie by the very fact that you're reading this now.

Right?

I don't think so. Come at this a different way. Back in the day, the cover of Wired declared Burning Man a "new American holiday," a phrase the editors may have front-loaded simply to add a ring of urgency to the story -- and sell magazines. But it's a phrase I think we can take seriously, now, a few years along in the social experiment that is Burning Man. If you do want to found a holiday, hipness is what you must lose first. The faster Burning Man sheds the aura of the hip, the fashionable -- that ring of urgency -- the sooner the festivities can start.

First of all, hipness (or pick your own synonym for this concept, O indie town) is really about exclusion. There exists an evanescent moment when just the right people know what the cool thing is, and none of the wrong people have figured it out yet. The handshake is traded. Hipness is that moment, and the pursuit of that moment.

Just for a while, there's a secret society within society -- the society of those who, say, breakdance, or watch kung fu movies, or do drag shows. But if the glare of public attention comes calling, these inward-pointed social webs tend to dissolve somehow. Reporters report, producers produce, viewers at home view; lash and backlash have their day. After that, it's usually a short trip to the cultural dustbin, by way of Walmart. ("To Wong Foo..." anyone?) Maybe there will be an encore performance after a generation and a half.

A holiday, by contrast, solidifies around a more stable sort of community. Holidays have few secrets. They are also not very cool. Think of the various singers whom you will hear performing Christmas songs this year -- who among them actually has any cred of any kind? Holidays don't have cred. Holidays are predictable -� they go away, but they promise to come back, and that makes them a sure thing. We all know we're a little bored by the sure thing. But that's the nature of it: instead of the fleeting magic of the hip, hidden behind a one-night-only velvet rope, a holiday is something to hang your hat on, something to look forward to and back upon.

Holidays are hard work. They sell themselves as idyllic on TV, but it's a bait and switch. We end up trying to make conversation with hopeless cousins, one hand up a dead bird's ass, one ear cocked for the brewing fight in the next room. Someone is close to tears. The generations and demographics get mixed, the boredom, the blunders, the misunderstandings pile up until you have to ask yourself, "What do I have in common with these people?"

The answer is, "This." You all keep doing it, this hash of pleasure and discomfort, and by repeating it, you know you're part of the clan, part of the people.

12052003_burningman.jpg

Fig2. Yeah, there's a flaming effigy, but really, it's about so much more.

There is no water supply at Burning Man, no garbage service of any kind whatsoever; much heat; it is cold at night. There's a fine white alkaline dust in every orifice, bite, and sip, and nothing is available for purchase. The place is well stocked with people who cannot understand each other: the young, the old, the loud, the meditative, the vivacious, and the creepy. But that's the paradox of a holiday -- transmuting suffering into pleasure, division into some semblance of unity.

The tender mercies of its sandstorms, hangovers, sunburn, loneliness, vastness, grumpiness, nakedness... like that one Thanksgiving where grandma laughed until her dentures fell into her champagne, it's something you start feeling nostalgic for even as it's happening. Somebody's tent starts to blow away in a maelstrom of choking white dust, and 10 people in four pairs of pants catch it and give it back. They do. Everyone has stuck themselves in this uncomfortable mess, all together, but one of the upsides is that it provides them with opportunities to be good to one another.

The words on everybody's lips are "next year." You spend a good third of your week talking about what you'll do next time, what you'll remember to bring. You'll be sure to meet up again with this or that friendly stranger, jump on that trampoline, mix that peculiar drink. It's an event aware of how temporary it is, and in that sense of temporariness -- which is a constant, low-level hum of loss -- people stumble on the same thought they always encounter at Christmas: how can we keep this feeling going?

Of course, you can't. The tent comes down, just as it will do on all of us a month from now. Then it's back to regular life. But you get to come back that way again, that is the sweet within the bitter within the sweet.

My wife says that visiting Burning Man for the first time was less like "The King and I" than "Brigadoon" -- that mythical Scottish town that only appears once in a blue moon. It's not about the barbarians of an exotic Siam getting discovered and domesticated -- that would be the story of the death of cool. It's a different kind of cool that can vanish into nothing, and then come back again, over and over.

Stop in anytime.

 

About the Author(s)

Brandon Harvey lives in Chicago and blogs at sandover.blogspot.com.

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