I was a 70-year-old virgin when I made my first pilgrimage to Burning Man.
Hardly an anatomical virgin, of course, but virgin is what veteran “burners” call any stiff who has never dared cross the line from the “default world”—our everyday colorless existence—to enjoy radical self-expression at the greatest party on earth. Hey, it’s never too late to have another adventure!
But I had no idea how to prepare. It was a tribe of millennials who coaxed me to go. Boom Spiral, they call themselves. Fifty or so congenital entrepreneurs, with female twins as their matriarchs, these young leaders take their tribal ethos from Burning Man. For them, experiences are the new luxury, more precious than money or success. Miki and Rada Agrawal, the twin sister matriarchs, insisted that Burning Man was one passage I could not miss.
I took the dare.
They introduced me to Dr. Deb, a free spirit in her sixties with a perfect body and white hair entwined with bright-colored yarn into dreadlocks. Dr. Deb offered to be my spirit guide for the duration of the
I asked Dr. Deb, “Where does one stay in the desert?”
“Best to bring your RV.”
“RV? I’ve never seen the inside of an RV. You’re talking to a New York City chick.”
That set off a flurry of emails instructing me how to prepare in the last three weeks before August 28.
Most people start planning six months ahead for this utopian experiment in temporary community living. I’d be sharing seven square miles of barren desert with 68,000 outliers, creatives, faux artists, freaks, oversexed post-adolescents, and highly successful lawyers, doctors, VIP tech visionaries like Elon Musk, the multi-billionaire founder of Tesla Motors, celebs like Leo diCaprio and Katy Perry, even a Tea Partier with a wild side, Grover Norquist, plus funsters from all over the world who take on playa names like Polyamorous Pete or Sparkle Tits. Each burner is expected to do his or her part of the work to erect a city the size of San Francisco, and then break it down and cart away every last cigarette butt and boa feather.
Why so fastidious? Black Rock City, as this temporal place is called, sits in a Mormon County. Talk about a utopian experiment in community.
I was invited to stay in camp DISORIENT, one of the oldest (2001) and most venerated camps. It’s an art, music and dance collective with front row placement on the playa. That’s what they call the desert stage where hundreds of fantastic art installations are constructed.
The color of Disorient is the mixture of orange and pink that appears at sunset or sunrise under special conditions. They named is PORNJ (pronounced porange). It’s recommended that campers of all sexes and ages dress in pornji, preferably fluorescent.
Dr. Deb suggested I shop at Trash and Burlesque in the East Village. I forced myself to buy the first micro skirt of my life, in leopard print. That led to buying the neon pink wig, so no one would recognize me, and an orange feather boa. The salesperson, I’d guess age 13, asked where I was going. I wanted to say I was buying early for my granddaughters on Halloween. Instead, I mumbled, “Burning Man.”
“Great! You get a 10 percent discount!”
I finished off my costume wardrobe with reflective pink sunglasses and flesh-colored tights to condense my thunder thighs (I’d learned that Beyoncé goes nowhere without them). That and a pair of boots I painted with flowers, and I was ready to go radical.
A ticket to Burning Man is among the scarcest on the planet, because they can’t be scalped. Anyone who sells their ticket for more than the price of $370 will have it revoked. My spirit guide scared up an RV for rent—with the luxury of 2 beds, 2 bikes, toilet and shower—for $3500. She even found me an RV mate to chip in.
When I met my RV mate at Reno airport, I knew her right away from her offbeat haircut and take-no-prisoners walk. Kat Haber was twenty years younger than I and a hardcore activist. Last year she walked a Great March for Climate Action from LA to DC for 246 days. (My longest walk had been the beachfront in Sag Harbor) Kat tricked out our 24-foot home with pink rugs, camp lamps, goggles, headlamps, a week’s worth of yogurt, bread, fruit and veggies, and 30 gallons of water.
We would need every drop, since our generator conked out on the third day. Bye bye toilet, shower, lights, running water. Burners have this mantra, “The Playa provides,” which struck me as purely mystical, since there is no water for sale, or Starbucks, or deli’s, or Uber, or internet, or super to call, or takeout, or ANY PLACE TO BUY ANYTHING, except coffee. It soon clicked—what they mean by the Burning Man principle “radical self-reliance.”
This was good training for when terrorists take down the Atlantic grid.
Coming from Homer, Alaska, halibut capitol of the world, Kat was bringing as her gift a 150-pound fish she caught the day before. Me? Coming from the Upper West side of Manhattan, bagel capitol of the world, I was bringing in 200 of Zabar’s best.
We left at daybreak for early entry on a Saturday, and ran into a dust storm so blinding, I thought we must have crossed into the Middle East. Covering 70 miles took five hours.
At the final entry gate, we tumbled out of the car into the warmest hugs imaginable.
That’s how everyone is greeted. Then a line is drawn in the sand. “Are you ready to step across, from the default world, into the fantastic, freakout, most imaginative world you’ll ever know?”
We step across. Next we’re told to roll in the sand, make dust angels, and then ring a gong and shout three times, “I’m not a virgin anymore!”
At Burning Man, you leave your wallet and your resume behind, along with your ego, relying strictly on your spontaneous nature. Unplugged from the grid of electronic devices and media that bombard our brains, you’re always available to give a hug or hand out a gift. Your usual tempo is dialed down right away. You can’t drive or bike anywhere over 5 mph. The first sign warns: LEAVE NO TRACE. Pack It In, Pack It Out. Keep Black Rock Desert Beautiful.
The first thing I notice at camp Disorient is that men wear skirts and the women next to nothing. Gifts flow from everyone. “Flair” would appear every morning at the door of our RV in her pink robe with a pot of French Presse coffee. In default world, she is Andrea Weil, on the board of a non-profit that raises money for public art in NYC. Everybody is like that here, always finding ways to do good in the world. But humbly, they never tell unless asked.
A meal ticket in camp Disorient, costs $800. The cook, Jason Baratta, donates the services of his company, Culinary Magic, and manages to provide two squares a day for 250 people (including guests) at $3 a head. Meals are robust, starting with 360 eggs and 30 pounds of bacon every morning. As you might imagine in this overwhelmingly progressive crowd, at least 30 percent call themselves vegetarians—before they get on the playa. “Once here,” Jason told me, “one hundred percent are carnivores.”
I am assigned the first night to kitchen duty. My job is to make the salad. That means calculating the proportions of oils and multiple flavored vinegars that I have brought in, to provide four gallons of salad dressing. I am helped with tossing by a seven-foot gentle giant by the name of Gerard. We will eat that damn dressing for days.
The first morning, Kat and I amuse ourselves by looking through the vast schedule of events.
—SEX ED at Burning Man:
—Orgasmator Experience: Gives intense physical pleasure in a setting that’s safe, comfortable, sensual and private. Women only.
—Genital Portrait Studio: Pose for a genital ID badge and leave a second one for our gallery to encourage fellow burners throughout the week.
—How to Give a Truly Great Spanking: covers consent, techniques, negotiation & demo
—Pope’s Massage: The Pope will wash your hair, massage your body and invigorate yourspirit; Special consensual services also available.
We venture out for our first bike ride, thinking it safe to start with a yoga class. We pass a camp where a group of stark naked men are dancing while they put up a gay theme sign. Ok, this is a different sort of summer camp. This is no Outward Bound. Then we find out there’s even a Naked Yoga class. (I was warned not to try it. “You’ll crack up when you see the guys’ nuts dangling in downward dog.”)
But soon enough, we find ourselves in the position of consoling post-adolescents when they run into even more unexpected encounters.
Misery of a Monk at the Orgy Dome
A handsome young yogi had hitched to Burning Man when Kat found him a ticket. He hadn’t been with a woman in a year since his divorce, he tells us on arrival. With his shaved head and his new spiritual name—Yeshua (Jesus in Hebrew), he is looking not for sex, but rather, as befits one named god-god, he says he’s looking for spiritual growth.
We wish him well. Twenty-four hours later, we found ourselves consoling a young seeker whose heart was broken.
As he told us…Yeshua was taking shelter from a severe sand storm in a yoga tent and was just coming out of deep meditation when the vision appeared: A goddess. A woman who radiated soul. Their eyes locked. They exchanged only a few words. She was from New York City. He was studying biomimicry.
“Then we sat, silently, sharing space and staring into each other’s eyes for a solid hour,” he told us, breathlessly. This was it, his missing spiritual piece.
He took her out to Deep Playa and laid her on the desert sand and pleasured her for hours. Maybe three hours. But he never took his pants down? “Dammit, it was a freakin’ sand storm! I was too dirty.” His goddess was having so many orgasms and making so much noise, people were stopping to watch. “Like we were an art exhibit.”
“Let’s go to the Orgy Dome,” she proposed casually. As if suggesting a movie.
Momentarily intimidated, Yeshua begged for an hour to get himself cleaned up. He was directed to Spanky’s Wine Bar to catch a shower. The shower was on a platform for all to see. He watched women being spanked by a mechanical board and the women looked up at him, longingly. He was distracted by watching other women being manually pleasured by what looked like a sandpaper machine—was there no human contact at Spanky’s? It wasn’t easy to tear himself away, but he couldn’t be late for his most important date.
Twenty minutes passed. I happened to bicycle by. Yeshua, this handsome god-god, looked crestfallen. He was being stood up outside the Orgy Dome! The utter humiliation! The total deflation!
I tried to persuade him that New York City goddesses can be a tough lot. But he still had hope—she had told him that a premonition led her into the yoga tent and she was sure fate meant for them to meet.
He waited some more. One couldn’t get in without a partner. Then— the vision reappeared—more exquisite than ever.
Inside, they had to wait. They were given a number, 278, like the meat counter. Ahead of them were thirty couples. They groaned, the wait would take forever. It took 30 minutes! This was a fast fuck operation. Inside, 20 beds were all taken by heterosexual couples. Just before Yeshua disrobed, his spiritual soul mate confessed. She was a sex worker. Really high class, she said, an escort. She made so much money, she could afford to retire after four months.
“Oh no,” he told me later, “at last I’m inside the Orgy Dome, I have this wild sexy goddess under me—and, my worst nightmare—I can’t get an erection!”
Outside, she threw him an air kiss and mounted her bike. He followed her. “I’m sorry, we can’t part like this,” he pleaded. “Can we have five minutes to tie up our conversation?”
She told him she had no interest in monogamy, definitely not in a spiritual relationship. She wanted to experience as many partners as possible. And right then, she wanted to dress for her next mystery man.
Shattered, he asked, “You’re going back?”
She held out the band on her wrist. She had an Orgy Dome pass. Unlimited.
How to Get Men to Strip Without a Whimper
After only a few days as newbies ourselves, Kat and I volunteered to take the 4 am to 8 am shift as greeters. It was an eye opener. Stationed at the final entry point, each of us in a different lane, dancing and clowning and waving to the slow parade of vehicles, I was given a few pointers by the vivacious greeter before me.
“These people have been driving for hours, and this is just one more stop. They’ll be exhausted and grumpy. Your job is to get them out of the car and fire them up.” He gave me a patter:
“Are you fuckin’ tired of driving?”
“Goddamn right! Twenty-four hours from Florida,” or “Twelve hours from Vancouver.”
“Then get out of the car and shake off the road!”
Wrap them in a hug, I was told, welcome them home, and tell them to take off whatever they’d like and roll in the sand.
I had good results. But with all the charm I could muster, it was nothing compared to the woman in Lane Six. A tall shapely blonde in white hooker boots with five-inch stacked heels and a figure-hugging faux fur jacket, she always had a lineup of a half dozen vehicles. We observed her technique. Men would scramble out of their vans and become putty in her hands.
“Down on your knees,” she would command.
Men dropped at her feet.
Dust storm notwithstanding, men could not rip off their clothes fast enough to show the blonde all they had.
“Now, roll in the sand,” she would demand. Compliant as sugar donuts on a skewer, the men rolled. All the other greeters would gather round and cheer the men as they rose and danced like satyrs. We asked the gorgeous dominatrix her score.
“Fifty for fifty.”
On the long bus ride back to camp, music played and dancing broke out.
We were initiated as burners by now. And from then on, I hardly remember sleeping. There were too many beautiful art projects to see and absurdist creations to play with—like the tittie totter—a seesaw with a breast for one seat and a pair of upside down legs for the other. Feeling lonely? Stop at the Hugs Deli. You give the salesperson two compliments and then choose from Warm and Fuzzy Hug or Long and Deeply Uncomfortable Hug, etc. Feeling blue? Find the phone booth labeled Call God. He answers!
Besides, the thump thump of techno dance music plays 24/7. The best one can do is nap. With earplugs.
What I Learned from My Dazzling 60-something Spirit Guide:
At night, Dr Deb invited me to ride with her and her husband, Big Brian, decked out in his D’Artagnan coat as the arrogant French swordsman. They took Disorientors out every night on their double decker art car to tour the playa. Big Brian is a neurosurgeon who in default world brings stroke victims back to life. A cool couple.
Dr. Deb also graduated from medical school. She told me she used to be a Type A, always working, or working out, and dreading getting older. Menopause? It would never happen to her. She was writing prescriptions left and right for her poor hot flashing patients, “but I didn’t know a thing about menopause. I was always a scaredy cat.”
In her first two years of coming to Burning Man, she didn’t dare get anywhere near the conflagrations. On Saturday night, a bacchanalia breaks out at the base of the gigantic wooden man when fire dancers light him up and he is extinguished, signifying the temporal nature of all things and the possibility of rebirth into—who knows? It scared the bejesus out of her. The more solemn burn happens on the final night, when the wooden temple erected anew each year is also set afire. It is a place of sorrow and reverence, where people leave messages and pictures of loved ones who have passed out of this life.
“I was drawn into the temple fire,” Dr. Deb told me. “I began dancing. I was happy, burning off fear. And then I had a full body orgasm!”
Her husband had to pull her out and roll her in sand to put out the fire in her hair. She came out of the fire a different person, stopped fighting aging, and accepted herself as graduating into a crone.
“That’s when I became a free woman,” she said. “I think it’s called a divine transformational event.”
What to do in a Desperate Dust Storm
A three-hour workshop in shiatsu massage sounded like a heavenly haven. With winds howling and a whiteout, the only way was to walk. The venue was way out in Land Grab territory, where those last to arrive and with no reserved parking spot took their chances. The mile and a half walk felt like ten. I found everybody lying on their mats, face masks on, looking dead asleep. The instructor had never showed up.
Trudging back, I noticed hundreds, no, thousands of young people lined up to get into a tent: Dr. Bronner’s Foam Dome. Women as well as men couldn’t wait to strip and huddle until they were sprayed with foam soap, then squeezed into another tent where they were hosed down, like dogs in a kennel.
Shivering, they circled back to search for their clothes. Then back out into the howling sand storm. Brownout again.
The Founder’s vision—Is it Really Art?
Nightlife on the playa defies explanation. No museum can equal the canvas of a desert with the soft backdrop of blue—blushing mountains. A whirl of bicycles wrapped in LED rope lights flash by from all directions. A slow-moving phantom ship rolls alongside a fire-belching bus. Watch out! There’s a NASA space capsule about to take off, with an other-worldly voice warning, “Wernher von Braun will be here any moment, drink the Kool Aid and come aboard now!”
The best art installations are made to be interactive, inviting people to play with them. We come upon a masterpiece by Michael Christian, a longtime Burning Man artist. A gigantic baby with legs spread, its body sprouts huge ventricles that invite one to shimmy up and hoist inside the creature to climb up six stories. I tried climbing. This was not child’s play.
The artist himself explained the piece is all made of steel, wrapped in bands of more steel soldered to the frame. The piece is so heavy, the artist broke a couple of cranes before he had to invent new techniques for lifting such weight. There is something magical about teams of people who erect these astonishing works, together, for the evanescent experience of tens of thousands of appreciative onlookers, then break them down and take them away. They can never be seen again, not in a museum, maybe in a photograph, but most can’t even be given away.
I had the opportunity later to talk with the founder of this creative culture, Larry Harvey. The inspiration for this event, which has become a global “movement” for cultural change on six continents, with 250 representatives helping to start indigenous versions in more than 50 countries, all began with a beach party in 1986 in San Francisco. The purpose—Harvey had been dumped by his girlfriend. He wanted to kill himself. “I was getting on, -thirty-four!” he recalled. He had been kicking around too long after the Sixties, driving taxis, riding as a bike messenger, volunteering as a subject for drug testing— anything to bring in enough money for personal drugs.
“It started out with a group of latte carpenters,” he told me. “Guys in the building trades, but many of them engaged in art for fun.” They came up with the idea of burning a wooden effigy of a man, to evoke a rebirth for the jilted hipster. Two years later, he fell in love with Marion Goodell, his polar opposite genealogically, as a descendent of settlers of Jamestown, New York. He was the visionary of Burning Man. Goodell was the hard-headed business brain. Maid Marion, as she is called, having never married and today “best friends” with Harvey, made certain that half of the six founders were women. Crimson Rose, a grey-haired single mom who reconnected on the Playa with her child of shame from the Sixties, selects grant recipients from among the creators of art projects. Hayley Dubois is today mayor of the new Burning Man LLC, Black Rock City. DuBois claims that Burning Man’s principles reflect the powerful leadership of women.
I asked Maid Marion if the people who spend months creating these fantastic pieces consider themselves real artists, with commercial intentions, or are they content to make art for art’s sake?
“The vast majority of people making art here are not considered artists,” she said. “But having this experience might open up their creative portal.” She herself had gone to art school but knew she was not destined to be an artist. “With all his talk about art, I thought Larry leaving out people like me, who are in it for self-expression.” Harvey credits her with inventing the principle of “radical self-expression.”
Last year, Burning Man got a bad rep in the press when the New York Times exposed the presence of an arrogant new crop of millionaire and billionaire tech moguls who isolated themselves in plug-and-play camps and flashed their money competitively like piles of poker chips.
“I stand to thwart any evidence of concierge culture,” he insisted, but he looks upon this new mini-phenom as a potential plus. “The frisky rich have always been attracted to trendsetters. And with the political center paralyzed, they look to the outliers. Artists have always depended upon patrons to fund their passions. Nobody likes to talk about it, but patronage is as old as Florence.”
His plan is to require any richies to propose a theme camp, meaning they will only be accepted if they create something wonderful for all burners to enjoy. He’s thinking along the lines of a community of craftspeople working and learning around the building of burning man, under the direction of a professional artisan. Skeptics say the billionaires will just put up the equivalent of a lemonade stand. My bet is on Larry Harvey and Maid Marion.
They have managed to keep the chaos of this crazily organic event under just enough control to keep growing bigger every year.
The Playa Provides
I lost my bike key in the crowd at a Ted x Talk. Have faith, I was told, “the Playa provides.” Who should appear but a former bike thief, in my own camp! Sunshine, a brainiac graduate of Amherst, product of an Irish father and a Caribbean mother, told me to put a sign on the bike:
FREE ME! SMASH MY LOCK!
It would awaken competitive alpha male juices. Sure enough, an hour later, a man named Peyton (as in Manning) appeared at my door with the broken bike chain draped as a trophy around his neck.
The real meaning of Burning Man is in the synchronicity of such encounters. One morning a middle-aged man wearing a Keith Richards for President tee knocks on our RV to introduce himself. “Johnny Be Bad.” I offer him a ripe peach. As the juice dribbles deliciously down his chin, I begin reciting “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock,” T.S. Eliot’s famous poem about aging and sexual frustration: “Do I dare to eat a peach…”
The stranger chimes in: “I grow old…I grow old….
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?”
Who would have thought that Johnny Be Bad was a high-powered entertainment lawyer at a music company, as Dr. Deb whispered to me. He’s a friend of Leo Villareal, the famous light sculptor who emblazoned the San Francisco Bay Bridge with a symphony of 25,000 LED lights that play endless patterns of rhythm and color. That afternoon, I was introduced to Villareal himself, a founder of camp Disorient. He told us how Johnny had played a CD of Eliot reading his poem as an old man, while Villareal was reprogramming the bridge lights. The poet’s stentorian voice inspired the artist to create a visualization of the words.
Villareal recalled how he fell in love with lights. It was at his first Burning Man experience, in the early 90s, when there were only a thousand or so participants and everyone was in tents. Leo was only 20-something, hovering between dependence as a homeboy and a becoming a man. First day, he walked way out into Deep Playa and by the time he turned around, it was growing dark. He couldn’t find his tent. Wandering for hours, he admitted, “I was scared, back to a little boy again.” He went to work erecting a pair of strobe lights on top of his tent. “It made a clear, strong light. I never felt lost again.”
Indeed, he has created some of the most dazzling light sculptures in the world. Multiverse, an abstract dance of thousands of lights, keeps visitors from feeling lost as they move through an underground walkway at Washington’s National Gallery of Art.
Love Is All You Need
In the end, it was the tribe of millennial social entrepreneurs who touched my heart. Miki Agrawal, the dynamic 36-year old matriarch of the Boom Spiral tribe, was the pioneer who first discovered Burning Man in 2011. There, she found her soul mate. Andrew Horn was the handsomest, hottest social entrepreneur imaginable. Only 25, he had already started two non-profits—one for disadvantaged kids and one for disabled adults. After four days of radically expressing themselves together, the two were “Burning Man married.”
Andrew wore a borrowed Brooks Bros. suit with a bare chest. Miki was swathed in sheer white chiffon around her half-naked body. The ceremony was performed by a Rev. Funk Pocket on an artistic replica of an ocean pier, complete with the sounds of waves.
The next year, the couple returned to Burning Man in an RV with six of their closest friends and dozens more who were eager to bear witness to their second, more serious, Burning Man marriage. That’s when Miki and her twin sister, Radha, had the epiphany: They would found a tribe of like-minded entrepreneurs. They support one another, invest in one another, cuddle puddle with one another, share experiences with one another, and take the place of parents and all the social and political institutions that have failed them. The last things they expect to do is have a child or two and maybe make a capstone marriage.
By 2015, their tribe numbered 50 core members and another 50 around the edges, spanning Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Los Angeles. They all got up in their best Burning Man costumes and gathered around Mki and Andrew to celebrate their fourth anniversary.
“It isn’t an official paper marriage,” Andrew told me, “but we feel committed for life.”