There are still many misconceptions of what Burning Man actually is. It’s not quite a music festival (although there is live music), it’s not a giant party (although more than 50,000 people do their fair share of celebrating), and it’s definitely not just for the young. The week-long temporary city in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada is a celebration of life, self-reliance, and acting the way you’ve always wanted to, but can’t (because you have a real job and stuff).
One of the guiding principles of Burning Man, which was started around a small bonfire by Larry Harvey in 1986, is zero commodification. That means that you can’t buy or sell anything. It’s not even a barter system; you must bring whatever you need to survive in the desert heat. But a system of "gifting" pervades what they call the "playa" with many attendees bringing objects or services they give freely to anyone who’s interested, asking nothing in exchange.
"Pastie" Dan, 62, found his own way to have fun and is quite happy with it. As his nickname implies, the gift he freely offers are pasties to women. Pasties (to you non-burlesque fans) are stickers that cover the nipples, and Dan not only gives them away, but applies them too. Sound a bit creepy?
“Hey, this is Burning Man,” he says. “Creepy is an art form.”
Back in the real world, Dan’s magnanimous offers may get him slapped (or worse), but out here he’s just another soul doing what he loves.
Dan and Diane Pfiefer, 61 and 53, respectively, have been coming out to the Nevada desert for almost a decade, and have no plans on ever stopping. What’s the biggest draw for the Utah couple?
“You can be who you are here,” says Dan. “I brought my son out here a few years ago and he had a blast. He’s gay, and living in Utah he never felt like he could really be himself. It’s different out here.”
“No one judges you out here," adds Diane. "Everyone just enjoys each other’s company.”
But for "virgin burners," getting into the spirit may be a bit more challenging at first. Tom Smith is a 58-year-old first-timer, who came to help out his buddy design a windmill-like art piece that utilizes his extensive knowledge of airplanes and aerodynamics.
Wearing a Cat in the Hat-like top hat, Tom says that he was never part of the ‘60s counterculture, and felt like he was having a difficult time fitting in here as well.
“I’ve always been a bit of a loner,” he says.
Was he disappointed by the event?
“Oh no,” he says, smiling into the boiling desert sky in the shadow of his art installation.
“I’ve only been here a few days. I think I’ll enjoy it more as the week goes on.”
His spirit of optimism pervades the dusty campgrounds, and brings to mind the old Rolling Stones song you hear quoted often around these parts: “You can't always get what you want. But you just might find you get what you need.”