Burning Man: Welcome Home


by Philippe Gosselin



Photo by Eric Schwabel



“Welcome home.” These are the first words you hear as a virgin burner stepping onto the playa for the first time, at the gates to Burning Man. And this is the feeling you get when you arrive at Burning Man for the first time (or the 10th). It is the experience of stepping into another reality, another dimension, another planet, both primal and futuristic. Even though it’s completely different from anything you’ve ever experienced before, and beyond your wildest imagination of what reality can be, it feels strangely familiar, like coming back to a place long forgotten–not just a physical place, but also a place within yourself. Virgins ring a bell and then take a ritualistic roll in the dust that will soon be covering everyone and everything in sight–thus anointed, they officially become part of the tribe and enter the magical realm that is Burning Man.


My Burning Man journey began 5 years ago, shortly after I moved to San Francisco. I was 25, opening myself to new experiences, yet still very much in my shell. One day I met a veteran burner who, sensing my curiosity, invited me to camp with them that year in Uncharted Territories, which was part of a larger village of gay camps called Avalon. Little did I know the deep impact it would ultimately have on me and my growth as a human being.


So I embarked on the pilgrimage, as burners have each year since the festival was born on a beach in San Francisco in 1986. Four years later the event was moved to the Black Rock Desert in Nevada–the vast expanse of barren beauty where Black Rock City rises out of the dust for one week out of the year, growing into one of the largest temporary cities in the world, with a population of over 50,000, and then vanishes back into nothing.


We drove all night and arrived as dawn was breaking over the playa. We began setting up our tents and our camp’s communal structures–a large dome, a 4 story tower adorned with flags, a kitchen, and a living room with sofas and lounge chairs under a shade structure. Our home for the next week, built from scratch, in the middle of the desert.


As we were setting up, one of our new neighbors drove by–riding a majestic motorized horse that stood 10 feet tall. Since normal cars are banned on the playa except when arriving and departing, burners come up with a crazy array of vehicles of all shapes and sizes called “art cars.” Most are truly surreal, ranging from flame-shooting dragons, to full sized pirate ships, and many others that defy description. Our neighbor greeted us warmly and offered rides on her steed. Before I knew it, I was in the saddle, riding around this beautiful city emerging in the desert. I felt a wave of spontaneous joy and burst into song, feeling that this must be a dream, yet knowing that I had arrived someplace truly special.


Back at camp, some members of the set up crew were already naked. I learned quickly that burners embrace all forms of self expression, and for many that includes the liberation of nakedness. Shy as I had thought myself before I arrived, it didn’t take long before I joined them. As the sun began to set over the mountain range in the distance, it was customary to pull up a chair, pour a cocktail and watch as our sexy campmates showered in the last rays of the sun. What could be better? Burning Man is such a radical departure from the normal world that many people choose to assume a different identity, to take on a new name, or to experiment with different aspects of their personality and sexuality while here. Wearing costumes, or next to nothing, gives everyone the chance to explore these different personas, making them part of the living artwork of the playa, and making the experience of meeting new people even more of an adventure. It was at Burning Man that I truly learned to be naked–to be comfortable in my body, unabashed in my sexuality, but also to let my spirit be naked, instead of masked behind so many layers of inhibition, shyness, and cultural stigmas. The freedom to dress in costume or go completely naked gives us permission to show our true beautiful selves that we so seldom really express in the outside world.


One of the most striking differences from ordinary reality is that there is no commerce on the playa. Everything is free, given as a gift. There are no cover charges for the fiery discotheques, or belly dancing performances, to enter the rollerskating rink, or participate in art workshops and naked yoga classes, or to take part in healing and bodywork. You can even walk up to your neighborhood bar with a mug and drink for free. (Of course this can lead to trouble, as I once discovered an absinthe bar and sampled a few too many of their 51 flavors!) Different camps choose to offer their own unique gifts to the playa community. It’s amazing what a difference this makes to the experience, and how liberated our interactions become when money is removed from the equation. It reminds us of the joy of giving, sharing, and receiving, and that we’re all connected as part of a tribe. Rather than money, it is a community based on love and respect. Stranded in the desert, covered in dust, we’re all the same color and we’re all in it together.


At night, most of us venture out into the wide open expanse at the center of the city, where the giant sculpture of the man towers, lit in neon. The playa transforms into a wonderland of lights, fire-dancers, thumping music, and art cars buzzing to and fro. You don’t need to have a destination in mind. The beauty of the playa is that if you simply let go and go for the ride, it will take you on its own adventure. You can go explore the many stunning larger than life sculptures and art installations scattered all around, hitch a ride on a giant spider, and visit a hopping dance club with lasers shooting far into the sky. When you’re ready to wind down, many head over to Comfort and Joy, a hub of the gay scene on the playa. Their high top tent provides a cozy, sex-positive space inspired by the movie Shortbus for gay and curious burners looking to hook up with a special someone, or just to cuddle up with a new friend. If you find yourself awake at daybreak the next morning, you can join the rest of the playa in cheering as djembe drummers greet the rising sun. There are so many places to explore, it would be impossible to see everything in one week. It is truly a 24 hour living breathing city.


My second night on the playa, I set out with a camp mate to go adventuring. That night there was to be a full lunar eclipse and the burners turned out in full force to mark the celestial event. As the eclipse was beginning, we looked in the distance to see a large structure going up in flames. What could it be? It was the Man beginning to burn, five days ahead of schedule! Was this supposed to be happening? It didn’t matter–the Man was burning! The playa went crazy. The energy of the lunar eclipse combined with the pulse of thousands of burners reveling in the Divine Chaos of the moment. It was the feeling of raw spirit and love pounding through my veins, like I had never felt before. Feeling fucking alive! Connected to all the beautiful people all around. Connected to the elements of earth and fire–fire that destroys and creates. Raw, visceral, pagan, tribal. That is the moment I truly got it. Burning Man connects us with the primal in ourselves–the part that is already wild and free, and is waiting to be uncaged and expressed. It is a spiritual experience, of being part of a tribe, and a ritual that is awe-inspiring. Yes, this is why we’re alive!


[The early burning of the Man had not been planned. A burner had taken it upon himself to set the Man aflame during the eclipse as a way to inject spontaneity into the event, which to him had become too predictable. Many felt that his action was in the spirit of Burning Man itself while others believed he had acted irresponsibly. Thankfully no one was hurt. In any case, a new Man was built and erected in time to be burnt on the Saturday night of the event, this time bearing the mark of a Phoenix.]


Not every moment at Burning Man is one of joyful exuberance. Like any trip into foreign place–and Burning Man is like visiting a different planet!–there can be symptoms of culture shock. It’s possible to feel lost and overwhelmed amidst the chaos and frenetic energy and all the dust. It is a roller coaster ride, with lows along with the highs. But in my experience, the lows are there to help you break through to something even better on the other side.


In one of my later trips to Burning Man, towards the end of the week, I was feeling alone and disconnected. I decided to put on my angel wings and go explore on my own. I wandered into a neighboring camp, and saw a beautiful dark-skinned man sitting there wearing just a sarong, and I was smitten. Our eyes met and he asked if I wanted to go dance. He held my hand as we ventured out onto the playa together. It wasn’t long before we found ourselves in an open living room art piece we happened upon in the middle of the playa, embracing and kissing each other, amidst a dust storm (the best time for a romantic tryst). We shared an enchanted love affair, and stayed by each other’s side for the rest of our time on the playa. Our serendipitous meeting gave my heart the connection it had been longing for.


Somehow at Burning Man the Law of Attraction operates in hyperdrive, and synchronicities abound, guiding you towards whatever your heart desires. It always brings you what you need, even if you’re not quite sure what that is at the moment. I believe this is because being there leaves you so much more open to connections and possibilities you might otherwise miss. When a spontaneous love affair presents itself, you can say “Yes!” and skip straight to “I love you.” It is about letting go, and letting the magical synchronicities of the Universe take over.


It’s no wonder that so many make the pilgrimage to Burning Man. There is a particular brand of magic that erupts upon the playa each year that is hard to match anywhere else. To the creators and inhabitants of the city, it truly is a pilgrimage–a spiritual quest to discover themselves, become part of a tribe, and participate in a sacred ritual that shows a radically different vision of what humanity can be. It is an opportunity to play, experience, express, create, and connect. To live in a community based on supporting, accepting and loving one another fully. The playa is the perfect canvas for awakening these innate desires in all of us. Burners are passionate about the community, and the event, because of the profound impact it has had on their own lives.


This year’s event sold out in record time. Unfortunately this has created a lot of hard feelings within the Burning Man community. The fact that not everyone who wants to can attend creates a sense of exclusion, which is antithetical to the idea of Burning Man itself. The event has outgrown its capacity to keep up in its current form. But perhaps it is time for the spirit of Burning Man to spill out of the confines of the playa–for it to evolve, spread and take root in other parts of the world, to be interpreted by those in different cultures. People’s souls are hungry for journeys like this. The world is ripe for new paradigms to blossom–that feed people’s innate desire for wild creativity, spontaneity, co-creating art, radical self expression, connection to one another and the earth.


Burning Man has already had a profound impact on the world, by showing people that a different reality is possible. Indeed, the true gift of the experience is in planting the seed that the world is ours to create, and we can make it a magical one, if we so choose. All it takes is enough of us coming together with the right intention–of sharing our beauty and creativity, connecting with our tribal roots, and opening ourselves to wonder and to the divine flow of serendipity. Of course, it is hard to open up other people’s eyes, to show them that there is another way. That humans are capable of so much more than we’ve allowed ourselves to be. That it feels good to be wild and dirty and free. That at our deepest level we have a heart that is pounding with love and a thirst for life. As for burners… they just get it.


Philippe Gosselin is a Filmmaker, Actor and Bodyworker living in San Francisco.


Originally published in MÄNNER Magazine, September 2012


© Philippe Gosselin