In 1986, upon the evening of the summer solstice, Larry Harvey, Jerry James and a handful of other Haight-Ashbury beatniks gathered on Baker Beach in San Francisco, California and set a nine foot wooden man and his little wooden dog on fire.
The dog has since been taken out of the equation, but the wooden man — now standing 105 feet tall — is erected year after year in a place called Black Rock Desert, Nevada. Home to no one until the last week of August when 70,000 of the world’s most eccentric festival goers all gather together to brave the elements and the drugs in the name of radical inclusion disguised as radical self-expression.
All one has to do is look at the current festival scene to know that individuality isn’t exactly number one on the radar when tens of thousands of people get together to dance into the night. The concept of dressing or acting uniquely for music festivals is so driven in that it has now become mainstream. Everyone and their wooden dogs is doting an early 90s fanny pack with mismatched socks and dancing alone on the grassy knolls of the Washington Gorge.
Festivals — the ancient tradition of building and celebrating community and the seasons through expressing oneself in outrageous and un-identifying costumes — have become an experience dedicated to radical conformity.
During the spring, thousands upon thousands of photographs of the giant Ferris wheel in Palm Desert grace Instagram and Facebook. Eventually, one begins to look like another. I can only imagine the toll this conformity takes on the enjoyment of the event itself — a festival that disguises conformity as individual expression. Her flower crown is nicer than yours. His fanny pack is brighter. She’s dancing independently, better.
Such an experience, perhaps, leads one to wanting a more authentic festival adventure, which begs the question, is Coachella the gateway drug to Burning Man? Or is the continued success of Burning Man the result of radical self-expression becoming the norm?
Looking at the sheer number of yearly burners, the concept of a primarily money and judgment free environment is only becoming something of greater value. Is this because we are slowly recognizing our descent into material America or because this is one more thing that might contribute to our FOMO?
“I came back with mud-lung,” a friend of mine told me of her experience in 2009. “I literally coughed up mud for a month.”
While not contributing to the glamour of the fashion-blog industry might be one of Burning Man’s strong-suits, it doesn’t exactly make me want to jump in a jeep and ride off into the sand dunes.
Alternatively, it might gain its praise from the woo-wooey application of metaphysics that draws in those spiritual but not religious faith-junkies:
“It’s such an altered existence,” one burner blogger wrote me, “you can be sober as a nun and still feel high as a kite on the waves of the universe.”
Perhaps Burning Man is still picking up steam because it provides a secure community as well as a sort-of pilgrimage — preaching radical self-reliance along with radical inclusion.
I have met three burners over the course of the last couple weeks that are all in their final stages of packing and planning for this desert utopia. All three are people of different lifestyles, fundamentals and fashion senses. One thing remains the same, however. These are people who, despite all working in trendy industries, don’t subscribe to the belief that being trendy and conforming need to be the same thing.
Whereas I fall victim to the yearly Coachella-envy every April, I feel a sense of admiration — not jealousy — for those burners leaving town this week. I’m not quite ready to experience mud-lung, or bug nets, or not being able to exchange a dollar for a Dasani, but the comforts of material North America are definitely calling me more faintly than years before.
The question I want to ask all those who return, however, is: if a person uniquely expresses him/herself in the desert and no one’s around to judge it, did it really happen?
— Andria Parker is an Instagram-obsessed idealist with at least 600 words to share on every topic, ever.