Monday, September 6, 2010

Burning Man, meet John Galt

To say that Burning Man was an incredible and spectacular experience is a complete understatement.  For those of you who have no idea what Burning Man is, it basically is a a week-long spontaneous community that forms in the middle of a desert in Nevada on the principles of radical self-reliance, whose sole purpose is to enable like-minded individuals to come and express oneself through many forms of art.  No currency is used and bartering with material goods is forbidden. 

During the day this community of 50,000 entertains itself by embracing it's inner child and biking around the desert exploring, climbing, playing, and so on.  People holler at you as you bike by and ask you to stop, share stories, and partake in their free crafts or drink at their bars.  My favorite part of the day was climbing on the myriad of enormous wood and metal art projects that jetted out of the Playa (desert).  Everyone comes prepared not only to keep themselves alive in the raging 100+ degree weather, but often bring little treasures to "gift" to friends they meet during the week.

At night, the Playa comes alive with people in outfits that can be seen from a mile away.  Glow sticks and LED lights are as common and necessary at Burning Man as jeans are in the United States.  You can spend your time wandering the desert looking at the different art installations that breathe fire or you can dance the night away at one of the many Playa night clubs that have platforms leading to netting, leading to poles and chains where people can climb and dangle from.  You can even play tether ball, simple - only that the ball is on fire (I actually singed some of my hair that night).  It really is a shock to me more people haven't died at Burning Man.

At first I wasn't sure if reading Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged before embarking on my journey to Black Rock City was a good or a bad idea.  The Utopian Valley in Atlas Shrugged is a great deal similar to the community that forms at Burning Man, because they are both locations where societies based on extreme self-reliance form.  The biggest difference: the verb "to give" is forbidden in the Valley in Atlas Shrugged.  One must pay or earn for anything he or she wants.  

During the week, I really wanted a shower, I would have paid good money for one - but the idea of ideally wandering by a place with a little shower station and having someone allow me to use it was worse than the grim and sweat I collected on my body.  Since I didn't pack little gifts to bestow on those who helped me out, I didn't want to feel like a moocher who was just taking and taking.

The interesting thing is that Burners really are there to make others happy and give back.  Everyone truly enjoys each other's company and believe in the community so much they want to make a difference however possible.  Some have presents, others have jokes or epic stories or songs.  The only real problem is the people who were like me - pure spectators who don't want to understand.  I slowly learned that if you are going to make the leap to spend a week roughing it and eating Indian food out of a plastic bag, go all out.  Embrace the world you have voluntarily joined and make it whatever it is you want it to be.  Even before I arrived and during my first few days, I told everyone I was scared of what to expect.  I should have taken a hint from Atlas Shrugged: "If you don't know, the thing to do is not to get scared, but to learn."  

John Galt's pledge in Atlas Shrugged was as follows: "I swear by my life and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine."  The more I think about it, the more I realize that that is exactly what ever Burner there is doing.  They are enriching their lives by making themselves happy with the hope, not expectation, that everyone else will do the same, resulting in a damn good time for all who attend. 

This quote really relates to how I feel after gaining a much greater understanding of the "morality" of Black Rock City: "The purpose of morality is to teach you, not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live."  

How in the world was it possible that I walked away from Burning Man feeling closer to Ayn Rand's philosophy than ever?  Who is John Galt?  Well, my friends, anything is possible at Burning Man and I guess you will just have to wait and see for yourself!   

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