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American Neon #2: Burning Man

For 7 days each year, if Burning Man isn't the 51st State of the USA, it's a least 'an outlying territory' Shane O'Reilly immerses himself...

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by Shane O'Reilly, Editor, Dublin for outsideleft.com
originally published: February, 2007
[At Burning Man] Most people are overly nice which drove me crazy when I was hung-over in the mornings. I wanted to smash there smiling faces in but that was my own failing, not their's, so I shut up and got on with the day.
by Shane O'Reilly, Editor, Dublin for outsideleft.com
originally published: February, 2007
[At Burning Man] Most people are overly nice which drove me crazy when I was hung-over in the mornings. I wanted to smash there smiling faces in but that was my own failing, not their's, so I shut up and got on with the day.

Try asking someone to define the Burning Man. They will usually hum and haw for a bit and say something annoying like 'It's hard to explain...' or something hippies say like 'It's about freedom and expression and....' And on and on and on. The thing is, to be perfectly honest; it is all these things and more. 

Burning Man was set up many moons ago in San Francisco originally, on a beach, a little party, and few thousand people and now it has spawned itself across to the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. Its rules and boundaries were unspecified and the lay of the law involved a very spiritual tone, a feeling of singular freedom in one's own skin, a personal empowerment perhaps. This probably goes to explain why so many people walk around the hard chalk like floor all day and night without any clothing. Nowadays, the Burning Man experience encompasses a wide range of attractions for all kinds of people and of all ages.  I won't go into lengthy detail as to what it encompasses but there are shows and BBQs and techno gigs and games and all sorts of themed tents and areas. The world never stops moving at Burning Man. The heat never deters anyone. Robots and strangely dressed old men and topless women constantly revolve in and around the stretches of caravans and canopies. For seven days, that piece of land is your home and all of a sudden you have the most welcoming people around you.


The hippy/raver sub-culture looming on Burning Man awakened an explosion of artistic and musical relevance that soon became quite essential to the experience. Having only gone the one time, that was last year (the theme then being 'fear and hope'), I was blown away by the music. There is a constant barrage of pumping tunes from a mixture of mutant cars to cartoonish trucks with massive sound systems. Imagine a type of dance music that sounded quite pleasantly like Leftfield's 'Space Shanty' mixed with George Clinton and Parliament. Weird right? Believe me, it was excellent. I chased one guy who passed to find out the particulars of his stuff. He had a massive bike with a speaker system connected to it (one each side of his head) and then all this was tied up to a little ipod. Genius.

I had travelled to America for a couple of weeks, with a friend of mine, Gavin. We spent the first week in Vegas, before heading to the desert. Luckily, after all our original plan had been blown and we were left stranded without an RV, we met 2 friends I knew from Ireland who agreed to share the experience with us and take us there. Saviours. From Reno, where we had stocked up on everything - food, mostly tinned; pasta, sauces, soups, bars, no crisps... big mistake. Not enough tinned ravioli either and a few steaks, sausages, portable BBQs, 22 gallons of water, a marquee, caps, t-shirts, flip-flops, medical supplies, books, batteries, ten man tent, 2 deck chairs, 2 bottles of sunscreen - factor 60 - I'm a redhead from Ireland so... we loaded up on tissues, baby wipes (SO important), shades (SO important), torches (SO important), glow sticks (SO important), and goggles (SO important). Between me and Gavin we purchased then also, somewhere in the region of ten litres of liquor, ten litres of mixing liquids and four or five crates of beer. Other than weed, we had no other drugs. This would prove to be a BIG mistake. Smuggling is easy and very, very important (basically, some hippies are NOT cool, a fact I had already preconceived before reaching the Burn but afterward changed for the most part, and despite the laws stating quite clearly, NO MONEY ALLOWED on the desert, some of them charge extortionate prices for pills and mushrooms, etc. If you want to do drugs, do not do what I had to - barter annoyingly, get ripped off and waste more money - bring your own). Tickets are easily purchased there last minute for $300 and during this queue, your caravan is searched. This is done so half heartedly, one could EASILY stowaway one or many persons. Any actions taken like these however, are your own, I am not on here to coax people into it or rationalize any of my wild remarks. Once parked, you can unload and attempt to grasp exactly where you are and just what you have got yourself into. 

Despite soaring temperatures of forty degrees plus, it was plain sailing thanks to sunscreen, marquee and chairs. Our set-up was excellent. The couple, Dave and Fifi, slept in the caravan, myself and Gavin had the ten man tent to sprawl out in and between the two, we had a huge sheltered spot with seats and beer holders under a large blue flapping marquee to hide all day (this was SO important when completely hung-over and dying of thirst EVERY morning. By the by, to show how bad the dehydration was, each morning I drank 2 gallons which counts in at almost eight litres. DON'T PANIC, the toilet - and showering - facilities are excellent). During the day times, if you cannot bear the festering, sweltering heat, one can dive from one sheltered chill-out tent to another or just lounge in a chair like me, reading the Godfather and eating hash cookies. But keep in mind, there is something happening all the time somewhere in the Playa. Not that I took too much notice, but the art dotted sporadically throughout the desert is often enough both conceptually stunning and always brilliantly original. One particular day, I rode on my little child's bike pasted a human-spit and on another tour, I saw a huge hand bigger than me standing stoke but arising from the ground so to speak. (At the time I was on my way to view a massive double fireball explosion that was being set-up. It basically consisted of two large cauldrons of gasoline and gun-powder (or something equally evil) that sat on timers and lit simultaneously. The forced radius, some distance back, of all our bodies for our protection, still didn't steady me for the sheer heat of those jets of flame going up. I thought I was literally going to be cooked on the spot. Amazing though).  

The people at Burning Man are at times both strange and brilliant. The generosity shown to us by many was exceptional (we camped beside Irish people, from Wexford and Limerick. I could not believe it). But it went both ways as we welcomed any who came near our little encampment, even a man wearing a tutu, with a horsewhip, asking us to call him Erica. Most people are overly nice which drove me crazy when I was hung-over in the mornings. I wanted to smash there smiling faces in but that was my own failing, not their's, so I shut up and got on with the day. Unfortunately, at night time, if you lose your glow sticks or torch, such as I did repeatedly, it is both difficult to navigate anywhere or to find anyone. Some nights you may hang out with a group of bright beautiful acid heads only to never ever see them ever again. That aspect got upsetting. That and the fact that most outrageously hot and half-naked chicks I wanted to score with were married. Or liars anyway. 

I must be honest, with all the nudity and lawless freedom being flung at me, there certainly was an attitude about me while venturing, drooling through the unabashed dryness. I felt like a schoolboy being given all the fantasies and fun one could bare; all those slutty, big-breasted wet dreams and Jim Morrison drug like over-indulgence. I felt unashamed and straight up, naughty. I spent much time at night, completely ossified lurking for that elusive quick shag and free LSD buzz. But despite, RELATIVE failure at this, believe me when I say, if nothing else, when the sun goes down, BURNING MAN IS LIKE NOTHING ON EARTH. It is undoubtedly the biggest, wildest, craziest, strangest party you will ever be invited to. 

The freaks and the all night techno parties are only just beginning. There are huge domes catering to hardcore German house and/or underground drum and bass that just keeps mashing away till seven or eight or nine into the next morning. The skyline is lit up with various flame-breathing vehicles and robots. Roars of colour and heat continuously soar over and around you. Glow sticks walk by and say hi and the desert's central area is constantly moving with the majority of the 35,000 people merging back and forth from one point to another. For seven nights up till and including the actual burning of the man, it is a very different and very free adventure every single night. No two nights will be in any way the same. There were many, many incidents I could relay here for you that occurred during the seven nights but a few funny highlights included; my mate getting a coffee enema, trying to score a fifty year only to have her try to paddle me, stealing and crashing bikes REPEATEDLY while under the influence of both MDMA and massive amounts of spirits, swapping spliff for a canister of laughing gas, spending hours gazing into a rotating lights system, getting the biggest shock of my life while trying to play a life-size game of Operation, chasing a girl I fancied (Kiki) over the course of three days only to get laid and get free drugs all on the last night before I had to head back to L.A. and then Dublin! There were other tales of piss bottles, severe crashes, passing out on the floor amongst ravers' legs, shoes and hats being stolen, scary leather people and the elusive mystery surrounding God's phone box. But all in all, it was worth every penny and any bit of starvation or sunburn. Despite continued drinking, the memories remain MOSTLY in tact; so much so, I may try to go back this summer. The theme for 2007 being 'green.' 

By the end, I was exhausted. I was dirty and felt sore n sick from the abuse of staying up each night, etc. Looking back at the schedule handed out to us, we missed a few unique attractions (OAP tent, the couples's tent, and the topless bicycle girls) and contrary to popular belief, there are not as many rampant sex orgies for the random, horny single guy to just throw himself into as you might have been lead to believe. I never saw or took part in any. Though, I searched. I found camp Penetration but it wasn't quite what I was looking for at the time. This year I will find that Whiskey and Whores tent and drink that homemade beer offered to me by that bloated Southern American man wearing tight short shorts. Oh yes...

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Shane O'Reilly
Editor, Dublin

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