Off The Map week 11: The Burning Ambassador

One minute I’m being harassed by overvigilant teachers for eating cereal outside the public library, and the next minute I’m suddenly a special guest speaker, thrust in front of a classroom of wide-eyed second-graders simply because I’ve just returned from the Burning Man Festival in northwest Nevada. The second-grade teacher, Mort, had identified my point of origin merely by the color of my vehicle, and he began the presentation with this topic.

“All the cars coming down from Gerlach are gray. Why is that?”

A pig-tailed girl timidly offers, “They’re old?”

“No, it’s the dust…the dust from the desert where they hold an event for about 50,000 people – that’s about the size of Carson City. And they call this event – say it if you know it – Burning…”



“No… it’s Man. The Burning Man Festival.” Mort turned to me and confided, almost apologetically, that these were sheltered children who spent most of their time on a military base. He then presented me to his class and asked me to explain what Burning Man was all about. This was a tall order. How does one talk to a second-grader about a cultural experience as far removed from the norms of American society as United States culture is from Mongolian?

My thoughts went back to a time last week when I stood atop a rickety bamboo tower, gazing out across the eruption of neon complexity that was Black Rock City. This was what Las Vegas would look like if all the lights, glitter and towering casinos suddenly exploded into a million pieces, gained sentience and began moving around independently of one another. Nevada’s Black Rock Desert had transformed over the course of a few short weeks into a hodgepodge cityscape of towers, domes and encampments. This year I had arrived early to help construct a spirituality-themed neighborhood within the city, so I was present to witness how quickly the streets and alleyways filled up with hordes of citizens. By Saturday – the night of the Burn – the place was literally swarming with freaky people.

Sculptures and interactive art installations were scattered throughout the vast, open courtyard at the center of the city. There were human-sized ant farms, flaming windmills, Chinese temples and so many creative projects spread out over a wide expanse of desert that it seemed impossible to discover them all.

Every human was also an art piece in themselves, bedecked vibrantly in costume, face paint, glow sticks and luminescent wire. Costumes trended towards the post-apocalyptic, emulating the fashion sense of a ragtag bunch of circus performers following a nuclear holocaust, which was fitting because, in truth, most people at Burning Man were there to party like there was no tomorrow.

Of course, I also thought of the competing dance clubs that squatted on the edge of the playa. There, the buildings spat fire, shot lasers or sparked lightning out of Tesla coils in rhythm with the electronic music. I described some of these creations to the children until Mort said, “Yes, but what do you actually do at Burning Man?”

I thought about the night we watched the seventy-foot Man burn to the ground, and about dancing afterwards during a dust storm beneath the art vehicle called Abraxis the Dragon until it began to pull away. I had stored some items beneath the beastly vehicle, and when I realized that the dragon might have effectively gobbled them up, I quickly jumped on board and searched its gullets for my lost goods. Coming up empty, I let myself off the backside and set about following the dragon’s tracks back to the dance party. Without a flashlight, I had to wait periodically for distant explosions to light up the playa so I could make out the vehicle’s tire marks in the sand.

I was able to find my jacket and flutes close to where I’d originally placed them, but the dance party had broken up, scattering my friends to other realms within Black Rock City. I’d already accepted that keeping a group together is often a futile exercise at Burning Man, so I hopped on a succession of art vehicles and fell in with a group of friendly strangers. One bus looked like the Emerald City on the outside but rocked with heavy metal music on the inside and was dimly lit with red light like a relic from the London underground club scene.

I spoke to Mort’s students about the culture of “gifting” – how most people come to Burning Man with something they wish to give to the community. On a hot afternoon, you can roam the streets on a bicycle and find yourself being beckoned to enter a tent and enjoy lemonade and cookies, ice cream and snow cones, banana pancakes, watermelon… even body paint treatments and back massages. Since commercial transactions and bartering are not allowed on the property, giving and respectful taking is what keeps society functioning in Black Rock City.

Mort, who admitted to being an ex-hippie, kept wanting to hear more about the Burning Man experience. Of course, there was always more to tell, but I feared I might begin hinting at subjects that were inappropriate for a second-grade audience. Should I talk about the prodigious consumption of alcohol, or that “psychedelic” in the Burning Man context is not just a descriptive adjective?

In the end, I was saved by the bell. A knock on the classroom door signaled that the children needed to march down to the Hearing Lab for their next lesson. Mort offered me a hearty handshake for helping expand these students’ horizons, and who knows… maybe a future Burner dwells among the children of Coleville Elementary. I thanked Mort for the chance to spark their imaginations, and the children waved and strained to see my dusty Jeep as I drove off down the road, looking for other, less dusty adventures.

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