Photo by Nick Betts/Coffee or Die.
There’s a temporary city that emerges every year in a barren desert for an 80,000-person social experiment. No status, no government, no currency. No judgment, no rules, no inhibitions. A provisional society focused entirely on the individual, with eight days spent celebrating humanity, expression, and collaboration. People are invited to disconnect and look inward, to explore oneself. This city has been constructed and dismantled for more than 30 years, consistently becoming the third-largest city in Nevada for one week. Some call this place home. Others call it Black Rock. Most know it as Burning Man.
But that world was not my reality as a military contractor working overseas.
I sat alone in my room at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, scrolling through Netflix for the next movie to help quench the boredom that most contractors face. I came across a movie called “Spark: A Burning Man Story.” My curiosity piqued, I watched the movie in amazement. How could so many people gather in the scorching and dusty desert with no money, no rules, and no mitigation of risk? It was a far cry from the life I knew as a soldier and government contractor. For a decade, I’d been told where to be, what to wear, and what to do. These two worlds had nothing in common — and, in most cases, were in vehement opposition.
I spent 10 years of my life fighting the Global War on Terror (GWOT) in multiple capacities. Burying friends, killing our enemies, and consoling the families of those who paid the ultimate price. I was tired.
I left the world of contracting, and returned home to San Diego to start a new life. One that didn’t require me to carry a gun and fly to distant, war-torn lands. I had to try to reconnect with the civilian world. My success and mental health relied on that assimilation in order to become a new person.
The more I looked into Burning Man, the more I was convinced that I needed to go. This event was going to be the reboot my brain needed to start the newest chapter in my life. The ticket-buying process is complicated and requires serious planning — not only to acquire admission, but to prepare for the journey. For eight days you are completely self-reliant for food, shelter, and water. Nothing can be purchased aside from ice and coffee, and no store is nearby to save you from poor planning.
Burning Man may not have rules or laws, but it does have 10 principles created by founder Larry Harvey to which they request every “Burner” adhere:
These 10 principles may seem like a lofty wish for the world as we know it, but they are what make Black Rock City the utopia it is. You enter the dusty gates with no status, no sponsors, and no need to rely upon anyone but yourself. In a world where influencers and celebrities are hailed as superior creatures, you leave all of that perceived self-worth at home.
The most diverse and eclectic people come to Burning Man from around the world to converge and share their experiences with friends and strangers. The CEO of a fortune 500 company, tripping on acid, shares a drink and a hug with the nude artist who lives in his van. The Instagram model is kicked in the face by her friend at the ThunderDome while battling it out in a suspended bungee system with hundreds of screaming and ruthless-looking campers — all resembling characters from “Mad Max.” The mother of four who recently lost her husband cries in the arms of a total stranger, who consoles her in a time of grief.
These types of scenarios occur thousands of time a day all across the playa (Spanish for “beach”) at Burning Man. It’s not the drug-fueled orgy that most people think it is. It’s far more.
Most individuals create camps with friends and strangers in order to have a sense of community and to share experiences. Tents, trailers, RVs, and hammocks all dot the landscape in what seems like organized chaos. The camps help one another and share their provisions by making communal meals and hosting parties. Many camps across the playa are themed and will regularly have pop-up bars or make grilled cheeses for anyone who wants to join.
There is no feeling of nervousness when introducing yourself to new people or sitting down on someone’s couch while talking about crypto currency. All of your previous inhibitions are left at home, and the feeling is unlike anything I have ever experienced. It’s not abnormal to hug a complete — and completely nude — stranger as thanks for the quesadilla they just made you. Outside of the camps is the playa, with the “Man” in the center. Burning Man is organized like a clock with the 2- to 10-o’clock sections occupied by camps and the rest left open for art and exploration.
“Art Cars,” as they are called, are communal transportation vehicles that range from a golf cart decorated as a mouse to a four-story dragon made of sheet metal and neon lights that uses 300 gallons of propane to fuel its flamethrowers. There is no limit to the level of creativity put into these artistic expressions. Throughout the year, hundreds of artists from around the world weld, hammer, and bolt their creations together, spending their own money with no monetary return.
These pieces of art drive on the playa around the clock, often stocked with booze and a DJ spinning. You don’t need a ticket or a special handshake to ride these aluminum beasts —simply hook your bike to the back and jump on for a ride with no particular destination. At night, the controls to the flamethrowers and pyrotechnics are brought out. Massive fireballs erupt in the dark desert, illuminating the faces of the Burners standing below.
The majority of the art on the playa is interactive, with Burners crawling on various structures and triggering neon lights that only amplify the desert adventure. It’s not without its dangers, though.
One night I went to see a DJ play at a local camp that was created with shipping containers stacked two high. As I was dancing, a man fell from the sky, landing next to me on his back. Given my mental state at the time, I was trying to figure out where this dude came from. Looking up, I saw a group of people 15 feet above, dancing on top of the conex. Trying to pull myself back to sobriety, I began to assess the dusty lawn dart for injuries.
With the breath slowly coming back into his lungs, he told me the pain was in his back. I rubbed my fingers underneath to feel for any deformities; when I pulled my hands out, they were covered in a red, muddy liquid. The man began to sit up, still holding his back. As he rolled to the side, he exposed a can of ravioli, completely mangled and blown out on one end. Amazed, I smelled my hands to confirm that this was sauce from the famed Chef Boyardee. I began laughing as I grabbed the man’s arm and pulled him to his feet. I handed the man his sandwiched can of Italian delicacy, and he walked off into the darkness to lick his wounds.
There are two main structures on the playa that are created by the Burning Man organization. The Temple and The Man are massive 200-foot wooden creations that are designed and constructed every year with great detail and intricacy. The interior walls of the Temple are covered with photos of friends and family members that have passed away. People stood in the corners wiping away tears, while others were writing notes that would never be read. The energy was heavy as people said their final goodbyes, attempting to rid themselves of the pain they’d been living with. One particular note caught my eye: “I forgive you for the pain you caused me, father. I forgive you for molesting me for so many years. I can’t live with this hatred anymore, and I need to let you go.”
As I continued walking, I saw something all too familiar: a pair of combat boots on the ground with a patrol cap and dog tags hanging on the beam. I walked over and knelt down to look at the photo of a soldier — his name was Dominguez — with a note pinned underneath. “Son. I dearly miss you and am so sorry you didn’t see Angel. She’s beautiful and is growing up so fast. Angie is taking such good care of her and is an amazing mother. I’m angry that I can never hold you again but you were so proud to fight for what you knew was right.” The letter continued with more about the life of this man’s family and the things he’s missed since his death. The daughter he never met. The Gold Star wife doing her best to raise their child. Tears streamed down my face as I sat next to his memorial.
Eyes blurry with tears, I thought about Dominguez and the sacrifice he made. I thought of all the friends that I’ve buried over the years — not just from war, but also from suicide. My heart pounding, I grabbed a notepad and started to write letters to my friends. I thanked them for their actions and talked of the adventures we had planned for after the deployment. I told them that I wished they could see their 30s and all of the beautiful things the world had to offer them. I sat and wrote letter after letter, letting the pen flow with conviction and sadness.
The final letter was to my wife. I apologized for all the time we spent apart over the years. Deployment after deployment, phone call after phone call. I vowed to never leave again and that we would spend more time together traveling the world to make up for it. I vowed to be a better person and to let go of my anger and my sadness. Ten years of fighting in a combat zone had taken a toll on me, and I carried some baggage. But this was it. This was why I went to Burning Man. I needed to cry and process the mental and physical conflict that was eating me up inside.
I stood up, dusted off my pants, and wiped my eyes. Looking at Dominguez’s memorial one last time, I came to attention and brought up my hand slowly for a salute. A woman and a man walked over to me and lightly rested their hands on my shoulders. I finished the salute and turned around to see them with tears in their eyes. They leaned in and hugged me tightly. I began to sob, hugging them even tighter, and we all cried together. As we released from the embrace, the man looked at me and said, “I love you. I know you needed that.” I thanked them and then walked back into the abyss of the playa.
That night I wandered around alone. I rode fire-breathing dragons, a massive two story lion called the Whomp Wagon — it resembled the Mutt Van from “Dumb and Dumber” except with more bass and techno and less ketchup and mustard. I felt a weight lifted off my shoulders as I met new people and shared drinks with strangers from New Zealand. Burning Man was amazing, and I finally felt that I had found what I was looking for. Amongst 80,000 people from around the world, I found inner peace. This is what humanity looks like in its rawest form.
The following night a ceremony was conducted at the Temple. Fire crews lit the 200-foot wooden structure, and the majority of Burners flocked to see the fiery inferno spiral high into the air, taking with it the pain, grief, guilt, and sadness that so many had poured into it. It’s reminiscent of a viking burial, except instead of mourning a relative, you’re saying goodbye to your former self.
I wasn’t the same after that first journey to Black Rock desert — and that’s exactly what I was hoping for. I don’t care much for the person I used to be; the new me, however, has a new outlook on humanity and a lighter load to bear. Burning Man is now an annual pilgrimage, my yearly reminder of the beauty in humanity. It gets better every year — and so do I.
Nick Betts is a contributing writer for Coffee or Die. Nick spent 10 years in the U.S. Army infantry and as a government contractor. Since leaving those career fields, Nick has been working as a freelance writer and photo journalist. He is currently a full-time student at the Los Angeles Film School.
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