Living Like a Burner When there’s no Burn

I read a report in my Google News Feed the other day breathlessly announcing that the heads of major camps have been told to start the planning process for a 2021 Burn.  The implication was clear:  there’s going to be a Burning Man in 2021.  I’m not so sure.  The source of the Google News report was most likely Burning Man’s Placement Department Newsletter that recently went out to people key to theme camp operations.  The newsletter requested preliminary plans from heads of the bigger camps, including location requests and proposed camp layouts.  It’s certainly a positive sign, but I believe it’s premature to consider it anything more than that.  The Placement Newsletters are SOP, and the requested information is necessary to even the most preliminary planning for the build-out of Black Rock City.  So I’m not ready to whoop it up and start packing yet.  It’s a wait and see for now, at least for me.

Meanwhile, we try to keep the Burning Man spirit alive despite this horrid pandemic when we’re stuck at home with nothing but booze to ease our souls.  We’re pretty involved with Temple Guardians throughout the year and are constantly in communications with members of our team.  In fact, we participate in regular meetings of the Guardian leadership team.  So, if you’re part of a  theme camp, you can volunteer to help throughout the year.  You’ll find yourself welcomed by the camp leaders who always have more work than they can handle.  Apply your personal skill-set to whatever the camp needs and you’ll soon receive buckets of appreciation for your efforts.

It also helps to keep Burning Man’s 10 principles in mind, perhaps by picking out one to concentrate on each month.  For example, Radical Inclusion has particular resonance for me right now as we’re going through another round of hate speech against an ethnic group – in this case, Asians.  I like to make an extra effort to re-direct my natural prejudices toward “the other” into efforts to reach out to those who don’t look or act like me.  By making certain I practice diversity in my life choices, I feel I’m honoring the radical Inclusion principle.


The 2019 Temple

Last year, we hosted two wonderful young ladies from Peru in our Tahoe home where we live and work every winter.  They were serving as TA’s at our ski resort during their summer vacation from college, and they became part of our family for ski season.  Then the pandemic hit and our ski resort was precipitously closed down.  It was no big deal for us.  We just had to pack up our stuff and take it back down the hill to our home near Sacramento.  But for the girls, it was a bit more traumatic.  Just as they were preparing to head back to Peru, that country closed its borders to minimize transmission of the virus.  They couldn’t go home.  Meanwhile, their classes were starting for the fall semester.  So we ended up packing them and us into our car and heading “home” together.  They stayed on for several weeks, taking their classes online (at very odd hours due to the time difference).  Eventually they got a call from the Peruvian embassy and were told a plane had been booked to take them and other ex-pats home via LAX.

Over the months of our hosting these two Peruvians, we grew to love them as if they were family.  We still talk to them every couple of weeks just to catch up.  It’s a joy to include them in our lives, but it still took a leap of faith – one that was at least in part sparked by Burning Man’s principle of Radical Inclusion.

Will We Burn in 21? Should We?

As time has passed since the last Burn, I have felt more and more disconnected from the Playa and the spirit that makes Burning Man so important to my life. I know many of you feel the same, which means a lot of people are eager to see the return to BRC this year. I’m just not sure that can happen yet. And I’m absolutely certain that I’m not ready for a week in the desert with 70 or 80 thousand people while the virus remains active.

I’m now 76 years old, which makes me a prime target for Covid-19. In addition, I’ve recently been diagnosed with early-stage multiple myeloma (a blood cancer) that puts me even more at risk. So there’s almost no way I would feel comfortable attending a full-scale Burning Man even if it does go forward.

But, in truth, I don’t think it will happen this year – at least not in the form we know it. The risk of Burning Man turning into a super spreader event (perhaps the biggest of all time) is high, and such a result would do more than cause sickness and death among attendees and their families; it would irreparably damage the event’s reputation. Burning Man might never recover.

Beauty on the Playa from the 2019 Burn

However, there are some things that the org could do to mitigate the potential for super-spreader results. First, they could mimic many of the states’ rules on attendance at sports events – say, limit the Burn to 25 percent of last year’s number. They could also require any attendee to be verifiably fully vaccinated, and they could test everyone daily. Social distancing rules could be put into effect at seated events and where lines (such as the Center Camp Café) exist. That all sounds painful, costly, and the antithesis of our desert love-fest (how would you handle the Orgy Dome?), but it would be a way to keep the Burning Man culture alive because skipping only one year will cause far less damage than missing two in a row.

I hear rumors from time-to-time about BLM and whether it would even permit Burning Man amidst the pandemic. One positive note I heard was that the BLM budget is sorely missing the money we bring in, so they may be eager to have us back as soon as possible. A smaller Burning Man would provide less revenue to everyone – BLM, the Org, the state of Nevada, and the two counties that gain tax revenues. Reno merchants usually make a ton off of Burners, and I’m sure they’d like a little of that money back. So there are plenty of economic reasons to re-ignite the Burn. But the risk/reward equation still seems out of balance, so my bet is that we’ll have to wait for 2022 to return to the wonders of Black Rock City.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

On another topic, I watched Nomadland the other night on Hulu and felt remarkably close to the Playa. The main character (played by Frances McDormand) lives in Empire, NV at the beginning of the film. She lost her job when the gypsum plant closed and when her husband dies she gets on the road to join other nomads. Her journey begins on what sure looks like NV 447, the road we take from I-80 to Gerlach and on to BRC. Nomadland is a unique and magical film with a few reminders of our desert home.