Cliché tales of flocks of patchouli-drenched hippies making the pilgrimage to Burning Man year after year for nothing more than a week of debauchery and psychedelic-drug use have given the annual arts festival a bad name. Many who make the trek to the playa of Black Rock Desert in Nevada for Burning Man are respectable professionals-business owners, real-estate agents, lawyers-who do it to escape daily life and replace predictable routine with spontaneous and unrestrained creativity.
The weeklong, commerce-free festival-no cash transactions are allowed on the grounds-now in its 21st year, takes its name from the event's culminating ceremony, the burning of a 40-foot wooden effigy. Sure, there are those who drop a few tabs, snort lines and dance wildly around until the last embers of the flaming wooden man have died out, but for the majority of burners, the festival is a week of respect, self-expression and camaraderie that provides a blueprint for their lives over the remaining 51 weeks of the year.
Beginning on Monday, Aug. 28, Mary and George Palmer, owners of Taste Artisan Cheese & Gourmet Shop in Hillcrest, will be among the nearly 40,000 people from around the world converging on Black Rock City, the temporary urban municipality that has become home to Burning Man. This year being their third trip, the Palmers have decided to close their cheese shop for the entire week.
"It's really easy for people to say that Burning Man is nothing more than a freaky art festival," Mary says, "but if that was all it was, I wouldn't close my business to go. It's brought incredible creativity to my life. There's always something happening that some creative soul has cooked up for everyone's enjoyment. Fire spinning, art, music-the whole culture is about creativity and fun."
Mary blames one-sided press coverage for perpetuating the idea of Burning Man as an out-of-control, drug-fueled bender. "The media have bastardized it and given it a bad rep," she said. "They're only talking about one tiny part of it. There will be people who show up late in the week for a four-day rave, but that's not the experience for everyone else. I think it's important for people to see that respectable citizens are involved."
Among the respectable citizens Mary mentions is native San Diegan Mark Hinkley, an attorney and Lakeside school board member who has been to Burning Man six times since 1999. Hinkley sought out other creative minds in San Diego and around the country with whom he collaborated to create the playa theme-camp known as Xara (it's a Burning Man tradition for groups of friends staying together to come up with a creative theme for their camps).
Hinkley says the first installation of Xara featured an "immersive and interactive environment of jungle ruins, a black-light rainforest and cool, living grass spread over the desert floor." The Xara project has since become an independent annual festival in San Diego.
In addition to using the playa as an artistic outlet, Hinkley characterizes Burning Man as a "religious retreat" for both him and his wife of 26 years.
"Words really cannot reach the depth of those experiences for us," he said, "nor describe the permanent benefits we will enjoy the rest of our lives.
"Every moment at Burning Man presents a memorable story," he continued, "or else you just aren't paying attention. One of Burning Man's great virtues is its living lesson that inattention is sin."
University Heights burners Orelia and Troy DeBraal listed off what you might see at Burning Man if you're really paying attention: "thundering dragons, spontaneous dancing elves, Mexican wrestlers, inexplicable nakedness, music only a god or goddess could make, nights so clear the galaxy comes into focus, mochas from heaven, playa dust in the worst of places, drums in the morning, days that begin at sunset...." Orelia offered one last piece of advice.
"Don't focus so much on your destination," she said. "You might miss something along the way."
For some San Diegans, waiting an entire year for another chance to interact with the Burning Man community in an atmosphere even remotely similar to that of Black Rock City is just too much to ask. Grant Hill resident Dennis Pappenfus, along with his tightly knit group of friends who go by the name "Liquid-O," recognized a need for a local event. The group, known for crashing public events like Ray at Night in big red buses filled with fire dancers and hula-hoopers or entertaining late-night crowds with circus acts at Little Italy's Kava Lounge, started the annual Elysium Midsummer Festival with the goal of providing a platform for artists, musicians and performers to showcase their talents in the same creative spirit as Burning Man.
"Elysium is an event centered around how music and art impact our lives," Pappenfus says. "At Burning Man you are exposed to some stunningly original and amazing art that normally does not find its way into mainstream life. [It] is an outlet for some of the most creative people I have ever seen. We hope Elysium will be a similar type of resource for regional performers and artists."
Elysium debuted this year on July 14 through 16 on a private campground halfway between San Diego and Los Angeles with about 500 people in attendance.
"I saw performances that gave me goose bumps," recalls Pappenfus.
Included among this year's performers was Kaoticus, a man whose body gestures create music through a custom body-suit interface by using a computer software program.
"You just don't see that every day!" exclaimed Pappenfus.
All of the people in Liquid-O have contributed in some way to help make Elysium happen. Career-wise, they range from professional artists and costume designers to electricians and IT network guys.
"Everyone brings some unique skill or dynamic to the table," said Liquid-O member Phil Borkowski, owner of Fluid Sound, an audio contracting business. "When all these different people with different backgrounds come together and create something, the result is nothing less than spectacular."
Though Liquid-O isn't planning a theme camp for this year's Burning Man festival, you can still expect to spot a few of them cavorting around the playa. "The last few years have been major productions [for us]," Pappenfus says, "This year we are all looking forward to a more laid-back Burning Man experience."
Burning Man is happening Monday, Aug. 28, through Monday, Sept. 4. www.burningman.com.