An interactive exhibit at least 4 stories tall and housing many rooms representing different aspects of the brain.  PHOTO COURTESY BECKY WALLING

Big Sky at Burning Man: Soulful surprises on the playa

70-80,000 people descend upon the desert in remote Nevada for just over one week each year. Called a social experiment, an entire functioning city is constructed – 

a hospital, several clinics, a post office – there is a public works department. Upon arrival no motorized vehicles are driven and no money is exchanged. People share what they have, some planning and saving for a full year to be able to gift things to strangers. 

“Sometimes it’s almost too much gifting, You’re just riding your bike home and someone yells, ‘You! You need gin and tonics and hot dogs!”  Big Sky resident Shane “Champagne Shane” McDonald said of his five years of participation in Burning Man.

Everyone is responsible for bringing their own water and there is a strict rule against anything – from hair, to glitter to bath water – marring the playa. 

When the gathering is done and the city deconstructed, a group of volunteers scour the desert for a month afterward to make sure the playa is left pristine. 

It is a gathering gifted with some of the most brilliant minds in the world and a radical movement in self reliance, self discovery and community. 

“It’s everything you wouldn’t think: the love, the energy, the release, the friendship – that’s 99 percent of what Burning Man is. It’s none of the partying,” McDonald said. 

There are two different major burns during the gathering. 

“Man Burn is the loudest and biggest party on earth. The sound that comes out of the playa – 200 djs all at once playing music together and 50,000 people screaming,” McDonald said. The wooden constructed man is created to represent corporate greed – a figurative way for participants to kill-off the parts of themselves stifled by greed and to embrace a new path. 

Then, there is the temple. 

“I put my mom’s ashes in the temple my second year [at Burning Man],” McDonald said. 

Frequent Big Sky visitor Becky Walling placed her friend’s suicide notes in the temple and wrote a note to her son. People gather, silently creating their own memorials – many crying. Walling, McDonald and his girlfriend Cadence Railsback described a kind of energy emanating from the temple – 

a palpable pain. 

“All the stuff – all the memorials. I left there crying,” Walling said. “It just hit me. I just lost it.” 

“It takes a while to set in,” Railsback said. 

On Sunday, the temple is burned to the ground with 30,000 people silently watching – quietly crying, McDonald said. It serves as a symbolic release of pain for the thousands of people who honor loved ones and cry within the walls of the temple before they become ash. 

Burning Man is a deeply spiritual experience for participants, who often become weary when it is compared to music festivals like Cochella. 

“That’s one of the things that frustrates me – the misconceptions. ‘Oh, it’s a drug-fueled orgy.’ No, it is everything you could ever possibly want as a human,” McDonald said. “There are drug-free camps and Christian camps,” he said. 

“AA camps,” Walling contributed. 

Walling said there was a camp with questionnaires for finding your soulmate, an Asian fetish camp, a pheromone camp, a scar camp where you would go in, show a scar and tell your story about what happened, and a ‘make a friend’ camp. 

Walling’s friend met Bill Murray at the porta Potties. 

“She said, ‘You look like Bill Murray.’ He said, ‘Bill Murray is dead here,’” Walling said, laughing. 

There was an entire crew of Chinese billionaires with nearly a dozen Instagram models in tow. 

“They were their own art installation,” Railesback said. “We turned all our chairs to watch them.” 

Interactive art exhibits were everywhere. 

One art exhibit was a giant head that was a maze people went through and artists were responsible for demonstrating the different areas of the brain within each room. About 15 rooms represented different parts of the brain. Right in the middle was a room that represented alcoholism, from which the artist who created it had suffered for two decades, McDonald explained. 

“You go into this room. It’s a black room and at first you start off with these little chains and you push through the chains and the chains get bigger and bigger and heavier and heavier and you’re trapped in these chains,” McDonald said. 

“In the back of the maze there are two locks that you have to do and you can’t reach both and a sign that said, ‘To get out, you can’t do this alone.’ It symbolizes alcoholism.” 

“It was incredible and that was just one small piece in the center,” Railsback said, noting that every room had a powerful message. 

The quirky is there, but so is the soulful. The partying is there, but so is the meaning. 

Walling described a Jewish friend’s wedding in which the officiator wore a unicorn dress. McDonald described a harmonic resonance house where they gutted instruments and made them into walls. 

“People don’t get it. My first year it felt like Alice in Wonderland on acid. But you go again and it becomes about personal connections,” Walling explained. 

Railsback enjoyed the temple of chimes. 

“I love the friendly heckling,” she said and provided an example: “Hey you! I love your t-shirt!”

The first year is full of surprises. Social conventions are out the window. People are wearing costumes or just plain naked. 

“I expected to see that sort of druggie, hippie crowd, but then you start interacting with people and they’re like, ‘I work at NASA,’” McDonald said, which was the most shocking thing to him his first year.  Elon Musk is a frequent “Burner.” 

“He’s really trying to save the world as best he can,” he said. “I heard him in an interview and he said, ‘All the world needs is love’ and I was like, ‘Burner!’” 

McDonald said he cried for months after his first Burning Man because of his refound faith in humanity. 

“The playa provides,” Walling said. 

“It never gives you what you want. It always gives you what you need,” McDonald continued.

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