Sunday, March 20, 2016

My Naked Summer: Burning Man

Written by Tim D.

If you haven’t heard of Burning Man, it’s a gathering of almost 70,000 people in the Nevada desert, and it defies simple explanation. Let’s just say that it’s a place apart, where creativity meets community. For a number of years, I have wanted to attend, but it conflicts with other important events. In addition, getting to and being prepared for Burning Man is a daunting task, from getting a ticket, having all the gear needed, and getting to the “playa” (the name “Burners” have given to the Black Rock Desert home of Burning Man). While it was very last minute, everything came together, and I found myself starting the journey with a bus ride from our Poconos GNI home back into New York so I could catch a flight to L.A., where I met my camp mates for the journey to the desert.

I knew that being at Burning Man might be a challenge, so I tried not to have too many expectations. Depending on your camp, you may have to prepare your own meals, you may be sleeping in a tent, toilets consist of port-a-potties, and warm showers are scarce. Add to these conditions extremes in temperatures from night to day and sudden dust storms.

To understand my naturist experience at Burning Man, it’s important to know about the Ten Principles of Burning Man, and in particular the principles of radical inclusion and radical self-expression, which work hand in hand, as radical self-expression can’t really succeed without radical inclusion. For me, being naked outside the confines of a nudist event is radical self-expression, as it is an expression of who I am at my core—a nudist, and someone who feels it is important that we accept ourselves for who we are, and accepting our bodies is part of that. While nudity is allowed, it’s not as commonplace at the event as you might think, so for others to accept me as I was, and truly include me in the Burning Man communal experience, it requires for others to practice radical inclusion.

Among the naked activities at Burning Man,
the “Gymnasium” camp hosted naked wrestling.
I began the week committed to being naked as much as I could be, but with some trepidation how I would be accepted. Monday, August 31st was the first full day of activities, and I decided to go get my “Genital ID”. As gifting is another principle of Burning Man, different camps and individuals do things to provide gifts to attendees. For one camp, it was the instant photo ids of your genitals. I thought it was a fun way to start the day. After that, I wandered over to a naked twister game. On my way back to my camp, I got the full experience of what wandering around Black Rock City meant, as I was also gifted fingernail painting, an ink stamp on my butt from the “Booty Hunters”, and a chai tea. In other words, every time you leave your camp, you’re never quite sure what will happen. All in all, while still wondering what the experience would be like, I was more comfortable with being naked and committed to being naked when the temps permitted.

While there were others like me who were naked much of the time, there are times and places where nudity is encouraged and more people participated. The biggest nude event of the week is Wednesday’s naked bar crawl. An estimated 500 of us (mostly gay men) headed out from the center of the playa at 11:00 am and, by bicycle, visited several camps around Black Rock City. Each camp featured a different drink, starting with the “Barbie Death Camp and Wine Bar”, a perennial favorite. By mid-afternoon, we had visited several camps, had drank far too much, and returned to camp exhausted and happy. Along the way, I had met former Gathering attendees, as well as someone who had moved from my neighborhood out west several years ago.

Author's image from
the “Alone in Public” series
During Burning Man, I also found that being naked required me to overcome fears. One of these fears is my fear of reaching out to others. Along with my naked summer adventures, I have also been working on a photography project. Titled “Alone in Public”, my goal is to use my own nudity in public places to highlight the challenges one has in finding places of solace in the urban landscape. For these photos, I use my own camera/phone on a small tripod, with a timer. At Burning Man, there were a few art installations that I wanted to get a picture of myself in front of. One of these (pictured here) was especially poignant for me, as I saw how we, as adults, often turn away from each other when, in fact, our inner child is yearning to connect. I have built a life that is very self-reliant, to the degree that I often fail to see how connecting with others would enrich my life, and in some instances is necessary. Over the last few years, I have realized this about myself, and begun the process of reaching out more to others, but this art reminded me just how much work I still need to do, and was made all the more real when I realized I couldn’t get the picture I wanted on my own. Opening up about the situation to one of my camp mates was cathartic, and I thank him for his support, and his help in making the photo a reality.

The “love” art installation
Completing the photo, I was moved to make my last trip to the Temple. The Temple is a structure where you can leave messages and mementos, both as memorials and celebrations, and is a place for contemplation and self-reflection. Even though the Temple was crowded, I decided to leave everything I had with me on my bike—my backpack, goggles, handkerchief—all of the things that protect you from the dust. I wanted to enter the temple completely naked, baring all that I am, without fear of judgement. While there, I encountered a white out. I just took the moment to sit in a sheltered spot, close my eyes, meditate, and let the dust engulf me, but not control me. The feeling was amazing. It was just me and the dust, despite being surrounded by hundreds of people. Before I left, I wrote a message on the outside of the temple—a commitment to living life more openly.
The author near the “totem of confessions”.

My final night, I embraced my nudism in a way that required me to overcome more fears. After the initial spectacle that is the burning of the man, when it is safe to do so, they allow people to get closer to the burning embers. I had heard that people dance naked around the burn. Despite the cold, I decided to investigate, and found that it was a joyous atmosphere. After some initial trepidation, I discarded my clothes into a little pile, and joined the celebration. An art car with great music had stopped by the burn, and it got me in the dancing mood. There was also another art car there, shaped like a giant, straight-backed chair. People were hanging out and dancing on top of it. I decided I wanted to go up there, but I was fearful of being judged (who wants to see a middle-aged, naked guy dancing?), and fearful of having to ask if I could go up (I’ve never felt a part of the “cool” crowd and fear rejection). I overcame my fears and got on the chair—and danced like a mad man. It was exhilarating, with the fire below, and off in the distance, I had a perfect vantage point for seeing the burn of the magnificent Totem of Confessions.

I then overcame my fear of the fire. At a certain point, cool spots in between the burning embers appear, and people started to walk across the burn site. Still naked, I jumped on what looked like a giant bolt in the middle of the burn area, and danced again. It was exhilarating–I was completely IN the moment, and completely free from clothes, from fear, and from self-doubt. A cheer rose from the crowd, and after I departed the spot, more people began to enter the center to explore the moment and the man’s rubble. The joyous atmosphere of the burn continued well into the night. Leaving the next day, I was both happy and drained—Burning Man had far exceeded any expectations!

Editor’s Note: This is part 3 of a three part series. To read parts 1 and 2, you can find the articles published in The Gay Naturist E-former by clicking on either of these two links: My Naked Summer – Part 1 and My Naked Summer – Part 2.