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Photo by http://www.DomeTents.com, all rights reserved

Every summer around Labor Day, some 20,000 representatives of the world's subcultures gather in the Nevada desert. They call it the "Burning Man Festival," named after a 40-foot humanoid sculpture that gets torched at the festival's climax. For one week, the barren Black Rock dry lake bed, or playa, is transformed into the fourth-largest city in the state, populated entirely with artists, pranksters, pyromaniacs, geeks and "gearheads." Rico Gagliano has attended the event since 1996. He sent us this postcard.

Pied Pipers of Pop Tarts

By Rico Gagliano 8/23/2002

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People think big at Burning Man. No surprise: they're in a big place. To the east, a cracked empty playa stretches unobstructed to the horizon, fried by the blazing sun. Far to the south and north lie tall craggy mountains, and Black Rock City, the miles-wide tent-and-RV village Burning Man participants erect in the middle of this nowhere -- it bristles with enormity. A two-story tall Tesla coil spits giant tendrils of lightning. A dragster blasts 15-foot columns of fire from a roof-mounted flamethrower. An enormous fluorescent flower blooms beside a life-size recreation of Oz's Emerald City, while a half-naked funk band on a rolling double-decker bus whales out a groove they can probably feel in China...

None of which has much to do with what lies at the heart of my Burning Man festival: Pop Tarts.

It was a cold evening last year and my friends and I fired up a camp stove and set hot Pop Tarts 'a-toasting. We were worshipped like gods.

Photo by http://www.DomeTents.com
See, what sets Burning Man apart from almost any big cultural event in America -- from almost anything in America, really -- is this: No Vending Allowed. That means no corporate sponsors, no "fried versus flame-broiled", no food court at all. Except for the coffee and ice dispensed beneath a palatial tent structure, nothing's for sale.

So, what emerges is a "gift economy:" this improvised barter system where value is relative and transactions become performance art. More than a few festival vets have told me their favorite thing to do at Burning Man is just give stuff away.

That night, with the Pop Tarts, I found out why. We'd hadn't been set up for 10 seconds before a crowd gathered, dumbfounded at their good fortune. "Pop Tarts?" they said. "Can't believe it! Hot ones?! These are hot Pop Tarts!" A few of us wandered around with megaphones, shouting like carny hucksters: "You know you want Pop Tarts! We have hot Pop Tarts for you, and you can have them for free!"

A golf cart "tricked-out" like a UFO screeched up; its saucer surface a riot of blinking Christmas lights and disgorged silver-painted aliens. They wanted Pop Tarts. Suddenly, and for no reason, we were moving to a new location. "We're moving to a new location!" And, as we trundled off a parade formed behind us: a line of folks skipping through clouds of fine grey desert dust, illuminated by costumes bright with glowsticks and electroluminescent wire. Someone banged a drum. Another played a flute. We were the pied Pop Tart pipers.

So, when our supplies were exhausted, we returned to our camp, and stood there surrounded by towering lightning and flowers and fire, and ignored it all -- it paled in comparison to handing out Pop Tarts.

We had given, asking nothing in return, and were rewarded. It's the way things should work, but don't. Burning Man's more than a fireworks display in the middle of nowhere -- it's a community that breeds appreciation of the beautiful and the alien. And, to be giving stuff away in the heart of a state and a country where cash is always the bottom line? That's a most beautiful, alien thing.

Savvy Resources:


Burning Man 3D

The Civilized Explorer Burning Man Pages

Ring of Fire Burning Man Webring

The Burning Man Archive

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