Forget Trump. Real tribalism in 21st-century America is to be found in late summer in a dried-up lake known as the Playa, 100 miles north-north-east of Reno, Nevada. It started as a bonfire with a few friends in 1986. These days, crowds of semi-naked revellers gather every August for Burning Man, a ritual week in which everyone is expected to let their hair down and their spirits soar. Ostensibly the 70,000 participants are in search of a hipper, more humane America (this comes with a price tag of between $210 and $1,400 for tickets). In reality Burners are as hidebound as any Jane Austen tea party, with their own uniform, tribes and social etiquette.
First learn the rules. No cash. No guns. No fireworks. It’s all about radical self-reliance: take all your essentials with you, plus additional supplies to give away. Then there are the ten principles of the Playa, which co-founder Larry Harvey jotted down in 2004 (he died last year, aged 70). These include radical self-expression, communal effort and “immediacy”.
Though the rules and regulations can be found on Google, real Burners are distinguished by their fluency in the Nevada desert vernacular. They know a Moonwalker when they see one, drifting around in a trance covered in Platina, the dust of the Playa, (also the source of hard globules of snot known as Nose Tators or Big Black Bogies). They are oblivious to playa foot, which comes from wandering shoeless in the alkaline dust taking in the Shirtcockers – men who go nude from the waist down. They avoid the Sparkleponies and Suitcase Bitches, the fashionable freeloaders who just don’t get the importance of self-reliance, giving and communal effort, so sure are they that their beautiful locks and effortless charm are all you need to get by in life.
At the end of it all, dedicated Burners are happy to fulfil rule number eight – “leaving no trace” – and join in the Collexodus, gathering unwanted toilet paper, drink, dope and other drugs, helped by swat teams who carry mops and buckets labelled MOOP (Matter out of Place). Beats macramé. Escape the Default World. Relight your fire.•
Burning Man 2019 is at Black Rock Desert, Nevada, from August 25th until September 2nd