Wendle Whiting

All the millennials flocked to Snowmass for John Mayer last weekend, and all their parents gathered for Weezer, and all of their parents assembled for Sting. I’m sure it was a fantastic multi-generational party.

That’s a ton of talent to pack into one place that small. A lot of work was done to produce that festival for the attendees: the stage needed to be assembled, bathrooms lined up, fences built, tents raised to protect the booze slingers from the elements, and temples erected to protect the wealthy from the unwashed. Everywhere you look, there’s some element that Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Festival meticulously produced using an army of workers and volunteers so that the attendees could show up and enjoy themselves.

I wouldn’t guess that the attendees in Snowmass generally felt proud of their role in it; unless they had eaten some potent drugs. “That was a great festival” is different than “We made a great festival together.”

For eight days I’ve been at a massive event that is produced by the attendees, Burning Man. Even though this was my fifth time participating, only this year did I have this epiphany of the realization of what sets Burning Man apart from any of the other huge festivals I’ve been to: It’s not produced by other people for your entertainment, it’s produced by you/us for everyone’s entertainment.

The city that is created by the attendees is called Black Rock City. It’s 70,000 citizens large, and everywhere you go there is something to participate in that was created by your fellow attendees. No single entity like JAS is there coordinating the spectacle. The nonprofit organization through which you buy Burning Man tickets produces basic infrastructure: toilets, ice, streets and safety services. Everything else just happens. Citizens bring and build what they want, and it’s almost always amazing.

Some people build restaurants, lots of people erect bars, many create grand music venues. Giant works of art are built all around the seven square miles within city limits, and many tiny works of beauty are interspersed in between. Grand engineering projects of every scale create amazement as you interact with them. Silly things, too: My favorite was a F1 racetrack for humans with a pit crew that changed your tires and fueled you up in the middle of the race.

To be clear, those seven square miles have literally nothing on them before the event begins. It is a dry, flat lakebed that consists of alkaline clay and nothing else. It is a terrible place for an event of any type; difficult to get to, hot, dusty, unforgiving in every way. Yet we all love it, because we build the city out of nothing.

And when the event is over, it is all erased back down to the clay.

Every year the city is completely different as the whims and composition of its inhabitants change. What you may find amazing one year, may be gone the next. Almost all of the art made of wood is burned in glorious celebrations as the festival nears its end. Some burns, like that of the eponymous man, are parties of unimaginable energy. Others, like that of the temple (a shrine where attendees leave notes and memories of their lost loved ones), are attended in complete silence.

Most of the giant woodworks of art are very elaborate and full of detail. I have to imagine they take years of preplanning and construction. Yet, after one week of existence they are set on fire and all the thousands of hours of toil and love that went into making them goes up in smoke in a few minutes.

I have always wondered what that must feel like for the creators.

This year I built a system to evaporate the gray water from our camp. The structure was made of wood. It was intended to be used in subsequent years, but I realized at the last minute that I had an opportunity to feel what letting go of your hard work must feel like.

It wasn’t a “work of art,” but it was mine, and I had spent two weekends building it with help from friends. It was definitely a labor of love that served us well, and it was beautiful to me.

I disassembled it and hauled it out to one of the dedicated burn pits. The pits were beautiful, elevated cauldrons of art themselves. They produced a furious heat and a low-pitched roar that frightened the inner proto-human.

I began sacrificing my handiwork and watched it burn for a while. Tears formed and I cried. Good tears. Others burning their constructions were crying too. We hugged. It was an amazing feeling to completely let go of our creations.

As I rode the bike back to camp all around me, Black Rock City was being dismantled. A brief spark, once a year; an Atlantis completely disappearing. 

As I passed others, I smiled, and they smiled back. We were all thinking, “What an amazing event we made.”

Wendle returned with no scars or injuries. He didn’t try hard enough. Contact him at wendle@wendlewhiting.org.