The stereotype is true. A good portion, perhaps even the majority, of the costumed, dusty people you meet during a night at Burning Man the massive, hedonistic annual artfest are walking around as high as a four-story desert sculpture.
But there's a faction of folks attending the weeklong event who choose to do it drug-free, for reasons ranging from preference to survival. Visit Anonymous Camp for one of several daily Alcoholics Anonymous meetings offered in Black Rock City, and you'll meet plenty of people who want to keep their own mind-altering experiences clean and sober.
Last year, roughly ten hours before the Man went up in flames, nearly 75 people squeezed into the camp's first AA meeting of the day that's the same number that lined up for the pole-dancing workshop earlier in the week.
This group has a smaller proportion of topless women and men in tutus than the general playa population, but its sense of community pulses more strongly. "Hi, my playa name is Pooh Bear," says a man wearing Winnie the Pooh pajamas. "I'm an alcoholic."
"Hi, Pooh Bear," the group chimes back.
Founded in 1986, Burning Man began as a small gathering on Baker Beach in San Francisco to celebrate the summer solstice. In 1990, the event was moved to the Black Rock Desert in northern Nevada, where it evolved into a week-long, commerce-free community and art festival.
Drug use has taken over in public opinion as one of the event's defining features, especially once the attendee list hit 25,000 in 2000. But Burning Man means far more than drugs to many. The bohemian community, the opportunities for healing and spiritual exploration, and the simple enjoyment of art and public expression are still the main drivers for many Burners, including sober types such as Pooh Bear.
"I hit bottom at Burning Man five or six years ago," he began. A couple of months after that, he said, he started recovery and was completely free of booze when Burning Man rolled by the year before last. Now he manages an AA e-mail discussion list. "I can't do it without this group," he says, tears welling in his eyes. "I can't do it without fucking Burning Man."
At the HeeBeeGeeBee Healers, a camp that offers massage, reiki, energy work, and other treatments, many worn-out Burners lay within the massive shade structure, resting their eyes or contemplating the patchwork of sheets overhead while awaiting their turn on the table. "We see our camp as an oasis on the playa to escape to without chemicals, without escaping yourself," says Scooter, one of the camp's organizers.
HeeBeeGeeBee has a no-drugs-while-healing rule for practitioners, for safety and respect of others who don't partake. Scooter doesn't care about people using drugs outside the camp, but chooses not to do them himself, here or at home. "I never really enjoyed it," he says. "My experience here is part of my personal, spiritual healing path."
Playote, a 45-year-old Oakland man going by his playa name (playa + coyote), also had a drug-free Burning Man. His new boss requires data management employees at his company to get a Homeland Security clearance, so Playote wanted to be ready for a drug test. Usually a heavy pot smoker, he says sticking to cigarettes and wine was easy this year. "One reason I like coming to Burning Man is connecting with other people," he says. For him, lack of commerce and need to survive in a harsh desert environment are what creates a strong sense of community. "Last year, when I got high, I'd get cloudy and introverted. I thought, 'Why am I doing this?'" This year, he adds, "I can sit and talk to someone for hours."
Even some of those who celebrate drugs as a central theme of their Burning Man experience encouraged moderation last year. PissClear, Black Rock's alternative newspaper, named for the Burning Man edict to stay fully hydrated, distributed a special drug issue midweek. The publication, staffed by writers in various states of intoxication or hangover, encourages liberal use of drugs. Its editor-in-chief, Adrian Roberts of San Francisco, recommended taking one day of the week off from drugs, or even every other day. Sobriety, she wrote of her own substance-free day, "felt like a different kind of drug, one where everything was crystalline-clear. What I would have otherwise thought of as a really beautiful art project was actually just pieces of scrap metal and wire held together with duct tape and Christmas lights. Conversely, the really epic stuff that I would just take for granted in that 'Wow, man, that's cool' kind of way, I actually saw as insanely intricate and ambitious."
Such revelations were commonplace at the AA meeting. "I'm going to be 45 tomorrow," said Mary, identified only by her first name in the twelve-step tradition. "When I was young, I thought that when you reached middle age, you cut your hair, frosted it, and wore polyester. You were done.
"But I'm bloated today because I was at a rave until dawn," she adds, shifting in her black bra and white sarong, her long brown hair tied in two braids. "Out here, it is so erotic, there's so much juice. It's so much more than drinking and drugs."
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