Burning Man Puts Down Midwestern Roots

May 5, 2015

Nearly 30 years after the founding of Burning Man, a week-long carnival in the Black Rock Desert, the event has morphed into a cultural movement that now sanctions regional events around the U.S. and around the world.

A logo for the Iowa Regional Burner Group
Credit Lindsey Moon / Iowa Public Radio

The Midwestern Burners Association has hosted one such event known as “Interfuse” since 2004.  About 300 Iowans ranging in age from 18 to 67 traveled to Missouri over the weekend to participate in this year’s “burn.”

A “burn” is much like being on a camping trip in the middle of a carnival created by and for attendees where everyone you meet is immediately your new best friend, gives you a hug and exclaims, “Welcome home!”

On Friday morning, a yoga instructor named Gaia was greeting a group of Iowans. Along a nearby road, a group of three men with top hats, mustaches and a tractor were delivering ice, and at one of Iowa’s camps, they were getting started on breakfast.

It's up to you to create the experience. We are the party, we're not at the party.

“This is wake and bake and bake and make bacon….so if you like to wake and bake and bake and make bacon you should come to the Lovely Lady Lounge hosted by the Iowa camp.” Ashley, or LGG as she’s down by other “burners,” was helping keep everyone organized.

Art donated by Iowans on display at the Lovely Lady Lounge, part of the Iowa camp.
Credit Lindsey Moon / Iowa Public Radio

“Burner” is a term participants use to describe themselves. At a “burn,” people organize themselves into camps creating a temporary small town that operates through a gifting economy – no money is exchanged.

“One of the basic principles of Burning Man is self-reliance, and that means take care of yourself, but there is also civic responsibility which means take care of others… so you try and find the good in between,” Ashley explains.

Iowa’s camp also organized a raffle from art made and brought by Iowans. People from other Midwestern states brought pop-up bars decorated with glow in the dark paint, and one person even brought an arcade. It’s all about being a part of the community. Circuit, another Iowan, explains that Burning Man is about being a participant, not a spectator.

“It’s up to you to create the experience. We are the party, we’re not at the party,” he says.  

Aside from the bacon, Iowa has a reputation for its sound camp, which is like a night club hosted in a pop-up dome covered by a giant tarp.

The entrance to the Iowa Sound Camp
Credit Lindsey Moon / Iowa Public Radio

Nick Folsom organized this year’s camp called “From the Congo to the Cosmos.”  It took a group of more than 30 volunteers several months, 2 generators, nearly 40 gallons of gasoline and one very long Facebook feed to make it happen. 

“It completely blows people away, especially when they aren’t from the Midwest. They are like, ‘Wow, you guys did this and you’re from Iowa?’” Folsom says people from other parts of the country are also pretty impressed by the DJs from the state.

He was okay sharing his name with me, but not everyone who goes makes it known who they are or where they are from. Shagrin is a nurse with a master’s degree from central Iowa. As far as most people know, she’s camping.

“Unfortunately, there’s a stereotype when it comes to the burning man lifestyle… that it’s all about the party and the rave and let’s all get high and it’s not. There’s more to it,” she says.

In order to be an official burn, an event has to operate on the same 10 principles as outlined by Burning Man. In addition to gifting and participation - radical self-expression, leaving no trace and decommodification are a few others.

It's just kind of life changing. It's the only place that I feel completely free to do everything that I want to do and express myself in any way that I want to.

  Every event also culminates in the burning of an effigy – the one time during the carnival when everyone is in the same place. At the event in the Desert, it's “the man.” Interfuse’s effigy changes every year based on a theme. For 2015 it was a tree and four small wood sculptures representing “forces of nature” built entirely by volunteers with donated wood.

Before it’s lit, hundreds of people dressed in elaborate costumes carrying LED lights dance. Some play drums. Tens of fire performers swing flames as they parade around the center of the campground.

The effigy burn doesn’t mean any one specific thing. It’s supposed to mean whatever it means to you. Folsom, who organizes Iowa’s sound camp, says to him, it signifies freedom.

“It’s just kind of life changing. It’s the only place that I feel completely free to do everything that I want to do and express myself in any way that I want to.”     

The effigy burning on Saturday night
Credit Photo Courtesy of Chris Paton

As the effigy is lit, roars of applause echo through the forest surrounding the camp ground. I can’t yet wrap my mind around what the effigy means to me, but while I was standing in the middle of that campground dressed in bright red tights and rain boots with neon shoelaces bathing in the light of an almost full moon, I cried. It’s a beautiful fire.