I should be packing right now instead of writing this.
As the days grow close to leave for our three-day road trip to the Nevada desert where Burning Man is held, there’s so much to do to prepare. First and foremost, it’s held in a barren desert 1584 miles away, and this is not the kind of camping you can just run to a 7-11 if you forget anything. The nearest store is 100 miles away. There’s no cell service. There are no trees, no insects or animals, and no campfires. No electricity, no running water. Just literally a 4-square mile flat surface covered in an alkaline baby-powder-like white clay dust called the “Playa” (Spanish for “beach”). You bring literally everything you will need to survive the seven-day extreme camping experience. Last year the highs were in the hundreds and the lows in the 50’s.
So there’s camping equipment, food and water for each person for seven days, proper clothing and all the necessities you can think of. Think “survivalist” and short of catching your own food, you’re in an environment that’s trying to kill you the entire time you’re there. We subsisted pretty much on canned tuna (out of the can, mind you, eaten with a cracker) and PBJ sandwiches and applesauce.
Last year, our first “Burn”, we had joined a small camp, but we were pretty much on our own. For example, one of the biggest stressors we had was our shade cover. With daytime temps at 102 for the entire week, and with sudden wind gusts of up to 75 mph, your shade structure will literally save your life during the day and if it comes out of the ground it will kill someone. Hammering into the rock-hard surface of the Playa is quite a challenge. We did have a couple wind gusts and our shade structure kept flying up in one corner or another and threatened to pull out completely.
This year we’re thrilled to share an established camp with approximately 200 campers and not even have to even think about a shade structure as it will be there when we arrive. We had biked past them last year on the way to the Playa and saw what an awesome set-up they had. Everyone’s tents were tucked safely under an enormous black tarp that was secured so well it could easily withstand the angriest dust storm. We contacted them and were excited and thankful they had room for us!
You may be asking yourself, “why would anyone go to such a place?” and, “What IS Burning Man??”
It’s not a festival or an art show or a hippy drug scene or a place where a bunch of bands play. It’s really indescribable, but I’ll try.
It’s a barren place where 70,000 people come from all over the world to create a city called “Black Rock City” just outside of Lovelock, Nevada. This city sits in a half-circle formation, with made-up roads and street signs and made-up addresses (this year, the theme is “I, Robot”, and all the street names are various robots from literature and TV and movies). Most people camp in tents but there are those who “glamp” instead and come in RV’s. There are always a smattering of celebrities who fly in to join established camps (we call them, “plug-and-play”) but to really get the most out of the experience, you should sleep in a tent you put up yourself.
I was trying to talk a friend of mine into going with me this year as I was able to acquire two extra tickets, and thought it would be super fun to go with friends. She said to me that it didn’t sound like a very fun “vacay” to her. And it’s funny how we all have our own ideas of what a “vacation” is. To her, it’s a five-star hotel with a pool and cocktail service; to me, it’s wearing pasties and goggles, using a porta-potty, not showering for a week and riding around on my fat-tire bike exploring the art and the Temple of the playa at Burning Man.
It gave me pause to think, and I’d say that more than anything, Burning Man is a spiritual retreat. It’s a place where there’s universal acceptance and love. It’s a place that’s “governed” by something called the “10 Principles of Burning Man” https://burningman.org/culture/philosophical-center/10-principles/
You don’t even use your “real” name. You are given a “Playa” name by someone while there and what you do in the “default world” (back home) no one discusses. You leave behind your “real” job/career, and all your baggage. You get to dress anyway you want. Ties and suits and the costumes we wear every day to be societally accepted are traded for pasties, tutus, Indian headdresses, T-shirts/shorts and often, no clothing at all.
Imagine a world where people give one another things and expect nothing in return. The first time I was given something was the first day we arrived; at the gate, we got hugs. We biked out to see the “Man”, who’s 75 feet tall and is burned the final day of the event, and we’d parked our bikes to go inside the structure he was built in. A woman was standing aside the entrance and asked me if I’d like a necklace she’d made. I said, “sure!” and she put it around my neck. It was so fun! I was like “wow!” And that was just the beginning.
My favorite gifting moment happened was one morning, I think it was our third day there, we were starving and hot and exhausted as we’d barely slept due to the constant thump-thump-thump of music all night long. We’d biked to get ice (one of two things sold there–ice for your ice chests to keep your food cold and coffee at Center Camp) and we were riding back down one of the “streets” and there stood in the middle of the street was a woman dressed as a wizard. I thought she was a mirage. As we approached, we saw she was holding out a platter of fresh-baked cinnamon rolls. She was giving them away. She never said a word. She stood there smiling, and we took one each and said thank you, and I burst into tears. It was one of many gifting moments that brought me to tears. How was she able to bake cinnamon rolls in this unforgiving desert?? And how sweet they tasted in our much-weakened physical and emotional state.
One night we biked out to the “Distrikt” area, which is where all the fun is—flame throwers, the “Thunderdome”, all the crazy and there was a camp that was offering free grilled cheese sandwiches! Sure we had to stand in line for about an hour, but we chatted with others in line and made new friends, and when that sandwich touched our lips, let me tell you, it was orgasmic.
Another time, a camp was offering a free slice of pizza. When you’ve eaten nothing but canned tuna for four days, let me tell you, it sounded like heaven. We waited in line again for a long time, but the caveat at this camp was you had to agree to let them spank you. Seemed a small price to pay.
I got to choose the weapon–a small board or a plastic wiffle bat? I chose the board. I was hyped by this point. It was no small spank. My butt cheek was bright red for the rest of the day.
Mmm. It was worth it. Pizza will never taste as good again as it did that moment.
And so on it went. Every day spectacular things like this kept happening.
So there’s the half-circle area where all the camps are, and all day long there are are events and activities offered by many of them, ranging from yoga at sunrise to “Strip Karaoke” (yes, I did that one hehe). You can attend a class on how to give proper oral sex to a woman and AA classes. There’s absolutely something for everyone. You’re given a booklet at the gate with all the activities and addresses and times for everything; it’s impossible to do everything you want to do because there’s just so many fun things all going on at the same time.
And then there’s the Playa, where all the art is.
The art installations are beyond phenomenal. Most are so gigantic, as you ride your bike up closely you become so awed by the enormity of them as well as their significance. Many you can climb on as if it were a child’s playground. One was a 2-story life-like doll with hair that flowed in the wind, who was led on a crane and spoke to the crowd as she danced her way across the playa. There was a castle shooting fire and a giant jellyfish made of stained glass that when the sun hit it just so, it was a kaleidoscope of colors. There was a 2-story sized metal hummingbird that had a lever you could pull up and down and make its wings flap. And many, many, many more. As you ride out with all the other 70,000 or so people to see all the art, it’s quite a spectacular experience.
As the sun sets and everyone’s bikes are illuminated , it becomes a whole different scene. My favorite are the art cars, or more commonly called, “Mutant Vehichles”, which often have a DJ spinning tunes with awesome sound systems. We didn’t realize this until the last day that they’re for public transport! You can leave your bike somewhere and just jump on and ride it and rock out with whoever else is riding when you jump on. My favorite was a “shark” car–like all the others, it was lit up with thousands of LED lights that blinked to the bass sound. We rode around a little and then jumped off and got on an art car that was an actual boat–a yacht and the theme was Jimmy Buffet and the DJ was of course playing nothing but Jimmy Buffett and they had a bar on board and offering free margaritas! So many smiles everywhere we went.
We heard everything from Frank Sinatra to Raffii and everything in between. Lots of EDM which I love. The pulse and energy of the playa is tangible. You can be anyone you want to be at Burning Man, and for me, being stretched emotionally and physically beyond what I ever thought I was capable of, was life-changing. I wrote in a journal every afternoon so I wouldn’t forget what I was learning about myself. There were so many amazing moments of pure joy and I didn’t want to forget any of them. In my suffering, I found a self-acceptance and love I’d never felt before. Who am I really with all creature comforts stripped away??
I came back a more grateful and alive person; I remember seeing my friend Kelly for the first time after we got back and when I saw her, I just threw my arms around her and hugged her and sobbed. I had a new appreciation for how much my friends mean to me. She was a bit taken aback and asked me if I was okay. I was more than okay! I was alive! I felt great! She asked that question I still can’t answer; “how was Burning Man?” and I just smiled through my tears.
My take-away from Burning Man is this–all we need is each other. We don’t need “things”, we need experiences. We need joy and touch and fun and music and food and dancing and conversation. “Imagine”, as John Lennon wrote, “a brotherhood of man”.
I can’t wait to go back! I leave in 3 days!!
I’d better go pack now!