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Burning Man: Myth vs Reality

Burning Man is one of those events everyone seems to be polarized about. And with the legend and reputation it has, I can certainly see why. Typically the first thing people think of is “naked party with hippies on drugs”. However, the people I knew that were going… weren’t. They were innovative, creative, business-minded people who were working to create the next big thing and other beautiful things on the side. And this intrigued me.

Despite living in the area for 3 years, I was always traveling when Burning Man came to town, and I never had the chance to visit. However, this year there was a gap in my travel right before I headed around the world again. I decided to make Black Rock City the first country on my itinerary and find out how much was myth and how much was real.

Apocalypse, essentially.

Step One: Preparation

It takes place in the desert. In August. This means hot enough to boil an egg during the day and below freezing at night. Not to mention the sudden dust storms with zero visibility and ground that is so hard tent stakes curl up and cry. There is no running water, and you need to bring in (and carry out) everything you will eat and drink for a week. Also: no cars allowed. This is a crash course in survivalism through extremes. You can’t even go barefoot, as prolonged skin exposure will cause your skin to crack. Bleargh.

What happened to this just being a big party? Naked hippies wouldn’t last one day in this without turning into crispy hippie fritters!

I was hosting a couchsurfer at the time who happened to be going, and we split up the labor. I spent an hour bending 1/2″ rebar to staple our tents to the ground, and she called around to find a ride that didn’t seem creepy and wasn’t ridiculously expensive. So it went for a week, and we pulled everything together in record time (while still showing her the strange, magnificent city that is San Francisco.)

Step Two: Become Overwhelmed

As you roll into the city, it will be impressive. The outskirts look like a third world refugee camp, and the closer to the center you get, the more it looks and sounds like a rave with a ridiculously high budget. The real gems, however, are in the area inbetween. That’s where the middle ground lies. People who have made little themed camps for the first time that are building crazy artistic things and may or may not have any idea what they are doing. It’s hilarious, fun, and occasionally stunning.

This is also where I discovered the diversity Burning Man offers. There were people blasting 80s metal next to a drum circle. People in fantastic costumes were helping out others in jeans and t-shirts to find cool things that were going on. People were decorating bicycles (the only way to get around) next to others making a massive boat on wheels (except for that, of course). There were people discussing the financial aspects of Burning Man near people meeting about living nomadically. You are guaranteed to find like-minded people there, regardless of what your mind is like.

While it’s easy to cynically dismiss everything that was happening as childish, the amount of dedication and effort people were putting into making everything amazing showed a clear level of passion above and beyond the average stoned raver. Everyone had goals to accomplish, and they were putting their heart and soul into making it happen. I made many friends there from all over the world, and I’ve visited several of them on this trip around the world.

Ask nicely!

Step Three: Volunteer

One of the things that makes the culture of this temporary city so impressive is that no money is allowed to exchange hands. This is purely a gift economy. Not exchange. Gift. This means people will give you things, and it’s rude to offer something in return. Just accept the gift graciously to make their day; anything else is rude.

Also, it means you will see people that are building large, strange structures, and if one intrigues you, offer to help. Volunteering where it’s needed is one of the best ways to immerse yourself in a new culture, and a great way to meet people and see behind the scenes of how everything works.

While I was there, I helped people build, I bartended parties, I took classes and attended talks, and I had countless snowcones, ice cream, and poutine. No money was ever used; it was all just people helping each other out and having fun. This is where you stop being a tourist who looks at the pretty sculptures and start helping new friends realize their goals while they help make yours come true. The realization that everything in this massive city was made by people using their own time and money with no hope of return beyond making this week an amazing experience is humbling.

Step Four: Shifting Sands

Once you think you have seen everything, go to bed. Bundle up warm, and sleep well through the cold night. Once the heat of the morning sun turns your tent into a sweltering terrarium, unzip your tent’s flap and begin blinking slowly at the landscape. Notice how it has all changed while you had your eyes closed. Projects that were just starting are now finished, projects you loved yesterday are now gone, and there are hundreds of new camps that have set up, with brand new landscapes.

Every day is a different city. With over 55,000 people filtering around, nothing stays still for long. And that means it’s time to explore again.

Step Five: Deep Desert

Once you get enough of city life, grab a friend and bike out into deep desert. The same size as the city, but purely desert and art installations. Some are hilarious, some are sad, and some are just areas to relax and hang out with your friend or meet new people. Lose an afternoon here and you will have conversational topics for a long time to come.

Step Six: Afterward

When you talk to other people afterward, you will quickly learn that everyone’s experience is completely different.

“What did you think about the giant unicorn that had a troupe of 58 people dressed as unicorns inside who ran out and did a massive synchronized dance to Reggie Watts?”

“What? I never even heard about that!”

You can’t see everything, any more than you could visit a large city and expect to meet everyone in a week. However, I will share my favorite night with you to give an idea of how a semi-planned journey might flow.


One Night In Black Rock

One of the massive sculptures in the deep desert was a set of buildings several stories high made of plywood, so they acted like a skyline view in the desert. It was obvious the builder was from San Francisco, as the Transamerica Pyramid was included. His plan was to set it on fire at dusk, and we were running late.

Everyone mounted their bicycles and we started pedaling through the mounting dust storm toward the skyline in the distance. It came into view already on fire, and we pushed harder toward the inferno. One building collapsed after another, and we pedaled as hard as we could toward the flaming skyline of the city I called home as it turned into a pile of charcoal. I skidded to a stop in front just as the final building imploded amongst cheers of the gathered crowd.

We reconvened, and decided to move toward another large sculpture that was about to be set on fire in an attempt to recapture the glory. We turned around and started biking toward the next destination, and the wind kicked up, amplifying the dust storm into a full white out. You literally could not see your hand in front of your face, and the only thing that you could hazily make out were bright lights within 15 feet.

The journey became one of survival, following whatever lights were in front of you in hope that they were going the right direction. I had no idea where my friends were, or even where I was. After about 20 minutes of following new lights as they appeared, I ran across a large structure embedded in the ground and stopped to catch my breath. The dust storm was coming in large waves now, and was only white out about 90% of the time. During a few seconds of visibility, I vaguely made out one of my friends about 10 feet away. I slowly walked over toward her and called out her name. Suddenly another friend biked up, and another. Somehow we all arrived at the same place. Now we just needed to figure out where that was.

“TWO MAN ENTER! ONE MAN LEAVES!” boomed through the air from immediately behind us. The large structure was a gigantic geodesic dome that went by the name Thunderdome. A woman in full post-apocalyptic garb was hurling insults at the two fighters being strapped to huge bungee cords attached to opposite sides of the dome as girls gothed out beyond all recognition swirled and swayed to the greatest industrial hits of the ’90s. The dust cleared enough to make out people climbing all over the outside of the dome, and we ran up to join them.

We climbed toward the top of the dome to watch the fighters struggle against their rubber tethers for each other, swinging foam-covered bats at each other as the crowd screamed for blood. A dry wind of dust filled my lungs as I inhaled to shout louder than the person next to me, shaking my fist into the dome as another set of two people ran full speed toward each other, swinging to get in a hit before being snapped back toward opposite sides of the ring.

The dust storm was still in full effect, at times whiting out the entire arena, leaving only the ancient smell of dust and echoes of the crowd’s screams until it died down enough to see the combatants in mid-struggle. We watched as pair after pair of friends attacked each other while being insulted in creative new ways by the sharp-witted host, always leaving laughing. Once the storm died down enough, we called it a night, and I left to visit friends that were working at a fire-filled sculpture garden they had built.

A double decker bus filled with dancers and a live DJ had pulled up to the fire garden, and a crowd was dancing through the various metal structures. I caught up with my friends and we laughed about how our nights had gone while we danced around with the fellow dust-covered revelers. After a few hours, the bus, and subsequently the dancers, headed to another part of the desert and left us in silence.

The mood became somber as the flickering of flames was the only noise breaking the silence, and we milled around talking about different things that had changed our outlook on life throughout the week. Everyone had experienced different things, and they had all affected people in different ways. We listened, nodded, and laughed as each person told their stories.

In the background, a truck pulled up with four large propane-powered fire cannons, punctuating the silence with the unmistakable “foosh” that only sudden fire can make. We all swiveled around to see what made the noise, and he waved over my friend Cyra. I walked over with her to get a better look, and he let us climb up to the controls. Each cannon was controlled separately, and my friend and I each sat at two controls.

We turned toward each other, smiled, and I started a beat on one of my cannons. Cyra picked it up immediately and started a variation on one of hers. Suddenly realizing each cannon was a slightly different pitch, we played off each other with more and more complex rhythms. We stopped to laugh after a particularly hectic beat, and I looked down to see a crowd of people that had gathered to watch us play. I leaned forward to start another beat, and we played an unexpected encore in the spontaneous concert as people danced below.

Just like any trip, Burning Man can be anything you make it. Yes, there were naked hippies, and yes, there was plenty of loud music and dancing. Most of my time, however, was spent meeting amazing people who were making their dreams come true. Intersperse that with an afternoon lying in a shaded hammock and cooking some amazing meals, and you have a great week. I’ve stayed in touch with several people I met, and while I wouldn’t call myself a “burner”, I suspect I’ll be heading back.

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  2. Evilchippy says:

    Thank you for writing this post! When I was contemplating attendance last year I read a bunch of posts that, in hindsight, were complete garbage. Your experience was similar to mine. I also got to meet amazing people and shoot flames from the top of the same bus you mentioned. Burning Man made me realize how amazing people can be. The love is so powerful it takes your breath away )'(

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