I’ve been meaning to go back to Burning Man ever since my 24 hour stint four years ago. But each year since then, a few months before the event I’d start doing my research and quickly become overwhelmed by the complexity of it all: Finding a ticket, finding a camp, figuring out transport, etc.
This year, I was fortunate to find a last minute ticket and camp via a friend (under 10 days before the start!), so I pulled the trigger, spent more money than is probably rational, and managed to squeeze in three full days on the playa. It wasn’t the full week experience but it was enough time that I feel like I have a richer and more accurate understanding of the Burning Man project.
Here were my impressions from my first trip — about awe, hardship, and values.
Overall impression this year: A good time! A couple highlights followed by other smaller scale impressions:
Late night bike ride to the temple
At 10pm one night, the guys in my RV and I went to a dance party, which was fun and populated with people I knew, but after an hour I realized it was like any other dance party (except worse because it was only electronic dance music!). Yet the rest of the playa boasted only-in-Burning Man art and people and crazy costumes.
So I bailed on the party and went to find my bike to go explore.
To combat the nighttime gusts of wind and playa dust, I wore goggles over my eyeglasses. In general, dust-in-eyes challenged me more than dust-in-mouth, so I wore goggles more than my mask. A friend helped strewn flashing lights on my bike. On my body, I wore white basketball shoes, tall green teenage mutant ninja turtles socks, long white tights as underwear, cat shorts, a cheap fur vest over my open chest, an Arabic style scarf wrapped around my neck that I could pull up to cover my mouth when needed, and colorful flashing bracelets wrapped around my upper arm. Finally, a headlamp to guide my way. Don’t bike at night without a headlamp.
I proceeded to bike solo around the playa from 11pm – 2:30am. I passed art cars firing blames of fire out of pipes, I passed stationary sound camps blasting thumpin’ EDM for the enjoyment of revelers who were likely enjoying an LSD trip in turn, and hundreds of other cyclists randomly meandering the playa. As I went further out into the desert and away from the formal camps, I stumbled upon the temple, a regular structure on the playa (newly and differently built each year) where people write mini-obituaries onto the walls and tape photos of loved ones who died in the past year. Here’s more about the temple and a short 5 min video overview.
In the front of the temple this guy, a guy was playing on a full sized piano. He was hitting the keys, but it was silent to the naked ear. I took in the sight: a guy, caressing a piano, in front of a temple — enveloped in a desert at 1am. I routinely tried to remind myself that nothing I was seeing was in any way normal: recognize the absurdity and then let it give way to awe… Anyway, a woman in front of the temple was handing out wireless headphones. I put a pair over my ears, and in beamed the live sounds of the piano player in front of me. I walked through the temple, hearing the piano music in my ears, and started reading the obits. Some postings were quite moving. I was especially taken with the love letters that people posted to their now-deceased dogs. I spent an hour reading, absorbing, resting, and reflecting at this beautiful monument erected to honor past lives. Really touching.
On morning #3, I woke up at 4am and headed out on bike to deep playa, near the small fence that represents the outer border of Burning Man territory within the vast, identical desert that’s all federal land. It was about a 30 minute bike ride from my RV to the outermost fence of the playa.
By 4:45am or so, I noticed the “first light” as the sun ever-so-slightly woke up, and by 5:30/6am it was a full sunrise serenade, in which I saw the glowing ball rise up from the ground above the desert landscape, in a matter of minutes it transformed pitch darkness to perfect brightness. After another 30 minutes, that clear, crisp brightness settled into a shiny, blistering brightness that persisted for the remainder of the day.
Many people had assembled to watch the sunrise. You could tell who had stayed up all night versus the people who just woke up early, like me. People’s attire varied: Some were dressed for the chilly night, some were dressed more modestly knowing that by 8am it’d be hot as hell and you wouldn’t want to be lugging around a heavy jacket in the sun. And of course one couple near me was fully nude, both man and woman, the man sitting and hugging his partner from behind to stay warm.
Tycho, the electronic music artist (who I ended up meeting again in the airport flying home later in the day), DJ’d a set of “sunrise” music, and people danced. From there, we wandered over to the 747 — half of a real-life 747 airplane stationed in the desert — where there was more music being played, and being dancing and milling about outside the aircraft.
I can’t remember the last time I’ve been awake for and consciously attended to a sunrise. While it wasn’t a kind of spiritual experience for me in the way others have described it at Burning Man, I’m glad to have done it. Definitely memorable.
Some other scattered impressions:
Bike is a game changer. First time around, I had no bike. This time, I had a crappy, way-too-small-for-me bike, but it worked. Being able to do what 99% of people at Burning Man do — bike around the playa — unlocked all sorts of new experiences. Next time I’ll try to get an electric bike.
Scheduled workshops/sessions. I didn’t go to any scheduled workshops. There are a ton every day on all sorts of topics, from the G rated to the X rated. But I didn’t feel like I had time to do more than serendipitous drop-ins at a couple camps. I also lacked the confidence that I could actually reach specific destinations on time given my shoddy bike and uncertain geographic sense of the playa. But had I stayed a couple more days, my grasp of how the city was organized would have been better. I was feeling like I had picked up on the layout by my last day…
Picking up food on offer. Hot dogs, smoothie, tacos. All offered by different camps as I biked by. It’s hard to go hungry on the playa. I made friends by offering hand sanitizer to the people in front and behind me in line while waiting for food.
People are aware of the irony of Burning Man. No one I spoke to denied the highly capitalistic elements of Burning Man; the lack of racial diversity; the humor of the principle of “self-reliance” when people truck in hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of technology to survive for a week. I probably haven’t spent time with true hardcore burners, but from my conversations, people don’t take themselves or the “mission” of Burning Man irrationally seriously.
It’s more fun with friends. You can only do so many hours outside in the heat; as a result, there’s plenty of downtime, chill time, etc. in the RV or camp area. When I go again, I’m going to try to organize several friends to go at the same time and coordinate being in the same camp. Makes a difference.
Surprisingly asexual. Sure, there’s a lot of nudity at Burning Man. Plenty of topless women and a fair number of guys letting it all hang out — especially in the gay neighborhood. But I found the nudity weirdly unerotic. Maybe because you’re in a constant state of feeling disgusting at Burning Man — sweat, dust, sleep deprived, etc. The nudity feels practical more than sexual. To be sure, I didn’t go in the orgy tent or attend the other adult-theme sessions (see earlier point about not being confident in my ability to get anywhere on time).
Money makes it all more comfortable. An RV with functional air conditioning is infinitely more enjoyable than an outdoor tent that’s exposed to the elements. Flying in or out to Black Rock City airport (the landing strip right on the playa) also shaves hours of time of the journey into the desert. Neither an RV nor a plane is cheap. Duh.
Back to reality…at the airport. My flight out of the playa from Black Rock City airport was delayed for 3 hours. There were several charter flights to Oakland scheduled back-to-back; all delayed. When the staff person announced that a flight scheduled for 1pm was going to depart before a flight originally scheduled for 12pm, people on the 12pm flight flipped out. It was amusing to see all the groovy community-love vibes of the playa revert almost immediately to mainstream airport customer service outrage. It reminded me of a meditation retreat I went to many years ago. A couple hours after the retreat ended, a heated argument that broke out in the parking lot between two meditators — one of whom accused the other of blocking his car and impeding his departure. It was as if all the loving-kindness mentions from the previous 3 days had evaporated instantly.