What is Burning Man?
The concept of Burning Man seems rather ridiculous at face value. In a hot and dusty dry lake bed, 120 miles north of Reno, NV, 70,000 to 90,000 people (I've heard different numbers) build a temporary city, once a year. At the end, they remove or burn it down. During that week, Black Rock City, at a population of 70,000 is the sixth most populous city in Nevada (source).
Check out my video of my Burning Man experience.
The purpose of Burning Man is not easily explained, if there even is an official purpose, and I'm sure it's different for each participant. Some go to party, some to indulge in a drug binge, some for carnal pursuits, some for the art, some to get away from the real world, and for some it is a religious-like calling. It is difficult to explain Burning Man to those who haven't been. It is similar to trying to explain the phenomena of a total eclipse of the sun to anyone who hasn't been fortunate enough to observe one. For some things, you just have to go to truly understand it.
Reasons to Not Go
The reasons to NOT do Burning Man are easier to explain than those in favor.
- Tickets are difficult to get and the prices range from $425 to $1,200.
- Wait times to get in and out can be eight hours each.
- There is no provided water, electricity, or places to dump trash.
- There are no flushing toilets, unless you bring your own.
- The only things you can buy are coffee, tea, lemonade, and bags of ice.
- The nearest grocery store is 94 miles away, and leaving temporarily is highly discouraged.
- Even on the best of days, dust is everywhere. Dust storms are common and can and will send everybody seeking shelter.
- The camping area is cramped and overcrowded.
- Generator noise from the many people glamping in RVs is omnipresent during most of the hot waking hours.
- RV rental costs are steep. Expect to pay a rental fee of about $8,000 for a small one.
- To some, naked men walking about in broad daylight is not offset by the fewer topless women who invoke the same privilege.
Things I Wished I'd Brought
Before I even try to explain the good points of Burning Man, let me address some questions I have been asked. There are already a host of resources on what to bring to Burning Man and general advice, which I will not repeat. I thought I did my homework before going. For the most part, I was well prepared. However, here are some things I wish I took along:
- Goggles. I actually had a whole bin of camping stuff ready to go, but forgot to put it in my car. I think swimming goggles would be as effective or more than ski goggles.
- Decorative lights. I did take along normal bike lights, flashlights, and huge bag of batteries. However, my bicycle was boring. A little effort will glam your ride, and yourself, at night. Burning Man is very big on bright, colorful lighting.
- A combination bike lock. I took the kind with a key and dust got into the lock, making it difficult to open.
- An industrial dust mask. I did bring along the simple kind with a rubber band, but for the heavy wind days you'll need something better, like what they use to remove lead paint and mold. Some dust will get past the cheap masks.
- Labels. You should identify as your property your cell phone, bicycle, and anything else that might go missing that you would want back. Many people made copies of their driver's license and taped them to everything of value. Things do easily get lost and "borrowed without permission" at Burning Man. You probably won't know your campsite until you get there, so bring a sharpie to mark it down on any label after you arrive.
- More appropriate clothing. I really had no idea what to wear so I took along bland things like old Hawaiian shirts. It's hard to explain what to wear, but Burning Man is your chance to express yourself any way you wish. Keep in mind that whatever you wear will take a beating, My advice is look carefully at the people in the background of the many Burning Man videos out there for ideas on how people really dress.
"Queen of the Robots" by M.R. Stubbs (Robots were the theme for 2018)
Some Things You Should Bring that Aren't on Most Lists
- Ear protectors. These are the things jack hammer operators wear. As mentioned, there is a lot of generator noise from RVs and good ear protectors will let you rest in peace, if you wish.
- A cowboy hat. Not only do they protect you from the blaring sun but they look good. With all clothing, something decorated and weather-beaten and old will blend in better.
- A bicycle. Yeah, this is already on every "to bring" list, but it should be emphasized that everybody should have his own. I suggested our group of eight share four of them, but I was wrong on that one. Biking is the only convenient way to get around and you'll be using it all day long if you're out there participating, which you should be.
- Adequate moisturizer. Your skin will take a lot of abuse at Burning Man. Don't skimp on keeping it protected. I personally recommend petroleum jelly.
- A large bin and towels. I feel the best way to keep yourself clean without consuming a lot of water is a bucket bath. Two liters of water is all you need. When you're done, mop up the water with towels and hang them out to evaporate. It is strictly against the rules to dump dirty water on the ground.
I also want to emphasize that you should protect your feet well. My biggest mistake was going about in sandals most of the time. The dust at Burning Man is highly alkaline. If you're exposed to it for too long, the ph balance in your feet will get out of whack due to a lack of proper acidity. The consequence can be a case of "playa feet," which is another term for a chemical burn, which I got a bad case of shortly after leaving. The cure is cleaning your feet well and then soaking them in a mixture of three parts water and one part vinegar. However, the best cure is prevention. Keep your feet as protected from the dust as you can with socks and shoes. If you must wear sandals, clean your feet well and then soak them in a vinegar solution daily, as a preventative measure.
Another thing I wasn't very prepared for is "Playa names." Much like on the Appalachian Trail, people go by assumed names at Burning Man. Some people I met there were Mother Goose, Boomer, Rainbow, and Abra (as in "abracadabra"). Some of the others in my group suggested what they called me anyway, "Wizard." However, I think most people go to Burning Man to escape who they are in real life and live as they really want for a week. Thus, I wanted a fresh name. Some friendly neighbors started calling me "Magic Mike," which I answered to, but I would have preferred something that didn't include reference my real name.
I'm not sure why I thought this, but at the time I insisted you couldn't give yourself a Playa name to others in my group with the same dilemma. In the Delta House initiation scene in Animal House, a new name was given to each of the pledges. Perhaps I was hoping something like that would happen at Burning Man, but it didn't. To get to my point, my advice is to forget any tradition of not being allowed to give yourself a Playa name and do so. Asking for suggestions among your friends is fine, but be prepared with a back-up if they don't come up with anything brilliant that meets your expectations.
Check out my video of the interior of this 747.
There are a number of ways long-time Burners can identify a newcomer. That doesn't mean newcomers aren't welcome. In fact, Radical Inclusion is one of the 10 Principles, which is explained as "Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger." Nevertheless, who wants to stand out as a noob? That said, if anyone extends their hand for a handshake, that person is either a noob too, or they are checking if you are. People at Burning Man don't shake hands, they hug, and do so very warmly and affectionately.
Reasons to Go
I could go on with Burning Man advice and stories long enough to write a short book, so I'll try to end this with an answer to the difficult question of why one should go to Burning Man. As I mentioned at the beginning, people go for a host of different reasons. Here are some, as I perceive them:
- Burning Man will probably be the best chance you ever get to escape the "real world." Don't be surprised if you don't think about it at all while you're there. Cell service is lousy, which, I think, is overall a good thing. If you are able to get through, you can always pretend like you can't. Nobody will ever know.
- The Playa contains the greatest collection of modern art you will likely ever see, by many orders of magnitude. It is about 500 times better than any modern art museum you'll ever visit.
- The people at Burning Man are extremely friendly and at ease -- at least they are while they're there. It isn't the kind of forced courtesy you might get if visiting a new church desperate for new blood, but I think of it as a very powerful 70,000-person-strong contact high.
- There is nothing to buy, except coffee and ice. Otherwise, money just doesn't come up. Nobody tries to sell you anything, but instead you'll be offered unconditional gifts all the time. However, don't be a mooch. One of the Burning 10 Principles is "Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift-giving."
- There are parties everywhere and all day long. No matter what scene you're looking for, you'll probably find it, and many others you were just curious to experiment with. If you're young and into Electronic Dance Music, you'll have a litany of choices among countless camps along the Esplanade.
- Finally, some have a religious-like connection to Burning Man. I can't say that I'm one of them, but have met people who are. Many leave every year with a spiritual awakening that I would not dare try to explain.
I hope this long, rambling article has shed some light on my experience at Burning Man and provided some useful advice to those who go in the future. In conclusion, I can't say that Burning Man is for everybody. Some people would love it, some hate it, but most would fall in between somewhere. I think you know which camp you're in. If this article inspires you to take the plunge, please let me know how it goes.