“You’re driving nine hours into the middle of the desert?!” This call wasn’t going well. “Where there are violent sandstorms and no food or water aside from what you pack yourself?!” Mum was a little skeptical. “I’ll be fine,” reassuring myself as much as I was her. We’d come a long way in a short period of time, but I was a virgin burner and was bracing for a rough first time.
I’d always known about Burning Man. And by ‘known’ I mean I knew it existed, in some shape or another. It was that music festival in the middle of nowhere, no, wait, it was some kind of rave in the desert. Then it was an art exhibition or something. Whatever it was, it was an insignificant blip on my radar of things to do. I’d say somewhere between running the bulls and trying that new burrito place down the street. I knew plenty of people who had been, and who wouldn’t shut up about how life changing it was.
How life changing can a festival or event like Burning Man really be? I mean, I’ve seen a couple good shows here and there, and I’ve done my fair share of camping, the two things I imagined made up most of what is Burning Man, but for it to have such a drastic impact on your life so much so that you’re willing to spend the next two hours annoying the shit out of me with all your stories seems a little much. I smell bullshit. Or maybe LSD.
Putting aside my cynicism and general lack of understanding for what the hell it was, I’d made the call early in the year that I would go. As is custom when I commit to something I have absolutely no contextual information on, I started to do my research and very quickly learned that there are a thousand logistical nightmares between my flimsy commitment to attending and what would be my first burn. I started by applying for a low-income ticket, a special offer for people who work for non-profits and those who can’t afford general admission tickets. To my surprise, I’d been granted entry. Fuck. Now I have to go. But with who? How would I get there? Where is the Nevadan desert? Where the fuck is Nevada?
With only weeks left until the event, I’d pretty much given up hope. Since getting my ticket, I’d torn my ACL, been back to Australia for surgery, and returned to a mountain of work. Then I got this text, “Mate, just got my ticket. We’re doing this, yeah?” I couldn’t reply quick enough. “Why yes, that sounds wonderful, friend,” is the safe-for-work version of my response. Text sent. Panic ensued. We were weeks out from the opening of Black Rock City, the city built solely by burners in the middle of the Nevadan desert for Burning Man, with no idea what to do next.
We launched ourselves into the planning process, with another mate picking up a ticket along the way. Now we pack. ‘This should be easy,’ I remember thinking. A tent, something to wear, enough water, and food. I’ve camped before. I travel. Then a friend sent me this list of essentials. More panic. Maybe I don’t need to go.
Against all odds, we got our shit together. Even at this stage, we were still unsure of what to expect. “Oh you’re going to Burning Man,” people would say when I told them my plans for Labor Day weekend, “what is that exactly?”
Friends told us to be wary of seasoned burners who sometimes harbored a great deal of cynicism for idiots like us – three kids from the city who got lucky and planned their trip at the eleventh hour. Great. We haven’t even arrived yet and already everyone hates us. I bumped into an old friend who eased my worries with one piece of advice, “Say yes to it all. Check your ego at the door and open your mind to everything that comes your way. Burning Man is all about what you make it.” And with that, we left.
Black Rock City
We arrived Wednesday afternoon, a few days after Burning Man had begun, to one of the biggest sandstorms the city had experienced in years. Great start. They weren’t lying about the dust. It had already found it’s way into holes in my body I didn’t know existed. We drove around looking for a place to set up camp. The city was big. I mean, half the size of San Francisco big. To help people navigate, it’s divided up by letters, and hours, separated by fifteen-minute intervals. We were located at 6:15 and J, where that red dot is below.
We set up camp and hopped on our bikes to explore. ‘We’ll just ride through all the streets and get our bearings before dark’. No, Tom, you won’t. The city is home to over 70,000 people and can take half an hour to ride from one side to the other. There are hundreds of streets, with thousands of camps. Holy shit. What have I got myself into?
Acts of Giving
It’s true that there is no place for money at Burning Man. But often it’s misconceived that in lieu of cash, burners barter with each other for the things they need – I give you eggs, you give me water. I give you a back rub, and you give me dinner. It’s not. Burning Man is devoted to acts of giving. That is, giving without expecting anything in return. Sound suspicious? I thought so, too. But it works. And it’s not just someone here or there offering you a peanut as you roll by, it’s everyone, giving, all the time.
And it makes you want to give, too. I couldn’t give enough. We couldn’t cook enough for our friends, we couldn’t spray enough sunscreen on those who needed it, we couldn’t share our drinks with as many strangers as we wanted. Every time we gave something, we were adding some form of value, however small, to the community we were part of. Maybe you’re sitting at home wondering whether it’s actually that rewarding. I’m not an idiot. I’ve studied economics enough to know that this won’t work in the real world, but it doesn’t even matter. For this moment in time, we were giving everything we could to our new friends in Black Rock City. We had no money, and the world kept turning.
There’s something about my week at Burning Man that I couldn’t quite put my finger on while I was there. Something that made the city so magical. Yes, the art is unbelievable. Yes, the majesty of the desert is something that no amount of adjectives could ever adequately convey, but it was more than that. It was the secret pinch of sugar in the tomato paste that makes the pasta so good. And the more I thought about it, the more I parsed through each individual experience, analyzing what it is that made each moment so special, the clearer it became.
Burning Man is what it is, because of the people. Aside from the fashion bloggers who posed on everything and the one clown who was there to STEAL MY BIKE, the people of Burning Man are nothing short of breathtaking. The energy and excitement and compassion that seemingly everyone felt for one another was electric. I didn’t meet a single person there who wasn’t absolutely over the moon to have met me. We weren’t greeted with handshakes, but with big, long and warmhearted hugs. From everyone. All the time. I never felt the animosity I had been warned about. Burners, old and young, welcomed me ‘home’ with open arms. They shared with me their stories, their food, and their homes. Strangers waved frantically as you rode by. Everyone was my best mate. And I was theirs.
The days were long. Sleep was an afterthought. There was just too much to see and do. You haven’t experienced FOMO until you’ve had a half hour nap at Burning Man. Exploring the city and the open playa, the portion of the desert that is within the pentagonal event space used exclusively for art installations rather than camping, was absolutely the highlight for me. The city is huge, with hundreds of art installations scattered across the city. The playa is literally a living and breathing piece of art. And we were all part of it.
I won’t even bother trying to describe some of the artwork on display in the city. It’s pointless, so I’d recommend checking out this feature on the Burning Man website, and a couple of my photos below. Even then, the images do very little justice to the true scale and magnitude of some of these works. Maybe you’re like me, someone who struggles to think inside the box let alone outside of it, but that doesn’t matter. It’s impossible to not appreciate the level of creativity and effort that goes into each and every piece of art. Imagine a full-scale pirate ship, on wheels, zipping around the playa. Or a 5oft dragon fish that lights up with a million colors at night. Or an octopus that shoots fire out of it’s tentacles. IT’S TENTACLES.
So how do I go from ‘Oh that looks fun’ to packing my shit and going?
I asked someone while I was there how I could ever explain what it is that I was seeing to average non-burners that would surround me when I was home. “Imagine a week-long summer camp for adults, then mix in the biggest party you’ve ever been to, then times it by a thousand.” And if that doesn’t sound like fun, or maybe you think you’re too old for Burning Man, here’s Susan Sarandon absolutely killing it on the playa. Oh, now you’re interested. Good. Here are a few things to consider when you’re planning to burn in 2016:
- Buy your ticket – this one sounds a little obvious, but with ticket sales scattered throughout the year, it’s very easy to back out if you don’t have a ticket yet. Buy a ticket as soon as you can, and commit to it early.
- Speak to as many burners as possible – when I finally committed, I reached out to everyone I knew who had been or might know someone who had attended. I wanted to know all the hacks, tips, and shortcuts. Grab drinks and take a pen and paper.
- Take a couple of close mates – I went with two mates who were both up for whatever came at us. We all shared a similar open mindset in approaching our week at Burning Man. It made trying new things, like showering naked with fifty people in a foam container, much easier.
- Don’t stress too much about the gifting economy your first time – I took a few bottles of sunscreen and rode around spraying naked people in the sunshine. When you compare that with camps who cook for hundreds of people, or those who build extravagant stages for live shows, it doesn’t really compare. Just make a conscious effort to contribute and be involved in the community.
- When you’re there, expect everything to get ruined – don’t bother taking valuable or sentimental items that will ruin in the dust or heat. Sandstorms are no joke there, and everything in your tent and car will get lathered with a thick coat of gray dirt. Accept that you will be picking it out of your nose, sleeping in a tent full of dust, and unable to brush your hair for the week.
Go. Just go. Yes, it’s hot and cold and windy and dry and a multitude of other climatic extremes. Yes, the toilets are a cocktailed-mountain of feces and other bodily excretions. But a week at Burning Man will change your life. I’ve become the very thing I promised I wouldn’t: a burner who won’t shut up about Burning Man. And now I know why. Now I know why old burners draw tears when they tell stories of the playa, why tickets are sold out within minutes of going on sale, why people put thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours into building camps for reasons none other than creative expression in a city in the desert. Burning Man is a social experiment that pisses on capitalism, cynicism, and status. And, you know what, it works. It works because deep down people yearn for unlimited creative freedom. Deep down people want to give everything they can to help other people. And for one crazy, hot, windy, dusty, dry week out in the middle of the Nevadan desert, these ideals thrive.
It’s not a festival, or a show, or anything remotely like anything you’ve seen before. It’s a city in the desert, made up of people just like us who want to share, create, learn, dance, party, give, ride and build in the middle of nowhere. A fully functioning oasis of people and ideas and creativity all co-existing in one community.
Now enjoy a short video I put together of all our shenanigans over the week. You’ll get a good idea of what it’s like to cruise around and explore the city, and just what craziness to expect if you ever make your way over there. Only have fifteen seconds left to see more? Try this instead.