Those two words put together bring up a lot of comments from those who have never been.
“Oh yeah, that’s where everyone goes to have sex with each other.”
“Burning Man is just a bunch of people doing massive amounts of drugs.”
“Those people are hippies who can’t handle life.”
“I knew someone who had a friend who knew someone who suffered psychological issues from Burning Man.”
The truth is, the rumors don’t start out of thin air. In a land where 80,000 people go for 7-9 days there will always be people who can confirm all the hear-say.
But then again I guess you could make those same claims about New York City, remote islands in the Atlantic, Los Angeles, and any given Saturday night, wherever you live, USA. And I mean, aren’t all Southerners stupid? And all Muslims are terrorists? Oh and isn’t everyone in Utah a polygamist? Right, I thought so.
The truth is, the people who have never been to Burning Man have no idea what it is. Not only can they not have a clue without actually going, but trying to explain Burning Man to someone is like trying to explain the color purple to a blind person. It’s impossible. I’ve even stopped trying. When people used to ask, “but what do you do all day? Don’t you get bored?” I would say, well no, because there are literally thousands of things to do. One day we went to a Disney sing-a-long, punched some heavy bags at a gym, played a piano, crafted a leather pouch necklace, ate pizza someone gave us, had a lavender head massage, jumped on a trampoline, and did some serious bike riding (to name a few things). One night we went to the Thunderdome and watched a man a woman beat each other with foam bats Mad Max style (it’s pretty crazy).
But all those things don’t describe Burning Man because they don’t describe the unguarded connections you make out there in a vast desert with no street lights, stores, commerce, or judgement. Outside of Black Rock City (the temporary city built by us, that hosts the Man and all 80,000 of us), if you were to just walk up to someone, give them a hug and then ask them how life was going I’m pretty sure they would not respond with, “amazing! Actually, I have some pickles would you like one?” But that’s pretty much the response at Burning Man. Most everyone is genuinely happy to be there and happy that you’re there with them.
Oh wait, but aren’t they just being nice to you because they want to get in your pants? I suppose you could come to that conclusion if you’re never been, because that is what we’ve come to expect, unfortunately (you ladies know EXACTLY what I mean). But I’m quite proud to say that I have less (if even any) sexual advances while wearing my sequined bikini at Burning Man and giving free hugs than I do in the grocery store produce aisle wearing a t-shirt and shorts, with my child, offering zero free hugs or any invitations to converse. I think it’s because at Burning Man, everyone is so free to be who they are, that if someone is out to find sex or anything along those lines, they know exactly where and who to go to that wants that same thing. There’s no reason to assume that my, or anyone else’s, friendly and warm welcome means anything than just that. Because no one is hiding anything. Isn’t that great? Feel free to be your nice, sweet, happy-to-be-alive self at Burning Man, folks!
Burning man is full of mathematicians, computer scientists, entrepreneurs, yogis, wanderers, survivalists, party people, introverts, extroverts, Mamas and Daddies, kids and friends. People usually go because they are curious and then come out with an entirely different perspective on life, their path, their friends, their relationships, and the universe. Burning Man experiences are particularly cathartic in which you are able to clearly see which aspects of your life need some help.
Aside from all the dancing and art and sing-a-longs, ultimately, Burning Man is about survival and how you respond. In order to survive at burning man – literally endure life and not die or suffer trauma from heat stroke, exhaustion, undernourishment or getting plain run over in a dust storm, you have to constantly be prepared for anything. Even if you think you’re going down the block to get you’re your bike fixed (by the super amazing bike repair camp) you need to bring enough supplies to last 2 days in the desert.
To prepare for the entire week, you must bring enough water with you (2 gallons per person per day) and consume that water in a manner that will keep you hydrated but also not overly hydrated, which IS a thing. If you don’t bring proper shade, you’ll literally fry. If you do not bring warm clothes, you’ll freeze at night (except for this year – damn, it was hot!). You must bring proper attire for your feet so you don’t get playa foot, which is basically your feet looking like they’ve started to decay. If you can’t go several days without food, you better bring it. Although loads of camps hand out free food, you never know when you’re going to come across those camps so it’s best not to be starving in the hot playa heat.
There are no, “oops, I forgot batteries for my lights gotta run to light store” moments at Burning Man. What you came with is what you have. Don’t get me wrong, there are always people willing to give you what you don’t have. But in general, if you don’t bring sufficient lights for night time, you may literally get run over (this happened last year). So, before you go have all that crazy sex and take illicit drugs and don’t deal with life and be bored (all said in a completely sarcastic tone), you better make sure you have the tools to survive.
At Burning Man / Black Rock City there are no garbage cans to throw trash. You may not throw it on the ground. If you have trash, you must keep it until you leave the playa. So you would think, with 80,000 people, there would be a ton of trash throwers, right? Throw it while no one is looking? Nope. Even the most reckless of the crowed respects the playa and knows not to destroy it. The motto of Burning Man is “leave no trace” which means, when all is over, the art is gone, the people have left, and the city is no more, there is no trace we were ever there. It’s a motto that almost every person adheres to out there. The few that try to break that rule quickly learn that misbehavior will not be tolerated by the rest of us.
Being stripped away from all the comforts of our lives, no matter how frugal you might live, can bring out insecurities, fears, and desires you never knew you had. Even though burning man has loads of stimuli and art to focus on, you are forced to face yourself and be with yourself whether you like yourself or not. If you don’t, you are forced to figure out why. People come back from burning man and quit their job and hike big mountains. Some people come back with very clear pictures of who the most important people in their lives are and who most definitely aren’t. Most everyone comes back with a greater understanding of who they are. They keep going back to get further to the truth.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not all meditation and loving hugs and being one with the dust. We also party. We party a lot. There are some mornings when we have champagne with breakfast. Some nights we never go to sleep in anticipation of a beautiful sunrise, accompanied by amazing music (at Bubbles & Bass camp, what’s up!). Our happy hours make you forget everything you thought you knew. We are all amazing dancers out there.
Then other days we find an orchestra or a choir and cry as we listen (true story! Burning Man 2011 I unexpectedly balled my eyes out while attending playa church). We attend our friends’ wedding on the playa which is more real than the ones in the default world. We practice yoga and get healed by a shaman. We make leather crafts and swing on monkey bars. We go to sleep at 9pm. We watch the little kids on the playa make dust bunnies and stare in disbelief at the huge Burning Man.
I have attended Burning Man 4 times and every experience was drastically different. I’ve had burns where I drank all the champagne and stayed up all night. I’ve had burns where I made truly deep connections with almost everyone I met. I’ve had burns where I’ve been frustrated at the heat, at myself, and at life. You just never know what will happen. This recent burn I wanted to see the sunrise and do some yoga and meditation camps. I did none of that. I barely drank any alcohol, I relaxed a lot, and I danced my butt off. I went to bed early most nights. I missed my baby and at the same time I found myself dreaming about taking her with me (she would love all the dance parties, the art, the monkey bars, the pancakes).
The first time you attend Burning Man you will be shocked at the amount of people who hug you with genuine compassion. We are all just so happy to see you and that you decided to come be a part of this craziness with us. My husband, the naysayer of this event, came out of the first day with a true appreciation for the genuine nature of everyone with whom he came into contact. You’ll be pleasantly surprised when someone offers you a top notch Bloody Mary or a fresh homemade pizza slice and expects nothing in return. You’ll find yourself standing around wondering which direction you should go, when out of nowhere an art car that looks like a sheep pulls up and asks if you want a ride. You’ll love it so much that you’ll think to yourself, what can I give people to make their experience as amazing as they’ve made mine? And next year you’ll make grilled cheese and hand it out to people expecting nothing in return.
This year was the hottest I’ve ever experienced. My husband had to go to the medic tent because he overheated (a truly humbling experience for him. He learned his lesson about not drinking enough water!). I ran out of water one day, very far away from home, and a woman who I had just met took me over to her tent, completely filled up my camelbak with her water, and sent me on my way with a hug. The bike repair camp fixed our broken bikes. The camp across from us gave us iced coffee. We loaded people up with pickles, cookies, grown folks lemonade and hip hop happy hours.
There is no bartering. There is no currency. There is no, “I’ll give this to you if you have something I want.” There is no judgement on what you are wearing or not wearing. There are no social hierarchies or exclusive camps or VIP tickets. Those who are trying to profit off Burning Man by trying to inject VIP events and exclusivity are slowly being weeded out and ostracized. Because we will not have you destroy the ethos of our Burning Man. Even Sean “Puffy” Combs himself was in a camp this year that was open to all who entered.
Don’t get me wrong, I am still a logical person when it comes to all of this. I do not think every day in the real world should be Burning Man. I don’t come back and start handing out pickles to people on the street or go and ask my neighbors if they have any iced coffee they can give me or if they would like some grown folks lemonade and a hug. I’ve lived enough to know that Burning Man isn’t realistic for the whole world. However, if one week out of the year can positively affect the other 51 weeks of most of the 80,000 people, who go back into society, isn’t that good for everyone? I believe so and I’ll do my part to protect it.
I’ve been all over the earth and there is no other place or experience like this one. Yes, you can trade in your expensive burning man ticket and all that’s involved and go to Paris and see the Louvre, or you can go to one of the smaller burns, or you can save your money and time and keep working the grind and let all the weeks blend in to one another. There are a million reasons not to attend Burning Man. There are only a handful of powerful reasons you should go. But you can’t replace the experience with anything else so don’t even try.
I created a FAQ section below which are questions I’ve been asked over the years about this event. Maybe it will encourage someone else to take the leap next year:
Where do you use the bathroom? Super important question. There are about 20 or so port-a-potties every 2 blocks or so. They are cleaned by the port-a-potty company twice a day. They are the cleanest port-a-potties I’ve ever seen. And no, you are not allowed to ‘go’ on the Playa. Big no no.
Isn’t this bartering? Aren’t you just exchanging things? Even though I already answered this question above, I’ve found that there are tons of people who simply cannot understand that Burning Man is not a community of bartering. People give you stuff. You take it and say thank you. The end.
Is everyone doing drugs? A lot of people do. A lot of people don’t. Drugs are illegal, even in Black Rock City, and there are undercover cops everywhere. If you’re trying to go out there to sell drugs or stay in a 24/7 drug induced state, you’re a) going to get arrested for selling drugs and/or b) going to die or come close to it because you won’t be taking proper care of yourself.
Is this considered a music festival? Are there bands and concerts? Not really. There is music, there are bands…. But that’s not the focus. There is music played by tons of different camps, 24/7, of all types. You can find almost any type of music you want. Diplo and a slew of other DJs do sets here and there. People come and dance if they want to. But there are usually a few hundred people at those sets. The other 79,000 people are doing something else.
Isn’t this just for young people? Like college kids? Not at all. In fact, the majority of the people there seem to be in their late 20’s, 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. If I had to guess, I would say the most prominent ages are people in their 40’s. My first year, our neighbor was in his 90’s. Our other neighbors were dentists from Canada who looked like they were in their 60’s.
Do people worship the Man? I’ve never met anyone who says they worship the Man… that’s not saying there isn’t someone out there that does. However, most people use the Man as a symbol for things they want to get rid of in their life or as a symbol to a new beginning. When the Man burns on Saturday night, a lot of people feel like they are letting go of things that have caused stress in their life and that they can start fresh. It’s like New Year’s resolutions in a way. I, personally, don’t feel any of this, because the whole experience is cathartic for me.
I don’t drink at all. I’m also vegan. Would I have fun here? Yes! There are TONS of people who don’t drink or party or eat cheese. Unlike when you go to a bar and are surrounded by people drinking and actin’ a fool, this is a place where drinking or partying doesn’t have to be the focal point for you. I feel like there is less temptation here than there is in life outside of Burning Man.