My First Burning Man Experience – 2010
The world has come to an end.
Civilization as we know it is over. And all 50,000 survivors came out to the desert to celebrate with the biggest party the human species has ever seen. That’s what Burning Man feels like. The rules and social norms you’ve lived with all your life don’t apply in this city. Black Rock City. The most amazing city on the planet that exists for only one week each year and then disappears without trace. Leaving 200 square miles of endless dust blowing over dry earth in the extreme weather without any sign of life. Nothing lives on the playa, not even spiders or scorpions or ants. Until next year…
[photo gallery and videos below after the break]
I never prepared this much for any trip in my life. And I was only there 5 days. Setup was a bitch. I went with my friends Den and Lena and I am so lucky that Den is not only a world adventuring survivalist, but he also likes to engineer products. He created a massive living structure out of metal pipes that breaks down to fit in a 4Runner. We slept in camping hammocks under insolated shade and even had astro turf carpet, seats, a couch and a fold up table. It almost felt like a home. But nothing but an RV can truly distance you from the extreme conditions of the playa. You’re not just camping in the middle of nowhere, these conditions are pretty brutal and not hospitable to any sort of life. The “Burners” like it that way, keeps out the trendy folk. This is not an event for any one type of group, there are soooo many (ravers, hippies, techies, artists, musicians, nudists, etc). The one thing that unites everyone is that this is clearly a city for the unconventional. The wackier and more off beat you are, the better. This serves as a powerful bond among everyone. Far and away this is the most accepting group of people I’ve ever seen. If you ever lose your friends, there are 50,000 other friends of yours around. Everyone is very friendly and helpful. It’s beyond that. When you comment to any random stranger it feels like you’re chatting with a friend you’ve known for decades.
Amazing to experience. But still you’re living in dirt. I’m a city boy. I like my sterile world. In the real world if your cup has a little bit of dirt in it, you toss your drink and rinse your glass and pour a new drink. At Burning Man, fuck it, there’s no point, you’re in a constant dust storm. If you don’t accept it you’ll die of thirst. You might as well go bite a pile of dust, because that taste is in your mouth for days, and the fine dust gets into everything; your skin, your hair, your clothes, your pillow, your chapstick. Every time I touched my back pack I felt like I needed to sanitize my hands. Some Burners would laugh at me for wearing a dust mask when the winds picked up and the dust was blowing everywhere. Some of these maniacs would walk through whiteout dust storms at night, so heavy you can’t see 5 feet in front of you, and they wouldn’t wear a dust mask or goggles. I eventually gave up on the dust masks, it’s uncomfortable anyway. No one is clean, very few shower at all the whole week. As the days go on, you start to really notice the B.O. of others.
The day time is HOT. There’s a lot of naked people. A lot of naked people. Only about maybe 10%, but that’s enough to constantly catch your attention. Majority are dudes unfortunately. Never seen so much penis in my life. How the fuck were they riding around on bicycles like that? Isn’t that unwise? I saw a naked dude asleep in a chair with his shlong hanging out under the extreme sun; that can’t be wise either. Also never seen so many breasts before. Not all of them were very good. But some were actually pretty good. It’s probably not in the spirit of Burning Man to judge these things, but yeah, anyway… You’re not supposed to take pictures of the naked people, so I had to be sneaky about it when I tried.
Which brings up another point. Though the people of this city don’t follow any of the rules you’re used to, this is not anarchy. They definitely live by very strong codes. The strongest of which is to respect the playa as sacred and leave no trace behind. People do not litter. You’ll see smokers ash out their cigarette on their shoe and stick the butt in their pocket. People won’t even toss an orange peel, even though it’s biodegradable, they’ll stick the peel scraps in their pocket. History is loaded with practices deemed sacred in order to get the population to follow along. In ancient India, the Cow was important, it plowed the fields and its milk nourished the people. Don’t eat the cow you fool!! It’s interesting to see this principle continue in modern times. If people didn’t follow this “playa is sacred” “leave no trace behind” policy, Burning Man would be a complete mess. 50,000 sloppy partiers would create a disaster, and Burning Man would never get a permit the next year. Even more than the necessity of it, everyone is amazed at how incredible this place is, they are grateful and appreciate that it exists, and they respect it. Some of the other laws of Black Rock City: don’t take pictures of naked people; no driving, unless it’s a creative “art car” or “mutant vehicle”; no driving anything over 5mph; you can not buy or sell anything; no dogs; etc.
When the sun goes down, that’s when Burning Man shines. WOW WOW FUCKING AMAZING!! Burning man at night is the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen. Fuzzy and Glowy. The night time becomes a psychedelic paradise. Which is good because everyone’s tripping hard on some intense psychedelics. I suppose there may be a few sober people, but they’re so statistically insignificant, it’s as if there are no sober people. I am a sober person. Life is a lot more productive that way. I don’t drink. I don’t smoke cigarettes. I don’t even drink coffee. I haven’t dropped any LSD since college. At Burning Man I dropped some LSD one night, and had one of the most incredible experiences of my life. Long story short, I turned into a 7 year old, excited about every stupid thing. I started dancing a lot. There are so many theme camp venues to check out and each with its own music and vibe; from rave techno to dub step to worldbeat chillout to classic soul; I would just absorb into each one. Watching all the sounds wobbling by. Spinning my glow stick on a string around like nun chucks and letting the light trails make a force field around me. I entertained everyone. My friends had a field day watching me run through the crowds of people dancing in place. Then a friend gave me an orange and everything changed. I wanted to know what the orange wanted, where it wanted to go. So I held it in front of me and followed it, through the crowds, holding my other hand right behind it, it was clear to everyone the orange is on a mission. There were some cute topless girls. Many of the guys seemed to sneak glances at them, but wouldn’t go up and talk to them. I came up with a great opening line. I brought over my orange, held it up and said, “Whoa! Look at this!”. They’d laugh. This wasn’t just a stupid line, I was genuinely excited. Then I’d raise up my other hand over the orange saying ‘the world is getting larger” and bring my hand back down saying “the world is getting smaller”. No girl didn’t enjoy that. At this point my friends joined in and the girls became part of our crew. Soon it became obvious, if you want to meet the cute half naked girls, send in the retard with the orange. A lot of things happened that night, don’t need to go into all the details. There were so many incredible sights and sounds and interactive art installations and genuinely fun random people everywhere. The largest most amazing playground that ever existed! Oh yeah, I do remember at one point I was laying on pillows with my head back against the edge of the inside of a large red tent. There was a light under me and I was watching the shadows my hands were making against the wall and I was laughing my ass off because I was thinking about what a great commercial this would make for a Senate campaign.
At night it seems everyone’s hugging people. Random strangers keep hugging you. It strengthens the openness, the acceptance, the bond between everyone. You’re out in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the desert, at night. It’s so cool that everyone is contributing to the amazing experience of everyone else. The vibe is just so positive. I definitely did my share of hugging and talking to strangers and introducing them to other strangers. It really truly felt like a group a 50,000 friends, just that most of them you haven’t met yet.
I’m not going to make a list of must have items to bring to Burning Man, there’s millions of those on the net. But one thing I figured out that I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere: bring fruit that is juicy! Oh my god, you’ll be sooooooo glad you did. After the heat and dehydration you experience, eating a plum or a peach or an orange makes you so happy. It is incredible and so satisfying.
The organizers of Burning Man are pretty clever about the apocalyptic vibe. There’s interesting details everywhere. For instance, in each lineup of porter potties, there’s one stall that has a chime continuously repeating “happy birthday to you” and it’s slightly off tune. It just adds to the continuous WTF experience of Burning Man. You start wondering if this is still Earth, or have you been beamed to some Star Trek fuzzy Mad Max with glow sticks planet of strange sometimes naked but always friendly humanoids?
Speaking of porter potties, that was a horrible gruesome experience, just to hold my breath to take care of number 1. I wouldn’t dare attempt a number 2. Weighing my options I decided to hold it the whole 5 days. This undertaking took some planning to pull off. Based on the principle of what goes in must come out, and based on the lack of excretory correctness from the 50,000 other desperate Burners, I just might have stumbled on a new reliable portion control weight loss method. How will I market this?
What I’m saying is, getting an RV is the way to go.
In America we have an ongoing War on Terror. At Burning Man there is an ongoing War on Sleep. Just forget about it. No sleep for you. Don’t bother trying. You’re trying to sleep in the middle of the most massive party the world has ever seen. It’s not possible. I finally got to sleep at 6:30am and a god damn fucking raver boat bus starts blasting techno right outside our camp. Ear plugs block out the sound like clear glass blocks out light. The DJ was actually playing some pretty good music, but it’s 9:30am for CHRIST’S SAKE. Show some mercy and let people get SOME sleep.
As you can see from my Burning Man photo gallery below, I took a lot of photos. I recently bought a DSLR and despite my better judgment I actually took it out of its big sealed ziplock and actually used it. I’m glad I got some amazing shots, but I almost ruined the camera in the process. The very fine playa dust blows everywhere and saturates everything. The dust actually found it’s way behind the glass of my new expensive lens. Repairing it will cost about as much as buying a new lens. I knew I shouldn’t do it, but I was missing so many amazing shots, so I finally got out the camera the next to last day and took a ton of photos day and night. This is only a very small sampling of what I’ve seen. And what I’ve seen is only a very small sampling of the whole Burning Man experience.
Like the internet, it’s impossible to experience everything, because Burning Man’s “Black Rock City” is MASSIVE. There are over 50,000 people. That’s a legit city dude. Most of them are contributing something to the Burning Man experience. You can not see everything. It is truly incredible how much time, energy, and money people put into this. The “art cars” and theme camp venues were incredible. Some have created brilliant artwork installations that are scattered out on the playa desert. You just keep walking, or biking along the desert and all of a sudden some phenomenal artwork installation appears out of nowhere. It makes the art installation feel so much more powerful and significant than if you walked through a museum and viewed one after another.
There is a giant man of wood and neon perched atop a giant tower in the center of the semi circle of the city that forms around it. On Saturday night comes the ritual ceremony and they finally burn “The Man”. All 50,000 people gather in the playa. The ceremony begins with the largest group of fire dancers anyone has ever seen. And these were some of the most talented and interesting fire dancers I’ve ever seen. The energy from so many around you was intense. Excitement was building. And then the fireworks started. No one had ever seen a fireworks show that intense. It was like the finale of any ordinary 4th of July show was the beginning, and the fireworks just kept getting more intense and furious. And glorious. Amidst it all the structure started burning, soon the man was on fire. His arms of flames reaching to the sky as the structure gave way and collapsed under him.
We packed up and left after the man burned. We didn’t stay for the burning of the Temple the next day. For many, the Temple is an important balance to the Burning Man experience. While Black Rock City is filled to the brim with fun exciting activities, the Temple is a very different place. The mood there is quiet, somber. People write deeply personal messages on the temple walls, the burning of the Temple is a form of personal cleansing. Many of my friends were afraid to go to the Temple. When they went last and started reading the messages, they started crying. Big strong military cut men, crying. So I checked it out. The very first message I read on a wall said “I love you Mom. You were amazing. I forgive you now for everything.” Whoa, I got the idea. It was mostly pretty intense.
I know this article is long, but it’s still only a very brief summary of the Burning Man experience. You are on sensory overload, it’s not possible to explain it all. The most difficult question veteran Burners have to answer is “What is Burning Man?”. Burning Man is what 50,000 people bring to it, and they bring a lot. It’s too many things and too many experiences to describe with a simple answer. What is New York? What is Los Angeles? A sound bite won’t be very helpful. But I can say that Burning Man is the most amazing city that exists for one week each year. And I can say that I understand why so many people travel from all over the world and plan all year long for it. And if nothing else, I can say that next year I can call myself a veteran “Burner”. That’s right, I’m going back. Who else is coming? It’s time to start planning…
I was riding along the streets of Black Rock City and stopped to see what all the chanting was about.
The burning of the man ceremony began with A LOT of fire dancers!!
This was just the beginning of the fireworks show, it got a lot more intense and furious.
UPDATE: Here’s a fun video I found on YouTube that captures the overall feel of Burning Man