I am not a Burner. I am in love with a Burner.
I met my Burner about three weeks after his 6th Burn (that’s a trip to Burning Man where you come back alive) and he immediately began working on me. As if there was ever a moment’s doubt that I’d be going with him the next year.
What is Burning Man? Allow me to lift this rock you’ve obviously been living under for the past twenty years and explain.
According to Wikipedia, Burning Man is “an annual event in the western United States at Black Rock City — a temporary city erected in the Black Rock Desert of northwest Nevada, approximately 100 miles (160 km) north-northeast of Reno. The late summer event is described as an experiment in community and art, influenced by ten main principles: radical inclusion, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, gifting, decommodification, participation, immediacy and leave no trace. The event takes its name from its culmination, the symbolic ritual burning of a large wooden effigy (“The Man”) that traditionally occurs on the Saturday evening of the event”.
What we’re talking about here is the world’s most stupendously huge elephant and it’s surrounded by 70,000 blind people each of whom is convinced that the part of the elephant they’re touching is the sum total of what that elephant actually is.
My first Burn was 2011 which was also the first year that the event sold out. Yes, it’s true, there was once a time when people drove out on a whim and could buy tickets at the gate (well, there was also a time when there were no tickets at all, you just had to find the event somewhere out there in the vast stretches of the Black Rock Desert). That was when you could drive as fast as you wanted anywhere in the event, you could shoot guns, blow things up or jump right into fires if that’s what floated your boat.
Decades later none of this is true.
Tickets run over $400 and now there’s the $100 vehicle pass you have to slap onto your windshield or you’re walking in, Cupcake. And there’s a very good chance that you’re not going to get a ticket. You and about a hundred thousand other hopeful souls.
It’s very much a self-selecting event. If you want to go to Burning Man you had better be prepared to work for it (or be a Silicon Valley kajillionaire in which case someone will buy tickets for you and all your besties and your staff will go out there ahead of you to set up your camp, stock it with food, beverages, decorated bikes, and gifts to give your fellow Burners). For the most part it’s safe to ignore these specimens.
My partner’s first Burn was 2005 and, while the event had been going strong for 15 years at that point, he had to do his homework to know what to bring (everything you’ll need to eat, drink, and shelter yourself for a week in a harsh environment), what not to bring (everything else), as well as how to even get there. He lugged a tiny tent and all his supplies across the country and then rented himself a mini-van and headed out of Reno into the vast unknown.
There is no longer much unknown-ness to going to Burning Man. Google will tell you that it can find over 520,000,000 entries related to That Thing in The Desert (TTITD) in under 54 seconds. There are countless YouTube videos (entirely too many of which feature someone pointing the camera at themselves), endless lists of what to bring, what not to bring, how to act, how not to act, what to wear, what not to wear, and every single resource stresses one thing above all: hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! If you go to TTITD you are going to drink more water than you have during any other 7 day stretch in your life. And it won’t be enough.
One thing gets repeated over and over: Burning Man transformed my life.
I approached this gem with a fair amount of skepticism. I know from transformation, friends, so let’s not get carried away here, hmmmm?
One thing that 2011 did teach me was that I can take a lot more shit than I suspected. Sleep deprivation? Check. Suffocating heat? Check. Dust in my food, teeth, lady-bits, eyelids, nose, and lungs? Check. Hours and hours waiting in lines? Check. The filthiest porto-potties in the state of Nevada? Check. Having to pee at 4am when it’s 45 degrees out? Check. Dumping my bike in a pit of silt-like dust and having a gang of drunken frat boys laugh at me? Check. Getting a tent up in high winds and have it stay up all week? Check. Sobbing temper tantrum over nothing? Check. You get the picture.
As much fun as all that was, none of it prepared me for Exodus. If memory serves it took us nearly 7 hours to get from our camp to Route 447, a distance of less than ten miles. Did I really want to go back in 2012? Oh, hell no! Or at least that’s what I thought as we finally pulled into the parking lot of the Sands Regency hotel in Reno.
But something started niggling at me several months later. 2012 was the year that the B’org (Burning Man Organization) instituted the notorious lottery system to deal with more people wanting tickets than there were tickets. The result was that the big theme camps and large scale art projects weren’t able to obtain enough tickets to get their worker bees out to the playa to build their stuff. You could hear the shrieking across the country. And, yet, we signed up, jumped into the online melee, and still managed to get tickets. From the time we got the tickets until we set out for the airport at 4am in late August, I’d been through about seven hundred cycles of “oh fuck no” to “can’t wait” and back.
As bad as the heat of the day can be out there, it’s the cold nights that kill me. 50 degrees doesn’t seem all that cold until you’re sleeping in a tent on an air bag and then it is hell. We’ve had nights out there that dipped into the low 40’s and my partner has lived through nights in the 30’s before I came along to save his life.
2013? Yes, we went again. There were serious wildfires all through the mountains that year and Reno, sitting in its bowl between those mountains, was a hazy smoky mess. That’s the year we brought along a $50 coupon, went to the city clerk’s office and got ourselves a wedding license, took that license and the coupon to The Chapel of the Bells and got this relationship legal. We got married in a drive-thru wedding chapel: ten minutes, no rings, no name change, and (surprisingly enough) no “forsaking all others” or “til death do you part”. Screw all that, here’s commitment for you: he’s on the lease of my rent-stabilized apartment and I was able to get on his health care insurance when I was freelancing and that, my friend, is real love.
There’s a lot of talk about how easy it is to connect with just anyone at Burning Man. On some days that can feel like more B’org feel-good talk and, yes, there are plenty of (young, hip, rich) people who would walk through us if we didn’t move. But for the most part I have been able to strike up conversations with just about anyone I happen to be standing next to in the city, at Center Camp, or out in the shadows of some massive art installation out playa. When I feel isolated and unable to connect, it’s in my head. I’m the only one putting walls up around myself out there or back in New York.
2014 — the B’org tried opening the gates at noon on Sunday instead of midnight to see if that would help ease the congestion (it didn’t). My partner was on fire to get out there early. I tried to talk him out of it. My thinking was that the big traffic jam was going to be Sunday and if we waited until Monday, we could sail right in.
I didn’t win this one and it turned out to be a very good thing that I didn’t. Yes, it took something like four hours to get in and we were still putting the tent up after dark, but we got it up.
Around 4 or 5am the storm started. Thunder, lightning, and real rain. Heavy rain. We stayed put in the tent where we had food, water, and the pee jugs my clever partner had made out of laundry detergent bottles. That tent was not water proof, but it held up surprisingly well. We were snug and comfy under the covers, listening to the deluge outside (and for once at Burning Man I got enough sleep).
Now you have to understand that the minute real rain hits the playa, all that dust turns into slick, sticky mud into which cars and trucks have been known to sink up to their axles if they try to keep going. The B’org shut the Gate, told anyone still out on 447 to turn around and go back to Reno and everyone on the Gate Road had to just stay put. There were entertaining horror stories for the rest of the week from people stranded in their vehicles on the Gate Road for fifteen and twenty hours.
Just as the ground under our tent was beginning to get a little squishy the rain stopped. Stepping out carefully into the suddenly sunny but sodden city was a whole new Burning Man experience that I would have missed without my partner pushing us to do what I didn’t want to do. And that’s the key reason I have kept going back. Whatever whining I may do (and I do), there have been countless experiences which I have had at Burning Man that would have been completely impossible anywhere else. Nine days later as we were striking camp, I broke one of the main struts of our trusty tent and that seemed like a sign. We took the next two years off.
We did go back in 2017 and 2018 and all signs point to us heading to Sacramento this August where our gear and bikes live. Each year my partner was dealing with a different leg injury which really dented the experience. But we made a couple of welcome changes that have helped. I switched from a bike to an adult trike which allows me to actually see the art and people we pass without worrying about dumping. And we bought a second-hand futon in Reno so that we now have a warm, stable, comfortable bed that doesn’t have to be re-inflated every night.
And, yes, I continue to save the money to go back. This is partially out of love for my partner for whom Burning Man truly is a transformative and not-to-be-missed experience. And even I can tell you that there’s something genuinely magical about standing on the edge of the Esplanade just after sunset, holding hands and not knowing what we’ll see and experience this night. And then plunging into it.
Another easy answer to why I keep going back is the old joke about hitting yourself in the head with a hammer because it feels so great when you stop. And, truly, there are few things in this world that are more blissful than that first long shower in Reno after your Burn.
Comfort reigns supreme in our lives today. We and the entire society around us go to heroic lengths to ensure our comfort. Every aspect of my life is about getting and remaining comfortable. To intentionally walk away from that and spend nine days shivering, sweating, covered with dust, and working insanely hard to do the simplest of things (going to the bathroom comes to mind or just getting dressed), this does something to my entire outlook. When I step into the shower at home, when I easily cook dinner, when I sink into the sofa after work, I am grateful at a whole new level. That intense gratitude wears off a little after the first weeks back home but it never goes away. It’s part of me now.
And still there’s a lot more going on that gets me out there year after year. Me and tens of thousands of other questionable sorts who flock to this remote and extremely uncomfortable place from nearly every continent.
I have never, ever in any time or place in my life experienced creativity as it plays out in Black Rock City. Yes, there are the massive and spectacular art installations and those are fantastic. The burning down of Wall Street, the gigantic marionettes, the fantastic Baba Yaga house you expect to start running across the playa on its chicken legs. The Temple filled with tears and love and a million tiny messages of loss. The Man itself, each year more bizarre and huge and commanding. Not to mention the vast and astonishing array of mutant vehicles that appear as everything from a land-roving yacht or a giant flame-spouting octopus to a massive neon-lined shark or a unicorn carrying a deafening sound system and a cargo of dancers.
But walk through the city and be prepared to be astonished by the thousand and one ways the ordinary citizens express their creativity. The remote-control truck pulling a wagon filled with corn chips that stops in front of you, offering a snack. No clue who controls it and off it goes. The realistic looking ATM sitting at an intersection out in the city with a glowing screen that invites you to the treat (delicious roasted hazelnuts) under that screen. Hanging out in long lines with incredibly interesting people to get a free glass of iced Vietnamese coffee. Having a six-foot tall man dressed as a gigantic Kewpie doll come over on a blistering hot afternoon in Center Camp holding a block of ice, handing it to me, then putting his huge, ice-cold hands on my cheeks (ahhhhhhhhhhh!) before sending me off to take it to someone else. The tooth-brushing stand out by the huge sound camps that provides water, toothbrushes, and toothpaste to the weary ravers determined to make it to the sunrise.
There are miles of murals, some clearly created by professionals and many clearly not, as well as unexpected little free-standing art tucked into the corners of the city everywhere. People get together to decorate their camps with lights and art and strange objects. Or familiar ones such as the thousands of distressed Barbie dolls at the infamous Barbie Death Camp and Wine Bistro. Pink flamingos have gained a whole new purchase on wide-spread popularity.
Additionally, expectations surrounding what people can or can’t wear get left in Reno. There’s TuTu Tuesday which has become a real Thing as men revel in the chance to wear fluffy, pretty things with no one questioning their masculinity. Casual nudity is greeted with casual disinterest (for the most part; every city has its jerks) and the Critical Tits bike ride has also gained thousands of happy participants. Some people go all out with amazing costumes and outfits, others add their own little touches to what is comfortable to them.
There is no place in this world that encourages people to just make stuff and share it on the scale that Burning Man does. There is no other city in the world where you are free to dress in any way that makes you happy and know no one is going to say a word about it. It’s an incredibly inspired mix of magic and madness that makes it worth the tremendous amount of work, expense, and hassle we go through every year to get from New York City to Black Rock City and back again.
And finally there is the sheer gorgeousness of the desert. Stark, wind-swept, and as fantastic as being on the surface of another planet, the Black Rock Desert (yes, I’ll say it) really does transform me. There is sky that stretches beyond where imagination says it can and on days when the dust has settled each wrinkle and scar of the distant mountains are picked out with breath-taking clarity. Rising early to bike out in the dark and then watch in silent awe as another day dawns across the silent desert is one of countless experiences I can thank my partner for. Because the sad truth is that left to my own devices, I’m always going to go for the easier, softer way.
But, seriously, don’t get any crazy ideas based on my experience. You don’t really want to put yourself through this.
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