Every year, during the blazing heat of summer, a group of artists and misfits gather in the scorching Nevada desert for a week-long celebration of community, humanity and art. They call it Burning Man and it’s part social experiment, part art extravaganza and part joyous display of the human spirit. Thousands of dreamers and doers pour their heart and soul into building a magical, ephemeral place called Black Rock City. During Burning Man, a fully functioning city rises out of the barren playa and after one amazing week, it disappears back into the dust.
I’d heard of Burning Man here and there over the years, but had never known anyone who had actually been there. My uninformed impression was that it was some sort of Bacchanalia for drugged out hippies and EDM kids. In truth, hippies and EDM fans do make up a part of the population, and plenty of people indulge in mind altering substances, but the bulk of the population is composed everyday misfits like myself who are just there to (hopefully) contribute to the city and be amazed by the contributions of others.
Our decision to go to Burning Man was made on a bit of a whim. We’d seen the pictures of the art and the outfits, but had no concept of what it really is. Being outdoor girls who don’t want to die, we live by the motto of “be prepared.” So months before the Burn itself, the research began. Like the prep for any adventure, we researched the location, the logistics (getting a ticket, food, water, shelter) and the culture. Yes, culture. Burning Man has it’s own rules, communities, lingo and social mores. We read blogs and watched videos, and joined Burning Man social media groups. We even built a playa-tested shade structure based on some vague (but ultimately successful) plans we found on the internet. We were ready.
The more I researched, the more I came to understand that Burning Man is not just a bunch of people partying in the desert surrounded by cool art, but I didn’t truly understand what it is. Once I actually arrived I realized I couldn’t know exactly what it is beforehand, because you have to actually go there to really get what it’s all about. That’s why burners have a hard time explaining it to non-burners. Burning Man is whatever you want it to be, it’s what you make it and it’s what you need it to be. I can show you pictures of what we saw and tell you what we did but I can’t tell you how it feels, except that it feels amazing.
It also feels hot. Burning Man takes place in a desert. In August. And it’s hot. Really hot. Large portions of our days were spent trying to cool off and keep hydrated. Misters and spray bottles of water were lifesavers. We spent a couple of days thinking we were being kind of wimpy about the heat until we learned that it was the hottest year on record for Burning Man. Misting camps and shade structures were very popular hangouts this year. All that heat did have an upside. There was only one major dust storm all week and the nights were pleasantly cool.
You hear lots of warnings about the dust. We took them seriously. The playa is an ancient lake bed and the “soil” is composed of a very fine alkaline clay. It’s similar to bentonite clays we often encounter in Western deserts, but it’s much finer. It is composed largely of decomposed volcanic rock and has the consistency of baby powder when dry. The slightest breeze makes it airborne and it subsequently gets everywhere and sticks to everything. When wet, it turns into a slippery, tire swallowing hazard. We taped up our trailer windows with reflectix, we kept the truck doors closed and only ran the A/C on recirculating, we had a mandatory footwash before entering the trailer. Our efforts paid off with minimal clean up needed when we returned the trailer to the rental place.
During any adventure, there’s always a point where you find yourself hot, tired and maybe a bit grouchy. Burning Man is no different, but just when you think you’ve reached a low, something wonderful happens. It might be something small, like the gift of a hot dog when you just noticed you were hungry or something big like an art car comes passing by and offers you a ride. For me the highlights include being gifted an airplane ride over the city, waking up before sunrise and biking out to the trash fence to watch the day begin, an impromptu picnic of deconstructed Spam sushi we stumbled upon in the deep playa, listening to a live opera singer performing on a giant, house-sized gramophone, and pushing my own personal boundaries at the Human Carcass Wash.
Hosted by PolyParadise, the Human Carcass Wash is one of the more unique experiences on the Playa. If you’re feeling kinda dusty and gross, head over to the Carcass Wash. Leave your clothes at your bike and queue up with 50 or so other naked people to wait your turn to wash and be washed. Yep, it’s a little weird at first hanging out in the buff, chatting with other naked people, but it quickly starts to feel normal. The wash is set up a bit like a car wash with stations for soaping up, washing, rinsing and a final squeegee. The washing is done by the participants and monitored by camp members that give instructions, keep the line moving, and diplomatically and gently deal with people who are having a hard time with exploring their own boundaries or those that need help understanding the boundaries of others. There’s not a “girls only” or “boys only” line. It’s one “humans only” line. Male, female, gay, straight, fat, thin, able bodied, disabled, pretty and not. Everyone is welcome. Everyone is accepted. Everyone ends up a little cleaner than they started.
With so many sights and activities to capture your attention, it’s impossible to do it all, but one of my goals at Burning Man was to see it all from the air. There are three ways to get a plane ride at Burning man: hope the skydiver camp has extra spots on their plane, wake up really early to get your name on a list for a tourist flight (which may or may not happen), or know a pilot. The first two require a bit of luck and a long wait. Luckily, one of Marybeths old friends (“Captain Kirk”) is a pilot, though even with an “in” our flight almost didn’t happen due to a series of unfortunate events. The first delay happened when the runway was shut down after a pilot failed to deploy his landing gear. Oops. That got cleared up just in time for a dust storm. Low visibility grounded all the flights for a few hours. Just when it was looking like we were good to go, another pilot forgot to secure his storage compartment on take off and littered the runway with luggage. We ended up being the last flight out of the day and it was worth the wait! We also discovered the best kept secret of the playa. The porta-potties at the airport, beyond the trash fence are immaculate! It’s the little things that count the most.
Burning Man is a temporary, place. Many of the large scale artworks, including “The Man” are built to be ultimately burned to the ground. On Burn Night, the Art Cars line up encircling the structure and people on foot (nearly the whole 70,000 who attend) fill in the space up to the burn perimeter. The Burning of the Man is an amazing spectacle, one I didn’t think would leave me in awe, but it did. The lights, the sounds, the people, the hundreds of fire dancers, the fireworks, and the intensity of the burn all contribute to the experience. It’s fun and absurd. It’s peaceful and exciting. It’s sacred and profane. I can’t really explain it. You just need to go.
With all the grand spectacles at Burning Man, what’s really amazing are the little things you find in your own neighborhood. The local coffee shop, the Pirate Bar around the corner, chatting with your new neighbors and passersby about the wonders they’ve seen, and getting a hug, a smile and acceptance from just about everyone you meet.
I can’t wait to go back!