BURNING MAN Aug 25 – Sept 1, 2014 – MY EXPERIENCE
Burning Man has become one of the most popular festivals on the planet and I had wanted to go for many years. I had tried to get tickets the year before, was successful with the STEP program but turned them down as there was no vehicle pass and I had made other plans. The concept of Burning Man is difficult to understand. What happens there – stays there, so you never really hear the details. The many YouTube videos give only a superficial idea. It is a concept that can only be experienced.
Burning Man always happens in the week before Labor Day at the end of August/beginning of September. The gate opens at 10 on Sunday, the event starts at 10 on Monday, the MAN burns on Saturday night, the TEMPLE burns on Sunday night, and the event officially ends on Monday at noon. Everybody must leave by Tuesday at noon.
2014 was the 28th event. Starting in 1986, the first 4 years were at a beach outside of San Francisco, and since 1990, it has been held on a dry playa in the Black Rock Desert of northwest Nevada. It is a forbidding environment – treeless, rocky, hot with temperatures well over a hundred degrees Fahrenheit, and frequent dust storms that often evolve into whiteouts. The closest town is Gerlach, north of Reno, a tiny place with barely 100 residents.
The event gets bigger every year. 25 came the first year and the MAN was eight feet tall but this year there were ~73,000 Burners. About 40,000 are estimated to be virgins. They come from all over the world, especially Europe and I met a Brazilian and a South African. The average age is 36. Surprisingly, there are a fair number of children. The man is different every year and is a sophisticated construction. It seems a pity to burn all this stuff.
It takes weeks to ‘build’ the site and that must be a hot, dirty job – the multilane entrance road, the gate, Will Call, the temple, the man, the coffee shop, survey the ‘cities’ avenues and streets, assign reserved camps, set up art installations, bring in porta potties, on and on. And the main structures of the temple, man and coffee shop are elaborate.
I have the ultimate Burning Man vehicle – a truck with a camper that has all the conveniences – 50 gallons of fresh water, 25 gallons of grey water storage, solar power, a large refrigerator with a freezer, and a full-sized bathroom. I don’t have an air conditioner or use a generator and was dependent on my two Fantastic Fans for air movement and cooling. Having a place of refuge in the whiteout dust storms seemed crucial to me.
I had been at the playa once before. On one of my 30+ trips to the desert SW, we drove home via Reno and Gerlach, drove the paved road to the turn off and continued north on gravel. The road eventually deteriorated to a high clearance track through the rocky desert, turned into a decent gravel road again and finally joined a highway. There are many hot springs in the area, and one (I have no idea exactly where it is) is a spectacular photographic site that I have seen pictures of several times. I have heard it is on private land and there is no access.
TICKETS. Getting tickets to Burning Man can be a challenge. Refer to the Burning Man web site for the schedule of ticket sales but the usual process consists of this.
The first lottery is in January for 1000 tickets at double the price. The main lottery of 35,000 tickets was on February 26th. One registers a few days before. I was in South Korea and the lottery started at 4AM (12 noon Pacific Standard Time), but I woke up at 4:15, and by the time I got online, all the tickets were gone. One can then register for the STEP program where people with tickets sell them if they don’t want them. But vehicle passes are not available in STEP so I did not register. It is also possible to get tickets by volunteering for one of the many jobs available (construction, coffee shop, census etc). I eventually registered to volunteer in the coffee shop and census, but the half-priced tickets are not available for first time volunteers. Subsidized, half-priced tickets for low-income people are also available. Now my only chance was the 3,000 tickets that come available in the OMG (Oh My God) sale that happens in the first week of August. Unfortunately I was in a hiking camp in the Rockies during that week, so recruited my son who lives in Oakland, to get my ticket. After registering a few days before, he went online about 10 minutes before the start of the lottery on August 4th at 12 noon PST (one of the keys to getting a ticket) and had no problem getting the $380 ticket and $40 vehicle pass. The tickets are transferable to anyone via a simple form on the web site and can only be picked up at Will Call before the main gate.
GETTING THERE and WILL CALL.
I had driven down from southern BC and spent several days in Bend and Klamath Falls, Oregon before the event. The gate opened at 10am on Sunday, so I bought my last groceries in Alturas, California, dumped my grey water, drove 25 miles east on Hwy 299 to Cedarville, and turned south on Hwy 447 for 84 miles to Gerlach, the last town before the playa. There was little traffic from this direction on the narrow, paved highway.
At Gerlach, I hit the big line of cars coming from the south (they had already been in a slow stop-and-go line for over 20 miles). It was turtle-like on the paved 8 miles to the playa. One enters multiple lanes that funnel and separate people. Those with Will Call tickets are separated out before the gate and sent in that direction. After entering the huge parking area at Will Call, it was a long walk to the ticket pick-up point and then a 4½ hour wait in a line that barely moved. I finally got my ticket and vehicle pass (must show picture ID – a passport or Drivers License – University ID is not accepted) at 3AM. I had a good time in the line with Drew from Oakland and a couple from Australia and Edmonton. Drew had given his regular priced ticket to a friend, but then could not get his own ticket through the normal lottery, so went on eBay and paid $815 (tickets are scalped on eBay, Craig’s List and other sites and will sell for over $2,000 in the days just before the start of the event).
There is an airport and some people avoid all the lines by flying in. They also avoid all the organization necessary to survive for a week in the desert. That feels like cheating. I assume that they stay in ‘hotels’ in motorhomes or prefabbed structures that are available. I saw a few ‘motorhome camps’ full of huge deluxe vehicles. Complete tours to Burning Man can be purchased. It is not possible to walk in and everyone must be in a vehicle. Apparently, all rental motorhomes in most of California are rented for this week – at highly inflated prices. Those arrive with all the windows and compartments carefully taped to prevent dust incursion throughout the vehicle. Most motorhomes have generators to run the air conditioning and provide power if they have no solar.
SETTING UP CAMP.
It appears that someone in each camp arrives as early as possible to secure their area and to set things up for all their campmates. Drew’s campmates (who had tickets) had gone ahead to start setting up their camp of two geodesic domes, so I gave him a ride to the playa. At the gate, virgins are initiated – a hug, hit a gong and then get dirty by doing snow angels in the dirt. All vehicles are carefully searched for stowaways (if you have one, all tickets are forfeited and you are sent home). Two radio stations broadcast information and music. It was now 4 AM and as camping sites are first-come-first-serve and most people stay in camps that are reserved, it was amazing how few empty spots there seemed to be especially as this was Sunday and the event does not even start until 10AM on Monday. I dropped Drew off and found what I thought was an empty spot near 8:30-A and went to sleep.
A big thunderstorm with rain started just as I turned in. When it rains here, the whole place shuts down for vehicles, as the clay roads become impassable – “sticks like glue, slides like snot”. My campsite ended up being in a reserved area and I was politely asked to leave around noon when I woke up. After driving around for a while, I finally found a place, parked and went to sleep. I wanted to camp as close to the central area as possible as I did not bring a bicycle.
As soon as the rain started, Will Call and the Gate closed and those people then waited in line (and the line must have been many miles long) until Monday evening before they started to move. Many actually returned all the way to Reno to stay in a hotel. I felt extremely lucky that I had decided to come early.
There was an orientation meeting for my volunteer job with the census, I was late, and rushed away to get there in time. After the meeting, I realized that I had not made a note of my exact campsite. I thought it was between 8:00 and 7:00 and G and L. I walked around for over an hour and a half and became a little frantic – what would happen if I had no place to stay?? Black Rock City is huge. At least half the vehicles are motorhomes and as I was in the center of my “block”, I had to be pretty close to recognize my camper and truck. It ended up being at 6:45-I. What a fool, but as it turns out, I was not the only one who got lost during the week.
BLACK ROCK CITY. BLC is carefully laid out in the weeks before the camp into a massive semi-circle with “avenues” numbered like a clock from 10 to 2 and 12 “streets” labeled A to L so that everyone has an ‘address’. All the avenues point directly at THE MAN. In the very center of the semi-circle is Center Camp with most of the organizational facilities – Black Rock Rangers, Volunteer Center, Census, Arctica where ice is sold and a Coffee Shop under a massive open-air tent. Rod’s Road surrounds the inside of Center Camp. Volunteer entertainers provide music for 12 hours per day and a speaker program provides nonstop speakers from 11AM to 5PM.
Most people stay in ‘camps’, usually with a bunch of friends, that are surveyed and reserved long before the event. Each year, more and more people come in motorhomes, and Drew could not believe the large number here in 2014. I would estimate that over half have motorhomes. 35,000 vehicle passes are sold. Many camps have large tents, geodesic domes, or prefabbed structures built from reflective panels. If in a tent, it is essential to stake it down with rebar to deal with the potential high winds. Those not in motorhomes often construct showers with plastic catch basins that allow the water to evaporate.
Porta-potties are at designated places in the camping area. No showers are available. Motorhomes can get water and their grey and black water tanks drained for a high fee. It is illegal to urinate on the playa. There are no garbage cans and everyone is responsible for their own trash. The place is spotless.
Past THE MAN at 12 o’clock, is the TEMPLE, this year an elaborate structure made from intricately cut out plywood. It was beautiful. Lit walkways lead to the man and temple.
Spread randomly throughout the playa are hundreds of ART INSTALLATIONS – an amazing variety of creations. MUTANT VEHICLES, fantastic creations, many of which spew huge balls of fire, roam the entire site. Most vehicles have music and are one continuous party as they move throughout the city.
Motorcycles, ATVs, golf carts and other motorized forms of transportation are not allowed (although I saw more than one motorized bicycle). Most people get around on bicycles, almost all creatively decorated with lights and glow sticks. I walked everywhere and it was no big deal. When it rains, bicycles have problems in the initial mud and then ruts. Small sand dune areas form that slow down bikes a lot. Because of the dust, it is recommended to only bring an old bike. Locks are recommended and bike racks are available at some places. A few free bikes are provided by the organizers. Volunteers routinely cut off the illegal locks some people put on these. It can get interesting when you take your free bike out to some distant area where they are available to anyone to take.
There is a strong police presence with 6 different law enforcement agencies on the site. Driving over 5-10 mph could get you a speeding ticket. Nevada may be the only state with legalized prostitution and was the first place to offer legal gambling, but it is the most conservative state in the US when it comes to drugs. Marijuana possession is actively prosecuted, and despite my preconceived thought that it would be everywhere, I never saw or smelled it in public. Although apparently common, it must be done very privately.
WHAT TO BRING.
One must be totally self-reliant at Burning Man. The only things that can be purchased are ice and drinks (espresso, ice coffee, lemonade, electrolyte drinks) at the Coffee Shop. So you need all your own water and food and my refrigerator was a godsend. Anyone without a fridge is reliant on ice to keep all that food cold – lineups can be huge and it seemed that some people spend a good part of every day getting ice that then has to be hauled back to their camp.
Ski goggles and bandanas or dust masks are essential to deal with the dust storms. Good sun protection, especially a large ventilated hat, is essential. Ear plugs are worthwhile especially if near a noisy theme camp and you hope to sleep. A portable ashtray (mint tins work best) for ashes and butts if you smoke.
A headlamp will make you noticeable at night and help you navigate. One ply toilet paper is recommended in the portable toilets.
LEAVING BRC during the week. Once there, you are actively encouraged to not leave for the week. A fee of $20 is charged to reenter and you must have a ticket. A bus goes to Gerlach and Empire daily. Come with everything you need in the first place.
I felt and looked like the straightest guy in the whole place. I wore normal clothes, did not go nude, did not ride in a mutant vehicle, met virtually no one, and participated in few “theme camps”. One is given a 260 page book (~10 events per page) that list all the events sponsored by different theme camps during the week. There is something for everyone. My favorite was ? which offered participatory discussions/lectures, mostly on relationship issues, throughout the day. One I particularly enjoyed was on ‘Deep Dating’. TED talks are available, and many camps offer all sorts of informative events.
During the day, I spent most of my time at Center Camp at the Coffee Shop listening to the speaker series. The two MCs were entertaining and informative. A lot of it was poetry but in fact people spoke on almost everything. There are often opportunities for anyone to get up, especially during the Open Mike. I actually talked for about 15 minutes about marijuana and the legalization movement happening around the world. It was a good place to escape the heat, have a lemonade and sit around and people watch.
And there was the most amazing variety of people to watch. Most people dress up in some way (radical self-expression). For example, Tuesday was tutu-Tuesday and it was amazing how many people had tutus. I estimate that less than 5% are nude, displaying a wide range of body types. Most of the nude guys were older and, to me, looked a little silly. The open center area of the coffee shop is populated by all sorts, many doing acrobatic yoga – a couple, usually with the guy on the bottom, do an amazing variety of spins and balance moves. Some were very good. capoeira (Brazilian dance/martial arts) was popular, as were jugglers, dancers, you name it. The ‘balloon guy’ was special. The entertainment was all volunteer, of varying quality, and I spent little time in that section.
I volunteered for two shifts of the census but only worked at one. The census is carefully designed each year to scientifically evaluate the people who come to Burning Man. Cars were sampled randomly just before the entrance gate and were asked to fill in a form that took a few minutes. Of the ten questions, several were about US political affiliations and voting patterns. I found it boring – there were too many of us for the number of vehicles, most people were not very interested in filling out forms, and there was no room for personal interaction. So I skipped my second shift. It is possible to visit the web site and look at census information for many years of Burning Man.
During the evening and night, when it cools down, are good times to explore the playa to see the art installations, THE MAN (which was surrounded by tents with various themes), the temple, the mutant vehicles and the camping area that is usually abuzz with all sorts of events spread all over the place. Several huge sound stages were set up on the Esplanade (the area at the boundary between the camp area and the open playa). Loud techno music is the standard. Some of them are million dollar set-ups and are provided free to Burning Man. Some of the stages fund raise throughout the year to put on the show, but some are entirely privately funded. At night, it looks like a giant, spread out midway, all lit up in brilliant colors. The mutant vehicles with fire displays were fantastic. It is necessary to be lit in some way at night as the cyclists and vehicles need to see you. BRC is huge and it can take a long time to get anywhere.
I went to sleep late and then slept in while it was still cool – until about 11 AM when the heat drove me out of the camper. Because of my camper, I ate and slept extremely well. There was a big dust storm on Friday and most of Saturday. It was not that intolerable but a shower was a must. It was important to have good sun protection and keep hydrated – piss clear.
The thing I found most refreshing was the radical acceptance – you could be or do anything you wanted and would not be judged in any way. The tone was that people were extremely nice all the time. It is a very harsh environment and one needed to be completely self-reliant. Unconditional gifting is central to the Burning Man philosophy. Everything (except ice and drinks in the coffee shop, as already mentioned) is completely free. With some effort it could be possible to eat, drink alcohol and survive without bringing anything of your own for the week. It would be a lot of work to visit all the spread out camps and you would probably lose a bit of weight. Some people must spend a lot of money to provide all this stuff. I didn’t take advantage of any of this (I infrequently drink and am not much of a party guy). The environmental principle of leave no trace is crucial to the event being held in the Black Rock Desert and everyone behaves responsibly. Even ashes are viewed as MOOP – Matter Out of Place.
The climax of the week is when the MAN burns. A ceremonial procession carrying several torches leaves from a cauldron in center camp at 8PM, makes its way to the man, and 70,000+ burners encircle the area. The MAN this year was a giant guy with spread legs, a big torso and large head. A remarkable display of fire dancing occurs at the periphery of the circle around the MAN. Lasers dance over his body and head. Mutant vehicles breathe fire. I had possibly the best seat in the house – on the hitch of a large generator (for the lighting system – it had been turned off) right at the very front of the crowd. Everybody else was sitting on the ground in front and standing at the back. One can only imagine the stack of bicycles everywhere (finding your bike must have been a challenge). The MAN is lit at 9:30 on one of his feet and the middle of one thigh. Within 20 minutes, he was totally ablaze and most of the wood ‘clothing’ was gone. The incredibly strong skeleton would have taken a while to come down, and I did not wait to the end. Obviously I did not see the temple burn on Sunday night. I think it would have been a little depressing as it was such a gorgeous structure.
As I was leaving for my annual six-month trip on September 7, I had always planned on leaving on the Saturday night, as did many others.
The traffic jams to leave Burning Man are legendary. You can imagine the mess as all those vehicles that take several days to arrive leave in less than 36 hours. I initially thought it would be best to leave in the middle of the night but instead left right after I returned from the burn. The traffic was minimal and my exodus was quick.
I drove home over less than 2 days by the fastest route possible by returning to Klamath Falls and hitting I-5 north by the most direct route. I slept in rest stops whenever I got tired and drove whenever I wasn’t. I had only 4 days to unload and winterize my camper and do all my preparations for my trip (Russia, Mongolia, N Korea, China, Palau, Indonesia, south Pacific Islands) and had little time to spare.
When looking back at my experience at Burning Man 2014, I was happy that I had gone – it is something that everyone should experience. But I don’t think I would ever go back. It is not exactly my cup of tea. Alcohol is the main drug and partying the main activity. If I would have made a more concerted effort to participate and met more people, I may well have had a more fulfilling experience.
A DESCRIPTION OF BURNING MAN as Excerpted from the web site.
Once a year, tens of thousands of people gather in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert (also known as “the playa”) to create Black Rock City, a temporary metropolis dedicated to community, art, self-expression, and self-reliance. They depart one week later, having left no trace whatsoever.
Even considering going to Burning Man for the first time can be daunting. And while it’s true that Burning Man is not for the faint of heart, with some research, preparation, and planning, an experience — and opportunity — beyond your wildest dreams awaits you. In Black Rock City, you’re guaranteed not to be the weirdest kid in the classroom. And you’ll become a part of the growing community of Burners who are active year-round, around the world … ensuring that the fire of Burning Man culture never goes out.
Branch out to see how you might contribute to a theme camp, art project, build your own sturdy shade structure, turn your car into a giant spider, or paint your body to look like … well, that’s up to you. You can participate as little or as much as you want, but it is said that you really must participate to truly enjoy the experience.
Burning Man is an annual event and a thriving year-round culture. The event takes place the week leading up to and including Labor Day, in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. The Burning Man organization (Black Rock City LLC) creates the infrastructure of Black Rock City, wherein attendees (or “participants”) dedicate themselves to the spirit of community, art, self-expression, and self-reliance. They depart one week later, leaving no trace. As simple as this may seem, trying to explain what Burning Man is to someone who has never been to the event is a bit like trying to explain what a particular color looks like to someone who is blind. In this section you will find the peripheral definitions of what the event is as a whole, but to truly understand this event, one must participate.
Outside the event, Burning Man’s vibrant year-round culture is growing through the non-profit Burning Man Project, including worldwide Regional Groups and associated non-profits who embody Burning Man’s ethos out in the world.
You belong here and you participate. You’re not the weirdest kid in the classroom — there’s always somebody there who’s thought up something you never even considered. You’re there to breathe art. Imagine an ice sculpture emitting glacial music — in the desert. Imagine the man, greeting you, neon and benevolence, watching over the community. You’re here to build a community that needs you and relies on you.
You’re here to survive. What happens to your brain and body when exposed to 107 degree heat, moisture wicking off your body and dehydrating you within minutes? You know and watch yourself. You drink water constantly and piss clear. You’ll want to reconsider drinking that alcohol (or taking those other substances) you brought with you — the mind-altering experience of Burning Man is its own drug. You slather yourself in sunblock before the sun’s rays turn up full blast. You bring enough food, water, and shelter because the elements of the new planet are harsh, and you will find no vending.
You’re here to create. Since nobody at Burning Man is a spectator, you’re here to build your own new world. You’ve built an egg for shelter, a suit made of light sticks, a car that looks like a shark’s fin. You’ve covered yourself in silver, you’re wearing a straw hat and a string of pearls, or maybe a skirt for the first time. You’re broadcasting Radio Free Burning Man — or another radio station.
You’re here to experience. Ride your bike in the expanse of nothingness with your eyes closed. Meet the theme camp — enjoy Irrational Geographic, relax at Bianca’s Smut Shack and eat a grilled cheese sandwich. Find your love and understand each other as you walk slowly under a parasol. Wander under the veils of dust at night on the playa.
You’re here to celebrate. On Saturday night, we’ll burn the Man. As the procession starts, the circle forms, and the man ignites, you experience something personal, something new to yourself, something you’ve never felt before. It’s an epiphany, it’s primal, it’s newborn. And it’s completely individual.
You’ll leave as you came. When you depart from Burning Man, you leave no trace. Everything you built, you dismantle. The waste you make and the objects you consume leave with you. Volunteers will stay for weeks to return the Black Rock Desert to its pristine condition.
But you’ll take the world you built with you. When you drive back down the dusty roads toward home, you slowly reintegrate to the world you came from. You feel in tune with the other dust-covered vehicles that shared the same community. Over time, vivid images still dance in your brain, floating back to you when the weather changes. The Burning Man community, whether your friends, your new acquaintances, or the Burning Man project, embraces you. At the end, though your journey to and from Burning Man are finished, you embark on a different journey — forever.
Ten Principles of Burning Man
Burning Man Founder Larry Harvey wrote the Ten Principles in 2004 as guidelines for the newly-formed Regionals Network. They were crafted not as a dictate of how people should be and act, but as a reflection of the community’s ethos and culture as it had organically developed since the event’s inception.
1. Radical Inclusion. Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.
2. Gifting. Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.
3. Decommodification . In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.
4. Radical Self-reliance. Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.
5. Radical Self-expression. Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.
6. Communal Effort. Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration. We strive to produce, promote and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction.
7. Civic Responsibility. We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws.
8. Leaving No Trace . Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them.
9. Participation. Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart.
10. Immediacy . Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value in our culture. We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience.
BURNING MAN CULTURE – An Experiment in Temporary Community
Because we are accustomed to a world shaped by institutions, service workers and commercial transactions, we may not even recognize the signs of true community. Here are a few of its indicators:
CELEBRATION Community activities incorporate celebration, parties and other social events. The line between work and play becomes blurred. The human nature of everyday life becomes part of the way you work. You will know that you are in a community if you often hear laughter and singing.
STORIES In universities, people know through studies. In businesses and bureaucracies, people know by reports. In communities, people know by stories.
INFORMALITY In the community, transactions of value take place without money, advertising or hype. Care emerges in place of structural service.
CAPACITY Communities are built on the recognition of the unique abilities of every member. Commerce and the public service sector outside of Black Rock City define us on the basis of deficiency and need.
COLLECTIVE EFFORT vs. CONSUMERISM Community is cooperative, uniting us as varied members of one body. By contrast, when we consume a service, we’re made passive. For example, fifty million people may view a television program or consume a beverage in complete isolation from one another.