Why I’ll Be Going Back to Burning Man: A Virgin’s Story
Before I laid eyes on respected photographer and filmmaker Teddy Saunders’ short film “Oh, the Places You’ll Go at Burning Man” (filmed to the words of the popular Dr. Suess story), there wasn’t much that I knew about Burning Man. I stared at the screen in wonder, trying to figure out what this magical place was, where people ran around in the desert wearing outlandish, crazy clothing (or none at all) and knew that this was some place I wanted to see in person one day.
With the help of a flexible work schedule and convincing from a boyfriend who burned last year, I was able to pack up my costumes, EL wire and LEDs galore, baby wipes and bike and make my way to my very first Burning Man. 2014 has been an incredible year for me so far; I’ve had the opportunity to attend 5 festivals in 7 months (Coachella and Tomorrowland included) and now I was heading to the festival mecca, the one everyone has on their bucket list. Little did I know that Burning Man is much more than a music and arts festival. It is a community and it is a way of life. It blew any festival experience I’ve ever had out of the water, and it was a refreshing reminder that the world is not such a bad place after all.
Black Rock City – not your typical town
What started out as a mainly art-centric festival has grown to include many more stages, DJs and A-list artists coming in to perform as surprise guests. Let me be clear: the music is SUCH a small part of this experience. Yes, we saw Carl Cox, Skrillex, Diplo, Sander Van Doorn, The Polish Ambassador and more, but where did all of those performances rank on all of the experiences I had that week? Very low. As my life is so ingrained in the music industry, this was a surprise to many of my friends when I told them. But, Burning Man is much more than a music festival, and even much more than an arts festival for that matter.
You have to remember that almost 9 months out of the year, the “playa” is completely bare, free of human interaction, MOOP (matter out of place) and any walking sign of life. 70,000 people come in and quite literally build a city in the middle of the desert. There are incredible, crazy art cars known as “mutant vehicles”, there are giant structures that are stories tall and there is something for everyone to do, no matter your interests. Black Rock City is indeed a city, and it is one hell of an awesome community.
Upon getting to the playa for the first time, I was taken aback by the absolute vastness of it all. Spending so much time in a cramped (yet lush and green) urban environment had not prepared me for the vast expanse of miles and miles around BRC that were literally filled with nothing. Absolutely nothing. The fact that people can come into this place and still thrive is probably something I will never get over.
Most of my campmates had arrived a few days early and had already endured heavy rains on Monday that had closed the city for almost 12 hours due to the sticky, thick playa mud that caked onto everything it touched. Luckily, it is the desert and by the time I flew into Reno that Wednesday, the playa was dry and ready for bike riding. I hopped on the Burner Express (the bus service that I would highly recommend, as you get to skip the 6-8+ hour entrance lines) and chatted with a nice engineer from Denver known by his “playa name” as Meatball. As Meatball and I went through the festival’s thick schedule book of workshops, happy hours and more, I found myself stopping mid-sentence to gape at the city we had just arrived in.
There were old men on bikes, naked from the waist down (“Shirtcockers” as they are known). There were people in unicorn outfits. There was a giant metal fish driving opposite us on the road, covered in giant speakers bumping a heavy-bass techno set, live DJ included. There was a giant penis head in the middle of an intersection (which you could actually climb into, it was quite funny). There were parties everywhere, hula hoopers, poi spinners, someone doing cartwheels. Everyone was smiling. Every. Single. Person. When you arrive on the playa, you are welcomed home. I knew I was home.
Our camp (Disco Dokie!) consisted of two large PVC and tarp shade structures with tents neatly placed in rows, a bar and a set of hammocks set up on a painter’s thing what is it called for mid-afternoon naps. I got hugs upon hugs once I got to camp, and with a quick change of clothes into my leotard, tutu, pasties and unicorn headband, this sparkle pony was ready to head out.
Check out some video footage from one of our Camp Disco Dokiers, Beau!
With my trusty stuffed walrus sidekick Walter ziptied to the front of my bike (there are thousands of bikes, so yours needs to be unique), we took off into the center of the half circle to check out the man. We rode past so much amazing stuff that I could hardly wrap my head around where I was, and we had to keep stopping so I could look at things. Once I got to the man and looked back at the expansiveness of the playa behind me, I knew I was in for an awesome week.
Things I’ve learned at Burning Man
Embrace the community and its values
Burning Man has a set of ten principles that are as follows:
Radical Inclusion: Anyone can be a part, welcome strangers
Gifting: Prepare to gift, whether it’s an item, your time, anything
Decommodification: There is no sponsorship, there is no money
Radical Self-Reliance: Discover yourself and your inner resources
Communal Effort: Cooperate and collaborate
Civil Responsibility: Look out for your fellow community members
Leave No Trace: Garbage, everything (pack it in, pack it out)
Participation: Achieve being through doing, work AND play
Immediacy: Overcome barriers, be yourself
People really do stay true to these principals, and it creates a working community that benefits all of its members. I’d wake up in the morning, have some breakfast, chat with my campmates and see if there were chores to be done around camp, even if it be tidying up the cooking area or picking up MOOP. After we ate, we’d hop on our bikes, take a look at some art and then head into camps for a drink and some dancing. One day we went to a sangria happy hour with salsa music, another day we went and sampled some homebrewed beers. It’s all free. You bring your cup with you and people just give. There were pancake breakfasts, bloody mary bars, hula hooping workshops and even the weirder of things like painting your genitals and pushing them onto a greeting card for a nice present to send to your grammy. Like I said, there was something for everyone.
If you don’t embrace these values, you’re going to have a bad time. As a virgin, I’d recommend not worrying too much about bringing a gift your first year, but the next year (yes, you’ll want to go the next year) you have a full year to plan a gift whether it be an object, your time helping someone, anything.)
Don’t have any expectations
No matter how much you may think you know about Burning Man, it will surprise you. In a good way. There will be things you see at Burning Man that you never thought in your wildest dreams would ever be before your eyes. The dust will not be as bad as you think, and you may have been in the sun all summer but you are not ready to party all day in the playa sun, so take care of your body. There are naked hippies, but they are just a small piece of the Black Rock City puzzle. There are things that might make you uncomfortable, but don’t go into it thinking you will be uncomfortable. You will not accidentally walk into a camp and find yourself in an orgy (although there are places you can seek out if that’s your thing, the Orgy Dome is open all week). Don’t expect irt to be at a giant party. The city is huge, and there are parties going on at all hours of the day, but I spent a good amount of my time sober.
Make a schedule, but don’t stick to it
There is so much to do. The best things I found all week were ones that I encountered accidentally, rather than something I wrote down with intent to visit. One night around 2:30am, we stumbled upon a giant camp filled with neon trees like you’d see in The Lorax, all covered with a flood of UV blacklight. My boyfriend and I had plans to see a late-night DJ set, but ended up sitting there and talking for hours. It was the best part of my time at Burning Man, and I will never forget it for the rest of my life. The small moments are the ones that will be the most important, so don’t let them slip by.
Stand there and take it all in
The playa in all of its glory can be overwhelming, to say the least. It is bright, it is loud and it is busy. Take some time to just sit down and watch people and art cars alike pass by…just observe. If you’re a newbie, have one of your vet friends blindfold you after the sun goes down and walk you out to Esplanade (the main drag) and take the blindfold off. The sight of all of the lights and people will leave you in shock an awe, and that will last for the entire week.
Sunscreen – baby wipes – water: the magic trio
Lather with sunscreen every single day. Twice a day. Three times a day if you’re fair-skinned. The sun is brutal. You need water at all times (if you don’t have a Camelbak, you’ll want one). 15 gallons of water per person for a week may seem like a lot, but you’ll be surprised how fast you go through it. Stay hydrated, or the playa WILL kill you. Baby wipes saved my life. After a dust storm, you will want them. If you’re wearing open-toed shoes (or even if you’re not), your feet will get dry and may crack. So will your hands. Your cuticles will crack, and it will hurt. Soak your extremities in vinegar each morning and before you go to sleep, they will thank you. If sunscreen alone doesn’t do it, lotion up. Lather, wipe, repeat.
Stay weird and give no fucks
Burning Man is everything that the “default world” is not. You’ll wake up, dressed in a fur coat and leggings covered in cats with lazer beams in their eyeballs and ask your campmates (dressed equally as eclectic) what they did last night. One will tell you about the pirate ship filled with British blonde gay men who took them out to deep playa for a late night DJ set with Tycho, another will tell you about how they watched two burners beat the hell out of each other in the Mad Max-style Thunderdome and then went to a tea party complete with fine china and the finest Earl Grey they’ve ever tasted. The possibilities are endless, and the manner in which you talk about these odd and crazy things as if they are normal is, well, crazy. Embrace it. Don’t judge, and don’t care about what anyone thinks. Because no one else does either. Be yourself, act in a way that speaks to you and damnit, go take that workshop about BDSM that you’ve always been curious about.
Who am I? I’m still asking myself this after Burning Man, but I know that I am much closer to finding that out after taking some time for myself. Many times I found myself sitting in silence, just thinking, contemplating. Burning Man is also a safe haven for people who may have something to hide, who have a lifestyle or a manner of living which they aren’t quite comfortable acting on at home. I promise you will come back feeling much more self-aware and peaceful with yourself.
Play…all the time
Growing older has its pros and cons, but ultimately, it can be a bummer. I often miss the days when being a child was so simple, having a child’s curiosity and you could run around without a care in the world. Besides making sure you don’t get caught in a dust storm without goggles and scarf (and eating/drinking water!), you don’t have a care in the world at Burning Man. Go out and play! Play is something that we find ourselves without during the daily grind of the “default world” and playing will refresh both your body and your mind. Go jump on a trampoline, fall into a foam pit, climb an interactive art piece or run around with fellow ponies during the Unicorn Stampede. Go out and play!
Create relationships and solidify current ones
Like the intense planner I am, I spent a lot of time looking through articles that veteran burners wrote for virgins. Many warn that if you head into the desert with a significant other, Burning Man can either make or break your relationship. Maybe I just have a really good thing going for me compared to others, but I think the risk of breaking a relationship is bullshit. Living in the desert is a matter of survival; your body will undergo stress and so will your brain. You will get tired, you will get cranky, and you will argue and maybe say some things you didn’t really mean. It’s par for the course. But, if you can take the ten principles into account and look for the best in each other, you will thrive. You will become closer than ever before and you will truly realize how much you care about people, whether it be significant others or friends. There isn’t enough love in the world, but there’s a hell of a lot of love at Burning Man. Give lots of hugs, it’s how burners greet each other.
Watch the man burn, but don’t expect a life-changing moment
Watching the man burn is awesome, but don’t get upset if you’re not overcome with emotion. I was a little upset with myself at the lack of emotion I felt while I watched, but you have to take the moment with a grain of salt and remember that its importance is to gather around with your 70,000 person community and enjoy the moment that this festival is based upon. If you’re having some hardship in your life, I recommend writing it down at the temple and staying an extra day to watch that burn. It is definitely a much more moving experience for most burners.
It’s implied, sure, but you have to make sure you’re having fun. If for some reason you’re not (it’s hard not to), sit down and reevaluate what you’re doing. Have you just been partying? Take a bike ride and go see some art. Have you been spending too much time looking for some lovin’ from fellow burners? Go grab a drink at a happy hour and meet new friends, not sex partners. Are you feeling run down, stressed out and exhausted? Hit up a yoga class or meditation session. At Burning Man, the world of Black Rock City is your oyster, so go ahead and take it.
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