Black Rock City/Burning Man / Creative Inspiration / Destinations / Experiences / Travel

Why I’m Returning to Burning Man

BRC from the Air

Looking down on Black Rock City from a plane that I watched skydivers jump out of. NO BIG DEAL.

What is Burning Man like?

When I’d agreed last year to go and perform on the Playa with the burlesque troupe I’m in, I didn’t really know what I was getting into. I was thrilled to perform there, but other than that I had basically no knowledge about what Burning Man was (and is). I’d only ever just heard of it when I moved to San Francisco about three years ago, and all I really understood was that it was people camping in the desert.

As the months until the Burn whittled down, and then suddenly there were only weeks, and then days, I was actually dreading the trip there. I couldn’t admit it at the time, but I was pretty scared about going.

Why? Because I had no idea what Burning Man would be like! It seemed that any experienced Burner I asked would simply wave their hand in the air, mumble something about EL wire and motorcycle goggles, and say, “You just have to experience it for yourself.” Um, thanks? I did have a couple of close Burner friends helping me with preparation–which made a huge difference! Still, it seemed that their advice was more about what supplies I needed to bring with me or items I had to provide for the camp rather than what I could expect.


Ticket in hand as I waited to get into the gate.

Well, as it turns out, no one can tell you what to expect, which explains why I never got a straight answer from anyone. It’s damn near impossible to explain what Burning Man is like because it’s a large, ever-changing organism. Thousands of people build and then destroy Black Rock City every year; it is never the same. Even then, as you stand in one place on the Playa for a short period of time, everything is constantly changing around you–art cars are rolling by, people are biking to different destinations, camps are hosting workshops, parties, or shows. All the routine that “creatures of habit” instinctively crave is gone.

Considering it’s such a foreign experience, it didn’t take me long at all last year to feel right at home. I think about 48 hours into my time there I was sitting at dinner and already telling my campmates how I couldn’t picture myself not attending this year. And to be honest, I want to attend Burning Man every year that I’m able to from now on. There literally hasn’t been a day that’s gone by since I returned from Burning Man 2013 that I haven’t thought about it.

Seriously. Homegirl has it bad.

Yes, it’s pretty difficult to answer the question, “What is Burning Man like?” Even a veteran Burner would have difficulty answering that one. I think the real question to ask is, “Why do people return to Burning Man?” it’s one thing to experience it for one year, have a great time, cherish the memories and never feel a desire to come back. But it’s another thing to consider it a pilgrimage, a home, or even part of your identity.

So, why am I returning the Burning Man this year?

Me at Burning Man

Playa selfie!

1. It makes me a better person.

The community you find at Burning Man is an incredibly loving one, and I left feeling like I was a better person.

Burning Man is a gift society, meaning that your money means nothing. Aside from ice and the coffee sold at Center Camp, you don’t buy anything at the Burn. The food that people offer, the drinks at the bars, the activities, the rides, the art, the everything–it’s all free. With money eliminated, everything in the city is equally accessible, and in a way, everyone is equal.

With this karma-inspired society, people are more inclined to give when they can, and they don’t feel ashamed when they want to ask for something. It’s actually quite a beautiful, bare, and vulnerable way to live. “This is what I have, this is what I can offer the community.”

While you would think you’d find a bunch of folks running around and seeing what they could get from others–and I’m sure they were out there–I didn’t run across anyone like that. It felt like everyone was more concerned about what they were able to give.

How refreshing! We live in a messed up world, and if the global and national problems that I read about aren’t enough, I have my own daily struggles as well. I’m certain that before the Burn, I had fallen into selfish habits, thinking primarily of myself. I’m certain that I still have days like that as well. But I am more aware of it now, and I strive to help other before helping myself.

Witnessing this generous spirit first-hand restores my faith in humanity, and faith in myself. One of the most valuable lessons I learned from Burning Man was to try to give love freely, and I can’t wait to be reminded of it again this year.

iPhone at Burning Man

Don’t even try to text here.

2. I’m forced to disconnect.

Hoping to get cell service out in Black Rock City? Good luck! My phone stopped receiving notifications miles away from the gate. I had completely expected to be unreachable for the week I was there, and I was totally okay with that. My family and friends knew where I was and that they wouldn’t hear from me until I returned. For the first few days, I did really well–I didn’t even care that I couldn’t talk to anyone. I was having a blast! But slowly, surely, I got a little curious as to what was happening at home. Were there any family emergencies? Was my workload piling up? Most importantly, how was my cat?!

I have to confess that I utilized wi-fi at a nearby camp one time, and through the grapevine I had discovered a working payphone on the Esplanade that I used to make two phone calls. I know, I’m weak!

I spent about a total of fifteen minutes using the wi-fi to check emails and texts (no disasters at home or work? Moving on…) and I had exactly three minutes for each of my two calls. I didn’t spend my spare time hopping on the internet to get on Twitter or Instagram, and I didn’t need to have an hour long conversation with anyone, either. I live in the moment, and the only reason I wanted to reach out to people was because, well, I missed them. Ain’t no harm in that.

Regardless, at Burning Man I don’t really have much of a choice in disconnecting from the world. It was a fortunate, lucky thing that I discovered wi-fi and a working phone, but it certainly is not the norm. I’m quite looking forward to putting my phone in airplane mode and seeing where the week takes me–and I know I can always tweet about it later.

Perhaps related to this: In my search for the payphone to surprise my parents and main squeeze with a phone call, I found a different payphone with a sign that advertised, “Talk to God.” I did. She was very nice, and told me that “Everything will be okay.” I should have just listened to her all along.

Black Rock City airport

Black Rock City airport.

3. I have opportunities to do things I’d normally never get to do.

As I was waiting in line to pick up mail last year (yes, you can get mail at Burning Man!), I was chatting with a guy in front of me and commented on his necklace. I told him I liked it, and he let me know it was the necklace that he and all his campmates wore. I asked him about his camp, and he told me it was a camp for skydivers.

My ears perked up. “I want to try skydiving someday!”

He told me all about his camp, and then said I should stop by sometime that day and check it out. I wouldn’t be able to jump, of course–the camp doesn’t allow tandem jumps, and you have to have done at least 50 jumps on your own–but I might be able to go up in the plane and watch people jump out. All I had to do was put my name on a list and see if I got called. It sounded like a cool opportunity, so I decided to check it out.

Well, I did get called (for a sunset flight, no less!), and damn, what an experience. This was sort of research for my own skydiving adventures, and it gave me a great idea of what it was like–I was strapped in right by the door of the airplane, so you could say I had a front row seat. Our pilot also thought it was pretty funny to plummet towards the earth once the last person was out, so I’ve got some pretty epic video footage I took on my phone of me and a few other wonderful strangers screaming in terror. Good times.

That was certainly a vivid memory I have of last year, but I had the chance to do so many amazing things: perform for hundreds of people, ride on an innovative hammock art car, watch an old-timey movie in the smallest theater I’ve ever been in (complete with a Snickers bar), witness a beautiful sunrise in the desert, chase lights, roller-skate in a makeshift roller rink, stumble across an alcoholic slushy stand at 2pm, walk on a catwalk and have a crowd of people cheer for me, hop on a mustache teeter totter, and so, so much more. Where else can I do all of those things in a matter of a week? This year, just like last, is full of unknown and amazing possibilities.

Truth is Beauty

I saw this dame every day.

4. I get to immerse myself in art.

As I mentioned, I had no idea what Burning Man would be like. I went thinking it was just this big, fun party in the desert, but it’s that and more. It’s a city full of artistic, intelligent minds. Seriously, the most surprising aspect of it was that it really, truly is an arts and music festival.

A week surrounded by unbelievable art and fantastical creations will get your brain wheels turnin’. It certainly did for me! I returned to San Francisco feeling more inspired than I had in a long time. Suddenly, I had new, interesting ideas. I wanted to do things and make things, and I possessed a newfound drive. It was like I had been given a reboot.

I saw an octopus art car that spewed fire into the air to the command of a piano on board, I rode on a mutant vehicle shaped like an armadillo, I read confessions written on the Temple and wept, I danced and sang on a stage with other performers that humbled me, I climbed sculptures and spoke with the people who created them, and I was so enamored with one art piece that I returned to its beauty every day I was there–just to name a few.

Basically, imagine an afternoon at your favorite museum. Now imagine that museum on crack and open for a week straight.

Oh, and add fire. Just because.

El Pulpo Mecanico

El Pulpo Mecanico…only my favorite car EVER. Definitely chased this guy around the desert for a while.

5. I’m encouraged to play and explore.

I’m a pretty curious gal, so any place that I’m told it’s 100% okay to run around without restriction–so long as I’m not harming anyone or myself–well, that’s a place I want to be.

Burning Man happens to be one of those places. I can wear what I want, do what I want, and I can go anywhere, see anything, touch anything, and climb anything that I want. The rules our society puts on us–like, “Don’t do that, it’s not ladylike,” or “That’s not how adults behave!”–they don’t fly in Black Rock City.

I’m a visual person, and if I can interact with something it’s even better. (Really, who doesn’t feel more engaged that way?) Anything out in that beautiful desert was fair game. Obviously, this was a little overwhelming–it’s just not possible to do it all–but it was undeniably freeing. The first few days there I caught myself wanting to ask for permission to do things, like climb on a certain structure or press buttons on an art piece. But very quickly I learned that I was supposed to interact with those things. If I took the time to learn more about them, I in turn learned more about myself.

I also was reminded that life, whether you’re at Burning Man or in default world, is not about watching on hopefully. It’s about living it, and doing it, and trying however you can to understand what you come across.

The Man Burns 2013

The Man burns 2013.

The Man burns in 32 days, so you can probably imagine my excitement at this point. I leave in less than a month! The Burn is actually within a reasonable time frame for me to blab on endlessly to my friends about it–“Look at the fuzzy pink coat I got!” “I rhinestoned my moto goggles, wanna see?” “Oh, don’t mind the gallons of water in the corner of my room–just stocking up!” etc etc etc.

It’s funny, for a while a few months ago, I struggled to justify why I would go back to Burning Man this year. I like new experiences, and going new places, so it seemed a little counterintuitive to go back to the same place I’d been last year. I then remembered that while I’m going back to the same place, it will still be a completely unfamiliar city than the one I experienced before. That’s what Burning Man is like for me: a new city full of some of the most amazing people and some of the best adventures.

Have you ever attended Burning Man? Have you been to other festivals, or had other similar experiences, that have given you a new outlook on life? What yearly trips do you take and why?

Oh, and with all of the anticipation of Burning Man, you can expect to see some more upcoming posts about prep, advice, and my own personal experiences. Squeeee!

Photo credits:

50 thoughts on “Why I’m Returning to Burning Man

  1. Burning Man!!!!! What a great post, I haven’t been yet but I too have only ever heard that it’s something that needs to be experienced and can not be explained. I plan on going in the next 2 years or so. Thanks for more Burn inspiration!

      • Thank you Theresa* My daughter has been to every single BM since the beginning. I believe she even came up with the “McLightenment” theme for one of the camps. This is definately a “Bucket List” item for me. Thank you for the best BM review I have EVER read! And I’ve read a lot!

      • You’re so sweet! Thank you for reading 🙂 That’s crazy your daughter has attended all the Burns–you’ll have someone who can give you some great guidance when you make it there!!

      • To see it once in my lifetime(2006) was a revelation. If I had to do it over again….I need to be completely sober the next time. Great post!

  2. This is my first year going and I appreciate you taking the time to write such a well composed message. I can see that the BM principals are well in effect outside of Black Rock City. Thank you!

    • You’re very welcome, and thank you for reading! Burning Man definitely changed my outlook on life, and I’m so excited for you to get to experience your first Burn this year 🙂

  3. Burning man festival has been top of my bucket list now for quite some time… watching all the videos on youtube had me captivated straight away unlike most festivals this festival offers a place to educate you and a place to really find yourself while enjoying it… i really need to experience this, but living in Glasgow, Scotland the price tag is a sore one… so might be a few years yet before i can.

    • I’m very fortunate to live driving distance from where Burning Man is held, so getting myself and all my stuff there isn’t such an ordeal. I think with enough planning, it’s definitely possible to lower the cost (getting a tent on Craigslist, carpooling, etc.)–but even just your flight to Nevada alone would tack on a lot of money.

      My best advice would be to join a camp instead of go alone. A camp already has some infrastructure built in–shade areas provided, sometimes showers, and a kitchen–so overall you have less to worry about. For example, at my camp, every person is responsible for providing and cooking one meal for everyone. So instead of worrying about meals for my whole week, I only have to think about one.

      You could start connecting with other Burners in Glasgow and see if they are part of a camp and if their camp resonates with you. It’s nice to be part of a community of a camp as well as the Burn!

    • Stevie, a group of about 25 to 30 of us have been forming a camp at Burning Man every year… and a few years ago, I recruited a few friends from Scotland to come along (I’m from California, but lived in Scotland for a few years so have friends there). True, the trip to Burning Man from Scotland is not exactly a short (or even cheap) one. BUT… I (and my Scottish friends) can tell you that it’s worth every bit of effort. The Scots have even proclaimed themselves as Burning Man “lifers” now, and have been attending ever since. As another person commented before me, it helps to join a camp rather than to go at it alone. Some camps charge a camp due that covers food, water, shade, etc… so all you’d have to do is show up with your tent and personal belongings (and sense of adventure, of course). Burning Man forums list loads of opportunities for people to collaborate with other Burners for camping and transportation arrangements. Getting to and from Burning Man certainly takes some work… especially for those coming from out of country. But you will never regret it you did it 🙂

    • Hi Stevie, I’m in the same boat as you. I live in London so long way to the Burning Man unfortunately. I keep reading the stories and watching the photos and I’m itching to go. Maybe we need to take Theresa’s advice and look for people in UK ad join them. 🙂

  4. What a beautiful post! I have been for the first time last year and going back this year. Reading your feelings about the Pulpo and the armadillo art cars, and the sunset, and the fire, the temple and everything else just gave me goosebumps – it literally felt like reading my own thoughts!!! Thank you thank you thank you ❤ See you at home 😉

  5. Great read. So glad you had the experience you had 😉 I havent been able to burn in 4 years unfortunately! I believe people experience what they’re meant to at their burns; I had a rocky one the middle of my week in ’09, I ran into some judgmental people with harsh observations, and had a handful of lonely hours on the playa walking around, thinking too much. At times I felt over stimulated. But I think for me it was just jarring to be woken up a little bit to needing to take care of myself in an extreme way. I was 18 and just about to move into this new phase of life as an (almost) adult.
    My Father died within 4 months of my week in Black Rock City. I can see now how beautiful it was that I had poignant reminders of his parenting throughout that extended week, even just facing the negativity from people and thinking that if I could have called he would have simply told me “treat others as you wish to be treated”. I wrote a message to him in the Temple, in case I didnt get to go back to Burning Man after his death someday- and believe me, I’ve had weird ‘Self-fulfilling Prophecy’ thoughts around that- and that meant the world to me later on, to know that I had sent that loving message and energy out there with the Temple burn to maybe meet him when he passed.

    So you never know what you’ll find, and exactly as you said, you cant prepare others. Theres a quote; “We dont see things as they are, we see them as we are.” One favorite I grabbed that year: “Communication, is Lubrication”. Oh and another thing I wanted to add about gifting, when explained to me my friend added “I feel the no-money system is set up in part so that we can embody the idea that you don’t owe anything to anyone.” I’ve always liked that.
    Thank you for your post!!! I’m glad the Burning Man fb is sharing it!! Enjoy your Burn this year for me!! 🙂

    • Thank you! The Temple was an amazing experience for me last year as well, and this year I’m looking forward to seeing it Burn. I’m glad to hear that it was meaningful for you as well.

      ❤ )'(

  6. I want to go very much. It sounds like a very cathartic experience–overloading your senses so that your spirit is cleansed. But I have nothing to offer, nothing to give to the Burning Man; no talent or skill, or art or music. That is what I fear most (besides sheer survival! I’m 58!). I think I need something to say or do to contribute first, before I can come.

    • Ronda, I think you have more to contribute than you think! 🙂 There are so many ways to volunteer on the Playa, which is a great start, and a wonderful way to meet people. Also, you can contribute to art and other projects off the Playa and then attend to see them in action. Even small things make a huge difference.

      And there are many Burners who are well over 50–just take care of yourself and listen to your body, and you’ll have a blast!!

      Thanks for reading 🙂

      • Thank you, you are very kind to reply. I have a “promise card” that documents my intent to go to Burning Man 2015. So I have a year to get in shape.

  7. I remember standing in line at the post office last year chatting with a girl and her commenting on my necklace. I also told her to go check out Burning Sky to see if she could get a firefly ride. What a funny coincidence. You should come by and try to get another ride this year! We’ll be at 5:00 and G

  8. Loved to read this text!!

    It makes me so more curious what to expect this year at the playa.

    comming over from Holland for the first time Burning Man together with my girl.

  9. It’s all happening, in the only city where we can create for ourselves, and participate endlessly to enrich the experience, and thereby the lives of everyone around us!.. for years to fall back upon and remember… that time I was riding my bike around the temple in ’12, and this very amazing need to just stop and be there overcame me. I spent hours reading and dreaming, later meditating at the center of the temple staring up into the reverse shrine pointing back down at us. I found my center, my understanding you’ve tapped into in this beautiful story! I was overcome by the “MAN”.. the )'( , the undeniable truth that we create the world we live in almost every day of our lives.. that spirit in us that shares with our fellow humans
    Because after I had this unbelievable self-actualizing experience, I was greeted by this very nice girl as I was wandering the inside of our temple walls that year. She asked me if I was thirsty, and as it was probably 120* or so, so I offered a Huge smile and a yes, to which I was then treated to the most amazing Thai Iced tea of my LIFE! along with a melting hot, fresh baked chocolate-chip cookie straight from their solar oven that was strapped to the back of a bicycle!
    I mean can you F….. believe how cool some people are!!! I knew then, that as an LMT, and healer, I had found my community and I would always try to spend those few weeks in the desert of BRC.
    I was there last year as well. I’m missing out this year to be the responsible dad, single-parenting has its perks & its drawbacks. But truthfully I can’t wait til their old enough to go! I am so glad I found this tonight, faith that I’ll make it back next year restored! ALOHA E

    • Ah, the Temple was definitely one of the most moving experiences I had there, and one that I have the most difficulty describing to others.

      Thank you for reading, and fingers crossed that you can make it back soon!

  10. Have always wondered what it was about BM that made it so unique and this has helped so much, thank you.

    I studied art as part of my University degree and loved every second of it. Something lies latent in me and I need to free it!

    Living in England I feel like we’re surrounded by so much negativity, greed, selfishness and anger. all we do is live out each day trying to make ourselves happy with things we can buy. Knowing that there’s people out there that feel the same way and are doing something about it fills me with hope.

    I too hope to Burn one day.

  11. As much as people would like to disconnect a free working phone and/or wi-fi is vital to some people and that is why it was one of our gifts to the community last year. To my knowledge it was the only free public phone available and we will be back again this year and once again in the 3:00 Plaza. Come on back, use the phone and have a drink at our bar. I would love to meet you.

  12. Want to go but put off by all the scammers and scared about buying a ticket that has been voided ……..any ideas on how to get a ticket that does not have any issues…..the website is too difficult to deal with been trying and registered but not able to buy direct……

    • I know what you mean. I wasn’t able to get a ticket this year but one of my campmates had an extra, luckily!

      When it comes time to buy tickets next year, use two computers simultaneously to line up tickets. Also, if you have a good friend who doesn’t mind helping you out, see if they’ll sign up for the ticket process–if they’re lucky and get a ticket, then you can buy from them.

      Otherwise, try to buy a ticket from someone you know…or someone who knows someone you know. Reach out to all your contacts and see who might know someone with an extra ticket. 🙂

      Thanks for reading!

  13. I actually was a little prejudiced against Burning Man when I first heard about it (Camping in the desert for a week? So it’s not a music festival? Like are these people just taking drugs the whole time? What do you get out of it?) but your post resonates very strongly with me! I feel this exact same way about Electric Forest in Michigan. It’s a very special place to me that’s different every year and generates such a free, communal spirit. (AND holla at art installations!) You may convince me to check out Burning Man in the future!

    • I’m glad to hear it! A LOT of people think Burning Man is just a bunch of hippies in the desert, so I’m glad to bust that myth.

      Thanks for reading! (and for telling me about Electric Forest…sounds like something I’d like!)

  14. Great story! Makes me want to jump on a plane and leave for BM! Can’t imagine how it would be spending days without the factor “money” in life. I also wonder how it compares to the 60’s when everything was less complicated and people were simply different and more loving to one another.

    • It was so interesting to not think about money for a week. It’s one of those things where I caught myself thinking if it might be sustainable on a larger scale. That’s the beauty of it though! Burning Man is a big social experiment in our time, and even if I still have to use money everyday when I return, I can take some of the things I learned and apply it to my everyday life. 🙂 thanks so much for reading!

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