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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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!