I left Black Rock City exactly two weeks ago. That’s enough decompression for now, time to share some of the experience. This is by no means all-encompassing – so much occurred that I have no words for, so much exists only there, and everybody’s experience is completely different. This was mine.
I’ll start with the basics: Burning Man is a week-long annual event held in the Black Rock Desert in northern Nevada. For event details, I’d refer you to Wikipedia or the official website. I was attending for the first time, with a number of veteran Burners. My camp was primarily friends of mine from Los Angeles, and we were a registered theme camp called Steampunk Saloon. We had a pretty badass promotional flyer designed by the even more badass Art Lazaro.
Now, as one of my favorite first-burn blog entries already tells it: Civilization as we know it has ended and 50,000 survivors came out to the desert to throw the biggest party the world has ever seen. This is the Black Rock Desert. There was nothing here. Hundreds of people showed up pre-event to start making the skeleton of the city, complete with road signs, greeter booths, Center Camp and lots and lots of Porta-Potties. By the way, dear people, some of whom I actually know, THANK YOU, thank you from the bottom of my heart.
From nothingness to necessities, and then the participants come in to bring the magic. Theme camps, art, music, gifts, play, adventures, lights, action. I don’t have enough time or enough words to fully encompass what all of these people bring to the Playa table, but they sure do bring it. Preparedness is paramount as radical self-reliance is one of the 10 Principles of Burning Man. There’s a supply list I used to get ready, courtesy of my friend Spaceman. (Hint: You bring your own damn water: minimum 1.5 gallons/day, to start). Now, last year I literally lived out of my car from June 3rd to August 21st. (Granted, I slept in people’s houses along the way, not actually in my car). I put my belongings in storage and then I drove from Los Angeles, California all the way to York, Maine and back, with lots of stops along the way including but not limited to Boston, upstate NY, Akron, Dubuque, Denver, Las Vegas and San Francisco. But I packed LESS stuff for that trip than for this one, and I was only gone seven days.
The benefit, of course, to camping with people who’ve done it before is they know how to truly make a comfortable home on the Playa. We had a living room and a kitchen and showers and a cuddle puddle for goodness sakes. Anything I didn’t bring (and technically I brought everything I actually physically needed) turned up anyway. I didn’t have a coat that really rocked the Steampunk vibe, but I was randomly gifted one from someone not even in my camp (The man whose name I’ve forgotten at Camp Walter, thank you). I didn’t have a necklace to wear but by the end of the Burn I had three. I didn’t have the tastiest food but dammit, people kept feeding me. I am profoundly grateful to those who gave to me to make my experience what it was. I hope I returned the favor in the ways I had to do so (I did some gifting of my own).
Now, prior to Burning Man everyone warned me that after the (holy shit 10 hours!) drive there’d be a very long wait in line at the entrance (anywhere from 2-6 hours). I arrived with my ride-share buddy (who was great, thank you so much Allan) at 7pm on Monday and miraculously spent almost no time waiting before entering Black Rock City.
I set up my tent space in my camp and immediately joined the party (no, literally, we had our first camp party Monday night just as I arrived). Way to make me feel like you did it just for me, guys.
The days were hot, let there be no mistake about that. I lathered on sunblock and wore my sunglasses and kept mostly to the (man-made) shade. I wore bikini tops and boy-short bottoms and sneakers most of the time, just because anything more would’ve made me too warm. I had a bicycle and I spent most of my days biking around to see friends camped elsewhere during the day. Yes, a bicycle. Black Rock City is huge. Without that bike it would’ve taken me ages to get anywhere – which wouldn’t be all bad, as the journey itself is the destination, and there’s no place that makes more sense than at Burning Man itself.
Friday around 2pm a dust-storm started and pretty much didn’t stop until dawn the next day. There were other dusty days, and honestly Friday wasn’t even endlessly dusty, but it was the only day, pretty much, that I just wore my goggles and bandana continuously.
There’s a video floating around the internet of Dr. Seuss’ “Oh The Places You’ll Go” at Burning Man. In fact, here it is:
Though this video shows some of the awesome places you’ll go and people you’ll meet, it sure does give you a snippet of the most ideal weather conditions at the Burn. Here’s a video of the delightful Dustocalypse that was this year – complete with audio reference to the video above:
My favorite time of the day was sunset. The air would cool and my camp would start getting together to plan their evenings. We’d get dressed in outrageous costumes and conspire on the adventures of the night. I loved rummaging through my plastic tubs of clothing deciding how silly I’d get. I had a Tutu with LED lights in it.
Then nightfall comes. It’s dark out there with no streetlights, and anyone not wearing some flashy LEDs to show up in the blackness generally gets called a “darktard”. Lots of camps featured DJs, and a number of times I found myself dancing with a bunch of people I didn’t know, seeing people I’d never heard of spin, as well as people I’ve always wanted to – including The Crystal Method and Rabbit in the Moon.
On Wednesday night my friend Tupá and I wandered in blissful joy through the night on his semi-motorized two-seater bike, seeing the sights and visiting random camps. We met up with the Charlie the Unicorn art car and rode it to the city limits (the “trash fence” – not because you leave trash there but because it helps catch any that may blow away, it marks the boundary of Burning Man), where a few more art cars showed up, a couple hundred people and DJ Pumpkin spun his set until dawn. The downside of this was that we were far from camp, far from Porta-Potties and far too unambitious to walk alllll the way back to where our bike was, so we waited past our preferred period of partying to ride back home. Still, it was a fantastic time, I mention this not to truly complain but to paint an appropriately non-idyllic picture. Burning Man hands you a number of experiences and you make the best of ’em, no matter what. Those extra hours led to extra bonding with those I was with, and that’s awesome.
That night was also the night I received my Playa name. Playa names are nicknames given to you on-site. You may not get one, it may take a few years, and you may not like the one you get. Since you predominately introduce yourself to people, you can kind of choose what sticks and what doesn’t. People kept thinking my name “Avens” must be a Playa name, but no, I just have parents that wanted to make my life difficult by having to explain it at every event (including a radically inclusive one like Burning Man since everyone wanted to know how I got it and what it meant).
Tupá and I were talking about Nakoa (whose name I’d written in the Temple the night before). I mentioned that when Nakoa met me, he didn’t know how to pronounce my name correctly, and referred to me as “Awesomes”. Tupá told me that was my Playa name.
Speaking of Playa names, my favorite adventure of Playa-name seeking came on Friday night when my friend Luke and I were exploring together. I introduced myself to someone as “Awesomes”, and Luke explained he had no Playa name. The new friend we made (whose name I promptly forgot – apparently I’m a terrible new friend) said she’d help with the process. This was the exchange:
Her: Well, what’s your favorite animal?
Him: I don’t want to be–
Her: Shush, it’s not that simple. What’s your favorite animal?
Him: Well, I like fish. I have a very sweet fish at home.
Her: Okay, what’s your favorite color?
Him: I dunno – is brown a color?
Her: Of course it’s a color! Name an article of clothing you really like.
Him: Well, I have this cool blue-sequined dress I’ve been wearing as my costume on the Playa.
Her: Perfect. Okay. [she approaches random stranger walking past]
Her: [to stranger]: Hey, if you met a sweet brown fish on the Playa wearing a blue-sequined dress, what would you call him?
Stranger: Jared. or Celeste.
Her: Okay, maybe this won’t work.
I must note that I use the term “Stranger” above with apprehension. You see, nobody’s a stranger at Burning Man. They’re friends you haven’t met yet. I don’t mean this in some hippie we-are-all-brothers-and-sisters sort of way, it’s just kind of a fact. At some point you’ll be on your own, wandering without your current friends, and you’ll happen on some new people, who will become your friends. You may never see them again, you may not even exchange names (and may forever remember them as “that nice guy with the nipple piercing who offered me a Chai latte at Center Camp”), but you’re all in this together – this vast conspiracy of community spirit.
Then there are those who are not there. Say that sentence aloud – actually, I kind of like it. There are those who have passed on, who are remembered most notably in the Temple where people gather – some leave notes, gifts, messages, some pray, some spend some quiet time meditating… for all the party that Burning Man provides, the Temple is a solemn quiet place where people mourn those passed. I wrote Nakoa’s name, as pictured above. On the last night of Burning Man, the Temple is burned to the ground, in near-silence. I sat with a few friends as we watched it, heard people crying, people quietly chanting, the occasional shout of “I love you and miss you Mom!” with the occasional hush of people trying to respect the silence. It was moving, and I freely cried with no reservation as I watched this structure go up in flames.
Then, there are those who couldn’t make it. Thankfully still with us in the mundane world, just lacking the means or availability to actually make it to Burning Man this year. My friend Ehron is an incredibly awesome Burner friend of mine who encouraged me to go this year – thanks to him, I resolved to go, I prepared for it, and he found someone to gift me my ticket there (thank you, Spaceman). As he was unable to go himself, I decided to make a representation of him to take with me and photograph all over Black Rock City.
I went to Target and bought a Ken doll. I drew Ehron’s signature facial hair on him, sewed up some Burner-style clothes for him and brought him along in my backpack on every adventure.
By the way, did I mention there’s art? Fuck yes, there’s art. There are huge pieces of art, and little art, and experience art and performance art and fire art and artistic magic everywhere. There were galleries (and live paintings by the super awesome Alex and Allyson Grey!) and structures… and some of the art is burned to the ground at the end. One of my favorite pieces was this giant structure of buildings called “Wall Street”. You can ring the opening bell and climb inside… and on Saturday they burned it down. There was something extremely satisfying about hearing people say “hey, did you see Wall Street burn down yesterday?”. It just tickles the Occupier spirit a bit.
To be honest, I have a deplorable lack of photos of the art. I didn’t feel like my camera would really do any of it justice. Hands-down, my favorite thing was probably the shipwreck. Now, when I tell you it’s a shipwreck, I mean – somebody built HALF a to-scale Spanish galleon that is sticking out of the desert. You can climb inside and sit down on benches, enter the captain’s quarters – it’s literally three levels of tilted shipwreck. The details are marvelous, from the old-style pornographic pictures in the captain’s quarters and maps and compasses, to the old books in one room. There was also a hole near the bottom that led out onto a long pier. And as you walked across this peculiarly tilted structure, you actually felt like you were on the sea, though it was perfectly stable, it felt like it was moving. (I swear it wasn’t the drugs). Other people took photos of it, here’s one, I wish I could find a better one that wasn’t copyrighted (but hey, go check out Google Image Search):
The art was phenomenal. I highly recommend you check out a few of these photojournals of the experience, including BM Campimp’s set, and my favorite: Steve Payne’s Esplanade Series. My own series of photos can be found by clicking on any of the photos of mine I posted, but the album can be found on my Facebook.
It’s funny – all sorts of random thoughts struck me during Burning Man. The whole First World privilege thing was an interesting concept for me to think about over the week – the fact that 50,000 people can chose to (and afford to) take off work and go live in the desert for a week with generators or batteries for electricity, using outhouses (Porta-Potties), not necessarily showering, exposing ourselves to the extreme heat of the day and the cold of the night. There’s a willingness to throw off the conveniences of the modern world – few of us use (or even can use due to signal issues) our cell phones or computers, we drink water with dust in it (because everything has dust in it), we don’t watch TV or play board games – we create community interactions. Yet, we bring in PA systems and generators with lights and outdoor showers and random pieces of the modern world. We eat well, we may or may not take drugs, we dance and play and live a pretty good life out there on the Playa. There were times in which I felt really ironic – like “I intentionally leave my central air-conditioned home with a Tempur-pedic mattress and various accommodations to sleep on the ground and pee in a gross plastic box, only in America!”… but at the end of the day, I’m so terribly grateful that this particular luxury exists for those who seek it. For a place in the desert where we come across nothing and make something – where we come together with few rules and breaking some laws to create our own little city – where it’s not exactly anarchy despite the potential for it to happen. There are strict social guidelines even where official ones don’t exist. There are laws of the land even when there isn’t anyone enforcing the laws of the government (and by the way, there are some – there are definitely cops, both uniformed and undercover patrolling Burning Man and enforcing things like 21+ for alcohol, busting drug deals, whatever else…).
Another thing for me was realizing I was a jaded virgin. I’ve been partying with Burners for *years*. I’ve been attending neo-pagan festivals and hippie festivals often run by or attended by Burners since I was a baby. I’ve been to regional events and Decompressions, I’ve run naked through the woods and taken psychedelics and made friends with strangers and made lovers of cute boys and danced to electronic music all night and seen random art be made, impressed upon me and destroyed. I heard friends and loved ones bitch about how Burning Man was better in the old days, I heard stories of things I’ve already done in much more tolerable temperatures and dammit, I spent years going “No, I don’t want to go to Burning Man, I hate the desert and dust.”
They say there’s nothing like Burning Man. Well, there’s certainly nothing *quite* like Burning Man, and if you consider yourself the open-minded, adventurous sort, I certainly recommend you throw it on your bucket list and do it at least once. Hell, if you’re kinda tightly-wound, it’ll probably unwind you a bit (I just don’t volunteer myself as the person to deal with you when you’re busy falling apart before you come back together).
I loved this experience. I love the people I camped with and the people I met, the people who gifted me and the people I gave gifts to. The people who adventured with me, and danced with me and exchanged glances with me. I even loved that stupid Playa dust at the end (and loved washing it off when I got home even more). I love the people I thought of while I was there, the people who told me to do it but couldn’t make it, the people who laugh at me when I tell them it’s worth the trouble. It was fantastic.
Here are a few crazy awesome stories that help explain the randomness of Burning Man and which didn’t fit neatly into the flow of the stories above:
On Saturday, I went to Center Camp to buy (yes, buy, though Burning Man is a place where officially, no money changes hands unless you’re at Center Camp buying ice or coffee) an iced Chai Latte, when I realized I was getting somewhat hungry. I was craving something homey, something different than I’d been eating all week, but something I probably wouldn’t find on the Playa (nothing specific, actually, just randomly thinking of various impossible-to-get soul foods). Literally ten feet from where I’d parked my bicycle was a woman with a little cart being powered by propane, serving grilled cheese sandwiches straight off her griddle. Holy shit – the grilled cheese fairy.
As I pedaled back to my camp, I saw a bunch of people sitting under a shade structure around a table with some chairs. One yelled out, “come here! We’re drunk and ready for you!”. I decided to swing by, and as I dropped my kickstand, I read their sign:
“Ask A Drunk Scientist A Question”
So I asked them how magnets work. Just to see what they’d say (I know the most elementary of explanations myself, but it’s a fun question). Then we got into a random discussion about Magic the Gathering cards (prompted by a loose card on the table) and then my friend asked a very complicated physics question and I felt bad because I swear my eyes glazed over with just how much of that I 1. could understand 2. cared about.
This may have been my very favorite thing about Burning Man. DeathGuild camp hosts Thunderdome every night with fights (padded swords and bouncy harnesses, oh my!) and awesomeness ensues. Having a few friends at DeathGuild doesn’t hurt either, as they provide amusing heckling by day as well. Some of my favorite moments of the week occurred with them.
With that, I’m wrapping this up. As previously mentioned, I couldn’t thank the people involved in setting up Black Rock City for everybody or the people involved in making experience what is was, enough. Who’s in for next year?
Lastly, here’s my Burner doll of Ehron and the Man Burning (literally, dude, it’s Burning Man!)
Just kidding. I’m going to leave you with my favorite video I’ve found taken this year: