Since returning from my first Burning Man experience, I’ve been bombarded with the same questions that I had prior to attending: What actually is Burning Man? What’s it all about? Who attends? What do you even do for a whole week in the desert? And so on. While anyone who has participated in Burning Man knows it’s impossible to explain, I’m going to give it my absolute best shot.
So what is Burning Man? Many people expect it to be an art and music festival in the desert. While that’s true, it doesn’t even come close to covering the scope or the purpose. This 8-day gathering that takes place in the scorching Nevada desert is not just a “festival” – it’s a temporary community dedicated to “radical self-expression and self-reliance.” 70,000 people from all over the world come together to build a literal city, complete with hairdressers, gyms, playgrounds, bars, an airport, daily newspaper, radio station, postal service, and more.
What’s it all about? As cliché as it may sound, Burning Man is about whatever you choose it to be about. Music is present; but it’s not about the music unless you decide that YOUR Burning Man will be about music. Art is present, but it’s not about the art unless you decide that YOUR Burning Man will be about art. Some people make it about science or emotional healing or partying, but you get to choose whatever speaks to you. Up until day 5, I’ll admit I really didn’t understand what it was about for me. It had just seemed like an awesomely bizarre festival. While I enjoyed the music, creative workshops, and incredible art, I wouldn’t say that’s what my week was truly about. But on day 5, someone asked me, “What do you think you’ll miss most about Burning Man?” I realized that what I would miss most was the welcoming community as a whole along with its selfless spirit of giving, genuine human interaction, and opportunity to explore various creative outlets. That’s really what my first Burning Man was all about. But again, only you can create your own experience.
Who attends? As mentioned in my previous post, I met people of every age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, political party, and socioeconomic status. But while the Burning Man crowd is often stereotyped as a bunch of anarchist drug-loving hippies, I found this to be entirely wrong. The 2015 Census Report actually found that 44% of all participants had a Bachelor’s Degree, 27.5% had a Graduate Degree, and 53.4% made over $50,000 annually. There’s a professor at Stanford University who attends every year as a storyteller, and there are Silicon Valley nerds who attend to engage in advanced discussions about new technology. These are not exactly the eccentric nonconformist hippies that most people picture. Anyone is welcome at Burning Man, but the nature of the event itself mainly attracts open-minded, generous, and creative people who eagerly uphold the Ten Principles. 87.4% of 2015 participants ranked the Ten Principles as either Very Important or Important.
So, what on earth do you do for an entire week in the desert anyways? There’s such a wide variety of things to do at Burning Man that you could go every year for a lifetime and no two burns would ever be the same. What you decide to do is entirely up to you, and having only been once, I feel like I haven’t even scraped the surface yet. Whether you decide to attend astronomy lectures, eat bacon, make sock puppets, or embrace your inner cat, the opportunities at burning man are truly endless.
Here are a few things you can do:
Experience the art. Art at Burning Man ranges from enormous and intricate to small and simple. You can usually climb up it, and nearly all of it is interactive. This year there was a phone booth where you could “talk to God,” lighthouses that you could climb, and a ring-toss game that blew fire if you got your ring to land on a hook. The art is mind-blowing by day but even more amazing by night when it all lights up.
Make your own art. You can marvel at the spectacular works scattered across the playa, or you can go make your own! Every day, various camps offer DIY workshops such as tie-dying, painting, coloring, jewelry making, and more. Attend one of these workshops to let your creativity flow.
Stay Active. Just because you’re away from home, doesn’t mean you’ll just sit around like a lump on a log. There’s a camp that has Roller Disco 24/7, others with pickup games of volleyball, dodgeball, and basketball, and there are heaps of yoga classes all over the playa at any time of day. Opt to join the laid-back beer mile, or go big and do the Black Rock City 50k Ultramarathon (hey, when else are you going to get a race entry for free)? And if you really can’t miss your routine arm day, go find one of the camps that has a gym set up.
Try to get clean. “Try” being the key word here… There are certain camps that offer services to help burners get clean. Dr. Bronners is the most popular shower at Burning Man, yet the more accurate description would be “foam party.” Everyone gets naked and walks into a box where there’s a DJ blasting music and soapy foam is sprayed everywhere. You rinse off and exit when clean, where you typically just dry off in the desert sun, only to stay clean for about 17 seconds until you’re blasted by dust seconds later.
Learn something new. Use your time to attend a lecture or to join a discussion about an innovative idea. During the week, there are lectures about various topics including law, philosophy, environmental science, psychology, astronomy, biology, physics, and more. There’s even a TedX talk where you can connect with global thought leaders, a Math workshop you can attend to discuss difficult problems (or get help on your math homework), and an “Ask a Scientist” event where you can ask a neuroscientist or quantum physicist your most complex “how stuff works” questions.
Visit the temple. For many, Burning Man is a very spiritual and transformative experience that’s about letting go and releasing the past in order to start a new beginning. The temple is a shrine filled with photos of the deceased, letters of regret, memories, and apologies, and you’ll feel the heavy ambiance as you walk up. Many people will be crying, hugging and comforting each other, or just silently reflecting. Feel free to write or leave something if you’re moved to, then watch the past go up in flames at the somber temple burn on the last night.
Be a kid again. Embrace your inner child by attending one of the many family-friendly events on the playa. Visit one of the various playgrounds, ride a zipline, play capture the flag, join a coloring contest, attend a Disney singalong event, or play “Human Hungry-Hungry Hippos,” where you crawl around with a box to collect balls. Alternatively, do something that you always wanted to do as a kid but your parents told you not to… accept candy from strangers! One camp has a vending machine called “Strangers with Candy” full of free candy that you can actually take without getting into a creepy white van.
Eat bacon. I wasn’t joking a few paragraphs back. You could legitimately make your Burning Man about it if you wanted to, and there are entire camps (i.e. Bacon Oasis) dedicated to this playa-perfect protein staple. Here are just a few of the bacon-themed events that occurred at Burning Man this year: Brulee Bacon Brunch and Mimosas, News and Bacon but Mostly News, Pigmalions Bacon and Bloody Mary Party, Busty Bacon Brigade & Bacon Marys, Beyonce Bacon Brunch, Bloody & Bacon Bonanza, Bacon Bombs, Bacon Smores Buffet, and Bacon Bourbon Booty. Enjoy!
Be entertained. There’s no chance to be bored, as Black Rock City is brimming with entertainment for both young and old. See a film at the Drive-In Movie Theater, watch a fashion show at Kostume Kult, laugh until you cry at one of Ashram Galactica’s satirical skits, or skate your heart out at the 24-hour Black Rock Roller Disco. There are also DJs spinning round the clock as well as a variety of live music. Blue grass, Broadway, hip-hop, classic rock… if you can name it, you can probably find it.
Decorate (and/or fix) your bike. Not only is it necessary to have a bike at Burning Man due to the distance across Black Rock City, you also need to decorate so that 1) it stands out from the crowd and 2) it lights up so others can see you at night. This can be done with spray paint, fake flowers, fur, EL lights, you name it – whatever helps you locate your bike in the middle of 200 others all parked outside Camp Question Mark. If you come with a plain bike, visit one of the bike decorating workshops, where they’ll provide materials and ideas to decorate.
Throughout the week, you’ll probably need a few bike repairs too. Make sure to map out the Bike Repair camps for the day you need a new tire tube!
Act like a cat. Black Rock City is certainly in no shortage of events for all those crazy cat burners out there. Maybe you’ll participate in Cat-ifying the Playa, where you make your own cat ears & collar, paint your face, enjoy a giant scratching post, and chase around dots created by giant disco ball. Or perhaps you want to join Critical Cats and wear your finest feline outfit while meowing ‘til you drop in a cat pack parade across the playa. And you certainly can’t miss out on aligning your cat-like energy in Cat Chakra Meditation, or purring sweet Christmas carols at I’m Dreaming of a White Catmas.
Party. Earlier I mentioned that Burning Man is much more than just a weeklong party in the desert. That being said… if you want to party for a week straight, you definitely can. There are parties going on in Black Rock City 24/7, whether they be chill sunrise sets, crazy day parties, full out night clubs, or pumping dance music going all night long. If you want to make your Burning Man about partying, you’ll have no problems making that happen… until you get burnt out and sleep for 24 hours straight.
Ride a mutant vehicle. There’s a reason you only see incredible art cars roaming the playa. All undecorated motor vehicles are restricted to camp, and everyone who wants to drive on the playa must first be approved and licensed by the the DMV (Department of Mutant Vehicles). There are a great deal of qualifications for licensed vehicles, including but not limited to mutation to the point of non-recognition (i.e. it can’t look like a golf cart), some level of “radical visual stimuli” aka “wow factor” for other participants, and radical illumination (it should be just as stimulating at night, if not even more so). The amount of competition and strict regulations in place for obtaining a license ensures that only the most amazing mutant vehicles get to roam the playa, and the best part is, you can usually hop on!
Eat! You could legitimately attend Burning Man with no food at all and just plan to participate in all the food events. There are activities such as the Intergalactic Pancake Massacre, Noodlepocalypse, Deeply Hunogver Deep Fried Goodness (french fries), Intersteller Grilled Cheese Sandwiches, Sunset Fondue Party, Fine French Dining at the Café, Magic Monday Cold Pickle Service, and Coconut Milk Ice Cream Soiree.
Drink. You can find free drinks all over the playa, from coffee and bloody marys to sangria and home-brewed beer. You may decide to get a little crazy by joining the Beer Bong Breakfast or Naked Pub Crawl, but you can also keep it classy by participating in French Wine Tasting, German Beer Tasting or Home-Brewed Beer Tour. I stumbled across the home-brewed beer tour by accident, and it was incredible! Just be sure to always have a reusable cup and ID with you.
Be healed. If you’re in need of healing, seek out a camp such as the HeeBeeGeeBee Healers, who describe themselves as “a grounded oasis that creates a nurturing environment and provides healing services to broken burners.” Services they offer include offers reiki, shiatsu, chiropractic adjustments, craniosacral therapy, massage (Swedish oil, deep tissue, Thai), acupuncture, chakra balancing, hypnosis, past life regression, talk therapy and tantric healing. Alternatively, you can check out some of the self-help activities, such as the AA 12-Step meetings, or schedule an appointment with one of the supportive counselors providing free services to citizens of Black Rock City.
Enjoy a sunrise. There’s something magical about playa sunrises and the unparalleled feeling of calmness as participants watch in peaceful content, entirely present in that moment. With each pastel sunrise comes the promise of possibility and the opportunity to begin again, and you can literally feel the community’s awe, humility, and gratitude as ethereal beauty unfolds. Stay up all night if you can, or wake up at 4am. It will be an experience you won’t quickly forget, I promise.
Wander. The best plan for Burning Man is no plan at all. Grab a bike and go explore. Meet interesting people. Stumble across interactive art. Get lost in a whiteout. Find a cozy hammock for a nap. Discover new music. Embrace all that is random and spontaneous. Go live in the moment and enjoy complete freedom as you choose your own adventure.
You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.” – Dr. Seuss
As always, keep on livin’ pura vida ✌