It’s drugs, sex and EDM. It’s the world’s biggest inside joke. It’s a playground for rich techies. It’s a place where if you think you can be absurd you have to prove it. It’s extreme camping. It’s a place of radical acceptance, creativity and self expression. It’s the easiest festival to get busted for drugs. It’s transformational. It’s Burning Man.
I first went to burning man in 2012 just after I arrived to California because my brother had an extra ticket if I helped with an art installation. Still shedding my Midwestern skin, but leaning into my curiosity I attended and… it was transformational. It was the first time in my life I felt a truly accepting and loving community where there was no expectation. It was a place of wonder and otherworldliness with amazing environmental-musical experiences like fire stages and raves in white out dust storms. It was a place of freedom where you can happen upon nearly any experience and a place of creativity where a mechanically oscillating octopus made out of junk metal shoots flames out of its tentacles and drives around.
This year in 2023, the year of Animalia I returned to The Burn and boy did I forget how intense the experience is. Everything is going on all the time, you are always missing something and your boundaries are often pushed. You will experience the range of emotions. Sometimes daily. (also, see my planning guide)
This was a typical day for me at The Burn this year:
- Slowly wake up between 9-10am and eat something
- Sweat in the tent until I feel like outside might be cooler
- Pick one event and start bicycling there
- Get a couple cold drinks or food at various camps on the way, lured in by microphone wielding cryers
- Experience something truly unique and have a connection with someone
- Leave the city and bicycle through some art projects on The Playa
- Come back to our camp between 5-7pm and chat with everyone about the night’s plan
- Eat, hydrate, lay down for one hour and get dressed for the night
- The city starts picking up. Head out a little after sunset for a bicycle ride to see what’s happening out on The Playa. Stopping at art and art cars who’s music we like.
- Make it to some artist or camp someone knows in the city for dancing.
- Bop around a couple sound camps. Try to dance on something you can climb on.
- Go out into The Playa and see what’s going on. Maybe try to find the Robot Heart.
- Either come back to camp around 3am or try to make it until sunrise.
- Go to sleep to loud bass and our jerk neighbor’s generator.
- Most of the party shuts down 8-10am.
Some version of this happened from Sunday – Friday when we had to leave early because my friend was having a difficult time with the conditions and non-stop stimulation on their first burn. Although, given it rained Friday-Sunday and everyone got kinda stuck, maybe that was for the best. Although, I cried hard having to leave this place where I feel so accepted. Where my emotional connection to music and the sense of freedom I get from dancing can be celebrated every day. Where I will almost always be greeted with a warm heart, a clever grin or a welcoming hug wherever I go. Where I get to experiment and try new things in a supportive community without judgement.
There is no way to truly explain Burning Man without experiencing it personally and every person’s Burn is their own experience by what they prioritize. However, I feel like telling stories of the experiences there goes a long way in describing how absurd, fun, free and otherworldly it is. In Black Rock City, these experiences are all normal:
- That time where 100s of people on glowing light up bicycles converged on a bus with a multi-million dollar sound system welded to its side (The Robot Heart). As people climbed and hung off the glowing heart on top of it and hundreds of people danced to hard hitting electronic music by a giant No Dancing sign. At 4am I did a double take as I tried to process whether a person in a vest that read US Ranger and a pistol walking through the crowd was in costume or Law Enforcement looking to bust someone. Later, I watched the sun rise over The Playa for an unforgettable Sunrise Set.
- That time when we stopped to go on a date with a puppet but ended up performing a meet-cute with two puppets. Then enjoyed a rum and chai iced drink while talking to a kind French man for an hour.
- When we wandered over the a pixelated rainbow glowing three-story truss structure that had two dozen naked people on top top partying and turned out was also a steam-bath. The music was good and we danced here spontaneously for an hour.
- That time we were all excited to see Dom Dolla and it turned out it was just a prank and that camp didn’t even exist.
- Sweating in the sun for three hours at a bicycle repair camp after our third tire deflation event blew through the sidewall of our tire. Getting offered a bell as a “fix” unless we wanted to wait for the master-mechanic.
- That time when Robot Heart went around to all the other art cars and played fart noises through its enormous speakers so it could be Robot “Fart”.
- A million dollar RV showing up and throwing the loudest generator I heard out there next to our tents and within my art installation.
- Going through orientation, admission and graduation for a Ph.D. in “Imaginary Construction” at the UniverseCity.
- When someone pulled up all the stakes of my art installation and put them in a pile next to my camp so they could drive through to find their own place to camp.
- Making an offering to The Temple of my past self and reading others’ offerings for people and pets they lost.
- Playing someone’s home-made miniature claw game, dancing on a shipping container and then watching a fire-show.
- Walking through a wardrobe at the Furry camp to “Narnia”. A secret UV-lit room with lots of pillows and blankets.
- Walking through a door in a mural at a friends camp and crawling through a tunnel to multiple side-rooms where we took tarot cards.
- Bicycling through a hot dust storm wearing a mask and goggles to Center Camp midday and getting an intricate giraffe ink stamp.
- Dancing to a psychedelic glowing Nudibranch art car in the middle of a dust storm with 10 ft of visibility.
- Climbing up on the Golden Gate Bridge art car and talking to someone who just got married
- Cheering along with a group a people who would setup a red-carpet and window for you to walk through as you unsuspectedly exited a portapottie. Speech! Speech!
- Writing in an Australian’s book as we sipped slushies in a boat lined with pillows and blankets, which itself was inside a giant poison toad tent with a DJ playing.
- Having to evacuate a structure because someone from the camp said something was wrong with its integrity and could collapse.
- Having a naming ceremony with two women for our Mammoth theme’d bike.
- Supporting a woman through an extremely intense psychedelic moment at the Sanctuary and then deflecting their verbal, stream of consciousness, sexual curiosity as I trip-sat for her at 1am.
…and there are sooooo many other things like climbing up two stories to play a large plinko game, making a brass token, seeing a hundred different ways to do an art car, dancing in a giant pyramid, playing pool with bowling balls, 100 ft wide dust devils, poloroid pictures of us in giant fake wigs, fire!, hundreds of people in a naked bicycle parade, learning some dance moves from Crazy Legs and more…
The theme for me this year was a celebration and defiance of life. After a several year, extremely intense mental health episode. This year has been very positive and stable. Burning Man for me was a reflection of embracing life and a welcome home to the acceptance and silliness of the community.
If you are new to The Burn, these are things I would tell you:
- Yes, Law Enforcement is active. People go to jail, many get citations, Law Enforcement is looking for any reason to pull you over and search your car. Do not consent! Consider moving your license plate so it’s not obstructed by your bike rack. Don’t bring joints, but vaping weed seems pretty chill. If you do drugs be discrete about it.
- There is a lot of sexuality and nudity… and spanking. I forgot how much a part of Burning Man this was. A lot of the sexuality is more playful, than serious but if you want to experiment with it, it is here. As a large-white-cis-male, I’ve felt everyone was very good at respecting consent and things are opt-in. (Which I was a little nervous about my first time, but felt my boundaries were very respected)
- Embrace things as they come. You will have hard times. You will have amazing times. You will lose your friends. Burning Man is a great opportunity to practice acceptance and encourage you to find your own path. Get everyone’s plans for the evening before you go out. If you plan on meeting up with someone, give them 15 minutes and then move on. We all get caught up, there is so much going on, you’ll see them sometime in the next 12 hours.
- Do at least one weird thing a day you wouldn’t do/try/have access to in the “normal world”. Hey, I love dancing to electronic music in the desert, but there is more than that. Try stuff out in a judgement free space. Talk to people. Participate!
- Find a way to push your self expression. Make a little art project, go all out on your bike, try out nudity or pasties, create a fun costume, plan a unique way to engage with people, make something. DIY is a major part of the community-created-environment that is burning man. DIY something, this is your opportunity to create and people will accept and appreciate everything you bring.
- The culture of Burning Man is to not use your phone. Considering the incredibly unique experiences, art, music, etc. I see wayyyy less phones out capturing them than any other place. Part of this I think is respect for the anonymity of Burning Man that allows so many people to be radical in their self expression. I felt weird taking photos, but I wanted to bring some of this creativity back to my community to help explain the wonder of the event and remember it myself. So, just be respectful.
Well, here I am in the sad normal world where it’s too clean, too quiet, too normal. I didn’t go into Burning Man with expectations how I would feel about it and left the possibility that I didn’t relate to it like I used to. On the other side, I definitely miss it and feel like I was a little too careful this year. I planned the week carefully around being well rested and engaged volunteering at the Zendo Sanctuary a couple times and supporting my friend who was new to The Burn this year. I slept too much and didn’t quite have as many late-night or sunrise music experiences as I wanted. I felt more wreaked after four days at Lightning in a Bottle than my six days at Burning Man. However, Burning Man isn’t just a party. It’s a community event and much more emotionally engaging than a music festival. It’s going to be a long time until another experience like this and I’m mourning that and trying to figure out how to integrate this experience into my life as I hose off the dust from everything I brought out there. The Man burns in 364 days.