It’s not a naked foam party, weeklong brain fry, or rainbow glitter unicorn parade. It’s not sunrise acro yoga, intersubjective meditation, or fire twirling on a tightrope. Burning Man is not one of the clichés you’ve heard. It’s all of them.
Which, for the nonconformist, is part of the appeal. You don’t seek out a Michelin three star restaurant if you’re not a foodie. But there’s more to Burning Man than that. So much more. A million things more.
Once a year, people travel from all over the world to form Black Rock City in the Nevada desert. Population: 70,000.
To give some perspective – Evanston, IL, Muncie, IN, San Clemente, CA – also cities of about 70,000. BRC is in the shape of a circle with a 7-mile circumference, boasting an all-out organized city structure complete with camp addresses, street names, post office, and hospital. It’s a real city. That exists for 7 days.
I didn't know much going into it. Only what I read online - which doesn't even begin to convey a fraction of what Burning Man really is. (But thanks for reading anyway!) I did come across a lot of recommended packing lists. So I packed for the end of the world. I brought things I didn’t know how to use. Like a Swiss army knife and a collapsible rubber funnel that lets a lady pee while standing up. People said “Bring lights.” So I did. Enough to land a 747. I had blue suspenders that lit up. Flashing buttons. A flaming Hawaiian lei. This sun necklace. Glow in the dark shoelaces. Lights for the front of my bike. Lights for the back of my bike. A mining light helmet (you have to.) And back-up batteries for all of it.
I didn’t use half of it.
That’s ok. Because even though you’re living in a radically altered reality, the harsh elements are very real and the night is very night. There’s peace of mind in knowing you have everything you really need right in your pack. Let's say you’re sitting in a two-story teepee way out on the playa with your new friend, Zed, who’s making up a song about the moth flying around when suddenly you’re extremely parched. The fuckin' Sahara is in your mouth. You don’t need to get up to go to the sink. There are no sinks. There is no plumbing. Your. Water. Source. Is. On. Your. Back. Keep singin’, Zed.
Being stripped of traditional societal expectations, combined with sleeping under the stars and sun for a week, inevitably puts you more in tune with your psyche. There’s an entire city that feeds on spontaneity right at your fingertips, allowing you the freedom and ability to do whatever you want, whenever you want – without Instagram distractions, having to get in a car, or text a friend to plan. Everything is within reach at any given moment. Live how you do in the “default world” or forget you're a human for a week. Be a donkey. Whatever you feel. Go.
It all becomes part of this visceral experience that’s hard to put into words. And it's completely subjective. Since everything that happens at Black Rock City relies on participation, you get out of it what you put in. No two people have the same experience. Even if you’re going with your boo or group of friends, I strongly encourage going off and exploring independently. It allows you to be fully receptive to what’s happening around you and welcomes interactions. Which for me was the most interesting part.
Back in the real world, I usually have a few highlights each week. The Universe hands me these little gifts with a note that says 'Hey, you're alive!' Things like an awesome live show. A fulfilling catch-up with an old friend. Not getting a parking ticket when I know I should've. At Burning Man, these happy highs happen every few minutes. Dozens of unexpected adventures a day. They just find you. It’s like Sunday Funday on crack. The gifting economy has a little to do with it. It just feels good when someone ties a handmade bracelet on your wrist and pours free vodka into your mouth. But the gifts that had a lasting impression on me were the simple, kind interactions I had with strangers.
Our camp was short on bikes one day so I set out on foot. Wandered into an inviting theme camp with a knitted panda art car. “Hi! What happens here?” This tiny woman, Fefe, grabbed my arm and said normally tons of fun shenanigans do, but at this very moment they’re all heading to a burlesque show and I’m coming with them. I explained how I didn’t have wheels. Without hesitation, she woke up her sleeping boyfriend and told him I was borrowing his bike. We rode like a peace-loving biker gang through the dirty streets. We watched burlesque, then danced, then went down a giant carnival slide on the Esplanade. We got caught in a dust storm and somehow I lost my mask. My new friend, J-Rod, gave me his spare to keep. It was sturdier than mine and smelled better. I gave them the aromatherapy vials my camp and I were gifting. Then we danced some more.
Later, I ended up talking for hours with a couple in a bar. It was her first Burn, his 5th. He said he dreamt about Burning Man every night for 9 months afterwards. Sometimes I think about him and wonder what’s happening in his dreams. Is it heaven? A cosmic, colorful wonderland of weirdos - one big party. A Baz Luhrman movie. Like Moulin Rouge. Or is it hell? A dismal three hour dust storm - the apocalypse. A Baz Luhrman movie. Like Australia.
Later later, I met a guy named Zack out on the playa, turned out he lived down the block from me in L.A. It was golden hour and he didn’t have a camera on him. I took a photo of him and emailed it.
And then there was Zed. And that moth.
Burning Man is a ride. You're living at the edge of the world, absolutely exhausted, and there's a fat layer of dust at the bottom of your tent, in your hair, and in your lungs. On top of the insane conditions, there's those little big moments of introspection sprinkled with existential questioning. Full spectrum of emotions, from the lightest to the darkest. Even amongst the altruistic energy, it could be easy to get in a funk, start bitching, and want out. I’m so grateful to have been in a camp with some amazing people who stayed nothing but positive and supportive for each other from beginning to end. I only knew one person in my camp prior, which to think about now is crazy. To be completely off the grid in this strange, transcendent otherworld and form these genuine connections really puts things in perspective. Something not fully understood until decompressing back in the real world. Since the trip a year ago, we’ve celebrated engagements and birthdays, sang karaoke and dressed up at Halloween, laid on the beach and talked for hours - just like at camp. Truly invested in what’s happening in one another’s lives.
When people ask what Burning Man is, I have trouble explaining. "No, it's not a music festival. Or any kind of festival. It's a social experiment in a pop-up city to celebrate what humans are capable of." They don't really get it. And understandably so. How do you explain it all in an elevator pitch? The human connection. That more.
“The Playa will provide” is a popular Burning Man phrase. It’s a way of saying “Let go and see what happens.” The first time I heard it, I thought it was hippie-dippie gospel. But after having an unexpected somewhat transformative experience, walking away with true friends, I understand now that it’s a healthy approach to life everyday: Struggle is fleeting. People are loving. We’ll get through it together. Let’s celebrate.