Four years ago, when my boyfriend first posed the question of attending Burning Man, my answer was a resounding, “NO”. I’d always pictured Burning Man as a festival populated by hippies reveling in the desert, bargaining for necessities like food and water as they watch a big statue burst into flames. Frankly, I didn’t see much fun in that— especially since Burning Man just happens to fall on the week of my birthday, and there was no way I was going to spend my special day covered in dust, camping with a bunch of dirty bohemians.
So how did I end up at Burning Man, you might ask? It all started with my New Year’s resolution— I was determined to live life to the fullest; to not miss out on opportunities for fear of trying new things— and so I had vowed to try something new every month. After realizing that going to Burning Man was just the sort of thing I would normally take a pass on, I thought to myself, “Aww, fuck it, I’m going to Burning Man.” Thus my journey to Burning Man began.
About two months before the event was to begin, my boyfriend and I chose a camp, paid our camp dues, and purchased Burning Man tickets. Then we read through the supply list and booked an RV rental. Our chosen camp sent us periodic emails with tips and checklists outlining all the things we needed to do to prepare for Burning Man.
A month before the event began, I began to panic. Sifting through pictures of previous festivals, I saw revelers with elaborate, colorful costumes and asked myself the question that most women ask themselves every morning: “What the hell am I going to wear?” I began to search the internet like a mad woman for ideas, and after purchasing a few items from thrift stores and Amazon, I managed to put together some random outfits that looked like something out of a Mad Max movie.
With one weekend left to go, I flew out to Los Angeles to gather a few last minute items to take to the event. As I understood it, you can never be too prepared for Burning Man, so we loaded up the RV with what seemed to be an endless supply of items. We joined our friends, and our three-RV caravan headed to Black Rock City on a 13-hour journey, all of us eager to arrive.
We were about 30 miles away from Black Rock City when we noticed a blazing forest fire atop a mountain. Luckily we were among the last 20 vehicles to make it through before the highway to Black Rock City was closed off for the next 12 hours due to the fire. During that time, no one could get out of Black Rock City, and no one could come in.
At this point in the long journey, I was giddy with anticipation and excited to celebrate my birthday at Burning Man, thinking nothing could possibly change my mood. Unfortunately, I was wrong. We finally made it across the first eight miles of Playa, only to realize that one of our friends didn’t have her ticket. Frantically, we contacted friends, neighbors, scalpers, and the box office, trying to get another ticket. We even considered hiding our friend in the cabinets of the RV (seriously don’t even try this, vehicles are checked before you enter the city and you will be banned).
After a few hours of going back and forth from the Black Rock City (Burning Man) box office to the nearest town with no luck, I began to think that going to Burning Man was a terrible idea after all. I was sure we’d be spending the last hours of my birthday in the RV just outside the city. We were so close, yet so far.
Suddenly, our fate was changed with a phone call from a friend, who informed us that he had somehow gotten his hands on a ticket! I can’t even explain the feeling of relief and excitement we had when we were finally able to scan our tickets and head to our camp.
One look at the Black Rock City, and I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. The first thing I noticed was a sea of phosphorescent bikes, stretching as far as my eyes could see. I stared in complete awe as a giant dragon approached, stopping right in front of us. It was as if it was calling out my name— almost literally because the people dancing on top of it called out to my boyfriend and I, inviting us to come aboard. Being a naturally curious creature, I hopped on, my boyfriend followed suit, and a group of friendly partiers welcomed us to join them as they danced. It wasn’t long before I realized that there were more vehicles like this one—hundreds, all unique, and just as welcoming as the Golden Dragon.
As I rode through the playa, I realized that the entire city was a canvas— from the expressive and outrageous outfits people wore ( or lack thereof), the art installations, the vehicles and even the bicycles, art was EVERYWHERE. Radical self-expression is one of the principles on which Burning Man is based, and this was so clearly observable from the very first night. Honestly, it was surreal to think that I was able to witness something so extraordinary. It was even crazier to think that, just a few weeks before, this beautifully adorned city of lights and art was just a barren, dried up lakebed. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, this magical city erupted from nothing.
On our first night, my boyfriend and I rode through the immense city with our friends, running into random strangers and inviting them to join our group, or “spirit squad,” as we called ourselves. We danced all night to the enchanting beats blasting from the art cars, and before we knew it, we were watching the sunrise and riding back to our camp after what seemed like an endless trance.
As I rode back, I noticed sunrise yoga classes, meditation groups in session and pockets of people involved in deep conversation. I was amazed to see that there were still activities going on at this hour. Day and night, there were thought provoking classes, conversations, parties, and too many activities to name— happening all at once. It was as if the city had a heartbeat that never stopped.
One could literally spend 15 years attending Burning Man, and not be able to experience the city in its entirety. What’s more, every year brings a completely unique adventure. From what I had seen on the internet, I had assumed that Burning Man was just a big party— but in reality it was much, much more.
The human interactions were even more bizarre to me then the art. How could 70,000 people from completely different walks of life, economic situations, and belief systems come together to create a city of such acceptance, love and inclusion?At Burning Man there was no apparent social hierarchy— no VIP access,everyone is welcome everywhere and in every activity.Everywhere we went, strangers would come up and embrace us, as if we were long-time friends, and gift us items such as bracelets, sunglasses, and sandals, without expecting anything in return. I was puzzled by this city of no rules, in which everyone seemed to simply “come together” in a way I can’t explain. “Lawless” as it was, it seemed to work.
Time at Burning Man seemed to stand still, as I was truly disconnected from the outside world— cell phone service was nil, although I heard rumors of people getting Wifi in certain camps. This disconnection allowed me to truly savor the essence of Burning Man.
Before I knew it, my time in this incredible city was drawing to a close, and I was sitting in a circle with 70,000 people watching this giant man shaped construct burn to the ground. It was like a scene out of an action movie— fireworks exploded in the sky right before the 50-foot wooden statue was set on fire. As my friends and I sat around the fire, enjoying its warmth, I realized that four days here were not enough. When it was all over, I was left with a yearning to explore more. It’s no wonder that every year “the burn” continues to grow as the amount of attendees increase. Anyone who is ever able to experience this cultural phenomenon is likely to have a new take on society and life all together.