They say it's hard to put into words what Burning Man is all about. They call it radical self-reliance, and it is in every sense. Whether you drove 3,000 miles like we did or you flew into the makeshift airport from Oakland, you need to be prepared for the elements and insanity that awaits you. For some, like my traveling partner Aaron Nachlas, that meant complete self-reliance. For others, that meant pitching a tent on your own, walking around naked the entire time, and relying on the kindness of strangers for food, drinks, and showers (if you took any).
We chose to hook up with a camp of about 20 people from all over the U.S.: a country couple from Atlanta, a sweet couple from SoCal, an older gay couple from Denver, a beautiful couple from San Francisco by way of Belgium, a funky couple from Phoenix, a few singles including our friends Diane and John, and our fearless leader, 19-year Burning Man veteran and RV-owner Chris—with his 8-year-old son Landon—who built our little camp called Themeless. We shared all our meals, a shower tent, a bar provided by my friends at Jim Beam Global, and bottles of Tuaca on top of the RV every night. My only complaint with the camp was that they were all fast asleep when I rolled in every night at 3 or 4 a.m., while other camps were still hanging around campfires swapping stories 'til sunrise.
Burning Man takes place on a dried-up salt bed with alkalinity permeating the air. You are constantly in need of water and have to carry bottles wherever you go. Most of the time, it is hard to breathe and you find yourself in goggles with gas masks or bandanas covering your mouth and nose. If you want to find water or cocktails or chai tea, or anything else to imbibe, you have to carry your own cup, because a major part of the event is "Leave No Trace Behind." So, you won't see plastic cups or M.O.O.P. (matter out of place) strewn all over the footprint they call The Playa. You also won't see a lot of people wasting time on their phones. There is no internet and very limited cell service, so everyone is free from those addictions. Unfortunately, other addictions are in superfluous supply. That sweet couple from SoCal? The 36-year-old woman became a raging alcoholic by the time the week was over, chugging vodka by the bottle for three straight days. Her boyfriend finally gave up for the last two days and went in search of his own Burning Man experience.
For some, Burning Man is couple's therapy, for others it's first love, and for many others, it's an orgy—both literally and figuratively. There's rampant nudity and public sex of all kinds. Swingers and boy toys, masochists and exhibitionists share the desert by night and hold classes by day. You can find camp seminars called "Learn How Not to Give a F*ck" or "Are you Bi-Curious?" or take part in naked yoga or tai-chi. Others might be painting a nude model or sharing pickles at the Pickle Bar. It's an extremely communal spirit where nothing is for sale and everyone is encouraged to participate and give as much as they receive.
To each individual, Burning Man is something different. There was the middle-aged couple living in an RV across from us who spent every day nude sunbathing on chaise lounges. There was 20-year-old Griffin—who took a liking to me—to whom I taught yoga, here to learn from his peers and soak up as much knowledge as his young mind could absorb. There was the solitary old man who pitched his tent off the road toward the airport, who spent his days naked with his balls hanging low, here for whatever reasons he had. We were all fighting the elements in an attempt to devour as much pleasure and pain as humanly possible. I am reminded of the girl sitting next to me crying as the Burning Man alit in flames on my final night. She was there to extinguish the pain of the end of her four-year relationship with a man she had met on The Playa; or the man that ended his life (second year in a row) by running into the same flames.
For many, Burning Man is a life-changing experience. For me, it was not. Despite the pull of temptation, I remained a loyal husband, and much the same man I was when I entered Black Rock Desert a week before. Perhaps wearing my wedding ring prevented a sexual experience (I was asked a few times if I was wearing a ring), or maybe it was the fact that I brought up my family within three minutes of every conversation I had with a woman. Oh, by the way, did I mention that there were thousands—literally thousands—of unbelievably gorgeous models from California at Burning Man, and most of them were topless, bottomless, or both? Not that any of them wanted anything to do with a middle-aged hairy man from New Orleans, but one can fantasize, can't he?
The range in age of the Burners was quite broad. The average age is said to be 35, so that means anywhere from infant to 80, but I would say the majority of those around us were in their mid-20s. I would recommend not allowing my own kids to go until they were at least 21, but maturity level would obviously play a big part in that. Eight-year-old Landon spent most of the week entertaining himself by playing solo football in front of our camp and rolling around in the sand.
The weather was also part of the extreme at Black Rock Desert. Every day, the temps soared to 100 degrees with brief bursts of wind and very little cloud cover. At night, the temperature fell into the lower 50s and fire kept you warm. When the winds kicked up, the sandstorms overwhelmed you. We had one roll through on Tuesday like a mini-tornado, darkening the air and covering the camp in a layer of thick dust. The sand you wore on your boots and clothes the minute you stepped out of the yurt stayed in your pores, eyes, and nose throughout the week. Picking your nose in public was about as common as drinking water, and the dust in the air frequently made it hard to catch your breath.
Two modes of transportation dominated The Playa: your bike or an art car. During the heat of the day, I could only muster up a bike ride for a few blocks at a time. At night with the bikes lit up in a flurry of blinking lights, I could bike for hours on end, crisscrossing The Playa from one end to the other. The art cars came in all shapes and sizes, lit up like glow-in-the-dark floats lumbering through the desert at 5 mph. Each car was a traveling party, most blasting EDM to attract the ravers or someone looking for a cold drink. Ice was a major commodity out here. I found that out when I met Dean and Christine at their rolling margarita car with its neon margarita glass perched atop. They let me tend bar and sip Hornitos for a few hours while entertaining strangers in need of a drink. IDing is mandatory, since there are ABO officers and park rangers out and about, but it's also a great conversation starter as you meet everyone from Oregon to New York to Poland and Israel, and everywhere in between.
There really is no way to explain the size and scope of The Playa. It is all laid out with a clock in mind. The inner ring from 2:00 to 10:00 is called Esplanade and it includes Centre Camp, where you can purchase coffee and ice or relax and look at some newly created art or listen to some live performances, which included everything from a capella to spoken-word poetry. Along the entire Esplanade are the largest grounded structures, about 50 of them in all. Among the raging raves and swinger parties, we saw a roller skating rink, carnival rides, and all kinds of swings, games, zip-lines, and anything else an adrenaline junky might crave, all designed with an artistic aesthetic, amazingly dragged out to the middle of the desert by someone with enough money and means to get it there.
Beyond the Esplanade lie a grid of roads lettered A through K, with whimsical names like Dance, Hallowed, and Illuminate, fronted by bar, club, art car, or art installation with any kind of theme you could imagine. The most impressive to me was the ¾ jumbo jet turned into a multi-level dance club (you could even sit in the cockpit and play with its working levers). Behind the camps' front facades were the RVs, yurts, and tents, with all ranges of creature comforts—some sparse and rustic, others with nice showers, freezers, and air conditioning. I found out later that there's also a place to buy fuel for a generator, and you could have your RV toilet pumped out for $150 a pop. In the middle of The Playa is the Burning Man, where you could stand on the upper deck and take in the scene at 360-degrees, like standing on a balcony on Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras. The only difference is that it goes on for a six-mile circumference.
From 10:00 to 2:00, art cars drive around The Playa, most blasting EDM and creating a party vibe wherever they rolled, each with a different scene and distinguished only by the design of the car. One was a pirate ship, another a shark, and several taken straight out of a scene from Mad Max (they even have a Thunderdome at 4:00 and Esplanade where people battle it out on bungees). You never know what you're going to get when you board an art car. We jumped on one and slid down a slide, only to end up in a room full of old gay men who looked like hobos. Only way out was up, where we were greeted by buff gay boys who led us to a ladder, which we climbed to the top level and raved with a couple of dozen young men and women, most seemingly on some kind of mind-altering hallucinogen.
EDM wasn't the only music we heard all week. On Thursday afternoon, we were treated to an amazing performance by the 40-piece Burning Man orchestra. They were individually world-class musicians who got together once a year for this special performance, equally adept at playing Beethoven as they were playing contemporary pieces of modern rock. At every camp, different sounds competed with one another, sometimes overlapping each other. We heard everything from a DJ spinning Sam Cooke to a girl playing some kind of bagpipe contraption as her boyfriend spun classical music nearby. At night, the sounds echoed through The Playa, so you could literally be sitting anywhere and hear everything from the chopping of firewood for a fire, to the churning of an engine, to a drum circle. And the parties didn't stop when the sun came up. They went all day and night as everyone kept a different schedule out on The Playa. Some slept all day, others turned in by midnight. My roommate saw the sun rise every morning except one, sleeping a total of about 12 hours the entire week.
By Thursday at midnight, the burns began. It was time to burn down the installations that shared the deep playa with the art cars. We saw our first from atop the Burning Man, as thousands of blinking bikes and art cars swarmed to the sight like ants returning to their hill. On Friday, I saw one from down below at 2 a.m. and realized how pleasant it was to warm yourself to a giant fire when you're wearing nothing but a kilt, goggles, boots, and a bandana. And on Saturday night, 60,000-plus people and art cars converged on the 70-foot-tall Burning Man as a final salute to the effigy that brought all these crazy people together. I didn't stay for Sunday night's burn of The Temple (where people mourn their lost loves ones at a supposedly solemn event) that sits at 12:00 and helps keep some semblance of direction when you're riding high through the desert and have lost your mind and your senses.
You may have read that a 41-year-old man ran into the fire as the structure collapsed (I was on the other side and did not see it). Fire rescuers pulled him out, but he did not survive. I would imagine that suicide and drug overdoses would be expected in any city of 65,000 people over the course of a week. The event is actually organized chaos as there are plenty of professionals around to help if you are sick, feeling depressed, or require medical attention.
So now it's all over, time to get back to reality and the outside world. Quite nice to have no responsibility or news of the world for a whole week, although knowing what happened in Houston or at home while I was partying my ass off did give me some sense of guilt, especially the first few days. I could see how Burning Man could be a life-changing experience for thousands of people, especially those who are single and in their 20s. After cleaning up camp and taking the Burner Express bus back to Reno, which broke down and left me hitchhiking only to be randomly picked up by my camp leader Chris in his RV, reminded me that getting in and out of Burning Man is definitely the worst part.
My life—of which I am already quite fond—was not drastically changed by the experience. It reminded me of how much I love my wife and want her to share in an experience like this. Unfortunately, I doubt she would relish the ruggedness of it all, and we would probably be fighting most of the time. Burning Man is definitely not for everyone. I didn't run into anyone who said they weren't having a blast, but you would be a fool not to make the most of the experience if you put in all that effort to get there. For me, I met some really cool, really smart people; I partied like a washed-up rock star, and pushed my body to the brink of sense and sensibility. There were moments I wanted to go home and moments of elation that made it a wonderful experience.
Would I do it again? Probably not. It's hard to take off that much time and spend $4,000 when we have so many other things we need or vacations we could take. Am I glad that my friend Aaron called me out of the blue in March and asked if I wanted to go to Burning Man? Definitely. Everything he did to keep us safe and sustained was a big part of why I survived the seven days.
If this all sounds like a great experience to you, then I hope you can make it out to Burning Man one day, too. Tickets are harder to come by than a ticket to a U2 concert. And I would say that it would be equally likely that someone would hand me a ticket to U2 than it would that I would end up back in Black Rock City one day, because I've always been a spur-of-the-moment kind of guy and would never say never again.