Joe Louis visits the Embrace statue
“Embrace is a 7 story tall wooden cathedral-like sculpture of two human figures in an embrace. It is a spiritual center dedicated to the moment and our relationships with our loved ones. We hope to create a new tradition at Burning Man of a third recurring structure dedicated to the now.”
Upon arriving at the gates of Black Rock City I was greeted by warm smiles and a welcoming hug. Not a casual how-are-you hug, but a full on relative-who-hasn’t-seen-you-in-ages embrace that pulls you in and then lingers comfortably. The woman, short and round with a huge grin, was born for the job. “Welcome home,” she loudly exclaimed to me and seemingly to the universe.
I meandered a bit around the entrance, taking in the surroundings. The sky was an endless expanse of blue, having cleared from a torrential downpour a day earlier that rendered the playa a large puddle and delayed the start of Burning Man a day for Monday newcomers. By now the ground was dry with no trace of rain. It was desert dry. I fell backwards and made a dust angel. Everything you bring to Black Rock City will be subject to the harshness of the environment. Might as well embrace it and let the earth know that I’m onboard and come in peace.
There is a tradition for burner virgins to ring a large, metal bell at the gate to declare having made it into the world of the burn. I got in line with fellow virgins and one by one we each swung a large rod at the bell and shouted our declarations of arriving. “I am home!” “I am ready!” “Here I come!” The world I came from, or the “default world” in burner parlance, was now light years away.
Many of my friends ask me what exactly Burning Man is. They often have preconceived notions based on articles, news clips, and internet soundbites, none of which aptly characterizes the experience. Is it a music festival? An art festival? A drug fueled orgy? In a way, all of the above. The burn is very difficult to explain in words. It is a surreal experience. Something personal for each person that you create with others around you. When I left Black Rock City, I didn’t feel that I was returning home. I felt that I was leaving home. And that’s what Burning Man is – it is a home with all the feelings of belonging, comfort, and excitement that come with it.
Black Rock City, Nevada
Know the principles
Burning Man is definitely about freedom and self-expression, but it isn’t a free for all. The philosophy of Burning Man fosters a friendly environment for all members of the community to enjoy while encouraging people to cultivate a sense a self. It is important to know and abide by the Ten Principles – the experience will be better for you and everyone else:
- Radical Inclusion
- Radical Self-Reliance
- Radical Self-Expression
- Communal Effort
- Civic Responsibility
- Leaving No Trace
One of the core principles of Burning Man is radical self-reliance, being responsible for all of your needs. This includes bringing all the food, water, and supplies that you need. There are plenty of packing lists already on the internet that provide details of rebar fitting, water estimation, and costume ideas, so I won’t rehash them. I’ll just give a few extra tips.
If you are thinking of borrowing a tent or any supplies from a friend, rethink the idea. Anything you bring to Burning Man won’t return in the same state – so make sure the owner understands the effects of the desert on his or her possessions.
Make sure you have enough food to last the week, but also take into account that there will be many opportunities for free food including pancake breakfasts and midnight poutine.
Wet wipes. Plenty of them.
Remove packaging and wrappers ahead of time – remember No Trace Left Behind!
I talked to many other burner newbies and often heard the same sentiment repeated, “I’ve been excited to come for years, but I’ve always been scared.” Most of the time people were referring to being prepared for the environment. The overbearing heat throughout day and the chilly air at night. No real shower for a week. Constant dust in, on, and around everything.
This surprised me because the physical challenges never really fazed me. Sure it could be a uncomfortable but you deal with it as needed. I considered the mental preparations to be the real challenge. There is just so much going on, how do you choose what to do?
I spent the first day of Burning Man in awe. In awe of the art installations, in awe of the people and their costumes, in awe of the natural views. It was overwhelming. The book of officially listed activities for the week is an inch thick. There’s no way you can do 1/20 of what is in there. Major FOMO all the time.
I decided that I wouldn’t use the book at all. I wouldn’t plan events. Although I surely would miss out on a lot, I wanted my first burn to be whimsical and fluid. I joined groups of people attending activities and sometimes just wandered alone. Whatever the universe put my way, would be what the experience would shape up to be. I know other people who took a more regimented approach and were able to pack in lots of events. Both methods are fine. Pick one and just be committed to it and don’t worry about what else is happening.
When I landed in Reno, I learned that the gates were temporarily closed. A few hundred of us orderly lined up in the sun and waited to check in, realizing we wouldn’t be able to get to Black Rock City until at earliest the next morning. A woman bought a box of water bottles and began handing them out to those who were thirsty. The giving never stopped.
People told me that Burning Man had no currency and instead people barter for goods. I didn’t see any bartering while there, only gifting. And the currency is love. Some people give water, others bracelets, yet others advice. When you give, you form a relationship with another person and therefore also receive. Within your camp, make sure to participate. Sure it’s hard work to erect a shade structure in one hundred degree heat, but every act of participation builds more bonds within the community.
This is the flipside to giving. Show gratitude to others, who go out of their way to make your experience better.
Somewhere near 9:00 was a phone booth. The kind you don’t see any more in cities, except in old movies and superman cartoons. If you pick up the receiver, God is on the other end ready to answer your inquiry or listen to your story. I heard from someone who acted as “God” for a period of time that the question people asked most was “How can I be like myself more?” It took me a few moments to process it. The question seems paradoxical, profound, and deeply insecure at all once. It is amazing how people are so unaccustomed to the inordinate amount of freedom allowed at Burning Man, that they don’t how to use it. The liberating nudity, creative costuming, and even normalcore lifestyle are all acceptable forms of self expression. Just be yourself. Whoever that is.
Going hand in hand with being yourself is accepting others for who they are. You will meet people from different backgrounds, origins (although mostly the San Francisco area) and current positions of life. They will likely be different from you and therefore something to teach. Be open, and accept them and what they have to impart.
It is easy to be taken away by the many art installation and cool camps, but forgetting the beautiful natural surroundings of the Nevada desert. The expanse of white sand remind burners of their isolation and smallness, while at the same time highlighting the togetherness. Make sure to catch a sunrise or a sunset out in deep playa – head out to Robot Heart for a good view and a great soundtrack to the moment. While in deep playa look for the aliens, rumor has it they are out there.
A tale of two cities
You probably won’t sleep much at Burning Man. I took naps during the height of the day to avoid the sun and catch up on rest. During the day is a great time to check out the art installation, take pictures, stop by yoga workshops, etc. At night the city comes alive in a whole different way. Music blasts, lights are glowing and moving around you. You won’t want to stop exploring.
Hitch a ride
Try to ride on as many art cars as you can. They are so much fun. A group of us spent one night hopping on and off of cars in our ongoing search to hunt down the electric shark car and conquer it.
A time to be silent and a time to speak
With 65,000 inhabiting the playa, there is always a group of people to meet, hang out with, and tag along with. Find a balance between time you spend with new people, with your campmates, and by yourself. Some moments of introspection and reflection require solitude. Some activities of learning and discovery require others. Don’t neglect either.
Behind the lens
Everywhere you go you will be amazed by something. You will want to take pictures of everything. All of the time. Find the balance between living in the moment and taking memories. I dedicated one day for taking pictures and most of the rest just went with the flow. I didn’t write down any journal entries, but I regret not taking short notes as I went along.