The Burning Man Recap

It’s been a little more than two weeks since I repacked my minivan and drove away from Burning Man. It’s been a little less than two weeks since I finally pulled back into my driveway, and was thrust back into the mayhem of a new school year as both a teacher and a parent. I’ve been processing, but it has been a struggle to find the time to really write about the grating, transformative and utterly mundane experience I had in the desert.

burning man art

The Amazing Parts

Burning Man is built around 10 principles, two of which are decommodification and gifting. Once you arrive you can’t buy, sell or trade anything (other than a few basic survival items that Burning Man itself sells). Many attendees, including me, join camps that have public areas. If you stop by a camp’s public area you’ll find that many offer some type of gift. For instance, I found one camp that gifts a wide array of hand-blended teas, which you custom order either hot or iced. I found another camp that bakes bread in a wood-fired oven and serves it hot, with jam, every morning. Many camps have bars serving liquor, others give away costumes, and others offer a wide array of workshops. Our camp offered a bike repair shop, and my friend and I served tea and fortune cookies. All you have to do to receive one of these gifts is show up.

burning man fortune cookies gifting

There is a saying that “the playa provides” and I definitely found this to be true. I was wandering around very late on the night that the man burned with a craving for something sweet. I met a guy dressed in a banana costume handing out banana candies, who kept pressing me to take more. And one day when I was overtired and grumpy I came across a camp serving the best freshly ground, French-pressed coffee. All I had to do was hand grind some beans for the next person. These are things that would great at anytime, but when you’re tired and dusty they’re beyond amazing.

The art, though, was really my favourite part. Black Rock City, the name of the city built up for the event, is constructed in a semi-circle with a big empty area in the centre where the man is. On the empty desert north of the man is the temple, and massive art installations are placed between the city and the man and the temple and beyond. It’s really huge, and very difficult to see it all. While there are maps showing where the art pieces are, given that you’re wandering large distances in a barren landscape, sometimes in the dead of night, it takes on a serendipitous quality where you stumble across things and feel the thrill of discovery.

art burning man grammaphone

art burning man

art burning man

art burning man

The art pieces themselves are also different at night than during the day. The big hit this year was the tree, which during the day simply looked like a lovely large tree in the middle of the desert. Even though it was obviously artificial everyone sat under it as if it were real. At night it really came alive, as each leaf was lit and changed colour as if the seasons were shifting, or the wind was rippling through it. I even saw a wedding happen under the tree one night.

burning man art tree

burning man art tree

burning man art

burning man art

burning man art

burning man art

While the art was my favourite part overall, the single event that I enjoyed most was the Playa Choir performance. Attendees can join the choir, and they practice all week. On Sunday they perform twice – once at sunrise at the temple (I wasn’t awake for this one) and once at 11:00am in the choir dome. The performance is like a rousing non-denominational church service, and the music was outstanding. It was all capped off with a “communion” in which attendees shared whatever food they had left with everyone else. I left feeling inspired and transformed and like the whole trip was worth it just for that hour and a half.

And of course, there was the burn, complete with fire dancers and pyrotechnics and a giant celebration.

burning man the burn the man

The Terrible Parts

There are no amenities at Burning Man. The bathroom facilities consist of porta potties, and you have to bring your own food and water and, well, everything. It has all the discomforts of camping in the desert, but it’s happening in the middle of a busy city of 70,000 people, many of whom are constantly partying. I was frequently woken up at night by a passing art car playing booming music. There’s no escaping, no quiet, no solitude. You’re part of a week-long non-stop maelstrom and it’s relentless, right down to the noisy generator running outside my tent all night.

The weather this year was very hot. Not surprising in the desert in Nevada, I know, but apparently it was worse than usual. It didn’t really get cold at night, which was a good thing, and there were few dust storms, which was also a good thing. But the afternoons were scorching, and I spent most of them resting in camp because walking or cycling was out of the question. And the couple of dust storms I did experience were unpleasant, with little or no visibility. Fortunately I carried dust masks around with me, and wore goggles at all times, because not having those things would have made everything that much worse.

Speaking of dust, it’s everywhere. As a first-timer the greeters had me roll around on the ground upon arrival. The idea is that you’re going to be covered in dust all week, so you might as well just embrace it. I did my best, but it was pretty unpleasant. The dust is superfine and alkaline and very drying. This meant that my hair was better than I anticipated, since the information I’d read about the dust basically acting as dry shampoo was true. But it also meant that in spite of using my shower bag every day and being very liberal with handy wipes, I was always covered in a layer of the stuff. And so was the inside of my tent. And every item of clothing I wore. And my food.

burning man dust greeters welcome

burning man dust

As for food, I brought plenty. However, as the week progressed I ate through most of the fresh stuff and some things got ruined, like a loaf of bread that got moldy and another that ended up soaking wet when I put it in a cooler to keep it from molding as well. I was never hungry, but over time I found myself craving more variety. By the time it was Friday and everyone was tired and cranky, and more weekend partiers were arriving, the combination of heat and dust and noise left my resources low and little issues like running out of hummus seemed like Big Hairy Deals.

Most of the people I met were amazing, but a few were just plain inconsiderate. People steal street signs, which makes it difficult to get around. And while there were no majorly gross porta potty disasters that I witnessed, some people left garbage or toilet paper on the floor, and potty locks got broken. Out walking one night I tripped over an open and mostly full can of beer, which I picked up, and since you’re required to cart out all your own waste that meant I was now responsible for someone else’s undrinkable garbage. It happened because at night in the desert it’s very dark and you can’t see, so tripping over waste, riding your bike into people who aren’t wearing lights, or colliding with a bike that’s been left on the ground without lights is a real risk. People get seriously hurt.

All of the terrible parts are why, as we packed up the van at sunrise on the last day, I was eager to leave.

burning man sunrise exodus

That Thing That Happened

The big cloud that hung over Burning Man this year, and the thing everyone has asked me about since I got home, was the man who ran into the fire and later died from his injuries. Something that’s important to understand is that while the giant wooden effigy of the man is burned, we’re all sitting in a giant circle around the whole thing, with a big open empty space between the spectators and the fire. There’s a multi-layer perimeter set up in this empty area to keep us all at a safe distance. I’m bad at estimating distances, but it was far. Like over a hundred feet.

I was near the front of the crowd, and facing me was a perimeter guard who knelt down with his back to the fire during the burn and watched us. And to his right and left all the way around the circle there were other guards, maybe eight feet apart or so. The fire dancers were allowed on the other side of these guards, but a few feet from them was another perimeter with another set of perimeter guards. And further in there were firefighters and so on patrolling the fire.

This means two things:

  1. It is impossible to accidentally end up in the fire. Six separate people attempted to stop the man who ran in, and I understand that he struck one of them to make it into the fire.
  2. For those of us watching, it was difficult or impossible to see the man run in because even if you’re at the right angle (which you probably aren’t) you’re very far away and the fire itself is very bright.

I didn’t see it at all. My friend who was sitting with me noticed a brief commotion, but had no idea what it was. Campmates of ours saw him run but weren’t aware if he actually made it into the fire or just got close, whether or not he was hurt, or how badly he was hurt. While we were sad to hear that it happened, there was very little news at the event itself, and very little discussion. I wouldn’t say that, in general, it ruined the rest of the burn for the people who were there. A group of folks that we sat beside the next night during the temple burn hand’t even heard about it at all until we told them.

I’m thinking about this in the same way that I would think about anyone ending their own life. It’s a tragedy. I wish it hadn’t happened. I mourn for the man and his family. I understand that sometimes darkness takes people. And I still choose to enjoy my life and focus on the amazing experiences that make me who I am. I had a great time at the burn and I carry great memories with me.

What Next?

burning manAs of right now, I don’t plan to go back to Burning Man. I’m hoping that I will have a teaching contract soon, and that I’ll start off the next school year with my own classroom. However, I enjoyed my first burn immensely, and I’m incredibly glad that I got to go to the event. I took a chance, set out on an adventure, and made incredible memories. Now my next adventure is building relationships with students and growing professionally.

Happy burn!

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