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!

In Which I Admit to Being Totally Shallow

Confession: I have always been a little vain about my hair. Not that I spend a lot of time on it, or think about it a lot. I don’t. But it’s naturally blonde and straight and for as long as I can remember people have told me I was very lucky to have hair like this.

My hair is also on the greasy side. To keep it under control I’ve been a daily hair washer since junior high. Even when I had newborns and I sometimes struggled to eat regular meals or sleep more than 10 minutes a day, I made showering a priority. Washing my hair was the thing that saved my sanity and made me feel like a human being. This isn’t a big deal most of the time, because I live in a developed country with access to reliable plumbing. But it’s one thing I really dislike about camping – dirty hair.

Now I reveal just how shallow I am. The biggest issue I struggled with when I considered going to Burning Man was my hair. There’s no running water at Burning Man. I bought a shower bag and my camp has a shower stall but showering will be much less frequent and reliable when I’m camping in the desert than it is in my shower at home. Porta potties? No problem. Dirty clothes? No problem. Cooking on a camp stove? No problem. A whole week of greasy, dust-covered hair? Major problem.

I tried googling how to take care of your hair at Burning Man. Here’s a summary of the available advice:

  1. Shave your head and/or get dreadlocks. If you care about something as stupid as hair you don’t belong at Burning Man.
  2. Just put it in a ponytail/wear a hat/ignore it. Everyone else has gross hair, too, so you shouldn’t worry about it.
  3. Condition, condition, condition. The playa dust is alkaline and drying and your hair will need nourishment. In fact, don’t even think about shampooing, just rinse it if you can and add more conditioner. Then condition it some more.

The first piece of advice may be true, but at this point I’m going even if I am way too superficial, so it isn’t helpful.

The second piece of advice also may be true, but if I were able to just put it out of my mind and not think about it I already would have, so it also isn’t helpful.

The third piece of advice, on the other hand? Actually super helpful. If the playa dust really is that drying, then maybe my hair will be dusty but not particularly greasy. In my book this is okay. In fact, this piece of information was actually the thing that finally convinced me I could do this. Because apparently I’m only open to life changing experiences if my hair is manageable (insert eye roll here).

Fast forward to last month. I found myself randomly chatting with an acquaintance at my nephew’s birthday party. I mentioned Burning Man, and my hair fears. We got to talking about hair and she confessed that she rarely washes hers. She does regularly rinse it out in the shower, and she uses powder in her hair as a dry shampoo. She told me that the dry shampoo made a huge difference to her. I realized that it might be time for an experiment.

I have experimented with alternatives to traditional shampoo in the past. I did the shampoo free (“no poo”) thing for a couple of years. It was fine. Using baking soda and apple cider vinegar to wash my hair didn’t really differ at all from shampoo in my experience. It still got my hair clean, and my hair still felt gross if I didn’t wash it again the next day. Which is why, ultimately, I went back to shampoo. It was just easier. What it does demonstrate, though, is that I’m not averse to experimenting.

If my research is accurate, playa dust is essentially dry shampoo. So to see how my own hair would manage I recently made some DIY dry shampoo by adding essential oil to corn starch. The essential oils are mostly just to make my hair smell good. I still shower every day, and rinse out my hair regularly, but I’ve gone a couple of days without washing it. My observations are that after using the corn starch mix my hair looks fine and smells good. It definitely feels different than it does after shampooing. There’s stuff on my head. However, it’s soft and actually has body, probably because of that stuff.

Here’s the photographic evidence. From left to right the photos show my just-washed hair, my hair after one day of the dry shampoo regimen, and my hair after day two of the dry shampoo regimen.

burning man hair dry shampoo

burning man hair dry shampoo

The punch line? Dry shampoo isn’t as great as actual shampoo, but I can handle it. So, if the playa dust really does dry out your hair, I should be fine because it will keep the grease under control. And my hair won’t be as damaged by the dryness because my scalp will be working overtime to produce natural oils to balance things out. If I’m right I have a solution that will work well enough that I won’t be crying about my hair on my camping trip.

I’ll report back afterwards and let you know how it actually works out. Fingers crossed for hair success.

Burning Man Preparations – Not Packing Light

Confession: I do not pack light. Ever. Maybe it’s all those years of Girl Guides and learning to be prepared. Maybe it’s all those times as a mom when I was burned because I only packed two extra outfits for my toddler, or didn’t think to bring along three spare hats, or seven different snack options. Whatever the reason, no matter where I’m going I always, always, always bring a ton of stuff just in case.

In fact, when I was in labour with my second baby and checking into the hospital the triage nurse laughed at the large suitcase I was lugging with me. But (1) I’d ended up in the hospital for four days when Hannah was born due to complications, and (2) I really wanted slippers, and my big terry bathrobe, and magazines, and extra pajamas, and…

On that occasion, first I cried because the nurse laughed and I was going through a lot emotionally, hormonally, and physically at that precise moment. Then I had the baby 45 minutes later and went home four hours after that, so I used none of it. But I viewed that suitcase as my security blanket and was glad I’d brought it. Because what if I’d needed those extra sweaters?

Anyway, now that I’m planning to pack up my minivan to drive to Burning Man in 25 (!!!) days, you can imagine the level of packing that’s going on up in here.

But first things first. Why am I driving? There are two big reasons. The first is that for Burning Man you’re required to bring all of your own gear. There’s no running water, no buildings, no…anything. And no place to buy any of that stuff on site. If you want something, you better pack it in, and there’s no easy way to get all the stuff you need for a week-long camping trip on to a plane. Plus, even if I did that the Black Rock Desert, where Burning Man is held, is super remote. I’d still need to arrange transportation from Reno to the middle of nowhere. So, driving is the best option. Here’s the planned route:

burning man map

Now, what kinds of things am I bringing with me? The most important item is a very fancy shelter called a ShiftPod. It’s designed to be dust proof, and it’s very roomy. In fact, it’s so roomy that these photos don’t do it justice, but here they are, anyway.

shiftpod burning man

burning man shiftpod interior

I’m also bringing a bike, but fortunately that’s being shipped separately. And water and ice are being supplied by my camp, so that’s one less thing I need to bring.

Otherwise, it’s a lot of the stuff you’d expect. Tons of sunscreen. A camp stove, dishes and coolers for the food I’ll buy en route. A collapsible table and chairs. An inflatable mattress and a sleeping bag. Water bottles and goggles. Extension cords and chargers to connect to the camp’s electrical supply. A heater for nighttime. Good boots. Hot weather clothes and cold weather clothes, and some fun stuff like a BB-8 dress and a cowboy hat. LED lights to light up both the camp and myself, which is actually more practical than ornamental since it’s ridiculously dark at night. This belt with pouches, called “Playa Pockets”, which is like a cooler twist on a fanny pack (FYI – the dry lakebed where Burning Man happens is called “the Playa”).

burning man drawer unitMy solution for packing my clothes and toiletries is an old plastic drawer unit that we’re no longer using. I’m finding that this is a really elegant way to go. It’s so easy to throw one or two items in as I think of them. I anticipate it will also be nice to have all my stuff in what amounts to a dresser once I’m in camp. I won’t have to dig through bins or suitcases, which should make it easier to find things and stay organized.

Right now the drawer unit, the ShiftPod, and everything else are in my garage, which has become a staging area. I also have most of my friend’s gear, including his guitar, because we’re driving down together, so all of that stuff will be in the van, too.

I’ve done one trial run and was able to fit everything I had at the time into the minivan without breaking a sweat or removing the second row seats. I have more items now so I’ll need more space, but the plan is to remove the second row seats and leave them behind so that will buy a bunch more room. I haven’t done that yet because it’s kind of a pain and I need those seats for my kids right now. But the punchline is I have verified that I can physically transport this stuff.

burning man staging area

The interesting thing is that “Radical Self-Reliance” is one of the 10 principles on which Burning Man operates. What that means is that, unlike that triage nurse, this is a community that really seems to value overpreparation. After all, if you’re in the middle of the desert without the means for survival, the outcome can be really bad. If you don’t have food or shelter it’s unlikely that the other 70,000 people will abandon you, but it’s far preferable to make sure you’re meeting your own needs and planning for pretty much any outcome.

You guys, I finally found the vacation I’ve been training for my whole life. The vacation where bringing too much stuff is more celebrated than frowned on. Bring it on.

The Soccer Mom Goes to Burning Man

I’ve gone through some big changes in my life in the past few years.

Going back to school.

Applying to, and completing, teacher training.

Getting my minor in environmental education, and re-discovering my love for the outdoors and the good parts of camping.

Working as a substitute teacher.

Watching my own children grow and change and become more and more independent.

Making new friends and building a new social circle.

Taking skiing up again, and getting pretty flipping good at it.

There are things I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing a few years ago, that I now do frequently. My word for 2017 is adventure, and I would say that for the most part I’m living up to it. And now I’m really embracing it, because this summer I’m planning to attend Burning Man.

Burning Man

Aerial view of the festival. Photo credit: Viaggio Routard on Flickr

As in, I have a ticket, and travel plans, and a couple of costumes to wear.

If you’re not familiar, Burning Man is a massive alternative arts festival that takes place each year in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada in the week leading up to Labour Day. The culminating event is when this massive wooden effigy (the “man”) is burned (…as in, “Burning Man”).

The event itself is, well, I don’t really know yet. Everyone says it’s amazing. And terrible. And transformative. And the worst vacation ever. I do know that it’s very dusty, hot during the day, cold at night, and rustic. It’s also massive, with about 70,000 people attending last year. For a week they all build a city from nothing. There’s no running water. No flush toilets. No real amenities of any kind. Amazing art displays. A strong culture of inclusion, self-reliance, participation and communal effort. And did I mention the dust?

Burning Man

Photo credit: Jon Collier on Flickr

I’m going with a friend who’s been twice before. I’m joining a camp that provides some good stuff like water, ice and electricity. I have a very cool, supposedly-guaranteed-dust-proof shelter and a bike. I bought myself new boots and a portable shower. I made myself some hoodies to stay warm and look cute. I’m reading the Survival Guide cover to cover. I’m stocking up on sunscreen and LED lights to wear at night so that no one runs me over in the dark.

I’m doing my very best to prepare. I’m not really sure I can prepare. I sort of wonder if I’ve lost my mind.

Burning Man

Photo credit: dvsross on Flickr

Here’s the thing, though. This is my one shot. If you don’t have a boatload of money you pretty much need to drive in and out of Burning Man, and leaving is not a quick process. There’s this whole “exodus” rigamarole to get your car from your camp to the road that took my friend eight hours last year. That’s eight hours after you’ve packed up and before you actually begin the 15 hour drive back to Vancouver. It would be difficult, if not actually impossible, for me to make it back home in time for the first day of school.

This year? I can do it because I’m a substitute teacher. I can just book the first week of school off when I likely wouldn’t be that busy anyways. But by next year I’m hoping to have my own classroom. I’ll need to spend the last couple of weeks of summer preparing. I’ll need to be there with bells on when school starts.

Maybe I’ll hate Burning Man. Maybe I’ll regret going. But I suspect that I would regret not taking the shot more. I’m old enough to know that time is precious, and you need to seize opportunities as they present themselves. Which is why this summer I’ll be taking out the booster seat, loading up the minivan, kissing the kids good-bye and dancing in the desert.

Bring it on.

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