After five hours in traffic, creeping through a gritty haze of dust, we got a knock on our car window. “Any virgins in there?” said a lady in steampunk goggles and a magenta wig. We pulled up our dust masks and hopped out, knowing this was the start of our initiation as first-time “Burners.” The greeter threw open her arms, said “Welcome home” and enveloped us with a bear hug. “Now hit the ground and give a roll.” The alkaline dust of the Black Rock Desert, an Ice-Age lakebed ringed with mountains, is a part of the fabric and magic of this inhospitable landscape. There is no avoiding it, and embracing this layer that will coat your skin, hair, and everywhere is the first step in letting go of the sterile “default world.” So we rolled, kicking up chalky clouds and giggling it in. Once thoroughly caked, we hopped up for the final step: ringing a gong and crying out, “I’m not a virgin anymoooooore!!!”
Never Never Camp
We pulled up to our theme camp, a shell of a structure with tarps, rebar, and coolers strewn about, and spotted our friend Josiah in a denim vest and pink tutu. Two months prior at a VanLife gathering, his lime green Westfalia was parked next to our striped Sunrader and we bonded over campers, Fernet, and a fascination with Burning Man. We had always been tempted to go, but were frankly a little intimidated by the ticket price, drug scene, apocalyptic weather, packing lists, and commitment of nine days camping in the unknown. Josiah‘s lovable humor, passion for The Burn, and invitation into his 30-person camp gave us the guts to pull the trigger. Upon arrival to Never Never Camp, we were met with hugs and a hammer to finish our Lost-Boys theme bar with the help of our fellow members—an incredible assortment of engineers, DJs, doctors, models, architects, photographers, and fun-loving people. Together with our pirate crows-nest bar, shade structures, and shipping-container kitchen, we were a rock-solid community within a city of 70,000.
Our Desert Shelter: SHIFTPOD
Our camp was a sea of tents and RVs in all shapes and sizes, with one fellow SHIFTPOD. When we started researching best shelter options for the Black Rock Desert, this high-tech pop-up shelter kept coming up. The founders are long-time Burners who understand this region’s extreme daytime heat (as high as 110F in past years), nighttime chill, gale-force winds, and the need to for a comfortable respite in a nine-day marathon. When we heard the company was giving away four SHIFTPODS to influencers attending Burning Man, we had to throw our hat in the ring. So thankful we got it—this shelter was an absolute godsend. In under a three-minute setup time, we had a proper home for the week! (Full review coming soon.)
A City of Neighborhoods
Black Rock City is a pop-up metropolis, spanning seven-square miles, built with the shape and organization of a clock. The Man is at the center with four main thoroughfares (12:00, 3:00, 6:00, 9:00) radiating out to the Esplanade (the interior ring road with the biggest camps and many of the flashiest art installations) and then the streets breakdown in 15 minute increments intersected by rings of letter-streets (We lived at 3:15 & H). Each section is literally a village with everything you could need or dream up. On our street alone, we had camps offering bike repair, hair braiding, yoga, grilled cheese, dim sum, and plenty of fun bars (Putt-putt for PBR was among our favorites)…and it’s all free!
(Wondering how we took this sick aerial photo? One of our camp members was a former African bush plane pilot, who brought his prop plane to give out rides! Thanks, Charles!)
Radical Self-Reliance & The Gifting Economy
Aside from ice and coffee, nothing is sold or even bartered at Burning Man. This is a community of gifting, with each camp providing a service for everyone’s enjoyment—be it art, food, drinks, classes, or a hammock in the shade. It’s also a community of radical self-reliance; if everyone can take care of themselves, they are in a better position to look out for their neighbors. Our camp’s bar was perpetually open, encouraging passersby to stay for a beer or take one of our famous “Goose Body Shots” (liquor poured down the wing of a 3-foot long plastic lawn ornament). For our personal gifts, we made pins from sea glass we’d been gathering along the West Coast to give to new friends whenever we were struck with gratitude and love.
Adventures in Advice & Ice Tea
Our good buddy Anna Kate, of Legendary Adventures of Anna and a seasoned Burner, tapped us to help execute her gift: a pop-up AdvICE Tea Stand in Deep Playa, the most desolate and dreamy place for a cold drink and nugget of wisdom. This was a true labor of love. We hand-painted signs, iced down gallons of tea, and then began a six-hour journey by foot and three different hitchhikes. We stood on the corner with all our gear and a sign that said “Deep Playa or Bust.” The first art car to stop was a two-story ostrich with seats in his belly, followed by “Sinderella,” a princess carriage transporting three generations of Burners (Grandma was 82-years old!). Our next leg proved harder to hitch so we set up the stand in a random spot near The Man. Mike and our friend Kamal started dishing travel and love advice as Anna and I leapt in front of mutant vehicles. Turns out, few cars head to the Deep Playa but the Shenanigan Wagon said he would make the journey anyway. “Sure we can take you,” said the guy driving this covered-wagon-meets-tall-ship, “We just have to stop at 9:00 & D, first.” A party broke out instantly with our fellow passengers, further fulled with bar pit stops. Just as the sun was setting we reached the Deep Playa. We quickly set up our stand and kept our advice, tea, and hugs rolling until the final stretches of our walk home at 10pm.
Art Cars & Installations
Over 400 art installations graced the Playa this year. Not roped off or guarded by docents, the majority are made for interaction, if not climbing. There are world-renowned architects like Bjarke Ingels (currently building 2 World Trade Center ) putting up $100,000 dollar installations, to first-time Burners making art cars from junkyard treasures and paint in their garage. In a conversation with a volunteer at the Artery (the operations department for all registered art), she made us realize what a rare and important international stage this is for artists. Black Rock City offers virtually no space constraints, few safety regulations, and over a million dollars in art grants to help realize maximum creativity. When a community is founded on radical self-expression, participation, and inclusion, art has few critics and a world of new enthusiasts.
Activities, Participation & Immediacy
The beauty of Burning Man is the participation…everyone is creating or partaking in something at every turn. The Burning Man schedule of events is a 191-page book with dozens of activities happening each hour, and upwards of a hundred repeating each day. The majority are independently set up by normal ticket holders and the larger civic happenings (like lighting the street torches, delivering the mail, or stocking the ice shops) are run by armies of volunteers. Browse the book and the cheeky creativity of participants is endless. Try a ManiTedi (manicures and Ted Talks), add zen to your happy hour with MaiTai-Chi, rock an air guitar competition, improve your well-being with a “Free Yourself From Tech” seminar or “Ask a Buddhist” life coaching. We found that if there is something that really strikes you, seek it out, but the serendipity of wandering and joining in is what a Burn is all about. (We would have never sought out Glitter Camp but when we saw the sparkliest, happiest humans coming out of the paint-a-friend booth, we had to try this second skin.)
While we did our share of costume shopping at Goodwill and Salvation Army to pull off that Mad Max-meets-Priscilla Queen of the Desert look, it always helps to have a few more outlandish outfits and tips from the fashion professionals. Enter Kostume Kult. This huge camp of fashion designers, wardrobe stylists, and RuPaul fans collects thousands of accessories throughout the year and sets up a free shop and design studio for new Burners to get fabulous. We scored a blue tuxedo, rhinestone top hat, rams horns, leopard-trim leather coat, beaded booties, and more. The catch? You have to wear it all at once and strut down a catwalk on the Esplanade. A number of camps offer communal costume closets, jewelry boxes, and beauty services. It’s all for keeps and they’d never even ask for donations but when we offered Comfort & Joy’s budding closet our entire costume collection after Burning Man, they were thrilled to take them for next year.
Why did Mike need a powder blue tuxedo and top hat? We had a sunset wedding, followed by a gourmet dinner party, of course! A friend we met in Thailand in 2013 is a chef by trade and does fundraisers to support Stu and The Kids, a non-profit that helps puts undeserved and orphaned hill tribe children through school. When he found out we were going to be at Burning Man he invited us to a five-course dinner and show, co-hosted by Neal Fraser, Food Network Star and owner of LA’s acclaimed Redbird restaurant. This would be an incredible opportunity under any circumstances, but in the middle of the desert–where even running water is hard to come by, much less industrial ovens, Sub-Zero refrigerators, and a six-burner stove–it was unbelievable. Freshly bird-bathed and dressed to impress, we braved the biggest dust storm of the week by bicycle only to arrive to a white-linen oasis. We had halibut ceviche avocado mousse, spiced honey-nut squash, crema pana cotta with watermelon granita and chili lime dust, and more to the backdrop of gypsies on rollerskates and dancing daffodils. Surreal, delicious, an honor.
Music Scene: More than Techo
As two people who aren’t into techno or house music, we were a little nervous that a pounding base would be the soundtrack for the week. And to be fair “Sound Camps” have their run of the speakers but we also found incredible folk music at Reverbia, a dozen 80s & 90s throwback DJs, and even classical by the Black Rock Philharmonic (complete with audience accompaniment on kazoo). And when an art car in the shape of dragon goes by bobbing its head to the beat, it’s hard not to dance to whatever they’re playing.
Sunrise at The Trash Fence
There are “Night Burners” and “Day Burners” and then there is that witching sunrise hour where they intersect. We were mostly on Team Day Burn, going to bed around 2am and waking up at 9am but one morning we motivated for a sunrise (a must!). We sought out one of the highest points on the Playa, Lodestar: a nosediving Lockheed Martin military jet with its tail spliced into the petals of a daisy blooming with a roll-bar viewing cage. We climbed the 50 feet and watched the sun crest over the Black Rock Range and dim the neon lights on every club. Some bikers were heading back home and some were going deeper into the Playa. The boundary line and net to catch blowing litter, The Trash Fence, is also the stage for the best daybreaker parties. Three different art cars had DJs commanding an audience of thousands at 7am. Off to the sides were snugglers, hula-hoopers, pancake makers, even a couple getting married under an arbor of scrap metal.
Burning The Man
Nine days in the dusty desert without a proper shower sounded like an eternity, but it was quickly coming to an end. Thursday night started a rolling burn of 55 art installations across the Playa with Saturday night incinerating The Man. 70,000 people can quickly dissipate into seven-square miles and hundreds of venues but virtually all gather for this one event. Shoulder to shoulder with our fellow BRC Citizens, we watched this AC/DC-style fireworks spectacular take him down into the biggest ball of flames we’d ever seen. If you thought every other night was a party night, this is the mother of them all.
Camp Never Never Stop
We woke up Sunday morning for a camp-wide pancake breakfast and bittersweet tear down. No complainers, no slackers, this group of previous strangers felt like a proper team and genuine friends. The Never Never crows nest and village of tents may have come down but the spirit of the bar could not be broken. With Mike leading the charge in a rainbow furry leg warmer used as his main article of clothing, our crew gathered all the remaining libations, sunblock, snacks, and misting bottles to woo every passing biker. We toasted a Dutch couple celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary, saved topless bikers from sunburn, had a dance off with a dinosaur, and applauded a school principal for playing hooky for the week. Even without all the bells and whistles, Burning Man is just as fun.
Thanks to Anna Bloom for this lovely watercolor portrait of bartender Mike.
The Sunday sun was setting and the temple was starting to burn. An impressive structure crisscrossing and spiraling to a peak, housing the handwritten goodbyes, intricate shrines, and whispers of prayers for all things passed. Earlier in the week, we wandered the wooden trestles, admiring the elaborate offerings and reading the impromptu scribbles, like “I should have said I love you” or “Farewell to my straightness.” It’s an emotional place met daily with everything from tears to wedding vows. By the time we arrived, the smoke was billowing and the normal music and chatter of the Playa came to a hush. The crackling fire and whoosh of flames had everyone’s attention as the intentions rose to the sky.
Two Virgins Take on 9 Days in Black Rock City?
Despite this attempt, Burning Man can’t be explained. It offers this indescribable feeling of freedom; it invokes curiosity; it instills confidence; it promotes creativity and celebrates unabashed silliness. It gives you a feeling that no matter what you do, as long as your heart is in the right place, you’ll fit right in. It’s not a total utopia but in a world without money, bountiful art and music, and free-flowing hugs, Burning Man is definitely onto something.