Back in 2013, I attempted to answer a question that seemed to come up a lot whenever I referenced my ten day sojourn to the Nevada desert: what the &!*# is Burning Man, anyway? In 2015, I resumed my investigation.
After my first burn, I knew that I’d be back — over and over again. The timing wasn’t right to return to Black Rock City in 2014 when I was bopping around Europe, but in 2015, I found myself dating a guy who was passionate about making it to the playa. When he snagged two tickets and offered me one, how could I refuse?
And so I found myself back at Burning Man, back in that pulsing energy of 68,000 idealists, back trying to answer that same question. What is this place? Why do we come here?
The answer is different for everyone. I’ve started to understand that what brings me to the desert is the idea that Burning Man exists as a kind of utopic preview of what the world could look like if we followed the ten principles in our day-to-day lives. That experiment intrigues me, and I leave Black Rock City inspired to create a life that is every so slightly more like life on the playa — freezing overnight temperatures excluded.
My second burn was both heartwarmingly familiar and strikingly foreign. It was a reminder: no two years will be the same. Every burn will be different. Every year will mark a new line in the sand — well, the dust.
I admit that in some ways, the event that is Burning Man itself seemed to change in ways that I didn’t love. Ways that made it feel a lot less like a spontaneous gathering of like-minded dreamers and a lot more like what it technically is – a government-regulated, paid-participation event. IDs were being checked heavily, in contrast to 2013, when I didn’t take mine out with me a single time. Some sound camps required passports to enter, while others were shut down entirely due to noise complaints and violations regarding scheduling or party size. Theme bars were being slapped with fines. While I was biking on the playa and started chatting with a fellow burner about a piece of art we were both admiring, he offered me the gift of him home-made mead – but sheepishly asked to see my ID first, explaining he’d watched a friend hauled off in handcuffs the night before while bartending.
It struck me as funny, in a way – is underage drinking really a plague on Black Rock City? I kind of feel that if a nineteen year old manages to get themselves out to the playa and survive under its harsh conditions for a week, surely they are deserving of a drink or two. The solution for the individual is simple – take a photocopy of your passport or ID and tape it to your carabineer-attached travel cup (most bars don’t provide cups, but pour their gifted concoctions into whatever vessel you’re carrying.) But it also struck me as sad, that the spirit of gifting and generosity that is so integral to Burning Man is being dampened by the fears of litigation and liability that plagues us in the default world. (Whoop, I just called the other fifty-one weeks of the year “the default world” — I’m a real Burner now!) I don’t know if that genie can go back in the bottle.
Also, for those that enjoy being completely disconnected from the outside world, there may have been a surprise in 2015. In 2013, I lost phone service long before driving though the gates and had to bike to one of the few camps that gifted wifi in order to check in occasionally on my business. This past year, my cell phone actually had a signal that was sporadically strong enough to download emails. While I was actually pleased by this – it meant that I could briefly scroll through once a day to make sure my website hadn’t caught on fire in my absence – I can see how others wouldn’t be. There’s a pretty simple solution, however, in the power button.
In other ways, the event that is Burning Man seemed to be changing in ways I really did love. One of the most striking differences I personally noted between the 2013 and 2015 burns was an increase in diversity among burners. Camps seemed a little less blindingly white. The temple, typically lined with private messages and memorials, was peppered with moving tributes to victims of racially-charged police brutality. Was Burning Man really becoming more inclusive, or was it all in my head? One day, I biked over to Census Camp to investigate my hunch. There, I spoke to researchers who confirmed that very slowly, Burning Man was becoming a little less homogeneous. While 87% of the Burning Man population identifies as white, the volunteer I chatted to said the census had noted specific upticks of black burners, likely due to the influence of a few key African Americans camps.
On a personal level, the biggest difference between my two burns was who I camped with. In 2013 I independently camped with a group of college friends in an established theme camp. In 2015 I camped with my man Ian, and an international group of his friends who were mostly playa virgins.
I’ve heard nightmares about couples camping together and I admit I had some serious hesitations going in. But they melted away the moment we hit the dust. We spent plenty of time apart doing our own things throughout the week — we both had friends we wanted to spend time with, and as always I was fiercely protective of my independence and solo adventures — but there was something wonderful about coming home to our tent and finding my guy there. He was my rock throughout the week, and the experience brought us closer than ever. It was on the playa, over a year after we first met, that I first used the word boyfriend without attaching an eyeroll or a set of air quotes to it.
Burning with a boyfriend meant I checked out a lot more um, let’s just say “partner oriented” workshops, camps, and activities than I personally would have otherwise — a side of the Burning Man experience I definitely didn’t experience the first time around. But it didn’t really matter what we were doing. Whether we were attending a tantric study group led by a pair of sassy septuagenarians, biking across the clock at midnight to score grilled cheese sandwiches, catching up on a sunset walk around The Man or getting herbal-infused massages from friendly Hawaiians at The Lavender Lounge, it was just plain fun to be there with Ian.
There was a little less mystery in my second burn. I knew where to find Robot Heart, I understood the clock-based layout of the city, and I saw the fence that never seemed to be there my first year. The upside? I wandered aimlessly on purpose when I wanted to, and got where I was going when I wanted to, too. I understood more about what I wanted from the week, and I knew more clearly how to get it.
One thing remained steadfastly the same. I found myself asking, on a regular basis, what is Burning Man? And once again, I found myself answering.
Burning Man is acro yoga workshops in a big top tent.
Burning Man is nights catching an original, Tony-nomination-worthy performance at Ashram Galactica, riding a ferris wheel in the desert, snacking on midnight donuts served with a side of projected vintage porn, attending a Planet Earth Britney vs. Madonna dance party, and climbing up on the Thunder Dome to watch a real-life fight club.
Burning Man is solo bike rides on the playa to soak up all the art — and perhaps find a treasure to take home.
Burning Man is all night dusty dance parties that end with the sunrise.
Burning Man is declaring it Superman Saturday, and fighting bad vibes on the playa.
Burning Man is laying in a cuddle puddle in the overflow tent from a standing-room-only TEDx Black Rock City and listening to thought leaders from around the world talk about how festivals shaped their lives. Burning Man is attending a Creating a Conscious Business discussion with the CEO of Thrive Market, and leaving feeling like you might implode with inspiration.
Burning Man is going to an inversions workshop and doing a headstand and seeing what the world looks like upside down for the first time.
Burning Man is biking out the temple and bawling your eyes out at the raw, cathartic messages left behind by your fellow humans.
Burning Man is being one of the least fantastically dressed people in the tent, even when you’re rocking head-to-toe watermelon or a pink wig and a skull playsuit.
Burning Man is missing out on the Disney Sing Along, the Sea Prom, the Playa 5K, the Motown and Mimosas party, and the midnight glowga class because there is simply more to do and see than you could ever tackle in a lifetime. Burning Man is vowing to return again so you can give it go, anyway.
Burning Man is the most creatively decadent week of the year. Burning Man is the wildest party you’ve ever crashed. Burning Man is a playground for the wide-eyed wanderer. Burning Man is a real life social network for dreamers, doers, and dancers. Burning Man is a vision of the way the world could be.
Burning Man is, again and forever, whatever you want it to be.