I flew into San Francisco on a Friday afternoon and the next day I was in a mini-van with two women I met for the first time, loaded with supplies, on my way to the Nevada desert. I dreamed of it for years and it was finally happening; Burning Man.
”You don't get the burn you want, you get the burn you need"
My approach to new situations can be summed up in minimal expectations, prepare for challenges. Safe to say, Burning Man requires a lot of preparations, especially when flying in from another continent. So I did my homework. When you read hundreds of stories and advice, it’s hard to not form an idea of what will hit you as you enter the infamous line to Black Rock City. Do I need a pee-funnel? Will I get along with my campmates? Is my food supply enough? Do I have enough to contribute? Will I get enough sleep? What if my tent breaks in a dust storm? What if it rains? Will my hair turn into one big dreadlock and need to be shaved off?*
All reasonable questions.
A different flavor of transformational event
Both Vipassana, a 10 day silent meditation retreat I did a couple of years ago, and Burning Man are often described as transformational experiences. They are trippy, in every interpretation of the word. Mentally, spiritually, physically. It is likely to make you think about how you perceive the world and yourself. It will challenge you in ways you could not foresee.
But where Vipassana is a journey in solitude, where you are deprived of external impressions and at times left wondering if you have turned into a ghost, Burning Man is the opposite. It’s a sensory overload. You will hear music at all times, people are everywhere. Going out at night means navigating art pieces lit up like laser shows, some are moving, some are not. It’s about the connection with your fellow burners, about active participation, self-expression, taking it all in, follow whatever curious fire you see exploding in the distance.
It is radically different, yet strangely familiar.
What it means to express yourself
In what burners refer to as the default world, we dress to blend in with our community. For corporate meetings, I suit up. Going to Berghain, I dress all black. When looking at pictures from Burning Man, I won’t blame you for thinking you have to look like a model, wear a bedazzled officers hat, and shiny, dust-free** boots to blend in. The influencer photoshoots get traction online, but in reality, they represent a minority I barely notice.
What it is, is a journey in diverse self-expression. Some are dressed up as over-the-top extravagant, handmade pieces of art. Some are completely naked. In between, anything you could dream up on an acid trip. And they are all beautiful. Not because they fit into a mold of what beautiful is, the perfectly calibrated proportions we associate with attractiveness. Something different happens when people feel free to break the norms, be playful, and not take themselves so seriously. I don’t know how you could be surrounded by this for a week and not be affected. Age, size, shape, none of it matters; we’re all gorgeous.
As alien as it might look from the outside, the most present feeling is one of being home.
In June I followed a friend's advice and browsed through the full list of theme camps. Not a small commitment, as there are thousands, and took me a solid week. One, in particular, stood out; Black Rock Public Library. “Come grab a book at the dustiest library in the world! Serving Black Rock City since 2013. Strict one-year checkout period will apply.”
Who are these nerds setting up a fucking library at an event most people associate with drugs and orgies, in the middle of the desert? Obviously, they are people I want to know.
I filled out a form, had a video interview, and thankfully, they considered me to be enough of an upstanding citizen to become a Librarian. And that’s how I ended up in that car. Excited, clueless, and worried about pee-funnels. Whatever expectations I had, being part of this camp exceeded them.
What made Burning Man to me was not the big parties. “It’s seeing what the world could look like, in some alternate universe”, a veteran burner friend once told me. That’s when I decided I had to go, and that’s why I will come back in 2020.
It’s the small moments that made it. It’s yelling into the megaphone that we have a book return and hear everyone cheering. Having morning coffee in the shaded area and talk about yesterday's adventure with whoever comes by. Climbing big pieces of art, whether it’s floating rocks or a living room on stilts. It’s about connection. Working together to secure the camp as a storm approaches. Gifting what you can; it might be sharing mimosas with strangers in a dust storm, or following random people dressed up as death himself. Maybe it’s participating in someone’s story, a joke you just happened to stumble into, and now that’s an experience you’ll remember for life.
Can’t wait for August.
There’s no shortage of articles about Burning Man, but here are a few I would recommend you to read.
- Keeping Up with the Joneses at Burning Man—for the Collective Benefit - on behavioral scientists at Burning Man.
- A Nobel-Winning Economist Goes to Burning Man - on what urban planning can take away from Black Rock City.
- If you haven't been and want to go, this girl has some great videos answering pretty much every question you didn't even know you had.
*Legit concern you guys, without drenching in daily in untangling spray, 100% this would have happened.
**Dark magic must be involved here. Nothing can possibly be dust-free at Burning Man.
Sanna says Newsletter
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