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burning man

Burning Man 2010 - Airstreameri camp in Black Rock City


Unless you live under a rock, you’ve heard of Burning Man, the annual art festival slash summer camp for adults in the Black Rock Desert north of Reno, Nevada.

In the weeks leading to my departure several fifty-something friends confessed that they’ve wanted to see it for themselves but have felt too intimidated to attend “that thing in the desert”. I concur; it’s difficult to get mentally and physically organized for Burning Man if you’re a grown adult not surrounded by peers who have been or are coming with you.


Traveling solo for the first time to Black Rock City posed a lot of challenges and many of my questions went unanswered. For the “virgin burner”, shopping and preparing can be daunting and confusing; it’s the packing equivalent to extreme boondock camping, seven day Halloween party, and week-long potluck. The replies I got to “what should I bring?” ranged from “just a pirate costume and liquor” to a list of provisions as long as your arm. The official Survival Guide, mandatory reading for every participant, is extensive and thorough but some areas seem intentionally ambiguous (CYA liability language, perhaps). You can’t get a clear picture of what to expect and the internet is rife with conflicting accounts because, like the parable of the blind man and the elephant, Burning Man is something different to everyone.


I won’t spoil the surprise by describing what you’ll see, hear, and (never thought you’d) do. Instead, following are yet more pieces of the puzzle, this time for the Virgin Burner Of A Certain Age who is contemplating the journey in 2011. (It’s not too early to circle that week on your calendar.)


Burning Man – Perception vs Reality


I don’t have a thing to wear.

You do! Raid your halloween box for random accessories: post-apocalyptic leggings, fake fur, belts, fishnets, devil horns, a cape. Check the back of your closet for old bridesmaid dresses, outdated formal wear (bring scissors for inspired field alterations), the old dance recital costume, and platform shoes. Uniforms, too: scouts, catholic school, postal worker, military surplus. Ethnic garments. A big hat. That lingerie you’re embarrassed to wear around the house? Bring it. If you don’t currently own a tutu, get one. Dump it all in a box and mix and match when you get there. At a bare minimum you can get by with a sarong, bikini top and kitty ears (works for all genders). If you’re ambitious, come as someone; Hunter Thompson is a good choice. Express your inner self. Skip items that shed feathers, sequins, or glitter. 


It’s hot, it’s dusty, and the porta-potties are terrifying.

Yes, yes, and often. (Don’t look around.)


Everyone runs around naked.

You have to be copacetic with the nudity of others (or your own, if naturism calls), but maybe only one in a hundred have their pink parts out. Everyone else is in various states of (dis)robement.


It’s a big drug fest.

Maybe…I wouldn’t know where to look. A guy at Center Camp offered me Seratonin, does that count?


No glass of any kind is allowed.

I obsessed in advance about this. What does that mean? Wine glasses? Jars of spaghetti sauce? Bottle of tobasco? (A friend I was discussing this with teased his kid, “I heard if you have a glass eye, you have to take it out.”) Like a tool, I ended up hiding my coffee press and a six pack of bottled near beer in the Airstream bedding, just in case. It turns out that the friendly volunteers who search your car at the gate are only looking for feather boas and stowaways.


There’s nothing to buy but ice and coffee.

Sort of true. Bagged ice is available at various locations and Center Camp offers plain joe as well as espresso, cappuccino, mocha, lattes, cocoa, chai, tea, lemonade and energy drinks. Bring ones. The lines are Starbucks-long. (Weary of marking cups with customer playa names—something you’ll acquire within a few days, like a Sawyer nickname—counter staff on the last day requested a sexual position, dirty word, or fetish instead, forcing the baristas to call out “Rim Job!” and the like when the drinks were ready.)


Though no items are for sale and self reliance is the point, you could be airlifted down naked and want for nothing, (though you’re required to be able to fend for yourself for a week and it’s fun though not expected to reciprocate when offered a freebie.) You won’t go hungry or need to stay sober; theme camps offer breakfast specialties like flapjacks and bloody marys, or fried bologna sandwiches with a shot of bourbon. Airstreamers of course eat nonstop, and our camp gorged on lavish potluck dinners.


Everyone sleeps all day; the action at Burning Man is at night.

Activities are scheduled around the clock, and some of the most delightful take place at sunrise. Breakfast socializing is the norm. Daytime dance parties are followed by happy hour. The club kids are at it all night and you are invited. Feel free to maintain your regular diurnal schedule, or simply crap out when you can’t take it any more. 


I’m supposed to bring gifts? What’s that about? 

Do not stress about this. Just watch this video and all will be clear.


Burning Man is for young people.

According to the BRC Weekly, nearly 30% of Black Rock City citizens are over forty. Many are in their fifties and some are sixty and beyond. The burners I met were warm, welcoming, and sincere, regardless of their age.


Advice I was glad I took 

Bring baby wipes and vinegar (unrelated applications). Bring earplugs; something loud—accompanied by pulsing lights or bursts of flame—will be going on nearby 24/7. (A sleep mask couldn’t hurt either). Bring pre-hard boiled eggs (highly recommended) but not too much fresh fruit. Seal your electronics in ziplock baggies before you hit the gate.



There’s a lot of judgement among veteran burners about newcomers who are Doing It Wrong. They can fuck off. It’s your burn, as the kids say. Go, enjoy. “Participation” means nothing more than applying the simple manners your mother taught you to bring to any party: Dress for the occasion. Don’t come empty handed. Be friendly; mingle and get to know people. Pitch in and help with the clean-up. 


Brace yourself, though, for hardships other than the afore-mentioned dust storms, desert temperature extremes and absence of plumbing. 50,000 people crush the area and traffic on the way to the festival and during exodus weekend is a misery, as is trying to shop for supplies the day before at the Reno Wal-Mart, which looked like a cross between Woodstock and backstage at Cirque du Soleil. I might not have had the guts to try Burning Man solo without the Streaming Through Reno support team (Ralph’s mom and dad) and the companionship of the Airforums Airstreameri who were waiting for me to arrive. Thank you, friends.


Burning Man is a spectacle of memorable performances, eclectic music, ironic humor, stirring giant-scale art and naughty good fun. Listen, if you’ve been around the block a couple of times, nothing there will shock you. 


Sometimes the smallest moment defines an experience. We were walking on the playa one fine night in a group that included two cute forty-something brothers from North Carolina. Gaily illuminated art cars floated by; revelers were hanging on, dancing, their techno music blaring. One of the brothers barked out a laugh. What’s funny, we asked? “Nothin’,” he answered, looking out into the desert darkness. “Ah just feel joy.” 

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