A first time Burner's perspective: behind the scenes of the beauty, the drugs, the preparation, and the pro tips that you'll want to understand before attending Burning Man.
If you are interested in going to Burning Man, know it is one helluva COMMITMENT. Burning Man is not like any other “festival”. Why? Because it’s not a festival. It’s a city -- a radical, multifaceted gathering -- in the middle of the desert in Nevada known as Black Rock City. Now Black Rock City isn’t like any other city either, it’s an alternate reality. Time doesn’t exist at Burning Man; you wake up and sleep when you want. You can’t “purchase” things at Burning Man; food is something you bring for yourself or others share with you. It’s all about practicing the art of radical self-reliance and giving. You let go of all material things and focus on loving yourself and others. This is a gathering that pushes the boundaries of how our society today is constructed. It allows you to challenge the constructs in your life and reality. The gathering brings a massive crowd (an estimated 70,000 people) annually from all over the world. This week-long event can be exciting and overwhelming in many ways.
How do you get to Burning Man? First off, you must purchase a ticket--sometimes up to a year in advance--and you’ll usually be lucky if you get your hands on one. Prices range from $400 - $1200. Whether you pay $400 for your ticket or $1200, you get the exact same value. The prices are set up in a way that those that have the means to pay upwards of $1200, do so -- and that is considered a ‘donation’ to the event. Tickets are tricky to get, Y'all! You must scope them out in advance. And be very careful if you’re purchasing Burning Man tickets from Craigslist. MANY people got scammed via Craigslist ads. The best way to find a ticket is to ask your network and join the various Burning Man groups on Facebook. Although all of the entertainment during the event is included in the cost of your ticket, arriving at Burning Man is not cheap and you will see when you arrive how much time, energy, and money people spend every year to make this a reality for themselves. You may even consider renting an RV for the trip, which can cost anywhere between $4k - $6k for the week.
This week-long event calls for a heavy preparation on the part of its contenders. You will want to plan for setting up a campsite and bringing enough food and water per person to last you the duration of your stay. We piled up seven of our good friends, rented an RV, and drove from LA to Black Rock City. The journey with stops along the way took about 24 hours. Once you enter the Burning Man Playa, you will sit at entrance traffic for an unreasonable amount of time. We came on a Thursday and sat in the entrance traffic for 5 hours. But don’t fret, you’re not alone! Hop out your car and go mingle with fellow burners. Just make sure you have enough gasoline before hitting the entrance. Due to the wait at the entrance, you may more than likely arrive and have to set up in the dark (unless you plan ahead to avoid that by arriving SUPER early).
Pro tip #1 – the recommended water usage is 2 gallons per day per person. Water is the most important thing you can bring, so bring an abundance!
Pro tip #2 – if you’re planning to arrive at the beginning of the festival (Sunday), waiting at the entrance can take up to 8 hours. Make sure to have enough gasoline, patience, and entertainment.
You will receive a book once you arrive that contains all the events that other camps are hosting. These are people like you and me that put together an assortment of parties, open bars, classes, art sessions, naked art sessions, yoga classes, naked yoga classes, orgy tents, and so on as part of their gifts for the week. Yes, you read that right, orgy tents. Burning Man is known for its open sex culture and there are plenty of kinky events you can attend from naked pole dancing to group masturbation. Don't believe me? You can also find a list of these events online on the Burning Man website. Here is an archive of all of 2018's events so you can get an idea of what all was offered.
How do you get around at Burning Man? Y'all, this Playa is HUGE. You absolutely can not rely getting around on foot. One of my favorite things about Burning Man was getting around on a bike. EVERYONE has a bike! Before you know it, you’ll be biking around with your squad through the desert dust. The feeling is badass and liberating.
Pro tip #3 – You can rent a bike at the playa for about $200 for the week only if you reserve in advance. You can also buy one at Walmart for $100 and take it in with you.
Pro tip #4 – if you buy a cheap bike, invest in a good bike seat or you’ll regret your purchase. Make sure to buy colorful lights to put on your bike for the night time and a lock. Remember that there are no street lights in the desert, so you’ll want to have these lights for visibility. Also, keep in mind that everyday bikes are “mistakenly” taken so locks are a must.
Your first night on the Playa is excitingly overwhelming. Lights are flashing everywhere, fire pumping out of random structures, art cars passing by with electronic music bumping. It’s like you have entered an alternate reality playground. You will soon realize that this city is quite literally designed to enjoy drugs. Burning Man is a place where drugs are indirectly invited and “protected”. The reputation of this being a place to do drugs has been one on the brand for years. There are camps that even host an acid-dropping ceremony where they provide you the acid. Yes, this is what I mean that this place is an alternate reality. Yet somehow, even with “security” inside the event, the proportion of the number of arrests that occur annually is minuscule to the number of drugs consumed. It is evident that it is not security’s purpose to confiscate or prevent drug usage.
I can speak to the experience of not partaking in drugs at Burning Man to be challenging in many ways. Sentiments of loneliness and isolation from the masses were common. It was challenging to enjoy the 4 a.m. electronic music that only reinforced the high - looking around and seeing individuals physically together but mentally alone, not socializing, just mindlessly moving left and right to the same repetitive beat for several minutes. I had a hard time comprehending the enjoyment of such a setting. I much prefer shaking my ass to some Young Thug in Atlanta while poppin’ bottles. If that’s your preference too, the sets around sunrise probably won’t be your cup of tea.
Now, there were some shows that I thoroughly enjoyed. I’m not a Skrillex fanatic but his show at Burning Man was INCREDIBLE. Definitely one of the best highlights. The energy was insane with fire dancers performing and flamethrowers burning off nonstop throughout his performance. Burning Man is an event with nonstop music. Other big named artists this year were Diplo, Flume, B2B, and ZHU. Although the music scene is mostly electronic and heavy into the deep house, you can find some hip hop, pop, and Latin music throughout the day. I will say that the crowds are slim that come to the more urban music parties as the focus really is on electronic music. I personally would love to see more diversity in this aspect. I would find the week-long event much more appealing if there was more variance in the types of music that are widely accepted late at night.
The art in the Playa is as unique at night as it is during the day. During the day, its common to venture out into the “Esplanade”--the sort of open, the central plaza of Black Rock City--to visit sculptures large and small, colorful and extravagant. At night, you see the city glowing exuberantly from every angle. The flat expanse of the city is covered with electrified art cars blaring music and showing off intricate designs; it is mind-boggling to see some of the structures that have been put together by artists from all over the world. One of my favorites was the 747 jet. This 747 was an all day and night PARTY! They legit took an airplane, brought it out to the middle of the desert and made it a party plane with a rooftop dance floor opening--absolutely EPIC! You can’t help but have a deep appreciation for what lights and shines in the city. If you’re considering going for photography purposes, there is plenty of art, beautiful people, and Playa fashion to capture here. If you're planning a trip and not sure what to wear--check out this gallery for Burning Man Fashion inspo.
The parties at Burning Man are all day and night. So are the drugs, sex, and energy. This city does not stop buzzing. You will find that there are some more 'exclusive' campsites that host lavish parties bringing in millionaires and models from all around the world. In some ways, some aspects of Burning Man make it seem like a gathering for the upper echelon of the world. And you have to think: it's an expensive gathering to get to and be at, so it holds true that the people able to attend such an event do tend to come from a similar socioeconomic background. You also get the vibe that some of Black Rock City's more exclusive guests come here to partake in some sort of exchange(s), like how business people use Vegas for transactions. Some of these more exclusive parties you just have to know about ahead of time or stumble upon during your time there. The biggest open party of all (to me) was watching the man burn on Saturday night. This is truly a sight to see. If you go to Burning Man, do yourself a favor and gather around this massive pyrotechnic masterpiece to enjoy the fireworks and flames.
Pro Tip #5 - make sure that you park your bike in front of a secure art piece prior to watching the man burn. This event brings out almost everyone at Burning Man so finding your bike after can become a scavenger hunt.
The most salient quality of Burning Man is that it is a warehouse of contradictions. On the one hand, it is a place that shuns capitalism, whereas at the same time, people spend thousands of dollars on outfits to perpetuate the never-ending Playa fashion show, fly in and out of the Playa on helicopters, and secure 4-5 star chefs to cook them meals all week long in the middle of the desert. Even people’s attitudes can be contradictory. I felt that I met two types of people at Burning Man. The kind burners, who were giving and open to meeting and loving others. Then the judgmental ones that took the Burning Man principles out of context and commented on people wearing Indian headdresses as inappropriate or judged that your outfit is ‘too Coachella.’ Despite a few rotten eggs, you will still see that the beauty in people is more empowering than not. One of my most memorable experiences was with a stranger in the Burning Man Temple -- the energy at the temple at Burning Man is like nothing else in Black Rock City. This is a solemn place, where you go if you’re happy or sad. It’s filled with photos of lost loved ones and lovers appreciating the lives of those lost. During my Burning Man experience, I lost someone near and dear to me. I went to the temple on my own to digest the news. Before I knew it, I had been crying for a long time and a random gentleman had been holding me the entire time, saying nothing. Just physically being there to hold me. We never discussed why we were there, where we were from, or what our names were, just held onto each other. His act of kindness and sympathy for me will always stay with me.
Overall, the aspects of Burning Man that I most enjoyed were the artistic creativity, the ability to bike around, and the buzz one feels while being there. Still, I can’t help but feel off-put by the collective drug culture, which made it hard to assimilate during every moment of the event for a person who does not consume. Either way, if you want to engage in a visually stunning, psychologically stimulating, culturally welcoming event, it’s hard to find an experience as hard to get to, challenging, memorable, and unique as Burning Man.