In all my years of travel writing, this has without doubt been the hardest destination to sum up in words.
Ask anyone who has been to Burning Man what it was like in the weeks following it, and their eyes will glaze over slightly.
They’ll say something along the lines of: “Uhhh, well, I guess… fucking hell man, it was…” and then they will laugh uncomfortably and shake their heads and tell you that they can’t explain it.
Which is really annoying. Notoriously annoying. The worst of all the you-had-to-be-there jokes.
Nevertheless, I’m going to try…
(all photos mine, taken using Nikon DSLR/GoPro/iPhone, except when indicated)
Three years ago, I heard about Burning Man – that weird festival in the desert where insane over-40s go to take LSD and bonk each other in ritualistic orgies.
Two years ago, I discovered that some of my distant acquaintances were headed there. I classified them as having gone insane prematurely.
One year ago, more of my friends went – this time people I admired. The sheep shuffled forwards.
Then everything changed and this year, I went. Not only did I go, but I loved it beyond compare.
First up, you should know that I don’t like festivals. They epitomise everything that pisses me off. Crowds. Yelling. People bashing into me. Litter. Yesterday’s food trampled into the grass. Wasps. Beetles. Sweat. Portaloos. Mud. Music I don’t like playing really loudly.
Burning Man has nothing in common with any of the above, except for portaloos.
Because of the shambolic nature of the whole week, it is probably best described not in a rambling essay but in question and answer format. So off we go.
Why is it called Burning Man? Do they actually burn a man? Like Guy Fawkes?
Yes. Not a real one. Not like Guy Fawkes. A massive wooden man which soars high above every other structure there. It is burnt on the last night, in a jaw-dropping, ember-hissing, cyclone-creating spectacle of pyromania. Because burning things is cathartic. I don’t care who you are, it just is.
Why does everyone say ‘oh my god, oh my god, just wait until you see this place for the first time AT NIGHT’?
Neither words nor photos can do this justice. Kind of like outer space, as any astronaut will tell you. But imagine Disney’s Fantasia, and imagine that scene in Dumbo where the mouse hallucinates, and imagine that scene in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet where Leo pops that pill AND the one where he tops himself in the church, and stir that into a cauldron of the weirdest and coolest dreams you’ve ever had… and that’s the best I can do.
How do you camp?
You can do it in one of two ways. Either you can camp in a tent, or you can spunk a shedload of cash and stay in a cushy RV for the whole week.
I don’t have shedloads of cash, but some of my friends do, and are generous beyond belief.
Ruda – who I’ve been ambling around with since we met in Antarctica last year – is a Burning Man aficionado who took me under his wing.
I was in the RV along with him, his girlfriend Natasha (ravishingly beautiful model) and his best friend Taylor (basically an angel) and the whole set-up was muy bien.
There was only – during the whole week – one case of over-tired bickering humans communicating poorly.
I’ve gushed about the merits of these people before, -> here <- mainly, when we were in Cape Town, so I won’t re-bore my more dedicated readers.
But if you fancy some further snooping on them, that’s where you shall find it.
So the air conditioned mobile home was parked before we got there, with a fully stocked fridge and bar, clean towels, a bathroom, shower, kitchen and three beds. And BLINDS. Which means you’ve always got a cool, dark den in which to sleep whenever you need to.
You have to snooze in four or five hour slots at Burning Man, you see, because there’s always something amazing going on.
Doesn’t having a swish RV make you a dick?
I know people have issues with this sort of set-up. Because it’s against the ‘ethos’ of Burning Man. But as far as I can tell, the ethos of Burning Man is to check all your societal bullshit at the gates, go in, find pleasure, and be kind to everyone you see.
So if you don’t happen to like tents, do it however you want. It doesn’t make you Marie Antoinette. The important thing, as I said, is to check all your societal bullshit at the gates, go in, find pleasure, and be kind to everyone you see. Where you sleep should have nothing to do with it.
How do you get there?
I flew there from LA to Reno, Nevada, at disgusting-o-clock (6am) and then got from Reno to Burning Man via a shuttle coach service called The Burner Express. This trip can take more than 12 hours, because there’s only one road that leads in and a queue of 70,000 people in cars heading there.
But Lady Luck shined her light on me and we arrived in a mere two hours. Only I’d pre-arranged to meet Team Ruda at at a specific location far in the future, and phones don’t work out here. This gave me more than three hours to kill. Read on.
Is it dangerous?
Not that I saw. So there I was, stumbling off the coach and into the searing hot desert alone with a gigantic suitcase, a gigantic weekend bag, a gigantic coat, and a backpack.
Before I could start panicking about what the fuck I was going to do for the next three and a half hours, lost, overheated, loaded like a donkey, admittedly nervous, and by myself… a choir of cheering erupted behind me.
I spun around and squinted at the assembled revellers. They were total strangers (dread). Worse, they were undoubtedly cheering at me. Surely mocking me, I thought. FLASHBACK SCHOOL CIRCA 2004.
Then they wanted to help me with my luggage. Even worse. No instance, in all my solo travels, in which strangers off the street have rushed up to ‘help me with my luggage’ has ended well.
As it transpired, these were just a handful of the many Burning Man veterans I later witnessed looking for nervous and confused people to help. They weren’t employees. They weren’t volunteers. They were just nice.
Two guys rid me of my bags, the rest ushered me into the shade, plied me with coconut water and fruit, drew me maps, gave me advice and were just generally wonderful. One was a doctor, another was a mysterious silicon valley champ, another was an artist, another an electrician. They didn’t leave me until I was safely united with Team Ruda several hours later.
Upon leaving, especially as a English person, I just wanted to give them something. Anything. 20 quid. Some flowers. My soul?
Which brings me to the next question…
Is it true that you can’t buy anything at Burning Man?
Yes. And contrary to popular belief, it’s not a bartering system either (you give me a sandwich and I’ll give you some tequila). It’s a ‘gifting’ arrangement.
Which is just as hippie as it sounds, and basically encourages people to bring more than they need and give things to strangers when they might happen to need it. Only if you want. Only if you can.
It sounds like a pipe-dream, but it works.
How do you get around?
There are 70,000 people and miles and miles and miles of totally flat desert. A horse-shoe shaped arrangement of camps and RVs around a vast centre – the famous playa.
You need a bike to get around. It probably takes 15 minutes without stopping to peddle from one end of the playa to the other. That’s just the middle bit, remember.
This was one of the best aspects for me. Because it’s so expansive, there are no crowds. No being shoved around. No queues at the portaloos.
Initially the prospect of going anywhere alone was out of the question. For someone as directionally challenged as me, the set-up resembled a fucked compass. No matter how many times someone explained it to me (‘It’s just a grid. And a clock. A grid and a clock.’) I was no closer to understanding.
The trick is, you just have to get lost on purpose. Flee the herd, like a deviant antelope, and figure out how to get home. Some of my best moments were spent gleefully lost, cycling around alone, stopping at various mind-boggling sculptures and taking photos of strangers.
What are ‘art cars’?
Vehicles that very creative people spend months turning into astonishing, moving, works of art. See below.
Does it get filthy?
No. I still can’t get my head around this but NO ONE DROPS LITTER. Not even cigarette butts. In a pretty much lawless environment, it’s a rule so deeply ingrained, you wouldn’t even dream of breaking it.
There are little makeshift bars everywhere manned by people who just give drinks away, but you have to bring your own cup. There are a few charitable operations distributing food but not many. People mostly just eat their own food at their own camp.
So there isn’t really much to litter with, even if you happen to be the littering type. No paper plates, disposable forks, half-eaten burgers, crushed cans, or plastic bags. Nothing.
It’s the desert. Isn’t there sand everywhere?
No. The ground can best be described as hard, flat, cracked clay. Very favourable conditions for cycling (no inclines = no stitches). In the absence of sand, there is dust.
Very fine white alkaline dust which coats every part of you the moment you step outside – your clothes, your hair, your eyelashes, everything. Everyone is white, all the time.
How do you stay clean?
You don’t. See above. I had one shower the whole week, which resulted in the first of two times I cried at Burning Man. I thought it might be nice to wash my hair. Idiotically, I used too much of our finite water supply.
Natasha told me off. Ruda concurred. Being told off, especially when I deserve it, makes my actual heart organ ache and my soul crumple.
So I dragged on some clothes and went outside into a whirling dust storm to sob as secretly as possible. Sidenote – I was covered in dust and my hair was white again within less than a minute so basically, kids, showering here is futile and worse, socially frowned upon.
Anyway, a nice man rode past, stopped his bike, got off, wrapped his arms around me and said, “don’t worry, it’s weird if you don’t cry at Burning Man.” Then when I stopped sobbing, he vanished into the storm.
How do you pass your time at Burning Man?
Wake up. Take off last night’s glittery face paint using baby wipes. Brush teeth. Drink water. Have some coffee. Debrief previous slot of activities. Have some mild intoxicants. Put on new glittery face paint. Don a ridiculous outfit. Head out together on bikes. Socialise. Come back to the RV. Have a nap. Wake up again. It’s dark now. Don another ridiculous outfit. Repeat first few steps. Light yourself (and your bike) up like a Christmas tree so as to avoid being run over by other bikes in the pitch dark. Peddle off as a team. Socialise. Get lost. Find home, eat noodles. Repeat entire process.
Why is lying down so important?
Our RV was just next to a camp called Merkabah, where loads of Team Ruda’s Australian friends were staying. They were all beautiful, amusing and generally entertaining.
We spent several nights snuggled up on this cloud-life poof of cushions overlaid with yards of memory foam and fake fur.
Taylor and I, at one point, spent an estimated five hours one evening just stuck there. Engulfed. Refusing of social interaction, even with each other. It was too nice to move.
Sometimes, we’d all shift the horizontal-happy-fest to the nearby fire and huddle around the flames as the air started to nibble our elbows with the cold.
What exactly is a camp?
Not necessarily a row of tents. Often an amalgamation of RVs under some sort of name or theme. You figure this all out way before you arrive. And you have to apply. Basically, it’s like Harry Potter houses. If you’re a Gryffindor sort of a chap, the sorting hat is unlikely to put you in Slytherin. We weren’t in any camp. We were just parked like muggles.
What was your favourite camp?
(Except for Camp Muggle) Camp Sakenoma, very close to our RV. They hand out free sake but that’s not why I liked it. I don’t even like sake very much.
As it happened, two of my English friends from university (eons ago) were there. Claire and Bo, who are the best sort of couple.
They are clever and hilarious in their own right, with hearts of purely spun gold – and while perfectly happy pottering around separately from one another – they are very clearly destined to be together.
I hope they have epic rows behind the scenes because otherwise they are just nauseating.
I spent quite a lot of time with them and some of their English-people-who-live-in-America friends.
One night, I was feeling a bit sad about something, and Claire steered me off into this lovely abandoned Moroccan candlelit tent and we talked for hours about sad things, and happy things, and then we nodded off in her and Bo’s RV and I woke up the next morning still wearing my light-up tutu, feeling much cheered.
Also at Sakenoma, there was RF: this very winsome, blonde, chisel-featured American army guy who I will never forget.
In a sea of relaxing/reclining/snoozing revellers, RF took it upon himself to mark out an imaginary perimeter, patrol the camp and account for people’s welfare with a bonkers level of military precision.
He marched around and lit fires and distributed supplies, earnestly, as if he’d just landed in a war-torn nation to deliver aid.
Not in an arrogant way. In the sort of way you romanticize soldiers when you’re young, or when you’ve just watched Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor.
Maybe it was because this was all against a backdrop of utter frivolity, but it was amusing every time he was on patrol, like a cartoon. Also, like Claire and Bo, he had a heart of purely spun gold.
What is the temple?
As anyone who knows me or reads my blog will know, I am an atheist. A staunch, immovable, unapologetic atheist. I don’t capitalise the word ‘god’. Churches don’t make me feel things. So this one is a bit of a head-scratcher.
I was with Team Sakenoma and we were on our way somewhere or other when someone suggested we stop by this infamous temple, so we did.
It’s a huge wooden structure in which people put up dedications to people who have died. Posters, placards, photos, poems, things like that.
All eight of us split away like negatively charged molecules the moment we wandered in.
It was silent.
People trundled around in a ghostly manner, many of them hunched and clutching a tissue in their fist, raised to their mouth, the way humans do when they’re trying to stop too much emotion leaking out.
There was no wailing or hugging or consoling. Each and every person was there alone, cloaked in a membrane of their own quiet grief.
Including me, as it transpired. It was impossible not to be moved.
So I picked up a Sharpie and wrote the names of the two individuals whose deaths have most made me suffer, and then I left to find the others with hot globules of tears falling off the cliffs of my cheeks.
I was surprised to find most of Team Sakenoma in a similar state.
Why are sunrises important?
Sunrises here are a time of day not to be missed.
I missed most of them because every time it looked like the sun was stirring, a magnetic force dragged me to my RV and to my vampire box.
Sunrises are usually best avoided as far as parties go for me. Certainly in hectic cityscapes, they conjure up feelings of wide-eyed panic and self-loathing.
But here, as I learned when I forced myself to attend one, they are magical.
You aren’t in a cityscape! It’s not ugly! It’s not grey! The birds aren’t mocking you! You don’t have to go to work tomorrow! It doesn’t matter if you’re spangled! Everyone else is too! Time is relative!
What is a ‘playa name’?
All first time ‘burners’ (when English people use this term, they have to put on an American accent and perform air quotes, because we’re a bit insecure) somehow, at some point, attain a batshit name that pertains only to their time there.
I honestly can’t remember who gave me mine but whoever it was is a genius, and understands me very well…
This is a hybrid of ‘meerkat’ and ‘fox’.
People have always said my siblings and I are meerkat-ish. I don’t like dancing at all, but when I do, extremely rarely, I look like a meerkat; all weird hands and darting head.
I danced only a little here and there at Burning Man.
Every time I dance – unless I really am off my trolley – I just feel painfully, lucidly aware that I’m a human with thoughts, bobbing around on the spot, trying to fend off all the thoughts, in a sea of other humans with thoughts.
And if that makes me sound all superior, then it came off wrong. Not dancing, in fact, generally makes you inferior.
But imagine if you were in the park and you stumbled across a group of squirrels and all of a sudden they all just stopped scampering around looking for nuts and rounded themselves up and just started bobbing in unison.
It would be so weird. That is how I feel about dancing.
Anyway, as a result of this, I almost always bobbed around for only a very short amount of time before slinking off into the darkness by myself with a swish of my metaphorical tail.
This earned me the ‘fox’ part of my ‘meerfox’ name. Specifically, a Fennec Fox. Nocturnal, solitary – even more antisocial than normal foxes – creatures who live in the desert.
I got a bit worried at one point that it was rude of me to disappear at night all the time, but in my mind, unless you’re a ringleader, or 50% of a couple, no one really gives a shit if you disappear. Especially at Burning Man
What do you eat?
Personally, spicy instant noodles, Nutri-Grain bars and the odd apple here and there. Meals aren’t a thrice daily ceremony. Food is merely a source of fuel.
What do you drink?
Personally, espresso martinis. But a basic version. So vodka mixed with Starbucks frappuccinos in my little rubber mug. You (I) want to be just a tiny bit drunk all the time, but also as energetic as possible. Also, green juices.
Natasha drank some sort of pink energy drink which makes Red Bull look like a sissy. I don’t know what the boys drank.
What’s the weather like?
Very hot during the day, but with a near constant breeze that no-one told me about before I got there. I was expecting it to be sweltering and sweaty. It wasn’t, it was sublimely sunny and dry, but the air was always moving.
At night time, it gets freezing. Cold enough to need an enormous furry coat. These mad extremes of climate delighted me.
Everyone obviously dresses like a hedonistic Disney character with daddy issues – what were your favourite outfits?
Easy. I had a veritable treasure chest of dressing-up stuff, but a few became daily staples. My dazzlingly sparkly twinkle-infested bejewelled bra, for example, and my leopard-print onesie, which I wish I could live in forever.
And all the things that lit up. And all the pirate dresses. And some beige boots which cost me £5 and were the only thing my feet wore all week.
Are there naked people having orgies everywhere?
No. There is a generous smattering of casually naked people here and there. Just wandering along. Tra-la-la.
If you wanted to have an orgie it would be easy, because there are plenty of places to get stuck in. But they’re all enclosed in tents, and you can’t just wander in to point and stare. You have to de-robe yourself and not be taking the michael. I didn’t partake because maybe my spirit isn’t free enough.
Do loads of people take drugs?
Can you go and have a good time if you don’t take drugs?
Why do people wear goggles and masks?
Not to be outrageously trendy. Because of the dust storms. Of course you can embellish them, like Oliver Peoples does to sunglasses, but that’s not why you have them.
You’ll be riding along and one minute you can see mountains in the distance for miles, and then the next, the wind will pluck a tornado of dust out of nowhere and hurl it in your face.
You can see it coming. And then you can’t see anything. Art cars have to stop. Everyone gets off their bikes. If you don’t have googles and a mask, your eyeballs and your lungs get finely coated with fast-moving playa dust.
Would you go again?
Yes please, every year please.
What is it like leaving?
The most surprising bit about leaving for me, was a) how UNdestroyed I felt on a mental and physical level – I really predicted my brain would be soup by the end and my body broken, and b) how fearful I was to turn my phone back on.
I had long landed back into cell service before I could bring myself to do it.
It was at a bar at the Nevada airport, and I was covered in white dust, flittering glitter every time I shifted in my seat. Turning my phone back on made me have feelings of the uncomfortable variety.
Had there been a natural disaster? A terrorist attack? A death in the family? A massive work-related fuck up? A lot can happen in a week. And if it did, I’d like to stay living in the desert please, like a Meerfox.
There was none of that. Just 678 emails, and the distinct feeling that this would be far from the last time I would wash up here at this very airport, a world-wary glitter monster.