Burning Man 101

By Neal Broverman

Originally published on Advocate.com September 27 2007 11:00 PM ET

“So, how
was Burning Man?” My answer to inquiring minds is
always a minimum of four adjectives: amazing,
challenging, phenomenal, and hot. Good just
doesn’t do it justice. It’s hard to
verbalize an experience that includes living without money,
witnessing rampant nudity, and bumping into endless
creativity at every dusty corner. A week in Maui it
ain’t.

A Burning Man
travelogue, which is what follows, is better read than
heard anyway.

Since I was alone
on my first Burn, the build-up was more fear than
excitement; no childlike anticipation, just constant worry
that I was forgetting some item without which I would
find myself facedown in the sand, buzzards
circling overhead. But I came back alive -- in fact,
better mentally than when I left. Here’s what I
learned -- use it wisely.

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Going solo

The nice folks at
the Reno/Sparks tourism board set up my Burn. They
arranged the ticket, flight, car, supplies, and a couple of
hotel nights in Reno. None of my friends could join
me, either because they couldn’t get the time
off work, didn’t have the money (the tourism board
could only pay for one $300 ticket, understandably),
or just didn’t want to leave the comfort of
daily showers and chain coffee.

Going alone to
Burning Man is pretty rare; I wouldn’t recommend it
unless you are a serious extrovert who loves
adventure. People are very nice at this event, so if
you’re somewhat outgoing, you’ll make friends
quickly. But you’re venturing into a city of
50,000 people, so you’ll appreciate a familiar
face.

The official date
of this year’s festival was August 27 to September 3.
Since I was solo I told the Reno folks that I could only
handle the last two nights. Next year I plan to double
that number.

Getting there

The fest is about
two hours northeast of Reno. Book a night or two in
Reno in advance for after the Burn. I swear the tourism
board doesn’t have a gun to my head; after a
week without modern conveniences, a hot shower (try
the Grand Sierra Resort in Sparks) and a good meal
(LuLou’s or Sezmu) are appreciated like never
before.

Many people drive
to the event in an RV or SUV or fly into Reno and rent
one. It’s hard to stuff all the things you’ll
need -- tent, food, water, gas stove, bike, lawn
chairs, etc. -- into a regular car. You’ll also be
driving on some rough roads.

There are various
“camps” that descend upon Black Rock City, the
temporary town created by the festival’s inhabitants.
(In simpler terms, BRC is just another name for the
physical spot where the Burning Man event takes
place.) If you can hook up with a camp, travel arrangements
can typically be made with them. Various camps are populated
with like-minded folk from a common area (Seattle,
Australia, etc.) who live in the same part of Black
Rock City and typically share meals, parties, and art
cars -- souped-up motorized contraptions resembling
anything from a raccoon to a forest to a castle. If
you’d like to be around brothers and sisters,
there are plenty of gay camps. Find
one online
.

The two-hour
drive from Reno was beautiful, and even through my fear I
found myself growing excited. As I closed in on the playa --
or desert basin -- gorgeous peaks hedged me in. I
could almost make out tents and cars and life.

When you pull in,
expect to cruise along with many other cars at
around 5 mph in two unpaved lanes. Waiting on this
makeshift road, boredom is staved off by snarky signs
(“This year’s Burn sucks,” “It
keeps going downhill,” “It’s so
corporate now”).

I finally arrived
at the ticket booth, where a girl in pigtails took my
ticket. (Make sure to buy a ticket early, because the prices
go up as the event nears.) The comely gal quizzed me
on how much water I had with me: three gallons, which
turned out to be a bit too much for for two nights.
She took a cursory look around my packed SUV and directed me
toward the greeter’s station, where a gorgeous
guy gave me maps, paperwork, and the rundown:

“Welcome.”
“Thanks.” “Is this your
first Burn?” “Yes.”
“Cool. Where are you camping?”
“Uh, I don’t know.”
“Well, you’ll figure it out -- just look for
an open space.” “Uh,
OK.” “You can’t drive your
car after you park it.” “All
right.” “You can’t put
anything in a Porta Potti except toilet paper and what
comes out of your body."Giggle.“You can’t leave anything behind; you must
take all garbage with you, and you are encouraged to
recycle here.”
“Definitely.” “Check out
Center Camp.” “Will
do.” “Have fun and be
good.” “Oh!” Giggle.

As it was my
first Burn, I was instructed to ring a massive bell, like
the ones in sumo matches. I almost fell as I did it, but
everyone cheered.

Getting acquainted

I drove toward a
massive ring of vehicles. I was antsy, so I didn’t
peruse too long before parking. Black Rock City is laid out
like a U. There’s a grid system like in most
cities, and ideally there would be signs
delineating where you are, but people tend to steal them or
they get blown away in sandstorms. If you don’t
have a designated camp, figure out where you are FIRST
THING. The Esplanade is the innermost ring of the U,
followed by Arctic, Boreal, Coral Reef (A, B, C, etc.),
and so on until Landfill. Numbered roads -- as in 2
o’ clock, 2:30, 3, and so on up to 10 --
bisect those streets. I found myself in a low-key area at
about 5:40 and Intertidal.

You’ll
need to set up your tent and get your sleeping arrangements
taken care of before the sun sets. But you’ll
be curious to explore, so get out that bicycle or
Segway and tool around for an hour if you can spare it.
Note: It’s tough to get around sprawling Black Rock
City without a bike. You’ll waste a lot of time
walking, and if you forget something at your camp, you
will not want to walk back and retrieve it. There are shared
bikes (look for the bright green ones); if they’re
parked, they’re up for grabs. Just know that
once you park it, it’ll most likely be gone when
you return. Whatever your mode of transportation, leave camp
with a full bottle of water -- it’s a must.

So I rode north
up 5:30, a lively street lined with tents and jammed with
pedestrians and bikers. On the way to Center Camp -- about
seven blocks away -- I caught sight of two or three
bars; you're encouraged to get a drink and make a
friend. Remember, currency is banned here, so it’s
nice to offer whomever is tending bar some water or
beer. Most likely, they’ll just give you
whatever they've got and want nothing in return.
Everyone’s a giver -- and you’ll become
one too -- it’s one of the best things about
Burning Man.

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The omnipresent
Porta Pottis are pretty high up there too. Every few
blocks or so, there are about 20 dumpers lined up -- most
are surprisingly clean -- and Purell stations stand at
each end.

This early ride
provided me with my first nudie sighting. He was no
spring chicken, but no one scoffs and you shouldn’t
either. There are no beauty police at Burning Man, nor
should there be. Anyone who feels comfortable enough
with their body (not me) goes sans clothes -- I’m
talking bottoms and tops, women and men -- and you cheer
them on silently.

I arrive at
Center Camp, the BRC’s downtown. Surrounding a large
covered pavilion are essential services like first aid
and a post office, and not-so-essential services like
a bubble lounge and a pickle shop (no charge, of
course).

Center Camp is
the only area of Burning Man where there are items
for sale. Those luxuries are ice, coffee, tea, and hot
chocolate. The drinks are inside the main pavilion,
and in the morning the wait is lo-o-o-ng.

You’ll
want to explore the exciting happenings inside the pavilion.
Park your bike at the lot immediately outside and --
this is very important -- make a mental note of where
it is and what other bikes are near, because
there are no markers. It took me almost a half hour -- and
much panic -- to find my baby.

Oh, and some
people lock up their non-motorized vehicles. I heard
sporadic whispers of theft, but my best guess is that, in
most cases, folks who indulged in mind-altering
substances accidentally took the wrong bike. I never
locked mine up and it was fine.

Inside the
pavilion is a tangible taste of the Burning Man experience.
There are poetry slams, psychics, funk bands, hula-hoops,
face painting, art installations, and a wild menagerie
of humanity wandering to and fro. Picture
Haight/Ashbury on a summer day in 1967 or a Greenwich
Village night in the Beat days.

Since 1995, each
Burning Man has had a theme (the first official Burn was
in ’86). This year's theme, titled the Green
Man, was eco-conscious living. Seminars, debates,
and workshops on responsible living took place at the
special Green Man pavilion, various addresses around town,
and of course, Center Camp. I listened to a short talk
on reducing waste and checked out eco-friendly art.

After finding my
bike, I headed back to camp to set up my tent. The wind
started picking up and someone screamed
“Whiteout!” Sand whipped at my eyes --
definitely bring goggles -- and blotted out any visibility.
It got so bad that I knocked on an RV door displaying
a giant rainbow flag and asked for shelter. Three nice
West Hollywood boys welcomed me and offered tissues.
This was their fifth or sixth Burn; they gave me the
newcomer's lowdown. They told me about straight couples
having sex in public, a drag performance in one of the
town’s many villages, a teenage suicide at the
start of the week. When I mentioned that the lack of
communication was strange to me, they admitted that they
didn’t know about Katrina until a week after it
hit because it had happened during the Burn.

The storm, which
included a spate of drizzle, finally cleared. I
thanked the boys for their kindness and set out for home. An
enormous double rainbow appeared over the playa. I
stopped to admire it and met another great bunch
of gay guys who took the rainbow as a gift from God.

Because the night

I valiantly tried
to set up my tent but failed. My neighbor, a 40ish
straight guy who was alone like me, volunteered to help, but
I told him I’d just crash in my SUV. This was
smart, because some tents actually blew away in the
sandstorms.

My other
neighbors were this family from the San Francisco 'burbs
-- a mom and dad in their early 40s and their teenage
son. They were so awesome -- like everyone I met --
offering me coffee and snacks.

As the night
descended I got into warmer clothes and headed over to meet
my WeHo friends. I got desperately lost, the darkness making
it that much harder to find my way. Frustrated, I
found myself chugging my bottle of wine and walking my
bike. Out of the distance came hip-hop music. Don’t
get me wrong, I appreciate techno and house -- which are
ubiquitous at Burning Man -- but Ol’ Dirty
Bastard was just perfect at the moment.

The music was
emanating from a “pub” set up by a British
camp; basically a giant tent with a bar, a stage, and
hash joints. I met this girl with a veil.

With a London
lilt she said, “I got married today!”
“Shut up!” “I did, on the
playa -- there’s my husband.”
“Oh, my God, congratulations.”

Suddenly, a drag
queen with medusa hair and a white dress popped up on
the stage and launched into “Total Eclipse of the
Heart.” Priceless.

After a bit I
went on my way. Somewhere on 7:30 street I wandered into an
‘80s party (theme of the night) and danced to
electro. So much fun.

More random
walking brought me to an outdoor roller disco. I was going
to skate but couldn’t find any shoes to fit me
-- probably for the best.

I took in more
sights, but when I realized my bottle of wine was empty I
suddenly got sleepy. I rode back to the SUV and passed out
for eight hours.

A new day

Without a tent,
the sun was quite bright. But I’m an early riser, so
it was a welcome pick-me-up. I ran a wet towel over my
body, downed a cup of coffee, munched some oranges
from a teahouse on the corner, and went on my way.

On the playa,
there are classes on everything from ballroom dancing to
erotic tickling. I tried my hand at meditation. It was a
great way to start the day.

Thumping techno
lured me like a pied piper. At 11 a.m. I found myself on
a pedestal above a DJ booth, dancing my ass off. At any
given time at Burning Man, you can find a
hoppin’ dance floor.

The party was in
this raucous area called the Deep End. There was a
western motif, with a general store and a saloon set up (God
knows who schlepped these buildings to the desert).
The bar was like something out of Cancun -- fruity
drinks flew fast and furious while the party people
flirted.

Also housed at
the Deep End is Stiffy Lube and Penetration Village, sex
tents for the gays and straights, respectively. I
couldn’t find Penetration Village, so I
ventured into one of the two tents of Stiffy Lube --
purely for journalistic reasons. Gays were pawing at each
other in the darkened tent. Echoing the action inside,
the wind started to blow. One of the tents lifted and
flew away, leaving some Burners with their pants down.

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Burn baby burn

Soon after at
Center Camp, I met a fellow Angeleno named Peaches; well,
that was her “playa name.” We decided to
witness the actual Burn together. This is the climax
of the event, where the Man -- and all he stands for
-- is set ablaze. An hour later dinner was being served to
all at Peaches’ camp. We got a bite and headed
to her tent to pretty up -- she wanted to dress me in
glitter and boas. Folks get really decked out for the
Burn.

The minutes
ticked by as Peaches primped and I grew anxious about
missing the finale. After she announced she
couldn’t find her glasses, I departed with a
hug into the darkness.

As I biked over
the Esplanade and across the main playa -- a camp-free
spread of desert dotted with art installations -- elaborate
art cars and lit-up bicycles broke the darkness. The
commute was beautiful, with spots of light and color
serenely moving forward like a pack of jellyfish. As
we approached the Man, which was bright green and at least
25 feet high, we encountered the mini city set up
around him: castles and houses with people dancing on
the roofs, ferris wheels and rides emanating music. All
of Black Rock City was there, coming together for this one
moment. The feeling of community was palpable.

I queued up to
watch and met a nice man in his 70s. We talked about his
hometown of Portland as fire dancers juggled in front of the
Man. Suddenly, fireworks erupted over the
figure’s head and the Man’s head
exploded and…he was burning! The crowd went wild.

Postmortem

After catching my
breath, I rode around the Esplanade and found a dance
dome. Enormous beds lined the structure’s first room,
and a cavernous dance floor filled the second. I
grooved until I was panting again.

Biking home on an
empty stretch of road, I saw an enormous mushroom cloud
rise in the distance. Burn organizers had blown up two oil
derricks, and while the explosion was impressive, it
didn’t seem to fit with the event’s
environmental theme.

Exhausted, I
crawled into the SUV and fell asleep to the quiet thump of
trance, which was still pumping when I woke up at 9 a.m.

Before heading
out of Black Rock City I said goodbye to all my neighbors
and the lovely gal who set up the teahouse. Everyone I met
at BRC was a friend and we had all happily shared
provisions and stories for the past two days. At
Burning Man, when someone offers you a gift you take it
without question, because trust is paramount. Nefarious
reasons and greediness are hard to come by. No
one’s rich, no one’s poor. Judgment is
banned. Strangers are allies, not enemies. What a nice
respite from our world.