Burning Man 101

Some dismiss the Burning Man festival as a bunch of hippies getting high in the desert. Advocate associate editor Neal Broverman found there's much more to it -- and breaks down the essentials for the uninitiated.

BY Neal Broverman

September 27 2007 11:00 PM ET

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.

BURNING MAN 02 X395 (NEAL BROVERMAN) | ADVOCATE.COM

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.

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