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Burning Man

Burning Man


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.


"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.

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.

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.

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.


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.

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Neal Broverman

Neal Broverman is the Editorial Director, Print of Pride Media, publishers of The Advocate, Out, Out Traveler, and Plus, spending more than 20 years in journalism. He indulges his interest in transportation and urban planning with regular contributions to Los Angeles magazine, and his work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times and USA Today. He lives in the City of Angels with his husband, children, and their chiweenie.
Neal Broverman is the Editorial Director, Print of Pride Media, publishers of The Advocate, Out, Out Traveler, and Plus, spending more than 20 years in journalism. He indulges his interest in transportation and urban planning with regular contributions to Los Angeles magazine, and his work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times and USA Today. He lives in the City of Angels with his husband, children, and their chiweenie.