The Misconceptions Of Burning Man – A Reflection

Art & Culture

This was my second time to Burning Man and to say I was a little excited would be an understatement. The first time blew my mind with the variety of sounds and colours on offer and the sheer scale of the place but left me feeling quite overwhelmed, so I was keen to head back and experience it again with a slightly more level head. But, as experienced first hand in various cafes, airport waiting lounges and basically anywhere on the West Coast, listening to people talk about Burning Man is incredibly tiresome. If you're reading this I have no doubt that you know what Burning Man is about already so I'd like to address some of the misconceptions about the festival instead;

1. Bugs

There were no bugs by the time we arrived on the opening day. They had been around earlier in the week but had died in the heat and blown away leaving "no trace" (as per number 8 of the 10 principles). It was a story that the media jumped on with great gusto, for some reason, and all of my friends who weren't attending and wanted to have a dig forwarded me the various articles. But, even if there had been, it's all part of the experience. Sure, it might be gross and they might be unwanted but the playa is a hostile environment at the best of times and you have to be prepared if you're going out there with the intention of being self-reliant for the week. For those willing to see it through it would've been one of those stories you told in the years to come: "Remember the year there was that bug infestation? That was whack!" Or something to that effect depending on whether or not you're a college freshman.  

2. It's full of celebrities

There are a bunch of celebrities who apparently attended this year and it was another hot topic in the media. But really, I never saw them, they had no impact at all on my experience and, really, who gives a fuck? Burning Man is all about having an experience and sharing something unique with the strangers around you. It's about being part of a community and participating. You only get out what you put into a festival like this and if you're going to fly in on a private aircraft and stay in a compound for the duration then I don't really see the point. But they would've had to have sourced their own tickets (maybe their PA did it but they still would've entered the ticket draw or paid extortionate prices for them) so I'm not really bothered. I had an amazing morning when a middle-aged Mexican man came into our camp during a dust storm and got all philosophical on our hungover asses. If you're locked away in a private area to the exclusion of others, then you're just missing out. 

3. You need to barter for goods and services

This is one I get asked about a lot. If someone offers you something you take it, say thank you and that's it. This year I spent a lot more time in the city (where people camp) rather than the playa (where a lot of the art and night parties are) and was beckoned into numerous camps as I cycled past to join them for a drink or snack or both. I enjoyed fresh salsa, ice cream (both out of a tub and made with liquid nitrogen), cheese toasties and plenty of booze among other things. Sometimes you'll be asked to do something for your treat like tell a story, spin a wheel or some such activity but these things are entirely up to you and if you don't want to or feel uncomfortable then there is no pressure to do so. Hopefully you'll offer something to someone else when they would like or need it and that's how the decommodified community works.  

4. You need to be on drugs

Black Rock City is an amazing place full of art, music and lovely people. The age range is vast, from babies to people in their 80s, and I can guarantee to you that those people aren't on drugs (some of the older ones may maintain a residual high). I met several punters who don't even drink and were having a great time. As previously mentioned, it's a place where you get out what you put in. 

5. It's a nightmare getting in and out

Well yeah, okay, you got me on that one. Gates opened on Sunday for the first time this year with event organisers hoping it would spread out the flow of traffic into the event. It took us a mere nine hours to make the three hour journey from Reno to Black Rock City along desert roads in a van loaded up with four people, three bikes, 24 gallons of water, tents, shade structures, luggage and enough food and booze to last the week. I was terrified our rental was going to blow a tyre, or worse. So things didn't go quite to plan for the traffic, however, punters got into the spirit early by getting out of their cars en route and chatting while waiting for the gridlocked roads to start moving again. It's all part of the experience and makes the destination even more deserved and enjoyable.  

So, if you're considering making the pilgrimage to Burning Man in the future you could do worse than to bear these five points in mind. People claim it's not the same as it used to be and they're right, it's never the same as it was from day to day and year to year and that's the beauty of it. It's intense, sometimes hard and sometimes pure joy. This year was one of the windiest in recent history but dancing at the John Horvath memorial party with a bunch of like-minded individuals surrounded by a wall of white dust it didn't matter. Just pull up your mask, pull down your goggles and get lost. It's the best place in the world to do it. 

Photos courtesy of Novak Hunter.