Burning Man: My Rite of Passage
This story begins over a year ago when some of my close friends came back from what they described as “an amazing, indescribably awesome” experience. “So what is Burning Man then?” I asked. Typically, I got the standard response of “It’s impossible to describe. You can’t actually understand what it is until you’re there”. In many ways it feels as though the entire experience is contrived to avoid being captured and enjoyed vicariously. The dust makes photography difficult, even with indestructible gear. The sheer scale of many things could not be done justice in a photo anyway. So many things move around or are transient, existing for a brief moment before vanishing. Many attractions are interactive, requiring you to get involved in order to appreciate them. I see now that the standard non-response is in spirit with this magical experience that must be experienced first hand to be appreciated.
So what is Burning Man?
Every year for the past 25 years, a group of people have gathered, created a wooden effigy and burned it in celebration before removing every trace that they were there and disappearing back to the real world. What started as a small gathering of friends on a beach has grown to over 50,000 ‘burners’ creating a city in the middle of the Nevada desert. For a week this city thrives with more life, creativity, positivity, innovation and ingenuity than any other place on earth. There are sculptures, interactive art installations, bars, music stages, paintings, shows, toys, mutant ‘art car’ vehicles, workshops, parties, kitchens and shit that’s just plain weird! At the end of the week, it’s all burnt or packed up and the entire city vanishes without a trace.
There are two things which make this truly amazing. Firstly, all of the aforementioned entertainment is organised, funded, constructed and run by burners – not the festival organisers. Anyone with an idea and the resources and willpower to execute it may create anything. The result is passionate, creative people giving everything they have to their projects, raising the bar of ‘awesome’ to new levels.
You don’t need no money honey
The second truly amazing thing is the lack of money. Nothing (with a few small exceptions) may be bought or sold or traded at burning man. There is no commerce. None. Everything you see, hear, touch, taste and smell is a gift from other participants of the festival. People give away everything from trinkets to food, to massages, to a helping hand all the way to mounting world class soundsystems on the side of glowing pirate ships.
So not only are the most brilliant, passionate, creative people creating the most amazing event in the world, they are doing it off their own backs for no financial gain. Taking money off the table creates such an atmosphere of sharing, of giving, of generosity and no-strings-attached kindness.
At this stage, if you’ve been – you know what I’m talking about and if you haven’t – you’re hopefully starting to get the idea. Enough background! Here is a diary of the highlights of my journey.
Highlights of Burning Man: My Diary
My girlfriend (N) and I board the plane at Melbourne airport. We are nervous, excited and packed to the brim with the supplies that will be necessary for our survival. Touching down in LA, we meet our friend (S) at a nearby hotel.
Next morning we pick up our RV and head straight to meet (P) who we met on the burning man rideshare website. We grab her stuff (she will fly in later) and head to a little house in LA where we pick up the vacuum sealed food, prepared by a couple of burners who couldn’t go this year. The meals include a healthy range Mexican, Cajun and Western dishes – ready to be reheated in a microwave. Then straight to San Francisco… but whoops – we drive under a low hanging tree branch and tear off the vents on top of the RV. Some emergency duct-tape and garbage bag repairs take place. Right then, off to San Francisco.
The drive is… well… difficult to say the least. None of us are used to driving in the right hand lane and sitting in the left hand seat while driving. Nor have we ever had so little clearance on either side of the vehicle. Driving was often a case of one person holding the wheel while two people yelled out ‘Left Left Left! You’re drifting! No right right right!’. Fairly stressful at times but we managed OK.
Next we shoot off to Reno, our last big stop before Black Rock City (Burning Man). We raid the local supermarkets for supplies, ziplock bags, bicycles, garbage bags and water.
At this stage we’re becoming quite aware that our black and grey water tanks need to be used super sparingly if they are to last the duration of the festival. All clothing is sorted and sealed into zip-lock bags. Laptops and phones too. We had heard the dust will get into everything. That night we park in a big carpark and pass out from exhaustion.
Come the morning we head off to Black Rock City. There is one small pit-stop in Gerlach where we grab a bite to eat and some extra hats. There are burners everywhere. Everyone looks excited and happy. People spontaneously hug us and welcome us. The positive atmosphere is heart warming and much needed after all of the arduous preparation and driving!
As we get close to Black Rock City, we turn off the Air-Conditioning in the hope that we can avoid filling our RV with playa dust (the dust which covers the entire place and is as fine as talcum powder). Every vent inside and outside the RV gets sealed and taped over. Then we hit the line to get in. 5 hours of moving forward a little and turning off the engine again.
People are dancing on the roofs of their RVs and wandering around making friends with other people in the line. The party is already starting and we haven’t even gone through the gate. With no shirt, my fisherman’s pants, my pink hair and my devil sticks I start wandering around, twirling and talking to people. Some guys point me out and say
“That dude – he’s Burning Man right there”
Evidently I have a place where I belong!
We reach the front gate and the staff discover that we’re all ‘virgin burners’. Excited, they begin our initiation ceremony. It involves rolling around in the dust, making ‘playa angels’ and then striking and enormous bell while shouting “I am not a virgin anymore!”. The staff then hug us tight and say “Welcome home”. It’s easily the most extraordinary greeting we’ve ever faced at a festival.
By this stage it’s very late and dark so we navigate as best we can to our campsite. Back in Melbourne, we’ve teamed up with a big crew of Aussies who are running the Ashram Galactica theme camp. We find them at 8:15 & Engagement, all set up with the giant fancy bar, kitchen and chillout space. We settle in and greet our friends, grabbing a few drinks from the bar (grey goose vodka – don’t mind if I do!). Bikes are assembled and then pimped out with lights, EL-wire and faux fur. We’re knackered but so excited that we opt for a quick outing to explore.
We stumble upon a two storey, fully functional Trojan horse, lit up with red LEDs. We wander inside and climb the stairs to reach a tiny bar nestled in the horse’s belly. The barman pours out some chartreuse and asks people about their most significant ‘Rite of Passage’ in their lives (‘Rites of Passage” is the theme of the festival this year). Going up another set of stairs, we are inside the horse’s head. We can see ‘The Man’ in the distance, all lit up with lights and surrounded on all sides by noisy, shiny things. They built this horse in 5 weeks apparently. On the fourth night, they’re going to get 150 people to drag it across the playa, fully loaded with fully dressed gladiators who will storm… something. Then it’ll be burned. My mind is blown already.
Stepping outside it’s sensory overload. Cars turned into scorpions and spiders zoom around us. Pirate ships sail past, blasting music from their cannons. Two people dressed as LED stick figures walk past. One has a happy face and giant penis. The other has a small penis and he looks a bit miffed. I can’t help but smile and laugh and point them out to the girls.
There is eventually so many cool things that you stop pointing them all out and start taking it in. We’re in some kind of twisted, Alice in Wonderland style fantasy world. Every time you think you’ve seen it all, something just appears and makes your jaw drop again. This is just day one…
Exploring by day
Daytime in Black Rock City is bloody hot. At least it’s a dry heat though. I don’t find it too bad, so long as I’m either cycling with the breeze or hiding in the shade. I decide to do a big ride around the central areas to check out the biggest attractions and artworks. ‘The Man’ himself is pretty huge. I walk up the stairs and onto the platform he stands on. It’s a nice view.
‘The Temple’ is something else entirely. It’s enormous, with a central dome and 4 surrounding domes, connected by bridges. People are writing messages all over it. Many are messages to loved ones lost. Some are positive wishes for the universe. A few are people’s personal demons that they wish to exterminate. When ‘The Temple’ is burned at the end of the festival, these messages will be delivered and the demons exorcised. It’s quite spiritual for many people. Inside there is an array of bells and gongs, hooked up to automated strikers. They play beautiful melodies as they’re struck in precise programmed sequences. I’m not entirely sure if this is predetermined or if there is a generative, random element to it. Either way, it’s mesmerising and very peaceful – it made me think of a magnificent church.
Partying by night
Come the night it’s time to party so we gear up in our warm clothes and hit the big music stages. There are a bunch of big international DJs playing so we take our pick and check them out. Probably the only disappointing thing about Burning Man was the music. It was all dubstep, everywhere, all the time. While there is a small amount of good dubstep out there – this wasn’t it. It was atrocious, squealing, atonal crap made by people who have confused ‘bass’ with ‘music’ (and this is coming from me, a guy who likes hard’n’heavy drum’n’bass). There were a couple of welcome exceptions to the rule though – most notably for me was catching a set by DJ ICON. I had never heard of her but she played the most amazing electro/rave/breaks/house set I’ve heard in a long time.
Dawn over the Playa
Then came my most memorable experience of the entire festival. Dawn.
The sunrises look stunning on the playa. The mountains start creating an orange silhouette and the crazy art cars still have their flames and lights on. The combined effect looks fucking magical. It’s one of those views that will stay with me forever, like the total solar eclipse in the Cook Islands.
As the sun rises it gets hot really quickly so it was a race home to ditch the warm clothes for some cool ones (and a nap while we were at it). This process of eat, sleep, party, wander, explore and admire repeated for the duration of the festival. On Thursday we interrupted the routine to do our shift of work for our theme camp. We made up Vegemite sandwiches cut into the shapes of kangaroos along with tim-tams, kangaroo meat and other tasty canapes. Other volunteers served them to the burners who had found their way to our bar. Working and helping fund our camp was our gift to the festival.
My favourite random thing of the festival was the ‘Snack Food Glory Hole’. You get on your knees and press your open mouth to a hole in the wall. A latex glove then stuffs delicious but random snacks into your mouth. Who knows what it was but it was highly enjoyable and a totally seedy thrill.
There was also the ‘Orgy Dome’ which requires no further explanation. There was a Pink Party of pink people dancing to funky nu-disco and indie dance.
Of course, then there is the story of our most massive night out. For whatever reason, it was decided that we were going to party and party hard that night. There were many substances of questionable safety imbibed over the evening. Our fearless leader, dressed in arm sleeves and a tutu, guided us from stage to stage, taking in the music and atmospheres. Then we went to see some of the best art installations.
The one that sticks in my mind is the giant wheel of skeletons. It takes a few people pulling on the ropes either side of it to get it spinning but once it does… the stobe starts to flash and the skeletons appear to be rowing around the circle. It’s a mind blowing 3d optical illusion. Combined with the doomy church bells and the intense hellish lighting, this thing evoked a really creepy and cool atmosphere.
Another notable installation was the giant model of the inner ear, complete with fire coming out of it at all angles. You could even jump on trigger buttons and make the flames shoot out in bursts! And then there was the tunnel of morphing LEDs that had to be traversed while wearing kaleidoscopic glasses. Trippy as anything!
We then came to the ‘Nexus’ stage where there is a giant flaming orb. Of flames. Flaming in all directions. Underneath it was a pool of water that caught the excess fuel dripping from the flames above. If you swished the water a bit, it created flammable bubbles. People would pass the flame from bubbly hand to bubbly hand in a circle – seriously cool! Somehow I kept missing the actual flame and so when it finally did get to me I was covered in bubbles. My entire world went up in flames as I was engulfed. I was fine but I did not escape without losing my eyelashes and all of my arm hair! Pro-Tip: OH&S standards at Burning Man are basically “Do everything at your own risk”!
“Rooster Princess” is born
By the time morning came we were all completely strung out and.. well… fucked is the only word that could really describe it. We had seen in the Burning Man events guide that there was a camp giving out a bacon and eggs breakfast not too far from our own camp. Donning my rooster hat and fur coat, we made a mission to find this incredible feast. Unfortunately for us, people had already been mixing the street signs around and making the place very difficult to navigate. We ended up utterly lost, on foot, looking for our bacon prize. Some guy who looked a lot like a state trooper pulled me aside and said “Hey you. Rooster. We have a problem here. I’d like you to piss into this cup”. Needless to say I freaked out a bit until the guy burst out laughing. We must have looked quite the sorry sight, stumbling around, pining for bacon. “Bacon? Bacon! Where are you bacon? Come here bacon” I pined, as only a seriously hungover princess could pine. That is how I became known as the “Rooster Princess”.
Anyway, we happened upon a camp of sprightly old burners who were just getting out of bed. We told them we were looking for the bacon. They said they weren’t the bacon camp but they had some bacon and they were going to cook it up for breakfast. In an hour. “An hour?!!?” we gasped. “Well I suppose we could cook it up now”. “Yaaaay!”. How lovely these people were, taking our sorry asses in and looking after us. Ever so grateful we wolfed down the bacon and gave them some big hugs. The girls even got involved in some kind of four handed massage but I was far too brain-dead to put a sentence together and stand up, let alone participate in that. Just another random, surreal burning man adventure I guess.
When they burn ‘The Man’, it’s a monumental party with every art car surrounding him and blasting big tunes. The next evening when they burn ‘The Temple’, it’s a serene and subdued affair – most people are too worn out to party anymore and as I was saying before, it’s more of a spiritual thing for a lot of people. Two thirds of the festival is already packed away by this stage. We packed up as much as we could and went to bed.
In the morning we deconstructed our entire campsite and swept the floor for rubbish. Not a trace may be left. Not a single cigarette butt. It’s a big cleanup but with so many people it got sorted out relatively efficiently. Absolutely knackered we jumped in the RV and got into the 8 hour queue to exit. Battered, bruised, bloody and buggered, we said goodbye to the remains of Black Rock City and cleaned the living crap out of our RV. Next time, I think I will take advantage of one of the many cleaning services available in Reno instead of attempting it myself. Then we checked into a hotel in Reno full of burners having an after party by the pool. The good times just keep on rolling. It gave us a couple of days to ‘decompress’ back into reality before the long drive back to LA!
So what is Burning Man? My story can’t do it justice. You’re going to have to check it out for yourself!
|If you enjoyed reading this guest post by “Rooster Princess” about his trip to Burning Man in the Black Rock Desert (120 miles out of Reno, Nevada), you might also enjoy his music.Check it out on