Burning Man, Unfiltered: A First-Timer’s Take

I went to Burning Man this year for the first time. For years, friends and acquaintances have gushed about it. In fact, I’d never met anyone who didn’t give it an impassioned five-star review (except a few malcontents, discussed below).

Despite the enthusiasm and transformative experiences I’d hear about, I could never imagine myself going. I felt I was just too conservative and buttoned-down and insufficiently expressive or artistic.

This year, however, my curiosity got the best of me. After all these years of listening to impassioned stories from people whom I most love and respect in this world, I had to find out what all the fuss was about. For those of you who don’t know what Burning Man is, here’s some background on the festival, held each summer on a barren expanse of Nevada desert.

Before I get into a few observations about my experience, I would like to offer some background about my perceptions prior to attending, and how this led me to experience Burning Man the way I did.

First, nearly all the “Burners” I spoke with before going associated themselves and their experiences closely with their particular camp at the festival. Each camp – basically a cluster of tents or other physical structures, big or small – occupies a specific geographical area and maintains a distinct identity, in some cases stronger than others. Camps are often based on like-mindedness and personal affinity, with people in some camps so close they refer to themselves as family.

While all this sounded great, I had heard too many tales of internal camp drama and politics from veteran Burners I knew – stories of people quarreling and gossiping about who didn’t pull their own weight in camp setup and maintenance as expected, personality conflicts, etc. Politics also seemed to extend outside these individual units. Some camps have evidently grown powerful over the years and jockey for the best real estate and privileges (though I don’t understand the nuances of this well enough to speak about it). In any case, I wasn’t all that eager to get wrapped up in this.

Second – apart from general camp gossip – I’d heard rumblings from a small number of Burning Man malcontents about how things had gone downhill. They had been attending for years and referenced “the glory days,” before everything was ruined by X, Y, or Z. This was a topic Burners seemed to enjoy discussing. This perception of decline was reinforced by the knockdown articles written each year about how Burning Man had lost its way: how it had grown too commercial, was being overtaken by wealthy one-percenters, was overrun with tech elite who camped in palatial compounds, and so on.

With this in mind, I made a strategic decision before setting out to Burning Man for the first time.

I wanted to consume Burning Man raw, with no agenda and no purpose other than to experience a community event. My goal was to completely avoid a) group drama or politics and b) the debate about how things used to be, which camp had inappropriately been moved, and whether it was being overtaken by Silicon Valley.

To this end, I camped on the outskirts of the festival with a friend, far from anyone else we knew. We were going to experience Burning Man with complete strangers.

And that we did.

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We rode our bikes for miles and miles (the place is huge!), randomly stopping and engaging with everyone – encounters that always started with a warm embrace. Someone would playfully heckle us with their megaphone, and we’d go hang with them and join in the fun. Others would entice us over to their body-painting station, swing set, art project, or impromptu dance party. (There were seemingly endless creative options.) We’d hang out, play, explore, and depart with hugs.

We’d invite ourselves into random conversations or join individuals quietly sitting and meditating – and we were always received with a smile and embrace. We did the limbo riding our bikes, with people in the streets holding sticks for anyone willing to play. Sometimes we slept all day and played all night. Other times we slept at night and played all day. Sometimes we didn’t sleep at all.

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We danced 7 to 8  hours a day, night and day, to remarkable music from the art cars – outrageously decorated, music-pumping vehicles that slowly trolled around the massive playa, the desert surrounding the camps. True to the Burning Man spirit, my friend and I designed and wore expressive and outrageous costumes, something I’ve never done before but found to be incredibly fun. We made new friends everywhere, with people from all walks of life. We’d go on adventures together: playful, whimsical, and sometimes intensely personal.

These interactions were all ephemeral, with an expectation of varying degrees of anonymity. Most people used just their first names. Some people used “playa names” specific to Burning Man. We made new best friends one moment who were gone the next – likely never to be seen again. There was no discussion of what you did for a living or whom you knew in common. There was no friending on Facebook or networking.

Overall, it was unquestionably one of the best weeks of my life. For someone with insatiable curiosity, it was remarkable.  I met some of the most amazing people I’ve ever encountered on planet Earth, something made possible by the unique culture of the event.

Two things specifically made Burning Man special for me.

First, the festival has an ethos of radical creativity and self expression. In costumes, activities, classes, behavior and design, I’ve never seen so much diversity of thought and activity. It was endlessly entertaining and thought-provoking.

Second, there is something truly child-like in nature about Burning Man: in the way you make friends, play, and explore. The normal social structure and boundaries – the limitations of status and identity – are stripped away.

I had gone into Burning Man having heard a lot about the camp politics and how the festival had changed. But once I was there and could filter out all that noise, I was left with one prevailing impression: Burning Man is a platform to author any kind of experience you want. It’s that big, open, accessible, and conducive to creativity.