How to... Burning Man
“Burning Man is like going to a foreign country called ‘Home.’” That’s how repeat burner Eric “Getaway” Johnson (aka: Ringmaster) sums it up. If you’re heading out to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert for the annual festival, you couldn’t ask for a better pair of guides than Eric and Lisa “Kitchen Sink” Carpenter (aka: Hot Saucy). When they’re not burning, Eric is a filmmaker and Lisa is a Global Account Director in the telecommunication industry, but they’re never really not burning. They’re getting ready for the festival right now, so their living room is filling up with supplies, but tellingly the supplies and decorations and costumes they haven’t packed yet are stacked and stored throughout the house and in the back yard, always ready to add to and ready to go. So, as you gear up for your trip to the dry lake bed known as the playa, gather your dust goggles and fairy wings, and keep this guide handy so you know what to bring - and what to expect. It's the ultimate DIY event, because if you don't make it happen, it doesn't happen.
Step 1 – Prepare to Participate
Burning Man isn’t just a festival. This isn’t Coachella, where you buy a ticket and the entertainment is supplied. There can be no Burning Man if the people don’t come and bring it with them. It’s an annual experiment in temporary community, and community is the key. There are 10 principals of participation for the week-long event, but Eric boiled them down to three tenants.
Radical Self-Expression – Explore your id, or as Lisa put it, “explore your inner candy bikini.” What this means to you comes from your own personality. No one but you can determine how it comes out, but you are there to offer it as a gift to the others on the playa.
Radical Self-Reliance – This applies both to the inner and outer you. You’re responsible for your survival, your food and water, your showers and your costumes. You are also responsible for your own good time and you’re encouraged to discover, exercise and rely on your inner resources. This extends to the playa itself. There is nothing there when you arrive; you should leave nothing behind when you leave.
Gifting – Give of yourself. Each of the first two tenants is a gift to the others on the playa, and they are gifting the same things to you. This applies both to the spiritual and the material. This is the core of the experiment, so let’s make it a step of its own.
Step 2 – Don’t Expect to Barter
“This is not a barter economy,” Eric explains. “That’s a big misconception about Burning Man. It’s a gifting economy.” That means if a group of burners are handing out Bloody Marys in the morning (as Eric and Lisa will be), you don’t exchange a granola bar for a drink. You take the drink as a gift. You’ve also brought something to gift to the community. It could be glow sticks or bunny ears or an art car shaped like a giant, flaming octopus.
It could also be your DJ skills, set up to play for passersby, or a pair of old school phone booths, 100 yards apart and linked to ring each other’s phones.
There will be about 68,000 people on the playa, and if each of them brings something to gift, then everyone comes away both gifting and gifted. That means not only is there no money, there aren’t even transactions. And with no transactional relationships to get in the way, everyone is on equal footing. Of course, that’s the theory.
There are people who show up just wanting to party and end up taking more than they give, and that’s why Burning Man is only 8 days long (Monday to Monday over Labor Day weekend). Even the devoted burners understand that this isn’t a model for society. Over more time, the people taking advantage of the gifting would overwhelm the givers, and the system would collapse, but the impermanence of it is part of the appeal. After all, they do burn it down in the end.
Step 3 – Bring Your Props
Props are practical, like bikes and hats and protective eyewear, and props are whimsical, like light-up art bikes, feathered head-dresses and steampunk goggles.
“You need a good, sturdy pair of boots,” says Eric. But Lisa adds, “Once you’re a burner, you’re always looking for lingerie.” This is where self-expression gets radical. Bring a utility belt for your water and lip balm, but trick it out with Mad Max style. Protect your face from the silty playa dust, blowing through the desert, but do it with a leather mask, or a muslin one, or a fantastic scarf.
Remember your sequins, your firs, your kimono and your net shirt. You may find yourself dressed as a paisley robot made of cardboard boxes, or going simple, in a t-shirt and shorts. Either way, own it.
And in a pinch, “zip ties are your best friend out there.”
Step 4 – Have a Plan
Even if you’re not heading up a camp like the Bouncy Bouncy Club, complete with a bounce house, a bar a shower spa and a massage table, you need to know what you’re bringing and have a plan for hauling it out. Leave No Trace are bywords of Burning Man, and even spilling shower water on the desert floor is frowned upon. Beware of "moop." Lisa explains moop is, "Matter out of place, and it is very important to know moop rules... and moop the camp after you pack up...literally we use a rake to find the feathers and other little fragments that were not there when we arrived." Plan your meals, your clothes, your shade and your sleeping arrangements. Taking on this responsibility is part of your gift to the others, but it’s also a way to limit the headache of any extended camping trip. “You never want to cut corners,” Eric advises. It’s easy to get caught up in the exuberance of the festivities to come and forget about the logistics. Eric adds, “Never stray from your plan or your budget.”
Bringing too little can hamper your good time, but so can bringing too much. If you plan to gift party hats to the people, but at the last minute it suddenly strikes you that including a slip-n-slide would be awesome, you may find yourself in over your head when it comes time to set everything up. In their early burning days, Eric and Lisa made and learned from this mistake, and the setup of their camp took from Monday all the way to Wednesday.
Step 5 – Roll With the Punches
Whatever you do, it’s going to be more labor than you expect. Setting up that camp found Lisa at the top of a 26-foot light tower, trying to clip the cable of a shade structure to the top of the frame in a 30 mph wind. (She thinks she may have had something to drink before that.) With missing camp mates, an over ambitious plan, broken down vehicles and limited resources, she and Eric and their friends slogged through and put the Bouncy Bouncy Club on the map.
“It may have been the most miserable experience of my life,” but when it was over, Eric knew, “I am coming back next year. I’m a f-ing burner.” You need to have a plan, but when you’re finally on the playa, you need to let the plan fall away and take the experience as it comes.
Step 6 – Get There and Back
You’re headed for a Grateful Dead parking lot, meets Las Vegas, meets Venice beach. It’s super friendly, and since it’s not easy to get to, “the journey to get there has a lot to do with who actually is there,” says Eric, so the utopian spirit it with almost everyone.
You can drive in or take the buses from San Francisco or Reno. Once you’re there, you park your car and leave it parked for the duration. The burner veterans get there by the first Monday. Wednesday the newbies start to arrive. Thursday is at full capacity and by Saturday it’s off the hook. Friday night, the big art project burns. Saturday night, they burn the Man.
On Sunday, after the big blowout, is the burning of the temple. Every year, a new temple is erected, to offer a space for contemplation and reflection. After all, Burning Man is more than just a party, and the temple delineates the sacred from the profane. The burning of the temple is a quieter affair than the other big fires. After that is the cleanup and the move out on Monday, and then it’s like no one was ever there.
Step 7 – Go Again
Once you have a burn under your bedazzled belt, chances are good you’re going to need another. Once Alice went down the rabbit hole, she couldn’t resist going through the looking glass.