After 17 Years, I Returned to Burning Man. This is What I Observed.

Sept. 3, 2018

I attended Burning Man for the first time in 1999. My husband and I had been dating for less than a year and we camped with a group of friends. Our week there was an unforgettable experience which bonded us to each other. Most of our companions on that trip are still very dear to us. It is not an exaggeration to say that we, both individually and as a couple, were greatly influenced by the event.

We went to Burning Man twice more (2000 and 2001), and my husband also attended with a close friend in 2002, the year that I gave birth to our first child. We had dreams of returning again, but life got in the way: a year in Ireland, twins, a year in India, a fourth child, moving from San Francisco to Santa Rosa, then from Santa Rosa to NYC. Before we knew it, we had been away from the playa for more than fifteen years.

Earlier this year, a dear friend convinced me (and more importantly, my husband) that it was time to go back. With four children, the logistics of getting us both to Burning Man were too big, so my husband decided that he would send me with friends as an anniversary gift. The idea was exciting, but I was also a bit nervous to go. What if I’m too old to enjoy it? I’d heard that it was different. What if I didn’t like the new version?

Wow. I got back yesterday and I’m still digesting all that I saw and experienced. Yes, it’s different in many ways, yet it hasn’t changed in its essential spirit. I met so many wonderful people. I experienced incredible art. I danced into the wee hours of the night. I rode a bike everywhere. Burning Man has once again restored my faith in humanity.

What is different:

The biggest change is the scale of the event. In 1999, about 23,000 people attended. Since 2015, the event is capped at 70,000. But beyond the number of attendees, the amount of stuff to see and experience has mushroomed. Burning Man is now five square miles of art and activities. On Saturday night, the entire surface of the playa was alive with lights and music, the biggest adult carnival that you can imagine.

The Burn, which happens on Saturday night, is now optional. Many seasoned Burners opt to leave on Saturday or even earlier to beat the traffic and the crowds. Mid-week Burners and weekend Burners tend to be different groups. Older Burners joke about the model types and tech bros who wander in on Thursday or Friday, wielding their bottles of champagne. The weekend crowd complain about the older Burners, leaving just as the fun is getting started. I can see both viewpoints. I’m glad that Burning Man is attracting more than one generation.

This year, I found The Burn itself to be rather tame, compared to the old ones that I remember. Fifteen to twenty years ago, The Burn was the culmination of the week, a series of processions, all attendees gathered on the playa, accompanied by drums and fire dancers. Everyone surrounded The Man. There was an incredible build-up of tension, and then a projectile started the fire. Everyone bellowed, and once The Man had fallen, surged forward to dance around the flames. It was dangerous and exciting.

This year, the crowds calmly sat in a circle to watch fireworks, then the bonfire consumed The Man. They sat! The fireworks show was impressive, but I missed the crackling tension and primal spirit of old Burns. However, I can see why the change was necessary. As the event has grown, the organizers had to adapt The Burn, had to make it safer for everyone. Otherwise, Burning Man would not be allowed to continue.

What is still the same:

Burning Man still attracts an incredible variety of humanity and can be a touchstone experience, and it still needs to be approached with some caution and a lot of planning. The event takes place in a harsh desert environment. You must bring everything that you need to survive (food, water, clothing, shelter), in addition to costumes, a bike, lights (for your person and bike) and some sort of creative endeavor to share. You need to be selective when choosing your campmates. You should try to arrive well-rested. You should try to save some energy for tear-down.  

Advice for Burning Man virgins:

There are plenty of reasons to NOT go: It’s expensive. It’s hard to get tickets. It’s difficult to find your tribe (theme camp, art car, or sound camp?) and I don’t recommend camping alone. It’s exhausting. You will be covered in playa dust during your entire stay. Traffic getting in and out can be insane.

Still thinking of going next year? Start planning now. Get with a good group of people, as your experience will be defined by your crowd. Take Larry’s 10 Principles to heart. Some other rules that I recommend are: Don’t go out alone (always have a buddy, particularly at night). Drink as much water as possible. Apply sunscreen regularly. Be okay with not showering. (You’d be amazed how refreshed you feel with a sponge bath and clean underwear and socks.) Talk to as many people as you can at the event (the breadth of human experience is breathtaking). 

Maybe I’ll meet you on the playa in 2019. My husband and I are already working on logistics to ensure that we’ll both be there. Why? Because there is nothing else like it on the planet.

Heather

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