As with most things in life, you get out of Burning Man what you put into it. Unlike many things in life, Burning Man can be experienced thousands of different ways based on hundreds of factors. First and foremost Burning Man is the world’s largest and most fascinating outdoor interactive arts festival attended by thousands of eclectic, kind, compassionate and creative people. Secondly, Burning Man is a huge party. It’s also community, Ted Talks, lectures, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, yoga, an ultra marathon, weddings, some naked people, creative costumes, drugs, sobriety, drinking, eating, sparkle ponies, dancing, riding bikes, and countless other things. It can be all of this and more, or it can be almost none of this.
I’ve been to Burning Man over half a dozen times and it’s been different every time. There are similarities in the way I approach and experience Burning Man based on who I camp with, what my goals are for the week, what my recreational preferences are, the type of accommodations I have, my desire to get at least five hours of sleep every night, and dozens of other factors. Other people approach it and experience it differently based on their goals, expectations, desires, limitations, or abundance of resources.
For tens of thousands of people, each will have their own unique way of experiencing the Burn. There are drugs at Burning Man, but they’re not pervasive. In fact it’s illegal to consume drugs in Nevada, where Burning Man takes place, and where they have some of the strictest drug laws in the country. There are also dozens of law enforcement officials patrolling the event 24 hours a day. The party goes all night, but there are also sober camps with multiple 12-step meetings each day. There are dozens of yoga classes, lectures on a vast array of subjects, workshops, music, food, and endless creative events and activities that can keep a person busy every moment of every day. In 2016 I attended a lecture on quantum computing given by a NASA scientist, heard an inspirational speech about nuclear disarmament given by Morgan Matthews from N Square, saw dozens of art installations on a scale that is nearly impossible to describe, saw famous DJs perform on huge sound stages, and met people from around the world who traveled long distances to spend a week in the dust.
I’ve met people who were indifferent about their experience at Burning Man, and I’ve met people who had a negative experience. I’ve also met people who swear by Burning Man as the ultimate expression of a utopian life. The only way to know Burning Man is to go to Burning Man. There are so many variables involved in the experience that one trip to Black Rock City may not be sufficient to get an accurate sense of it. I’ve met people who stayed with campmates they didn’t know very well and ended up not getting along with, and that experience tainted their whole week. Similarly, the weather can be a factor, dehydration, poor preparations or lack of sleep among many other things can greatly impact how one experiences their time on the playa. I’ve met people who went to Burning Man and didn’t participate in any of the events I experienced, and therefore came away with a completely different view of the event based on what they did or didn’t see and do.
I’ve heard people say they wouldn’t want to go because they’ve heard about it from someone they know, or they’ve been to Such&Such festival and determined they don’t like festivals. The closed minded nature of this type of thinking is unfortunate, but that’s probably good because it’s better if closed minded people don’t visit the playa. In my mind that’s like someone saying they don’t need to visit the Louvre because they’ve seen pictures of the Mona Lisa on the internet. If that’s the way those people want to approach life, that’s their prerogative.
The great thing about attending more than once is the chance to do things differently on your second go around. Even after reading all the available information (which hopefully you do before attending), it’s difficult to be fully prepared on your first trip. But once you’ve attended once, you get the opportunity to make adjustments to your preparations in an attempt to enjoy your experience that much more on your next visit. The preparation and planning is one of the many things I enjoy about the event. It takes an unbelievable amount of work to prepare for a week in the desert. Planning, organizing, and having everything come together once you set up camp can be very rewarding, especially when you’re able to host people in your camp who may have arrived somewhat less prepared. Everything else depends on your attitude, curiosity, your open mind, and the way the week unfolds based on innumerable factors. The wind can carry the dust in a lot of different directions.