Burning Man 2017 | Radical Ritual

A tale of dust, decompression, decentralization and a hurricane.

The Tree of Tenere

Why am I just now posting about last year’s Burning Man when this year’s Burning Man is currently underway? Many reasons, but the main one is this: I never fully decompressed. “Decompression” is a word used frequently by burners as the span of time or activities necessary post-burn to ease transition back to the “real world” (usually meditative in nature, or hanging out with your Burning Man friends, or attending local burns). I got my open water scuba certification this year, so I have an even deeper appreciation (pun intended) of this word now, and it’s application here is perfect… but more on decompression later.

I heard of Burning Man about 10 years ago, and unfortunately I believed the rumors… that Burning Man was a drug-fueled festival in the desert where people burned effigies like pagans, walked around in the nude, and orgies were not uncommon. I decided to pass. Fast-forward a few years later, and one of my favorite photographers, Trey Ratcliff, posted photos from the festival on his blog, and I was enamored.

trey ratcliff photowalk burning man 2017
Trey Ratcliff

Not only are Trey’s Burning Man photos beautiful – they are some of the most interesting photos I’d ever seen. This place, this festival, looked like a fantasy world on another planet. Trey goes every year, and always does a open-to-all “photowalk” which I happily participated in (that’s him in the photo above), and I also got to hang out with him at his amazing camp (Camp Walter) afterwards. It was my 2nd time doing a photowalk with him – he does them all over the world and they are always open for anyone to join. Check out all his best Burning Man pics here (so much better than mine!) NSFW 😉

Burning Man is a blank canvas in the form of a temporary city, that requires surviving 8 days off-grid in relentless heat and dust, where some of the most creative people on earth come to express themselves and share their skills for free (building sculptures, “art cars”, themed camps, music, dance, fire spinning, creating amazing costumes, cooking, making tea, giving massages, etc) with likeminded people. Safety, respect and consent are core tenants of the event (and are explained and enforced via the materials you receive with your ticket, community policing, and undercover police presence) – and every degree of your experience is 100% up to you.

There are a lot of misconceptions about Burning Man, and everyone has such a unique experience that I’d be impossible to get the whole idea of it through one or even dozens of first-hand accounts, because it’s very much what YOU make of it. What follows is my account – but know that it is 100% unique among the 70,000 attendees that year, and yet, a permanent and important part of that collective experience.

15:00 8/27/17, Black Rock City Entrance

The gate had opened at midnight, so there was a 6 hour line when we arrived at the playa entrance (where you turn off the road and on to the dry lakebed to start your journey across it to the camp grid). It moved so slowly that my rideshare buddy and I exited my car, walked around the playa, made some cocktails, took some photos, went to the bathroom and came back to the car without the line moving an inch. Already I was getting a taste of what we were in for the next week, having to use my dust mask outside the car and not having cell reception or internet for the grueling 6 hour wait.

Once we made it to the check-in, I was initiated as a virgin burner by ringing a giant bell and making a dust angel, which is exactly what it sounds like. The worst part of this was not the being coated in dust from head to toe — it was needing to get back in my car like this, instantly making the clean interior of my car filthy. Oh man, this place was going to test my neuroses to their limits! I both loved and hated this.

I arrived at my camp well after dark, and I was one of the last to arrive, so I got a spot in the far back corner. I pitched my tent right beside my Prius, and put a shade tarp over it with some camping tent poles on one side and the other side anchored to my car. The idea was to keep my car and my tent a little cooler. The shade structure didn’t last the night, because my “wind-proof” tent poles were not, in fact, wind-proof. I was woken up twice throughout the night with the shade structure collapsing on my tent in 20-30mph winds and had to get out with my headlamp and attempt to fix it, and my hands were getting raw from tightening the ropes around the stakes repeatedly. By 8am, I was suffocating in the heat of my tent and had to get out, despite still being exhausted from the rough first night.

The evening before I had met a few of my camp mates, but not many. One loaned me a hammer and gave me some food, so we were off to a pretty great start. I didn’t know any of them beforehand save for the brother of a friend, who connected me to the group via facebook. I lucked out, because my camp’s theme was a tea house. Incredible, made from scratch, loose-leaf tea. Hot or iced, with or without coconut cream, agave, or honey. It was run by Mother Wonder, a herbalist and tea connoisseur from Los Angeles. Some of the camp were also from L.A., but there were an equal amount from elsewhere, ranging greatly in age and off-playa interests. Overall, we were a very diverse, chill camp — which is exactly what I was hoping for.

Some camps are small, some are big – some have a public space to hang in, others don’t… some have very little budget, others seem to have a massive budget. Two of my favorites in this category were Hotel California and Camp Walter…

Most of my time was spent riding around on my bike, reading, people watching, taking in the sights: the sculptures, the camps, the art cars.

At night, the playa lights up. There are huge night-club camps like Slut Garden (where I watched an Australian man work a stripper pole in an amazing show of athleticism) to tucked away corners where fire dancers are practicing alone (so you get a private show if you find them) to dazzling LED sculptures like the Tree of Ténéré which was everyone’s favorite playa sculpture since its thousands of individual LEDs shaped like leaves changed colors all night long (and if you were lucky you could even catch a symphony playing there).

Black Rock City is a gigantic, circular encampment that is constructed on a circular grid and is navigated like a clock. The main tent encampments are in the shape of a crescent or bisected circle around the bottom of the clock. The top of the clock is empty playa, filled sparsely with sculptures, some big, some small. At the outer perimeter of the clock is the “trash fence” which I suppose serves the purpose of blocking illegal entry to the festival and also catching stray trash from blowing out into the rest of the desert, but in most places it’s no more than a string stretched along sparsely placed flimsy poles. It’s the furthest thing you can cycle or walk to and still be within the grounds of the festival, which is why it’s a running gag to tell virgin burners that Daft Punk or some amazing DJ is “playing out at the trash fence”… the burner spends an hour to get out there only to find absolutely nothing there. I actually enjoyed the trash fence and it’s solitude, and all the bizarre sculptures in the deep playa that you’d never come across if you didn’t ride along the fence.

One thing people don’t usually know about Burning Man is how much work goes in to staying healthy and feeling good whilst consistently being in 110F heat all day and freezing at night with no relief, with only what water and food and supplies you brought with you. Combined with walking or biking miles around the desert each day. Thankfully I packed more than just hiking food, but the fresh stuff only lasts at most 4 of the 8 days, even with diligent ice replenishment. So my meals the first few days compared with the last few were drastically different. Zucchini pasta? Hell yeah! Dehydrated REI soup? Yeah no.

One of my favorite nights on the playa I visited the Thunderdome, a life-size replica of the one from Mad Max, where they actually pit two volunteers against each other in no-holds-barred fights to the death. (Ok, maybe not death, but only because the weapons are covered in foam).

As I mentioned before, my camp, Camp Steep, made gourmet tea. Anyone staying in the camp had a few required work shifts. I chose to be a barista, because I like a good challenge. I will never be impatient with a barista ever again in my life. We had around 20 loose ingredients for each tea in mason jars, and had to assemble each tea, some with over 10 ingredients, for each customer. We had to then steep for 5 minutes, and add ice or coconut cream or agave. At the end of my shift I would make a custom tea for myself that I loved, so I’ll share it here:

Cacao Coconut Iced Tea

cacao nibs, chicory root, peppermint, cloves, cardamom (steep for 5 min), iced, w/ coconut creamer

If you want a simpler tea that’s almost as awesome, just steep cacao nibs in boiling water for 5 min. So yum!

Our camp also had an amazing lounge area, complete with coloring books!

Mid-week I attended a few lectures (yes, there are lectures at BM) about decentralization, another about cryptocurrencies, and another about the Seasteading Institute, and another given by a women who hadn’t eaten solid food in 20 days and was only drinking water. Of all of these talks, the decentralization talk was my favorite. I won’t bore people who just wanted to see photos with an in-depth description of what decentralization is and why you should google it if you aren’t familiar with it, but you should! Burning Man at it’s core is very much the product of a desire to experience decentralization through radical self-reliance, so it was a very fitting topic for the event. Also, the Seasteading Institute talk was super interesting — it aims to be the first decentralized off-grid no-government community/nation and they are building a floating island of sorts with the blessing of the French Polynesian government in the ocean there. The guy who gave the talk is one of their founders, so that was cool. You can go to their website linked above for some cool videos and a better explanation of the project.

At some point I wandered out to “the temple” which is one of the two primary, ever-evolving but always present sculptures at Burning Man (the other being “the man”). It’s a pretty moving place since a lot of people go there to pray, meditate, heal, and put memorials for lost loved ones. Even though it was extremely disrespectful, I couldn’t help but love the framed photo of Laura Palmer that I found there. If you’re not a Twin Peaks fan, you won’t get it… sorry.

You get this great guide book when you enter Black Rock City that lists hundreds of events at various camps throughout the week. I was told by many a burner to throw the book out and just wander around and organically stumble upon things — but I never listen to anyone. I planned to go to many things — some I actually made it to, most I didn’t. One of the things I wasn’t missing for the world was a PATRICK SWAYZE PARTY. That’s right. I even got to re-enact the scene in Dirty Dancing where Baby runs in to Patrick’s arms and he twirls her around, thanks to a man who was an incredible dancer telling me to trust him and run and jump in to his arms. He caught me, and twirled me, perfectly, and everyone applauded. I felt like I was in the Burning Man rendition of the film. Someone was even filming it… alas, they never emailed it to me… so you’ll just have to trust me that this really happened (I was NOT on drugs). The man who twirled me is in the last photo below.

“The man” is the name given to the namesake of the festival, who this year was a 42ft tall version of the classic structure, much smaller than previous years, but it was his first time being contained in a giant protective pagoda structure and not on his own.

Day 6, The Man Burn: I got to the site our camp was watching from about an hour before everyone else because I wanted an un-obstructed spot to set up my tripod to get good photos. I must have picked a pretty great spot, because the guy sitting next to me had been going to Burning Man for something like 20 years, and was one of the official photographers for the festival (I’m pretty sure there are only a few).

By the time the burn started hours later, I was in agony. I had to go to the bathroom… and the nearest port-a-potties without a crazy line were a 20 minute walk + bike ride away, and getting back to the spot I was in was probably not happening. I decided I would wait it out and suffer until at least after the fireworks, and hopefully until the man had burnt away. The tradition is to stay until the fire is mostly out and its just a huge pile of ash and ember.

After the man had burned away and the fire was starting to diminish, I left to ride back to my camp’s port-o-potties and stayed at camp after. After being back for about 20 minutes, the first of my camp mates returned and they were crying. At first I thought they were just having an emotional moment because the festival was almost over. Then the next returned, and they were super upset too. What the hell? I finally asked, and they said “you don’t know what happened? where were you?” when I told them about my call of nature, they proceeded to tell me a man had run into the fire. Firefighters and volunteers tried to stop him, but he made it far enough in that they couldn’t get him right away without endangering themselves. By the time they pulled him out, he’d been in the flames for a few minutes. We found out the following day that he passed in the hospital. The festival offered counseling to anyone that was distressed over the incident. I can’t imagine how horrifying it must have been to witness that first-hand, and I’m so thankful I didn’t.

After Burning Man was over, I should have rested, caught up on life and work, meditated, and decompressed. Instead, with a Category 5 hurricane in the Atlantic headed for Florida, I booked a last-minute flight to Orlando to board up my house there and ride out Hurricane Irma, which had just been declared the strongest hurricane on record. The local stores were already sold out of wood, food and water. Gas stations were out of gas. Thankfully, I was able to rent a fully gassed up Jeep. Part of my family had already evacuated to Georgia. The days preceding and following the storm, no businesses were open — I had no work and it felt oddly similar to being at Burning Man, just cooking pasta and soup (the only two things I could find at the store) and trying to entertain myself. At Burning Man I had to go out in the high winds at night to re-fortify my tent multiple times, and in the hurricane a week later I had to run outside in high winds to bring pieces of my facia (roof) that had broken off inside … déja vu.

I returned to L.A. a week after the hurricane with a hellish work schedule ahead of me after being gone for almost 3 weeks to an increasingly toxic living situation that I had to get out of. My house in Florida had over $15k in damage from the hurricane, and I needed to be in Florida to oversee the repairs. In November, I had a two week trip to Scotland and Iceland for a wedding. Right after, I moved back to Florida to fix up my house. When the dust was just starting to settle, and I was starting to feel like I could breathe again, a relationship I’d been in for 4 months abruptly ended, a burst pipe flooded my already hurricane-damaged house, and on a whim I’d just enrolled in college to finish the degree I left off 10 years prior.

Needless to now say, I never got to decompress from Burning Man. I’m not sure if this permanently misaligned my chakras or what (I don’t even know what a chakra is). When you don’t decompress properly after a dive, you need to be put in a hyperbaric chamber to essentially mimic the pressure of a dive to return your body to it’s original state. Maybe returning to Burning Man one day will serve as my hyperbaric chamber and put my chakras back in alignment? I couldn’t attend this year due to the event falling on the first week of fall semester classes (and next year I’ll have the same problem) so all of my wonderful memories will just have to tide me over for a few years until I return. To all my fellow burners who are at the event now — HAPPY BURN! — and don’t hide from dust storms in your car like I did – embrace the dust! IN DUST WE TRUST!