9 Things I Wish I Had Known Before Burning Man

All photos by Devin Cooper.

All photos by Devin Cooper.

There are more guides for first-time burners than there are grains of playa dust in my still-unpacked suitcases, but I’m adding this one anyway. No two burns are alike, and I learned a few things in the doing that I hadn’t been warned about. So here it is from me, virgin no more. These are the things I learned about my own comfort and discomfort levels during the strangest vacation I have ever taken.

  1. I wish I had brought more clothes. I brought fun costumes and sealed Ziploc bags of underwear and socks, warm night gear and gauzy daywear designed to make me look like one of Immortan Joe’s prize breeders. It wasn’t enough. I ought to have planned 2-3 outfits per day, to account for sweat and blood and dust and wine and scrofulous plastic outhouses and surprise puddings and all manner of other things. This is tricky, because nobody wants to be the over-packing diva with a trunk full of formals and two costume changes per act. Do it anyway. You’ll thank your past self.

temple

2. I was warned about playa dust. I cannot say that people didn’t tell me I’d be filthy and bone-white for a week, they certainly did. However, every body is different and we all react to things in our own way. My skin hurt. It ached so that I could hardly stand to be touched, it cracked when I stretched and it screamed when the sun touched it (that’s normal for me). I packed two parasols that I lived under and I wore sunblock all day, every day. The playa dust adhered to both of them. Where playa dust touches oil, whether it be my various attempts at a protective barrier or the stuff on my scalp intended to keep my hair healthy (more on that later), it turns sickly yellow and becomes a kind of clay. That clay sucks you dry like a bentonite facial mask. My skin abraded and broke anywhere something rubbed on me, and wearing goggles, a utility belt, and a mask every day contributed mightily to that rubbing. The break and ache didn’t stop until my third shower at home.

That third shower happened because I had to run through several attempts before something washed the clay out of my hair. My hair’s texture makes it run to locs under normal conditions; under these it ceased to resemble anything I had seen before. It lay in clay clumps that were grey and gummy to the touch. Vinegar loosened the clay but did not break it. Dr. Bronner’s made it worse. No shampoo, dry poo, or no-poo could break through.  Desperate and moments away from washing my hair with dish soap, I tried my acne wash. Winner. I have my own wiry insubordinate hair once again.

  1. Take clothes and shoes that you want to throw away. Some things wash out fine. Some do not. Don’t take anything irreplaceable. NB: I broke this rule to bring my diary. Calculated risk.

woman

  1. Definitely bring a bike. The playa is bigger than it looks on the internet, and walking everywhere is slow and very tiring. The neon lights of parties and cars and art whip by like a Lisa Frank peyote wonderland, and other bikers honk their little horns and ring their little bells as you navigate the undefined space that only sometimes includes roads. You’re going to be sore no matter what you choose; raging quads beat throbbing feet on my score card. Consult your own needs, but know that a bike is worth the effort.
  1. Everyone there is from the Bay Area. I expected to make friends and I did, but I also expected to wave a bittersweet goodbye to most of them after the Temple burned. Instead, I learned that most of them are my neighbors and I’m free and able to see them again.
  1. I dreamt vividly every night. I dream almost every night in the default world, but this was an exceptional run of days and nights. I suspect that my sudden and total digital fast contributed to this phenomenon, but the constant input of thought-provoking art and performances likely played their own part. I had a startlingly clear dream of John Candy driving a 50-foot carving fork, for example. Play hard, dream hard.

medusa

  1. There were drugs literally everywhere. I thought the stories were an exaggeration, but I’ve never seen a higher concentration of drug use anywhere else in the world. I saw mushrooms, ayahuasca, marijuana, 2C-I, mescaline, cocaine, and things referred to by names I’d never heard before. I saw enough alcohol given freely in that de-commodified space to drown the entire Marine Corps, and I did far more desert day-drinking than I planned. I drove through the main gates beside a beautiful girl who was casually doing whippets at each stop. I found a plastic Easter egg filled with LSD, left behind by a generous individual who wanted to blow some minds. I expected covert drug use, carefully hidden among friends to avoid trouble with the Pershing County Sheriff’s office. What I found was an open and convivial drug scene that resembles the fairy tales I’ve heard about the 60s.
Best new tumblr of 2015.

Best new tumblr of 2015.

  1. I knew there were two main burns, Man Burn and Temple Burn. What I didn’t realize was that the two are starkly different in tone and function. The Man burned to a thunder of drums and cheers, in a sacrificial and yet expansive mood among the participants. By contrast, Temple Burn is silent, with throngs of thousands engaged in acts of mourning without words or music. After the Man burned, the whole event changed in tone. I started hearing about what people did for a living, and opinions like ‘prison is too lenient’ and ‘climate change might not be real.’ After the Temple burned, the remaining faithful could only talk about going home. I understand now why so many subject themselves to the 8-hour exodus after the Man is gone. Everything slides downward after that point, everything feels like a long goodbye.
...except this one, which is clearly mine.

…except this one, which is clearly mine.

  1. That long goodbye is only a tiny piece of the emotional rollercoaster of the whole burn. People warned me that relationships could be taxed and limits might be pushed by the circumstances of the event. What I didn’t know was that I’d feel euphoric, incredible (natural) highs that produced that irrepressible, Frank Capra-style love for mankind that only the very young and the very old can hold on to. I also experienced utter hatred for the ascended spiritual masters peddling DMT and new age bullshit who think they have it all figured out, but in sudden shifting moments of compassionate clarity, I’d see them as perfect and ineffable, just as if they were made in the images of a thousand fresh-faced gods.

I’m glad I wasn’t prepared for wanton expressions of kindness and support we received from our fellow Burners. That is best experienced firsthand. There is no way to prepare yourself for this process; it’s like dying and being reborn every few hours. But it is real.

My husband John ran head-on into one of these, crashing out on the dark playa into a white kid with dreadlocks and a nón lá. The kid hugged him and then gave him a light for his bike, telling him to be safe. Or I’d slog halfway across Black Rock City to find an event that had been canceled without warning, only to sit hot and dejected in the dust preparing to turn around and get back to camp. Then some girl with a green sparkly face and fairy wings would roll up on an adult trike and spray me gently with icy water, laced with peppermint oil, while chanting to me about my unique beauty. John and I were welcomed to a long, low tent full of coffee and fruits given freely by a kid named Aladdin, only to be joined moments later by a man named Genie. We had a snowball fight beneath a flame-throwing mechanical octopus. I raved to Fleetwood Mac. We climbed a Thunderdome and cheered for the bungee-bound combatants. A Scotsman made me tequila sunrises for breakfast. I watched the dust rise up and veil a bride as she walked down the aisle as if she had commanded it. I arrested a self-proclaimed rock star and his roadies gave me a medal for being Cop of the Year. These moments replay themselves for me when I wake up in the middle of the night, still feeling like I’m there.

pulpo

I think that months from now, I’ll still be saying that I just got back from Burning Man.

I’ve spent a lot of words here trying to define an experience that is ultimately indefinable. It’s something different for everyone, and you will likely have different wishes after your first burn.

It was the best and worst vacation I’ve ever had.

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About Meg

Author, essayist, winner of the Philip K. Dick award.
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One Response to 9 Things I Wish I Had Known Before Burning Man

  1. Trisha says:

    Well done Meg! As a heat-sensitive, rash-prone type, who has yet to brave the playa, I thoroughly enjoyed living vicariously through your experience.

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