Making friends at Burning Man

A few years back our camp had a couple of first-timers who arrived in a beautiful Class A RV with a “toy box” attached.  About three days into the burn, they packed up and left, telling us that no one had been welcoming or friendly toward them.  But the reality is that they secluded themselves in their RV most of the day, and rarely reached out to meet people.  Perhaps this tidy pair of Midwesterners was put off by the diverse, rag-tag bunch that is the Burning Man population.  Maybe they just suffered from shyness.

But the point is, you have to stretch yourself if you really want to benefit from the kinds of relationships that can be formed at Burning Man.  As an older couple, my wife and I could easily segregate ourselves from the large numbers of much younger people who populate the playa.  But we choose otherwise.  One of the reasons we love Burning Man is because it makes us feel young, and part of feeling young is making friends with young people in our camp and throughout Burning Man.

In the default world, I tend to be a quiet individual most of the time, and I don’t often initiate conversations with strangers.  But I am different at Burning Man.  I love to start conversations or join in on conversations that sound interesting to me.  As a couple we constantly seek out other individuals and couples who don’t resemble us in one way or another.  They’re either from other countries, from other lifestyles, or just different because of their dress or bodily decorations (everything from piercings to tats).

Stretching ourselves to meet people who seem different enriches our experience at Burning Man and our lives as a whole.  We drop our pretentions and prejudices in favor of an assertive effort to embrace as many people as possible and be open to all comers.  We are constantly surprised by the revelations we receive from people we meet at Burning Man, and are changed by our experiences.

Judie and Alan sample a "gifted" margherita

This attitude has trickled into our daily lives off the playa and made us open and welcoming to people of all ages, backgrounds and persuasions.  We have gained something beyond empathy for all people – we now have an excitement about meeting people who, specifically, don’t look and act like us.  We are eager to break out of our shells and touch more aspects of the world.  And we are far less judgmental than we used to be – far more open to seeing inner behavior vs. outer appearance.

Over the years, we have naturally moved toward more outrageous dress and actions ourselves.   While we’ll never be tats and piercing people, we enjoy expressing ourselves creatively through costumes, dress and participation in fun events that mark Burning Man.  Our volunteering is part of this process of doing new things and meeting new people.

We have been lucky enough to meet some wonderful people with whom we stay in contact in addition to our Lamplighter friends who we stay in touch with via Facebook and occasional activities outside of Burning Man.

So my advice to new Burners is simple:  don’t seclude yourself away in an RV or even within your own shell.  Reach out.  People will respond and your experiences will be all the richer.

Tales from a playa dust storm

Burning Man is well known to be a dusty experience.  In fact, the idea of avoiding playa dust while at the festival is simply anathema to most Burners.  Many of us embrace the dust and consider our experiences in white out conditions badges of courage.

Knowing what to do when you’re caught in a dust storm is important, because the likelihood of encountering one during the week of Burning Man is fairly high.  After seven burns, I consider a festival without a dust storm simply missing something.

We’ve watched most of the dust storms from inside our RV, but we’ve been caught in a few, including some while doing our Lamplighting chores.  One particular experience is not only our most memorable, but also serves as an object lesson in what to do.

Judie and I were both heading back to camp from far out on the playa.  Unfortunately, we weren’t together as I had started back ahead of her.  A monumental dust storm came up that looked the sandstorm scene from the first Mummy move (of the series starring Brendan Frasier).  The dust was so thick that it looked like a wall coming toward us.  At that point, the best a person can do is seek shelter and turn his/her back to the wind.

Your survival equipment comes in handy at this point.  Wearing goggles and face mask during a dust storm prevents you from ingesting playa dust or getting it embedded in your eyes (often requiring a trip to the medical tent).

Once you are in the midst of a sandstorm, it is not a good idea to keep moving forward, because you lose all sense of direction and are just as likely to be going the wrong way as the way you intended to travel.  The best move you can make is to find shelter, stay put and wait for the storm to subside or for help from the Black Rock Rangers to arrive.  It’s best to find shelter with other people because you’re less likely to get panicky and make a bad decision.

A mildly dusty day on the playa

Judie and I had different experiences while stuck on the playa.  I found my way to a tent that was part of an art installation and stayed there with several people enjoying the art and waiting for the storm to subside.  Before I found the tent, I had been sitting against of the lampposts with my back to the storm.  Using the posts as guides, I was able to walk toward center camp until I reached the tent.  After a few minutes, the winds died down and I was able to make it to Center Camp, and eventually to our RV.

Judie was with a group of bicyclists who had participated in the Critical Tits ride, which ends far out on the playa.  As she was heading back toward Center Camp, the big dust storm rolled straight at her.  She started pedaling as fast as she could thinking she could beat the storm in to Center Camp (wrong!).  Suddenly, she realized that she was pedaling to no effect.  The headwinds were keeping her immobile (“I felt like the old lady riding her bike in the Wizard of Oz tornado sequence,” she told me) and visibility quickly fell to near zero.  She was forced to dismount from the bike and walk, so she headed in the direction she thought would lead her to the Temple.

Then she heard some other people’s voices and she called out to them.  Just as she caught up with them, a Black Rock Ranger emerged from the wall of playa dust and led the group to shelter.  When the dust storm subsided a bit, she found herself far off her original path, beyond the temple and well to the right of the central playa position she thought she had reached.

With the wind dying down a bit and visibility improving, Judie and one of the other women from the bike run followed the lampposts down the 9 o’clock street to the Man for further shelter.  It was a relatively short walk from there to Center Camp, and on to the RV.

When we finally saw each other we had to laugh.  Our hair was playa grey and we both were wearing playa makeup on our faces.  Our clothes were coated with fine dust and our shoes had become stiff from the layer of playa dust that had embedded itself.  What a day!

Takeaways for us from the experience:

  1. You can survive a dust storm
  2. Always take eye protection and breathing aids with you on the open playa
  3. It’s better to travel with someone than to be out on the open playa by yourself
  4. You can easily become disoriented during a dust storm and you’re likely to go in the wrong direction
  5. Seek shelter and stay there until the storm has subsided
  6. Look for a Ranger, and always follow his/her advice
  7. When the storm is over, celebrate your experience and consider yourself a veteran Burner

What am I going to do at Burning Man?

The choices of what to do and see at Burning Man can be overwhelming – especially if it’s your first year.  Aside from perusing the art (nearly a full-time activity in itself), you can choose among an array of activities and events contained in the “What Where When” guide you receive when you enter the gate.  Last year’s guide was 160 pages long, and included lists of events 24 hours a day.

You won’t receive the guide until you arrive, so is there any way you can plan what to do in advance?  I’d suggest a review of the hundreds of theme camps you can find here.  Many of the camps run fascinating activities that may be just for entertainment or for your personal betterment.

I’ve listed below a few of the theme camps that were operating in 2011 and a smattering of activities from the guide.  There’s no guarantee that any of these events or camps will be around in 2012, but the likelihood is that most will.  On the website, you’ll find a complete list by alphabet of all the camps with descriptions of their purposes and activities.

One of our favorite stops is at HeeBeeGeeBee Healers for massage therapy, meditation and yoga classes.  There are top-notch professionals at this theme camp who offer incredible services at Black Rock City prices (FREE!).  Check it out here. 

If you still need enlightenment after your massage and yoga, you can bike over to Camp Illumineye, whose purpose is to illuminate, clarify, and enlighten the community on the alchemy of homeopathy and feminine wisdom.”

If your bike is looking a little dull next to others on the Playa, head over to Bioluminati/Pimp Yr Bike.  And if you need bike repairs, there are a number of good choices on the Playa, such as Chop Shop, which calls itself “a small playa neighborhood Bicycle Garage that is ready to help a wide variety of playa transportation with parts, repair, and advice.”

Forget to bring a costume?  There are at least three good choices on the Playa to outfit you, Kostume Kult featuring “afternoon costume gifting in the Kostume Dome;” Black Rock Boutique (“Let our fashionistas slip you into something a little more questionable!”), or the self-explanatory Slut Makeover.

Shanghai Suite at the Ashram Galactica -- a great bar, disco and international hotel theme camp

Of course, if you want an all-American shopping experience, you can always visit the multi-story Mal-Mart Mega Store, “an exploration into America’s consumer driven society where the shopping mall reigns supreme.”

Then there’s the food and drink – all gifted by their theme camps.  Examples include Pancake Playhouse for breakfast, Chaya Tea House for an exotic taste of Japan, Black Rock Diner (“changing lives one grilled cheese sandwich at a time”), and one of our all-time favorites, Barbie Death Camp and Wine Bistro, where you can actually see everybody’s favorite doll maimed and tortured while you’re taking a sip.

If you’re a lover of home-brewed lager, try Home Brew 4A Home Brew, “a home brewers’ community where brewers of the Playa come to meet and share.”

You can get ready for an evening out by having your nails artistically painted at Get Nnailed Salon, then head out for fun at the Black Rock Roller Disco, BRC Drive-In Theater or BRC International Film Festival, Opulent Temple Disco, or, if you’re more into erotic play, ATTOL’s Famous Orgy Dome where you can “get it on with your playa friends.”

If you’ve fully exhausted yourself, head for Hang-Out and rest on one of their hammocks; or simply spend some quiet time reflecting on life, love and your spirituality at The Temple.

Want an overview of the art of Burning Man?  Sign up for an accompanied tour at The Artery.  But check this one out early because Artery tours are available only during the first few days of the festival.

We’ve barely scratched the surface of Burning Man activities, but you can easily see that there’s never a reason to be bored or uninspired while you’re at the festival.  Enjoy!  And if you have other great sites to recommend, please leave a comment.

New info:  Thanks to a couple of Burners who commented on the site, I now have two great sites that give you information about what’s went on last year at Burning Man.  The first is for what is essentially the What?Where?When? guide from 2011.  The second is, which gathers together some of the creators of new work at Burning Man and shows their ideas.

Correction:  In my post on volunteering with Lamplighters I misstated the time volunteers should arrive for nightly lamplighting.  It’s 5 p.m., not 4 p.m.

Lighting up at Burning Man

No, this piece is not about doing drugs on the playa, it’s about literally lighting yourself up for both safety and entertainment while at Burning Man.

Lights are an absolute necessity to ensure safe walking or biking on the playa at night.  While some streets are well lit because of activities such as bars and discos or because of the Lamplighters’ kerosene lanterns, most of Burning Man is quite dark.  You need to be seen to be safe.

Wearing a headlamp is the first line of defense.  It allows you to see where you’re going and allows others (especially bicyclists) to see you coming and avoid you.  There are small, LED headlamps that come mounted on headbands, weigh very little and throw a lot of light.  Hint:  Always turn your headlight off when you’re talking face-to-face with someone.  It can be blinding up close.

But a headlamp is not enough.  For one thing, it does not light up your back, which means bicyclists and art cars coming up behind can’t see you.  You can choose to festoon yourself with bendable light sticks, but they do not throw a lot of light and they wear out quickly. Lighted hats and clothing are the best answers to enhancing your visibility – and you can do it in style and become part of the art scene in Black Rock City.

The key is finding lighting that is small, flexible, bright and battery powered; and you’d be surprised how many options are available to you.  One of our favorites is EL Wire, which can be sewn onto or into clothing.  You carry the small battery packs in your pocket and can choose steady or flashing light.  The EL Wire comes in a variety of colors and is flexible enough to be shaped into almost any design you could think of.

Two of our well-lit Lamplighter buds

Other small battery powered lights (like tiny Christmas lights) are available at Michael’s, Jo-Ann’s and similar specialty stores.  They can be sewn or glued onto clothing for both visibility and entertainment.

Burning Man is also famous for “pimp’d out bikes.” Heavily lighted bikes are more visible to on-comers and fun to watch.  Online retailers such as Hokey Spokes have selections of battery-operated lights that fit on wheels and other parts of the bike.  Other stores such as Modern Bike specialize in bicycle headlights, which can help you navigate the playa more safely and enhance your visibility for pedestrians, art cars and other bicyclists.

Taking time to brighten up clothing and costumes with fun and attractive lights will add to your Burning Man experience.  And if you’re invited to a costume party back home, you’ll have something really cool to wear.

Lighting is about safety first, so be sure you can see and be seen.  Applying creativity to your lighting is the fun part; but if all you can do in your first year is make certain that you can see clearly at night and that others can see you clearly, then you’ve done the basics and helped ensure safe travelling on the playa.