Automation Avoidance

I read a newspaper column the other day that talked (yet again) about automation and how advanced robots might someday replace people. And while I’m pretty sure my automated vacuum cleaner will never replace me (because I do a better job), I can genuinely understand the concerns. As humans become relegated to more automaton sorts of jobs and electronic equipment takes on the intellectual heavy lifting, the future begins to look like something out of the Matrix or any number of dystopian novels and movies.

Then it hit me that there’s one place I go every year where the only automation is for the sake of human entertainment – Burning Man. A trip to Black Rock City offers seven days of back-to-basics living, of walking and biking, of human-powered innovation and of real relationship building among people. No wonder I breathe so much easier and feel so much better when I return from the Burn. It’s all so real.

In a desert environment where you have to rely on yourself and other people, and can’t turn to technology to solve your problems, living takes on a sense of super-realism. Dust storms, intensive art experiences, bodies often unadorned with clothing (albeit with plenty of “body art”), sets Burning Man so far apart from the deadening default world that you can’t help but feel alive, vital and excited to greet every day. It’s challenging to find those feelings in the day-to-day routine of life.

Human-powered fun at the Burn.

Human-powered fun at the Burn.

There’s never a day at Burning Man that seems routine. Even if you start every morning with a cup of coffee from the Center Camp Café, you’ll have been exposed to myriad unconventional activities – art, performance, whimsical art cars – during your walk or bike ride.   If you’re part of a theme camp, chances are you’ll be asked to help in set-up or take down. You can’t call in professional services you’ve found on the web when there’s work to be done. It’s all performed by hand, and it’s all a work of love.

Want to memorialize a lost friend, family-member or cherished pet? Put something together yourself to be placed inside the Temple. And if you didn’t think of it in advance, just write your thoughts down on any open space – Sharpie’s are usually available from one of the Temple Guardians.

In fact, the idea that writing on the walls of a building is encouraged rather than forbidden is one of the best examples of how Burning Man diverges from day-to-day life. You’re coloring outside the lines from the moment you enter the gates of Black Rock City and receive that magical greeting: “Welcome Home.”

I’m sure the Burning Man organization could have robots built to replace the Greeters, but why would they want to? Greeters provide a true human welcome, usually including a hug; and they help Virgin Burners become one with the Playa immediately. I remember one night when Lashes and I were doing a Greeter shift and a fellow came roaring in driving a spotless sports car and wearing a white suit. When we told him he’d have to get down on the desert floor and make a “dust Angel”, he looked mortified. But after he’d added a layer of dust to his immaculate clothes, he seemed to feel much better and far more relaxed. He was now ready to park his fully automatic vehicle and go into manual mode for his week at Burning Man.

On Friends Who Go to Burning Man

Over nearly a decade of attending Burning Man, we have made a lot of Burner friends – individuals who we met for the first time at the Burn, see annually for the event, and occasionally meet for camp-related activities. But it’s a different kind of thrill to meet old friends who, after years of hearing us talk about it, have finally taken the leap and trekked out to the Burn. We always love to show Burning Man virgins around, but it’s especially rewarding to do so when they’re our friends from the default world. There’s a special joy in sharing in their amazement at the size and scope of Burning Man, and the atmosphere of love, caring and non-commercialism that marks life in Black Rock City.

But showing virgin Burners around the playa is far from a one-way street. You get to see the Burn through the eyes of first-timers – as if you’re viewing it for the first time. In fact, it’s as close as you can come to repeating your treasured first year on the Playa. Your friends will spot things that you’ve overlooked or might have missed. Seeing the awe that is inspired by the big burns in your friends renews your own sense of wonder about these incredible events. Your own experience becomes that much richer.

As a result of our greeting old friends on their first Burning Man visit, we have become evangelists for the event – especially to people our age. It’s one of the reasons I started Sunrise Burners. We’re always honest with people about the harsh desert conditions, but we also let people know that such conditions invite increased camaraderie among attendees and allow you to open yourself to the kinds of friendships that can last forever.

We also try our best to describe the scope and size of artwork on the Playa; so it’s especially rewarding to see their amazement when they come face-to-face with the massive art installations and innovative art cars created exclusively for the Playa. We’ve had a couple of friends who went once, enjoyed it, but never felt committed enough to return. On the other hand, some of them have become regulars and look forward to getting back to the desert each August.

Morning Pickup:  Our usual job as Lamplighters.  We're greatful to the kindness of fellow Lamplighters for guiding and inspiring us.

Morning Pickup: Our usual job as Lamplighters. We’re greatful to the kindness of fellow Lamplighters for guiding and inspiring us.

I think I’m inclined to help people enjoy their first Burn because of the way my son and I were treated during our first year at the event and as part of Lamplighters. One of our campmates who had been around Lamplighters forever took us under his wing and made certain we had the best possible experience. I’ve never forgotten his kindness, and I know from our communications that he’s never forgotten us and remains proud of how we became true Burners because of his efforts to cushion the bumps and bruises so common to virgins. It’s our intention to do the same with new Burners – young or old. So thank you Know Matter What for showing us the way to be good Burners.

Only a few months remaining until the Carnival of Mirrors kicks off and our 2015 Burner experience begins. We’re excited to see some of you there, and to do what we can to make it a fun event – one that you’ll want to repeat every year.

‘Times Are Changing’ Except at Burning Man

This has been one of those Bob Dylan weeks when “The Times They Are a-Changing” really came home again to society, as old white guys who thought they could turn back the clock on humanity got bitch-slapped by the world. When Governor Pence of Indiana tried to lie his way out of the rationale for his state’s efforts to initiate a Christian jihad against gays, everyone from Apple to the NCAA made it eminently clear that they could see right through the subterfuge and wanted nothing to do with that level of intolerance. Then when Arkansas, a state that vacillates between forward and backwards thinking, tried a similar effort to force narrow religious values into the every citizen’s life, its governor took the warnings from the CEO of WalMart and his own son to heart, and told his legislature to take its crap piece of legislation back for a revision that would clearly declare that discrimination would not be tolerated in the state that spawned the likes of Johnny Cash, John Grisham and William Jefferson Clinton.

Stepford Wives at Burning Man:  Nothing Unusual for BRC's inclusive world

Stepford Wives at Burning Man: Nothing Unusual for BRC’s inclusive world

I learned a higher level of understanding (and eventually love) of people with a variety of different orientations through Burning Man and its principle of Radical Inclusion, and I’ve been fearful that the nation was moving in a very different direction, as state and national legislators kept pushing us farther and farther into a world I had left far behind. But this week, the country seemed to right itself (as it tends to do over time) by knocking some of those old-fashioned thinkers back on their heals and reminding them that our nation is one where opportunity on an equal basis is the true secret of our success, and restricting those opportunities sounds the death knell for our society.

Thank God for Burning Man, where we celebrate our full range of diversity every minute of every day that Black Rock City exists, and where what’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” is a dusty mix of gypsum and sand rather than the awful sense of intolerance that marked the civil rights struggle of the 60s. Let’s not start that shit again with backwards thinking old guys to whom we’ve ceded control of our country. Let’s continue to bitch slap every stupid effort to roll back the clock and leave Burning Man as our only respite from intolerance.

Four Reasons Why Burning Man is a ‘Fountain of Youth’

For those of us in our later years, the decision to attend Burning Man can be daunting. Black Rock City is not a comfortable vacation choice; in fact, it’s almost the opposite of the type of escape most older people seek, such as luxury cruises or full-service respites at hotels and resorts. It requires a willingness to live within the Burning Man principle of Radical Self-Reliance, which entails a high level of preparation followed by surviving in the harsh high-desert environment (see the Burning Man Survival Guide for how to prepare).

But there’s a payback for all this pain: Burning Man is probably the only “vacation” you can take that is practically guaranteed to make you feel like a younger, more vibrant individual. There are at least four reasons for this magical effect:

1.  Whimsy.  Every minute of every day at Burning Man will make you laugh, or at least smile broadly; and since humor has often been cited for its healthfulness, the whimsy of Burning Man is bound to make you feel better. From creatively constructed art cars to crazy costumes to massive art installations, there’s always something to brighten your day. And the best part is that you can become part of this whimsy by taking rides on art cars, interacting with the art installations, and wearing costumes and outfits that free you from personal hang-ups and your restrictive self-image. You’re bound to leave the Burn feeling happier, looser and younger.

2.  Physicality.  You’re going to be walking and bike-riding many miles everyday, and you certainly won’t be spending couch time watching television (there’s no reception on the Playa). It takes plenty of physical effort even to watch a movie at Burning Man, because you’ve got to walk or bike to one of the film venues. By the end of the Burn, you may be exhausted, but you’ll also have become more physically active than you’ve been in years. Your body will gain the benefits of so much activity, and it might just push you to change your lifestyle for the better on a permanent basis. That will be a good thing for your health, wellbeing and youthfulness.

You'll find mass bike rides everywhere, but only Burning Man offers "Critical Tits" annually.  It's fun and sexy.

You’ll find mass bike rides everywhere, but only Burning Man offers “Critical Tits” annually. It’s fun and sexy.

3.  Inclusion.  You’ll meet a variety of people you’re unlikely to run into in your day-to-day life, and you’ll find yourself appreciating them for their intrinsic human qualities as opposed to rejecting them for their outward appearance. Tattoos, piercings, nudity – all traits that you might normally find repulsive or off-putting – will become a standard part of your life at the Burn, and you’ll find yourself appreciating the individuals deep inside those extrinsic quirks. Because Burning Man rigidly follows its “Radical Inclusion” principle, you’ll meet the outliers of society – the flaming hippies, the assertive gays and lesbians, the anarchists and political extremists (on all sides), as well as average people and even corporate executives. At the love-fest that is Burning Man, you’ll find yourself making friends with people from the full spectrum of humanity – and that openness to new and different people will change your life, relax you wherever you go, and – yes – make you feel younger.

4.  Eroticism.  Sexuality is all around you at Burning Man. From open nudity, to lectures and demonstrations about ways to expand your own sexual experiences, to erotically charged camps that teach BDSM and other techniques to break down your personal barriers — sex is impossible to ignore at Burning Man. The power of eroticism as a life-force is likely not only to charge up your own sex life, but to make you feel younger and more vital long after the Burn has ended.

Those are a few of the reasons why we always find that Burning Man makes all the effort well worthwhile. See you on the Playa.

Preparing Physically for The Burn

There are physical aspects of attending Burning Man that may require some preparation for those of us who are in the 55 and over category: specifically, walking and biking. If you’re not in the habit of getting around without the aid of a powered vehicle, you might find yourself physically exhausted before you’ve had a chance to see much of what Black Rock City has to offer. It’s around 4 miles from one end of the city to the other, and the total circumference of the circle that makes up BRC is approximately 8 miles. It’s possible to see everything by foot, but the time and effort required is substantial. Only a small number of motorized vehicles are permitted to drive on the Playa, and their speed is limited to 5 m.p.h.

Authorized vehicles include “art cars” that have been approved and licensed by the DMV (Department of Mutant Vehicles), and golf carts and trucks that are part of the Department of Public Works (DPW) fleet.

For most people, bikes are the best means of getting around, but keep in mind that it can take from 30 to 45 minutes to drive across Black Rock City. While much of the Playa surface is flat and hard, there are always areas where the gypsum that makes up the Black Rock Desert is loose and can create some tough biking situations. So if you haven’t been on a bike in awhile, it’s my strong recommendation that you get your biking muscles into Playa condition before making your way to Burning Man. By the way, power assisted bikes are also allowed on the Playa – but not Vespa-style scooters or motorcycles. Most vehicles that people drive to the Burn must be left parked from the time you arrive to the time you depart.

Motor assisted scooters such as this one are generally permitted on the Playa

Motor assisted scooters such as this one are generally permitted on the Playa

Whether you have a bike or not, you’re bound to do a lot of walking at Burning Man, so it wouldn’t hurt to strengthen your leg muscles or at least do a little more walking then usual as the time for the Burn approaches. Also, keep in that the Black Rock Desert is about 4,000 ft. above sea level, and while that’s not quite the height of Donner Summit for those of you who cross the Sierras (7,200 ft.) on the way to Burning Man, it’s still above the level at which most of us live day-to-day. When you’re living at altitude, you can suffer greatly if you don’t consume enough water and electrolytes (unfortunately, alcoholic and caffeinated beverages don’t help keep you hydrated).  Never venture out without water or a sports drink, lest you suffer from dehydration — the top reason that people end up in one of Burning Man’s medical tents.

There’s no need to put yourself through a rigid physical fitness routine or join a gym to get ready for Burning Man, but if you come to the Playa having spent the prior few months strictly as a couch potato, then you might not have the energy to experience the Burn to the fullest possible extent; and you might just find yourself struggling or suffering through an accident as you try to re-learn how to ride a bike only after you reach the Playa.

You simply want to avoid unnecessary stress on your body during your week in Black Rock City, and be able to ride your bike with control and ease. So just take a few minutes everyday to walk, ride a bike and stretch your body.


Don’t Ignore this Attraction

For many Burners, Center Camp exists only as a place to purchase coffee, tea and blended drinks. But there’s a lot more to Center Camp than just a faux Starbucks. For 24 hours every day of Burning Man, something entertaining is going on either at one of Center Camp’s two stages, or inside the circus ring.

You’ll find music – both vocal and instrumental acts that range from folk to rock to opera. There will also be stand-up comedy, poetry readings, drama and even a fasion show. And in the circus ring, there will be performances similar to what you’d see at Cirque du Soleil. In other parts of Center Camp you’ll find people giving foot and full body massages (all, of course, for free).

The performance schedule is (mostly) listed in the “What, When, Where Guide” you receive at the Greeters’ Station; however, the acts frequently change and last minute substitutions are common.

There’s also plenty of art to be enjoyed both inside and outside Center Camp (the picture at the top of this blog page was the main entrance to Center Camp at a recent Burn); and, in a strong dust storm, Center Camp is one of the Playa’s best refuges. There will still be dust in the air, but at a much lower level than you’ll find on the  open Playa.

There’s plenty of bike parking space at Center Camp, but – fair warning – you should lock your bike once you park it. Burners intent on purloining new bikes for themselves can find easy pickings among those parked at Center Camp.

There's always plenty going on inside Center  Camp

There’s always plenty going on inside Center Camp

Toward the end of the week of Burning Man, there’s a “Battle of the Marching Bands” contest held at Center Camp. We’ve always found this event both hilarious and entertaining, plus you get to vote on the acts with your applause.  Some of the bands are rag-tag ensembles (such as the irresistable Burning Band), and some are highly polished (such as March Fourth — the winner a few years ago that went on to play professionally; or the all-percussion Indian-based band that specializes in the rhythms and sounds of the Indian sub-continent).

The Center Camp Cafe and coffee bar is surprisingly good, with experienced baristas and drinks ranging from regular coffee through espresso blends to non-coffee drinks. The offerings are relatively inexpensive, and the long lines that sometimes form provide opportunities to meet new people or gift others a free drink. Sometimes we leave $10 or $20 and tell the barista to take care of the next few customers until the money has run out.

So whether you just stop by the Center Camp Café for a coffee, stumble in by accident, or go purposefully to watch a scheduled performance, you’ll find plenty of entertainment there and a respite from the hot weather and dust storms that mark life on the Playa.

By the way, one of the best volunteer activities is working at the Center Camp Café. Barista experience helps, but isn’t required. Just check out the volunteer opportunities at, or stop by the volunteer center that’s just a few feet away from Center Camp.

A Day at the Burn

If you’re considering going to Burning Man, you might be wondering what a typical day will be like on the Playa. Not to disappoint you, but I’m pretty sure there is no such thing as a typical day in Black Rock City, so the best I can do is tell you how we experience the Burn on a day-to-day basis.

We start early every morning because we’re part of the Lamplighters morning pick-up crew, which usually entails working from 8 until 10:30 – 11:00 a.m. picking up the 900+ kerosene lamps that were hung the previous evening, returning them to the work space, and cleaning the lamps in preparation for that night’s Lamplighting Ceremony. Then we make a little breakfast in our RV, and either spend time with our Lamplighter campmates or take off on our bikes to visit art and see friends staying in different camps. If we get hungry along the way, we can usually find a camp that’s serving grilled cheese sandwiches, hot dogs, French toast or something else delicious for lunch. And there are always a plethora of open bars ready to fill our empty mugs.

By 2 p.m., we’re usually back in our RV, where we turn on the air conditioner and take a nap during the hottest part of the day. By 4 p.m., we’ve changed into the appropriate costume for that afternoon’s Lamplighter party (there’s one daily between 3 and 5 p.m.). There, we imbibe in the “drink of the day,” and encourage visitors to volunteer to help us light the city. After 5, with the Lamplighting ceremony underway, we usually change into outfits for that night’s revelry and head out to Center Camp and beyond to enjoy Black Rock City by night. We may head for some events that we’ve found in the “What, When, Where Guide” you’ll receive as you enter the gate; or we may have some specific pieces of art we want to see in their fiery nighttime garb.

A day on the Playa -- clothing may be optional, but a bike is a must.

A day on the Playa — clothing may be optional, but a bike is a must.

If we’re hungry, we can return to camp where dinner is served after the Lamplighting Ceremony is over (usually a little after 8 p.m.), or we can skip dinner until we get home and raid the kitchen for leftovers.

Some nights we stay out well past midnight in search of unique late-night activities, food and drink. It’s a kick to visit the interactive fiery exhibits where we can actually control the flames, or activate a motion-based installation through our own muscle power. We haven’t done much dancing in past Burns, but lately we’ve rediscovered our love of dancing with each other, so we’ll probably hit a disco or two this year – even if the music’s a little loud for us and we’re from a far different generation of music styles.

We believe that Burning Man is best if you’re a participant and not just an onlooker, so we not only serve as Lamplighters every year, but we also take shifts as Greeters and Temple Guardians. The four-hour greeter shift always generates some of our best memories as we “welcome home” virgin Burners and veterans while wearing our most elaborate costumes. Serving as a Temple Guardian is one of the most rewarding roles in all of Burning Man, because you’re able to touch people at their most vulnerable moments, and become an integral part of one of the emotional centers of Black Rock City. We love the middle of the night shift, because we’re heading home just as the sun peeks over the mountains that surround the Playa.

There are plenty of other volunteer opportunities available, and you can check in at the volunteer center to make choices such as working at one of the radio stations or the Center Camp Cafe, helping out at Media Mecca, or joining BRC’s own DMV (Department of Mutant Vehicles.

But for some Burners, simply hanging out, partying and people watching are just right. It’s entirely up to you.