in Travel/Experience

Thoughts of a Second Year Burner

This was the fabled week of Burning Man, that famous hippie desert fest where some 70,000 people descend onto a god forsaken part of Nevada desert for an entire week, turning it into the third most populous city in the state. This was my second year attending, despite telling myself for the majority of the last few months telling myself that I wouldn’t return. I had decided that while I did want to come back at some point, I didn’t want to do it back to back because then the novelty of the experience would be lost.

It’s not that I had already done everything (Black Rock City is different every single year, and there’s no way you could see/do everything it has to offer in one week), but rather that I knew seeing it all again so soon would be bittersweet. The first time you walk out on the playa at night bathed with neon colors, hulking art cars, and a sky laced with fire and lasers, it’s astounding. Every sight is a new “Wow, look at that!”.

The second time around, the sensory overload becomes known. Instead of ‘what the heck is that huge flaming octopus?!” you go “Oh, I remember Pulpo Mechanico – he’s looking good this year”. Your sense of disbelief is deadened, and the fantastical becomes familiar. It’s the same bittersweet realization I’ve covered elsewhere concerning travel fatigue – when you start to notice repetitive themes even in novel situations. The new country may have a distinct culture, but your personal experience of it is much the same as the last one, what with hostels, cheap food, and tourist sights. Black Rock City is as drastic a departure from the ‘default world’ as can be, but you can still get accustomed to it. (though no comfortable, without an RV)

I wrote a list of all the impressive idiosyncrasies of Burning Man last year, which is an unbiased look at a first timer’s wonders. Now, after my second journey, here’s how it was different with a knowledgable eye:

Last time I went with a dozen or so friends on a retrofitted school bus, which was a blast but meant that it was too easy to stick around existing friends in camp rather than push boundaries. This time, I came with one friend and we joined the established camp Moon Cheese, complete with dues and labor expected (in return for a stellar location, water, and dinners). This was a great decision – it gave us the chance to form relationships with new people without having to leaving the shade and relative shelter of camp, plus it felt more in line with the principle of radical inclusivity than going it alone.

And it gave you something to do! Maybe it’s just my Type A self, but lounging around all day exploring or partying gets old fast, and it was nice to be able to contribute via work that directly helped others. That may be one of BM’s strengths – there’s nothing to do in the desert to start, and so the experience is created entirely by the participants. Just spectating isn’t rewarding enough – you have to go the extra mile to create and art car or a theme camp in order to truly enjoy it.

Perhaps that was what I was missing – I did become a bit jaded this time around. The alpine desert where Burning Man takes place is a harsh, harsh environment, and while I remembered that from last year it remains as jolting as ever. It was enough to prevent me from coming the entire 7 days, and even then we ended up driving home a bit earlier than normal due to malaise. The residents who shack up in air conditioned RVs get a bad rap among Burners, but I emphasize with them – there becomes a point where your discomfort impinges on your ability to make the most of your surroundings. I’m no princess myself, so that’s saying something. When you have to lay in the shade unmoving for a few hours at midday just to be able to last til bedtime, something needs changing.

I tried to approach this year as more of a conference event, after great times at South by Southwest and the World Domination Summit. Burning Man has almost as many technorati and hustlers as the above, even if they come together for a different reason here. (it’s to party hard, don’t let anybody tell you otherwise) The playa’s allure lies in the fact that nobody has anything else to do but enjoy themselves – thus the playing field is more level than elsewhere. The big shots might be staying in RVs rather than tents – but they’re still there in the same dust you are, and if you can find them you can talk to them. In theory, at least – the VIPs I managed to brush against were either busy with friends or with custom made wifi when I found them. Oh well – at least I got a word in.

My initial maxim still stands – I think anyone remotely interesting in attending Burning Man should do it at least once. Past that, it’s all up to you, and as of right now I doubt I will return unless I can contribute in some big way to a camp or art car. But I said a similar thing last year, and look where that got me!