Burning Man (Part One)
September 12, 2009
This year, I attended Burning Man for the first time. It’s difficult to even know how to begin writing about this event. Over the course of it, I discovered that one of the most common shared experiences of ‘Burners’ (people who attend Burning Man) is a frustration at trying to adequately describe it to people who have not attended. While I am certain that I will fail to capture it adequately as well, I do wish to make the attempt if for no other reason than to secure some parts of the memory for myself. Also, I expect my writing about it to be ambling and a bit disjoined, but since my event was also those things, at least it will be in keeping with the spirit.
Burning Man’s own website and the Wikipedia article on Burning Man are good places to start for some generic background. As I’ve only been the one time it’s hard to generalize about the event as a whole (although anyone who knows me will know that won’t stop me from doing so.)
Coming in from England to do the event, as I did, presented some even greater challenges. It is an outdoor event, literally a city in the middle of a desert (actually an alkaline flat or playa to be exact) you have to set up your own camp, which means tents at a minimum (although a great many people come in some kind of recreational vehicle.) I was lucky in that I had a native guide in the form of my little sister, who has been going for a number of years. Since, unlike myself, she is already on the continent (Minnesota to be exact), she was able to do most of the wrangling of the necessary equipment. Like me, she also flew into Reno (the closest city to the event site), but she was able to arrange the transportation of our tent, sundry equipment, and two bicycles (more on bikes later) with some of her friends who were driving down to the event (and many many thanks to them for doing so.) Other european Burners have solved this problem in similar ways, although other very dedicated burners have simply opted for the solution of renting out a year-round storage space in Reno itself.
Most of the people I encountered did not attend the event by themselves but as a part of a larger ‘camp’ of people. In some cases the camps can apply for ‘theme camp’ status. These camps are not just a place to stay during the event for the camp members, but extend some kind of extra something to the event itself, a good example of this would be Quixote’s, who set up the Man and Monkey pub on their site this year, basically running a UK-style pub and cabaret space (they’re also a lovely group of people who put up with a lot of questions from me before the event.) Being a registered theme camp gives you two great advantages for the event:
One, it lets you have a set space for where you’re going to be. This means that you can create all kinds of sinage and announcements before the event itself. These set spaces are also closer towards the center of the city which means less walking for everyone.
Two, it lets you get in early to the event, so you can be set up before it offically starts.
Both of these factors are very important. The group that I was with was not a registered theme camp, and therefore had neither a pre-established space, nor the luck of getting in early. The net effect of this was that we were placed more than a bit out in the stix of the event. But I’ll write more about that later.
Also, I would say the the majority of the non-theme camps still made (in some cases amazing) efforts to contribute to the greater event as well. The group that I was with (dubbed the ‘shady stragglers’, as it was comprised of a lot of people who were part of a previous year’s theme camp called ‘shady rest’) had the tremendious fortune of camping close to two other camps: ‘The Oasis’ was literally a bar, and was open pretty much all the time. So we always had the option of walking across the street and hanging out with loads of people and boozing it up mightliy in the company of other Burners. Kitty-corner from our location was another camp that served tea and coffee every morning from 8-11am and provided a social space where we could meet many other people in our area. Despite neither of these camps being official ‘Theme Camps’ they were, by far, the camps that did the most to create the sense of community and the opportunity to meet my fellow burners, that is a core part of my Burning Man experience, and both of them deserve immense gratitude for their generosity.
More to come…