I’m a self-admitted festival hussie.  My parents were huge hippies and I grew up going to lots of festivals and giant outdoor concerts, and as an adult I’ve been to and worked at my fair share.  But no other week has blown my mind and changed me as much as going to Burning Man.

playa hearts

In San Francisco I take it for granted everyone knows about it; the city practically empties for this one critical week.  But when I travel, I inevitably end up trying to share my experiences of this extraordinary place, and I become tongue-tied and feel I am unable to fully express what it is and what it means to me.  All right, it goes something like this:

Burning Man is a week long festival/camp-out/freak-fest in the middle of the desert in Nevada, USA.  For one week a whole city is created from nothing.  This isn’t your regular festival plan: camp here, music there, food here, the line-up is on the program.  The whole experience is created by the participants.   The Burning Man Foundation itself creates and plans out the city, funds grants for the more intricate art pieces, builds the man and temple, and a few other very important things, but the majority of what is seen and enjoyed out there is completely independently funded and created by random participants.

firekitties1 and firekitties2

How did this phenomenon come to exist?  Why would anyone create something of this magnitude without a profit in mind? Well…

Burning Man was started in 1986 as sort of a solstice ritual on Baker Beach in San Francisco, where Larry Harvey and Jerry James decided to build and burn an eight foot man.  The man burning became an annual tradition and eventually was shut down in San Francisco.  The event was moved deep into the desert of Nevada and grew up.  Somehow these random beginnings became Black Rock City, a city active for one week a year, this year with a sold out population of way over 53,735.

color day frills

Ty to imagine this city where anything goes… Where you can ride around on a pirate ship all night drinking the finest tequila watching a mobile trapeze show.  Imagine after that, when you get off it, you join a laser-lit rocking club with thousands of people dancing to international DJ’s.  In the morning you do yoga and meditate, while watching the most amazing sunrise ever light up a giant LOVE.   Then you change into a new tutu and your new friends whisk you off in a furry mushroom cart to drink Chambord mimosas…

And that is just twenty-four hours of your week.  Going is an intense and life changing experience.  People I try to explain it to ask me to compare it to other festivals, and the truth is, there is no comparison.  I have changed so much since my first time attending five years ago.  In honor of my fifth year, I would like to share five reasons why there is no comparison:

black rock dust

1. The Principle of Radical Self Reliance

This is not the kind of place you can roll up with a little tent and cooler of beer.  To make it the whole week in Black Rock City you need food, water, shade and camping equipment strong enough to resist the sun and winds, and the kind of attitude that is ready for anything.  There is no money allowed.  Well, almost none, you can still buy coffee and ice (thank goodness!) from Center Camp, but besides that it is money free.

The next thing people ask is, “Oh, so you trade for everything?”  No.  You gift.  A trade is different because you expect something back, but gifting is done freely and with no attachments.  Although, speaking from experience, whiskey or a cold beer seems to be the best “thank you!” ever.

Besides just setting up your camp and supplies for the week, you are also expected to take everything out with you.  This is a leave no trace event and there are no garbage cans anywhere.  All trash, recycling, and grey water must be carted out.  Volunteers from the festival stay out for months combing through the endless dust for that last cigarette butt or feather earring…

this one wins

2. Art, Art, and More Art!

Walking or riding across The Playa is better then going into any museum (although air conditioning would be nice occasionally). Just this last year there was a geometric playgound, a giant LOVE, a fire roller coaster, and a 120-foot temple.  The main mode of transportation to get across the giant city is on bike, and everyone decorates theirs differently.  I’ve seen unicorns, furry bumble bees, and some bikes with enough sequins to make Lady Gaga envious.  The only motor powered vehicles allowed to ride around have to be registered by the Department of Mutant Vehicles (DMV).  My camp has a two story brown and copper school bus, The Janky Barge, with a DJ set up, a bar, and tons of blinking LED lights.  There is so much creativity everywhere, from the sculptures and structures to the people and vehicles, it will amaze you the things people are capable of creating for the sheer joy of it.

color love and so, this happened

3. You’re in the Freaking Desert

There is no escape.  there is no grass.  There are no trees.  The city itself is huge and after you leave the comforts of camp, you are exposed!  It gets really hot during the day.  It gets really cold at night.  There is no vegetation.  Crazy wind storms take over suddenly and you and every single thing you brought with you gets covered completely in dust.  Something about these intense conditions unites you faster with everyone else who is experiencing them with you.  The starkness of the desert and the magnitude of the mountains also create a beautiful backdrop for the man-made art that is everywhere.  There is nothing quite like a sunrise or sunset out there, and luckily there is no shortage of amazing places to experience them, my favorites this year were at the LOVE, and I always appreciate them from the temple.

devil in the dust

4. This is a Non-Spectator Event

What are you here for?  There is no official line-up for music or classes, or anything really officially scheduled besides the burn of the man and the temple.  The art cars, clubs, workshops, and whatever else is going on are fully at the discrepancy of whoever organized them.  You might be initially turned off at being expected to contribute, (I paid for my ticket already, where’s the party?) but after being so taken care of by others it feels good to return the favor.  There are so many ways to contribute!  My first year I made lemonade, gave out hugs, and chap-stick.  This year I arrived three days early to build a giant dome for our camp’s living room (and unfortunately got too excited and got heat stroke in the process), helped clean camp, gave out presents, made food and drinks for everyone, and stayed late to clean the site.  There is no gift too small or big.  Just offering a thirsty person some of your water could be the greatest gift given. Stop watching and get in there!

firelovers and firerush

5. This is a Fantasy Land and Anything Goes

Everything that has ever held you back from living your dream is gone. There is no judgment, no barriers, and no rules.  As long as you are ready, your wildest dreams are about to come true.  Embrace the impossible!  No matter what you are wearing, there is someone out there weirder then you are.  You will find yourself interacting and becoming fast friends with others you would never associate with in real life.  Live it up!  Embrace every moment!  There won’t be anything you will ever experience like this ever again.  Until next year.  See you out there?

the temple of transition

A big, big, giant THANK YOU to Steph Goralnick for all the amazing photos!  All were taken this past year.

* post written by Kyra Bramble. To read more of Kyra’s, check out her website.