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By Rebecca Suhrawardi
At the end of August, tens of thousands of people from all over the world will flock to the Nevada Desert to burn — or dance with abandon — in a costumed world full of music and art that leaves behind any trace of one’s actual life.
Burning Man, now one of the most famous art and music festivals in the world, has been around for over 25 years and operates within a temporary city called Black Rock City (or The Playa as it is otherwise known) that is erected in a barren stretch of desert and comprised of various self-sustaining camps; some as large as a small village.
“Most people get to BM via car or RV,” says Michael Henderson, a fourteen-year veteran of the Burn, who works at a large, well-known investment bank. He is a co-founder of Play)A(Skool, one of the largest camps in Black Rock City, hosting over 150 Burners. The camp’s core philosophy is about combining learning and fun, and it even hosted a TedX talk one year. “Some are brave enough to rock up on a motorcycle with nothing more than some camping gear. A few also decide to fly in on small single prop planes from Reno. And a very lucky few skydive into the burn.” Which he enthusiastically adds he would like to do one day.
“I remember a story of a guy that left one year before the event and bicycled from Argentina to The Playa,” says Jon La Grace, also a co-founder of Play)A(Skool. La Grace was an investment banker for 13 years before he entered his current occupation of writer, director, and producer. For the past four years, he has been responsible for the end-to-end production and project management of the camp. Considering there is zero infrastructure in the desert, making sure the camp has basic necessities like water and power is a massive undertaking.
The biggest challenge about Burning Man is actually making the decision to go. “It is a true commitment, a commitment of time, vacation days, money, and effort,” says Henderson. “Getting there is never easy, it requires a lot of planning, a lot of logistics and very often coordinating with other friends. The point is, that getting to BM is a journey and you have to be prepared.”
The crowd is inherently diverse, from artists and musicians to CEO’s and venture capitalists, there are hardly exceptions as far as professions are concerned. And according to La Grace, the crowd is “an eclectic mix of old and new, coming from all walks of life. All creeds bound together through a shared experience framed by the exploration of a principle-based community.”
While the idea of togetherness is the foundation of Burning Man’s society, “Everyone at Burning Man is equal, and everyone knows this,” says Henderson. However, according to La Grace’s perspective, there is segmentation happening.
“It’s divided, which to me is the biggest issue impacting BM,” he says. “Inclusion is one of the basic principles the community is framed by, but over the years labels have been put on groups. Turn-key campers, for instance, frames one group. Hippie, gay, RVers, millennialists — all these labels have been put on people and groups which have lent to divisions on The Playa. We are moving further and further away from the concept of oneness.”
Divisions aside, The Playa is an incredibly difficult terrain to navigate, with strong sunshine during the day and cold desert nights, all of which is peppered with occasional dust storms. This means preparation becomes a key factor when traveling to The Burn, with the full expectation of having dust everywhere: in your hair, in your shoes, on your face, and in all the cracks and crevices in between. “The biggest problem with the dust is that it tends to dry out your skin very quickly due to the alkalinity,” Henderson says. “So lots of moisturizer and/or lemon juice is highly recommended.”
La Grace advises that embracing the dust is your best bet, along with bringing a healthy supply of baby wipes and oils for the skin. Among the top essential items the pair deemed necessary for the trip are: goggles, a hat, lip balm, a portable water vessel, your own water supply (it’s the desert), shelter, food, lighting, and a variety of clothes to deal with the elements. But according to Henderson, the most important things to bring are an open heart and mind.
The Play)A(Skool co-founder’s list of all the things you wanted to know about Burning Man but were afraid to ask:
1. It’s not cheap to go to Burning Man. If you are worried about the price of the ticket, the event might not be for you.
2. Yes, there are a lot of drugs and naked people and wild parties — the rumors are true, but only one shade of an incredible rainbow of colors.
3. Some people think that camping in RV’s isn’t really experiencing Burning Man. They are wrong.
4. There are predatory people on The Playa, yes, this is true. Every year there are reports of women who get drugged and raped.
5. There is a significant police force out there and you must be aware of them. You will get arrested for participating in illegal activities.
6. There are givers and takers on The Playa. The challenge is to be both. People will take advantage of your kindness and generosity and you have to know how to seek balance and say ‘no’.
7. Burning Man is changing and the experience is changing as well. Going in with no expectation is always best.
8. The more you put into BM, the more you get out of it.
9. You do not need to take illicit substances to enjoy Burning Man, the art and music along will keep you constantly happy and mesmerized.
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