What it's like to visit Burning Man for the first time

Levi Bernard for Business Insider

There are three of us, cramped inside a dusty Toyota that’s packed to the gills along with a triad of busted bicycles hanging precariously off the back.

We are flanked on every side by travellers who, like us, have driven several hours to form what has turned out to be a particularly sluggish caravan into Black Rock City, Nevada.

Miles from the city’s entrance, I realise I am in no way adequately prepared. It was only two weeks earlier when I decided to buy a ticket to Burning Man at the persuasion of my best friend, Jes.

“You don’t have to bring anything, dude,” she told me over the phone. “Just get your ticket. I’ll bring all the stuff.”

At the time, the plan made sense. I would fly from New York to San Francisco to meet Jes and her girlfriend, Ryan. They would retrieve me from the airport and we would embark on the six-hour drive to Burning Man together.

Because nothing is available for purchase at the event itself, Jes has packed enough camping gear, food, and water for all three of us. Or so she has promised. My contribution to our collective efforts is a slim backpack filled with sparkly bathing suits, a ziplock bag of costume jewellery, and a jumbo-size box of disposable dust masks.

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Like most people who have never been to Burning Man before, I had, of course, heard of it. I also had a general approximation of what would occur there, based largely on the accounts of people I knew who had gone and returned as newfound vegans exuding auras of a certain new-age holiness.

Some weird sex stuff would go down, I imagined. People would take their clothes off. There would be loud music and large artworks and psychedelics and partying late into the night. Like Woodstock, but with less shade.

Ask people who have been to Burning Man what it’s like, and their answer is inevitably the same. “Oh my god,” they say. “It’s absolutely wild. You really have to see it for yourself.”

This rapturous response had still in no way convinced me. Privately, I was sceptical. What Kool-Aid were they drinking down there in the middle of the desert?

We’ve been stalled outside the gates for five hours when it comes to my attention that we have not brought enough water.

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“Fifteen gallons, plus the beer,” Jes tells me from the front seat. “I think it’s enough for three people.”

It is not enough. Per official Burning Man recommendations, you’re supposed to bring in at least 1 1/2 gallons per person, per day. The Nevada desert reaches temperatures of 100 degrees Fahrenheit or more, making death by dehydration highly probable. Jes, Ryan, and I are exactly 21 gallons short of the recommended minimum.

Already, Jes has rationed my water intake.

“You should be fine on half a gallon day,” she assures me. “Just don’t guzzle it down all at once like you’re a camel.”

It is Jes’ third year at Burning Man, and her voice has assumed an air of seasoned authority.

I think back longingly to the last convenience store we passed some hours ago along the congested, two-lane road that led us into this godforsaken desert. But to turn back now is out of the question.

A dust storm has swept the desert into an opaque, suffocating cloud, making it impossible to see even a few feet beyond the car. The instant we crack a window, the interior of Jes’ RAV4 becomes coated in a layer of dust the size of a small sand dune.

We are sandwiched in a restless convoy of revelers. Several people have set up lawn chairs on the roofs of their RVs, and the pickup truck behind us is blasting a relentless EDM beat. Outside, the air smells of mothballs and marijuana.

Jes and Ryan are wearing goggles. I am wearing a hot pink scuba mask that’s designed to fit the face of a small child. (“For ages 3 plus!” a label on the plastic package says brightly.) The scuba mask was a last-minute purchase made at a CVS in Reno at Jes’ insistence that I should have some sort of protective eyewear beyond sunglasses. It is too small for my face and covers my nose, making it difficult to breathe. I am intensely uncomfortable.

A masked woman taps on the car’s passenger window.

“Welcome to Burning Man,” she says, warmly. “Would you like to play Mad Libs to pass the time?”

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By the time we enter the city, it is nearly midnight.

We are greeted at the floodlit gate by a stocky, bearded man who kindly invites us to disembark from our vehicle and roll around in the dirt. “You’re a virgin burner,” he tells me. “It’s time to embrace the playa.”

It is not my wish to embrace the playa. My hope is to stay clean for as long as possible, and this plan does not include rolling around in a pile of dirt even before I pitch my tent.

“I’ll pass, but thank you very much,” I say. He shoots me a disappointed look.

“It’s your first time at Burning Man,” he insists. “It’s just a little dirt.” Already, Jess and Ryan are performing joyful somersaults in the sand at my feet.

Not wanting to appear a square who isn’t open to the possibility of some good old-fashioned fun, I concede, and lamely drop to the ground. I loll around in the dirt for what seems to be the acceptable minimum amount of time to constitute a full playa embrace. I stand, covered in dust, and start to sneeze repeatedly.

“Isn’t it the greatest?” the man asks, smiling gently as he wraps his arms around me in a warm embrace.”Welcome home.”

Burning Man 2018Levi Bernard for Business Insider

Over the course of my week in Black Rock City, I am welcomed home hundreds of times by strangers whose eyes are filled, almost uniformly, with the clear light of loving-kindness and acceptance. It is like being at a family reunion after coming out of a coma, except that every member of your family is an extremely attractive yoga instructor.

One of the people who welcome me home is the stubble-faced attendant at the Media Mecca tent, where I’m directed to receive a media pass. He asks whether it’s my first time at Burning Man, and I tell him that it is. “When you write about Burning Man, make sure you don’t refer to it as a festival,” he directs me. “This is not a festival. It is an event.”

This semantic differentiation is stressed to me multiple times by veteran attendees over the course of the week. The difference in these two terms, it is largely felt, lies in the participatory onus placed on Burning Man’s attendees. This is not Coachella. To even consider Burning Man remotely related to that other desert cabal is a sentiment of deepest insult. We are not passive observers glibly traipsing through a fairground. As attendees, we are part of the spectacle itself, members of a temporary community that has sprouted up along a sinister stretch of earth regularly unfit for human habitation.

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Perhaps the most impressive part of Burning Man is the playa, the open stretch of desert surrounded by a jagged mountain range that serves as the backdrop to roving art cars, impromptu dance parties, and art installations many stories high.

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The first time we encounter the playa is the night of our arrival to the city, after we unpack the car by the light of headlamps. We are on bicycles, wrapped in advance with LEDs – the only way to avoid collision along the dark, haphazard route into the city, where traffic laws are largely open to interpretation.

Teetering forth, we pass darkened campsites, a snail-shaped car lit by kaleidoscopic bulbs, a hundred or so other pedestrians and bicyclists, who, like us, have draped themselves in flashing neon.

And then, the playa comes into view.

It is much bigger than I’d expected, a limitless, psychedelic wilderness of pulsing neon and throbbing music. Wheeling across this great expanse are enormous metal piranhas belching flame, slow-moving magic carpets, and cathedrals whose roofs have been overtaken by crowds of fist-pumping dancers.

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“This is f—ing wild,” says Ryan, and she’s right.

We stop in at a bar for shots of whiskey and are then instructed to walk along a thin, rickety plank 15 feet above the ground. We roller-skate at a makeshift roller rink along the esplanade. We dance with an enormous panda. We see a punk-rock band perform.

Time is confused by the fact that not one but two moons shine above the playa. One is art. The other is real. The former is a convincing, illuminated orb that waxes from crescent to full again and again. According to this new lunar body, we spend an entire month on the playa by the time we head back to our tents.

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There is no exchange of cash at Burning Man.

Everything and anything is free. Rickety roadside garment racks filled with used clothing are marked with signs that read, “Take what you need!” People are giving away artwork they have made, plastic kazoos, necklaces, bags of candy, stickers, miso soup, massages, shots of B12, hair washing, cold-brew coffee, three-course meals completed by wine pairings. Everything is gratis.

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Our camp is hosting a small bar, where we’re inviting passersby to stop in for a swig of whiskey or a sickly sweet-peach punch made with dubious ingredients. A man in a tatterdemalion business suit stops by for a drink.

“I’m the Burning Man banker,” he says. “Put your hand inside my pocket for a gift.”

A redheaded woman reaches into his breast-coat pocket. She digs around for a moment and then pulls out a $US100 bill.

“It’s real, sweetheart,” he says. “Don’t spend it all at once.”

He grins broadly to reveal two rows of yellowed teeth, tucks his hands into his pockets, and then ambles away.

Despite the lack of physical cash, lavish displays of wealth are still on full display. It’s difficult, after all, not to notice the comparative wealth of people who are able to take a week off of work and spend what has been tallied as an average cost of $US1,500 apiece to achieve an advanced state of wokeness in the middle of the desert.

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While some of the artworks are cobbled together with the help of grants and financial aid, other installations on the playa are rumoured to be dreamed up by one-percenters who, like the Medicis before them, fund gargantuan aesthetic projects.

Some of the art cars are a level of ostentation bordering on comedy, one monied person’s gaudy fantasy attempting to outdo another’s. Mammoth vehicles spew balls of flame and beam out spotlights viewable from miles away, all the while blasting a continuous, inescapable soundtrack of pounding EDM.

At a corner of the camp close to the playa, identical RVs are lined neatly in pristine rows, alongside private Port A Potties. They are located a half-mile walk from our ramshackle quarters filled with weathered tents and tattered shade structures – a reminder that nearly all American cities, even temporary ones, are still subject to economic divide.

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The people who visit Burning Man have come from every conceivable corner of the earth. They are from Austin and Denver and Brooklyn and Tampa. They hail from China, Singapore, New Zealand, Japan, South Africa, France, Germany, and Indonesia. But even despite this geographical diversity, the crowd is still overwhelmingly white.

While the majority of burners appear to be lithe fitness models in sparkly bootie shorts, a small portion of attendees are kids in superhero capes, grandmothers in motorised wheelchairs, and elderly, white-haired men, some of whom comprise a roaming group of naked Santas.

Anything and everything you could imagine exists here. At the Healing Foot Wash down the road, you can wash your neighbour’s feet and hear all about the love of your prospective saviour Jesus Christ. Just blocks from the Healing Foot Wash, another camp’s sign announces “Free Abortions!” with the words “No minors allowed!” scrawled in marker underneath. A 10-minute walk from here is Kindergarten Kamp, an outdoor playground where toddlers bounce gleefully on a giant trampoline.

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Hedonism abounds.

Everywhere you look, debauchery unfolds. Naked women wielding leather paddles implore bystanders to pull their pants down for a spanking. Couples bedecked in feathers and dust masks line up expectantly outside the air-conditioned Orgy Dome. At the nightly Bareoke, a woman strips down as she sings along to the Spice Girls.

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Nudity is ubiquitous, and informally enforced in bizarre and ridiculous ways. Several ramshackle bars require women to bare their breasts if they wish to drink there. “I had to show my penis to get a snow cone yesterday,” a man in our camp confides.

Of just a small sampling of the activities available are fellatio contests, something advertised as “p—y massages,” genital prints made in the “traditional Japanese method,” BDSM play inside a dungeon, the Slut Olympics, an activity described as a “Bubbles and Boobs VIP Party” (“Bring your boobs!”), and a workshop where you can learn to write erotic poetry in binary code (010101).

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People who in their everyday lives work as scientists or elementary-school teachers or web developers are passing out thimbles of absinthe, ladles of vodka-laced punch, and pours of whiskey. Sobriety is strongly discouraged. As early as 8 a.m., tutu-clad men and women armed with bullhorns hail bikers into their requisite bars for a mimosa or a shot of tequila. “Why be sober!?” a woman shouts. At one camp’s communal dinner, LSD-blotted Altoids, magic mushrooms, and MDMA are rationed out alongside a meal of chilli made from a broth of beer.

By Wednesday, we are subsisting largely off of a diet of warm Modelos, sardines, and pickles. We are looking haggard. We are feeling more than a little unhealthy.

“I think I’m immune to drugs,” a fellow campmate confides. “I’ve taken so much LSD that it no longer has any effect on me. I took three hits today and all I want to do is go to bed.”

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Despite the hedonism, the total and complete lack of a single trash can, and the fact 70,000 people are wandering around a largely unmonitored desert expanse at deeply questionable degrees of sobriety, the playa itself is remarkably, exceptionally clean.

In my seven days here, I could count the amount of trash I have seen on one hand and can also recount exactly what those items are: a blue ballpoint pen, a piece of toilet paper, a glow stick, and a headband. That’s it. This detritus is called MOOP, or Matter Out of Place, and is intensely, near-manically monitored by veteran attendees.

When I attempt to run a brush through my ratty, dust-ridden hair in the middle of the afternoon, a girl from our camp immediately stops me. “Can you go inside your tent and do that?” She asks. “Hair is technically MOOP.”

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I am surprised to learn that, along with a noticeable police presence, there are many rules.

We are reminded in a booklet of regulations issued along with our ticket that drugs including marijuana are technically illegal. The same DUI laws that govern the state of Nevada are applied to anyone driving an art car at 5 mph around the playa. Vehicles, even ones in the shape of rubber duckies or UFOs, should be registered and insured. Pee on the playa, and you could be slapped with a fee of hundreds of dollars.

If you plan to drink alcohol, you’ll need to bring along your ID. A few, more lenient bars accept laminated copies of identification, but most demand the real deal.

Even the Orgy Dome, which I have envisioned as a den of sweaty carnality so iniquitous it would make the devil blush, has its own set of rules.

“The Orgy Dome is so boring,” a campmate complains. “First, you have to hear this long lecture about consent. Then you have to wait in line forever. And then, once you get in, it’s mostly just couples laying around. It’s the most organised sex you’ll ever have in your life.”

“It’s true,” a friend volunteers. “The only good reason to go to the Orgy Dome is if you want to take a nap.”

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On Thursday, after the sun has set, I hitch a ride with Jes and Ryan from a man driving an enormous banana to the outer regions of the desert, called the Deep Playa. There, we have heard, a drone show is about to take place. We arrive at a planar opening filled with art cars decked out in blinking neon. We drink absinthe from a mobile bar and take turns pushing one another on the enormous basket swing that’s attached to its roof.

And then, suddenly, hundreds of drones lit up in purple and blue appear above our heads. They pulse and blossom overhead, moving in undulating formations to piano music.

It is beautiful and moving, the sort of artwork that is impossible to imagine happening anywhere but here, above an alien flatland of desolate earth and against this particular backdrop of pitch-black desert sky.

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Burning Man is filled with moments like these, instances of profundity and depth that you might not have at first expected from a tutu-ridden desert bacchanal.

Visit the Temple, for instance, and it’s impossible not to be moved.

The Temple is located in the center of the playa; an intricate, wooden spiral, big enough to hold hundreds of people. It’s the sort of structure that takes months to build. Like The Man, the stick figure epithet for which the event is named, it too will be burned to the ground at the end of the week.

The moment you enter the Temple, the atmosphere shifts. The air grows suddenly heavy. It is quiet. Inside, visitors have left mementos of all that they have lost. Stapled to the spiraled beams are photographs of dead loved ones, notes of regret penned to ex-lovers, locks of hair. Several wedding dresses hang overhead.

A little boy seated on his father’s shoulders asks, “Is this where we’re leaving mummy?”

People write notes on beams with sharpies. The items left inside are glimpses into the personal tragedies of strangers. Most are crying. A woman lies prostrate on the ground. A group of people chant someone’s name.

Burning man templeGetty Images

By Thursday, we are exhausted.

My personal filthiness has a reached a degree I’ve never previously experienced. In the course of five days, I have applied two boxes of wet wipes to my body. I have cleaned my feet in great secrecy with bottled water so as not to enrage my fellow campmates by the lavish and nonessential use of our beverage supply. I have attempted to brush my hair and accordingly ripped from my scalp three separate knots of intricate and dusty tangles. I have experienced multiple bloody noses. I have been tempted to dispose of wet wipes into the Port A Potty even though I have been reminded, with nagging persistence, that this holy receptacle is fit for human waste and one-ply toilet paper alone.

I feel as though I haven’t slept in days, even though our camp is located in what is considered one of the quieter sites at Burning Man. The throbbing EDM music from the perpetual parade of art cars streaming past at all hours of the night has rendered the 20 pairs of earplugs I’ve packed entirely ineffectual.

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A man from our camp has deserted us for a luxurious hotel room in Tahoe. Burning Man, he tells us upon departure, is simply too much. “I think I get it,” he says. “A bunch of people partying in the desert. How much more of this can people take?”

At the beginning of the week, I might have agreed with him. But now, while still at Burning Man, I am experiencing an onset of Burning Man FOMO. I miss out on the sumo-wrestling competition. I never make it to the group wedding that takes place at sunset. I keep waking up too late to go skydiving. There’s too much going on.

But by the end of the week, the loving-kindness which had at first seemed so refreshing and limitless is beginning to wane. The heat is getting to us. People are irritable. I am irritable. Jes and I have a minor disagreement, and I storm away, furious. Arguments are sprouting up all around us. A married couple in our camp gets into a shouting match. One of them threatens divorce.

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The morning after The Man is burned, we gather to eat a pig that’s being cooked over the remains of its blackened ashes. Just feet away from where a woman in a black bodice poses for a photo, her hands filled with the heart and lungs of a dead goat (really), a thin woman slaps a man in the face and screams, “What were you doing all night at your pervert party? Where were you? How can you leave your child like that?

People holding bullhorns line the dusty streets and shout: “Go home! Get the f— out of here! Leave Burning Man and never come back! What are you still doing here?”

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On Sunday, we repack the Toyota, hitching our bicycles to the rear and strapping bags of trash to the roof. The moment is bittersweet. It would be difficult to leave Burning Man with a perspective on life that, if not entirely renewed, is at the very least refurbished. “I’m gonna change my life, man,” I overhear a man telling his friend. “I’m gonna quit my job. I’m gonna lose 20 pounds.” This is the sort of inspirational zeitgeist that’s in the air.

On our final evening there, as we watch The Man burn amid towering flames, a friend turns to me.

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“Maybe it’s about death. Or renewal? Or art. But also life? Definitely society. And self-image,” he ponders, filled with psychedelic wisdom.

We can still feel the heat from where we stand, far from the flames, the biggest fire I’ve seen in my life. We are quiet, then, just taking it in.

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Two weeks later at an investor dinner in New York, I’m chatting with an entrepreneur who mentions that he and his wife were at Burning Man this year.

“We’ve gone for four years,” he tells me. “Missing it would be like not going home at Christmas.”

I ask what he thought about the experience. Did he feel that Burning Man would still be culturally relevant in coming years?

“Well yeah, of course,” he said. “If there’s anything that can outlive the hype, it’s Burning Man.”

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