Photo: Karon Shovers

I am trying to figure out why Burning Man works. Why does spending an uncomfortable week camping in the desert with thousands of other people leave so many with a renewed sense of purpose and direction in their lives?  Is it the no-commerce rule? Is it that people are encouraged to fully participate in their new, temporary community? Or does the common ethic of self-reliance and leave-no-trace camping create some sort of bond? I am not sure any of these factors fully explains the effect. For me, it remains something of a mystery.

And while each one of the 51,515 people who participated this year inevitably experiences something different, the goal that impels each person to trek to a desert in northern Nevada creates a unifying spirit and shared sense of community that is, in the end, ultimately satisfying for those who go.

Burning Man (logo at right)  takes place during the week before Labor Day on a dried lakebed, nicknamed The Playa. The organizers describe Burning Man as a radical experiment in community, art, self-expression and self-reliance.  Their strict rules include:

  1. No Commerce: any buying/selling is strictly prohibited (only ice and coffee are sold at Playa Center)
  2. Leave No Trace: There are no trash cans—everything you bring must be packed out (you may not even pour water on the eco-sensitive Playa).

There are no facilities, just porta-potties (well-maintained and surprisingly clean). You must bring everything you need for sleeping, eating, drinking, bathing, etc. Most people pitch tents, while some come in campers or RVs.

Photo: Karon Shovers

Yet within these Spartan confines, many “burners” work all year building and creating an extravagant structure, exhibit, or art car to use and share for just one week at Burning Man. The many elaborate, multi-room tents with ornate decorations, lights and furniture stunned me. So did the “mutant vehicles,” which are essentially huge, complex pieces of art perched atop automobile chassis, obscuring all remnants of the original cars except the wheels (Burning Man’s own “DMV” governs the use of these vehicles). People also adorn their bodies extravagantly, with flamboyant costumes made from layers of jewelled and sequined fabrics, hats and boots. Yet others choose the simple costume of intricately painted bodies, with little actual clothing, which pays off when the temperatures top 90 degrees daily.

Photo: Karon Shovers

Photo: Karen Shovers

Art is everywhere. Large-scale exhibits in the center of The Playa included many grand metal sculptures this year, several resembling tree-like flowers.  The giant sculpture of a female dancer literally took center stage in The Playa.

Photo: Karon Shovers

The San Francisco skyline art car, with its Transamerica Building and Golden Gate Bridge, attracted attention as it drove across the desert.

I do admit there were some people at Burning Man with whom I had a challenging time communicating. After trying unsuccessfully to respond to a friendly neighbor’s conversation, I would finally turn to Karon, my Playa Translator, in frustration, and she would sigh and patiently say, “Kathy, she’s on acid.”  Aha. Or when an acquaintance who had been capable of quick and witty repartee appeared suddenly slow-witted, I would have to ask Karon, “Is he stoned?” “Well, Kathy, if he was stoned at 10 a.m., and it’s now 5 p.m., then I’m guessing yes, he’s stoned.”  And a 20-something describing his shower made from a water jug perched atop his SUV as “really dope” confused me. I said, Wait, wait, “dope” is now an adjective?  Karon just laughed knowingly.


Photo: Karon Shovers

I felt most inspired by the imagination expressed in the mundane everyday, in the shelter and clothing people created. Living in New York City, I thought I understood how broadly art can be defined.  But the creativity expressed at Burning Man truly stretched my notion of “art.”

To say my friends were surprised to hear about my Burning Man trip does not begin to capture the slack-jawed incredulity that hit their faces. Tellingly, many people in my world have never heard of Burning Man. And many of those who have possess a one-dimensional notion of a rave-like party involving sex, drugs and rock-n-roll. Once I finally convinced them it was not a joke, that I really was going to Burning Man, they all had the same question: Why? Last spring, I was going through one of those Life Is Short realizations that become more frequent as we age. It occurred to me that we each seem to live our lives in more or less the same way, day in and day out. Even our vacations can follow a somewhat repetitive format.  I was hit with the compulsion to look for experiences that are different, and perhaps even a little challenging or uncomfortable. 

While all this was buzzing around the back of my head, my friend Karon asked if I had any interest in going to Burning Man. It all came together.  Life is short: Burning Man. I didn’t question it; it was clear. It was one of those rare, pure visions of The Right Thing To Do.
I did later have some feelings of misgiving, about a month before the trip. I knew that at 47, I would be somewhat older than the average Burner, who is 36 (though every year Burning Man does attract folks in their 70s and 80s, as well as a few toddlers).  I feared being surrounded by pseudo-enlightened 20-somethings who needed to tell me how they had life all figured out. I just packed some extra novels and remembered that I’d always have the RV to hide in. I kept breathing, and I trusted the truth of my epiphany, as corny as that sounds. And then there is the dust.  Roughly 51,000 people walking, biking, driving art cars and dancing on the dried lakebed surface loosens up a lot of dust.  Then, when the wind blows, the dust becomes airborne, and we all have to wear bandanas over our noses and mouths. We apparently got lucky, as the first four days of the week were dust-free.  But Friday the wind kicked in, and all that particulate matter stuck to sticky skin, which was not frequently bathed (limited water, remember?). The regulars kept noting that it wouldn’t be Burning Man without the dust. I would not have minded a slightly less authentic Burning Man experience, then. And there was loud music. All the time. Even at 7 a.m.  Predominantly “house music”–you know, that ubiquitous techno, repetitive thumping that emanates from most dance clubs these days. I did read that if I wanted to sleep at Burning Man, I must bring earplugs. It seemed hard to conceive, but I complied. Good thing I follow directions.

Photo: Karen Shove

Karon and I did dance a lot. Thanks to iBurn, the iPhone database app I downloaded right before the trip (there is no cell or internet service whatsoever in that desert), I had a comprehensive listing of all the Burning Man camps with dance floors and music, as well as their locations on The Playa. Thankfully, iBurn included descriptions of the musical genre each “club” employed, so I was able to avoid the ones playing only house music (the majority), opting instead for the ’80s music spots. There were so many other unique experiences: Hula hooping, watching the talented fire dancers, tasting bacon-infused tequila (as bad as it sounds).  Riding around in the Teddy-Bear-bedecked art car and dropping by theme camps to be misted, massaged, or just served iced coffee.  And so much more.  

(Photo: Karen Shovers)

After I’ve answered the question of why I went, the next question is always will I go back?

The answer is: absolutely.

For more of Karon Shover’s Burning Man photos, check WVFC Facebook page. For more photos from the event, check out the photo galleries in the Daily Mail and the Philadelphia Inquirer websites. And for a cool pictorial history of Burning Man trends, demographics, and more, see this Flickr stream. — KR

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  • Chris Kuntz October 23, 2011 at 9:52 pm

    I went in 2008, and have since then convinced 2 others to go ( a real accomplishment, as I live in rural Northern Ontario )……….we all come back from burning man with a refreshing outlook on humanity, and our place in it. I shall return with my Uncle, Dad, Chindren………as long as it remains pure and true to the original philoshophy, I live there in my mind.

  • Anne Jordan September 5, 2011 at 4:01 am

    Hi Kathleen,
    Great review of Burning Man. I have had an itching to go to BM for a few years now but have been hesitant due to the dreaded age thing. (I’m 52) The distance is a problem for me as I am in Australia so there will need to be lots of planning ahead re transport and having everything I need to be self sufficient. Your story has encouraged me. I plan to be on the playa in 2012.



  • maxtov December 3, 2010 at 4:54 pm

    Couple of the main aspects that somehow did not make it to the story are people and the spirit of Burning Man.
    Of all the burns I’ve been to I have yet to meet a single mean or unfriendly person. Total strangers will share pretty much anything & everything they got without any hint of expectation of payback – just because you’re a fellow burner. Gift economy and absolute brotherhood is something you want to contribute to and changes your mindset. Just keep your mind and heart open, take it as it comes.
    Another thing I would like to mention is artistic creativity on the playa – so many times some great idea just started coming to mind and once you turn around it is already there, implemented, improved and materialized.
    It will probably take more than one burn to get the whole thing together, but you made the right move – see ya on the playa 2011.

  • interested November 29, 2010 at 11:59 am

    im going in 2012

  • Patrick Alexander November 10, 2010 at 8:00 pm

    Was there at least a Pink Floyd tent? In all seriousness, your writing is always interesting and fun to read.

  • Marcy Recktenwald October 4, 2010 at 11:05 am

    Great writing…loved the pictures…

  • Dr.Pat Allen October 4, 2010 at 7:44 am

    Kathy has returned from an experience at Burning Man and we are thrilled to share her retro time in the desert. The photos are a great addition to this “What I did this summer” essay. Living without leaving a large carbon foot print behind is something Burning Man can teach even the delicate among us.