I just got back from burning man and have been wrestling with whether to characterize it as a positive or negative experience. The key question is "Will I go back Next Year?" Much to my surprise the answer is "probably". As time goes on, I find myself remembering all the fun and funny things and forgetting the noise and dust. My camp mate Jim was a great part of the experience and was also a burning man "Virgin". We didn't know each other well but had met the previous year on a tour of burning man. Jim is from Ohio and had his crap together. Between the two of us we were fairly well prepared. It seemed if I forgot something he remembered it. He encouraged me to think outside the box and get off my comfy bed in the RV and go explore. Plus we were thrown in with a bunch of Russians from Seattle at the Bloop camp, and I was glad to have experienced Burners as camp company. Although we were the odd men out, we were made to feel welcome at Bloop. Whether I go next year all depends on who else wants to go or who I will hang out with. I even have some ideas for art cars and building a playa experience. I want to share some pros and cons to the burning man experience.
There are 4 primary draws to Burning Man that I can see:
1) Drugs & Alcohol
2) Sex, Nudity and & Voyerism (i.e. looking at hot young bodies)
3) Music & Dancing
Notice the above is just a variation of "sex, drugs, and rock n Roll" with art thrown into the mix. Not bad reasons to go all by themselves.
There are also some Secondary draws:
5) Eye candy. Seeing new ideas and things that can generate creativity in your own life, products, or job.
6) Camping with friends and all that goes with that. Conversation, laughter etc.
7) Meeting Interesting new people in an environment that encourages interaction.
8) The feeling of pride & accomplishment when people show appreciation for playa gifts you provide.
9) The sense of community - of being unselfish and sharing. Socialism? Communism? Well we know they won't work long term but they do work for 1 week on the playa whilst everyone is feeling generous with the plethora of goodies they brought.
10) The feeling of accomplishment for being self sufficient and surviving harsh elements.
11) Completely off the grid - no cell phones, no communication with outside world.
12) Getting outside your comfort zone - whether that's seeing nudity, sex, drugs, or interacting with people you wouldn't normally interact with. Your choice how far to go.
13) Exercise. OK it's a stretch. But between walking and biking you'll find it's a pretty good workout!
14) Costumes. The crazy way people dress is entertaining and funny all by itself.
The Negatives Include:
A) Dusty, Dirty environment. Wind storms, white outs, Powdery playa dust gets everywhere. Plenty of cigarette and marijuana smoke you will breathe. Complete lack of amenities other than what you bring and the ability to buy ice and coffee (the only two things you are supposed to purchase at Burning Man).
B) Noisy and hot. Generators running all night, loud neighbor playing music you may not like.
C) Tremendous amount of work. Preparation, setting up, tearing down, getting out there is exhausting. Never mind trying to clean the playa dust afterwards.
D) Despite some interesting people the truth is there are lots and lots of undesirables at burning man. These, for me, include people who are unprepared and unaccomplished. The motley assembly includes heavy smokers, drinkers, druggies, and people who are unkempt and who "sponge" off their fellow man.
E) Thieves. I will include bicycle thieves in this list of negatives, which is apprently a serious problem on the playa. I didn't have anything stolen, but ran into a few people who did.
F) Safety. Although there are relatively few accidents, this is a factor for some people. The burning man motto "Safety 3rd" is a joke, but to some extent reflects the care free attitude prevalent out there that leads to injuries.
If it sounds like "You're too old for this shit" (TOFTS) as Murtaugh in Lethal weapon would say, then you probably are. I'm in my early 50's and there is no question I was saying I'm TOFTS at numerous times throughout the experience. Depending on your state of mind, you can see the creativity as just a bunch of blinky lights thrown on stuff or a mind blowing panorama of human energy as far as the eye can see. Both thoughts crossed my mind during my week on the Playa. Most of us older folks are "over" loud music and prefer comfy beds. You can minimize the negatives and emphasize the positives by being prepared, having nice accommodations (RV or an air conditioned Yurt) and choosing your camp mates and camp site wisely. Just remember having new experiences is part of burning man, so don't climb too far inside your box. Let me go into just a little more detail on some of the above points.
#1 Drugs and Alcohol - You can drink anywhere. But I Burning Man also provides a relatively safe environment to experiment with other things if you have a desire to do so. Certainly the experience can be more enjoyable in an altered state. But Burning Man can be great even if you prefer sobriety. No one forces you to do anything so don't let the stereotype of drugs scare you from experiencing BM.
#2 Sex - Again you can choose to participate or not. I did see an "orgy dome" and I'll have to leave to my imagination what goes on inside, as you weren't allowed to "just watch" and I had no desire to take my curiosity any further. No question lots of beautiful young women at Burning Man, and some of them seemed more open to meeting new people than in normal circumstances. But BM is far from a "Fuck Fest". This event has families, kids, and everything in between. I didn't see any open sex the whole time I was there. Like the drugs it's something you can look for or not, but it's not overly blatant.
#3 Music and Dancing - The vast majority of the music at Burning Man is some form of Techno that I don't always appreciate. There was some great music including the old rock I enjoy but the vast majority is something else entirely. It's that thumping beat you hear at Raves. Jim, my camp mate remembered one of the bands and sent me this quote from Wikipedia: "Shpongle is an English psychedelic
music project formed in 1996. The group includes Simon
Posford (aka Hallucinogen) and Raja Ram (one third of The Infinity Project). The duo are considered
to be one of the progenitors of the psybient genre - a genre
music with psychedelic trance and ambient."
#4 Art - To be honest I'm not a big artist and I often don't see the appeal. To me a great photograph captures a moment every bit as well as a painstaking painting. I do see the value of sculpture, but I'm just too pragmatic to truly enjoy most expensive art that I see. Having said that let me say that a vast majority of Playa art is done by amateurs and it shows. Sorry, but I don't count smashing a beer bottle top into a necklace as interesting art. To me it's a second grade project. Most of the art isn't worthy of the name but some stuff out on the Playa is great. Personally the art cars with hydraulics and fire are more interesting because of the engineering involved. That type of thing to me is shows creativity and art, and is what I hope I can do if I go back.
Summary: So is burning man for losers? In my opinion there are a LOT of them out there. But... I hear there are also very accomplished winners on the Playa - people who run companies like Google and Amazon. I personally didn't run into anyone who invented air - or even anything interesting. Is Burning Man for for yuppies and young people? Lots of those too. But despite plenty of negatives it's an experience I'd recommend for anyone to see at least once. Just don't do it half ass. Open your mind and be well prepared to make your experience great. Bring ear plugs and goggles. Your cell phone won't work. You aren't going to hook up with friends unless you've done a helluva lot of planning in advance (register with center camp so they can find you). Go out and experience it. You just might see me next year on the Playa.