I got back from Burning Man a week ago. I’ve taken the week to decompress in San Diego and gather my thoughts about it so I could write this recap for you guys. I stayed totally sober from all drugs and alcohol the whole time. I even stayed away from all sugar and caffeine too. (I’m extreme)! When I said I was going to Burning Man, a lot of people said “Isn’t it just a huge party with a ton of drugs? Why are you going? Doesn’t sound like your thing.” But I knew there was more to it. And I’m not afraid of a challenging experience that’ll blow my mind and change my life and make me grow. I live for those experiences. And Burning Man is intense. I keep telling people I’m really glad I went, but I’m also glad it’s over. For now.
What Is Burning Man?
Everyone explains Burning Man differently. Burning Man is a temporary city in the middle of the desert in Nevada, that’s built, inhabited by 70,000 people celebrating art, music, community, self-expression and radical self-reliance — and then destroyed in a week, leaving no trace of its existence. I describe it as a fantasy city where people dream up any reality they want and then they create it and live in it.
The Burning Man site says, “Trying to explain what Burning Man is to someone who has never been to the event is a bit like trying to explain what a particular color looks like to someone who is blind. To truly understand this event, one must participate.”
I also have this vision of people saying “What would be the coolest and most wild things you’d want to see or do if you were on drugs? Insane art installations that you can climb on? Crazy fluorescent flashing lights covering an entire city? Colorful, bizarre costumes everywhere? Endless electronic dance music and dance floors that go all night? A space to experience every fantasy you can dream up? A place where money is useless and people just give each other gifts? Ok, let’s create that, in the most harsh environment possible so we all have to work to survive, too.”
Every person needs to bring into the city whatever they need to survive for a whole week. This means food, water, shelter, protection from the elements of the desert, etc.
Why I Went To Burning Man
The whole thing sounded insane to me, so I knew I had to see it for myself. The only thing I had ever heard about Burning Man is that “it’s one of those things you can’t actually understand until you experience it.”
A friend of mine said this after he went last year:
“Burning man really shook me up. Not going to label it good or bad – it was fun, it was sad, it was scary, it was joyful. Still not sure what everyone is getting there, but they get something. The learning is happening after the fact. There is a lot of drug use, loud loud music, nudity/sex etc…but there’s also a deeply spiritual aspect. I think it’s a place to let the freak flag in everyone fly high and manifest without judgement. Very unique place, very little sleep, lots and lots of dust.”
When I heard that, I knew I needed to go. It would be out of my comfort zone but I had a feeling opening that door would change my life. I had to do it.
My roommate Ali felt the same way, so when tickets went on sale about 6 months before the event we sat at home refreshing our browsers until we scored tickets. We had NO idea what we were doing, but we were doing it.
Why I Decided To Stay Sober
I’m gonna be totally honest with you. I didn’t entirely plan on staying sober at Burning Man. I had heard that there were a lot of drugs there and that it’s a “sexually charged environment” where “pretty much anything goes.” I knew I didn’t want to drink alcohol there for several reasons (the main one being that it’s the middle of the desert and I felt dehydrated just thinking about it). I knew alcohol was totally off the table for me. But I haven’t touched drugs at all in over 7 years, and I kind of had this idea in my head that if I were going to do any drugs ever again, Burning Man would be the place to do it. When I bought the ticket, I decided I’d just go with whatever happened, and would be open to any and all experiences, and I would deal with the consequences of my experimenting. I was also single at the time, so nobody else was really going to be affected majorly by my actions.
But then…I started dating a new guy. I hadn’t expected to go into Burning Man being in a relationship, so now there was something new to consider. I started to read articles online about how tough it can be for relationships to “survive” Burning Man…and since he wasn’t going with me, one day I found myself having the Burning Man “talk” with him.
“I’m just not sure what’s going to happen there,” I said. “I don’t know what would happen if I did any drugs, especially in that environment…so I just wanted to talk to you about it.” As the words came out of my mouth, it felt so weak and powerless. Like I have NO control over my actions just because I’ll be at Burning Man? What kind of integrity is that?
He didn’t tell me what to do, he just let me talk and come to my own conclusions about it. Which was a good thing. Just by looking at his face, I knew I would be insane to even potentially mess around with drugs. I realized how shitty I’d feel if I were on the receiving end of that conversation. I didn’t plan to have this relationship in my life when I got my ticket to Burning Man, but it had become an unexpected priority. It wasn’t just me who would be affected by my actions anymore. The truth is, maybe I would be totally fine on drugs, who knows — but I do know myself well enough to know it would be Russian roulette for me. It could go so many ways, and I realized I wasn’t willing to knowingly put myself in a situation that could damage my integrity – with myself, or with this person.
A lightbulb went off in my head and I felt relief immediately. (My mom always tells me that when I feel relief, it means I’m making the right decision).
“Oh. I know what I need to do. I’ll stay sober at Burning Man and write a recap of what it’s like for my blog. Of course that’s what I need to do.” As I said, it, energy poured back into my body. I actually felt excited. He smiled. “I’m not gonna tell you what to do, but I think that sounds great.”
Wow. Making powerful decisions is SO much cooler than being a leaf in the wind to your circumstances. So it was settled, and it felt right. I’d be a journalist for the week and stay sober in a place most people would never think of as a sober environment. I like a good challenge…and I think guidance most often comes in the form of other people.
When I told my best friends about my decision, most of them were like “Obviously that’s what you should do. You nutcase.”
So I headed out to Black Rock City — to the “playa” — and experienced my first burn…on zero substances.
The Toughest Part — The Elements
Turns out, the toughest part of Burning Man wasn’t avoiding drugs and alcohol. It was battling the elements. You’re out in the middle of the hot desert, and if you’re staying in a tent (which I was), your sleeping quarters double as a sauna during the day. People talk a lot about the dust on the playa — and the dust becomes your second skin. It covers everything. There are white-out dust storms throughout the day, so you always need to be prepared with goggles and a dusk mask/bandana to cover your face. If a dust storm comes along, you can’t see 5 feet in front of you. You just have to hunker down and wait until the dust storm passes. ALL your stuff will be completely covered in dust. Your hair, your body, all of your clothes, your tent, your bags, everything. The days are sunburn hot, and the nights can get really cold as soon as the sun goes down. As soon as the sun comes up you’re sweating again.
There really is no sleep. Like, none. There is constant loud music and thousands of people dancing all throughout the night, throughout the entire city. Most likely, you won’t find a place to camp that will be quiet. Our tent happened to be right next to one of the dance stages that was pumping electronic trance dance music until 7am. Earplugs don’t help. Lots of people stay up all night dancing, and then try to nap during the day on a pillow somewhere around the playa.
The challenging part is that you really just can’t get comfortable, unless you surrender to being comfortable feeling dirty and sweaty and exhausted with none of your usual creature comforts. There were a few mornings when I was laying in my tent wishing for a shower, air conditioner, a clean room. Any clean room. I had so much appreciation for the things I usually take for granted.
You have to drink A LOT of water. I drank about 8 liters a day and still felt dehydrated sometimes. It’s survival mode out there.
While I didn’t feel tempted to actually do any drugs or drink any alcohol, I did start to get resentful of people who could “check out” of the circumstances of the desert using substances, instead of having to experience every sensation and discomfort of the elements. I felt a little jealous of people who could “pass out” at night after drinking. Anything that could numb the sharp edges of the experience seemed like it would be a welcome relief. But I powered through instead, realizing that the ups and downs of the experience were temporary and impermanent…just like Black Rock City.
On the flip side, there was something completely magical about the desert. The sky was so clear at night, the stars were incredible, and you could ride out on your bike for miles. The sunrises and sunsets were breathtaking. Something about the solitude I experienced riding out in the desert alone felt really healing and beautiful. The fact that everyone is experiencing the desert together – feeling so many challenges and simultaneously filled with so much freedom and self-expression and aliveness – is really wild and special.
The Drug Scene
I didn’t do any drugs at Burning Man, but here’s what I could gather — there were a couple of different ways people were experiencing drugs there. One was the hallucinogens — people taking acid and mushrooms and looking at the insane, lit up art installations that were all over the desert. A lot of the art was interactive — things to climb, flowers you could touch and they’d change color, countless art cars driving around the desert with lights and fur and anything you could possibly imagine. And things burned down. There were wooden art installations that would be set on fire at different intervals, and people would take acid or mushrooms to go watch those things happen. I imagined it was probably pretty incredible to watch while on drugs, because it was incredible to watch sober.
Aside from the hallucinogens, there was the dance/party scene — insanely loud music, DJs and dance floors all over the city that were open throughout the entire night. A lot of people were doing drugs like ecstasy and molly and getting into the whole raver scene.
The thing is, though – there are also a lot of cops at Burning Man. Undercover cops. People aren’t exactly passing out drugs like Halloween candy, as I had originally pictured. It sounded like the majority of people either brought their own drugs or got them from friends they knew. I wasn’t offered drugs even once. I spoke to friends there who had drugs and could have easily found them if I wanted them, but I wasn’t turning drugs down left and right or anything like that. It was pretty easy to avoid.
Alcohol was served all over the place, and some people were hanging around smoking pot, but I didn’t really see anyone who seemed wasted or out of control. Granted, I didn’t stay out super late or go to crazy parties, so my experience was very different from someone who was deep into the Burning Man night time party scene. A lot of people said they preferred to stay away from alcohol because of how dehydrating the desert was, and how awful a hangover would feel. What I heard from a guy who’s been going to Burning Man for 15 years — “Burning Man isn’t the type of place to do drugs for the first time. Most of the people here are experienced with drugs and can handle their shit.” Kinda made sense to me. I would honestly be terrified to be on drugs for the first time in that environment.
The Sober Scene
Believe it or not, there are actually hundreds of people (probably more) who stay totally clean and sober at Burning Man. How do I know this? Well, by Friday of the week (I had been there for 4 days), I was having a particularly difficult time. The day before, which happened to be my birthday, I had an amazing day — such is the bipolar nature of Burning Man. I felt like I was really struggling and the fact that I had to survive 2 more days there was making me feel like a mental patient. I needed to get out of my head and help someone else. I knew other people had to be struggling too, and I wanted to connect with them.
I remembered reading about sober camps at Burning Man and had heard there were 12-step meetings every day, all day long. I thought it would be helpful to me and to other people there to show up at a meeting and share how I was feeling about the whole experience. I know it helps others just to show your face and be supportive. So I jumped on my bike and found the 12-step recovery village. As soon as I pulled up and saw the sign that said “Happy Destiny,” my heart warmed up. I went to the first meeting that was going on there, which was an NA meeting (narcotics anonymous), and then I went to a women’s general addiction meeting the next day. It was really cool to sit around and listen to all the people there who were experiencing Burning Man without drugs and alcohol, hearing their struggles and their gratitude. Most people were so incredibly happy to not be on drugs there. I found out that the sober camp had 250 sober people camping in it, and there were other sober camps too. There were 12-step meetings pretty much every hour, and lots of support. How cool is that? I realized that there is definitely something for everyone at Burning Man. I hugged a lot of people and thanked them for showing up. It was a really beautiful experience.
Other Things To Do That Don’t Involve Alcohol + Drugs
I went to 5 great yoga classes over the course of the week – vinyasa yoga and kundalini yoga. I took meditation and breathwork classes and workshops. I rode my bike for hours a day and stopped by various camps for watermelon slices, cucumber water, and conversation. One day I went to a 90’s dance party during the day. At night, I rode my bike through the dust and danced on dance floors to trancey music (and some nights, just listened to the music from my air mattress in the tent). The camp I was camping with with, Sacred Spaces, had a huge amount of workshops and classes throughout the day every day. I also had work shifts I was signed up for with my camp, so I helped make food in the kitchen and helped welcome people into the camp at night. I had meals at my camp and met new friends. Ali and I brought sparkly tattoos and gifted them to everyone in our camp.
There was even an ultramarathon at Burning Man! Seriously. People got up and ran 50k (31 miles) around the desert. WHAT!
The Nudity/Sex Scene
I expected there to be a lot of open sexuality happening at Burning Man, but at least in my experience, it seemed like you really had to seek that stuff out. Yes, there was a lot of nudity there, people riding their bikes topless or walking around naked, but that didn’t really feel sexual. It was more of a freeing thing. The sex stuff? There were certain tents/camps dedicated to sex — a swinger’s camp, an orgy dome, and multiple other camps where the purpose was for couples or people you meet on the playa to be able to have sex openly. I didn’t go into any of these tents (nor could you really see into them without being inside) so I can’t comment on what was really going on in there. But I will say that it’s something you do have to seek out — and you can absolutely experience Burning Man without participating in any sexual experiences. You won’t, however, be able to experience it without seeing any naked people. 😉
I found myself being naked at Burning Man in a group setting twice. Both on my birthday. Neither of them were sexual. The first was at the “foam camp” – where people go to get a shower. They let 50 naked people in at once, cover you in peppermint Dr. Bronner’s soap while fun music is playing, let you lather yourself up and then they spray you down with cold water. It’s kind of uncomfortable at first (especially because Ali and I did it together – points for friendship intimacy!) but it actually ends up being super fun and the most refreshing moment of the week. You have to wait in line for HOURS there because everyone wants a shower. After that, I took a naked yoga class. That part was fine for me as I’d already been to one in NYC. Again, not the most comfortable thing in the world, but really not that big of a deal either. Being naked at Burning Man is kinda like whatevs. At least that was my experience with it. You can be as naked or as clothed as you want to be there.
One of the most incredible things about Burning Man is that it’s not just a big party in the desert. People work on their art for the entire year before the event and it’s the most beautiful thing when you really realize how much went into it. You are constantly surrounded by incredible art and music.
So even if you’re not into the drugs/alcohol/sex at Burning Man, you can dance, you can check out art (which feels really special because it’s all so temporary), you can enjoy music at all hours of the day and night, you can meet all kinds of people, you can ride your bike around, you can wear whatever you want…you can party hard. The burning of the “embrace” (above) at sunrise was my favorite moment of the burn, hands down. Thousands of people gathered to watch.
My Favorite Things About Burning Man
Surprisingly, the detox from technology was one of my favorite things about the entire experience. After a week of living in the desert with no phone service, it was a bit jarring to turn my phone back on (especially since my birthday was during Burning Man, so there were more messages and notifications than usual). I’ve needed some time to decompress and ease back into all the digital correspondence, and I haven’t really even been able to open my laptop let alone actually go through my inbox. It made me realize how much of my energy is usually taken up just by RESPONDING to people. Without the constant texting, emails and notifications, I was able to just…be with myself and my own thoughts and my own life. Pretty radical and awesome. I’m trying to remain a little more unplugged now (aside from instagram, obviously), and just be with people I love, but who knows how long that’ll last. I’ve done it before. A week after Burning Man, I still haven’t taken my email auto-responder off because for some reason having it on makes me feel a little less available. I might just keep it there forever.
Other than that, my absolute favorite thing was the bike riding. You have to rent or bring a bike to get around Black Rock City, and riding out into the desert for miles solo or with friends was the most freeing feeling. Sometimes when you get out into the “deep playa,” you find art that someone has left there. It’s really cool. One night I was riding with 2 friends and we had gone really far out into the desert, we couldn’t really see much around us – but we found this little heart made out of white lights, shining alone under the stars. It was seriously the coolest, and made me want to cry for some reason. Because someone took the time to light up that little heart and bring it out into the desert, hoping someone would find it. Seriously beautiful. Those moments of finding secret art make Burning Man really special.
Will I Go Back To Burning Man?
If you asked me if I’d go back as we were driving away from the playa, I’d probably laugh your face off and say “just keep driving.”
The last night there, our ride was supposed to pick us up at sunrise — Ali and I stayed up all night waiting for the sun to come up, like it was Christmas morning. Check out how happy Ali was when our friend Shane came to pick us up to leave.
But then I think a lot of the processing and realizations about Burning Man do come after the fact, especially after your first time. I listened to this song a bunch of times after I got back, and I knew, yes…I’ll go back. Of course I’ll go back. There’s something about it that’s just completely otherworldly. You feel like you’re living on another planet for a week. There’s nothing like it.
I’ll do it differently next time, though. Being sober wasn’t the hard part. Now I know what to expect, and I’d go in an RV instead of a tent. I hear that makes a huge difference in your experience.
Burning Man is a community, but it’s ultimately a personal journey for every burner. Throughout the week, people kept saying to me, “have a great burn.” When they said that, I’d think about how radically different the burn is for every person. There’s no doubt that the experience bleeds into the rest of your life.
Burning Man is a difficult, challenging, insane, beautiful thing. Yes, there are drugs but there’s also EVERYTHING else. Burning Man is every adjective and you experience every emotion. Whatever you want to experience there, you can. I’m happy I experienced it sober and really got into the grittiness how I felt there. I journaled daily, took photos, laughed, cried a few times…and I made it through.
I realized how incredibly creative and generous people are.
How beautiful our dreams and fantasies are. How insanely resilient we are as humans. How deeply we love and need each other, how raw and fierce our emotions can be. How much we all actually have in common when we strip away all the constructs of “the default world.”
How truly, we can create anything we want in our lives. That when we come together anything is possible.
And that no matter how difficult or how wonderful each moment is…it’s going to end, it’s going to change.
Impermanence is the whole essence of Burning Man. Think about it. An entire elaborate fantasy city is constructed in the middle of the desert, inhabited by 70,000 people for a week, and then completely destroyed, leaving no trace. The burn is a reminder that everything is fleeting. Our circumstances, moods, relationships, the earth, this life. All we really have is now.
I say yes.
“Covered in dust, sweat and paint
We are sparkles in the desert
We are rainbows in the night
We are ever-changing shadows who’ve just been set alight
And it’ll end soon
This holiday from time
But tonight…we ride.”
I’d love to hear your personal experiences with Burning Man in the comments if you want to share. And if you have any questions about it, definitely let me know! So many people/angels helped me prepare and get through the experience, and I’m happy to do the same.
“On the edge of the world where the light never dies…we ride.”
Lots of awesome Burning Man songs here. Various Artists – Spark: A Burning Man Story – Day + Night (Music from & Inspired by Film)