So I'm sitting here, back in Leeds, staring at a blank blog page wondering how I could possibly do justice to my experiences at Burning Man. There are a million efforts online that are far better than I could ever manage and even reading the best ones leaves me with the feeling that it is an impossible task. The stories are fascinating, the pictures incredible and many of the short films are fun but they all fail to convey the most important thing about Burning Man - the experience, what it actually feels like to be there. There are also far better ways of preparing for a Burning Man trip than reading anything I have to say. The official website itself is absolutely packed with more information than you will ever need. If you start reading it all now you may just about finish by next burn (352 days as I write).
So what's the point even attempting a piece on Burning Man ? Well, firstly I feel the uncontrollable need to do it, secondly I want to share my experiences and thirdly I can give an account based from a European perspective. I will give some information that could be considered useful but hopefully it will just be a fun read. Burning Man is also about 'gifting' so through the piece I share my DJ mix recorded on the Nexus soundsystem at sunrise, photos taken by Adam Carter and tonnes of stuff we found useful.
I had been wanting to go to Burning Man for a few years but as it's 5000 miles away from home and a mission to prepare for it kept passing me by. A good friend from my work in music, Ed Karney, had been the first person to really push me to make the trip. He was also invaluable in our preparations to get there. The seed was first planted by Ed but it took a chance encounter with a very old school friend for the seed to grow into a plan. Last summer I was Deejaying at We Love Space Ibiza when a face thrust forward from the crowd and a hand shot out,
"Hello Ralph, remember me ?"
Well I'm not best known for remembering people in the first place but this time I instantly recognised James Holdsworth. We went to school together a long time ago (ahem). We weren't best friends but had been part of a group of lads that, shall we say, got into trouble a fair bit. I've found out that when you meet real friends, however long you spend apart, you immediately click again. I invited him to the We Love after party and found out we had both been thinking about going to Burning Man. This time, instead of making excuses it was time to say,
"Let's do it"
So we got planning and the first things to get were a ticket and an RV or camping plan. We opted for the relative comforts of an RV.
Tip - First piece of advice coming up next. Research showed that RV prices related proportionately to distance from event. The exact same RV at the exact same company cost approximately 3x more in Reno and 2x more in San Francisco than Las Vegas or Los Angeles. Considering they are not cheap this meant a difference of $4000 from Reno to Vegas. Vegas it was. When we dropped lucky in the ticket ballot we had the first two main issues out of the way.
Next I spent endless hours with James reading about what you need to survive out there. At this point I'll spare a good few thousand words and give you a link to Ed Karney's superb guide to getting to Burning Man from the UK. This gives you pretty much all you need to take.
Burning Man is about people and what we can achieve and create. One of the best things about it is meeting new people but it can also be about meeting old friends again. A good example of this was meeting up with Elan Akerman as soon as we got to Vegas. I first met Elan in New York when he worked as a promoter there. He has since relocated to Vegas and it was fantastic to hang out with him in his hometown. He picked us up at the airport and helped me locate by far the most important item on any Burning Man shopping list - a good pair of boots. The legendary playa dust is alkaline and rots damp feet very quickly so keeping your feet out of it is essential. In Vegas there are hundreds of options of outlet and we looked at nearly all of them!
Tip alert - I found the perfect pair at Timberland. Fully attached tongue to keep the dust out, roll down tops so they look half-decent in shorts and comfy on first wear.
Our main goal in Vegas was, unusually for most, to jump off a skyscraper. The story now goes back to a guy called Bells, who was a good friend of James. He was the driving force behind James' Burning Man trip, being the first person to introduce him to stories of The Playa. He died last year and James dedicated his BM adventure to his memory. We decided to push the limits from the start and take the jump Bells had made on a previous trip. James only told me on the plane that the jump was 855 feet off the tallest observation tower in the USA. I'd jumped off bridges in New Zealand before, attached to a bungee, but they were mostly around 200 feet, this was more than four times that distance. Jumping is all about fear. Fear is the greatest obstacle to doing new things or changing something in your life. Burning Man forces you to confront your fears and question where you're at.
Jumping off the Stratosphere was a great way to face fear at the start of our trip.
I'm a natural optimist. In my mind I always imagine things to be far better than they turn out to be. In my mind I'd imagined our RV to be a rock star's tour bus with spacious living quarters and a pimped out cab. The reality was our Cruise America RV was more like Walt and Jesse's meth lab RV from Breaking Bad. It was even more dismal after living in the luxury the casinos offer for peanuts in Vegas. I was suddenly hit by the reality that I was going to be living in there in the middle of a desert with a guy I'd never met (Adam Carter) and an old mate I hadn't seen for years. As soon as we drove off, the vehicle shook like it was about to fall apart. It was only after crossing the desert 10 hours later than we found out that not one but three tyres needed replacing.
Pit stop - Fernley. Tip - Fernley is a great place to stop.
Adolfo at Purcell fixed up our tyres, there is huge Walmart to do 'the shop' and plenty of RV parks, eateries and gas stations. It is also within striking distance of The Playa. We rested the night there and planned our last leg for the Tuesday morning.
The drive from Vegas to BM is spectacular. The light constantly changes across the desert and surrounding hills and mountains and when you hit Walker and Pyramid lakes you truly understand the meaning of the word oasis.
We had read a tonne of stuff on the Burning Man site and forum about queuing times into the event. It can reach 8-10 hours (despite massive improvements this year apparently). By Tuesday it had eased down to 3 hours or so. Any amount of time can feel tough waiting in line in either direction. Vehicles kick up dust so you have to shut down the aircon, block the vents and sweat it out. Added to that we arrived in a dust storm so couldn't see 10 feet in front. We had to frequently stop or crawl along trying our best not to hit anything. After getting our vehicle searched for stowaways we then met the gate greeters. I loved the 'Welcome Home' greeting you get from them. It was only later that I fully grasped it's meaning but it was still cool at the time. What wasn't so cool was then being asked to get down in the dust and take a dust-bath. By this point we were so hot and sweaty that the dust was instantly sticking to our skin, our mouths were so parched we could hardly talk and now apparently we had to get down and love the stuff. When I declined I was told,
"You have to embrace the dust man."
Allright, allright, but can I grow to love it in my own time please? I'm English don't you know! I was happy to ring the bell and declare myself a virgin but easy on the dust demands fellas.
Finally, after a year planning and four days travel from Leeds we found our spot at Camp Bang Bang at 8.45 & Geranium (cross streets start the letters A-L with avenues running round the famous semi-circle city shape named after the times on a clock). No one was around but we had been left a red marker flag for where to park our vehicle. All that effort to finally get there but what should we do now? I felt a wave of anti-climax hit me. However much you read, however much you learn it is still different from your expectations. I had imagined it to be more compact with camps closer together so the sheer scale of the place was immediately overwhelming.
District day party was in full swing just over the road from us but we didn't feel like plunging straight in. We had no bikes yet so we decided to set off on foot towards the legendary Playa. We hadn't gone more than 100 yards when the magic started. A mutant vehicle pulled up behind us and an old man dressed as a middle American housewife said,
"Need a ride guys?"
Of course we did. We jumped in and off we went until we reached the open Playa. The weather on The Playa was drastically different from the more sheltered streets and the dust was now kicking up like whirling dervishes in every direction. It was an even more dramatic way to see the sights of Black Rock City for the first time because they emerged out of the off-white clouds only when we were close enough to be totally blown away by their sheer scale. I had no idea how our driver Kay was finding his way around but he managed to pick out The Man, The Temple of Juno and Burn Wall Street through the storm. He laughed hysterically as he drove which was totally infectious. We got talking and I found out that he had been to Burning Man many times. He had built the car with his son, who was also there, and he had Leukemia. I'm not sure if I'll ever see him again or if he'll even be alive for the next burn but he was certainly someone I will remember and the first person to show me The Playa.
On the way back we passed by the Robot Heart camp to check out their rig. I had already seen pictures of the custom built bus before I left but up close it was even more impressive. We spoke to the guys there, who told us the sound was designed and made by Know Audio . They were busy welding metal that needed securing and tweaking their vast array of speakers. They were about to head out but I planned to go and check out their rig in action the next night for Crosstown Rebels so headed back to meet my fellow Bangers at Camp Bang Bang.
Nick Sabine is an Australian and the man behind Resident Advisor. He invited us into the camp, which was also mostly Australian. I haven't experienced it another way but being in a camp was crucial for us; firstly it meant we had communal services such as shade, showers and a kitchen, secondly a social group to hang out with and thirdly we had loads of people to ask if we got stuck or needed things. The camp had been set up by Rachael and Anna in 2009 to persuade their friends band 'We Go Bang Bang' to come out to Burning Man - they named the camp after them to further entice them. On Wednesday night the camp threw a party for the band and I was happy to offer my DJ services for them.
I had been very worried before going to Burning Man about Deejaying there. I read loads of horror stories about equipment getting wrecked. I wasn't sure whether to take my full set up with laptop / Traktor Scratch & controllers or not. So once again I consulted my Burning Man oracle Ed Karney. Not only did he have advice, he had already written another very useful piece on playing out there. In the end I decided on taking two formats, full set up for the bigger gigs and some CDs for smaller camp parties. I was happy with that move as you need to be flexible out there. I totally desert proofed my mac with a hard case cover, iskin keyboard cover and taped up all ports with electrical tape.
Ed turned up with his wife Emma to our party and invited us over to their set up at Terminal Y right across the city at 3 & Esplanade. We jumped in an art car over there and left our bikes at base. A good few friends from the UK had also made it over to the burn this year and it was great to catch up with familiar faces over at Terminal Y. We got in full party swing before heading out for the main event - Robot Heart. As we prepared to go we noticed that the car we came over in had now gone.
Tip - Art cars are not taxis. They drop you off somewhere but will then leave. You could now be left literally miles away from where you live or want to be!
We realised this was a proper newbie error and were now without bikes just about as far away as you could possibly be from our camp or Robot Heart. So it was walking for us while everyone else powered off on bikes. Robot Heart parked up Deep Playa. Deep Playa is the mythical twilight zone between the city and the trash fence, the true city limits of the event, basically it's a long way out (more on that later).
We could see Robot Heart from at least a mile away. The converted double decker bus Art Car has a huge metal heart fitted with lights that can glow different colours but normally emit it's trademark red. Other Art Cars park up around the bus creating a virtual desert dancefloor space and a spectacle in the desert that can only be described as - 'what happened after the Cantina Bar scene on Mos Eisley in Star Wars.' We got there to catch Damian Lazarus play through until sunrise. He was dressed like Gandalf and spun a storm up on the playa. The whole experience was massively inspiring. I realised the only thing it reminded me of was my early morning sessions on the floor of The Sound Factory in New York in the early 90s.
There's no other options but to get involved on The Playa. I have hated fancy dress since I was a kid and always groan when I'm asked to dress up. But out there the tables are turned and you feel like a total nana in normal clothes. I spent so much time preparing all the other stuff I took absolutely zero fancy dress with me. My camp mates had taken one look at me and whisked me down to Kostume Kult at 2.45 & Esplanade to get fitted out. Within minutes I found a silver cape and a pair of medieval silver knights pants. I then acquired a zebra print cape and various hats from people.
By the time I was kitted out I looked right at home working it out in the dust among the other freaks as the sun rose over the desert.
Every event has a peak moment. The act that everyone loves plays. For Burning Man 2012 that act was undoubtedly Carl Cox. Carl has been venturing into the desert for years and built up a strong Black Rock following. He played on Friday at Opulent Temple and as expected the biggest gathering outside of the burns turned up to greet him. Black Rock City has many different types of people, there are; the original burners, old school hippies, EMD kids from LA and Vegas, millionaires from Silicon Valley, heads from San Francisco, New York freaks, Sparkle Ponies, Brits, Aussies, a huge gay scene and everything in between. They all love Carl Cox.
Carl played at the first big techno warehouse party I ever went to in London, it was called Biology. He played at my night in Leeds as one of our first guests in 1992, we payed him £75. I warmed up for him on Bondi Beach in Australia on NYE 2000 for the Millenium party hosted by Home and now I find him in the desert. I was 18 years old again, jumping up and down in the middle of the floor, getting up on the giant chair that took you above the crowd - the lot. Carl has no pretensions and is a larger than life character, this shines through in his Deejaying. He is so easy to like. After his set I took my friends round to see him. We were greeted by the Opulent Temple security team who asked for a pass, so I showed them my English driving license. They tried to explain to me that we needed an Opulent Temple pass but they were no match for a blagger of my years and they quickly moved aside so we could get backstage. There was the worst dust storm we had all week that night and you can see from the picture how bad it must have been from our goggle marked faces !
No visit to Black Rock City is complete without visiting the main features and as much art as possible. Our days were spent on bikes touring around. We climbed right inside the man which had either stairs or a harder central climbing structure. People cheered when someone made it to the top.
I think for virtually everyone The Temple is the most special excursion. It was simply an astounding construction, especially considering the fact that it is there for such a short space of time. James brought some pictures of Bells with him and wrote a message on the Temple walls, as so many other people had done. People sat in quiet reflection in the temple. For me it was all about Memento Mori - the realisation that you will also die one day (literally "Remember Your Mortality"). Steve Jobs was a firm believer in using Memento Mori as the driving force behind completing his mission at Apple.
The climax of the week is, of course, the burns. They started with the smaller art pieces on Friday then Saturday saw the main event of the man burning. Virtually everyone goes to see the Man Burn so we got there really early. The man burning is the easiest place all week to lose friends and bikes, we did both. Every Art Car on The Playa parks up and the DJs jostle to give their interpretation of the sound track needed for the grand finale. What this actually means is that you get a horrible soundclash in most places. We struggled to find a spot without hearing a hundred different clashing kick drums and finally settled for hearing about 3 at the same time. My favourite part was not the burn itself but just the moment before when the man raises his arms after a week with them facing down. It gave me a feeling of anticipation mixed with nostalgia in the same instant. They really go to town blowing the poor guy up. Thermal explosions and fireworks are a devastating mix.
After the event we decided we needed to go Deep Playa. It was like going on a scuba night dive on bikes. As we rode deeper the lights and sounds of the city faded into the distance. We encountered stranger art placed further apart, random people and art cars also diving deep. Looking back at the city gave a whole new perspective of it's size and scale. The city became a distant reef abounding with spectacular coloured fish and corals. We came across an artwork of four aliens protecting or abducting (it was hard to tell) a baby Jesus in a manger.
There was a place for gifts so I took out a 2020Soundsystem Live CD from my bag and left it. We rode off and found new and previously undiscovered species of art and burner.
We were just about to give up finding the trash fence when we came across two people dressed as astronauts walking back,
"You're nearly there, it's just another 100 yards."
It was really hard to gauge how far we had actually gone so we rode back in one go and timed it. It took just under 15 minutes, so I guess, riding steady at around 5 minute miles it worked out as 3 miles. Just as we hit the city I realised I'd left my bag somewhere. I needed to go find it. Everyone groaned but made no complaint. Back we went. It's really hard to convey how hard a task this was. Firstly I had to guess where we'd left it, secondly I had to work out the line we had travelled as we had left from a different starting point and thirdly it was very dark and we were already worse for wear. We set off and headed for the light sources we could see. We reached a piece we hadn't seen before and asked the people gathered around it,
"I know this seems like an stupid question but has anyone seen four aliens in the desert?"
They laughed but a girl came forward who actually had seen the aliens and believe it or not they were the right ones! We got vague directions and a few minutes later came across the dim green glow of the aliens - there was my bag sat exactly where I'd left it.
By the time we finally got back to town they were about to burn Wall Street. This time it was easy to find a good soundtrack for the burn as Robot Heart was parked there. I thought the piece was genius and to see it burn was special. I thought people would react with more anger or enthusiasm to the models of The Bank of UnAmerica and Goldman Sucks, potent symbols of financial greed burning, but most just stood and watched the pretty lights.
When I mentioned on facebook that I was going to Burning Man a guy called Dax Lee had got in touch to invite me to play at the Nexus soundsystem. Nexus had a four stack Function One rig at Burning Man and it was set up beautifully. I had been given the sunrise set from 0400 - 0600 so I felt honoured. We hung out with Dax and his wife who turned out to be awesome people. After the nights excursions I felt like playing some spacey techno - so that's just what I did and here it is for you to have for yourselves -
After Nexus we headed out to Robot Heart for a last foray onto the Playa. Jonny White from Art Department was waxing as the red sun rose once more. By the time we got home our camp mates were already up and preparing for camp take down. I still had some energy left and we still had some food left so I cooked up a big pot of Spaghetti for everyone. You have to leave absolutely no trace of your time on the playa so every piece of 'moop' (matter out of place) has to get cleaned up. This means a thorough sweep of the entire area and picking up every last bit. It was sundown by the time we finally finished and time to go watch the temple burn.
The Temple of Juno burning was important for us this time, especially for James, who needed to pay his respects to his friend Bells. It was the exact opposite to The Man burning. Everyone sat in silence. A guy shining a laser got shouted at to turn it off. This time there were no thermal explosions or fireworks, The Temple was lit by torches passed from bearer to bearer. Many people gathered there were lost in thoughts of absent friends. As the Temple burned so did all the pictures, words and tokens people had left. I watched the ashes fly off as glowing cinders into the night sky towards the stars.
Links to really amazing Burning Man 2012 stuff I liked -
more to come...
My top ten useful things (out of the few hundred I took)
1. Great Pair of Boots
3. Head Torch
4. Large Water Bottle
5. Bike Lock
6. Back Pack
7. Multi Tool
8. Soft material bandana / head scarf
9. Tumbler with Clip
10. P20 Sunblock
Post original post
After writing this I have had to keep adding as more things came to mind. Most imortantly I wanted to showcase the art cars, which are such an important part of Burning Man. Finally I found a great piece which do them justice on Burners.me
And my mum also asked for a picture of the man himself. Kinda weird to do a whole piece on Burning Man without one!
Important note -
I felt the need to publish my trip and possibly help others share the experience by helping them go in the future. All images are courtesy of Adam Carter. All copyrights remain in the original works belonging to the creators and fabricators of any art photographed. All copyrights of music used in the mix remain with the writers. A full list will be forthcoming on my soundcloud page. I have tried to link to the correct artists and organisations wherever possible. If you have any objections to anything in the piece then please contact me via facebook
I acknowledge that the Burning Man name and logo are the property of the Burning Man organization, and I understand that the Burning Man organization controls all rights regarding the licensing and reproduction of any imagery recorded at the event. I agree that I will not use the trademarks or logo of Burning Man or likeness of the Man on any website or in any manner other than for personal use.