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Country > USA > Nevada > Black Rock
Date > 2003 > August
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Counter Culture

Burning Man 2003 August 25 - September 2, 2003

Burning Man 2003

Location: Black Rock Desert, Nevada, USA

Pictures: Burning Man 2003 CLICK HERE!

Bike Magazine Feature
I first heard of Burning Man in 1997 when it was featured in Bike Magazine. At that point, it seemed like a remote fantasy that was beyond reach. Little did I know 6 years later that I'll be there to experience first hand the profound personal transformation that's to take place in this desert environment 120 miles from the nearest city. My increasing involvement into the alternative scene, initiated by my participation at OM in 2002, paved the way for me to continue my journey far beyond my visible horizon in search of answers. This inevitably led me to Burning Man.

Describing the Indescribable
I thought I had prepared myself for the event...visited the site, clicked the related links, read and reread the FAQ and the JRS/Maid Marian emails, but there was really nothing that could have prepared me for the events that would take place - I'm left speechless and dazed. How can I even begin to write something that defies description? My story will only provide context at best. Burning Man has to be experienced - no words or pictures can even come close.

Burning Man Virgin
My initial apprehension as a first-time virgin was crossing the border by plane, renting a car in Reno and driving 120 miles into the desert all by myself without knowing anyone. My worries were totally unfounded. Upon reaching the gates and getting acquainted with my greeter Maxime, I knew I was home. There before me were 30,000 of the coolest people you can imagine. The level of community interaction went beyond my expectation. It's even an understatement what the site said:

   During our first years in the desert when our population was relatively small, our exclusive focus was on individual survival. As our numbers have grown, we have extended this concern to the equally immediate issue of survival on a societal scale. -- from Burning Man site   

It went beyond survival. The gift giving / barter economy where no money changes hands is a sharp departure from the crass commercialization of human values as I've known it in the default world (essentially, the rat race). In contrast to being a net-taker in the default world, everyone celebrated each other by being a net-giver. Giving begot giving and the resulting vibe was that of becoming part of a collective whole....everyone galvanizing the community spirit within the tribe.

Burning Man 2003
with Toronto Burners, Natalie and Naomi

Human Connection
I've met some very interesting and colorful people whose connection I plan on pursuing long after the playa has been cleaned and left with its vast empty landscape. It makes a huge difference meeting people in the context of Burning Man. The guard is down, the smile genuine, and the arms open for a big hug. Connection in the default world is equally magical. But they are few, fleeting and far in between. The connection I'd been experiencing here was spontaneously overflowing.

Coming alone was a blessing. It opened me up for human connection every step of the way. However, as much as I wanted to keep still with someone, I could not. The allure of the playa was far too bewitching (think: the sirens of the Iliad).

   Burning Man is an annual experiment in temporary community dedicated to radical self-expression and radical self-reliance. Relationships are created, neighbors meet one another, and our collective survival is challenged. This is not a spectator event. It is alive 24 hours a day, and with the extreme heat during the day, much of the activity takes place at night. It has survived and flourished through sharing, trading and the giving of the gift of yourself. -- from Burning Man site   

Sensory Overload
The non-stop beat of Playa-music from all directions, the dazzling lights that adorned the city, out-of-this-world theme camps, the outrageous art cars, the 24/7 parties, revelry and debauchery and the unfettered freedom of self-expression, even the unrelenting dust storm all came down to a mind-blowing sensory overload. The scene was surreal and overwhelming. It was a dream you didn't want to wake up from.

Canadian Contingent
While I came alone and wandered by myself on the playa, I felt anchored to 2 camps from Canada, Ottawa burners and the Toronto burners. They "adopted" me into their chill zones. It was the closest thing I felt to being in a camp. I made it a point to stop by their camp everyday to bid my goodwill before I start my trek into the open playa.

Love Thy Neighbor
The collective sense of community was intense. Every single burner was your neighbor and looking after the other ensured the togetherness of the entire event.

I was doing my regular morning vinegar-solution spray at the corner of Creed and Imagined when I noticed a passerby with playa dust-covered feet. Her name is Christine (of Christmas Camp). Hailing from Germany, she has been exploring the San Fran scene over the past 3 months. I offered to wash her feet. In the default world, this would have been the consummate act of humility, but at the playa you're just being a good biggie. In our conversation, she mentioned she sings Janis Joplin songs. I had to request her to belt out "Piece of my heart"...which she did while I was applying sunblock on her feet! That really got me stoked. As if her song wasn't "thank you" enough, she reciprocated by offering to wash my feet as well. Wow...what a sense of community! What a great city this Black Rock is!

The Rabbit Hole Party
Parties were everywhere and everyone is welcome. The Rabbit Hole Camp party was particularly memorable for me. Natalie and Naomi of the Toronto burners were in attendance. Price for drinks was a paddle on the butt. A paddle whack on the butt seems to be a universal currency at the playa. Double drinks mean both cheeks get it. Chics get the same butt treatment. As an upright citizen of Black Rock City, I felt it my civic duty to provide nurturing comfort to those paddle-weary butts.

I met and had a great connection with Melissa of the Love Potion Camp. She's a lovely San Fran chic who has done the Haight / Ashbury scene as well. We talked, laughed and jumped up and down the trampoline. The fun was too much. My head felt like it was going to explode (thanks in part to Amar's kick-ass mix).

This party had everything - dance zone with DJ, a wrestling ring, a movie (featuring what else? Mad Max), electric-arcing gizmo and yes, the trampoline. A buzz to my gracious hostess/host (among many) was my big 'thank you'.

   You need to bring ALL supplies, food, water and tools you will need for survival in a harsh desert environment. No food or sundry items are sold anywhere in Black Rock City.
You are responsible for removing all waste you bring into Black Rock City. We have NO trash disposal. You will have to bring everything back with you. -- from Burning Man site

Mountain Biker in drag
Human connection was there for the taking - some more memorable than others. I met Amy and Claire while on board one of the art cars doing an art tour out on the playa. The connection was spot on. We were all BMan virgins and having a full-on experience at the visual array of art installations, the art car party scene and the non-stop beat of what I now call Playa music. We shared an intense and joyful moment.

We later stopped by Center Camp which was the chill hub of playa-weary burners, after which we went to their camp where I got invited to join them for dinner. For the first time, I had a taste of fresh cooked meal. Since I arrived, I'd been surviving on canned goods, crackers, nuts and energy bars. This was soooo good.

I was introduced to their merry crew, 2 of them hail from Canada as well. Not wanting to look like a tourist, they dressed me up in drag. Seemingly, another favorite currency at the playa, on top of being paddled on the butt, is dressing in drag - it's all good. I had plenty of company. I stepped into a bar looking like a pom-pom cheerleader and within 15 minutes, I was (all with my kind permission, of course) whipped in the butt by a transsexual, slapped in the butt again by a chick in S&M garb, and fondled by another chick who offered me her drink...whoa!!! This is new ground for me...but again, it's all good.

The time was ripe for some night partying. We ended up at the Paddy's Mirage camp where another party was happening. I met Emma, a fuchsia haired fairy, who tugged me to view her artwork. That's when I lost Amy and the crew...another typical playa occurence. I was left wandering on my own into different other parties happening that night - the Space Cowboys, then I ended up at the Sonic Runway and finally shortly before sunrise, I found myself at Center Camp talking to Cory and a bunch of cool dudes. It was chilly so I went out to a fire pit where I met another soul, Aimee, who gladly shared some body warmth.

I never saw Amy nor Claire again until I stumbled into their camp by accident a few days later. It was a great feeling being reunited with my dear friends one more time.

   Weather is of volatile extremes. Be ready for anything and everything. Temperatures by day have been known to exceed 100 degrees. Pre-dawn temperatures can approach freezing.
Thunderstorms and dust storms arise with breathtaking swiftness, transforming the playa into a gigantic mud puddle in a matter of moments. -- from Burning Man site

Giving Back
What happens when so much is given to you without anything in exchange for it? You want to give back as well...more than what you got. And that is how things came across for me. Part of the Burning Man experience is to willingly give back to the tribe. After all, nearly everything that has come to be for that week is the result of giving and sharing.

My neighbor had an ambitious theme camp, Aasgard. It was to house 90 hammocks covered by 3 layers of parachutes to dissipate heat. It was already Thursday and a lot of work needed to be done. It was a labor of love to help out. Not surprisingly, additional help came from the street. Strong winds made it nearly impossible to set it up as planned.

On my last day, I went to the Lamp Lighter's camp and helped out cleaning out the kerosene lamps. Again, it was great meeting the many unsung heroes behind the 900 lamps lining up the promenade leading to the Man.

Three Kids at Play
I boarded an art car that was to take me to the burning of the pyramid when I hooked up with 2 beautiful spirits, Shadow Dancer and Pieter. It was a connection waiting to happen. We stayed together until the wee hours, holding each other while dancing around the fire, riding art cars, visiting other art installations, talking and soaking the tremendous vibe that was all around us. It's almost uncanny how something so rare in the default world could just spontaneously happen here. I went home that night feeling a strong bond between us.

The Night of the Burning
Saturday night is earmarked for the momentous event - when the Man is burned. The entire week leading to the day was marked by continuous construction work on finishing the Man for his final burn. The art cars and everybody (all Black Rock citizens) gathered in a huge circle around the Man. Anticipation was high. Fire performers were in full force displaying their pyrotechique wizardry while the art cars were going full blast with the now unmistakable rhythmic playa beat. Finally... the spark that put the Man ablaze. Fireworks were firing into the sky and the revelry went into high gear. When the Man was consumed, all 30,000 burners took on the most outrageous full-on party that was happening on the face of the planet. It was mind-blowing.

   The desert is treacherous; winds are hellacious, storms are sudden and violent, density altitude is high, and hospitals far away. -- from Burning Man site   

The Temple Burning
Sunday is likewise set for the burning of the Temple of Honor. Unlike burning the Man, this burning had a solemn mood to it. Two years back when they erected the Temple of Tears, the burners used it as a memorial to their dearly departed ones. They laid down pictures, hand-written letters, flowers and personal mementos that were to go with the burn in the hope that their loved ones will receive them in the after-life. The temple became a sacred sanctuary. When it burned, deeply felt emotions were stirred and tears flowed like water. It was a moment to fragile life can be, how we should be thankful for the moment and how we are all the same and connected in this one beautiful place we call earth.

Susie of the Sonic Runway
It was nearly 5AM at the Sonic Runway...there were no more art cars I could get a ride with and my camp was on the other side of the playa...a good 2 mile trek. After partying since noon the day before, I was already exhausted, sleepy, hungry and cold. The only possibility of a ride was a passing golf cart but it was already full. It didn't matter to them. Susie gave me a seat on her lap. They just said, "...we'd been there before". After the ride, I even got beer! I forgot the others' names but they were camped around Center Camp. I love you guys! I love you Susie!

Ending Thoughts
For an entire week, I was completely captured by the scene, partying full-on everyday from noon 'til sunrise, getting only as much as 3 hours sleep a day, connecting at every corner with the most interesting people who came with open hearts and extended myself where I can be useful. The surreal fanfare built-up to full-swing momentum that felt like it could go on indefinitely. When I woke up Monday morning and seeing my neighbor gone and seeing some people packing up, it hit me like a ton of bricks. The magic would soon be over and we all have to go back into the default world living our Gray Man lives once again. I don't know what got over me but I found myself in tears. I knew it wouldn't last forever, but leaving left me a sadness I never felt in a very long time. I now had to wake up from this intense, mind-blowing and beautiful dream that had a rare chance to actually happen.

Burning Man gave me a glimpse of a horizon far broader, far more colorful and far more animated than the small gray box we call our reality. What can we take from here and give back to the default world? I guess it's our illuminated selves and our newfound perspective on how wide we can broaden our personal spectrum. Not from black to white with more shades of grey. Choose all the colors on the rainbow and everything in between. The change that comes from within goes a long way. As I resume my daily life in the default world, I remain optimistic about the enduring legacy instilled in me by Burning Man.

--- Gigit (TheLoneRider)
YOGA by Gigit Yoga by Gigit | Learn English Learn English | Travel like a Nomad Nomad Travel Buddy | Donation Bank Donation Bank for TheLoneRider

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Reader Comments:

Jenny SagabayJenny
(July 21, 2014) Gigit, reading your post again makes me want to be a Burner.

(Jul 31, 2007) ...been to the Pentaport Rock Festival in Inchecon. It was the first time that I've shared such young, energetic, lively and cool atmosphere with people from the world. I won't forget those moments, and now I totally understand what you experienced in Burning Man. My lifestyle changed more than a bit...with the changes I've taken with me...from my last travel. Life could be diverse...could be happier.

Karen DobbieKaren Dobbie
(January 29, 2004) Hey while searching for Burn info in T.O. I found your site. I really enjoy your site and because of the info on your site I am now going to try to come out for a Thursday night. I plan on going to BM this year for the first time. Look for me, so I will know at least one person when I go.

(29 December 2003) Looks like you're having a lot of fun, I'm very happy for you! I've heard about the Burning Man thing, I guess it's as wild as I though it would be. At least I can say that I know somebody who's been there. Ingat and keep in touch always.

Marcy FreyMarcy Frey
(October 3, 2003) I was just cleaning out the last bits of playa gear, and was happy to discover your card! I was the girl spinning the red LED poi the night of the temple burn. I hope your return into society has been smooth and that you are happy and healthy. Mine has been interesting...busy, challenging and not very much rest...but good nonetheless. Burning love...

Melissa ThomasMelissa Thomas
(September 30/23, 2003) I haven't been sleeping regular hours since I had that crazy experience at the playa. I still want to play and not come back down - it's so strange! I think I could live on the Playa forever - if only there was running water. I wish I didn't have to e-mail all of my BM friends - it would be better if we could just all hang out in the same space and chill together. I miss that so much... I made some everlasting connections this year - it was amazing. I'm overjoyed! I saw the photos of me - and so did Amar -- he's like, 'there's some photos of you on that site!' I didn't believe him, then my memory hit me! Haha... I wondered if I would see those again. You probably got the most out of the playa of anyone I met there being on your own and all. You were left wide open for whatever came your way - no shelter to hide behind...peace. love. hope. joy ~

Amar ShabbirAmar Shabbir
(September 23, 2003) Wow, what can I say. I am gob-smacked. Your site brought back so many feelings ... not just memories ... but real emotions. I am stoked and choked, I am chilled to the bone, I am elated and inspired, and yet, also strangely sad - possibly from being so far from it all in here in September and here in the UK. A wonderful and lovely collage of feelings and emotions - just like BM itself. Thanks for bringing it all back. Just when the grey-men were starting to nibble their way back in, this has helped to keep them at bay a little longer. You have some great pictures of our Rabbit Hole party. I am so glad you enjoyed it so much - and captured a rare image of the chief spanker in action. Lots of love...

Lorie ChellLorie Chell
(September 17, 2003) I was so happy to come upon your site! Great pics, great story!!! What great photos! And you really did sum it up. This was my first year also. I am really looking forward to meeting you. Hope to see you next year!

Johannes FrazierJohannes Frazier
(September 9, 2003) How was the rest of your Burning Man experience? My sister's and mine were great and I wanted to touch base with my soul brother from Toronto. Hope all is well and you've gotten your kilt by now!

(September 17, 2003) You are truly the new Sentinel of the Burning Man Spaceways! What a wonderful site you've created. I really enjoy the first hand experiences and personal thoughts you've conveyed about your first experience at Burning Man! You've taken some awesome photos and you really have a good eye!

Dave SamojlenkoDave Samojlenko
(September 15, 2003) I'm the one who was serving up Poutine at SARS Camp. Thanks for the write-up and the photos - I love checking out other people's experiences... here's the funny thing: I've been to your site before - I did the Paris-Ancaster race this year for the first time, and a friend had sent me the link to your race story shortly afterwards... When I got your link today, it took a few minutes of "I swear I've been to this site before..." until I realized the connection. funny. I'm glad to have met you, and hope to see you out again next year.

John CourtneyJohn Courtney
(September 2, 2003) So, have you been transformed by your Burning Man experience? I mean, aside from a deeper tan? I swear, you seemed like the happiest guy there. I checked out your website. That's pretty sweet man. Way more professional than I had anticipated. I guess I thought it was going to be a personal website, not something for everyone. So listen man, if you wanna talk 24-hour race stuff, just drop me a line. Or conversely, get your ass up to Heights of Horseshoe this Saturday to the downhill event and we can chat there. I just hope I don't bust myself up right before the big move! Thanks for the pics man. My mom will be SO proud of me! Later!

(September 15, 2003) You definitely squeezed every drop of experience out of your time there. Almost makes me wish I had flown solo! Almost.

Glenn StoweGlenn Stowe
(September 15, 2003) It was great to meet you too. I read your article. Sounds like you had a great first experience. Will we see you back there again next year? I forwarded your link to the chat lists for Ottawa and Toronto.

Amy WestoverAmy Westover
(September 5, 2003) I wanted to drop you a line and tell you how wonderful it was to meet you at burningman! What a huge experience! I am still trying to transition back into my daily life here in Boise. Clare and I continue to relive our memories there and the friendships we made. It is a precious topic for us and we get that far away look in our eyes when we talk of it! How has your transition back into life been? Good I hope! Well keep in touch!

(September 15, 2003) The story is amazing and Clare and I read it together and literally it sent chills up our arms. It was very nicely done and really captures the feelings you go through at burningman. Thank you so much for it! love...

Jordan BakerJordan Baker
(September 15, 2003) Wow... i looked at your Burning Man site and it brings back a lot of memories from being at the burn for 2K...How long did your afterburn last?? I remember being in some other world for like about a week after I got back :)

Heather CrosbyHeather Crosby
(September 2, 2003) I am still digesting it all...can't quite put it to words yet. Just relishing in the multiple flashes of smiles, tribal drums, music beats, color and connections with new people that are dancing around in my head. It feels so foreign to be sitting at my computer right now looking at my two page "to-do" list. The stress and urgency I had before I left when I looked at this list is gone though...I feel like a giant. I will be going to Burning Man next year.
It is true...everyone keeps asking me "how was it?" and all I can do is shake my head and say "mindblowing...words don't do it justice". Thanks so much for sharing your picture...I'll be sure to pass it on to the girls.

(September 14, 2003) You are inspiring. I guess I never really grabbed onto the fact that you went to Burning Man alone. It is clear though, that you were not alone. That's an impossibility at Burning Man. I hope you will be going back next year. It would be great to make my famous breakfast burritos for much better than canned Hormel Chili ;) I loved reading your entry....I'm filled back to the top with the feeling of Burning Man....seems reality was evaporating some of it. I know that this happens too...I've been emailing with Chicago Burners and trying to attend BM functions here. That energy makes me feel so ALIVE. When you have a memory...share it. I'll do the same.Please know that you always have a friend in Chicago...we're not too far from Toronto. Keep in touch. Excellent job on your summation. Happiness always....

Jason AyersJason Ayers
(September 14, 2003)
Thank you! Your effort to document your first time experience in such detail brought me to tears (of joy) - I've been burner-baptised since '99.

Clare WilliamsClare Williams
(September 7, 2003) Still recovering from the whole Burning Man experience. Each day, my feet are being more firmly planted into the ground of normality! But I still stare out the window occassionally and hope to see a naked body running past or an art car with too many people hanging off it!

(September 14, 2003) Thank you! Amy and I have both been glued to the computer screen as we read through your Burning Man story and viewed your amazing photos. We were both inspired and amazed. I had goose bumps and chills as your descriptions once again returned me to the playa; to a place we will always call home; to a place that has changed us all, immeasurably. Wow. I loved your use of the grey men ... i agree, there really isn't enough colour in this world ... but we have it, and we can and will spread it! Take care ... speak to you soon, Love...

Patrick and JenPatrick and Jen
(September 14, 2003) Jen and I were reading your page this morning. Looks awesome! Definitely captures some of the magic.

Shadow DancerShadow Dancer
(September 9, 2003) Thank you so much for the photos and message. It was welcoming to hear from you. I was just sitting here in my room intaking my Burning Man experiences when i got your email. Seeing your photos just triggered more than i needed to take me back. ah how i wish it wasn't only once a year. it is nice to have met so many people from the desert but i wish ALL of them (aka you) lived nearby to reconnect with. thank you for being. your gentle spirit and nature was an absolute joy to be around. i do hope one day to make it to toronto. that would be a lot of fun! may all of your dreams come true for you.

Deborah RiveraDeborah Rivera
(September 7, 2003) I don't know if you will remember me. We met dancing one afternoon and you mentioned to me how you had showed up to Burning Man by yourself. Then we were going to go get costumes for you but the guy who was going to tell us where we had to go, couldn't find the address. I have black hair and green eyes....and that is about it! Now do you remember? Well if not, I do remember you. How was your experience? Gosh, mine was so emotional and spiritual. This past week I have even been feeling a little sad and it has been difficult readjusting to normal life. You have a friend in San Fran if you ever decide to come visit. Or maybe we will see each other in the next Burning Man? I know I will be there if I am still alive! Big Hugs!

Hanka StratmannHanka Stratmann
(September 5, 2003) Just wanted to drop a note and say hello! I am the person who dropped you off at your place after we got back from the Burning Man festival. Hope you are adapting well!! I am so far ok although not keen on working. Talk to you then.

(September 5, 2003) Hello! I spoke with you the night of the temple burn - I was watching a very graceful light dancer and being very introspective - you took my profilein the fire. I thought several times after that I would have like to have chatted longer -but I was really self involved at the time - thinking thinking thinking. Hope your whole trip was amazing!

Tips for Burning Man Virgins:

  1. Visit the Burning Man "First Timer's Guide" for indispensable advice.
  2. Bring a bicycle. It's not a luxury anymore. Burning Man has considerably grown and a bike has become a necessity. Equally important is to have a lock. Odd as it may seem, bikes just mine.
  3. If you only have a small tent, you can buy a few emergency aluminum-like blanket from any camping store. You can use this as an added layer on top of your tent to refect the sun's heat. Without this, the inside of your tent becomes an oven.
  4. Have a landmark other than the Man to get your bearing. Many burners only use the Man and they get lost in the playa when the Man is burned.
  5. Cigarettes come in handy as gifts especially during the last few days when supply has run out for most.
  6. Bring vinegar to wash down alkali dust from the playa. It also makes for a good foot wash to extend your neighbor.
  7. Don't take your clothes out of the bag even if it's inside your tent. The playa dust is insidious and will get inside your tent leaving a coating of playa dust onto everything.
  8. Bring the 4 essentials to survive life on the playa: wide-rimmed hat, goggles, dust mask and a big-capacity hydrapack.
  9. Step away from the last vestiges of your Grey Man identity - think openly, look differently...yes, even if it means dressing in drag. There's a corresponding mind-shift that happens when you walk out of your shell.
  10. To intensify the experience, arrive Monday morning and stay there the entire week - don't just drop in Thursday and leave Sunday. There's something transformational about marinating in the heat of the desert for 7 days, watching the city being built from the ground up, and getting connected for a 7-day stretch.
  11. This may sound hardcore, but if you can come alone without knowing 1 soul, then you have no friends to provide a social crutch. You live it out in the open playa interacting with 30,000 of the best people you'll ever meet on the planet.

»» next story: Angele and Philip's Birthday Party
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