Burning Misconceptions

People in Florida don’t usually know about Burning Man. When it comes up in conversation, I have a chance to position it as “a gigantic arts event,” “an experimental temporary city,” or “a campout in the desert with 75,000 people.”

However, driving across Nevada this year, I discovered a different kind of people: Those who think they know about it, and are 100% wrong.

At a rest area north of Las Vegas, I stopped to fill my water bottle. An older fellow in a truck rolled down his window and started hollering at me. “The water here is not drinkable! It’s full of mercury and lead! You should go across the street (there was a gas station over there) and buy bottled water!”

As the truck drove off, I noticed a young man cleaning the restrooms watching the encounter. I walked over to him and asked his opinion. “They test the water here,” he said, shrugging. “I drink it all the time. But be careful — it comes out really fast.”

He wandered over as I was filling the bottle, and somehow, it came up that I was heading to Burning Man. “It’s getting really big out there, isn’t it? I heard you guys have Burger King and McDonald’s out there now.”

“Well, no,” I answered. “Have you ever heard about decommodification?” He shook his head at the big word, and I launched into a description of what it was really like. “There’s nothing for sale out there, except for ice, and in one place, coffee. We practice gifting, so you might find someone giving away hamburgers, but nobody selling them. Some people give away jewelry.” I touched one of my earrings, which featured the Burning Man logo. “There are even bars that give away free alcohol.”

I could see from the look on his face that he was skeptical. He’d probably seen the Instagram photos of supermodels, and he was thinking, “I clean bathrooms for a living. I don’t belong at Burning Man.” Then a stranger pulls up in a van and tells him it’s a magical place in the desert with free food and booze, and he’s very welcome there.

I can see that overcoming the misconceptions will be an uphill battle.

A couple of days later, I stopped in Reno, where I had new tires installed and bought about a hundred dollars worth of provisions. On my way out of town, I made an additional stop at Wal-Mart for about a dozen forgotten items.

Evidently, this store had a problem with theft, because many items were in locked cases. The bicycle tire and tube I needed were among them, so a clerk got them out and then walked to the cashier with me. She placed them on a shelf behind the cashier and bid me good day.

Ahead of me were three young men with tattoos and four shopping carts. From their conversation, I discovered that they were buying all the supplies for a theme camp. It took the cashier over 45 minutes to ring up their $900 order, and all I could do was wait patiently.

Finally, they left and he turned to me, shaking his head. “Wow, those Burners…they’re weird.”

I smiled at him, saying gently, “Don’t make fun of us, now!”

I thought his jaw was going to hit the conveyor belt. “Y-you?” he stammered. “I didn’t know there were ol- um, um, older people out there. Is it true the tickets are $500?”

I nodded, adding that there were some discounted tickets available.

“You mean, like a senior discount?”

I was in a good mood, so I didn’t smack him or call for his manager. I was still laughing when I reached the playa, three hours later.

The number one question asked at Burning Man is “How many Burns have you been to?”

When it was time to leave Burning Man, the three-hour trip took took ten hours. Half of those were “pulsing” on the playa, where the cars are grouped and let out onto the road in batches. Rather than sitting alone with the engine idling, you can turn off the car, walk around, chat with folks, and pass out the last of your dusty Oreos.

During one pulse, I was sitting in the driver’s seat with the door open. A young man walked up carrying a stick with a butterfly on the end of it. Holding it out like a microphone, he asked me to give my best Chewbacca imitation! That was probably the best conversation-starter ever.

He then asked us the number one question, so I told him it was Stig’s first. “Mine, too!” he said. They compared notes about the life-changing experience.

Whenever this happened, I would sit back and enjoy the encounter. If it was a veteran, Stig got a super-warm welcome, like he was now an initiate of a very special club. If it was another first-timer, they shared feelings that only first-timers can understand.

Eventually, the fellow with the butterfly looked at me. Was it my first Burn, too?

I chuckled, because it was so far from the truth. “It’s my thirteenth,” I said. Like the kid in Wal-Mart, he was blown away with astonishment. And then he had a million questions. What was it like when I started? What did I think of it now? What had I learned? Had it changed me?

I couldn’t answer all his questions in such a short conversation, but I was honored by his respect. I found myself thinking that if I stop going, it will be OK — folks like him will keep the spirit alive.

After dropping Stig at the airport and catching up on 15 hours of sleep in Java Mike’s hotel room, I pointed Muffie the Van eastward on US 50, the “loneliest road in the USA.” There were few cars and fewer towns, so I topped up the tank whenever I saw a gas station. At one such stop, in the old-west mining town of Eureka, a fellow driving a propane truck walked up to me and asked, “So, how was Burning Man?”

We both started laughing at his question, because despite wearing “normal” clothes and having taken two baths and two showers, there was no way to hide my Burner status. The dust-covered camper and four bicycles were a dead giveaway.

The propane driver’s name was Bob, and he was about my age. He admitted to wishing he could go. “But my adventurous spirit left me about four years ago.”

“I think you should go,” I told him. “Your adventurous spirit is out on the playa, waiting for you.”

I told Bob that you are never too old to go, and there have to be a few responsible folks like us out there to keep the place safe. “Besides,” I pointed to his truck, “we burn a TON of propane!”

I felt like a one-woman mission, traveling the country to overcome Burning Man misconceptions. No, it’s not just young, sexy people with money. Everyone is welcome. Especially you.

Silent G surveys the playa
Silent G surveys the playa