This is Burning Man: A Veteran’s Response to a Newbie

Burning Man's White Procession

This week, GQ published a beautifully written piece of trash about Burning Man. While the author, Wells Tower’s prose is remarkable, his understanding of his subject matter is elementary. Do you want to know the truth about Burning Man? Read on.


Problem 1: Self-Expression

Unicorn at Burning Man

Source: hindustantimes.com
Self-Expression at Burning Man

From the beginning, Tower shows he doesn’t quite get it. He states:

We have joined the annual pilgrimage of many thousands who each year flee the square world for the Nevada desert to join what's supposed to be humanity's greatest countercultural folk festival/self-expression derby. Or it used to be, before people like my father and me started showing up. 

What Tower fails to see is he’s mucking up Burning Man not because he’s failing to meet some sort of countercultural measuring stick, but because he’s showing up as a close-minded spectator. One of the ten Burning Man principles is radical inclusion, meaning everyone is welcome, including “staid East-coasters” like Tower and company. Radical inclusion does not mean misfits only. You don’t have to be a hippie or an outcast to go to Burning Man. All – including people who fit into society and follow cultural norms – are welcome.

Women of Black Rock City

Source: Flickr.com
Women at Burning Man

However, because Tower misinterprets the meaning of the Burning Man principle of “radical self-expression,” he is correct in his assessment that he’s messing up the festival.

Tower talks about the morning he went for a Human Carcass Wash at a Polyamorous Camp:

My hope is for a simple shower. This thing is not that. Before the wash begins, we are broken into little cadres to receive instruction from the (also naked) administrators of the Carcass Wash. A very genial blond man with an air of ecclesiastical gentility and a somehow angelic blond pubic bush delivers the disappointing news that we are not here merely to be scrubbed by polyamorists and sent on our way. We will first wash others, dozens of them, before we are washed ourselves.

Art installation at Burning Man

Source: designyoutrust.com
Washed by the rain sculpture at Burning Man

He goes on to describe just how uncomfortable he was with this situation. My problem with his complaint is he should’ve gotten the hell out of Dodge when he realized what was going to happen. No one was twisting his arm to stay at the Human Carcass Wash.

OK, yes, sometimes it’s healthy to push boundaries, even if it’s painful. When serious objections exist, though, it’s a matter of personal integrity to follow your own code of ethics. That is what self-expression is truly all about.

Burning Man is about learning to be comfortable with who you are, not who everyone else thinks you should be. It’s not about getting naked just because some other people are doing it. At Burning Man, you’re supposed to get over acting a certain way just because society expects you to. In a culture that teaches us to flout convention, Tower embraced what he believed to be the rules without listening to his own voice.
There is nothing wrong with staying completely clothed at Burning Man. In fact, it’s only a minority of people who get fully naked. Taking off your clothes to please other people is (quite obviously) not about the self, it’s about other people. If Tower had simply felt comfortable being exactly who he is, clothes and all, he would’ve more accurately embodied the self-expression principle.

Man at Burning Man

Source: tahoeunveiled.com
Many people wear clothes at Burning Man

Tower is certainly not the only one guilty of this mistake. In an environment where we’re encouraged to fully uncover and express who we are, so many of us copy the styles and attitudes of others. If we were truly living out the self-expression principle, I think there’d be as many fashions and opinions as there are burners. People can be just as judgmental on the playa as they are in the default world. All of these people are missing the point of self-expression and open-minded, countercultural acceptance.

I’ve dealt with the pressure to “express myself” at Burning Man. One day, I was wearing a cute little costume and body paint, but a lecherous old man taunted me to take it off.

“Don’t you want to contribute, to participate? You’re here to entertain,” he goaded.

“Are you crazy? Do you really think I’m going to take my clothes off for your entertainment? You’re the reason I’m keeping my clothes on,” I replied, as I walked away.
Herein lies a lesson for all men. Know who you are, and be comfortable with yourself. Know who your woman is, and allow her to feel comfortable with herself, as well. You will reach the level of physical intimacy you desire when you are able to worship the goddess by meeting her where she is.

Blowing bubbles at Burning Man

Source: Thepeopleofburningman.com

When you respect her instead of ogling or pressuring her, she’s going to be a hell of a lot more likely to want to take off her clothes for you.  When you get to know her mind and spirit first, she’ll be much more likely to open her body to you, as well. If you’re not doing these things, you may “get lucky” and have a fleeting moment of passion with a woman. But if you call off the sex hunt and instead honor the fullness and richness of a woman, she will be more likely to want you. You won’t need luck.

Of course, most matches are not meant to be. But overall, your chances are better if you operate this way.

Problem 2: Expectations

Spank-o-matic at Burning Man

Source: travelmedianinja.com
Seek and ye shall find at Burning Man

When going to Black Rock City, what you expect is what you get. Tower expected to be embarrassed by his own nudity and that of his father’s. He expected to feel shame, and that’s what he felt. His campmate, James Dean, expected Burning Man to be just a big “sexed up party.” When Dean looked at a schedule of events, he chose to skip the many spiritual, literary, scientific and offbeat choices, and he went for the sex-oriented experiences instead.

Any city of 50,000 has a sex store or an adult movie theater, but it also has museums and restaurants and parks. Where you choose to go when you’re in the city doesn’t mean that’s all it has to offer. Since Tower, his dad and Dean gravitated towards sexual events, the article reflects a heavy focus on sex.

There’s no denying Burning Man is an overtly sexual environment. However, the event presents such a broad range of experiences and activities to choose from that it seems unfair for sex to get all the attention.
Ultimately, what you choose to see in the festival – and in life, in general – creates the reality you experience.

Problem 3: Radical Inclusion

Burning Man costumes

Source: inmenlo.com
Comfortable in his own skin at Burning Man

Tower violates the Burning Man principle of radical inclusion by judging every person at the festival, including – and most importantly – himself.

In Tower’s words:

I thought this was going to be a half-assed and risible demon-sticks-and-reefer-and-Himalayan-salts dipshit convention, but afoot is a pageant of trippy ingenuity and gorgeousness that must have taken a hell of a lot of work and money and gymnasium hours to bring off and that can only be diminished by the gawking presence of guys like us.

Where did Tower go wrong with this assessment? He didn’t. He’s right; he probably did screw things up by gawking. He could’ve easily fixed that problem by getting over himself and contributing something, anything. Good conversation would’ve been enough.

All he needed to do was stop feeling like a gawking spectator, worrying about what other people were thinking of him and judging those people. If he could’ve just realized he was an insider and not an outsider, he wouldn’t have felt so out of place. If you don’t believe it, compare Tower’s experience with his father’s. His dad felt completely comfortable in his own skin and had a great time everywhere he went. Tower, on the other hand, felt like he didn’t belong.

Certainly, Tower’s not alone in his failure to uphold this principle. Most of us – including myself- have faltered.

I felt intense anxiety during my first Burning Man experience, culture shock from entering an alien paradise. Everyone seemed so confident and free, and they all seemed to know exactly where they were going and what they were doing.  By the third day, I relaxed.  I finally realized playa people were friendly and no one really cared what I was up to. From that point on, I had a blast.
Problem 4: Regrets

Black Rock City Temple

Source: darkroom.baltimoresun.com
Inside a Burning Man Temple

When he visited the Temple, Tower devolved into a self-pitying, shame-faced creature.

He says:

I do not do volunteer work. I am a poor carpenter. I give very little money to charity. My hair is thinning. I am a miserly Captain Bligh of an RV skipper, having forbidden the men from deucing, or even showering, in the RV out of fear of depleting the battery and water reserves. I am bad about returning e-mails. I love my father. My father is dying and will leave no worthy successor. My life is at least half over. Out of cowardice masquerading as prudence, I have sired no children and nourished no lifelong commitment to a member of the opposite sex. My dog's halitosis is noxious and incurable.
The ivory-billed woodpecker is almost certainly extinct. Super-PACs are destroying American democracy. The Milky Way is whorling into a huge black hole. They eat dolphins in Japan. I'm getting muffin tops.

Well, Tower, what are you going to do about it? The Temple is not about wallowing in your own life’s failures; the Temple is not great in order to make you feel small. Rather, the intense focus, creativity and insane amount of work that went into building the Temple should serve to inspire, awe, and introduce you to your individual and collective human potentials.

It is there to help us confront our deepest emotions and realities, which perhaps Tower succeeded in doing. When we meet our fears, frailties and failures, though, what do we do about them? Do we push them down and keep on living in the same way? Or do we rise up and make some major changes in our lives so we never have to confront these same issues again?

Do we become the people we want to be in the present moment so we aren’t filled with regrets in the future? I think that’s what the Temple is about. It’s about remembering the people we’ve lost and reminding us to strengthen connections we have with those who are still with us. The Temple is temporary. It’s burned to the ground at the end of the week, reminding us that time is fleeting. The only time we have to become the people we want to be is right now.

What do you think of Tower’s article? Tell us in the comments section below!

By Kimbriel Dean

14 Comments

1. xhoosier

February 12, 2013 at 3:29 PM

I loved his article especially with all of the references to how he was dealing with things as compared to his father. The whole thing is very overwhelming so many of his comments ( thoughts) are common among new people. I also think a lot of people can relate to the father getting older situation and the impact it has on your own mental state. I agree with some of your comments but in the end we all deal with BM differently. I for one need a day or so each year to get into the spirit but once I do I hope I am a participant and not the tourist. It take me awhile to come back down to earth ( not that I want to).

2. Clairmonde

February 13, 2013 at 6:33 PM

I remember my first year at. Burning Man back in 1999 and needing that first year to learn to let go and be part an experience bigger than myself. The people I met at Burning Man taught to look at life with a wide lense or no lense at all. The event also taught me to "do" and "participate". When we go back to the playa now many years later, I am no longer dressed in any "styles" or expected attire. I am one of the borringly dressed birds as I have learned what I am comfortable in... instead you will find my sould out in the desert in one of the pieces of art you might enjoy or interact with.

It makes me sad that articles such as this are written but delighted to see expressive and wonderful responses. Thank you.
- A BM artist

3. Firecracker

February 13, 2013 at 7:01 PM

I was a playa virgin this past year and was apprehensive about going. I was still debating my choice on the trip from the airport to the Playa. I love Burners but have had mixed feelings about Burner culture. My favorite part has always been the sense of community and I was losing that at regional burns in favor of more focus on parties, music, art, and "counter culture". I am also not one who handles dust and heat well.

Day 3 on the Playa changed me. Somewhere out in a whiteout with two shiny, glowing friends it clicked. This really is about finding yourself in an environment that exposes you to harsh forces: the elements, uncomfortable situations, strange people and costumes, unconventional lifestyles... and for that I was thankful. I have always known who I was but Burning Man gave me the strength to express that conviction of self and, as this veteran knows, become a part of the radical self expression.

This process is different for everyone but that's what the experience is about, whether you go through a transformational moment or are just forced to reflect. For me, the choice to go back this year is not about coming home. It's about sharing myself with the community, to add my opinions, my strengths, my choices to those that other Burners bring, knowing that whether we agree or not we accept and appreciate each other and want to help cultivate that sense of individuality. And for that, I'm truly grateful.

4. Sketchy the Clown

February 13, 2013 at 10:51 PM

I felt sad for him while reading his article. I used to be a bit like him and I too was overwhelmed in my first year. However I went out and participated and engaged with people and it changed my life. We can't always guide people when they arrive to make sure that they have the correctly prescribed experience that they need to change their lives for the better, however an article like yours here can help people better prepare for the experience they must undertake on their own. Thanks,

5. Jim

February 19, 2013 at 5:02 PM

There will always be people for which Burning Man is too unconventional. It demands much from you to go, and to participate, but you get so much out of it that it's worth making the effort.

The original article's author was entirely too wrapped up in himself, and in bringing his baggage with him. Along with being with his father, who seemed to have an absolutely brilliant time.

I'm biased, though, because my experiences made for massive positive changes in my life. He just seemed like an angry, judgmental suburban nebbish who was expecting a naughty time, and instead was met by something completely outside his experience and comfort zone.

6. Aron

February 21, 2013 at 4:35 PM

I was so happy to read this. Many of my friends around my hometown do not understand what it is like to go to a welcoming festival such as Burning Man. It will change your life and this article explains it all so well! I am so glad I came across this. I, unfortunately, have not had the opportunity to cross the country and attend Burning Man, but attend many camping festivals throughout the nice weather seasons, and they have changed my life. I can't WAIT for my opportunity to go to Burning Man.

7. Renie

February 21, 2013 at 5:00 PM

I organized a theme camp for several years and although we were kid friendly, we were an adult theme camp.
I was contacted several times after the event by people who felt that things had gone too out of control and they had been assualted in my camp. I would investigate these incidents and would usually find out that the person who felt they had been abused was giving lap dances because everyone else was having such a good time they didn't want to bring anyone down. My response was always, "What about you?"
Burning Man isn't all about sex, drugs and rock and roll unless you want it to be.

8. tashi

February 24, 2013 at 10:41 PM

In the same literary tradition as Casteneda, the writer plays the fool so the reader will receive the whole of the teachings. I'll commend the original writers honesty in his public self-examination and the lessons (however imperfectly implemented) thus learned. Sure he "didn't get it" all in his first time around. Be truthful, did you?

9. kimbriel

February 25, 2013 at 1:11 AM

Hi Tashi,

No, I didn't get it all the first time, and I'm sure I haven't gotten it all now.

I agree with you regarding the GQ writer's honesty and willingness to reveal himself.

Thank you all for your feedback.

10. Laughing Harlequin

February 25, 2013 at 3:15 PM

I thought the original article was great, and I found your response disturbing, to be honest.

I will be going to the burn for my first time this year, after thinking about it for several years. I am nervous about it, to be sure. But I am doing my best to be ready for it.

The GQ author was uncomfortable about several aspects, but he was honest about this, and didn't blame anyone else for this, and he was willing to participate even when he was uncomfortable. You said that he should have just left the Human Carcass Wash; I disagree--he committed himself to the experience, he acknowledged that it was weird, but he participated fully, and he didn't condemn the people there. I'm not sure what else you would have wanted him to do. Yes, he could have said "This entire event is totally outside my world, I'm not going to go." But he went, and he participated, and he learned. One of the things he learned was that BM isn't for him. OK, that's a valid learning experience, and it doesn't seem like he harshed anyone's mellow by having that experience.

While the author talks about sex and nudity, he wasn't a frat-boy type horndogging his way through the burn. The public nudity is an unusual thing, and most real-world people would find it weird, and talking about how weird it was doesn't mean that he should have stayed away.

It's not clear from your response what _you_ think Radical Inclusion is about. And of course, having not been, I don't know either. But it does seem that your idea is more along the lines of "think my way, and then I will radically include you." The GQ author went, participated even through his discomfort, seemed not to make other people uncomfortable, had an important bonding experience with his father (which was the whole point), and came out of it a better person.

I hope that I am ready for my first burn. I know that no matter what, there are ways in which I won't be. But I very much hope that the people I encounter there are going to support me, and won't say "You're doing it wrong!" if I feel nervous, uncomfortable, ashamed, or lonely. I fear that you would.

11. Kimbriel

February 25, 2013 at 4:51 PM

Hi Lauging Harlequin,
Thank you for your feedback. I appreciate the time you took to let me know exactly how you feel.

First off, welcome to Burning Man. So many of us felt the same nervousness that you do regarding your first burn (I wrote about my anxiety in another post - <a href="http://ignite.me/articles/festivals/like-a-virgin-my-first-burning-man-experience/" title="Like a Virgin: My First Burning Man Experience" target="_blank" rel="nofollow"></a>). I've experienced the discomfort and nervousness and self-judgments. I continue to experience these feelings and thoughts every day, as I think most of us do. Particularly in an environment like Burning Man where we're encouraged to reveal who we are, there's going to be a bit of fear involved.

But I think some people go out to Black Rock City and feel pressured to do things they don't really want to do. They reveal a false picture of who they are. This pressure isn't limited to sex and drugs and nudity. Some people might jump in and fight in the Thunderdome or participate in a monkey chant or simply do yoga. For me, some or all of these things are completely appropriate and in line with my values. By doing these things, I reveal my true self. For you, some or all of these things may not be appropriate. I don't believe there is a right or a wrong way to be at Burning Man as long as you're expressing who you really are and not who you think others want you to be. (Out on the playa, no one but you knows the difference.)

Radical inclusion means we're all welcome, no matter what we're wearing (or not wearing). If you want to go to Burning Man and get naked, go for it. There's something very freeing about that experience as long as you're not doing it just to please other people. Then it's about them, not you. If it's for yourself, then it can be a great choice.

When I talked about the writer's experience at the Human Carcass Wash, I didn't mean to condemn participation in that activity by anyone who wants to be there. For many people, the Human Carcass Wash is a wonderful choice and an amazing experience. What I was reacting against was the idea that to fully commit to Burning Man and to fully express oneself, one needs to push personal boundaries in the same ways as other people are pushing boundaries. Basically, everyone should feel free to be exactly who they want to be, whether that means clothes off or on, drugs or no drugs. It's certainly possible that I misunderstood his thought process about the Carcass Wash - maybe he really wanted to be there and I misread what was going on.

Ultimately, I respect the author's vulnerability and his willingness to put it all out there. I do think he bought into the idea that there's a certain way you have to act at Burning Man, and I think his experience was shaped by these ideas. Again, just to be clear, I don't think there's anything wrong with anything he did.

When it comes down to it, my reaction was against the promotion of Burning Man stereotypes and peer pressure in a very public forum (GQ).

12. lola

March 9, 2013 at 3:58 AM

I believe that this post in response to the GQ article is unduly harsh. The GQ author did not write trash and there is more than one truth to experiencing the burn and being a burner. The response posted here to the GQ essay is one truth among many. There is a long standing tradition among burners of “doing it wrong.” This creed is the habit of intentionally not following directions, not doing what we are told to do, or not doing what is expected of us. The GQ author is "doing it wrong," and good for him. What I would like to suggest is that the GQ author is neither a closed minded-spectator nor is he misinterpreting the meaning of the burn, but has made the admission, whether realized or not, that he was an introvert at burning man. The GQ author is not fearful, afraid, or anxious about his participation, as in the HCW anecdote for instance, but he, in typical introverted fashion, simply does not like group work and is balking at having to do so. As a writer he is acutely aware of his surroundings. He is an observer, happy to sit and watch, take notes and write lovingly detailed essays about what he observes. Let it be noted that the GQ author, Wells Tower, is an award winning author of fiction and non-fiction, and has a few years of writing experience under his belt. He has been around a few blocks during those years and peeked around a few corners just for good measure. His voice as a self-deprecating nebbish is well-crafted. The essay in GQ chronicles his experience at the burn while spending time with his father, who by all rights, was not expected to be alive and while at the burn was suffering symptoms of his illness that were a concern.

I appreciated his story, and related to many of the sentiments he expressed, because I too, am in introverted burner. I am aware of the points expressed in this post as they are common criticisms introverts hear about how we experience the burn and life in general for that matter. Introversion is part of our nature. We don’t behave the way we do to be contrary. It is who we are. Sometimes the world is loud and noisy with too much going on. Sometimes we have to do group things. Sometimes we like to sit and watch the world go by. Sometimes people tell us we’re not having fun when we are. Sometimes we get cranky and complain about these things. Yet, there are many introverts who are burners and actively participate in the community. Introverts are not necessarily anti-social, or shy, or fearful, or anxious, or loners. Introverts like people and socializing, but prefer small groups and sometimes we need time by ourselves to process our experience. As introverted burners we love our community and participate in our own special way. You may not always see us, or know that we are there. Sometimes we are behind the scenes, sometimes we are right there in front of you.

For example, one way that I participate is that I am a ranger on playa and at regionals. It might seem like that would be an unsuitable job for an introvert. But, like the GQ author, rangering requires that we be aware of our surroundings, be observant and take notes. You may not see rangers, but rangers see you. Rangers stay in the background out of the way of your experience and only engage if it seems that you need us. When I began to explore becoming a ranger I was informed that the first rule of rangering was: do nothing. I could get on board with that. Before we do anything else rangers are trained to first find out and then listen, neither of which seems at first glance very participatory, but is essential to doing our job. Rangers are not loners, we work in pairs. One ranger engages with the participant who needs assistance, the other stands by, watching their partner’s back. Often rangers simply observe and determine that they are not needed. The participant never knows rangers “helped” them by staying out of the way. If a ranger does approach you, it is after they spent some time observing the situation, determining that you needed them and how they might best assist. Many of the most admired rangers are often the quietest ones.

I have often pondered my personal circumstance of being an introvert at a highly extroverted event like burning man. I believe that my reasons for being a part of this community do not vary from others. I just do it my way. This post brought up many points that have already been discussed and debated among burners about how to “correctly” be a burner. The topics of spectating versus participating, what is radical inclusion and expression, and the like have made the rounds of numerous forums and burn-barrel conversations. It is generally agreed that all people who chose to go to the burn are welcome just the way they are, including the GQ author who was fully being himself, and he did nothing that needs correcting or changing or re-evaluating. My sense from his writing is that he is aware of his strengths and weaknesses. He described what its like to be in the head of an introvert, and not everyone gets it. Sometimes we don’t. But we can’t change who we are. Nor should we. There is no one truth and no one can decide for another person how they can best experience the burn, or life in general for that matter. It is not up to us to make judgments on anyone else’s experience or how they chose to engage it. I believe that the GQ author and other introverted burners bring to the burn their own special way and I for one will continue to proudly “do it wrong.”

All this being said, I don’t feel that the poster or anyone who feels as she does, needs to recant the sentiment expressed in this post, should they truly believe it to be so. Like “doing it wrong,” a firm stance loudly proclaimed in our belief about burner culture, in whatever form we believe it to be, whether anyone else agrees or not, is another proud burner tradition. My only hope is that we all do as rangers do and FLAME the situation: Find out, Listen, Analyze, Mediate, Educate.

13. Gillian

May 7, 2013 at 1:59 AM

Wow. I appreciated both articles and every single comment -- how refreshing to go through an entirety of comments without one cheap shot, sarcastic retort, obnoxious troll or casual dismissal. Everyone thought carefully about what they wanted to say and said it well. Beautiful. I just wanted to say that I really felt empathy for Tower, and appreciated his courage because ironically, although he didn't feel comfortable getting naked at Burning Man, he absolutely bared himself in a national magazine in order to say what he wanted to say and share an accurate and honest response to his experience. But I also appreciated this response article, Kimbriel, because I felt that you were generous in your appraisal and tried to be kind and understanding in your analysis of *why* Tower felt the way that he did, and you offered suggestions for how he might feel more comfortable if he tried it again, and what positives he might take away from the experience. Thanks, everyone, for half an hour of my time very well-spent. :)

14. Saul

June 19, 2013 at 12:13 AM

I just read the GQ article and loved it! And that's coming from someone who's written about some very similar experiences at the Burning Man (such as the Carcass Wash) and reached different conclusions.

Maybe I'm biased, but I do think being a journalist writing about the Burn is a meaningful way of participating. Some people are poets who can express themselves on the spot, others observe and reflect and write about it later. I think Wells is good-naturedly critical of some things and self-deprecating toward himself in equal measure. There are certainly some excesses to the Burn that are worth mentioning.

As for the Carcass Wash, I think his description of it is wonderful and true and hilarious all at the same time. Is it a bit judgemental? Sure, but I think was incredibly brave of him to put himself through the experience and write honestly about what it felt like. Even the most open-minded person makes judgements, and it's important to acknowledge that side of our experience too.

I didn't find the article to be dismissive or critical of the event as a whole (unlike some articles I've seen). He does a great job of portraying the various types of people and reasons people have for coming to the Burn, and it sounds like he found some personal meaning in the experience as well. Disillusionment and disorientation is a valid a reaction to the Burn, as much as transformation, and it's good to see that side of it expressed too. My most recent Burn was a very stressful one (I thought I might never go back), and it wasn't until much later that I realized how very meaningful it had been.