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I read somewhere that trying to describe Burning Man to a person who hasn’t been is like trying to describe different hues to a colorblind person. Now that I have returned from my own inaugural sojourn to Black Rock City, I can understand the struggle. Photos might show a technicolor rave, but don’t do much to explain the profound effect the Ten Principles may have had. A video of The Temple burning might reveal a great pyrotechnics show, but it can’t convey the impact of tens of thousands of people going completely silent to sit spellbound and reflect on the week that they have shared.

That doesn’t stop people from trying, though. Thousands of paragraphs have been written and millions of photos have been taken to try to illustrate the profound adventure that is The Playa. Now it’s my turn, and I feel humbled by the challenge of trying to describe my Burning Man experience in words.

What is Burning Man

What is Burning Man

Burning Man is often described as life changing, and so I laughed when a friend I met traveling in Indonesia told me in a whisper – as if the entire Burning Man community might be slinking around Gili Trawangan, waiting for an outlier to break from the official party line – that “the kind of people who say Burning Man changed their life probably didn’t have very exciting lives to begin with.” I thought of that conversation often throughout the week, doing a mental once over every so often to determine if in fact my life had changed, and if I was in fact the same wide-eyed girl who had driven through the gates a few days earlier. Would by family recognize me? Would my friends get me? Had I spontaneously developed dreadlocks? There was one thing I knew for sure – I’ve been around the world and back, but Burning Man was my first visit to another planet.

I’m sure by the time it’s all over I’ll have written several posts about my experience, ranging from attempts at poetic description to those of the most useful “I screwed this up, go forth and do it better” variety. But first, I’ll try to make a fruitless attempt at explaining to you what the heck this Burning Man thing is all about.

What is Burning Man

Burning Man is not just a bunch of naked hippies.

Burning Man is 68,000 different people coming together to spend a week in one of the most inhospitable environments on Earth – the Central Nevada Black Rock dessert. They are families with small children and elegant Canadian women celebrating their 75th birthdays. There are artists, musicians, college professors, lifetime ravers, TED speakers, construction workers, frat boys, unemployed drifters, CEOs, retirees, and hey, maybe a travel blogger or two. They are republicans and democrats, men and women and everything in between. They come from all over the globe. Some of them are naked.

Burning Man is not a music festival.

Burning Man is a celebration of art, self expression, and community. While music is happening all the time, there is no pre-assigned lineup, and no set of shows. Burning Man is more of a temporary city; an experiment in a purpose-built utopia. That said, one of my favorite moments of the week was running across The Playa asking anyone with a Burnier-Than-Thou look on their face where the main stage was and what time Kanye was on.

Burning Man is not a swap meet.

This was a major misconception I heard over and over again in the time leading up to my departure – that everything at Burning Man must be bartered or traded. One of the ten principles of Burning Man is gifting – nothing in Black Rock City is for sale, and instead participants give freely to one another with no expectation of anything in return. I can see how in our culture this is a very hard concept to grasp, and I think that’s where the confusion stems from. Several of the principles, including gifting, had a very profound effect on me and I have a post coming up on that subject.

Burning Man is not exclusively about “drinking and drugging,” as my mother would call it.

Yes, drugs are a major part of the Burning Man experience. But so is TEDx Black Rock City, and the Black Rock City marathon, and the number of sober camps and daily AA meetings that take place like they would in another city of this size.

Burning Man is not a wild orgy in the desert.

Okay, I mean for some people that is definitely a part of it.

Burning Man is not a week long, very expensive panic attack.

Well, I mean, you do kind of have a point there. Maybe we should just move along then, shall we?

What is Burning Man?

Burning Man is being an impromptu guest at a wedding officiated by Elvis.

Burning Man Wedding

Burning Man Wedding

Burning Man Wedding

Burning Man is unintentionally participating in a Bunny Parade, when you just happened to wear your bunny costume without realizing that several thousand others were planning on doing exactly the same.

Burning Man Bunny Parade

Burning Man Bunny Parade

Burning Man Bunny Parade

Burning Man is Banana Yoga in a Yurt.

Yoga at Burning Man

Burning Man is sunset confession time on top of the art car with your best friend.

Sunset at Burning Man

Sunset at Burning Man

Burning Man is twelve hour traffic jams turned parties at the gate.

The Gate at Burning Man

The Gate at Burning Man

The Gate at Burning Man

Burning Man is a videogame come to life.

Burning Man at Night

Burning Man at Night

Burning Man at Night

Burning Man is, quite literally, a man burning. A wooden one, anyway.

The Man Burning

The Man Burning

The Man Burning

Burning Man is riding out a white-out atop of a steampunk art car.

Burning Man Whiteout

Burning Man Whiteout

Burning Man Whiteout

Burning Man is watching an original musical worthy of a Tony at a popup luxury tent hotel.

Ashram Galactica Burning Man

Burning Man is the world’s biggest playground and/or most interactive art gallery.

Burning Man Playground

Burning Man Playground

Burning Man Playground

Burning Man is new friends, old loves, and everything in between.

What is Burning Man

What is Burning Man

Burning Man is whatever you want it to be.

What is Burning Man

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66 Comments...
  • Sally
    September 26 2013

    I had never heard of Burning Man before you mentioned it on your blog and now it’s on my ultimate ‘To Do’ list because it sounds awesome.
    Excellent photos, looking forward to reading more about it!
    Sally recently posted..Animal Cruelty in Thailand

    • Alex
      September 27 2013

      So glad I could be the one to introduce you to Burning Man, Sally! Happy to hear it’s earned a place on your Bucket List 🙂

  • Amanda
    September 26 2013

    These are some of the most beautiful photos I have ever seen of Burning Man… major FOMO right now 🙂 It seems like a difficult place to take great photos so definite props! Do you think you’ll go again next year? I know some people after the first year say they’ll never miss another so I’m curious what your takeaway was.
    Amanda recently posted..10 Goals for 24

    • Alex
      September 27 2013

      Amanda it is SO difficult to take photos there. I remember seeing a very famous photogs images and not understanding why there was so much digital noise in them. Now I realize it wasn’t noise but DUST!

      I will definitely go again, but I might do a few things differently. Stay tuned 🙂

  • tyrhone
    September 26 2013

    Whoa, that looks super cool, it would be a crazy place to do acid. I always wonder when people get together with something of this magnitude, what’s the toilet situation like? And how do people wash?
    tyrhone recently posted..A few days at Akumal lagoon

    • Alex
      September 27 2013

      Porta potties! There are plenty of them and they are not as bad as you might expect… but don’t get me wrong, they are still porta potties. The lucky RV folk have bathrooms of their own. As far as washing, some camps set up communal showers and again, some people have RVs. We had neither. Wahhhh.

  • I agree with Amanda, these pictures are beyond gorgeous!!! Wow! LOVE that last pic of you! While this is not my scene, I’m going to live living vicariously through you over the next couple of posts.
    Andi of My Beautiful Adventures recently posted..Banner Elk, North Carolina: Spring

    • Alex
      September 27 2013

      Burning Man is not for everyone 🙂 A lot of Burners seem to think there is something wrong with those who don’t see it as the most magical place on Earth, but eh…. I can appreciate why some people would hate it!

  • Erica
    September 26 2013

    These photos are amazing, Alex! You’re making me want to go burning man now!

    Can’t wait to read the rest of your posts 🙂
    Erica recently posted..Hiking Up Stone Mountain

    • Alex
      September 27 2013

      You better sign up for the mailing list now! Those tickets are hard to get your hands on!

  • Rika | Cubicle Throwdown
    September 26 2013

    You’ll never forget your first Burning Man 🙂 I was so happy to see this in my feed today – have been awaiting these photos! The last one is epic. I’m so glad you had a good burn.
    Rika | Cubicle Throwdown recently posted..Doing my part – a lionfish recipe.

    • Alex
      September 27 2013

      When did you go Rika? I’m assuming from this comment you’ve been! Did you love it? Will you go back? Tell me more 🙂

      • Rika | Cubicle Throwdown
        September 28 2013

        Yes ma’am… 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010 😉 I’ll go again when I’m living in North America with a ‘real’ job… it was SO expensive to go, especially coming from Canada. Worth every penny. I’ll never afford it with my current lifestyle and income (not to mention the plane tickets to get back!). I know I’ll be there again one day though.
        Rika | Cubicle Throwdown recently posted..Vancouver Review: Eating My Way Through Vancouver

        • Alex
          September 30 2013

          Awesome! You should blog about it retroactively 🙂

  • Dana - Our Wanderlust
    September 26 2013

    I’m with Rika – the last photo is AMAZING. I love that you’ve showed us what Burning Man… but that last photo just makes me want to know what it is to YOU. Can’t wait for the rest!
    Dana – Our Wanderlust recently posted..Yacht School I: STCW + RIB

    • Alex
      September 27 2013

      Don’t worry, plenty of self reflection ahead 🙂 And thank you!

  • Laura
    September 26 2013

    Stunning photos! I have been reading a lot about Burning Man lately and I look forward to the day I finally make it there myself! Thanks for sharing your experience 🙂
    Laura recently posted..Looking Back

    • Alex
      September 27 2013

      Thank YOU for reading Laura!

  • Jade
    September 27 2013

    This was such a great way to introduce Burning Man! I am still mystified by it, but now want to go even more! As always, great travel inspiration.

    • Alex
      September 27 2013

      Hopefully by the end of my posts you’ll have a better idea, Jade! And thank you!

  • aftri
    September 27 2013

    Wow! The pictures are amazing! I can see it’s really an “Oasis in a Desert” for artists. You definitely had fun in there 😀
    aftri recently posted..Apartemenku di Swedia

    • Alex
      September 27 2013

      Thanks Aftri! That’s a great way to describe it.

  • Naomi
    September 27 2013

    These photos really do look like they’re from another world, unreal!
    Naomi recently posted..Colombian Music: The heart of Colombian culture

    • Alex
      September 27 2013

      Thanks Naomi! It was an insane experience.

  • Ashley Castle
    September 27 2013

    Alex, this is awesome, girl! Your pictures are incredible. Burning Man has been a desire of mine for several years now- after seeing this, I really want to go next year. Thanks for sharing, lovely.

    • Alex
      September 27 2013

      Ashley… let’s do it in 2014! I’m not kidding! I think you’d be the perfect person to Burn with 🙂

  • Heather
    September 27 2013

    The more I learn about Burning Man the more I’m thinking “I’ve *got* to go to this!” I like how you’ve captured the ‘myths of Burning Man’ and filled it in with your experience. I take it you personally recommend Burning Man! Would you do it again next year?
    Heather recently posted..Mystery Solved! How to get a Volunteer Visa for Zambia

    • Alex
      September 30 2013

      Definitely! I’m not sure if it will be next year though due to financing and scheduling. Someday though, absolutely!

  • Ashley Castle
    September 27 2013

    Ok, (a) YES Please! I haven’t gone before because I don’t know how it all works, how to get a group together, any of the logistics etc etc. I would LOVE to go with you and your gang. And (b), I both like the terminology “to burn with” and feel honored for the invite- I agree, girlfriend. It’s a 2014 date! xx
    Ashley Castle recently posted..Adventure Week Chile, Part 2: Los Lagos Region

    • Alex
      September 30 2013

      Let’s chat 🙂

  • Maddy
    September 27 2013

    I’m SO happy you wrote this post… being from CA (and SF in particular) I have tons of friends who go to Burning Man but we’ve never really had a full conversation about the experience, what they wanted out of it, what they got out of it, what it was like…I’ve only heard the crazy stories about bartering socks for an aura reading, and taking various substances into the wee hours of the morn, etc. I have to admit I was one of the people who DID think it was just a bunch of privileged kids doing drugs in the desert, and your post shows it as so much more! Thanks for showing me not to be judgmental, and I’m glad you had such a great time! 🙂

    ps – your photos are always great but these are AMAZING
    Maddy recently posted..High Five for Friday: 9/27

    • Alex
      September 30 2013

      Actually Maddy, your “privileged kids in the desert” comment reminded me of a point I originally meant to make… I went back and edited the post to reflect that, so thank you!

  • Andrea
    September 27 2013

    I’m very familiar with BM because so many people I know have been but sad to say I have never gotten there myself. And we probably won’t because my husband has no interest in going. But maybe someday! Your photos are amazing and I think you did an awesome job with this post. I never knew there was so much diversity in the activities. Very cool.
    Andrea recently posted..Enjoying the Countryside In New Jersey

    • Alex
      September 30 2013

      Thanks Andrea! Yeah, it’s actually a bit overwhelming how much there is to do and how many different paths you could take. It’s infinite!

  • Dad
    September 28 2013

    I am sure this is just a small sample of pics and experiences. Can’t wait for more

    • Alex
      September 30 2013

      Lots to come over the next few weeks!

  • Jacquie @ Must for Wanderlust
    September 28 2013

    I enjoyed these photos way too much. When I am back in North America I WILL be making this happen, no doubt about that! & love your take on what burning man is 😉 x
    Jacquie @ Must for Wanderlust recently posted..Music for the Gypsy Life (16 Tracks!)

    • Alex
      September 30 2013

      Thanks Jacquie, and happy Burning!

  • Sky
    September 29 2013

    Ahhh, Burning Man! This has been on my bucket list even since I heard about it, even though I still don’t fully GET it. I don’t think I’ll make it next year but maybe in 2015.

    Freaking AWESOME pictures, btw. Looking forward to future BM posts!
    Sky recently posted..Hey, I’m Sky. Nice to (re)meet you!

    • Alex
      September 30 2013

      Sky, I don’t think it is possible to “get” it until you do it! Hope you get to make it happen in 2015 🙂

  • Lindsay
    September 29 2013

    I’ve been wanting to go to Burning Man for YEARS, and each time I see burners posting amazing photos from the playa it jumps to the top of my Bucket List. I’m planning on moving out west someday, so I figured that would be the ideal time to go – but not sure if I can wait much longer!

    But seriously, your photos are absolutely beautiful and give a really great sense of what the experience is like. Also enjoyed your post on the cost of Burning Man and can’t wait to see more BM posts from you! 🙂
    Lindsay recently posted..Lake Maggiore, Switzerland // FLASHBACK FRIDAY

    • Alex
      September 30 2013

      I know how you feel Lindsay! I was raring to go for years but I’m glad I held off until the stars aligned. It was worth the wait!

  • TammyOnTheMove
    October 1 2013

    I have seen so many facebook updates of people posting burning man pictures and I always thought what the hell they are talking about? So thanks for explaining. It looks awesome I have to say. I love the look of these whacky and surreal people there.
    TammyOnTheMove recently posted..Icebreaker shirt review and exclusive giveaway

    • Alex
      October 1 2013

      Yeah, I figured it wouldn’t be fair to just jump into posting without a little background! Glad this did the trick 🙂

  • Camels & Chocolate
    October 3 2013

    I love this and must admit: Now I sort of want to go…someday. (Before I was adamantly opposed. No, never would I go to a drug festival like that one! Now I’m intrigued.)

    Also, I must ask: Did you take your nice camera equipment or a P&S instead?
    Camels & Chocolate recently posted..Kiawah Island: A Southern Oasis

    • Alex
      October 4 2013

      I took the big boy! I had the sensor cleaned when I got home but figured the outside is trashed anyway. Though I saw a lot of people who had wrapped them in plastic and wish I had thought of that. The conditions are REALLY challenging and it was quite difficult to get the shots I wanted even with my dSLR. I can only imagine how frustrated I’d have been with my point and shoot.

  • GiselleandCody
    October 3 2013

    This looks like such a blast. We are planning a huge roadtrip throughout the States and might have to work around Burning Man. Everyone who goes says it’s so incredible.
    GiselleandCody recently posted..The Secret War in Laos

    • Alex
      October 4 2013

      I would love to see you guys there — I think you’d really love it. One sad part: no animals! 🙁

  • Abby
    October 4 2013

    Your photos are so dreamy! I’ve known so many people who have gone the past few years. It looks so amazing!
    Abby recently posted..Sacrifices in moving: Leaving Las Vegas

    • Alex
      October 4 2013

      Thanks Abby! I would love to see you there… let’s put together a travel blogger theme camp 🙂

      • alex
        November 15 2013

        you forgot to mention the most important part of burning man. hopefully you never go again. it people like you that are turning burning man into a bunch of idiots taking pictures. in a few years it’ll just be a bunch of retards with cameras

        • Alex
          November 17 2013

          I don’t think that statement is a very good example of radical inclusion, my friend 🙂

  • Joe Gerard
    November 21 2013

    Wow, this is by far the best stories I’ve read so far in your journey. Apart from reading your diving stories in koh tao and gili. Coming to America will be challenging for me since im from Malaysia. Anyway, let me finish my Divemaster internship first then decide whether i can go next year or 2015. In the mean time, have fun rolling around.

    • Alex
      November 22 2013

      Thanks so much, Joe! Good luck getting to America — it will be worth it, I promise!

  • Craig Boland
    June 10 2014

    Love your series on Burning Man! While the event was phenomenal to experience, it was the 10 Principles that changed my life. Thank you for such a beautiful write-up and for the beautiful photos. 🙂

    PS – BM2013 was my first year, too. Looks like you were camping near me. I was at 7:57K

    • Alex
      June 10 2014

      Thanks Craig! I know how you feel (did you read my full post on the 10 principles?). I’m looking forward to getting back to the Playa in 2015!

  • sally
    August 2 2014

    Hi, I’ve been considering going to BM for 2014. I’m hesitating a little bit because I’m not too sure on how to join a camp with others. Think I might be solo traveling, I’m not at all worried about being alone but more so not knowing how to organize where to sleep and keep my things.

    • Alex
      August 3 2014

      Hey Sally! I recommend you check out my post The Cost of Burning Man — in the comments, a lot of long term Burners who organize camps for first timers chimed in. They might be the perfect fit for you!

  • Nikita
    January 27 2015

    I feel like I miss Burning Man even though I’ve never been. It looks like everything I could ever want from a festival, or life.
    Nikita recently posted..Finding the Heart of Saturday Night in Prague

    • Alex
      January 28 2015

      I feel the same way about certain places I really want to go, Nikita 🙂 Maybe 2015 is your year to make it to the Playa!

  • Elen
    February 22 2015

    This is awesome! The more I learn about Burning Man, the more I want to go. Especially as I look outside to the winter snow in Buffalo! One day…

    • Alex
      February 25 2015

      Just got my ticket for 2015 🙂 Can’t wait!

  • Dan Thompson
    September 22 2015

    VERY cool stuff! I always love the pictures I see coming from Burning Man, and have always thought I would enjoy it from an artistic point of view.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    Dan
    Dan Thompson recently posted..Inside First Church in Cambridge

    • Alex
      September 24 2015

      It really is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced around the world. The art scene there is fantastic! Hope you can make it someday to experience it for yourself, if you’re interested 🙂

  • Rachel en Route
    March 10 2017

    Constantly inspiring me! I will definitely put Burning Man on the list. I used to have preconceived ideas about it, but you made it sounds absolutely wonderful. Thank you!
    Rachel en Route recently posted..A REVELATION

    • Alex
      March 20 2017

      Thank you so much Rachel! I have come to find there’s a LOT of misinformation out there about Burning Man — so it’s no surprise that a lot of people get the wrong idea!

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