The Dark Side of Burning Man
“Everyone cries at Burning Man,” I was warned. I may have scoffed at the time – but how right they were. While part of me feels guilty expressing any disappointment whatsoever about an event that I rarely hear anything but breathless praise for, you guys know that I’m all about keeping it real. While I loved the principles of Burning Man and had truly unique and beautiful experiences, I also faced a few struggles.
I knew that I would struggle with the relentless dust covering every possible surface at all times, the biting cold at night, and the arid heat during the days (while heat doesn’t bother me, the dryness does – dry skin is my own personal kryptonite, as anyone who has ever spent a day with me when I forgot to carry lotion can attest.) These are minor complaints in the grand scheme of Black Rock City yet I list them first as extreme conditions and the inability to escape them even for a minute can exacerbate problems that might blow over pretty easily back in the real world.
Unfortunately, I don’t think my camping situation was the best fit for me. I didn’t connect with my camp – and I am willing to accept a fair amount of the blame for that myself. I went with four close friends and we camped with about twenty other people that they have become quite close to since I started traveling. The camp was basically a group of tight knit friends… and me. I get it. If I was at a week-long party with that many of MY close friends and there was one new chick, would I realistically take the time to get to know her? I have been in many similar situations before where I’ve managed to wiggle my way in without issue — I mean, I kind of do that every time I show up on a new island and set up a temporary life there. But sad to say it just didn’t happen with this particular group. I know I could have tried harder, and I would guess they might say the same. I did not feel a part of the group.
My friend Tom was in a camp of about 100 people where he knew no one other than the three friends he went with, but everyone was in the same boat. They had camp mixers, and everyone was very outgoing and in a “meet new friends” mode. I think that would have been a better fit for me.
FOMO and Too Much To Do
Every single second of Burning Man, there are dozens of things going on that could potentially blow your mind. At most, you can do one of them. At times, you can do none of them, as your body simply needs a break. Many Burners focus on the evening activities, but I really loved what was going on during the day as well. Sometimes I went to bed at 4am instead of 11am so that I could catch a mid-day yoga class, and I would feel a pang of FOMO when waving goodbye to my friends.
I spend the majority of my time in foreign situations, meeting interesting new people – it’s my job! So naturally, on a rare week when I was in the same time zone as some of my dearest friends, one of my greatest priorities was spending time with them instead. Understandably, they were excited for the opportunity to meet interesting new people – something I take advantage of getting to do on a regular basis due to my nomadic lifestyle. In the moment, despite giving myself all the pep talks, I couldn’t help but take it personally that they didn’t value spending time with me as much as I valued spending time with them.
I was terrified of so many things going wrong at Burning Man that I almost made myself sick with worry in the week beforehand. Would I become dehydrated and faint? Would the dust destroy my camera and rob me of the chance to enjoy one of my favorite hobbies? Would I contract so-called “Playa Foot” and walk around with cracked open, painful heels all week? Would my anxiety flare up in the dark at night and leave me miserable? Wonderfully, none of the above happened. But funny enough, the thing that had the most negative effect on my trip was something that never even occurred to be – personal drama with some of my nearest and dearest.
I’m not sure if it’s sad or inspiring that some of the warmest moments of kindness shown to me on the playa were by total strangers, while I often felt deeply disconnected from the close friends that I traveled there with. I recount this not to cast blame or be hurtful, but just to be honest in my recounting of the experience and to try to process some of it through writing.
If there was one aspect I struggled with most greatly at Burning Man, it was this paradox – the entire event focuses on creating a strong and loving community, and yet at the same time there was a strong sense of a “you do you,” looking-out-for-number-one kind of attitude. I would hear someone go on about being kind and thoughtful and taking care of one another, and turn around and hear someone else extolling the virtues of “just doing what you have to do, and not caring about anyone else!” I really did struggle with this paradox of selflessness and selfishness – how can they possibly coexist? Are we supposed to live in a way that is thoughtful and generous to others, or to do what makes us happy without looking in the rearview mirror to see who’s left choking on the dust?
As I wrote previously, Burning Man helped me come to terms with something I’ve known in my heart for a long time – I need to slow down. I struggled at times to live in the moment and enjoy the beautiful chaos of what was going on around me. That sad fact proved it — I’m overstressed and over-stimulated. I pushed myself too hard this summer and didn’t give myself that recharge time I so desperately need. I’m working on learning to slow down and prepare for and process emotionally the events in my life.
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Not long after our arrival at Black Rock City, a friend gave me a cherished compliment. “Alex, you know what makes you happy, and you aren’t bothered if it’s different from what makes other people happy.” That is something I hold very dear, and I was so touched that he was able to recognize that in me. But for some reason, I felt that strongly held truth about myself wavering at Burning Man. Next time, I’m going to try to prove him right.
Great post! And a fantastic insight into the Burning Man experience.
You really spoke to me when you said “I couldn’t help but take it personally that they didn’t value spending time with me as much as I valued spending time with them”.
As an expat for nearly three years now I feel this almost every time I go back to my home country!
Thanks Ben. There are sacrifices to every path in life, and this is the biggest one I have found to my own, and it sounds like yours as well. Thanks for commenting.
Really great blog post here. Really honest and insightful. I sometimes think people focus too much on saying they’re having a good time rather than actually having one so it is really refreshing to hear something so honest.
Ha, I know how that goes Lisa! The worst part about that is when someone isn’t having The Best Time Ever, they are left feeling even more alone! And hence, my keepin’ it real policy around these parts 🙂
This is exactly why I love reading your blog. You are always so honest and share your most inner thoughts. I can totally relate to everything that you wrote but I always struggle to put everything into a comment. There is so much I have to say to this but I guess that has to wait until we meet in person but after reading this I think we will get along really well.but again thanks so much for writing about it! <3
You are welcome Caty! I’m glad you connected to this post!
Carefully parsed honesty. Maybe you can be a diplomat when you are ready to settle down in one country.
And BTW, apparently you haven’t noticed that photography is no longer a hobby, but part of your profession. But lucky you, it’s so much fun it still feels like play.
I like that phrase, “carefully parsed honesty.” I also like the idea of being a diplomat. But I’d have a lot of Facebook scrubbing to do first…
I know how it feels to value something that others don’t value nearly as much. It’s frustrating, and usually leads to resentment. Really coming to terms with ‘to each their own’ is more difficult than it sounds, especially when I’m the one who’s disappointed. Sounds like you need a vacation from all your vacationing!
Tres true, Heather! I do need to slow down. Work and other obligations will keep me from doing so until 2014, but I’m hoping to take things slow and stay in one spot in January and February.
I’ve been really enjoying your posts about Burning Man! I was never really that curious about it, but your experiences help to make me more curious and they just are fascinating. I really enjoyed you sharing this part of it, too, as well as the others. And it’s a hard thing to make yourself slow down when you know you need to, even if maybe it’s not what you want to do. 🙂
Thanks Erika. I always want to try to show a balanced view of my life and travels, but especially when it comes to an event where people may feel that they’ve failed if they don’t have 100% totally transformative fun all the time!
Excellent, thoughtful, honest post, Alex. I loved reading about the challenges you faced as well as the positive aspects. Thank you!
You’re welcome, Sarah! I appreciate your feedback!
If you go back next year, I’ll have to set you up with my friend Autumn’s camp. I used to party with them all the time in SF, and they’re one of these huge camps that owns a freakin’ bus and stores everything in the East Bay and has prime real estate at the front of the Playa and goes all out yet accepts everyone and is open to meeting new people. Those are the types you need to BM with, sista.
(And I’d be right there with you in thinking that my anxiety would flare up. It did just reading this post!)
I’m definitely buying a ticket for next year, but I’ll have to see if my schedule and budget allows me to do it again in 2014. If so, I’ll definitely be in contact 🙂
Having been an expat for 10 years I can really relate to your statement “I couldn’t help but take it personally that they didn’t value spending time with me as much as I valued spending time with them”. It is sometimes heartbreaking to find out that some of your ‘friends’ are actually not that interested in your life. Maybe it is jealousy, maybe it is something else. I have learned over the years who my real friends are though and I treasure that.
I think in this specific case, it was as I wrote above… they were excited to have the experiences that I am lucky enough to have all the time. Hence, we just had different priorities for the week. Neither was right or wrong. But it did sting.
One of the 10 principles of Burning Man is Radical Self Reliance. Radical Inclusion is of course one as well. The paradox of which you speak isn’t necessarily that; I think one of the greatest and hardest lessons the playa can offer is radical self reliance. Besides the physical struggle, that means emotional as well. That’s where burners are coming from when they say ultimately you need to do what you need to do to take care of yourself on the playa. It’s an amazing lesson applicable to the default world actually, or at least it’s helped me to stop feeling sorry for myself or mad that social situations aren’t matching expectations. There are so many ways we could each be more radically self reliant, but this is not something we necessarily learn in our culture. It is a valuable skill to be able to wrap your mind around both of these principles and then apply them back home.
The playa is not easy and I don’t think anyone who is a dedicated burner would ever say that it is. But that’s not the point. It’s supposed to be hard. It’s that high risk high reward situation. But in this case it’s lots of pain but with an amazingly glorious payoff. Because indeed, there is literally no place else in the world like it. And believe me, I’ve been all around, too. Burning Man IS truly magical. And some of the greatest life struggles and lessons can be learned through the price of all that pain on the playa. I hope you’ll return. It’s different every year. And it really is what you make of it.
Hey Jessica, thanks for your comment! I actually wrote a full post on my reflections on the ten principles of Burning Man, which you’ll see linked to in the first paragraph. I’d encourage you to check it out for a more balanced view of my experience — I don’t want anyone to think I only saw the dark side 🙂 I absolutely will return!
I love your honest posts – you tell it like it is! It’s unfortunate that almost every experience has a bad side, but then, how would we recognise the extraordinary moments without those dark ones to remind us just how special the good ones are? Learning from experience means you’ll be able to let go that little bit more next time.
That is a beautiful perspective Lindsey… thanks for the reminder.
I have to say I agree with the expats who posted above me about how people no longer value their time with me as much as I do with them. I guess everyone experiences this to some degree in life as we grow apart, move away, get caught up in other things. But it doesn’t hurt any less. As someone who tries really hard to stay in touch with people from back home, it just hurts when their attitude is out of sight out of mind. Thanks for this post and your honesty. Even if we’ve never been to burning man, I think we can all relate.
Sounds like this post struck a chord not just with Burning Man attendees but with long term travelers as well. Maybe that deserves a post of its own!
Woooo! Such a well done post! I love hearing the interior thoughts that go along with what you are doing…I think they are the most important part of the journey. We can learn from and relate to so much that you are going through, so thanks for the help you give by being honest and posting them!
You are so very welcome Lauren. I can have rose-tinted memory, so it’s important for me personally as well to record the good and the bad and the ugly.
Thanks for sharing the bad. It’s rare to see people talk about the downsides of Burning Man, so I’m glad you took the time to do it!
I hope you can keep these things in mind to have an even better year if you go again! I know I’ll take them into consideration as I start planning my Burning Man experience.
Hey Beth, I absolutely plan to! Travel (and life!) are always about learning and growing. I know next year will be a whole new experience.
It’s funny that your personal experience at Burning Man and in general travels resonate with a 17-year old girl who’s never left the east coast. “I couldn’t help but take it personally that they didn’t value spending time with me as much as I valued spending time with them”.
I hope I don’t come off as a “misunderstood teen” full of her “teenage angst”, but in my almost four years of high school, you’re experience with your friends at Burning Man I feel has been my experience with any relationship in my life. I always rationalize that no one in my school is interested in the same things or have the same perspectives, but more and more I start doubting that I can make and keep relationships at all. Maybe it’s me. I’m not saying this to get pity or anything, which is what i’d be told if I posted this on any social media, but just because I feel I can relate.
Although I’m stationary now, I have considered living a nomadic lifestyle in the future and while I itch to go to other places and have every experience I possibly can, I waver. If living this lifestyle heightens these feelings, well. I don’t know.
Hey Ana, I don’t want to patronize you because I’m sure you hear a version of this all the time, but I really think that is something that does get better with age. As you move out of a high school setting and onto college or a job, you’ll naturally gravitate towards more like-minded people (and have a larger pool from which to do so!). I’ve always put a perhaps over-the-top emphasis on friendship and sometimes it stings when that isn’t reciprocated. But I wouldn’t trade the people I’ve known and loved along the way for anything. PS: I’m not a teenager anymore but I’ve just graduated to “twenties angst.” It happens 🙂
I am the subject of the movie, Taking My Parents to Burning Man. I can’t believe how much of what you said is consistent with the message in our movie. At least my opinions. Hope you get to see it sometime. I’ve posted about the movie on my knitting blog and you can check out the Facebook page.
I’ll have to check that out some time, especially as I prepare for returning to the Playa in 2015! Happy burning!
Excellent post! You should definitely start a travel-themed camp with social mixers where traveling burners from all over the world can mingle at the beginning of the week.
Would love to do that someday 🙂 Definitely looking to get more involved in 2015!
Going to try for 2015 as well. Looks like an amazing event. I have heard so much about it and it looks like I might actually be in the country this time!
Awesome! Maybe I’ll see you there then 🙂
Nice reflections here. It’s definitely a tricky place to navigate the connection/disconnection with friends and strangers. It can be really challenging to feel like the outsider in a group of closer friends. I always wonder if I do that with my friends, accidentally leaving people out.
I’ve been 2 years. The first was by myself but with a big camp of people (110). We ended up breaking off into separate groups and I met a lot of friends who I’m still very close with. The next year, I went with friends and cobbled together new camp from the first year. It ended up being a bit of an off year. Didn’t click with the camp, fought with my friend’s wife (my friend), hung out with my ex, which was alright. Anyway, yeah, clicking and feeling the love of your camp can make a huge difference.
I’m pretty sure I’ll be back next year, going to do a small cafe camp with 15 people tops. Going for a mix of people who know how to be open and friendly and hopefully cohesive. We shall see.
Hey Kyle, thanks for sharing — it’s always great to hear about others’ experiences. I’m still hoping to attend in 2015 but have no idea what my camping situation will be like. It will be interesting to try something new, and be able to reflect and compare it to this first one. Good luck with your new camp!
What do you do off work it sounds like you have an amazing job I just hitch hiked across the county starting in NC to Colorado springs, then hiked the grand canyon it was an amazing experience we also went to the red wood forest and then ended back in Colorado. Please tell me more on what you do I would like a job traveling and want to here everyone experience . It sounds like your really living life it’s awesome
Hey Abby! Check out my FAQ page, it has all kinds of info on what I do and how I stay on the road 🙂 Your trip sounds awesome!