Surviving a rite of passage

Burning Man Festival’s 25th year weathers in first-timers

September 8, 2011

By Cassandra Smith

Not many celebrations require participants to read a survival guide beforehand, but surviving the harsh desert conditions of the Burning Man Festival is no easy feat.

Last week, over 53,700 people gathered on the “playa,” a Spanish term for beach, of a desolate area in northern Nevada known as Black Rock Desert for the 25thanniversary of the seven day arts festival.

Burning Man is unlike any other festival, occupying 4,400 acres of land surrounded by towering mountains.  It is literally a city, in which 50 foot dinosaurs and neon pirate ships saunter down the streets shooting fire and blasting electronic music alongside tantric sex workshops and tutu tea parties.

Despite the fully functional city of art, music, and flames  participants were never allowed to forget they were also camping in an extreme environment.  With no shade in sight and no running water for miles, festivalgoers had to fend for themselves in the desert.

“This place demands respect,” said Robert Dowley from San Francisco, a five-year Burning Man veteran.  The festival’s organizers suggest that each person bring at least 1.5 gallons of water for themselves for each day they plan on attending the festival. “I brought 15 gallons this year, and I don’t think I will have enough,” said Dowley.

Many Burning Man veterans commented on the mildness of the weather at this year’s festival.  There were no major dust storms, and the temperature ranged between the high 40s at night and the low 90s during the day.  There was no rain during the festival and the ground was tightly packed, allowing for easy bike transportation.

Each year the festival has a theme, and the theme for 2011 was Rites of Passage.  This brought an unusual amount of first-timers or “virgins” to Burning Man, many of whom came unprepared.  Black Rock City Ranger “Snowboard” (many participants have “playa names” they choose to go by all week) said, “We’ve had a lot of virgins come by the medical tent for things like water and sunscreen.”

Despite warnings in the survival guide on Burning Man’s website to stay out of the sun during peak hours, Snowboard said he saw many people “party too hard, too quickly, and end up dehydrated and overheated.

In addition to the heat, Burning Man participants, or “burners,” remain covered in the desert’s white dust for the extent of their stay.

“It’s on everything and in everything.  In my food, and clothes, and in my bed; my lungs are coated in playa dust,” said virgin burner Jamie Newell.  Most participants wear bandanas or face masks of some kind to prevent breathing in too much dust.  Playa dust is more of a nuisance than anything else, but can cause health problems in rare circumstances.

Ranger Snowboard said, “The alkaline in the dust dries your skin out and can cause what they call ‘playa foot’.”  The ailment can be cured by soaking feet in a mixture of water and vinegar to realign the pH of the skin.

Despite the intense preparation required for and possible health risks involved in choosing to participate in the festival, many burners agreed there is no environment more suitable to the ideals of the Burning Man Project.

Burning Man is built on ten principles, including leaving no trace and engaging in radical self-reliance.

“Being in a place so far from running water puts you back in touch with your basic survival needs,” said fourth-year burner “Star Pheonix.”  He explained, “You begin to remember your humanness when you actually have to think about whether or not you have enough water to make it back to your tent.”

Ranger Snowboard, who has been to 13 burns, shared a similar view.

“When we are directly confronted with our own survival, we more fully understand our human nature.  It isn’t until we are stripped of all of the comforts of civilization that we feel a connection to our being and the being of the world around us.”

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