Saturday, January 22, 2011

"Burnier than thou"


I arrived early on the playa in 2010 to participate in an art project with a group from my hometown of Portland, Oregon and to serve as a staff-writer and photographer for The Black Rock Beacon. One of my first assignments for the daily paper was to get a photo of the Temple. I hopped on my bike and rode out into the open playa with a backpack full of supplies. In addition to my camera, I brought along my usual "survival pack" - a big jug of water, goggles and a makeshift dust mask.

As anyone who has ever been to the festival will tell you, the weather in Black Rock City can turn on a dime. Hell, it can turn on a penny too. I snagged my photos and rode over to "Bliss Dance" for a few more shots. The front gates weren't due to open to the general public for another 36 hours and two volunteers were putting the finishing touches on the piece's metallic legs. As I was taking photos, a guy emerged from a trailer and started screaming at them.


"Why, what's going on," one of the volunteers asked.


He frantically pointed back towards the city proper. A gigantic wind storm had risen and was headed right for us. Like a tempest straight of, well, The Tempest, it appeared out of nowhere. Within 30 seconds, we were engulfed in alkaline dust and wind. I tossed my camera in my bag, grabbed my goggles and mask and attempted to ride my bike back to the Beacon's camp.

No dice. Visibility had dropped to five feet and getting on the bike, let alone balancing on it, wasn't an option. I trudged through the storm, getting pelted with dust that felt like sandpaper against my exposed skin. I'd been in storms on the playa before but not quite like this. I stopped and hunkered down, hoping the winds would calm long enough for me to make it to safety. After a few minutes, they were only getting stronger. I knew I wasn't going to die out there but it sure felt like it.

And so I fought my way onward through the storm, struggling to breathe while attempting to get my bearings. With no visual reference point, I had no clue where I was on the grid. Off in the distance, I could make out the vague shape of an RV. I slogged over towards it, dropped my bike and collapsed, cursing my bad luck and lousy timing. I looked around. I had found myself in the camp for The Black Rock Roller Disco.

I crawled over near a back tire and it was just large enough to serve as a wind barrier. As I was breaking out my water jug, I heard a door slam. A heavy-set guy in his 40s, dressed in a Hawaiin t-shirt, came around the front of the vehicle and sneered at me.


I looked over at my bike, a good seven feet away. It wasn't going anywhere near the RV. Sure, enough, it was shiny and new. It must have cost 80 grand or more, easy. While I wasn't about to put a scratch on the thing, there's no telling how much damage was being caused by all the corrosive dust flying around.

"Ok, no problem," I muttered weakly.

Without another word, he wandered a few feet into the wind. "YOU CALL THIS A FUCKING STORM," he screamed. "THIS IS A PUSSY STORM!" He laughed manically. I couldn't tell if he was coked-up or just an asshat. He jumped in the RV and fired up the engine.

I moved away as he gunned the big whale off into the dust. He manuvered the RV a grand total of 50 yards away, set the emergency break and killed the ignition.

"What was all that about," I wondered. "Did that douche just do that to spite me?" This seemed to be the case. He had mocked the storm before retreating to the safety of his overpriced, metal behemoth. Worse yet, for all he knew, I could have been injured and in distress. Obviously, he was more concerned about his toy than me, another human being.

Exposed to the elements again, I grabbed my bike and scooted over to a large, nearby tent. This guy was a one man class war, the human embodiment of both a turd and yuppie privilege--- most likely a middle manager/divorcee from Palm Springs. At least he had stopped short of yelling, "LET THEM EAT CAKE!" Enraged, I broke out my camera and filmed this....

After another twenty minutes, the storm died down. Still livid, I wandered over to the RV and filmed another clip:


In the weeks that followed, these two videos received a few hundred views and several comments. Most were supportive. "Don't let it get to you, man," someone wrote. "I was out on the playa gifting like crazy and doing my best to take care of everyone I met." Then, back in December, someone with the username "Burning Man Mike" left something far nastier. Mike has since deleted his comments but they were pithy and patronizing. I'll paraphrase: "Serves you right! You shouldn't have gone out there unprepared! Moron!"

As much of an ass the RV owner had been, at the very least he had a motive for his actions: the deluded notion that I was going to somehow damage his beloved, four-ton baby. Burning Man Mike though was being a dick, pure and simple. He broke out the tired and cliched "radical self reliance" argument to put me in my place.


From the Ten Principles of Burning Man:

"Radical Self-reliance

Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources."

Right-o. Anyone who attends Burning Man had better be prepared for the elements. The playa is a rough, dangerous place that doesn't give half a damn about anyone foolish enough to spend a week or two in its presence. You need water, supplies, food, proper shelter, sunscreen...enough stuff to easily fill a sedan for a single attendee. That said, I have no idea how I could have been better prepared for a storm on the open playa. I had goggles. I had a dust mask and water. I suppose if Mike had received a similar assignment, he would have carried an all-seasons tent, a deep sea diving suit, a case of beer and a BBQ out there with him.

As these things so often go, a flame war between the two of us ensued. "Imaburner," another attendee and an apparent colleague of Mike's, ganged up on me. All in all, the three of us exchanged around a dozen bitter diatribes. Then, a few weeks ago, the two of them abruptly deleted their comments. Imaburner left this as an explanation:

"burningmanmike and i, imaburner have withdrawn our comment. we've made our point. we hope the poster has learned something positive, and will move on. revenge: is like drinking poison, and waiting for your enemy to die."

A good point but it came on the heels of a heap of contempt from them. The encounter with the RV owner and these two have soured me a bit on Burning Man. One of the central goals of the annual event is to build a temporary society in one of the harshest places on the planet. In addition to the challenge, another thing commonly cited as the appeal of heading out there is the communal spirit of the festival. The internet is filled with anecdotes and tales of how Burning Man is different from modern society. For a few days out of the year, it's practically a utopia.

Ultimately, it all boils down to: "people out there give a damn about each other." Hundreds, if not thousands, are willing to claim that the festival has "changed their lives." I recently read a story about a roughneck biker dude that went to Burning Man and came out the other side a "better man" after being randomly kissed by a stranger on the cheek.

But as with any city, there's bound to be a few assholes roaming about. I obviously ran into one of them in the middle of that storm. I've had dozens of great experiences in Black Rock City so it's odd that I'm willing to let this one nasty encounter tarnish my overall perspective. Still, there's the inescapable problem at Burning Man of a class system at work. Despite efforts to establish an open, communal vibe, there's no getting around the fact that some people truck out there every year over-prepared in fancy RVs and barely get any dust on themselves...while everyone else gets hammered by the elements.

Many view Burning Man as an opportunity to get out of town, get blitzed and dance their asses off at many of the makeshift raves around the city. They wouldn't know a principle if it bit them on their glow sticks. These weekend warriors drag down the festival down several pegs.

Sometime during the week at the Beacon's office, someone broke out the term "Burnier than thou." It's a phrase that nicely describes anyone with a holier than thou attitude, such as the one employed by Burning Man Mike. Obviously, I can be accused of this but it's typically the wealthy attendees with RVs or with a $20,000 budget for a mutant vehicles that are most disdainful of anyone having a hard time out there. Not dressed up in a costume covered in $300 worth of LED lights? There's a good chance someone will cop an attitude on you.

It's the equivalent of a rich individual yelling "get a job" at a panhandler. Another well-worn term used by this crowd: "tourist."

As if anyone willing to truck out to Burning Man could be accused of being a tourist--- the sort of lazy, clueless type that you might see wandering around the Mall of America. The average tourist wouldn't last five minutes on the playa, RV or no RV. There's a certain amount of curiosity and all around ballsy-ness that goes with trucking all the way to northern Nevada for anything, let alone a week in a wasteland. I'm sure Burning Man gets its fair share of leering pervs there to take pictures of exposed flesh or hang out in the corner of Orgy Dome. It's a term that should be reserved for them and only them.

It'll never happen but I wouldn't be opposed to banning RVs outright from Burning Man, if only to level out the playing field. I'll conclude this rambling rant with this:

Two more from the Ten Principles:

Communal Effort

Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration. We strive to produce, promote and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction.

Civic Responsibility

We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws.

Play nice out there, everybody.


  1. Say, Brother, I think you've misanalyzed the situation and so it has become a thorn in your side about the whole Burning Man experience. As I read it, the story says more about you than about the people you thought mistreated you or god forbid, about Burning Man itself. I spent a week at Burning Man and never met more than one or two people I thought were less than wonderful. So you met a couple of douchebags...why did that make you so upset?

    [From personal experience, I know a little something about projection....]

    The story obviously hurt, and that's the essence of the post. You felt vulnerable and hurt, and the world you counted on to protect you -- at Burning Man, no less -- failed you. I commend you for writing it down, I really do, but I recommend you take it to the next step and figure out why it made you so mad and hurt.

    Burning Man is a powerful place. It brings out many things in our psyche we'd prefer to keep buried. But it also helps us process those things, and release them. It sounds like you did the first part of that work and then got stuck; you didn't manage the release. Did you stay for the Sunday Temple burning?

    At any rate, I'm sure Burning Man will heal you next time you go. That's what it does. That's what it's for.

    I'll also just point out (and I hope you'll at least smile when you think about it) that you ultimately survived. Burning Man didn't kill you, and you didn't need those other people. You yourself made it through.

    Everything happens for a reason.

    PeaceLove, Brother

  2. People go to Burning Man for any number of reasons but the spiritual side has never been my bag. Not that I would ever look down on those that attend for those reasons. For me personally, looking to any festival to heal a wound smacks too much of organized religion.

    While this post may say much about my personality, I hope at least this much is apparent: I subscribe to the Anne Frank theory that deep down, people are basically good. For someone with a fully-loaded RV to treat me like a petty annoyance as I struggled in a dust storm is repulsive and gave my world-view a hard slap in the face. It was the equivalent of someone not tossing a drowning man a flotation device--- instead popping it and tossing it aside.

    I'm also a big believer that the bullies of the world are richly deserving of mockery on the internet. If there's such a thing as karma, on the other hand, this bloke's got a cosmic target on his back...

  3. I think PeaceLove made a great comment. You had a bad experience with a person who was being very inconsiderate--or totally coked up, or both--and it seems to be a much greater influence of your view of Burning Man than all your positive experiences.

    I think it's unfair to describe the majority of RV users as disdainful of those who don't have RVs. There may be health or age-related reasons to pay for the comforts of an RV, or maybe a veteran Burner is just sick of dealing with playa dust. Who knows? Like you said, with any city you are bound to run into a few assholes. But don't you run into good people too? Didn't you use someone's RV for a night without their permission when your tent broke down, and it ended up being okay with them?

    People can be dicks, but as you said they are basically good. I have a feeling that you had just a good of a chance to run into an RV user that was as helpful as this guy was unhelpful. Unfortunately, the dice did not roll your way in that storm.

    Maybe it's because you were in center camp for two weeks and were also dealing with the stress of daily volunteer work that was basically a job. Burners in that area may tend to be a little more hardcore and project an attitude of superiority (I mean, maybe they don't mean to, but they do have the cool camps and costumes. It'd be hard not to be proud of your cool stuff). If you came and camped with us outside of center camp, you may find it less "Burnier than thou" out there.

  4. You raise some good points, Sho. It's strange how one negative experience can outweigh a whole lot of good. There's that old adage: we all remember the insults but rarely the praise. For what it's worth, the next post that appears here we will be far more positive.

    I've gone as a spectator and I've gone as a volunteer. Not sure what to do next....

  5. I agree with PeaceLove's comment, but I don't think you're ready to really hear that message. You've got some high walls built up, my friend, and I hope one day you will be able to see the light. Even if only through a window. Burn on.

  6. Whatever you say, Master Yoda! ;)