The first time I went to Burning Man, I felt relatively prepared. I'd paid my camp dues to camp Whoop Whoop (whoop whoop!) so I knew I'd have shade structure. I had a water plan: my former boss (a huge burner) was going to bring water in for me in his UHaul, since I was flying to Reno.
I was going with four friends from L.A., two of whom had been before, two of whom were Burning Man virgins like me. They were taking two vehicles to camp, and I was taking the Burner Bus from Reno into the festival. We had a shared food plan. My tent was packed up in one of their cars. I was "ready."
But I don't think you're ever really ready for Burning Man. It's like prepping to go to college. You can pack all the items you want, but the biggest things you're going to need aren't physical, they're metaphysical.
Here are a few things I wish I'd known before attending Burning Man:
1. The reality of the Burner Bus
The Burner Bus is the low-cost and ecofriendly way to get to Burning Man from Reno. Its intention is to lessen the long line of personal vehicles people take.
If you've never been to Burning Man, you might think the playa (the "campus" upon which Burning Man is held) is made of sand. It's not. Burning Man is held on an ancient lakebed, and the playa is made up of very fine, alkaline dust--not sand. The dust isn't very good for your lungs, and you need to protect yourself with a mask.
And one thing I didn't know about the Burner Bus is that once you hit the playa, all the dust whirls around inside the bus. It's worst in the back, which is where I was sitting, and it was soon so thick we could barely see the front of the bus. No joke, I think I had my first panic attack on that bus. Even with my full-on urban dust mask on, I could barely breathe. All I focused on for that ride was not dying. Getting off was a relief of the highest order.
Later I realized I'd literally been on the struggle bus.
2. How I was going to get home
I booked a one-way flight from L.A. to Reno, figuring I could likely find someone with an extra spot in a car or an RV heading back to L.A. from Burning Man.
We'll come back to how this worked out for me, but looking back I'd say that was one of my biggest stressors in the last few days of the festival. In a very Burning Man way, it also turned out to be one of the most magical moments.
3. Showering is worth the hassle
Our camp had a shower structure, which was a basic three-sided raised platform that shunted water to a gray-water station (you're not supposed to pour any liquid of any kind onto the playa).
My friends had solar water bags, which if you filled with water would heat up during the 110-plus-degree days such that you had nice hot water to shower in.
But for the first few days, I didn't shower because I felt bad about using water for that reason (and because I figured the dust would just settle back on me as soon as I got out). But once I started taking a shower a day, I realized how much happier I was even when I just got to be clean for an hour.
Showers were very much worth the effort.
4. Heat stroke is real
The temperature in Black Rock City, where Burning Man is held, gets up into the hundreds regularly during the day. I wish I'd known more about the reality of heat stroke.
One of my last days at the festival, I biked to Center Camp around 1 p.m. Looking back, this was not a great idea. But I was concerned about how I was going get back to L.A., and I wanted to see if there were any Burner Bus tickets left (to at least get back to Reno).
There was a bus depot outpost at Center Camp, so I headed there on my bike. It was probably a mile and a half or so from camp Whoop Whoop. I felt a little shaky when I arrived but didn't think much of it. The staff said there were no regular tickets left, but if I wanted to be really sure I should bike out to the actual depot to check on standby tickets.
So I did. Even though I was already feeling kind of strange, I biked out even further to the depot, which was probably about eight "blocks" away.
Now, even though the playa is flat, biking around takes energy, especially in 110 degree heat. It turned out the bus depot had no standby tickets, and by the time I was headed back to Center Camp after my fruitless adventure, I was already starting to feel nauseous.
Nausea is one of the signs of heat stroke. I knew I really was in trouble when I started to walk into Center Camp and found I was too exhausted to even get in line to buy an electrolyte drink. I rested for a little bit, then forced myself to head into line to get water and Gatorade. While in line, I focused on not vomiting.
I spent the next hour and a half very scared. All I could do was sit down, press ice to different parts of my body, and just try to breathe. My only comfort was in knowing that it was now 2 p.m., and the sun would only be diminishing in strength. With every minute that passed, my chances of survival increased.
There's a Burning Man motto: "The playa provides." It means different things to different people, but to me, that afternoon, it meant this: as I sat there, helpless, my friend Adam from L.A. walked by me. We connected, and it turned out he had an RV with an extra spot, heading back the following day.
At one of my lowest points, I got exactly what I needed.
The playa provides.
5. I didn't need that much food
Given the heat, I found I didn't really eat that much. This was something I overpacked.
6. I did need ice
I wish I'd realized just how much I'd want ice. I kept bumming a little bit off my camp-mates, just so I could cool down my water or Gatorade to something other than boiling. But I felt guilty about bumming from them, and in retrospect I would've brought a small, soft cooler and invested in the ice line (it can take up to two hours to buy ice).
7. Just how hard it would be
I don't mean to put anyone off, but the truth is I wish I'd known just how hard Burning Man would be for me. It was very, very challenging. The physical environment was one thing, but something I really hadn't expected was just how difficult it would be emotionally.
I felt disconnected and isolated a lot. I felt ugly, unattractive, and unwanted almost the whole time. It was kind of like prom: You think you should be having a great time because are all these people around you seem to be having a blast, but actually a part of you wants to die inside (or maybe that was just my prom).
Burning Man is one of the hardest things I've ever endured. It brought up all of my darkest "stuff." It challenged me in ways I was not expecting--repeatedly. I had a really hard interaction with a friend. I had an uplifting experience with a stranger. I saw the light, and I also saw the deep, dark pit of despair that can open up beneath me.
Was it transformative? Yes. Was it worth it? Yes. It was also very, very hard.
So, my overall advice would be this: Be kind to yourself out there on the playa. Know that Burning Man, like life, is a paradox--both good and bad, dark and light, beautiful and full of anguish.
And when you have moments of feeling lonely, disconnected, isolated, ugly, or worthless, know you're not alone. Despite all the gorgeous face paint and costumes and delights in that hilarious and undulating adult playground, you are surrounded by real human beings with real pain--and you might be one of them at some point.
And know that I'm with you in spirit.