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News » CitizenSpeak

Ready to Burn

The ABCs of Burning Man.


  • Photo by Babs De Lay

I will return from Burning Man (taking place Aug. 31 to Sept. 3) with loads of laundry. Playa dust does not necessarily wash out--ever. It also never comes off shoes, camp chairs and coolers. The alkali lake bed of Black Rock City (BRC), Nevada (north of Sparks), is almost toxic. People with long hair know to wash out their locks with vinegar after the Burn to try and get some resemblance of working hair back after the desert. And, if you don’t wear shoes and socks out there, your feet crack within days.

“How was Burning Man?” people ask each year when I return.I reply, “Wikipedia says the answer to that question is like trying to explain a color red to someone.” It is what it is: the largest radical expression of the arts in the world. It’s ‘arts’ and people, and that’s hard to explain more than anything.

First, there’s the art of survival: Do you tent it or rent/borrow an RV? First-timers usually tent it. RV dealers within a thousand miles know to charge a lot extra for cleaning fees when they know customers are going to Burning Man. Tents don’t have air conditioning. Tents are OK if you have two tents, one to cover the other from the dust.

You can’t bring much perishable food. Our camp lives on bacon for a week. Really. Tons of water is a must and even a ton more if you want to have a shower. Unfortunately for those of us who are smell sensitive, showers are not deemed necessary for most of the “shirt cockers” (men in Tevas and T-shirts, nothing else).

You see, Burning Man only provides porta-potties. And hot coffee at center camp. These are the only two vendors that can accept money. Burning Man is otherwise money-free. Not to worry, though. Every other camp on your street gives out free grilled-cheese sandwiches, bacon, pancakes, veggie dogs, peanut-butter cracker packs, popsicles, cocktails and more cocktails. If you have anything extra to eat, you just set it out in front of your camp and “winner takes all.” Most everyone has a spare pare of goggles for you or at least an extra dust mask in case of the dreaded “white outs” (when the dust blows at 30 mph and you can’t see 10 feet in front of you for eight hours).

Secondly, where do you camp? This past year, the Reno paper reported just under 50,000 were in attendance at Burning Man. Black Rock City becomes Nevada’s third-largest city over Labor Day! After Burning Man, there might be one or two insects on their way to sudden death hovering around. It’s eerie and beautifully stark the rest of the year when no one’s around, a lot like the Bonneville Salt Flats.

For someone coming for the first time, you’d think that setting up would be an evil chaos of land-grabbing jerks trying to stake a claim on a prime camping spot. Oh, hell, no. BRC is extremely organized. Hundreds of volunteers go out a month early and survey the entire city and set it up in streets that end up looking like a socket wrench from above.

The Burning Man art, like “The Man” and “The Temple” are set up in the open space of that wrench. Organized theme camps apply for spots and are chosen by the staff for location and early entry to set up.

Oh yeah, I was in an early-entry group and got in before the lines and the first white-out dust storm. The streets are set up via a clock face and are alphabetical. Easy peasy. No formal spot? Not to worry, there’s plenty of room.

Third: what to wear on the Playa (the open space in the wrench). Burning Man is about self expression. A third of the women go topless in the day, a quarter of the men go buck naked. Many people spend a year creating costumes. Thrift stores are sold out of any thing groovy a month before the Burn.

I don’t get too crazy with the clothes. I couldn’t begin to be that cool or compete. One man in our camp is a bunny the whole time. Another is a robot that lights up at night. Most of our men wear onesies or mechanics outfits with fake fur collars or cuffs. Our camp had hot women in pasties, 7-inch-high disco boots, boy briefs, 2-inch-long false eyelashes and of course, wookies. Wookies are fake fur coats worn when the desert temperature drops from 100 degrees in the day to 45 degrees at night. Ya gotta have a wookie.

Fourth: What do you call yourself out there? Generally you are named by your camp-mates. Last year, I was invited to join the Surly Camp. Their motto: “Talking shit is our art.” We were parked next to Flattery Camp.Quite the yin-and-yang neighbors.

They’d walk over and give us blueberry pancakes with cheery hellos and compliments. We’d return the favor by yelling “So’s your face!” (and worse). Since the Surlys hadn’t met me, and I have many nicknames anyway, I ended up with the name Notorious. My mates have names like: Spanks, Lil’ Wookie, Sage 1.0 and Sage 2.0, Coop Daddy, Mommy, Coach, The Bunny, Sil, B-rent, Nascar, The Playa Broker, Gimp, The Gimps Gimp, Cakes, Stutron and Nurse Bacon. Seriously, I don’t know any of their real names. Many are attorneys from Nevada and Oregon, with other Surlys hail from as far away as Alaska.

Fifth: How do you get around Burning Man? The lake bed is about nine miles around and a couple miles across the Playa. Old bikes are the preferred vehicle, with baskets, fake fur, shade contraptions and night lighting. The Playa is usually a hard-pack surface, like the Salt Flats, but last year Mother Nature was a bitch to us Burners. Half of it was covered with about four to six inches of Playa dust--think talcum powder.

You could ride around nicely on a bike and then hit those “mashed potatoes” take a big dump on your butt or head and start over. Luckily, Surly Camp is famous for its Surly Bird. It’s one of the 1000-plus art cars allowed to drive on the Playa. There’s even a Burning Man DMV that you must visit twice to get licensed--once for a day license to see how fit the vehicle is and once for a night license to see if it has headlights and tail lights. There is more art on art cars sometimes than there is set up in the Playa. And the rule is you must give people rides in your art car unless it’s full. Our car and camp runs on bio-diesel which can be delivered on the Playa for an advance fee.

Finally the art. Is a naked guy walking down your street toting a 6-foot empty Viet Nam missile on his head “art”? Dreadlocks full of spoons, art? A golf cart with thousands of spoons glued to it to shape a shark, art? I dunno. There are cars made of billions of pom poms to look like pink bunnies, ginormous rubber duckies bigger than a city bus with flames shooting out of its head at night, a eerie multicolored jellyfish (from Utah), pirate ships, giant beds on wheels, pagodas drawn by slaves, massive horses mounted on and created from tractors, a Chinese junk ship (Wyo Camp), four 8-foot penis cages shooting fire, sand-box turtles mounted on go carts and on and on an on.

Then, there is The Man at the center of all of it waiting to be burned. There is always a glorious temple full of photos, letters and urns people bring that is also burned the next night as a release and celebration of pain, grief, sadness and joy.

Burning Man is data overload. So much so, after your brain breaks open, you end up with only your raw soul. It’s a place I can’t describe, full of 99 percent great nonviolent people who most vanilla folks consider hippies. It is extreme, which is why we go.

Yeah, there are drugs. Ecstasy, Molly, LSD, coke, mushrooms and pot, R2D2, and more. There were only 11 arrests reported by Sunday of last year’s Burn and around 170 tickets given out for drug use. Drugs are illegal. The Feds set up a post at Burning Man and have infrared goggles to watch people at night. Creepy, but true.

Liquor is the biggest drug. Just down our street last year was Mojito Camp and on most streets, there is a free bar. There are also nondrug alcohol-free camps, yoga camps, little-kids-with-parents camps, quiet camps, mediation camps. There are hundreds of DJs blaring mostly terrific music and original mixes from art cars and camps on the Playa 24/7. You can always find your music bliss somewhere out in the Playa dust or find solitude.

After the Burn, we all go back to Reality Camp. That’s our own real lives. There are after-Burn parties held around the world to keep the vibe going and to wear those costumes once again before the new ones get made. We try to formulate sentences and remember what it is we do.

We all come back changed, tan and dry. Hell, I even hug some people now that I’ve Burned. We also come back purged of all that’s built up during the previous year--recharged to face another year of the grind and dream of new costumes we’ll sport in 2010.