Burning Man: A Life-Changing, Magical Experience

Burning Man lit up at nightLike many people who had heard of Burning Man in passing, I admit that I was a bit unnerved by the thought of being surrounded by a hippie culture that was both unfamiliar and uncomfortable in my naïve view of the world. With a ticket in hand to one of the world’s most famous week-long events, though, I wasn’t going to say no.

Nonetheless, I worked myself up over what I would eat for a week (since I’m far from being a cook). What would I do all day? Would I be lonely? Did my costumes stand up to Burning Man standards? If the things in my mind’s eye really did define Burning Man, how was it possible that perfectly “normal” and incredibly friendly people I had met online were so enthusiastic about this gathering of 50,000 humans centered on the notion of radical self-reliance?

I arrived in Black Rock City late Monday night in the middle of a dust storm. I cursed myself for driving 500 miles across Nevada to this makeshift city just so I could be torn and tattered by the dirty gales of wind pushing me around on the playa. I felt bulky with my goggles and dust mask on. I struggled with my tent. I tried to stay clean with a long-sleeved shirt and a pair of pants. I was upset about being me in this place at this moment in time.

Tuesday morning dawned with a sunny sky, minimal wind and a crowd of people smiling and comfortable in their skin. I wiped the dust out from between my toes and wandered around the playa, wide-eyed at simplistic art sculptures and awed by the fact that only days ago, this fully functioning city had been nothing but a wide expanse of desolate land. By Tuesday afternoon, I’d set my insecurities aside and mingled at a happy hour of active and aspiring nomads. They welcomed me. They talked to me. They smiled and seemed interested in what I had to say. Being social at Burning Man was easy compared to the roaming eyes and distracted conversations I stumbled through in the “real world.”

Nest art on the playa Black Rock City Burning Man 2009From there, the week tumbled out like a series of wildly scattered dominoes. Every encounter, every conversation, every colorful vision around me left me excited about what the next moment might bring. Within 24 hours I made friends that far surpassed most relationships I’d made in high school. By mid-week I’d been convinced by a complete stranger to look at the world in ways I’d never even imagined. In an early morning walk across the playa, I was struck by the singular beauty of someone curled up, asleep at the base of a large rabbit sculpture. Even with unrestrained miles to cross, I discovered details that reflected the raw creations in Black Rock City. I spun in circles, entranced by the neon lights, carnival-like sounds and smell of organic dust. I stayed up all night and watched the sun welcome the desert like a tray of spilled watercolors. I discovered a wild array of emotions as I danced, smiled, laughed, cried and celebrated new beginnings.

When the Man burned on Saturday night, a glitch in the system left him standing for a significant amount of time, though he was little more than a broken skeleton balancing on his rickety platform. Frustrated, I voiced my anger that he still stood, dominating the playa like he had all week. “I was upset about that too,” one of my new friends said, “but then I realized it’s not the same man. This man is different. He is transformed. We can make this man be anyone we want him to be.”

Trumpet player in playa art Black Rock City Burning Man 2009While I can’t quite put my finger on the defining moment of my Burning Man experience, I think the very idea that we define who we are in relation to the rest of the world is a significant key in this mad creation of a city in the desert. Who cares that I can’t cook? Someone else can and happily helped me when I needed it most. No worries about not having someone to talk to; interesting and dynamic personalities surrounded me. Schedules don’t need to be made when things happen the way they are supposed to happen. My costumes, though fun, were irrelevant in the face of made-up Burning Man standards. Before arriving, someone told me that you could parachute naked into Burning Man and the playa would provide. After a week living among the most open and genuine people I’ve ever met, I believe this to be the truth. My highs were high and my lows were low, but every emotion and moment I experienced was real.

090909 - Me at Burning ManWhen I tore down camp on Sunday, I was again on my own. Three others were left in camp but were busy packing their own cars. A dust storm blew in. Like an old habit, I pulled my goggles and face mask on without a second thought. I laughed as the wind covered my skin with dirt. I let my tent put up a fight when it threatened to blow away, but eased it into the stuff sack when the moment was right. I shrugged at the playa-caked collection of bags and plastic containers that I stuffed into the trunk of my car. I reapplied sunscreen and readjusted my goggles and face mask.

I was empowered to be me in this place at this moment in time.


All pictures taken by me except for the final photo, which is courtesy of Technomadia.


19 Responses to “Burning Man: A Life-Changing, Magical Experience”

  1. ian

    Great writeup Joanna. I think you nailed the true soul of Burning Man, which is a re-evaluation of yourself and the “way things are.” Why can’t they be different? We only need to courage to imagine it.

  2. chris

    sounds like an amazing trip to say the least. thanks for your post. very enlightening, especially in light of some of the things i’ve been thinking about.
    thanks, joanna.

  3. Cherie

    You get it 🙂

    It was awesome to have you as part of Camp Nomadia, and it was beautiful to watch your evolution over the week.

    – Cherie

  4. playadancer

    Is the second pic down of the octogon shaped structure on the 10:00 side in deep playa? In 03 I handed out Taoist quotes and spent lots of time alone in the spot where that structure was but there was nothing out there. I come back in 09, go to that spot and find the octogon structure (a taoist shape, like a taoist shrine) out there and I find one of my quotes written on the Man. My own energy manifesting itself and coming back to me.

  5. JoAnna

    @Ian and @Cherie ~ Thanks for being a part of my Burning Man experience. As you know, it is the people, the place, the moment that makes Burning Man what it is.

    @playadancer ~ This structure was a nest around the 10:00 area of the playa like you mentioned. There was a ladder on the back side that allowed people to climb into the structure. Isn’t it wild how, in such a vast area, each individual still has a space and an influence which creates Burning Man’s magic?

    @chris Thanks for stopping by. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Knowing what I do about you, I think you would get a lot out of the Burning Man experience. Maybe I’ll see you on the playa next year.

  6. Mark

    Awesome post Jo. Thank you for sharing your experience, sounds like a life changing event, one that we should all experience at some point.

  7. ReN

    seemed like a very real experience in a very surreal environment!

  8. leland

    very thoughtful….can’t wait to hear more…thanks for the post..

  9. Rebecca

    Sounds like a great adventure! Are there more Burning Mans in your future???

  10. Audrey

    Thanks for sharing your personal and honest take on Burning Man. We’ve been hearing about Burning Man since we lived in San Francisco in 2000 and our neighbor went each year with Hindu altars. Everyone talks about it being “amazing” but this is the best account I’ve read about why it is such an incredible experience. I hope we have a chance to experience it ourselves one day.

  11. Cory

    Burning Man seemed to crystalize some of the thoughts you had floating around in your head. I could not be more happy for and proud of you and the change that I see already.

  12. Gray

    Wow. This is so beautifully written, JoAnna. It sounds like the most amazing spiritual experience. I’ve only ever heard of Burning Man in the most vague and general terms, but now I feel I have a much better grasp of what it is all about.

  13. Chris Dunphy

    One of my favorite things about going to Burning Man year after year is watching the transformation in first timers.

    It was great to have you in Camp Nomadia, I wish we had had more time to connect, but I trust that our future roads will cross and provide that.

    Till then,

    – Chris

  14. Julie

    “I was upset about being me in this place at this moment in time.”

    I love this line– it describes every single moment where we just feel out of place.

  15. Pat the Digital Vagabond


    Thanks for sharing your transformation online and your sweet company on the Playa. I hope that Burning Man has stretched your horizons forever. I expect it has. I hope to see you out on the Playa next year as a dust eating and breathing Vet.

    Be Well and keep Living Large.

  16. Andrea

    Really enjoyed reading this. I’m still kicking myself for not making it to Burning Man when I lived in San Francisco. I really want to get there some day.

    • JoAnna

      I’m glad you enjoyed it, Andrea. If you get the chance you should go as soon as possible. There’s a lot of talk that it’s become more commercialized and mainstream, and while I don’t know if that’s true, it’s definitely becoming more popular.

  17. Travelogged

    I love reading about Burning Man and seeing photos, but I don’t think I’m brave enough to go!


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