This weekend, the annual gathering known as Burning Man kicks off in the Nevada desert. Famous for its dedication to self-expression and self-reliance, the weeklong event grows in popularity and infamy every year. Writer and frequent Burning Man attendee (AKA “burner”) Lauretta Prevost shares her own experiences and why she tries to go every year.

Two hours after dawn broke over the desert mountains, our all night push through the dry dusty lake bed ends at the freshly constructed front gates of Burning Man. Bleary-eyed, excited, and exhausted, we pile out of the minivan clown-car style. A German mathematician, a photographer, a video editor, and me — all here for the first time.

It gets hot early and we are soon hammering rebar into the hard ground to hold down the tents and struggling with tarps when an empty-handed hippie-ish looking fellow waltzes over and asks if we want burritos. He leaves and returns with hot burritos, and immediately ambles off with a “happy burn.” We hammer on. A mirage of a woman approaches in an exquisite sparkling blue costume. Topless. She’s holding out a platter of watermelon, which she offers to us.

“Welcome home,” she says.

Image via Shutterstock

Image via Shutterstock

The festival started as a small gathering on a California beach in 1986, and since then it has grown in size and scope. In the early years, you could speed a car through the desert and fire a bullet at the sky. The Burning Man I know has children, undercover cops, an airport, and still no commercialization. There’s a post-apocalyptic vibe to everything, as folks wearing tooled leather utility belts and ski goggles blindly bicycle by through dust storms.  

Part rave, part intense camping trip, part idealized gentle new world order, and part DIY science fair, it’s a wonder of the contemporary world.  

Burning Man is a place where your cell phone doesn’t work, so when you stop to admire a 20-foot tall wolf sculpture you’re likely to strike up a conversation with an executive from Google on your left or a small town Virginian welder on your right. Burning Man, at least for me, is a refresher of my soul: where your consciousness shifts over a week of not spending money, rampantly trusting strangers, witnessing and participating in big art in the midst of dust storms. I leave inspired and wildly positive and happy and a nicer person.

This year will be my sixth venture out to the burn in seven years. When I step out in that desert at night, seemingly miles away from the tiny colored lights representing art projects, dance parties and little, themed bars, the faint sound of dubstep drifting by and a cool wind blowing, I’ll  feel so grateful and excited to be back.

I fell for Burning Man hard after my first year in 2009, when we joined a camp of men I didn’t know. Theme camps are groups of friends or soon-to-be friends who rally together around…something. They may jointly host a free bar, or bring out a fire-belching octopus art car, or really feel strongly about back massages. The folks I met turned out to be veterans from the Iraq War, and every night they made family-style dinner for all the random people they had invited into their group.

The final night ends with the burning of the temple. A large structure laced with intricate woodwork, the temple is a non-denominational space built to last only a few days. People come to it for a myriad of reasons; many to let something go. Divorce papers are left tucked into the wood; photos of recently-deceased friends and family are pinned up, and thousands of messages are inscribed on the walls.

Image via Shutterstock

Image via Shutterstock

As my first trip to drew to a close, that final Sunday found me seated hundreds of yards back from the temple, surrounded by tens of thousands of now fellow burners. The temple was put to the torch, and everyone sat in reverent, reflective silence as whatever this thing meant to them burned. It was one of the most spiritual experiences of my life.

The next few times I attended Burning Man, I was part of a camp largely from the Midwest, whose theme was sunscreen and freely offered the protective lotion and application services to anyone passing by. Last year, I reached out to a fellow who was branching out from his dragon art car endeavors and had received a grant to make a 20-foot tall skeleton marionette for that year’s gathering. We lived on a ranch in Nevada for a month beforehand and while I had never welded before, I was the best apprentice welder he had. This year, I am helping friends who are building a whale skeleton out of an old army truck for mobile dance parties.  

Image via Shutterstock

Image via Shutterstock

One thing about Burning Man that a lot of non-burners don’t realize is that it offers the opportunity to dabble and explore things you may have no experience with or may be outside your comfort zone. You can volunteer to help build the temple or sign up to DJ a slot on the radio station. You can listen to a talk by a neuroscientist and then stroll with him to a polyamory meet-and-greet before taking a workshop on free running.

Another thing that’s important to know about Burning Man is gifting. It’s a main principle of the gathering: the unconditional act of gift giving, without expecting anything in return. It feels good to give someone a hand-carved wooden necklace it took 32 hours to make, or a ride on the mobile velvet-covered couch you built, or strawberry martinis, or mutual awe. First timers often lament that they wished they had more to gift. So a little planning goes a long way, from ordering stickers that read “Burning Man 2016: it was better next year,” to organizing with friends to arrange a two-mile wide multi-day scavenger hunt.

And of course, it’s the best party on the planet — where you’ll find a bus transformed into a pirate ship with a mermaid handing out margaritas off the back, 300 partiers all pitching in to build a giant dance floor and sound system for thousands to enjoy, and a fellow with a bicycle-powered blender handing out smoothies. The experience for some involves releasing serotonin and reveling among thousands of gorgeous dancers til dawn, which is when others are just waking up to begin their early morning meditations or perfecting their banana costumes for that day’s skydiving jump.

 Everyone’s Burning Man experience is different.

Image via Shutterstock

Image via Shutterstock

If you are at all tempted, I highly recommend the sensory and idea overload that is a week with fantastic weirdos in the desert. You may look back on it as a significant turning point in your life that’ll make you more open, friendly, and grateful. I do. So go to Burning Man. Go be uncomfortably hot for a week, topped with freezing nights, with a number of people who only get two weeks off a year and choose to spend it doing this. Go get weird and positive. Go make something. Just go.

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