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The Civilized Explorer

the civilized explorer

The Mature Person's
Guide to Burning Man

A Mature Couple at Burning Man

Your introduction to us

We are Louise Johnson and Philip Stripling; we are in our forties and attended Burning Man 1996, our first time at this event. If you are a mature person and contemplating attending Burning Man, we hope this guide will encourage you. The Burning Man organization provides helpful literature with your ticket package. Read it carefully; we followed their lead and had a happy first experience. We want to thank the couple pictured above for allowing us to take their picture. Just to avoid confusing identities, that is not Louise and Phil.

Please note that 1996 was our first trip, so our suggestions are based on the circumstances that we encountered that one time. We plan on attending in 1997, and we will be following these suggestions ourselves. However, do take care. Our weather was remarkably pleasant for the desert: We arrived on Friday morning and departed on Monday morning, we had only one day over one hundred degrees Fahrenheit (a reported 107), with the other days in the high nineties, and we had no rain and only minor winds. The official Burning Man site, listed at the end of this page, has links to many other Web pages, and there are photos of heavy rain, heavy wind, and lightning. Your experience will be different because the weather will be different.

Our introduction to the playa

The first day was our most stressful. The heat seemed oppressive, setting up camp was difficult in the heat, everything took longer, and we did not appreciate fully the need to drink water constantly. The next days we drank copious amounts of water, juice, and soft drinks, and planned our activities to exclude the middle of the day. Since there is no sleeping at night, we napped during the middays, spritzed ourselves with water, and listened to Radio Free Burning Man. Mornings, evenings, and nights were pleasant and cool, and we enjoyed the ourselves during those times.

The Civilized Explorer Compound. We rented a cargo van with doors to the cargo area on the back and on the passenger side. We made an awning of lovely fuscia fabric, 7 yards by 3 yards, and tied knots at the corners and in the middle of one end. We opened the passenger door and placed one knotted corner at mirror level between the open door and the frame, made sure we had lots of fabric draped over the top of the open door, and slammed it shut. We then opened the two side cargo doors and put the knots behind the doors, draped fabric over the top, and slammed the doors. This gave us the top of our awning, with enough height beneath it to stand. We staked the other end of the awning out as far as it would go, using two- foot lengths of steel rebar and plastic removable grommets. The awning held in the few gusts of wind that we had, tearing in two small places where the van doors had 90- degree corners. Underneath the awning we put a 6 foot by 8 foot carpet remnant we had bought for US$10.00. It happened to match the color of the desert exactly. When the breezes came at about 11:00 am each morning, we were in the shade of our awning with nothing to obstruct the cooling wind. We lay on the carpet and spritzed each other from our spray bottle of water -- very cooling in even the hottest part of the day.

Although we will not dwell on them, you should know that there are some unpleasant aspects to Burning Man.

Enough of the unpleasantries -- back to the good stuff!

We cannot recall having an unpleasant meeting with any of the people at the site. One of the late comers pitched a tent about a yard from the unoccupied side of our van and sold nitrous oxide from his van, but (except for the recognizable noise of filling balloons with compressed gas and except for his snoring) he was a quiet neighbor who did not say much. We were the oldest people in our neighborhood, and we enjoyed chatting with our companions. It was remarkable how quiet these people were as all hell was breaking loose in other areas of the playa. One person sat cross- legged, meditated, then clapped, every morning. Another did morning prayers while prone and stark naked, bowing courteously to the east as he arose.

Since we have mentioned it, nudity is quite common; many people are also top- free. Some have painted themselves radiantly. Enjoy the experience yourself, if you care to; otherwise, enjoy the experience of others. While there is no prohibition of cameras, we always asked permission before we photographed anyone (clothed or not), and we were refused only twice. We would ask that you get your gawking over with as soon as possible, and let the naked people enjoy their naturalism unmolested.


Post-industrial music with Twenty Foot Man. Our first afternoon, we wandered around camp taking pictures and enjoying the sites and sounds of the Burning Man village. People make tremendous efforts to have camps that are tacky, industrial, cool, hot, messy, or surreal. We could not decide whether Burning Man is Dune, A Boy and His Dog, Mad Max, or post- apocolyptic. It depends on the area where you happen to be at the moment. Our picture pages will show some of what we saw.

Friday night, the show started. Just after dark, the moon rose, and, with it, the spontaneous howling of the participants of Burning Man. There are several bands performancing in the central plaza, including such acts as the Mermen, the Seemen, Polkacide, Giant Robot, Bless and Burn, Idiot Flesh, !TchKling!, and other groups about which we more mature folks will have never heard. We think the best name for this type of "industrial punk." One of the songs getting the loudest reaction was "Die, Mother Fucker."

Phil: I got tired of looking at my watch at a quarter to four on Saturday morning and accepted the fact that I was going to be blasted by the concert forever and never sleep again at Burning Man.


Dawn on Saturday morning was absolutely gorgeous. The sun came up behind the distant mountains about 6:30 and lit the desert dimly at first, then with its greater and greater disk of fire. There was a line already at the Port- a- Potty.

Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night
Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:
And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught
The Sultán's Turret in a Noose of Light.

Rubái I of Omar Khayyám

Mornings are cool and very pleasant. Saturday morning had a cloud- free, blue sky, and we set up our little gas stove and made pancakes and remembered we did not remember to bring syrup. Oh, well.

Phil: Although Friday I had denounced a hot cup of coffee forever and had declared that it was a total waste of space to have coffee in this heat, coffee went down really well this morning as it did every morning of our stay.
The long arm of Helco. Saturday we had reached our accomodation with the desert, and the day was much more bearable. We had begun to drink enough water to keep from getting thirsty, and we wandered around in the morning meeting and greeting people with interesting tents, domes, costumes, body paint, and (for one couple) a sod front yard that they let us walk around on barefoot. It was shockingly cool and soft. Marvelous! In the afternoon we stopped by a booth that was selling fruit juices blended into slush with ice and bought ourselves a frozen treat. Very nice cooling going down.

That night there was another performance, this time by the minions of Helco. While we appreciate the concepts of Burning Man, sometimes the execution is less than excellent. The effort to bring this event to fruition is tremendous, and we dislike saying bad things about the performance, but how long do we have to listen to a woman pretending to moan and groan and have an orgasm? (And did we mention that everything Helco does is very loud? As in This Is Spinal Tap, the amp is on 11!) Helco is always late and always sophomoric, but, eventually, things burn.

Louise: Burning Man is large enough that you can always find something interesting and enjoyable; it just may not be the main event at the time.


Another glorious dawn. You will likely get to see them all at Burning Man. There was more dust in the air Sunday morning, and it rose from the playa like a mist. The line at the toilets was even longer, and some of the toilets were foul enough to gag strong men.

Phil: Finding our camp site was a never ending problem for me. People kept coming in at all times of the day and night and camping in spaces that had been passed over as too small by earlier arrivals. As a result, the landmarks of tents, campers, and RVs were everchanging. What used to be a straight walk from the central plaza up a path to the pirate Winnebago and then left to our awning became a confusing maze of tents and cars.
Louise: Of course, he also didn't have his contact lenses in for his first trip to the Port- a- Potty.

The morning passed all too quickly. We had hit our stride, in tune with the rise and fall of the sun and temperature. The ice people delivered bags of ice in the mornings at 10:00 and in the afternoons at 3:00. We went over in the morning just after 10:00, waited in a very fast line, and bought a bag for US$3.00.

Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse -- and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness --
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.

Rubái XI of Omar Khayyám

Part of the crowd at the fashion show. Sunday evening was the big event for us -- the fashion show, a rally, then the Man is burned. We had lunch under our awning and waited out the heat. A family was selling snow cones near us, so we wandered over and bought a large one. At 5:30, we went over to the main plaza for the fashion show. It drew quite a crowd, and the dust was stirred up quite a bit, whitening the setting sun and making the whole plaza seem to be covered in mist. Everyone seemed to enjoy the show, and the emcee was quite good at keeping things moving along very politely and nicely. After the show, the music started, and every one danced. (This is where we saw the lovely couple pictured at the top of this page.) We were out of water, and it got too dark to photograph, so we went back to our camp. The pirate Winnebago Capitation was shooting off its flame thrower (doesn't your RV have one?), so we got a shot of that. We got more water and went back and danced till the rally. It was dark, the sky was clear, and the evening pleasantly cool. Instead of going to the burn, we went to our van and sat on top of it, watching the events from a distance. We probably had a better view than many of the people in the crowd. In the middle of the desert the night sky is bright with millions and millions of stars which one does not see from urban locations. The Milky Way was bright and clear. As the Man flamed, the stars dimmed and receded. Fireworks went off from the Burning Man. Slowly the fire dimmed, the Man fell, and the flames died to a glow. The Milky Way returned.


We arose at our usual time. Many people had left during the night, and we were in the near desolation of our arrival. William Abernathy had climbed the scaffolding that held up the main tent at the plaza and did a fair imitation of the Moslem call to prayer. It was a fitting beginning to the end of our stay. We ate a light breakfast with no cooking to speed our departure. We broke camp, packed up, and drove slowly around the plaza to the west and our exodus. There was a marker where we turned left and south. Since so many had gone before, our exit was surreal beyond our imaginations. Dust hung in the sky, hiding the rising sun. Visibility ranged from a hundred yards to perhaps a thousand. Mountains appeared out of the dust on our right, and then disappeared again. Cars and trucks appeared from nowhere behind us, raced past, kicking up flumes of dust on our right and left, then disappeared into the dust ahead. We followed the tracks as best we could, miraculously hitting the exit dead on, and pulled onto the two- lane black top with a long line of cars covered in white powder from the playa.

Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust descend;
Dust into Dust, and under Dust, to lie,
Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and
-- sans End!
Rubái XXII of Omar Khayyám

Police cars lined the side of the road (well, not quite, but we saw about a dozen in the 15 miles to Gerlach, many with dusty cars pulled over onto the shoulder): Be careful on that drive back home. We drove on the many miles to Wadsworth where there is a filling station/ convenience store just off the Interstate. Louise was the last person that morning to get to use the restroom. The station is on a septic tank, and all the departing BM'ers had filled the tank to its limit. We got a snack each and drove on to Reno.

After the people at Burning Man (see the photo pages), the people in Reno were a decided middle class/ working class let down. Just normal folks. We rented a room and took showers. We hit town at lunch time, so we took the flyers with the FREE! goodies from various casinos and walked around looking for the best value on lunch. We got a coupon for two free drinks and consumed them. Another coupon promised a roll of nickels, so we got our nickels and played nickel slots. The waitress came by and asked about our luck. "Terrible!" we replied. "Would a couple of drinks make it better?" she asked. We allowed that it would. Two more drinks, and we were out of nickels. Free key chains from somewhere else, and we ran out of steam. Back to the room for naps, then up for supper at another casino with special prices. More wandering around gawking at the low rollers, then back to bed. Our first shower in the morning did not drain. We had clogged it with our playa powder.

Breakfast, a fill up, and on the road again. We got back to the Bay Area in the early afternoon, unpacked, and turned the van in. Coming back in two easy stages seemed a wise move, and we will do it again next year.

This is not the official Burning Man site. That Web site is located at Welcome to Burning Man.

Copyright © 1996, The Civilized Explorer