What Time Is It?

Photo: mkgraph

A rite of passage is an act of growing up, and I don’t just mean maturing; I mean getting older. Time, at least from our ordinary, human perspective, only moves forward.

As rites of passage go, our week at Burning Man is pretty long. That’s a lot of time to reflect, a lot of days to fill with activity. Where should we go next? What should we do? For a ritual, this Burning Man thing seems kind of unstructured. Now that we’re here, are we just supposed to wander around?

Of course, the ritual does have a structure; it’s just more complex than the structure of, say, a Caribbean cruise, where some guy in shorts and a white sun visor tells you what to do all day.

There’s the burning of the Man on Saturday night, of course, and the Temple the next night. But those are all the way at the end.

What about this morning, now that we’ve finally got the tennis balls on our tent stakes and the pink fur zip-tied to our handlebars?

I guess we’ll look in the What-Where-When Guide…



One of my favorite rituals at Burning Man is answering the question “What time is it?” Some people like to be Dada when asked that; at my camp, it is customary to answer “Twenty minutes!” But my preferred answer is the obvious one: “Day,” “sunset,” “night,” “sunrise.” A day at Burning Man has these four distinct chapters, and you really don’t have to ask which one you’re in.

Of course, there is that one art car with the giant, red digital clock on the front, but I never can tell whether it’s telling the truth or not.


The point is, there’s always something coming up; just let time run its course. If the sun’s about to set, the Lamplighters are about to do their solemn duty. If the sun’s about to rise, the DJs at Skinny Kitty are about to spin a set that will make you dance while you cry.

Don’t worry; your time at Burning Man will be occupied.

Each day has a cycle, and the week unfolds in seven cycles. We can grow up a great deal in that span of time.

It can get tiring. We have taken to giving the days of the week themes of their own (Tutu Tuesday!!!! *burp*) in an effort to keep it spontaneous, but a lot of Burning Man is repetition:

Waking up from the cold/heat, slipping on flip-flops, trudging to the porta-potty, brushing our teeth at the greywater trough, banging the dust out of our shoes, putting on makeup, rummaging for the day’s costume…

Remembering to drink water, refilling our bottle, dehydrating and rehydrating all over again…

Watching the sun set, strapping on headlamps, switching on blinky lights, walking out onto the Esplanade and gasping at the spectacle.

These are what chores are like at Burning Man.

Well, almost. There’s also sweeping out the camp, baby-wiping the knives and forks, swapping out the compost, filling up the generator, nailing down the wall of the structure that just blew over, making the tea, bandaging the cut, washing our feet, washing her feet, and let’s not even get started with the art car.


There are so many tasks! So many little details to occupy our time, if you really think about it. I thought we went to Burning Man to party and have fun, but this is starting to sound an awful lot like real life…

Well, yeah. Exactly. We aren’t just going to a party; we are transforming a whole week of our life. We’ve got inner-child things to do, but we’ve also got big-kid things to do. We might even have to be grown-ups. What about our relationships? What about our jobs? Our money? Oh god, what about the environment! These things don’t go away at Burning Man!

No, indeed. Time does not stop there. If anything, the conditions require more of us than the default world: More self-reliance. More self-awareness. More self-sufficiency. Burning Man can grow you right up.


This year, instead of just serenely presiding over us, the Man is taking a step. This is a first. We can think of Burning Man as a rite of passage every year, but why be so explicit this time?


Well, why do we observe any rite of passage precisely when we do? Maybe it’s just time.

Time only moves forward. We’re growing up as individuals, and we’re growing up as an event. It’s inevitable. Change is afoot in the organization. The proverbial torch is being passed, although, in our case, it’s a giant, walking effigy. A new generation of participants is on the ascent. We’ve got big shoes to fill, but, eventually, we have to will ourselves to step up and lead.

About the author: Jon Mitchell

I'm the managing editor at Burning Man. I wrote this book and this record. I co-wrote a big story about spending 24 hours at the Temple of Juno in 2012, which lives at templestories.com. I've been a Burner since 2008.

14 thoughts on “What Time Is It?

  • As always, you have rummaged around eloquently in the grab bag that is our reality. Held up to us a few shining gems out of the mix to reflect back to us, ourselves. And Challenged us to realize ever more of our potential to be exuberantly fulfilled humans. Thanks!

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  • I have fond memories of losing my sense of time at my first burn. I remember asking the folks working at Arctica for the time — they were the only camp I knew of that actually ran on open/closed hours, and I wondered if I had time to make it to camp and back for a second purchase. They didn’t know what time it was, but they repeated the question in giddy laughter as if it was the silliest thing they’ve ever heard. It *was* fun, but it also seemed wrong. They were both imposing a need for and mocking the attempt at precise time-keeping at Burning Man.

    Last year, I wore a watch. Because as it turns out, Arctica isn’t the only place running on a schedule. I’ve become a dedicated ARTery volunteer, and people depend on me to be on time. Yes, it changes the experience — but I left my watch in my tent when I was out for a night of fun with no morning shift looming the morning after. That little watch not only helped me be a better volunteer and participant, but it gave me the chance to answer your favorite question, “What time is it?” with the information the person actually seeks — and that may seem less fun on the surface, but people really appreciate it. Just like they appreciate it when I know actual facts about art installations because I’ve studied to be a tour guide — Burning Man is overflowing with the fantastic and nonsensical, but clockwork is pretty damn awesome itself.

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  • If YOU really wish a rite passage come to the Base of the Man, where the Spider Art Car is parked, Wed 8/31 at 6:27 am YeS sunrise for VorDaKa’s SunRise Rite of “Good Morning” HUMmmm … Mimosa will be ready in 35 Days !!!

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