Lost Traditions of Burning Man

I’ll never forget my first sunset at Burning Man. The sun hit the mountains and all around me rose this eerie noise, as almost everyone in sight stopped whatever they were doing and howled, yelled and cheered the sun down. The hair on the back of my neck prickled in response to this tribe of people celebrating the end of a day.

Photo by Coley King

That stopped happening in the last few years, and now the sunsets pass relatively unannounced by our communal voices. What other traditions are vanishing or lost entirely? Burning Man culture is strongly based on oral tradition, and I love a good story, so I (in one case, literally) sat at the feet of those who have been attending Burning Man longer than I, and asked them to tell me stories.

There were dozens of replies, I’ve highlighted a few below. I did not include any of the memories of epic theme camps from years gone by, (Bianca’s Smut Shack! Xara! Jiffy Lube!), as that could be an entire blog post of its own.


Photo by Stewart Harvey, 1991.

“We used to raise the Man, the participants did. One year it was just the kids, all lined up pulling on the rope to raise him* back to standing. Back when he had feet and stood on the ground. Back in the day. He used to lie on the ground for the day on Sunday, and you could put what you needed to onto him, tucked into his legs or wherever. Then when the Man burned, your item/tribute/memory burned along with him. ” -Molly

Photo by Stewart Harvey, 1991.

DaveX also remembers this: “…lowering the Man on Burn day to be stuffed with whatever fireworks were at hand. Then in the evening the community (lead by the kids) would pull the Man back up with a big rope-and-lever thing. Of course there was the jumping over the burning chest of the Man once he had fallen. I learned this from Fireman Dale as I watched him do it. He would sprinkle fireworks in the fire as he jumped…”

Crimson Rose used to climb the Man for a dance performance, pre-Burn.

Andie Grace directed me toward the very entertaining Burning Man Glossary, which states that the Java Cow is a “Community legend which appears with hot coffee at sunrise on the morning of the Burn and asks the question: “Do you want cream or sugar with your coffee?””

Java Cow, 1993. Photo courtesy of Carvermon on Flickr.


I spoke with the Java Cow, and he stated that he stopped this tradition after about 1999, when the structure of the Man got so big that a one-man performance was lost in the noise surrounding it.


As well as lost traditions, there are a few that, while still ongoing, could use some extra attention as we acculturate our newer Burners.

OPENING FIRE CEREMONY: Monday afternoon of event week, Crimson Rose (a Burning Man founder and resident Fire Goddess) captures a flame from the sun and lights the Cauldron that stands in the Keyhole entrance to Center Camp. This same flame is carried in a procession on Burn Night to the Man, and the Fire Conclave utilizes this flame to dance for the Man before it is burned.
Will Roger, a Burning Man founder and Crimson Rose’s long-time partner and shiny new husband, shared that the crowds have been getting smaller and smaller each year for this ceremony.

Crimson and the Cauldron. Photo by Tom Pendergast, 2005.

MOOP RACES: “Any given individual running after a loose piece of paper or feather, to the cheers of onlookers saying ‘save the Playa!'” -JimmyTheKid

2 HOURS PLAYA CLEANUP: “Even as a new Burner I knew to “bring extra socks for DPW and donate 2 hours to cleanup”. A lot has changed since then, but I miss that as a cultural expectation.” -Miss Roach

Miss Roach makes an excellent point. Did you take 2 hours out of your burn this year, to clean up MOOP? It’s in the Survival Guide, and even on the back of your ticket. Our fearless friends with the Playa Restoration Team are in the desert right this moment, doing the final cleanup. Next year, perhaps we can make their job even easier by all making an effort to take 2 hours to clean up MOOP in the public areas of Black Rock City.

As we focus on spreading our culture out into the world (via the Burning Man Project, the Regional Network, and in many other ways), a strong connection to the way things used to be also provides valuable context…and some great stories.

Burning Man veterans, what are some traditions (personal, camp, Burning Man-wide) that are being forgotten? Talk story to us, in the comments section below. Virgin and more-recently-attending Burners, come gather around the fire and listen to the way things used to be.

And don’t forget, my fellow Burners. Sunset, next year: howl that sun down, for all you’re worth. Tell your friends.

* While we technically refer to the Man as a genderless “it”, common parlance tends to give him gender-specificity.

Brody works in the Art Department and has been attending the event since 2004. She likes hugs and Snacks and increasing the amount of happiness in the world.

About the author: Brody

Brody is a native Californian and recovering shy person who enjoys hugs, snacks and increasing the amount of happiness in the world. She is slightly internet-famous for creating the Desaturated Santa costume for SantaCon, and is glad to be known for something that's not horribly embarrassing or illegal. Brody first attended Burning Man in 2004 and found out that she doesn't actually know how to relax for an entire week. A volunteer with Greeters since 2005, she now sneaks in Greeter shifts before or after her regular on-playa job, making magic happen behind the scenes at the ARTery. Year-round Brody can be found in the Art Department wrangling data, creating order from chaos, and feeding her co-workers homemade marshmallows.

91 thoughts on “Lost Traditions of Burning Man

  • Yeah, Gush – so many streets look more like alleys with no lights.
    And I still recall longingly what was under the Man from my first year – 2005:
    It was that 50-or-so-room Fun House! On two floors! With a top floor to look down on Alice’s Caterpillar on a Mushroom, and so much more.
    That was the best ever base for the Man and the only remnants from it I’ve seen are the reverse mirrors.
    Could the whole thing ever be reincarnated? I can dream about that, at least, and keep coming!

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  • Howling a definite yes but I remember a drum circle in ’97 way out playa, you got smudged with sage picked locally as you crossed over a small bridge before you entered a very spacious circle made of sticks and willow, odd pieces of fibers and such. The actual drum circle had maybe 30 drummers or so backs to the hand made fencing and surrounding a very small, but well- tended fire in the center of our circle. I remember there were a few bottles of Jack and other liquor around the fire, contributions to those their and for the sharing. There were a couple of dancers would who pick one up, take a swig, myself included and continue in the drummers revelry. It was beautiful and intense, and a gathering of sounds, souls, and nature. True ecstasy.

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  • The temple is not about death. It is about remembrance and celebration of life. I have always said that Saturday’s fire and 40,000 people screaming and 700 twirling fire performers is VERY pagan and awe inspiring, BUT 40,000 people in silent remembrance and celebration is a way, WAY more powerful experience and shared by all, just sayin’ ……

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  • I miss things like the fun house from 2003 (Ticket to Mars I think it was called). It was right along the esplanade. It seems like now there are mostly just ‘bars and dance clubs’ along the esplanade and not as much interactively fun stuff. Sigh.

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  • The sunset howl hasn’t died it is just dormant because of mild temperatures. My experience is that the energy of the sunset howl is directly correlated with the heat of the day. Next year if we have a day where the temp exceeds 105 degrees I guarantee a tremendous citywide howl. When the heat is crushing it is almost impossible not to cheer the sunset.

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  • I don’t see many paying homage too those lovingly surly folks of DPW anymore, as they parade about our fine city…which wouldn’t exist, if not for their immense commitment to community. I, for one, never fail to applaud and thank them for their efforts. I make it habit to help inform, and continue to be amazed/disappointed at how many people don’t know, or understand what DPW is…hell, many are still out their, erasing all trace of BRC’s very existence, just so it can be built once again, next year.

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  • Many things have changed at BM. I guess part of evolution. But nothing is really lost. Its a time of reflection and choice of vision. I agree with the comment of “Drumming ” has become rare, I drum, I know…I thought, all communities have parks, areas where the people meet, for chatting, music , etc. As a “city” BM does not have areas where communities can meet their neighbors, and have activities together….designate areas for that purpose.

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  • Miss the primal dance around the fire after the man burns. Havent been since 2010 but my first year was 99. I also feel like the man burn is a little too much like the 4th of july. I liked the old world feel to just appreciating a big Fing fire. The fireworks are nice but they seem to have muted the burning of the man and the random beauty of the fire itself. I also always liked the howl.

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  • Don’t forget the vitamins served with the grilled cheese sandwiches at Biancas. Remember Bianca Loves You. Also Burningman used to be a barter economy.

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  • @P Segal, I have had that feeling ever since my first burn and I have been wishing people happy new years when the man burns, thanks for mentioning that :) I definitely vow to be howling at every sunset next year, and @Gaz – you are so right, DPW needs more loving, duly noted.

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  • Yeah, Teco, I have noticed fewer drum circles too…. There were some pretty good ones at VWBus camp though.
    Maybe we should have a giant public drum circle at VW Bus camp, and advertise it in the directory…

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  • I’ve been a BRC citizen since 2005, at what I feel is probably the turning point from comfortable assembly of persons to a jammed event, and I’ve seen a lot of changes. Some important ones have already been named – decommodification of the vehicles, interactive camp elements along the street (art, seating, people presence, activities), MOOP detail, respect and gratitude for the daily toil of the lamplighters, art cars with open seats, respectful quietude at the Temple Burn – all have waned in recent years.

    As far as howling (I’ve always considered it cheering the sun down) our neighborhood at 730 and H-ish (which I affectionately refer to as the ‘Burbs) has always represented with gusto. Maybe it’s a outer playa thing? I find myself in camp usually about that time and boy do we ever make some noise!

    I personally grieve the loss of the electronic greeting card chip craftily hidden in the bank of potties serenading you with Fur Elise, or Happy Birthday while you pee. Haven’t heard that in a couple of years. And speaking of portos, has the “Miss/Mr. Black Rock City” award, with red carpet, crown etc bestowed on an unsuspecting potty exiter been abandoned too?

    Lastly, at the risk of being pelted with rotten vegetables, (and I ONLY mention this because it is a cause dear to the heart of my beloved GorJosh), I am compelled to mention the dearth of shirt@ockers, who, according to him “Used to roam the Playa like buffalo, but are now facing extinction due to an intolerant society.”

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  • Ahhh. Piss clear. I thought it meant to piss clear of camps so people wouldn’t step in it.

    Back when you could still drive around, the raves were miles away, yet so loud you could hear the rhythm of them in center camp. You could feel it in the ground. 24/7. Like the playa had a heartbeat. I remember one night we all piled into the back of a friends pickup truck and just headed for the loudest beat we could hear. Stopping every now and then to get an audio “fix” on what direction to go. They must have been 10 miles from BRC. It was a full moon you could read by and the music just got louder and louder as we approached. We all danced under the stars and moon till dawn.

    One of the best nights of my life

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  • I have only been coming to black rock for 3 years, but like lily says, the electronic greeting card chip in the porta potty was cool. I had one singing to me my very first time in a porta potty and It was very memorable. Does this really mess them up? Also in 2010 we got up to circle the embers of the man after the burn, which felt very pagan and tribal, but that didnt happen last year or this year (as far as I know, we left the area after a while and it hadn’t started). I will be telling everyone at my camp to cheer the sun down from now on. Woo hoo!

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  • Back it the 90’s, the man was raised by pulling a rope by the participants. For a few years, there was a mini tradition of kids raising the mans arms (never the whole figure), like 93-95. Myself and crew built the straw bale pedestals for the man starting in ’96 (through 2000) which is also the year I started the community solar fire, lit the first day of the event, so everyone could light the man on fire by keeping the flame going till burn night (then on Sunday). Seeing by then it only took a small percentage of the population to yank the man up and give people the possibility to be connected in some way again. Crimson has kept that going in glowing spirit, cheers!

    Another tradition I started long ago (’91) that has grown, though changed exponentially, was the center camp bulletin board. The first one was a tripod made from scrap wood with about 3 square feet of area, so people had some place to leave messages for each other. That grew over the years to many 4’x8′ sheets of plywood — of course now there is playa info with banks of computers, not sure if there are actual boards anymore, a bit lost in all the reading one encounters these days. (I noticed there were very few signs on the lengthened entrance road, maybe that tradition has had its run…).

    For me the biggest traditions that just have not changed through growth and time is the playa itself, the pilgrimage there, the the fine talc that gets in everything, the remoteness and vastness of the place, the tinyness of us under the arc of that desert sun and the camaraderie with fellow participants — builders of this intentionally altered reality.

    Thinking of these things as traditions is kind of the wrong word for them, maybe ritual is more fitting. Its the discovering, unveiling, unearthing of, spontaneous stumbling upon of ritual that rings true. They’re not so much done for traditions sake, but out of some sort of need for connection…

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  • quoting @Lillie: “…the dearth of shirt@ockers, who, according to him “Used to roam the Playa like buffalo, but are now facing extinction due to an intolerant society.”

    thank you for that. i laughed SO HARD! : D

    can’t say i liked them, and i don’t miss them, but just the mental image of herds of them roaming the playa… it’s gold.

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  • Would be nice if the art cars AND camps were more communal. I rode my bike, but saw one comfortable older couple putting along one night in their fancied-up dune buggy, passing an older woman who was walking with a limp. She flagged them down and asked for a ride, but they said they were going a different way and jollied off, leaving her to limp along! It also sucked, I agree, to ride down streets fronted only by RV sides. It was so generic in some blocks that I couldn’t tell one stretch of RVs from the next. What’s the point of that?

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  • Spanking at Greeters Station! People are still so very very disappointed when we tell them we can’t spank any more. It’s a real shame as it signified a birth, a welcome to the world and woke up the bum after sittings and driving for 10 hours.

    I miss being able to drive onto the playa and take off my seat belt. Watching people stopping and stripping for their drive in. Folks falling to their knees at Greeters Station.

    I miss seeing cattle prods and walking along the playa seeing some great pranks and pokes and jokes. What great laughs!

    And I could not forget Pepe’s Opera! Water Woman! Simple pyramids housing rituals. Burn barrels being friend making spots.

    Most of all, I miss the tradition of no rules, no holding back, no worries about what I did or said. No one was around to censor me. It’s Burning Man not Disneyland people!

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  • First..We are not OLDtimers but Old Schoolers…DERP! I must say that I missed out on the coffee Cow..sadly..and i hope to see some of us perhaps even I pick up that tradition in multiples..a herd of coffee cows..mooving yer burn morning…sweet! I miss sex on the open playa…and the rather large Porn drive in theatre ..Being a Playa Mom I can see why the popularity of this has become a ghost..but perhaps maybe one day we could see one night of the week set aside for 21 and over madness curfewz? just a thought. We as parents have the right to parent as we see fit as do participants to pick and choose how to obet laws rules and follow further principles..I say we are doing fine despite all the blahblahblah about Burningman being dead..It can be whatever we want it to become- only we have that power to set the bar- tear it down- preserve what we have – remember what has been and restore the dying vine.. I miss virgins getting spanked or even having the option of being spanked..word round the camp fire is a frivolous lawsuit rather sullied the time worn perfect love perfect trust – entry protocol- the spankings were always playful and always tradition for years- now virgins are called Noobs or Birgins-which is a term I peronally hate- suck it up and make yer bones like the rest of us have..we were Virgins once hence the frickin term..If you respect what was you emulate it..dont try and dress it up..your a VIRGIN get a SPANKIN and quit rollin in the dust with those insipid dust angels and bell ringin..yer not gettin yer wings- you get that when your a plaque on the Temple wall pal…suck it up get a tap on the popo and get in there and earn yer burn..lol..

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  • I too miss the tribal feel of the man when the tribe itself raised and lowered him.I remember he went up and down according to the wind .And dont forget the maurading naked purple people.

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  • shirt@ockers, I don’t know that I miss them but I deeply miss the tolerance that allowed them to flourish. I have started seeing “No Shirt@ockers” signs. “Hey, you people who founded this thing, this is our event now. Go away. You’re not welcome.” My impression is people take notice of naked now, whereas it used to be virgins showed up and thought, “Everybody is naked, I shoud be naked, too.” Let’s bring some of that back.

    Saying “Hello.” My second year I came in on Monday nearly everyone I saw for two days greeted me like a dear old friend from high school. Freeked me out at first…Do I know you?

    The greeters. I hadn’t realized spanking was gone, but I did think there doesn’t seem to be the same edge at the greeter station anymore.

    Still, I am impressed at how much the Burning Man spirit is alive.

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  • I see it has been mentioned.. but…”Circling the Man” after he fell into the flames. This tradition used to be so full of energy …skipping, Hooting and hollering and let not forget the item that you brought with you to throw into the flames (an item that marked a significant issue of that year. Something that one wanted to purge.. picture of an ex, final payment stub of a loan..ect)

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  • Off Playa, it seems like the tradition of theme camp fundraisers is fading. My former camp held 2 or 3 big parties each year, often in conjunction with other local camps. It was a good way to foster inter-camp relationships, and share a bit of the BM vibe with the default world. Most importantly, it gave us a chance to witness the work ethic of potential new members before we reached the Playa.

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  • Wow! I feel like I missed so much! This past event was my second, my first being 2011 aka Best-Weather-Evar!-Year. All these past rituals and ones I was unaware of that still occur inspire me. I hadn’t realized the community hoisted the man up without machinery for so long. That one could simply hang out @ his feet or climb up his body!?! It must have been amazing! I’d love to @ least have the opportunity to ‘do it’ on the open playa w/ my lover.
    Anyway, @ Lillie, There SO were porta-potty birthday card serenades this year! @ 7:30 between C & D- (my beloved neighborhood potties). There were @ least two cards, maybe 3 or 4 used over the entire week due to battery deaths. They were audible in the potties closest to D. For some reason, I loved to listen to them as the batteries were dying and the melody got slow and ever so slightly creepy.

    I also was slightly disappointed to see so few shirtcockers on Shirtcocker’s Day. It seems strange, that it’s fine for the men (and anyone else) to go about the city fully nude, but putting just a shirt on makes them some kind of pariahs. I personally find human male genitalia a hilarious sight. I’m also a fan of shirtcunting.

    @ Alchemy, I mean absolutely no disrespect to your personal outrage, but being made to roll in the dirt, make dust angels, and kiss the playa was a great way to get myself acquainted with and ok with what life in BRC would be like. If I hadn’t had to do that in 2011, I would have had a much more difficult time not being prissy this year- since last year’s weather did not prepare me for what weather is usually like on the playa. Speaking of… did many catch the lightning/rain storm?

    Peace, Love, & Burnerness!

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  • I’ve only been going for the last three burns, but I already miss the tradition of people not fiddling with their cell phones for a week, something I hardly saw at all in 2010. Don’t they get enough of that off-playa?

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  • In 2004 my neighbor came over to my camp and kindly offered to spray some No-Stick cooking spray on my trailor’s logo. In an hour it had enough dirt stuck onto it that it was obscured (and easily cleaned-off when I got home). Since that year I have always packed a can of spray oil to help keep the playa “Clean”!

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  • Ah…so many memories. Yes let’s please make the return of city-wide howling a real thing! I still remember my first sunset back in ’01, when I heard this unearthly howling/screaming/cheering erupt from all around me. I was already still getting used to the more localized group screams emanating from one direction or other, making me wonder what the hell was going on over there, and how soon could I get there myself! Anyway, I was literally acting like a confused animal until I figured out what would make an entire CITY scream. Sunset! OOWWWWOOOOOOOO!!!

    And while I, too, miss the greeter spankings, and Bianca’s and her grilled cheese, quesadillas, beats, and sexual freedom, what I really miss is the prevalence of the TRICKSTERS and PRANKSTERS! Hell, even the bullhorn brigade is weakening significantly!

    People, please, let loose your inner heckler, prankster, and trickster! Burning Man is NOT all hippy dippy peace and love! Get out there and fuck with someone! Just be sure that by the end there’s a smile on both your faces!

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  • Stripping down and chasing the water truck for a quick shower. There’s so many RV’s now with showers, or people come with great outdoor showers that it has stopped being the only option for running water during the week.

    I still have a vivid memory of just getting out from under the water truck’s hose and seeing this guy sprinting buck naked towards me. Once he hit the wet playa street though, his feet slid out from under him and he went sliding in the mud. We looked at each other, grinned, and as I offered a hand to help him up I told him “well, you better catch the truck now!”. And he jumped back up to chase the truck down once more, all caked in mud.

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  • This year was my first experience at Burning Man, and I feel grateful and indebted to all of the organizers, volunteers and temporary citizens of Black Rock City. My camp (False Profit, SF) was very loving and organized and they made me feel useful and involved even though I was a total newbie from Boston. The playa was very good to me and I am excited to return to the desert and restore some of these amazing traditions, and perhaps starting new ones as well.

    We arrived on Saturday night and my mind was already completely blown just by driving through the desert for the very first time. After getting situated I decided that a bike ride was absolutely necessary. So I decided to take the advice of a more seasoned Burner and I rode out to deep playa enjoying nothing else but the total darkness in front of me. At one point I stopped riding and I took off all of my clothes and laid down to enjoy the blanket of stars above me. The night was warm and quiet and to me it was the perfect way to connect with the playa for the first time. I imagine that this will become a ritual for me, and whoever I can convince to join me along the way

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  • 1. Lost Spanking:
    – I suggest people remember to bring flogging instruments themselves and spank each others at the gate :)
    – Wouldn’t it be a cool camp or installation that’d offer that spanking we’re all longing for? Think of it: Greeters would tell anyone asking for a spank to go to that place and get their poison there ASAP.

    2. Lost Fun Camps.
    I thought that Mission To Mars (the first one with the maze and lots of misguidances inside) was one of the best fun camps ever. Next comes the live-sized PacMan to mind – I still have the music in my head, mixed with all the other BM sounds.

    3. Lost Traditions.
    – After having skipped the prev 2 years, I noticed right away that hardly anyone hollered at sunset any more so I did my part, but only one day. I shall try better next year again.
    – And I also thought: No one’s even _talking_ about picking up trash while you go any more! Sure, the old timers still know and do that, but there’s so many newbies now and no one seems to teach them any more. Disheartening. Feels like people feel it’s no use any more to integrate the new ones any more…

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  • Two things I missed this year (my 10th burn)…people yowling with happiness at sunset and screaming like crazy when the mans arms when up before the burn. wtf people…

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  • The naked water truck showers! ! ! ! YES! ! !
    I used to follow them around on my bike just to enjoy the falls, the bouncing flesh, the bodies in motion.
    There was one truck driver who posted a sign on the back of his truck asking people to shower where he could watch them in the rear view mirror.
    The practice was actively discouraged a few years ago, being as the water is “non potable”

    Someone above mentioned burning dried sage. yes, Smudge! love it!. Every year I get a whiff, but 2003 (my 1st) it seemed to be everywhere, and it has been declining ever since.

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  • What an AMAZING article and commentary. I am now nostalgic for times that live in the memories of others.

    I believe there is a point where an individual really “gets” Burning Man. It could even take more than one attendance to do. That is not to say one doesn’t enjoy it, have a great laugh, meet some new people…but it is the moment where something clicks inside of them that changes them forever.

    For me it was my first year in 2007 at a drum circle. There were dozens of circles that year, and being back every year since, I could count the drum circles on one hand. Can anyone hypothesize why this is??

    also, cell phones? internet? really?

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  • I was telling my friends and newbie neighbors about the howling this year and how much I missed it. We kept meaning to do it and try to bring it back but always seemed to forget. Next year we definitely won’t forget. I would love to see the howling come back — it was one my biggest impressions from my first couple burns.

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  • Bal Mart made everyone who wanted to go up to the top get spanked. Mind you they dont smack hard or with any intent other than to be fun. If you didnt want to be spanked I guess you didnt go up. I did not mind it at all…Hike down my skirt and my undies and get spanked. It didnt hurt and everyone in the line I was in had no problem with it. I do miss the howling though. And whats with the all the RV’s? If you want to come to Burning Man in an RV you might as well have someone else experience Burning Man for you and you stay in your comfy RV. Yes I had my pop up but its not an RV and all it did was stow my stuff and provide a bed.

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  • Scattered thoughts of what once was…
    Playa Ball. A soccer sized “ball” made from bundling up cloth scraps soaked in kerosene, set on fire, and kicked randomly around. As one piece of cloth burned up, the one below would catch, and the game would continue with a ball that got smaller and smaller. Caused a lot of MOOP, and disappeared in the LNT frenzy.
    Parades. The DPW used to drive every street in BRC (before there were over 40 miles of them), at the end of the burn, looking for provisions to sustain them during cleanup. Their pirate like attitude of “give me your beer, your drugs, and your women”, may have contributed to it’s demise. Critical Tits started as a dozen topless goddesses howling down the Esplanade. It evolved into the most amazing display of feminine playfulness this planet has ever seen, devolved into a sort of lecherous peep show, and has finally settled into the display of Girrrl Power that it is today. I miss the CT of about 6-8 years ago.
    Feeding The Man. Back in the day, you could contribute things to go on The Man as they were loading him up on burn day. One year we contributed some pieces of magnisum that was placed in his arm. I swear we could see one flame that was a little brighter than the rest.
    After about 120 days and nights at BRC, Iv’e seen a lot of crazy shit. Yeah, it’s not what it once was, and isn’t what it’s going to yet be, but for this grizzled old vet, Burning Man is still THE MOST AMAZING PLACE ON EARTH. )”(

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