I’m scared to go to Burning Man

Burning Man 2011

I’m scared to go back.

I’ll be honest. All the joking and blustering I do about Burning Man is just a cover-up. I talk about being “so ready” because I’m not, and I hope your convinced look will convince me. I think Burning Man is really hard, and I’m scared to go back again.

There. I said it. I am afraid of Burning Man. I said it again. I’m going for the fifth time, and I’ll still be scared the sixth. That, I know.

Black Rock City is a scary place. It’s eerily familiar every year, but nothing is ever quite where you left it.

Between day and night, the city transforms. In the heat of the day, its residents are woozy earthlings, and its buildings are the ramshackle, temporary works of earthling hands. But at night, it’s like the spirit world appears superimposed on the city while it sleeps. Luminous scorpions, animated plants, fire-breathing sea creatures crawl through the streets. The glowing city hovers and hums like it could lift off at any moment. Then a flaming miracle happens, it’s all bathed in gold, the dream ends, and you’re back at the dusty camp on the border of nowhere. It’s downright disorienting.

Burning Man 2011

But that’s not what scares me most.

The desert is harsh. The first time I went, I was used to a living room, and I missed it at times. Nowadays, I don’t tend to get used to anything, so the Black Rock Desert is no more or less weird than my living room in Oakland. But whether I notice or not, the desert sure does a number on my body. I’ll get dehydrated, I’ll get exhausted, I’ll get sunburned. The skin on my feet will crack. My hair will turn white. My brain will cry out for balance, and it will have none. By the end, a shower and a greasy cheeseburger will sound like manna from Heaven.

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But that’s not what scares me, either.

I’m scared of how we’ll change. I’m scared of how we won’t change when we need to change. It’s not that we’re different people out there, it’s that we’re the same people in extraordinary circumstances. It will push us. We will push each other. We will fall down.

That can happen anywhere, though, on a weird enough day. The difference is, on the playa, there are 70,000 people all freaking out. For some of us, they’re all strangers, which is scary enough. For others, mixed up among the freaked out masses are our friends, our lovers, our ex-lovers, our ex-friends, people on whom we usually rely, but we can’t out there. We have to rely on ourselves.

My world has fallen apart every time I’ve gone to Burning Man. I was the only one who could put it back together.

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And now you mean to tell me I have to do it all over again?

No. Of course I don’t have to. Burning Man is a dry run for my own personal end of the world. When the real thing happens, it won’t be a choice. Practicing for it is a rare, precious privilege. I’ll take that chance.

Photos by the one and only Scott London.

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.

24 thoughts on “I’m scared to go to Burning Man

  • You nailed it, Jon. I’m scared too! I keep sending side-long glances at the huge Rubbermaid tote that contains my playa-clothes. I actually opened it about 3 days ago, confirmed that nothing was alive in there, took a whiff of the aging playa-dust, and then shut it again. I was actually planning to wash some of that stuff, but oh jeez — must I? Of all you wrote, the part about the day to night transformation encapsulates the beauty-magic of Why I Go. No one who has not been there can get that at all. I can’t explain it, I don’t have the words. Thanks.

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  • And I’m afraid of afterwards. Suddenly appearing in a “real” world, where you don’t quite fit in anymore. But of course you have to. And you will. But you get to carry that new piece of the playa inside your heart forever.

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  • I’m not scared, but I get really anxious… that I won’t have enough creative sexy cute costumes, and a warm coat, or that I my hair will just be too ordinary – I don;t do all those braided extension things – or I haven’t decorated my bike enough, or I’ll get a urinary infection, or a herpes cold sore from too much sun, or I’ll stay up for too many sunrises, and take too many drugs and it will take me weeks to recover when I need to get back to work… the more years I go, the more anxious I get about the reality of BRC. AND there is also so much more to be excited about – see you out there in the dust!!

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  • 3rd burn. Stayed in my van the last 2 years and am going to try out a tent this year. Camping with friends I made last year at the burn and am so excited that it scares me a little. Am I setting myself up for disappointment? No. There is far too much awesomeness out there! Great article.

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  • “I laughed, I cried, it became a part of me” Liquid Sky

    “The theme of our show tonight is: it is great to be alive. It is so f–kin’ great to be alive, is the theme of our show. And, if there is anyone here that doesn’t believe that it is so f–kin’ great to be alive, they should go, right now, because this show will bring them down so much” Frank Zappa

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  • anxious in every sense of the word, but ultimately overjoyed beyond words to be heading home in three weeks.

    i participated in 2011’s burn with my then-boyfriend (he’s also coming back with our mutual burner buddy–we were all virgins in 2011). this year, i’m going with my (first and only) girlfriend of nearly one year. LIFE!

    so much has changed betwixt then and now, and it’ll be the trip of a lifetime to see how it all works out. who can ever know what splendors and tribulations await them on the playa?

    the only guarantees i’m making for my behavior:
    1. have fun
    2. consciously, willfully exert lovingkindness to your peers (aka contribute to others’ fun)
    3. give copious backrubs of 1:1 dust:massage oil
    4. be in the now

    “Burning Man is a dry run for my own personal end of the world. When the real thing happens, it won’t be a choice. Practicing for it is a rare, precious privilege.”

    i’ll see all you crazy diamonds shinin’ at BRC!

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  • Made some some good friends last year but they’re not coming in 2013..Ouch..but that’s ok..cuz it don’t take long at all to meet new buddies and budettes…look for the guy in the ‘Lonely Teardrop” with a big ass smile on his face….Living in Santa Cruz and going to Burningman …is life good or what???

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  • My son has been to BRC 10+ times. His personal tales of the Playa finally made up our minds to go to BRC in 2008. We were excited and somewhat anxious about the trip. We were both in our 70’s and had significant health issues.

    We drove to BRC from Austin Texas and set up our tent intending to stay for the duration. Two days before the burn I was so dehydrated I passed out and was driven to Reno in an ambulance. They filled me up and I talked the Dr into letting me return to BRC before the burn. That cost us a couple of days We did not get to see a lot but we were at the man and Temple burns.

    In 2009 we returned to BRC smarter and with a golf cart which made getting around much easier. We made some friends , had an undescribable experience, and wiped fear of Burning Man off the slate. Instead, we found thousands of nonjudgemental people all living together in peace, doing their own thing. My bucket list has at least one more trip to BRC, maybe in an RV?

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  • no different than any other festival or concert other than the time and trouble to get tickets and then get there. And it is about the money, first foremost and always. Just another event on the summer circuit.

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  • Anyone going by themselves can join our camp. We are the Bakka Seven:30 Camp. An informal camp where you can pitch a tent and sit under our shade. We will be at the back of 7:30. At least stop by and say hi.

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  • Thank you SO much for your words, Jon. I am a bit anxious, as a first burner, and you told me what I needed to know. I am anxious because by my conscious action to go to the Playa, I have chosen to look at myself, closely. I very much want to vibrate at a higher energy. I want to transform, to honor my spirit and being.

    I’ve talked of going to Burning Man for at least 5 years, but not taken action… largely out of Fear. This year, I am holding myself accountable to myself.

    From you, I draw more confidence I can walk through the Fire and come out the other side.

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