Burning Man Takes a Look Inside

IMGL3864You can’t get to a particular spot along the coast in Big Sur in any of the usual and normal ways.

You can’t, for example, just head down Route 1 listening to the stern yet comforting voice of the GPS guiding you confidently, determinedly, to your destination. Because you will be told that you have arrived when you are right in the middle of one of the many bridges that span the coastal highway, and if you take the suggested right turn, you will plummet to the sea.

And you can’t just open a map on your phone and find out exactly where you are because … silly you … there hasn’t been cell service for miles. Many miles.

So you continue on for a bit, hoping for the best, hoping for a sign, hoping to be able to find a place to turn around, if it comes to that. But how many more miles should we go? We were due at a certain time, and that time has arrived, and we don’t know if we’ve missed the entrance to where we were supposed to be, or whether we simply haven’t come to it yet and should just keep going.

Eventually we decide to do things the old-fashioned way. We make a U-turn and return to the entrance of the state park we whizzed by earlier and ask: “Have we passed Esalen yet?”



We’re conflicted even just saying the word.

We know a bit about the Esalen Institute, more by anecdote than formal inquiry. We know it as a center of the Human Potential Movement, we know that it might be the high church of the religion of no religion, and we know that writers and thinkers and questers of all natures have come here on spiritual journeys. And while we would never question the motivations behind a spiritual journey, we’ve also speculated, as a schoolboy might, about the nature of those activities, both psychological and otherwise.

If you have to be someplace, this isn't the worst place to be
If you have to be someplace, this isn’t the worst place to be

And oh yes of course, we’ve heard that Esalen is spectacularly beautiful, soothing to the soul and body, a place of power and inspiration.

What we don’t know in this moment, though, is how the locals view the place, and the local now standing before us is a big-hatted park ranger who is already a little annoyed with us because we hadn’t come to a full stop at the guard station quickly enough for his liking. So we’re off on the wrong foot and now we’re asking about that Esalen place, and we’re not sure at all at how this query will be received.

“No, you haven’t passed it yet,” the ranger says maybe a little too loudly but thankfully non-judgmentally. “It’s about 20 minutes down the road. There’s a sign.”


Megan Miller is the director of communications for Burning Man. She is bright and engaging, and she tells us that she first came to Esalen at the age of three with her mom, who was making a trek from their home in Alaska to Mexico. Esalen was a stop along the way. It was supposed to be a brief visit, but it wound up lasting longer. Megan is standing in front of about 50 people in a large tent that is about 15 feet from the edge of a cliff that dives to the sea. It is dark, and you can’t see, but you can hear the surf pounding the rocks below. (more…)

Playa Restoration: Special Forces


This is a guest post from Shalaco, who has worked Playa Restoration the past couple of years and whose Instagram contains more Resto goodies. Thanks Shalaco! – Hun



Playa Restoration is divided into two specialized teams: Line Sweeps Division and Special Forces.

The line sweeps walk the city streets, arms length apart in groups of 30 with their well trained MOOP eyes that can spot a single sequin, wood chip or piece of carpet fuzz on the open playa. But when they find something that’s too BIG, too gross, or there’s just too dang many of it, they raise their MOOP stick to flag an oscillator to “cone it”. Taking a few minutes to cleanup what they can, then they walk-on, and keep the line moving. Special Forces will come in for the kill. “Killin Cones” is what these self described “Cone Killas” do.

Wee Heavy raises their MOOP stick to alert an oscillator of a ‘hot spot’.
Wee Heavy raises their MOOP stick to alert an oscillator of a ‘hot spot’.
Line Sweeps’ oscillator Eff’n Andy drops a traffic pylon on a ‘hot spot’
Line Sweeps’ oscillator Eff’n Andy drops a traffic pylon on a ‘hot spot’

So, who is special forces and what does it mean to be a ‘cone killa’ anyways?
Special Forces Manager Phoenix Firestarter breaks it down for us.

Phoenix Firestarter surveys the rapidly vanishing city for any remaining cones.
Phoenix Firestarter surveys the rapidly vanishing city for any remaining cones.


“Carnival Cosmology” by Gary Warne

This year’s Burning Man theme, “Carnival of Mirrors,” seems to be continuing in the default world, with some not-so-pretty funhouse mirrors clanging and shattering against each other every time non-understanders-of-the-dirt-rave make a dissonant mainstream commercial exploitation device or hone in on rich people and two-day bug infestations in the desert. Instead of maybe talking about how a temporary city for over 70,000 people appears and disappears each year with precision and grace.

However, those of us still cleaning up the desert out here haven’t borne the full brunt of the squares’ warped notions of Burning Man. We’re still away from mass media and mainstream life, safe and sound in the Resto bubble.

We in the Department of Public Works are still riding high on the like-clockworkness of this season’s staging and strike — and still happy to be rolling around the desert as roustabouts in our very own circus sideshow. We are all carnival and circus fetishists here, to some degree. For many of us, life and work are the same thing, to be ridden like a … well, like a carnival ride.

Wouldn’t you know it, Burning Man’s — and the Cacophony Society‘s — dang paterfamilias Gary Warne once wrote himself an infamous essay about just such a concept. We’re posting it in full, because it needs to live on the Burning Man site and we can’t believe it doesn’t already.

Never heard of Gary Warne, have you? Tragically, he died suddenly at age 35 in 1983, but not before leaving a huge scorchmark on the earth. It’s no understatement to say we are all still playing in his smoke and ash.

Gary Warne, c. 1979
Gary Warne, c. 1979

Gary Warne founded the Suicide Club with four other people in 1977, while he was teaching classes on pranks and hijinks as part of the budding “free-school” movement at UCSF’s Communiversity.

The proto-punk Suicide Club morphed a few years later into the Cacophony Society, “a randomly gathered network of free spirits united in the pursuit of experiences beyond the pale of mainstream society.”

Early Cacophonists were the ones who invented Burning Man, after 89 people took one of Cacophony’s newly-notorious Zone Trips out to the Black Rock Desert in 1990, inviting Larry Harvey and Jerry James to bring along their wooden statue the cops wouldn’t let them burn at Baker Beach.

The Man Burns in 349 Days

Last week, early morning so as to miss a non-existent Exodus, the Mighty Mr. B arrived at my camp and, after loading my generator and whatever else fit into his car, he and I made our way off playa. That was a few days after Burning Man had officially ended and it seems like just yesterday or years ago now.

sunriseThat morning I saw the Black Rock City sun-rise one last time, pink and heavy over the aftermath of our event with black smoke rising from random sites out on the open playa. We drove slowly, trying to find and follow streets that were so defined only days ago. We passed the dismantled colorful detritus of last week’s Black Rock City; deconstructed domes, impossible buses stacked high with bikes, and poles and tarps that sat alone in places, hopefully waiting for someone to come pick them up. Camp strike was in full force just a week after Black Rock City was invaded by all manner of ecstatic pilgrims who built structures to hang their themes upon, and now spent and winding down, gradually one vehicle of tired pioneers repatriated at a time, carrying off all that made our city amazing.

We passed the straggler groups of people packing up the last of their encampments, loading trucks and trailers, cars and semi-trailers. Small last gasp ghost camps of dust colored citizens waved goodbye as we passed them, some reclining beneath minimalist shreds of shade. They sat in fold out chairs sipping morning coffee, milking the last sweet dollop of camaraderie cultivated since they’d first arrived.

We waved back. Bye bye last Happy Campers. See you next year. We were quite happy to be out of there.

This year was wonderful and as they keep saying, challenging.

one view of the Burn

Small cultural idiosyncrasies of this young, new century have invaded Burning Man. They are little trappings that let you know our culture is not within an un-breakable bubble. There were selfie sticks and drones. I never once saw someone walking along the Esplanade talking or texting on their phone, thankfully. Hopefully the cell towers were overwhelmed. There was a lot of vaping this year.

The night of the Burn I was on the periphery with art cars parked and once the fireworks began I made my way past Ranger Sarah Problem into the outer circle and found that I was standing behind a concert sized wall of phones and cameras held up all filming the Man. Once the fireworks ended, only about five of the one hundred folks who were filming kept holding their phones and cameras aloft. I’m not sure if the massive fire balls that rolled up to engulf the Man flashed their video and they quit or if they just wanted to see a good fire and perhaps contemplate what was happening rather than just recording it for later entertainment. I like to believe it was the latter.

Need a ride to Center Camp

As Mr. B and I navigated out of the city on 6:30 towards Laughing Sal, we saw a few young couples clumsily pulling luggage being them, sending up white alkaline powder as they dragged their bags to the Burner Bus Depot to depart. I felt like we were moving through some post apocalyptic video game dream-scape of a frosty dusted roofless airport terminal. A girl was followed by her mate, both of them laughing hysterically at the absurdity of the puffing surface tossing up white spew between their once black rubber luggage treads as they forged on. We saw MOOPed and abandoned properties with only a semi-trailer or a big fresh water, black or grey tank awaiting pick up. It seems that you can rent those now and have them delivered then picked up after the event.

Black Rock City at 70 thousand is a real city and the days of knowing everyone are long gone. We are no longer a small town and there’s no turning back. A Man must burn and everyone knows he will and they want to be there to see it. The cowboys of Burning Man Past still ride before and after the event, masters of that lake bed building it or restoring it, but the event belongs to a much larger swath of humanity now.



Look, I’m not a lawyer. But neither are most of the people posting legal arguments regarding a new commercial featuring Burning Man’s name and art in it. Burning Man has already posted about it, but I have some pretty strong feelings about the commercial, why it matters, and why I’m as excited as I’ve ever been about Black Rock City.

BREAKING: Shameless Marketers are Shameless

Image by GonZoville.com (Creative Commons)
Image by GonZoville.com (Creative Commons)

While we were on playa this year, a certain restaurant chain decided to launch an advertisement clearly designed to go viral specifically by leveraging the creative efforts of Black Rock City’s citizens — in order to hawk sandwich-shaped products.

As creative and funny as it was (we had a good laugh, we’ll admit), clever unfortunately doesn’t trump our commitment to protecting our community from commercial exploitation. We’ve been fielding anguished calls and emails from participants and horrified artists whose creations were used in the video without permission, a number of whom who have issued take-down requests of their own accord. We can laugh at ourselves. But we’re not laughing when a corporation exploits the artwork of others under the guise of poking fun at our event.

The shameless flouting of our Decommodification Principle to hawk sandwich coupons is equally unfortunate (and unnecessary to the purported “parody”). The Burning Man name, and the designs of the Man and Black Rock City, are core affinity symbols of our culture that we protect precisely so they won’t be used in ad campaigns. So as we always do in these situations, we sent a letter to the company to explain Decommodification and ask that they remove the Man and our other intellectual property from their advertising. We hope they’ll quickly comply, as most companies do when they realize how antithetical this sort of commercialism is to our culture. (We’re dismayed they haven’t taken any action yet — but of course they’re trying to collect every last page view.)

Thank you to those who brought this to our attention. Given the increasing number of people (and we use that term generously) who can’t resist the temptation to exploit our growing community by using symbols and imagery of the event to promote their products and services, we appreciate when you help us find them. If you encounter another instance that doesn’t smell quite right, let us know by emailing ip@burningman.org.

So while we appreciate the creativity, we sure do wish it wasn’t attached to a commercial product.

Consent and Sexual Harassment at Burning Man: What You Can Do to Help

[This is the third in a series of blog posts addressing sexual assault, sexual harassment, and the importance of consent in the Burning Man community. It was compiled with the invaluable assistance of Bonnie Ruberg, a six-year Burner, university instructor and a queer community organizer in the Bay Area, and Gigi-D L’Amour, a founding member of and volunteer coordinator for the Bureau of Erotic Discourse.]

Black Rock City is a place where we go to be ourselves. We travel to the playa to feel “at home” in our community, our experiences, and our bodies.

Unfortunately, sometimes the public spaces in BRC don’t feel welcoming or even safe for some Burners because they receive unwanted sexual attention when they walk down the street. Sometimes they get catcalled. Or poked and prodded. People on bullhorns shout at them to take off their tops for bacon and get surly if they refuse. Moments like these are unfortunate but they happen — probably more often than you think.

What is sexual harassment? At its most basic, sexual harassment can be defined as unwanted sexual advances or sexually-charged remarks made toward another person. It can happen to all types of people, and it can occur between friends and acquaintances as well as between strangers. Sexual harassment is harmful because it makes those who are harassed feel targeted and vulnerable. Harassment that doesn’t seem sexual can still make a person feel uncomfortable in their body. Remarks about someone’s gender, race, age, body type, physical ability, etc. also have the potential to be deeply hurtful.

And harassment doesn’t just happen to women. LGBTQ folks and folks who are transgender or genderqueer also often find themselves on the receiving end of hurtful comments and inappropriate behavior. Men can be harassed, too. Everyone deserves to feel welcome and respected in Black Rock City. That’s what Radical Inclusion is about — that’s what Burning Man is about.

Making Black Rock City a more welcoming and respectful environment is a responsibility we all share. Here are some simple guidelines you can follow to help prevent sexual harassment on playa. (more…)

Sexual Assault Resources Available in Black Rock City

[This is the second in a series of blog posts addressing sexual assault, sexual harassment, and the importance of consent in the Burning Man community.]

In the horrible event that you or a friend are the victim of a sexual assault at Burning Man, you are not alone out there. This is not one of those playa moments when you have to rely solely on yourself. There are resources available to sexual assault survivors on playa, and we want you to know about them.

Burning Man’s Emergency Services Department (ESD) has a specialized Crisis Intervention Team whose main goal is to support participants with issues related to sexual assault, domestic violence, psychiatric emergencies and what they call critical incident stress management, which includes providing short-term psychological help, acute crisis intervention, and post-crisis follow-up. Its purpose is to enable people to return to their daily lives more quickly and with less likelihood of experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder.

In cases of sexual assault, ESD’s goal is to provide participants with a full range of support — from having someone to talk to, to escorting the person to a hospital for treatment and ensuring they return safely to the event if they choose to do so. The team that works on mental health evaluation issues is comprised of clinical professionals such as licensed therapists, social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists. The team that responds to sexual assault and domestic violence calls includes therapists and victim advocates with various backgrounds.

The Crisis Intervention Team may also be called upon to provide support to camp members after a tragedy to help an assault survivor integrate back into his or her camp and aid the healing of the participant’s community. Sometimes campmates have experienced similar issues, and an issue on the playa can serve as a trigger.

In addition to providing on-site support, the sexual assault team offers to work with survivors post-event, providing contact information for local support services in their home towns, following up to hear how they are coping and to lend a supportive and knowledgeable ear.

Each year we’re asked why Burning Man does not provide forensic exams — also known as “rape kits” — on the playa. We’d like to address that here. First of all, while we’re proud of the medical support services that are available at the event, conducting forensic exams is a highly specialized service. There are only two sites in all of the State of the Nevada that do them: one in Reno and one in Las Vegas.

We have been informed by medical and legal experts that, due to location and uncontrollable factors associated with the playa environment, an exam done on the playa would face a high probability of being successfully challenged in a court of law — essentially making it useless in aiding a conviction. (The ‘chain of custody*’ is partially what’s at issue here; if you obtain the evidence on playa and then transport it to Reno, it’s more likely to become contaminated.)

We have also been told the best course of action to ensure the highest likelihood that any evidence collected will help identify a perpetrator and secure a conviction is to transport the assault survivor to Reno for an exam by a Nevada Sexual Assault Response Team. This year (for the first time), the Burning Man organization will offer to pay for flight transport of survivors to and from Reno, greatly decreasing the examination time and facilitating a speedier reconnection with friends and family.

To contact the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) on the playa:

  • Contact a Black Rock Ranger or walk in to one of the medical stations and let the person know you want to report a sexual assault, domestic violence or mental health issue. You can find medical stations at 3:00 & C, 9:00 & C, 4:30 & H, 7:30 & H, 11:00 from the Man on the open playa and the main medical facility is at 5:15 and Esplanade.
  • A Black Rock Ranger will contact the CIT team.
  • A Black Rock Ranger will also contact law enforcement. (All sexual assault and domestic violence in Black Rock City must be reported to law enforcement as mandated by law.)
  • CIT will work with law enforcement to provide a safe environment for the participant, and law enforcement will conduct the investigation if necessary.
  • After the initial law enforcement investigation, BRC will use the on-playa fixed-wing air ambulance for transport to Reno to the Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) clinic. Swift transport will ensure timely evidence collection and maximum possible comfort for the survivor.
  • CIT and law enforcement will stay with the survivor throughout the interview and transport process, ensuring maintenance of the chain of custody and emotional support to the survivor.

We hope this information helps you to understand the resources and tools that are available in Black Rock City for responding to and addressing instances of sexual assault. Of course the best outcome is to prevent these instances from happening in the first place, and we encourage you to read this recent post and others in this series (additional posts coming soon) to learn more about how to be part of our collective effort to make Black Rock City safe for everyone.

Lastly, do you have experience in this area? Do you want to help make Black Rock City a safe, more supportive city? The CIT team will be taking applications in the spring (2016) for new volunteers who are active year-round as victim advocates in their communities. Volunteers must be willing to be on call onsite and understand that Burning Man is a mandated reporting event, so they must have experience working with law enforcement with a positive, professional attitude. To volunteer, you can fill out the volunteer form.

We invite you to join this important conversation by sharing your comments below and on future posts in this series. And we should note that while we normally give a lot of latitude regarding our comment policy in the spirit of self-expression, comments on these posts will be vigorously moderated to maintain civil discourse. If you want to be overtly offensive, sexist, or go about trolling sexual assault victims, please go elsewhere on the internet.

* Chain of custody (CoC), in legal contexts, refers to the chronological documentation or paper trail, showing the seizure, custody, control, transfer, analysis, and disposition of physical or electronic evidence. (back to top)

Top photo by Todd Gardiner