When I first arrived in Chicago, I was bursting to tell people about my amazing summer adventures: trekking through the Amazon jungle, celebrating Bastille in Paris, living with a voodoo doctor in Belize, cruising through the Galapagos Islands. But more importantly, I wanted to talk about Burning Man. I couldn’t wait to find other GSB students who had shared in this unique experience. To my surprise, the mention of Burning Man resulted in vacant, puzzled stares. A few times, I got the occasional question, “Where? Birmingham?”
I’ve assumed, then, that the majority of people outside the Bay Area don’t know what this event called “Burning Man” is. Occurring over a one-week period up to and including Labor Day, Burning Man is an annual experiment in temporary, community-promoting self-expression and self-reliance. Picture a desert, barren and plain. Suddenly, RVs and cars line up to make their way into the gates. Throngs of costumed or naked, free-spirited people of all ages, from varied backgrounds from all over the world, descend upon the desert. For seven days, there is exploring, sharing, partying, discussing, and understanding. Think of it as accelerated community-building. More than just participation, there is meaningful contribution. More than just thoughts, there are realizations. Then picture everyone gathering their debris, packing up their RVs, and leaving no trace. This is Burning Man.
As a first-timer on the way to Black Rock City, Nevada, a seven-hour drive from San Francisco, I still can’t fully comprehend what I’ve gotten myself into. There have been weeks and weeks of preparation. Nothing is provided at Burning Man. You must bring enough water, food, and supplies, and provide your own shelter in the desert. As we approach, the stereotypes kick in: nakedness, orgies, drugs, chaos, and mayhem. Arriving at the main entrance, we are clearly in the middle of nowhere. The desert stretches far and wide. Our RV and rental truck is covered in dust. And it is unbearably hot— 100+ degrees hot. In the distance, a few miles ahead, the number of decorated art cars and colorful theme camps is mesmerizing.
Theme camps are the stronghold of Burning Man. My camp has a Moroccan theme. We bring and set up two towering tents that were custom-built in Marrakesh. The tents offer a cool, relaxing alternative to the obliterating heat. There are hundreds of other camps: Fish Camp (stop on by for grilled salmon, fried halibut, or sushi), Illuminaughty (infamous for spinning the best in house to techno to drum ‘n bass), and Barbershop Roulette Camp (spin the wheel and take a chance on a new hairdo). These are only a few of the creative ideas spawned from this celebration.
Each day involves waking up to the scorching heat rays beating through the nylon mesh of our tent. Not only is this camping, this is the barren desert. Forget the shower. Luckily, I’ve accounted for this with extra jugs of water. So I spend a couple minutes squirting myself and removing specks of dust from every crevice of my body. As much as I try, this effort is fruitless. I cannot escape the dust. It will escort me home, even after multiple washings. (I still have traces of dust on my camera case and in the pockets of my purse.)
I’ll dress in a funky outfit I got for less than $10 at a thrift store. Some wear wigs, jewelry, anything that’s different or outlandish. The only rule is: leave the Gap and Banana Republic at home. There is no marketing allowed. Designer labels like Nike are frowned upon. I was told to spray-paint the $35 kid’s bike I got from Target to remove the brand name. There is also no vending allowed. Only two items can be purchased: ice and coffee.
After sitting down for breakfast with my camp, I wander. Each day is spent exploring a dense, five-square-mile terrain of theme camps and art installations. I must have murmured “ooh,” “ahh,” and “wow,” at least a hundred times. Hungry? There are camps offering pancake breakfasts, bag lunches, or barbecue. Some hand out popsicles in the afternoon. Need a beauty treatment? One camp offers manicures, pedicures, and facials.
Night time is much of the same thing, but it’s more colorful, more vibrant, and more alive. That’s when the parties happen. Most people save their energy during the day, then party into the night and early morning. 3 am is deemed an early night. Reverberating music disseminates from every direction. Glow sticks and neon paraphernalia are the norm. Art cars, which first must register with the Department of Mutant Vehicles, take control of the roads. It’s a scene straight out of Disneyland’s Electric Light Parade. These vehicles (like their costumed riders) are decorated as pirate ships or whales or bunnies. You’re more than welcome to hop on and see where it takes you. A week is never enough time to see everything. So you simply make a promise to yourself to journey again next year.
While cleaning up and getting ready to depart on the last day, my camp leader says, “Good luck in business school. I’d never worked so hard in my life.” Turns out, he went to Harvard. No more than an hour later, another camp member approaches me, “Heard you got in to Chicago. Good school. Damn good school. I thought about going there, but I went to Stanford instead.” I was dumbfounded. All along, I had assumed, “People like me don’t go to an event like this.” I was obviously wrong. That’s the beauty of Burning Man. It shatters your perceptions. It’s all-inclusive. There are the hippies, the artists, the musicians, the academics, the philosophers, the managers, the CEOs, and the inventors. No one is weird or made to feel awkward. There’s always someone who’s a little weirder, a little more daring, a little more innovative. That difference is what’s admired. What a wonderful concept.
For all the paragraphs I’ve written, if I could describe the experience with one word, it would be ‘life-changing.’ In retrospect, Burning Man was an epiphany. It’s not that there was something missing in my life and Burning Man filled that void. Because outside of Burning Man, we do belong to camps and communities, like our companies, our network, our families. We’re also continually determining means to survive and help one another (albeit to a lesser extent). But rather, Burning Man ignited a fire I never knew was there—the potential to give everything of yourself and to have more fun than you could ever imagine.