There is no place nicer in America than Black Rock City during Burning Man. For a week each year, an empty, lifeless desert is transformed into a bustling 70,000-strong community of loving, giving, sharing and helping.
I’ve been to Burning Man over 10 times and have encountered more acts of kindness there than I could possibly tell in a lifetime. There are a million stories. Here are some of them.
First, a summary of some of the 10 guiding philosophical principles of Burning Man that speak to what kind of place it is:
Radical Inclusion: Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.
Gifting: Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving.
Communal Effort: Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration. We strive to produce, promote and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction.
Civic Responsibility: We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants.
Come Ready to Give
When you go to Burning Man, everyone participates, bringing something to provide joy or sustenance to other “burners” (what attendees are called).
Burning Man is built around a culture of gifting — and they do so happily, expecting nothing in return. Walk through a camp with an empty cup, for example, and watch folks rush to fill it.
In recent years, the Burning Man organizers have moved a little away from the bartering culture that was a part of the event in the early days. Now it’s about gifting, and the community comes prepared.
Everything at Burning Man is built by the participants, hauled into the desert and brought to life. Places for people to eat, sleep and live. Amazing art installations. Community workshops. Family areas. Incredible art cars that roam the “playa” (our name for the open desert around the encampment), transporting and delighting people.
It’s a lot of work, and everyone pitches in.
One year I was at Burning Man early, helping build our campus art installation in the open desert. Another group, wanting to recognize our efforts, came by with a mobile dinner party. They brought huge trays of delicious food for our entire crew. The Robot Heart art car, with its amazing sound system, provided the soundtrack. We took a break from our work to eat together, listen to music and celebrate the sunset with our new friends. Then, they went on their way.
Another time, a man from a small neighboring camp was on the street in an apron shouting like a ballpark vendor, “Steak and lobster. Get your steak and lobster here!” I thought it was a joke or performance art, but was still curious. I was the first person to bite and he asked if I wanted to find out for myself. We went into a large tent where a proper dining table was set. Him and his friend proceeded to serve me an incredible meal of freshly grilled steak, a whole lobster and even wine pairings. I was blown away by their hospitality and ability to serve a five-star meal literally in the middle of a desert.
These stories are just two that come to mind. Any burner will tell you that things like this are quite commonplace at Burning Man. Everyone knows how much work it is just to exist out there, so everyone helps.
When Things Go Wrong
When things go wrong, which happens a lot in such an inhospitable environment, people will drop everything to help.
My friend’s VW minivan broke down and we had no idea what to do. We sent someone to get help. They came back with someone who had a similar van and knew how to fix it. Together, we built a ramp to elevate the van so we could work under it. Our new friend showed us how to remedy our problem, saving us thousands of dollars in tow fees and repair costs. He selflessly spent the afternoon with us, truly happy that he could help us out of a bind.
At Burning Man, you can count on people to be very supportive, to find that thing you need to help you, that missing piece and, most importantly, to give their time to help you.
Everyone Is Your Friend
Just walking around Burning Man, you’ll encounter all sorts of people from all over the world — old and young, of all political stripes. Many will give you hugs, something to eat or drink, a special souvenir they’ve made for the event that they will want you to keep.
This spirit of niceness and giving encourages people to pay it forward.
The Temple is a very special structure at Burning Man where burners go to contemplate those they have lost in their lives. People bring pictures of their loved ones lost and leave them inside. They write messages on the walls. Many will be crying. If you are one of those people, you will easily find someone there to talk to who will sympathize with you, who will let you cry on their shoulder.
Each year at the end of Burning Man, like many of the structures, the Temple is burned. It’s the last night of the event and those who are there are usually in tears too. It’s a kind of community catharsis you’ll find nowhere else on earth.
One last specific memory of just the kind of special, nice place Burning Man is: the “affirmation camp” I encountered one year. The idea behind the camp was that you would tell them about something you’ve done where you thought it was important but didn’t feel totally appreciated. It could be anything, from a charitable activity, to something you made, to something you’ve done for someone in your life. When I told my story, he listened, asked great questions and let me talk. After I was done saying all I possibly could, he told me about how it made him feel, how special it was and how he appreciated it. He took time to really listen to me and give me the affirmation that I needed. I felt instantly better.
Being Nice and Doing Nice
Burning Man brings out the best in people. Of course everyone there is nice, they say nice things, they are welcoming. But what really separates Burning Man is “doing nice.” What I mean by that is that people take time and energy to do things for you. And it makes you want to do nice things for them and others.
In a world full of discord, Burning Man is one of the places that shows you, truly, that people are generally good.
Memories From Burning Man