Preface, or how I came to create this packing list
I’d heard of Burning Man some 20 years ago when my sister, who lives in the Bay Area, told me of this amazing festival she attended. She seemed practically breathless with excitement as she told me stories about her adventures. The creativity was off the charts. People wore hats made of fiber-optic lights. People wore exotic, wild and exquisite costumes. And, my, was it ever fun!
Truth be told, I never thought much of it after that. My sister lived in San Francisco area, and I assumed the event was a local thing. I was happy that she went and enjoyed it, yet, beyond that, it didn’t capture my attention.
Then, years later, I found myself stuck, lost in my own shattered world. I was (about to be) divorced, broke and in debt to the tune of $50,000. My house, long sold. My social network, unnurtured. My business, abandoned and providing all but a whisper of its former cash flow as I had moved from location to location with my awesome though “wandering Jew” husband. I was penniless, sad and without much of a base. I had no idea of what I wanted to do, or of what possibly to do next.
To make matters worse, the energetic part of me, the part of me that loved to talk with my hands, dance about and express with movement seemed to have withered and shriveled in this death of my marriage and former life.
Yet, right after my separation, I began noticing hoops everywhere. And I noticed that I was noticing them. I noticed a friend’s 18″ hoop that he used for strengthening his hands so he’d be a better golf player. I noticed another friend’s Pilates hoops that she used for strength conditioning. And at yet another friend’s house, I noticed her child’s hula hoop.
Then it dawned on me: I wanted to hula hoop.
I figured someone, somewhere made an adult hula hoop, so I went to my computer and googled “adult hula hoop for sale.” In so doing, I landed on hoopgirl.com, discovered I could order a custom hoop, and placed my order. Days later, one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever owned showed up: an adult hula hoop, standing as high as my navel, made of ¾-inch irrigation tubing, and wrapped in glorious fluorescent yellow, orange and pink gaffers tape.
I was in love. I began to hoop. I hooped in the morning. I hooped in the afternoon. And I hooped at night. But after about 36 hours with my new toy, I had exhausted all of my innate hoop moves. That’s when I googled “hula hoopers, Maryland” and found both Tribe.net and Talia. I contacted Talia, and she invited me to come to her house and hoop with her. I was floored. A total stranger invited me over to her home! To hoop! Who was she? And what was going on here? I had to find out.
I went. We hooped. She taught me some tricks. We found more hoopers in the coming weeks and months. We met at her house every other week or so. We shared tricks and tips. We talked. We laughed. We connected through the hula hoop. (It was 2005 then and long before hooping had re-ascended in popularity; there were but a few of us hoopers.)
With hooping, I began to move again. To shake out the stuckness in my life. To find fluidity and expression in movement. To feel again. To have greater joy.
And I had found a tribe—a group of women who shared this love of hooping, movement, play and expression. Soon I discovered something else these women had in common: each and every one of them had gone (or were going that year) to an annual event called Burning Man. Hmm. What kind of coincidence was this?
The more time I spent with my newfound tribe, the more I learned about Burning Man. I came to understand that it was more than a yearly event, that it was also a whole community of people far and wide.
In my heart, I knew I would eventually make my way to Burning Man. Though at the time, in my early years of hooping, attending the event seemed incredibly daunting and far away; it seemed so complex in the intricacies of provisioning, preparation and packing. And the logistics?! How would I get my stuff out there? How would I survive? How could I go a week without fresh vegetables?
I simply couldn’t wrap my mind around it all, so I started small by going to regional Burning Man events. In my ’hood, the event to attend was Playa del Fuego. I was hooked right from the start. The feeling, the vibe, the ease, the laughter, the sweetness, the sexiness of it all. I’d found my people.
I attended the spring event, the fall event and a handful of parties and gatherings throughout the year. My friends and community in the Burning Man world grew and deepened. And the same question would invariably be asked of me each year, usually in the summer: “So, are you going to Burning Man this year?”
Nah, not this year. Um, yeah, one of these days. Probably. Possibly. Eventually. I always had some loose answer, one vaguely covering my fear.
And then one October evening, I jumped on to Facebook and saw this group of smiling faces looking at me. The picture was clouded from dust particles all over the camera lens, though that mattered none. All I saw was the joy. The photo of these people at Burning Man penetrated my heart. And for all the times I had said maybe, eventually, some day, I suddenly said YES! That Yes! was clear, true and urgent. I would be going to Burning Man in the coming year! No doubt about it.
At the time, I worked as the PR person for an international software company that released a new software version each year on September 15th, and there was no way I would be able to have that job and go to Burning Man. It would be irresponsible to be in my role at the company and to be out of the office for a good two weeks prior to an annual product launch. I knew I’d have to leave that company, and I was okay with that choice. They fired me a few months later, gave me some money, and I traveled out to San Francisco, staying for a few months with my long-time bestie, who had just moved to the SOMA area of San Francisco.
I loved being back in the city (having moved to San Francisco on a whim when I was 20), and things were going well. My friend had an extra bed where I could sleep, and life was good.
Gah! Before I knew it, it was July, and I had neither my ticket to Burning Man, a camp to go with, nor a single plan of how to get there. In 2010, the year I first attended Burning Man, tickets could still be purchased by cash at a few stores in the San Francisco area. So, I found my determination, walked to a store, bought my ticket, came back to my friend’s apartment, opened my laptop and posted on Facebook, “OK, got my ticket to Burning Man. Now I need to find a camp.”
Turns out, a friend of mine I’d known from the D.C. area (a story in and of itself of how we met), had been traveling in Central America for three weeks, had just come back, had just opened up his Facebook page minutes earlier for the first time in three weeks, and was just then scanning his Facebook feed. (He and his wife had also moved to San Francisco a few months prior.)
He contacted me about my post, told me about the camp they were starting, invited me over for dinner, and asked if I’d like to join them. This camp was More Carrot, they were in their first year as an official camp, and they were creating a farmers market where they would be gifting fruits and vegetables. I was thrilled! It also wasn’t lost on me that the picture I had seen the prior fall–the photo of the smiling dusty people–had been of this guy, his wife and the OCs (the Original Carrots, when they weren’t yet an official camp).
The stars had aligned. Things were looking good. I would soon hoof it back to Maryland where my gear and stuff were so I could start getting ready. And then I panicked. What do I bring? How do I get costumes for Burning Man? What kind of lights do I need? How many lights do I need? How do I make sure I have a bike when I’m there? How do I get my bike to the playa? It gets cold there, I’ve heard that, but how cold? What kind of jacket do I need? (The resources available online then were minimal. Very, very minimal.)
And the most plaguing questions (to me): Will I be cool enough? Will I fit in? Will I look like an outsider? Will people look at me and wonder if I’m really one of them?
Now, I had attended a Burning Man pre-event fair and shopping event while still in San Francisco, and there I bought lights (a paltry amount), a festival belt (that looked terrible on me, though it was well-made and functional), and an assortment of hair accessories (the kind that I’d seen other women wear in the many Burning Man photos I’d obsessed over the years).
I also bought a pair of Docs while still in the city, a pewter pair of ankle-length boots I still wear to this day, both on playa and, remarkably, with business outfits in the winter. I had somewhat of a start.
When I came back to Maryland, I attempted to find costumes in my costumes box. I scrambled. I struggled. I went to thrift stores. I scoured online stores and bought cheap lights and cheap accessories to wear. I watched the few, and paltry (in number), videos on the still-relatively nascent site called YouTube.
And I asked friends, right and left, who’d been to Burning Man before: What are three things I absolutely must pack? What are your tips for a virgin? What do you recommend?
I listened, made notes and did my best to provision, all the while, getting involved in my camp, participating in some camp planning groups and taking care of business at home.
I also attended a Burning Man for Beginners workshop and was delighted to discover that others had not only figured out many of the logistics of getting gear and themselves from the Baltimore-D.C. area out to Burning Man, they were also helpful and willing to offer guidance and tips.
Then I started packing. And panicking.
I’m sure I packed for at least three weeks, with my gear strewn all over the guest room of the house. I would discover later I significantly overpacked in some areas, under packed in others, and completely missed the mark in many realms of my preparations.
I have been, admittedly, a lifelong over-packer, and I have had a propensity to stress at times of change in my environment. I know myself better now—much better—and am 1) less of an over-packer and 2) more attentive to my stress and able to breathe into it and through it. I also know that in many ways, I orient strongly toward comfort and security, hearth and home; to say it was rather hard for me to envision feelings of comfort and home at Burning Man is an understatement.
And then my wires were fried, and I had a total reset.
My first day on playa, I was utterly exhausted 1) by my camp’s pre-playa frenetic activity (provisioning in Reno, managing the produce for our farmers market, selecting our bikes and packing our truck, along with meeting 20+ new people, et cetera and so on), 2) by our travel to the playa (people speak of how long Exodus is … well, getting in takes just as long, if not longer because you have to deal with the gate and ticketing; and I had driven all night while my car mates comfortably snoozed), and 3) by a full-day of camp set up (in a dust storm). I was exhausted, as well, from weeks of stressful preparation.
But I got it.
For me, the understanding sunk in in a magical instant. This place was home. I breathed in the dust-filled air, and every cell of my body understood. Where I stood was once sea, from whence we came. The sea was filled with countless sea creatures and plants, that had since died and fallen to the sea floor. The waters of the sea (and the many layers of life forms) eventually dried and formed the playa, or the earth, the land on which we now walked. The air and wind whipped up the particles of earth (the dust) and brought that dusty air filled with particles of ancient sea life to me and into my body through my breath.
When the smell of the dust reached my reptilian brain, it lit up ancient memories in me. Sea. Water. The dead and ancient life forms, now turned to earth. The wind. Air. And we bring the fire. Do we ever bring the fire!
Earth, wind, fire and water. All of these elements were experienced through a configuration unlike anything else I’d experienced on the planet. My cells understood Burning Man in a way that resonated with me, and I was hooked. The rest of my experience was all gravy after that moment. The people, the randomness, the dancing, the magic, the fire, the art, the astonishment, the beauty, the conversations. I loved it all. And I knew I’d be going back again and again.
I also didn’t want to ever have to spend as much time getting ready for Burning Man as I did in my first year. So while at the event, I scribbled notes to myself of things to do in future years: what to pack, what not to pack, areas where I wanted to upgrade my equipment, food I did and didn’t want to bring, and why.
When I came home, I debriefed myself. I took my notes and translated them into documents. And while I’m no lover of the spreadsheet (preferring narrative communication over boxed and charted information), I decided I needed a spreadsheet to organize my packing; thus my stupendous Surviving (and Thriving at) Burning Man packing list was born.
To ease their worries, I started sharing my packing list with fellow campmates and then with first-timers. And while I’m almost flabbergasted by the amount of time and energy put into both the list, the book and the accompanying website, I know this one thing: one of the biggest challenges facing our beloved community—particularly as Burning Man becomes more known in the broader culture—is the responsible dissemination of our culture, which includes, in my understanding, the responsible acculturation of first-timers.
To me, responsible acculturation of our virgins includes that they come to the playa as fully prepared as they can be. While I may not be able to help with their emotional state, I can certainly help with their provisioning and packing.
One of the best compliments I ever received on my packing list was at a D.C. Burner Happy Hour, a weekly event I attend every couple of months. I was talking with a guy who’d been to Burning Man for the first time the year prior, and he was sharing some of his stories. I don’t recall the exact sequence of how this subject came into our conversation, but he came to understand I was the creator of Surviving (and Thriving at) Burning Man packing list.
He hugged me then told me he’d discovered my packing list weeks before going to Burning Man and that it scared the heck out of him. “Good,” I said. “I think it’s healthy to be a bit afraid when heading off to such an experience as Burning Man.” He told me he only got a fraction of the items I had recommended, but he was so much more mentally prepared for the experience because of having discovered my recommendations.
Now, back you you. With my recommendations and packing list, I take care to offer not only what I think you need, but why you need it. And in so doing, it is my wish to contribute to this grander goal of helping (particularly) first-timers to be prepared and more able to be radically self-reliant.
Please note, that I trust you will have read, or will soon read, The Burning Man Survival Guide and the Burning Man First-Timer’s’ Guide. Read them, and read them again. And again. Being prepared is important. You may not buy or provision every thing I recommend. I wouldn’t assume anyone would. Though I do hope that in reading my packing list and recommendations you are mentally prepared and understand better some of the conditions you’ll likely encounter. How you solve the problem, what you choose to pack is your call. That you’re more aware of personal care challenges you may face is my goal.
In closing, my own life has been so beautifully impacted by our community, by the friendships I’ve made at Burning Man and with burners far and wide, by the magical experiences I’ve had on the playa and in my life, and by the alien-yet-ever-so-home-like land that is the playa.
I understand that for some, Burning Man is a checkbox thing, a bucket list item, and that’s okay. I also know—because it has been true for me—that Burning Man can also be a life-changing experience, a new tribe, a thing called and understood to be home in a way unlike anything or anywhere else.
For the bucket-list people and for the all-in new members of our tribe, I offer this packing list to you with love, care and tenderness. I hope it helps you provision and prepare with greater care, confidence and calmness.
August 13, 2017