This trip of a lifetime began inauspiciously, as many of my trips do. I had never been to Burning Man and had no idea that my partner and I were in the lottery to get tickets (the event has become so popular that a lottery system was created to distribute tickets). Turns out that we were not only in the lottery, but we had hit the jackpot and were headed to the August 2012 festival in the Blackrock Desert of Nevada.
I didn’t really know what to expect when I heard that day in spring that we were going, but after doing some research online and at the library, I did learn I was headed to one of the hottest, dustiest, wildest art parties in the world. Beyond that it was hard to get a handle on the essence of it. I’d never gone any place where there was so much information available, yet still felt at such a loss for what I was getting into. I would have to learn what it was all about by experiencing it — which, I learned, is the Burning Man way.
I would be tent camping for seven days in an isolated alkali desert “city” where temperatures could range from 40 to over 100 degrees and the only bathrooms are Porta-Potties. This settlement, Black Rock City, would be inhabited by around 60,000 people, have almost no services — only coffee and ice are sold there — and rules like no place I had ever been before. There are 10 Principles, one of which is Radical Self-Reliance. We had to bring everything we would need to survive and enjoy the party in a very harsh physical environment. Water, food, shelter, transportation, sun protection, first aid supplies — anything that we would use during the week we had to bring with us to western Nevada.
My first thought after finding out Burning Man happens in the primitive desert was “How am I going to get around?” In the playa there is no pavement, and you can’t drive your car after you pull into camp. All the information I could find said the same thing: Be prepared for lots of powdery alkali dust that can quickly bog down a wheelchair. I typically walk with crutches, but I had very recently bought a manual wheelchair for longer distances. The first time I tried my chair outside of my house I almost self-ejected when I blithely hit the gravel at the end of our driveway at full speed, so I knew that I wouldn’t get very far in powdery dust using my chair, especially with my noodle arms.
I had visions of being left behind at the tent while the rest of the world was out doing whatever people do at Burning Man until I found out there was a camp for folks with mobility impairments called the Black Rock City Department of Mobility. They graciously accepted us into their camp (you can either camp in established camps or choose a space on your own) and gave me all kind of hints about what to bring and about getting around on the playa so that I wouldn’t be stuck being a tent bunny.
Most importantly, they suggested that I get a “third wheel” for my chair that would lift my casters off the ground, lengthen my wheelbase and create an all-terrain tire to get through the dust and over the bumps. I priced these online and the one I found cost well over a thousand dollars, which was not in the budget (Note: Burning Man tickets cost in the neighborhood of $400 each, plus all your transportation costs, food, etc., so the price tag on this experience can get high in a hurry). Fortunately, my friend Nate was kind enough to fabricate a rockin’ third wheel for me from a kid’s bike that cost me a whole five dollars at the scrap yard. That was way more in my budget. The third wheel on my chair was by far the best thing I had at Burning Man — other than toilet paper, of course. I saw so much more than I ever could have without it.
And there was so much to see! Burning Man is all about community participation, self-expression and creativity. It runs 24/7 and is a massive feast for not only your eyes and ears, but all your senses. There are people from all walks of life dressed (and not dressed) however they want, expressing themselves in all types of unique ways — there was no shortage of things to see and do.
Although my fellow camper/wheelchair vets warned me not to wheel too much with my newbie arms, I cruised all over the playa with that third wheel. I wheeled through “streets” with organized camps that gifted homemade beer, snow cones and Burning Man swag. There is no commerce, no buying and selling, everyone brings things to share — and those who share beer are very popular.
There was a kids-and-family camp, a Big Easy style area and an entire Red Light district. There were over 200 art installations, ranging from a half sunken ship complete with attached dock to the three-stories-tall Man himself. The Man gets burned toward the end of the week — actually a lot of art gets burned during the week, so it doesn’t pay to get too attached! There were colorful art cars, impressive during the day but amazing at night when they were lit up. Some even shot flames into the night. I’m not an artistic person, but I was absolutely thrilled by the art.
In retrospect, some sort of motorized transportation would have been handy. One of the services our mobility camp provided was power chairs and scooters that could be checked out by anyone in need for a couple of hours at a time. Most wheelers brought golf carts, scooters or other powered transportation to get around outside our camp. I never saw another manual chair outside of camp, but I got around fine with my arm power and occasional sociable pushers and rides from newfound friends with golf carts.
The mobility camp also gave art tours four times a day. We had an accessible trailer that held up to twelve people that took mobility-impaired folks outside of camp to meander among the art installations. This trailer also shuttled people back and forth on nights of the big marquee burns. We also found no shortage of generous people who were happy to haul us around on their golf carts.
Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever met such a large number of kind, generous people all in one place as I did at Burning Man. One of the other Principles is Radical Inclusion. I can’t remember the last place I felt so welcomed and included. The first thing anyone said to me at Burning Man was “Welcome home!” and it turned out that was just about right. While I had conversations about my wheelchair (especially the third wheel), and people offered to give me a push through rough patches of dust, not once did I feel pity from anyone. Nor did I feel like some kind of oddity as I often do in my day-to-day life out in the world.
But I suppose that it’s hard to be an object of unnatural attention when a topless woman with a whip in her hand rides by on a bicycle that is decorated like a zebra.
My chair did instigate one of my more interesting encounters when one of the Thunderdome enthusiasts ran up to tell me his idea to have wheelchair participants do battle in the Dome (yes, there was an actual Thunderdome). When he asked me to bring some friends back, I laughed and told him “maybe,” but all I could envision was my campmates plowing me and my little manual chair into the dust with their unrelenting power chairs, and maybe backing over me for good measure. That’s not how I wanted to go out — in the Thunderdome.
If you are interested in going to Burning Man someday, I encourage you to investigate whether it might be for you. If you have issues being dusty and dirty or are uncomfortable with various states of nudity, you may not enjoy it so much. It can also be unrelentingly hot during the day, so if heat is an issue for you, consider renting an RV with an air conditioner and exploring the night life, but know that cleaning all the alkali dust out will be extraordinarily difficult. Alkali dust requires washing everything with vinegar, soap and water.
An RV is also a good idea if you need to keep ports clean, self-cath or have other reasons to have a cleaner space than a tent can provide. There is always a lot of dust (did I mention that it was dusty?) everywhere and smoke during the burns outside of camp (in case you have any respiratory issues). Many people wear dust masks and the like on and off during the day during dust storms, so plan accordingly.
Your transportation while at Burning Man is a huge issue if you want to really get out and experience the sights and sounds. A power chair, scooter or something similar is invaluable, but remember, alkali dust is very hard on mechanical equipment and damage is pretty much guaranteed. Also you need to find a way to charge equipment if you don’t bring some source of power with you. There are places to charge items around Black Rock City, but you have to get to these charging stations and either wait for your charge or come back for your equipment, neither of which is optimal.
Another bonus of staying in the mobility camp was power available for recharging equipment. If you don’t want to use your own equipment, or if you need something to use while waiting for your ride to charge, the mobility camp loaners are a possibility. Keep in mind that they have a limited number and when they are available it is only for a couple of hours at a time, so counting on them will hamper your freedom to roam.
I had the time of my life at Burning Man and would heartily recommend the experience, but it is not for everyone. I have tried to give you an idea of what the experience was like, but it really is the quintessential “You had to be there” happening. If you go someday, you’ll know exactly what I mean.
More on Burning Man
There is an extensive website at burningman.com and several books you can use to find out more information. The Burning Man Survival Guide, available at www.burningman.com/preparation/event_survival, is a great place to find the basics of how to prepare if you are seriously considering going. There are also many regional groups that you can hook up with at www.regionals.burningman.com and there may be a group in your local community that you can contact to get additional information. Look into camping at the Black Rock City Department of Mobility camp. They have a lot of experience that can help you get the most out of the week and are committed to helping people with mobility challenges having the full Burning Man experience. Also, embrace the principle of Radical Self-Reliance and bring everything you need so that you can be as independent as possible and see as much as you want, whenever you want.