An open letter to businesses who want to offer luxury trips to Burning Man

Starport by Carey Thompson, 2012 (Photo by Scott Williams)
Starport by Carey Thompson, 2012 (Photo by Scott Williams)

Dear Entrepreneurs:

We’ve never met – at least I don’t think – and so I don’t know whether you’re true believing Burners who are just trying to make a buck sharing something you love without thinking it through or opportunists trying to strip-mine our culture and sell the raw materials to the highest bidder.  Could go either way, and I prefer not to think the worst about people, no matter how often it’s justified.

And hey, let he who is without sin cast the first stone, right?  I think pretty much everyone who has been inspired by Burning Man has wondered “How can I make THIS what I do in the world?  Can I make Burning Man economically productive for me?”

It’s a completely reasonable question.  Why wouldn’t you think it?  Decommodification is a principle, but paying rent is a necessity.  The question of how to make Burning Man a sustainable part of one’s life is one that Burners around the world are grappling with, experimenting with different models, and I think they’re at the vanguard of Burning Man’s next big step.

But some approaches … most particularly selling Burning Man merchandise … aren’t going to work. And most of the schemes I’ve seen to offer “Burning Man Experiences” aren’t going to work either.

But not so much because of the money thing.

I want to explain why, not so that I can yell at you for trying, but because maybe if we get on the same page about what the problem here is, you can come up with an approach that will work.  So the dynamicism and energy you’re obviously bringing to this effort – starting a business is challenging – can be harnessed in service of the community you’re trying to introduce people to.  And so that those people can be better introduced to our community.

Because right now there’s a serious problem with what it looks like you’re trying to do, and it’s not actually decommodification.  Well, maybe that too, but there’s a much bigger, much more serious, problem here.  That’s the one I want to talk about.

(Perhaps this would be a good time to remind people that I am neither a Burning Man employee nor spokesman, and that my opinions are entirely my own and not necessarily endorsed by Burning Man or anyone affiliated with it.)

I want to start with two examples of people at Burning Man.  The first is a story about how Burning Man didn’t accidentally self-destruct in 2014.  About a time something that went spectacularly wrong turned out spectacularly right.  Because I think it speaks to why we do this in the first place.

 

Example 1:

On the opening Sunday of 2014, news started coming in to Burning Man about the apocalyptic ticket lines shaping up outside the gates.

And then it started to rain.

And then it rained so hard that Burning Man closed for the day (for the first time ever) and everybody in line … tens of thousands of people … were stuck in their cars, in the mud.  And those of us lucky to have already made it in looked at each other, as we desperately tried to keep the mud out of the watertight spaces we had access to, and asked ourselves:  How fucked are they?

How bad was this going to get?

I mean, the ride down to Burning Man can be bad enough – you’ve spent a whole week packing, then driven God knows how many hours …  possibly with complete strangers or people you only pretend to like, often in a vehicle that only pretends to work …  to get in a 10 hour line of cars in the middle of the desert, and you don’t even want to roll your windows down because otherwise your car will be filled with dust.

And that’s when things go right.  That’s the best case scenario.

This time, these tens of thousands of people were stuck in those cars, in conditions they did not prepare for, without easy access to their supplies, and spotty cell service … for who knows how long.

They certainly didn’t.  All they knew is, they were stuck.

We talk about Burning Man being dangerous – that it might kill you- and I emphasize this to people all the time.  BURNING MAN IS NOT BENIGN!  This is a case in point.  If somebody had needed emergency services … who would they have contacted?  Even if they had found a way to contact someone, how would the EMS personnel have reached them?  Or even found them?

(NOTE:  I do not actually know what Burning Man’s emergency plans are, they may very well have contingency plans for just this kind of thing.  But I wouldn’t know that, and neither would tens of thousands of people trapped in their cars.)

Eventually the rain stopped.  A little while after that, people started coming in.  Naturally I knew a lot of people who got caught in that line, and met many more.  Naturally, I asked them about it.

Their stories all began as uniquely hellish experiences:  trapped in painfully cramped quarters, trapped without easy access to food or liquids, trapped without easy access to bathrooms … or just trapped, confused, and frustrated.

But they all seemed to end the same way.  Eventually the rain slowed down, then stopped, and while the roads were still too muddy to drive in, people got out of their cars and connected with the people next to them.  Over and over I heard the words “so we kind of started Burning Man right there in line, we met the people around us, they were really great, we had a party, and it was amazing.”

Sure, they’d been extremely upset, but by the end, when they just did Burning Man right where they were, with the people next to them, it transformed into something remarkable.

Now this couldn’t possibly have been everyone’s experience – and if you were caught in this mess, and it this wasn’t your experience, I’m terribly sorry.  But I heard it enough times, from enough different people, to believe that it was a fairly common experience … and in any case, for all the potential for disaster it represented, it hasn’t became a symbolic catastrophe.  The people who are complaining about Burning Man are complaining about other things – including how to get in that line again.

Something in that experience went profoundly right for many people, and it is a tribute to Burning Man:  yet it is not something that Burning Man can take any credit for.

What happened was that in a moment of profound adversity, Burners who didn’t know each other came together and burned.  They did that thing that we do.  A voluntary thing:  a thing that no one can compel or demand.  And, collectively, it made things right.

That’s example 1.

 

Example 2:

 

Example 2 is L’Affaire Tananbaum.  Caravancicle camp is now the most infamous example of a camp for rich people in Burning Man history.

It sounds like it was a terrible experience for everyone involved, but it may actually be a tremendous service to future burners as a case study.

Now, the internet has leveled an incredible number of charges about what happened at Caravancicle, and I’m not inclined to believe a number of them because, internet.  And that’s fine for these purposes.  Let’s take Tananbaum’s report of what happened at face value and see what we can learn.

The first thing to recognize is that none of the luxuries that Caravancicle was planning to bring to the desert were particularly out of line.  (And in fact I’m not clear on how I’d calculate “out of line” in the first place.)  There are a number of fun and well-regarded camps that bring extraordinary luxury to the playa.  Ashram Galactica, for example, has made my greedy little mouth water on several occasions.  And I love these guys.

But none of the camps-in-good-standing with the community could ever have pulled something like Caravancicle off on their own.  For them to do it would have required an immense fundraising campaign, a serious crowdfunding effort.  Which means that they wouldn’t have been able to make it for just their friends:  they would have had to offer crash space and volunteer opportunities and meaningful roles to strangers from across the Burning Man community.   A kind of Radical Inclusion would have been involved from the outset, at the ground level.

That matters significantly because it seems to me that the biggest thing Caravancicle did wrong was not any of the things it tried to do, but that when it all started to fall apart, it closed ranks.  It never thought of itself as part of a community. It certainly never acted that way.

Based on their own accounts, they said “we’re running out of booze, so we need to horde it,” instead of sending a call out on BMIR asking Burners they didn’t know for help – the way camps with this problem have been doing for over a decade.  When the people they’d hired to build the things or make the widgets work didn’t get the job done (or said “screw this”), they never went around to other camps asking “is anybody here good with widgets?”  Caravancicle tried to fix its problem through crisis management rather than trusting in our community, and in so doing separated itself from that community.  From all the accounts I’ve read, no one seems to ever have thought:  “Fuck it, let’s just admit we’re stuck and play in the mud and everybody can come.”

Is a pattern emerging here?  Because I think it’s a crucial one:  the people who say “fuck it, we’re playing with whoever wants to come” have more fun.  Sometimes they’re the only ones having any fun at all.

This isn’t a casual thing, this isn’t a small part of the experience.  Burning Man is the definition of an uncontrolled environment, and that’s not an accident.  There is no “festival itinerary” – no sense that “if everything goes according to plan, these are the things that will happen and these are the things that won’t.”  There is no such plan.  Anything can happen.  And it turns out that, in an environment where anything can happen, the stuff you’re doing at your own camp is almost never as interesting and fun as the stuff other people are doing out in the desert.

Fun as it is to hang around with your friends and enjoy the camps they’ve made, the truly magical Burning Man experiences happen when we interact with strangers.  When we engage the larger community in ways that we never planned for or imagined.  It is through those encounters, our unexpected and unmediated connections with each other, that the truly “only at Burning Man” experiences happen.

This is why the most camps, even the big expensive ones and always the truly exceptional ones, come to the playa far less focused on how cool they can make their private lounge and far more focused on what they can offer the community to make it come and play with them.  Those massive sound camps that I kind of hate?  Give them credit:  they don’t keep the really great DJs to themselves and ask them to only play to their private lounges for 100 people:  they are trying give every Burner on the playa as great a time as possible with the best DJs they have.   That’s a better party by every definition but one:  exclusivity. And at this point it begins to look like exclusivity is a prison.

The reason Burning Man is so much fun is strongly connected to the fact that most camps spend at least as much time and money figuring out what they can do for strangers as what they can do for their members.  Perhaps the purest expression of Burning Man is to see a stranger doing something weird and amazing and asking “how can I help?”

 

Conclusion:

 

And this is the reason why most “Burning Man experience” packages that I’ve seen are going to fail.

They’re isolating.

Because of the notion that people who haven’t paid for the services shouldn’t get any fun out of them, concierged Burning Man “experiences” involve building walls and creating notions of exclusivity – which are great if you’re trying to sell your services to people who expect to be treated like ultra-level VIPs, but horrible once you actually touch down on the playa.   (I know, I know, there’s always room for the Big Shot to take a sparkle pony back to his fully-serviced RV and show her a good time, but, let’s not pretend that’s something special.)

Likewise, because the “concierge service” is financially on the hook for whether their VIPs have a good time, too little is left to chance.  Segway tours replace just wandering out into the desert and seeing what happens.  Itineraries replace the random amazing encounters that lead to lifelong friends and extraordinary memories.  Those chance encounters are where you meet the people who will make your burn something you never forget.

A service that asks “How can I get my rich, important, clients to Burning Man and give them a camp and lifestyle that will approximate how rich and important they are” will never provide much in the way of a Burning Man experience, because it’s standing in the way of that experience.

A service that asks “How can I get my rich, important, clients to Burning Man and give them something genuinely useful to do for the larger community, hopefully forging genuine human connections with random strangers or at least getting them out of their comfort zones?”

That could work.  Maybe.  If it successfully minimized the distance between its clients and the rest of the playa.  Which is the exact opposite of what exclusive concierge service is about.

But community, participation, and inclusion, are exactly what Burning Man is about.

Do the clients want the Burning Man experience or not?

The rest of it … the “we provide you with the tools to decorate your bike, which is an important part of self-expression” stuff …  the knock on self-reliance that comes from having everything catered … that’s just bullshit.  That kind of thing is silly, laughable, and won’t win the jackasses who fall for it any points, but it’s not the reason curated Burning Man experiences fail, or why they can actually be dangerous to the culture.

They fail because they are designed to create a barrier between the clients and the Burning Man community, and they are dangerous because they create barriers.

The commercial aspects of these services are questionable – and questions need to be answered – but are not irredeemable.  People rent RVs, pack them full of pre-fabricated food from grocery stores, and wear costumes other people have made.  It doesn’t hurt anything.  (The existence of paid servants at Burning Man troubles me more, but is a topic for another time.)  These issues can be worked out, and are – I think – a red herring for the larger more serious problems of community, participation, and inclusion that curated experiences can create.

All of which is to say, if I were trying to design a “concierge” Burning Man experience that I thought would both pass muster and actually do the job of giving people a “Burning Man experience,” I would design it with one word in mind:  “Service.”  (It’s not one of the 10-principles specifically, but, not everything has to be.)

I would take the budget and spend it on creating a camp with far more space for randoms than for residents;  I would design this camp to attract Burners from across the playa, and get them to stay;  I would design this camp to offer something unique and awesome, an experiential gift that would be memorable and magical –and then I would charge however much one charges the wealthy these days to come and be a crucial part of it.  To have an experience of service that they can’t get anyplace else in the world.

Can you get these guests to say “Fuck it, let’s play in the dust and everybody can come!”  Because that’s what you’re aiming for.

Once again, my vote doesn’t count for anything around here.  But I hope this is helpful.

The alternative may be Art Vikings.  I like that too.

 

Sincerely:

Caveat

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat Magister

A member of the Burning Man Project's Philosophical Center, Caveat served as the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca from 2008 - 2013. He is presently working with Burning Man's education department on a cultural studies curriculum for Burning Man culture. Caveat is the author of the short story collection A Guide to Bars and Nightlife in the Sacred City, which has nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

86 Comments on “An open letter to businesses who want to offer luxury trips to Burning Man

  • PiR@M@ says:

    I love this like whoa. If we can separate possession from our hearts we will be able to do that next step…. together. Intention is everything, even if you ignore and discount it.

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    • Peter F says:

      Best thing I’ve ever read about BM. I was one of those stuck in the mudine, and there’s not enough space to describe the benefits which flowed from our “misery”. Same reaction to the exclusive venues which I briefly experienced and couldn’t wait to escape. Good work, whoever you are!

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      • Jon Rosen aka Bleurose says:

        Awesome comment on BM. One of the great camps of all time, Tuna Camp, did precisely this (and still does to the best of my knowledge)… they brought tons of fresh tuna to the playa and served it up for virtually everyone who showed up. Now, they didn’t put huge signs up in lights because the tuna would have been gone in 2 hours. But the word would slowly get out over the week as to where you could show up and get fed amazing food, and no one (to my knowledge) was ever turned away until the food for that day ran out. Those guys understood BM and why it is what it is. Brilliant analysis and spot on about the reason that “cruise camps” (my term) have serious problems… I honestly don’t hate the cruise campers or their marketers… I sort of pity them because mostly they don’t understand that this is just antithetical to what the experience should be. But they have as much right to be here and do what they want as we do. I just think they should start trying to learn. Maybe they will figure out how to “get it right”.

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  • Peace says:

    This is my thumb in the up position.

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  • Ashley says:

    Bravo my friend!

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  • G says:

    A large part of this essay might be boiled down to this simple dichotomy. Exclusivity and elitism are antithetical if not lethal to Burning Man culture, whereas incusion is the heart and soul of it.
    So come on out you pampered plug-and-play camp customers, pitch a tent, pound nails and rebar, and shit in the porta potties with the BRC hoi polloi, be one of us. Be radically self reliant, rather than radically pampered and cloistered.
    I guarantee you will have a far more positive and profound Burning Man experience.

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  • roissy says:

    Caveat, you are right on the mark on this one…. The suggestion I had is to have camps adopt a “rich” person. The way to integrate them into the couture is to integrate them into the camps…
    We hosted a few top named DJ’s in our camp, they played elsewhere but they stayed with us…

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  • foxwalker says:

    EXCELLENT analysis.

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  • Great Blog post, Caveat! I think there should be an 11th Principle: “Together, as a community, we interact, share, grow, learn and suffer together.” Thanks for the use of my photo – it’s one of my favorites.

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  • Scribble says:

    Brilliantly rendered!

    A data point from the 2014 Census: There are a lot of reasons people list as why they initially come to Burning Man. The most dominant reason is to “Play.” The number one reason cited to come back is “Work” which I think reflects the “Service” point in your piece. There is great joy in giving of yourself for others that people only experience the first time at Burning Man.

    I also want to acknowledge the “Event” that happened in the mud out by Gate on Monday morning. I was leading a Census sampling crew of 20 volunteers out there and we were stuck, and not in a good way. We had been out at Gate since 4am and expecting to be back at the commissary by 8am. No food, not enough water and our rickety Census wagon for shelter. But people opened their cars and RVs to us. Food, warmth and Fireball all came out. To this day, everyone on that shift and people who took care of us have a special bond. The Playa provides!

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  • aserendipity says:

    Speak on “Charlie Rose” .
    I believe you are encapsulating a condition of our time.

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    • kristin henderson says:

      Interesting given Larry Harvey did the same (for folks that do not know) and there is a great tension in the Burner Community about what the community values and others, who may have an unusual vantage point, want.

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  • Nexus says:

    Well put. Thank you for sharing.

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  • skeeter says:

    Love this post. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and articulating what I think is a terrific analysis of playa life. Burning Man is a community – Black Rock City is created and destroyed in 7 days. In that short period of time many who come with open heart and open mind have the opportunity to experience magic and have an unbelievable experience. See you in the dust!

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    • Admiral says:

      BRC is actually created and destroyed on playa over several MONTHS- from the day the golden spike is pounded in the first week of August, through Playa Resto through the first week of October. The event itself is 10 days.

      That said, your comments on community are dead on.

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  • HoneyBee says:

    Caveat, your words are wise and insightful. You brought sanity and serenity to an issue that has inflamed many. Kudos.

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  • shylar says:

    ART VIKING!!!!!

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  • Tiger says:

    Good piece ! I like your take on these matter. Thanks !
    And for the record I also had a positive experience during the Rainpocalypse :-) One of the highlights of my week !

    Only one thing bothers me : what do you define by “not working” ? Do you mean that those package deals will NOT bring the “real” BM experience, or that they will fail economically ? While we all agree on the former, I’m not so sure about the latter.

    There are so many people out there with Burning Man on their bucket list, I’m sure a service like that will find customers every year even if it’s sort of a scam. These people will stay in their walls, in their bubble, convinced that they experienced the real thing and that they had a “transformative experience”, only because that’s a cool thing to say in the 1%er parties. Even among the people who camped in a regular camp, I noticed that trend to “oversell” the experience when they go back. There is a sort of social pressure to “have the best time of your life” and to say that “Burning Man changed your life” even when it really didn’t…

    Soooo… I don’t know. I would like really badly to see these initiatives fail. But if it’s viable economically, and if the supply of foolish 1%ers does not significantly go down over the years, I’m not sure this will “not work”.

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    • Calico says:

      Tiger, I have to disagree with your comments about the social pressure. I have always had the best week of my life(all twelve times) on the Playa! Even when I was there with my Lady Laughter’s ashes. Has Burning Man changed me, absolutely, and more so each time I go.

      Have I seen the same effect on the other people I know/have seen out there? yes!

      As to the concierge camps… I see them as being the same as the “dinosaur hunt” in the story/movie “a Sound of Thunder”… always doomed to fail in the worst possible way. Because you can not control what other people will do in any given situation.

      I learned that the hard way this past Burn, brought my current Lady out there… I knew she was a little shy. Did not comprehend she was Terminally Shy (her new Playa name!) She hid the entire week in the tent… only came out twice (thursday and for the Temple Burn)… and decided on Sunday night that “this is fun, I’ll come again next year”! So, yes I failed in the same way the concierge camps do… Only real way to learn.. by experience!

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  • Lazlo says:

    “This is why … the truly exceptional [camps], come to the playa far less focused on how cool they can make their private lounge and far more focused on what they can offer the community to make it come and play with them.”

    Caveat; my friend, you have nailed it. Thank you. I hope the burners who know in their bones there is something wrong with concierge camps, but can’t quite articulate what that is, reads this. More importantly, I hope people thinking about joining a concierge camp read it too.

    I am a 16 year burner and a core member of a VERY well known camp that will remain nameless for now. We have over 120 members. We do a VERY cool thing, but it isn’t for us; its for the all the burners to come and enjoy. Our reason for being a camp in the first place is to provide the gift we give to BRC. We talk about it all the time. When we decide on new members, their understanding that what we do is provide our gift is often a deciding factor in whether they become members or not.

    The culture of Burning Man is the community looking out for each other and welcoming people into their camps, regardless of who they are. Exclusivity is the antithesis of our culture.

    My compliments on your thoughtful expression.

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  • Cheese Simon says:

    Spot on analysis & brilliantly exampled and written. If we’re going to have “luxury trips” to burns, then let’s push the boat out about inclusivity to those who are passing by.

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  • Kat the Leopardess says:

    This post is well written, not so much for the articulate though (which there is plenty of) but because of the more compassionate take when it comes to these Plug N Play camps. Last year, so many people were crying foul for the impact of camps like Caravancicle but allowed the kneejerk reaction to take over. I admit, I had a simliar reaction and cant say I like this new breed of camp, but even I know when to pack it in and sort my thoughts so I can turn things into something useful.

    Overall this post is focused towards the impact on the people who organize these all-money-little-spirit camps, and the people who fall for the idea that you can just drop a whole bunch of money down and essentially “buy” your way into the Burner culture and experience (as well as that shallow “Burner cred” that some people have deemed as important). Your post reminds our community that we are *all* products of the mass consumer culture — from the major to the minor. None of us are above it and we cannot delude ourselves into thinking such things. We need to put our best foot forward and bring the compassion that we dutifully cultivate to the table when having these discussions. I am tempted to say that, when dealing with aspects/people which seek to exploit our culture, our compassion and understanding needs to be brought forth more than ever.

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  • Trilo says:

    Another excellent post, thanks for that! “How fucked are they?” Hahaha – I remember thinking exactly the same thing on Monday morning.

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  • Satellite says:

    Thank you Caveat. Perfect summary.

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  • cacophony says:

    Nice piece! One of the positives to come out of the caravansicle debacle won’t be seen for another three months or so. The backlash. I expect the pranks to be fairly epic this year.

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  • Squachek says:

    Bravo! I love this so hard. Nail on the head.

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  • Squachek says:

    Bravo! I love this so hard. Nail has been hit on the head.

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  • Squachek says:

    I’ve been hit on the head as well because I said the same thing twice. Burning Man was better next year.

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  • FIGJAM says:

    All I have to say to anyone trying to have a “Designed” Burning Man experience is, you can’t understand what is on this side of the door until you’ve been on this side of the door, and no amount of money can buy IT!!!!!!!!!!

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  • Jeeves says:

    Yes! If the rich people were coming in and buying up the experience and pushing us all out that would suck. But they aren’t even getting the experience! It’s like tearing down a grove of trees for a housing tract and calling it Oakview.

    I hope this post can start getting the message out about WHY burning man should be on your bucket list. Hint – it’s not the sparkle ponies or the raves or even the mind-blowing art.

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  • Catalyst says:

    Two words: Selfless Service.

    Nice piece. Despite thinking I’m doing a good job burning, this piece forces me to ask myself, am I burning the best possible!? Am I giving enough? Am I expressing all I can & want? Are there others I need to convert?

    Thanks, Pastor Caveat.

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  • Cadillac Jack says:

    I was mentally struggling about this same thing. Thank you Caveat for giving me your outlook on this issue. It makes sense now what direction would be best for everyone.
    It would be a waste of money and time for the plug and play camps to do this event being isolated from the very things that make this event so incredible. I hope the people that arrange these camps will take what you wrote to heart. After all, this event is constantly evolving and we can carry what we learn to the rest of the world.

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  • Cheryl Barrar says:

    Just love your opinions and writing style. My camp just did Forgotten City and No exclusivity in sight. I am thinking more and more that Regionals are the way to go. But I guess seeing Daft Punk performing right across from my camp is an exclusive experience…lol

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  • Rich says:

    I’d agree with this.

    But it’s got to be said, whose camp is surrounded by the biggest and longest established wall on the playa? It isn’t a concierge camp..

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  • Gumby says:

    Thank you Caveat. Yet more valid points raised.

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  • Rob G. says:

    This is an awesome essay!

    Those coming in through a “concierge service” are tourists in the worst sense. One hopes that they’ll see that and come back as actual Participants in the future.

    Likewise I have less objections to a camp that is a “concierge service” AS LONG AS IT OFFERS SOMETHING TO THE COMMUNITY it is in. Not a circled wall of RV’s. If you pay for hexa-yurts for yourself and 100 of you best friends remember share with the larger community around you.

    The camp I’m in is small and modestly successful. We have a great bar for all that are thirsty and love bringing people in to visit and hang-out. It is the people you meet and the things we do for each other that keeps me coming back!

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  • Bigjon says:

    Burning man will soon be turned into Coachella. It’s only a matter of time that’s what you should be worried about is people’s greed a VIP experience goes against everything Burning Man stands for! But we shall see.

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  • Sastelise says:

    Any time someone says a group is a danger to the community as a whole, I’m intrigued. It has a totalitarian tone. Capitalism is going to seep into the BM experience because we live in a capitalist society. The entrepreneurs will say that they’re supplying a demand. The clients are the ones who insist on the VIP experience.They have the means to choose a different option if they want to. The most realistic attitude to take towards these groups is live and let live, because this open letter is just preaching to the choir.

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  • Hill onions says:

    Perfect! A brilliant read for all Burners! Thanks for articulating what so many others couldn’t quite put to words.

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  • Andy says:

    Great post and wholly accurate! I would like to add an observation, though:

    Burning Man has always had two parts, the “see” and the “provide”. My first year, I admit I didn’t contribute much besides some cooking and cleaning in my camp. Every other year I’ve brought large-ish art that I spent literally months creating. I’ve found that I enjoy the creating and providing more than I do the looking and taking, though both are a great deal of fun.

    People who come to a concierge camp, especially as first-timers, probably don’t understand the “participation” part because there a few other events where this exists. Therefore they view Burning Man as a destination vacation, where you pay for a great time. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, except that for 10X the money they get only half the experience – and of course they’re not holding up their end of the unwritten social contract that since I’m providing entertainment for you you should also provide some for me.

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  • Julia Brown says:

    What ultimately kills camps like Caravansickle is lack of Immediacy. Immediacy is the Burner attribute that allows us to let go of our expectations of how things should be and experience the world as it is. “Plan your Burn then burn your plan;” “No Expectations;” these are words that lucky Burners hear and remember. The real requirement is to extinguish ingrained expectations: “This thing will stay where I put it” and engage with the real world: “Holy shit it’s flying away!” This is what makes Burning Man a transformative experience. Nothing is certain; anything can happen; we choose to abandon our expectations and embrace reality.

    And that’s where Play to Play camps fall down. These camps are marketed on expectations; people pay for expectations; they arrive with expectations that, even if met (which is quite unlikely) are guaranteed to fall far short of the glorious experience that is BRC. They have cheated themselves out of the best they could get and, in their efforts to exclude everything that quarrels with their preconceived notions, create irritating anomalies in the fabric of our City.

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    • Jon Rosen aka Bleurose says:

      But they are certainly entitled to cheat themselves. I have minimal problem with that. Before the sellouts started four years ago, I had pretty much no problem with so-called Plug and Play camps and there were several already (we had one that was attached to Fandango Village and I expect still is). Hell, if I had the money to spend, I would have no compunctions in paying some “helpers” to come take on some of the more burdensome aspects of setting up a camp or village and I would share the experience with those helpers too. I would still come and “burn my plan” and do burning man the way I always have done, i’d just be able to have a little more time to do that because some others would be helping me out.

      Back in those days, when you could still pick up a ticket at the gate or the week before at Sports Basement, there was little incentive for ANYONE to pay for Plug and Play UNLESS they were doing it solely to trade cash for time commitment as well as knowledge of how to do it. Sure, we can say that those people were cheating themselves, but hey, whose to say that isn’t a reasonable choice for them?

      What changed this all, I think, is the sellouts. It has now become possible to acquire enough tickets (in either legal or nefarious ways) so that you can make a business out of offering this service to anyone with the $$$ to spend and precisely because those people probably DON’T have the wherewithal to do burning man (at least not the first time) on their own, there is a growing market for this service because it is the ONE way you can get tickets.

      It is frustrating that the BMorg says they will invalidate tickets that are “scalped” on services that they consider “scalping” like craigslist and stubhub, but what about the “plug and play” services that offer the whole “guided tour including ticket” for multiple thousands of dollars? How is that different than scalping? How do you establish a value for the ticket vs the other services that are provided?

      My preference would STILL be for BM to go to a model in which the tickets HAVE to be purchased by the attendee, no matter how they are going to get to BM. If you want to use a concierge service, I’m fine with that as long as YOU have purchased your ticket the same as everyone else. I would probably be okay with one extra ticket purchased by an attendee to be used by anyone else (a partner) or maybe even 3 extra (partner plus kids or two couples, etc.) I don’t think people should HAVE to ALL buy single tickets on their own, that would be chaos. But if the primary ticket buyer is NOT going to attend, then all the other tickets have to be returned as well, there is no option for primary ticket purchaser turning the tickets over to completely different people at some price. That is where scalping starts.

      If scalping were completely eliminated, the concierge services would be radically curtailed because the PRINCIPAL benefit these places provide is the fact that they have (somehow) had access to tickets that they could offer to people willing to pay for the entire package. But if you had to buy your own ticket, then you would be less inclined to use the plug and play companies, but even if you did, there would be a much smaller market for that, I am sure.

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  • TERA says:

    I must admit when I originally found out about Burning Man, I just wanted to go for shallow selfish reasons: To wander around a large desert landscape, look at art, and go to raves.

    I’m probably someone who would use some kind of a “concierge service”: not some extravagant VIP service that provides exclusive entertainment but just something simple for the purpose of making sure I had a comfortable place to sleep, food, water, and maybe A/C. I’m not too keen on camping and I didn’t know this was supposed to be so harsh and rough.

    Then after reading these blogs, I found out about all the real morals and objectives behind Burning Man and the whole community aspect. Now I’m scared to go. I don’t want to disappoint everyone and not live up to their expectations.

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    • albert says:

      Tera, don’t worry. You’ll be fantastic, and all of us will be thrilled to meet you. It’s not all harsh and awful, it’s beautiful. And literally everyone you see around you is dedicated to making sure no harm comes to you. And the spectacle is something to be experienced, to leave knowing humanity is capable of this.

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      • Corvus says:

        What albert said. I’d read up for months before my first time. Luckily, I’d signed up for a theme camp so the camp’s public offerings were sufficient that I was happy with the participation part. Even though I thought I was prepared though, I walked around gobsmacked for days and it was about Wednesday before I “got it.” The camp daddy told me I was one of the quickest to get it he’d seen, which is one of the nicest things said to me in my life. This will be my seventh year now, and besides working at the same camp, I’m a volunteer.

        Yup, I drank the Kool-aid.

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    • Tera
      You’ll be fine. The play will fuck with you a bit and, to paraphrase Caveat, if you don’t cry at least once, you’re doing something wrong.

      But, that’s just a small part of it.

      As long as you don’t take more than you give or leave a mess (or shit on the playa, literally and figuratively) you’ll be fine. Just have a good time, share with people and don’t be afraid to laugh as hard and loud as you never have before. You’ll experience childish awe in the best possible way, you’ll get a little lost at night, you’ll find some magic and an old friend and new friends. Someone will hand you cool cantaloupe while you’re hiding from a white-out dust storm.

      Burning Man is everything and nothing you know — or maybe it’s the other way around.

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    • Cat says:

      Tera, it’s wonderful, you’ll love it! You just gotta be able to roll with things as they unpredictably unfold. It’s a very cathartic experience. Get in the dirt, dirt don’t hurt. :-)

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  • G says:

    A little more preaching to the choir here (but who knows who might read this?)

    A few years ago I found a video online featuring various BMORG personalities talking about the event. One woman (Harley, Marion, Action Girl?) said this, and it resonated then and now. Paraphrasing her: ‘The whole point of Burning Man (and as I recall, the lady implied that this is recognized by the organization) is to have as an intense of an experience as possible’ This, yes, emphatically this ! ! ! !

    Imagining the experience of being flown in, housed, fed, provided with pre-packaged everything including meals, drinks, air conditioning, costumes gifts and art cars and Segues pre-decorated bikes,etc, etc, and then flying out after the Man Burns. No mooping, no breakdown, no packing it out. In all fairness speaking for myself anyway, that is not a Burning Man experience. Sounds boring actually. Where is the fun of the preparation? Where is the creativity? Where is the radical self-expression? BRC is a character building boot camp for freaks. Where is the kaleidoscope of multiple emotions both “good” and “bad” as Caveat has written about? Hardship and discomfort, mental and physical, are part and parcel of the Burning Man experience. Pampered PnP customers are being totally short changed, and in my opinion, the Burner community is being ripped off by those who sell our TAZ and our blood sweat and tears, as a sight seeing commodity.

    Sorry, you were there, but that is not a Burning Man experience.

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    • Jon Rosen aka Bleurose says:

      But it is THEIR experience and sorry, but on this we disagree. No one has the “right” to define “the experience” for anyone else. Sure, I empathize with your concerns and I would probably find that if you and I compare experiences, we would be almost identical in reactions, attitudes, perceived benefits and gains. But that is OUR experience and we are entitled to it, but so are others who see it differently. As for others who “rip off” “our experience”, nonsense. If people want to just look go for it. There are plenty of experiences on-playa, that I just “watch” because I enjoy it, and because actual participation in that particular experience just isn’t for me (there is no way ANYONE would ever get me to strap in to Thunderdome and joust with other people at the end of bungee cords! LOL) So how do you differentiate ME (who DOES experience burning man as a “participant” 80% of the time but as a viewer 20% of the time from someone who chooses to “view” 100% of the time? And why does that negate YOUR experience in providing the opportunity for others to view?

      Sure, if EVERYONE just spectated, there would be no burning man, but that isn’t going to happen. If we start trying to place a “value” on the “service” WE provide for others in terms of art or experience, then we are commodifying our experience just as much as the people we criticize.

      Forget about it. Go. Enjoy. Do Burning Man they way you think you should. Let others do it the way they think they should. If they get what they want out of it, why does that tear at you so much? Maybe it is jealousy, because you would RATHER be able to just show up and watch too??? Naw, I doubt that. You WANT to particiapte just like I do. So do it and stop letting how others handle their lives get under your skin. They can’t take YOUR experience away from you unless you let them do it.

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  • MonsterS says:

    Ive been working on crew for an art instillation going on this upcoming year at burning man. Spent a lot of time listening to ideas going on thought this could be fitting here. He is an incredible artist with some interesting ideas that could potentially lead to a new form of crowd funding. Its not about getting rich, but about making amazing monuments and then after burning man get the art into the community.

    “Have Your Art and Burn it Too
    (Investing in burning man can be smart and fun)”

    https://docs.google.com/document/d/1gY1tnU8vXvxVFjNCbv9kWdqmjkR4o448196NbNRT8T8/edit

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  • Rudolf the Red says:

    Burner since 98. I do not care what others do on the Playa as long as they are not hurting others. Some folks burn in a tent. Some burn in a walled compound of RVs. All the same to me. I just don’t care what others do with their money and time.

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  • Your wisdom once again casts a warm glow on the darkness of … something.

    One can make strong comparisons with corporate prefab suburbs and their expensive, unhealthy and isolating effect. Humans don’t interact, we/they sit in cars, stare at screens and barricade ourselves behind Chinese-made fences and poorly made houses.

    Those of us who break away from this caustic prison are rewarded with a more colorful life with more interactions and more crazy shit happening.

    It’s the same with the camps.

    A semi-inside reference comes to mind: One can go right to the typical experience with a menu and defined expectations; or, one can go left to meet Brian (not me, a different one) and order by sharing a story or experience (no one is concerned if it’s true or not, just a good story).

    Not everyone gets it.

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  • Parcos - Been burning the candle at both ends.... says:

    Do as we say, feel and think or get the f’ out! Sounds like hypocrisy to me. If the baby want its candy let it have it. That’s the beauty of radical freedom. It’s open to interpretation, and who are you to judge what these people are happy with. They are the sum of all parts. Necessary even, perhaps to make the rest of us realise what we perhaps don’t want. Just because you think you are out there in the desert, you are necessarily in a different world. Sadly no, how you become aware of such a thing and your emotional reaction to it says a lot more about yourself than them.

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    • toast says:

      my burn was totally ruined last year by rude ignorant people. I’ve been going for a long time and these people thought they were so cool and I was so uncool that I didn’t belong there and they did. hurt my feelings. I decided not to go this year but then I remembered how it used to be and I am sure those lovely people will be there. I decided that I would go, travel light and if I get rude people around me I would break camp and move. I go alone and I am 78 years old.

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      • Jon Rosen aka Bleurose says:

        I am sorry anyone treated you rudely or badly. But again, we each own our own feelings. I have had idiots treat me that way both on-playa and off-playa and sure, it makes me feel bad for a moment. But in the end, I glory in what I get from my experiences, and I know my contributions are important and who the fuck cares what others say or do? I am 64, came to BM for the first time when I was 51, and have tried to be back home every year (missed several, but this will be my 7th in a row). I will stop coming when I decide to stop coming because of what I am getting out of it, not because of what some sad ignorant people might think or say.

        Best and hugs,

        Bleurose

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  • zoe says:

    He’s back! This morning the Founder and CEO of Festival Concierge Services advertised on FB for cleaners for his “clients” RV’s. Last year he used images of burners to advertise his creepy service without permission from any of the subjects or photographers. His email is antoine@the-key.ch or luxembourg@the-key.ch . Oh, he also wants to bring a Rolls Royce this year. I’d love to find out where he’s camping :) Is the Art Vikings project a go? If so….. count me in for the War Party.

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    • zoe says:

      @caveat .. seriously, I really love the idea of Art Vikings. Didn’t get a ticket this year but if you put this in play I will move mountains to be a part of it.

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  • deckdolly says:

    I loveed reafing this letter, it (almost) made me want to go back to BM. The only thing that I wondered is why was Big Shot capitals and sparkle pony not. SPARKLE PONIES ROCK!!! thanks for the lovely letter tho. :))

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  • toast says:

    lovely. what is it the Beatles said, “we can work it out”. burning man people, you are the best. looking forward to the fun.

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  • Kalamitee says:

    Wow! Well said. You nailed it! The magic of Burning Man is the inclusivity of our community. Some of my best stories of the last 15 years on the playa came in times of great diversity when I had to do what I’m the worst at – ask someone for help. And the even more magical moments were when someone helped me without my asking for it.

    You don’t get that sort of experience by building WALLS.

    So strange when you think about it. Coming out the most open area of land most people will ever experience “living” on… only to imprison themselves in a barricade of walls. YICK!

    Thanks so much Caveat! You are a gem!

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  • Josh of Josh and Cody Las Vegas says:

    Caveat Magister: I applaud you for a very thoughtful and well written open letter! I’m so glad to have your thoughts of how a “Concierge” Theme Camp can be so radically different than other, well-executed, camps.

    I cannot agree more that bringing others IN and Sharing your camp as an experience for other Burners is AWESOME! Cody and I have worked to design infrastructure for two different 100+ (one 400+) person camps over the years, and you always wonder…”are we making it too easy?” Water Plans? Shared kitchens with planned meals?

    But you reminded me that it’s what you GIVE BACK that matters. The fact that the camps plan events to DRAW PEOPLE IN. And you are SO right about random experiences….the last time we were able to go in 2013 (but will be back this year!) it was random and literally 10 days before the event when we were able to go. The most rewarding thing was the first day there running into people we’d met YEARS EARLIER while checking out art installations on the Playa – and having friendships re-kindled in moments.

    Thank you for your words. They are inspiring.

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  • psapp says:

    Burners do not like extreme plug-and-play camps because it is appropriating our culture, and our time, resources and creativity.

    When we the burners are the ones who bring all the art, activity and life to the party and then groups capitalize on this, they are stealing.

    Individuals/companies should not make profit from selling other people’s gifts. Since Burning Man is a collective, it becomes impossible to justify anyone selling a Burning Man experience.

    This THEFT is why people get angry at plug and play camps. Sometimes this anger is expressed as a dislike of the rich, which is misguided. Assholes can be rich or poor, how much money you have is irrelevant. It’s like getting angry at someone for being a fast runner when you are a slow runner. Just because someone has access to something you do not, doesn’t profile their personality or what they should be able to do with their resources. All everyone wants in life is a “FAIR” advantage.

    When you sell a Burning Man “experience” you are selling (stealing) the gifts of others. Anything that is based on theft, cannot possible add a net positive effect to the culture of the event.

    The mitigation of the amount of this theft is what is important. I don’t believe we can stop it, since we do live in a capitalist culture, and let’s admit it, Burning Man is mainstream now. But if we continue to have a strong base of Burners at the event who truly embody the principle and spirit of burning man , it is much easier for this base to then share the spirit of burning man with others.

    Anyway, the point of this whole post, is I hope in the future, people who have a voice in the community like you will address that it is the THEFT of our gifts that is upsetting, and not justifiable. The individuals who buy these experiences are also participating in this theft, which also means that they are counter to the Burning Man culture. I am sure some of this is by ignorance, and it does not mean that these individuals are inherently bad. The more we talk about this theft in public, the more people might catch on that extreme plug-and-play is not the best way to experience burning man and that participation and community is integral to the event.

    It will also help decouple the myth that Rich people = the problem and that Luxury = Bad.

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    • Bob C says:

      “Burners do not like extreme plug-and-play camps because it is appropriating our culture” … yet why is it OK for Burners/Hippies to appropriate other cultures when wearing Native American headdresses or Eastern philosophies and clothing?

      You can’t have it both ways.

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    • Jon Rosen aka Bleurose says:

      And how is it THEFT if you are offering it as a GIFT? You can’t have it both ways on that either? If you gift something by definition you CAN’T expect anything in return. So saying that someone is stealing your “gift” is an oxymoron. If you don’t want them to “steal it” or if that concerns you, then don’t offer it. But then you aren’t gifting anymore, are you. That is one of the big problems, I think Many people who think they do “get it” don’t get it either.

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  • Quentin says:

    Yes but you forgot that the people who want a plug and play experience are just there to spectate anyway. Spectators do not want to be touched by the experience. They want the “Cool” to rub off on them without the dust and struggle to also get on them. Plug and Play is a win for them and a win for the people who pocket the money. Silly Burner, didn’t you know that BurningMan is just like the real world now. Money trumps everything.

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  • Dustin says:

    One of your better posts. I’m honored to be your friend. Now get to work on your next novel.

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  • Rob Blakemore says:

    Thanks Caveat for a great post.
    You’ve wonderfully articulated my thoughts, when I couldn’t even fully formulate them myself! Cheers!

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  • turnerBroadcast-Kharmau5 says:

    Intuitively, we all knew something was just off about the concept of having someone Sherpa you – something that was just not self reliant about it. But then again, temporary community is sometimes less about what you can do and more about what you can do for others (for example, the two who rescued me from Absinthe related near fatality when I was dragging myself across the playa with a towel over my head). A point bears repeating: the environment and the experience is not benign. The author correctly points out that Sherpa companies are in the business of isolation, and then connects it to examples of how isolation , even in the presence of luxury – completely destroys the experience. It’s not for everyone; I heard of a friend of a friend who showed up, pitched tent, walked around for 10 hours, and then just left. But in isolation, even that which would repel is removed. Burning Man is not an experiment in synthesis, but rather, temporary community – and at this critical juncture – where it is actively trying to leap its boundary – the aspect that this open letter draws out, does so in a sense of honesty – it’s really not about a business trying to make money doing something pretty cool – it’s about a business that , if we focus carefully – is running its way sideways across that expansion. For me, this thing is about work and play coming together, somehow – and yea, sure, you need to be able to pay the rent – but what the author has captured here , if you were trying to get into that business – is lightning in a bottle. If you get into the business of delivering something to someone that isn’t quite right – you want to know early on – so you can get out at breakeven. That’s why this article is really cool. Ok, that and the fact that I learned about Art Vikings. And that I want to become one. Now.

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  • Rebar King says:

    “To rule, is to serve”

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  • Ian says:

    Great way of approaching life in the default world as much as on the Playa…

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  • Honest John says:

    Cavate,
    Wonderful thoughts on a subject that has captured the attention of many
    Burners. Thank you for expressing your thoughts so concisely. You have struck a chord in many!

    Honest John Tampa

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  • drmikey007 says:

    awesome narrative. after 7 years of BM, I have been unable to personally characterize just ‘what is BM?’ when people ask. this is about as close as I could have put it. thank you for this.

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  • Ragman Stanley says:

    All I can say is WOW! Just Wow! What a wonderful piece of prose. You hit the nail on the head without being belittling. My hat is off to you sir!

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  • Zay Speed says:

    The RICH HO-HUM ,, if we changed a few words and switched Rich for Drug user , defendant , suspect, Black, Long hair, Gay, it could work well on fox news.
    The RICH BUISINESS PEOPLE???? , I am kinda getting out of this some kind of ,, well HATE. I thought B.M. was for all of us! I have moved up after 6 years of 1 week Camp & Art Car attendant , to the 2 week tour @ B.M. as an Electrician working for “Them Camps” Wait 1 second , are you talking about people from New York / with money ? YES & I bow , and give thanks to those that EMPLOYE ME, to have the chance to “Work My Way” through B.M. an give poor little me the chance to be there, , because IT IS VERY EXPENSIVE ! FYI some of us actually like and cater to RICH PEOPLE, To be a part of what I could not pull off on my own and have greater experiences . B.M. should be for every one, and the RICH are PEOPLE,,, and they are going to act like it and need there things, if you don’t like there camp, don’t look at it ! OK we agree , EVERYONE is welcome “The Rich Haters” your invited as well and your pre-assigned camp site is on
    2:00 & Self-centered, and don’t come early or you go to D lot!

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  • Atom says:

    Many Rich People come to Burning Man. Why, Not to be rich, but to be Real,

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  • dubois says:

    Training program. Calling it like it is Caveat. bravo

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  • Dr. Bungee says:

    Every year after the holidaze, my thoughts turn to BM. Being the organizer of a small fun inclusive camp, It’s my responsibility to start the process of getting things together. With tickets, VP’s, fixing stuff that has succumbed to previous years usage, planning new stuff…, it takes a lot of effort. Everyone contributes either with money or labor, and we always seem to pull it together. Sometimes I wonder if it’s still worth the hassle. By mid August, near panic sets in as the reality of leaving creeps closer. The fact that the summer is my busiest work time only adds to the stress.
    Then, the magic happens. Getting to playa early to set up, watching the city grow, meeting others doing the same… Welcome Home!
    I have my trailer near our fun area. Waking up and hearing people laughing and having fun on our creation makes everything worthwhile. Making new fiends, enjoying their creations, experiencing whatever happens. I Love This Place!!
    Thank you Cavaet, and most of the other comments for reminding me once again why we do it. I’m inspired again.
    I think I’ll go out and tie some Bungees.

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  • Pete says:

    Cant be much more crystal than that! An your not on the Burning Man Board or in some way connected to that infrastructure, why exactly?? You speak with the common voice and the insight of the community. Thank you! one of the best written and stated commentaries I’ve had the pleasure to read and agree with.

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  • Stretch every fifteen mins during computer game play.

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  • RandomOne says:

    Love this. One my of favorite days at BRC was when I went off by myself and my tiger bike. We came across a piece of MOOP that I tried to pick up. It was a black feather from a boa, Each time I was close enough to pick it up it would roll just a few inches out of my reach, I finally gave up and followed it…. it was leading me straight to the 10 o’clock side of the city when it suddenly took a left and lead me straight to the temple. The moment I walked into the temple I met my neighbors from the hood. They were just stapling up a poster of one of our burners that had passed… everyone hugged… everyone cried… everyone loved…. another perfect playa moment that could have never been planned….

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