Get Radical: Self-Reliance, Inclusion And The Shared Experience

photo by Candace Locklear
Would you lie down next to a clown in the White Forest? photo credit: Candace Locklear

Holy wow, what a week! Let it be known: 2013 was one of the greats. I am in awe of the energy and ideas that swirl and pollinate to create Burning Man. I hopped on art cars, I danced at sunrise, I did an afternoon bike tour — all in full clown-face. I was surrounded by friends and new hires for epic days and nights. I even managed to get some sleep. The weather was belissimo and the dust was mild. What. A. Playa.

Some of the best conversations of my life have taken place on the playa. These conversations can be as brief as a call-and-response to honking the horn on my bike (“Dirty clowns make great dust fellows!”) or as long as a sunrise session out at The Office. One topic kept popping up: Have you had many interactions with newbies?

We can all agree that Black Rock City is huge. First-timers are gobsmacked by the scale of it and old-timers are too. The 2013 Burning Man event population was 69,613 (editor’s note: this figure was updated Sept. 14).

It seems like a lot of you were there for the first time. Welcome.

The redux: I first attended Burning Man in 1998 (population: 15,000). I’ve felt like a new-comer and an old broad. I’ve lived on both sides of the curtain –blissed-out in ruby slippers at sunset or setting an alarm clock so I could work the all-day Media Mecca shift. My friends are a mix of old-timers, volunteers, artists, occasional attendees and newer burners. One friend asked, “Are we all in this together?” Another wondered “Who are all these people and why aren’t they talking? Is it because I’m old?” Our greatest concern: Are first-timers having the same random magic playa moments that we are? I’m curious about the answers to these questions. I had a few people run away from my attempts at conversation in the porta-potty line (usually a source of great stranger entertainment).

Join the adventure, don’t just create your own.

The mega-camp is one way Burning Man has evolved with the growing population. This is a different way to attend Burning Man than when many of us started coming. There have always been camps that provide food and shade. But it wasn’t until I started reading blogs and news stories after this year’s event that I understood how prevalent it is to have meals and water and showers and bikes and sleeping arrangements provided. $1000 for a Burning Man experience? It sounds like making a reservation at a resort. I read about someone organizing a camp that almost ran out of water mid-week for 150 people. My first thought was, 150 people came to Burning Man without their own water? The Black Rock Desert is a harsh and sometimes unsafe environment. What about Radical Self-Reliance? The pamphlet that comes with your ticket is called the Survival Guide for a reason. These “turnkey” camps are housing part of the newer population yet they have created a subculture that relies on someone else for survival and fun.

Say Hello

Another Burning Man tenant is Radical Inclusion. Basically: We are all in this together and we respect each others creativity. I may not like your shiny hot pants unicorn costume and you may not be down with my kazoo or beige granny panties, but we can dance side by side and maybe I’ll randomly cruise through your camp with a tray of bacon and we can share a laugh. That is radical inclusion: a laissez faire attitude that is friendly and open and neighborly. If your tent is blowing over, I am going to run over and help. If you’re making margaritas, let me grab my cup. I wonder if the newer burners know the joy of passing out chilled avocado slices to strangers on a hot afternoon. Radical Inclusion is not exclusive dinners or cocktail parties. The artists who build those big, amazing wood-burning bulls or spinning coyotes want you to interact with their art. They didn’t build art for people to gawk; the art is part of a larger community.

I had a weird interaction that made me question how we are acculturating newer burners regarding Radical Inclusion. Is Radical Inclusion being misconstrued as anything-goes behavior? Let me say: If someone doesn’t want to hug you, that is their choice. Being at Burning Man doesn’t mean you get to do what you want. Not everyone wants a hug. You have to take “no” for an answer. What transpired Friday night was a super-bummer and my friends helped me rally, but still: we could have done without that scene. Burning Man is about creating your ideal self and opening up to further possibility and sharing it with the people around you. It isn’t about anarchy or secret clubs or us versus them.

During our eight-hour exodus to the gate, my BFF & I put costumes back on. “We are still at Burning Man!” was our rally cry. People gave us frozen popsicles, food and shade. Candace, also known as Evil Pippi, says she feels like her most authentic self on the playa. If she had her way, we’d still be at Burning Man. As we worked our way through the parking-lot line we asked people about their experience. Most of the people were first- or second- time burners. Some people were friendly, others seemed uncomfortable when we approached. Was that their Burning Man, staying in an RV and not interacting?

In the years I worked for The Man we talked about not hand-holding people through the burn and leading by example. Do it yourself, it’s more fun that way! But 10 years ago we weren’t thinking about a population this large and turnkey camps on this scale. The Jack Rabbit Speaks newsletter, the Survival Guide and the official website are wonderful resources but they aren’t reaching people who don’t even bring their own water. How do we bridge this divide? One friend suggested all turnkey camps register and get a BM101 lesson on arrival. Another suggested we let these burners drive the event into the ground until we’re selling condo plots. Another suggested an acculturation committee. UGH! I love Burning Man and want it to thrive. That’s why I’m reaching out to you, the community.

Dear readers, these are the questions I’m pondering after being off the desert for almost a week. Black Rock City is going through a boom phase. We aren’t a normal city and we need to treat our social experiment with care. I’m hoping to tap into the city’s consciousness for some ideas.

How do we acculturate people who are having such disparate experiences? How do new burners feel about their experience? How do repeat burners feel about this year’s event? Can we get new blood to start volunteering during the event?

Comments are open. Be nice, no spitting.
Mama Golightly

About the author: Molly Ditmore

Molly Ditmore

The night Molly Ditmore arrived at Burning Man 1998, she told everyone that she had come home. She didn't pack a flashlight or get any sleep. She volunteered at Media Mecca for six years, where she handled press inquiries from the music community and hosted an art tour. Costuming for Burning Man inspired her to sew again, a skill she learned in middle school home economics class. She is now a couture pattern-maker, custom clothier and rain hat maker. Molly got dusty from 1998-2009 and 2012-2015. She reads the comments.

21 Comments on “Get Radical: Self-Reliance, Inclusion And The Shared Experience

  • Halcyon says:

    Great perspectives. I have been getting some great ideas in response to my podcast about Inclusion today. I made a Facebook group for 10 principle education collaborations.

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  • Fiver says:

    I’m not a fan of the turn key camps. Short and simple.

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  • Pockets says:

    I was a second time burner this year, and I came away feeling like I wanted more and I couldn’t get enough. I am not satiated by my 2013 experience. The feeling was because I didn’t manage to get out and interact with new people on a deeper level as much as I had hoped for. I think maybe it was that -although I did not feel I was, perhaps deep down I was still a little overwhelmed this year? My first year (2012) was a much shorter visit, but I felt like I was more on track to fulfilling these hopes back then than I was this year. Last year, I had people seeking to include me more, approaching me on the street, chatting with me in lines to the port-a-potties, being generally more open and receptive and sharing while also including themselves. This year, I felt I had to force myself in a little bit. Half of it must have been my mindset, I only wish I had pushed in and included myself more. But in some cases, I felt there were physical barriers preventing the community vibe. I had a conversation with an 11-year veteran who said they felt the extensive amount of RVs had “killed” their street this year and prevented them from connecting with their neighbors. “Its just a street made of walls”, he said. He was referring to his section of 10:00 and K. When I thought of it, there were A LOT of RVs and they are not conducive to sharing and welcoming in strangers just by appearances, I’ll say that. Creating some sort of city planning regulation on ways to allow RVs while still having a community vibe could be a start. It is by no means a solution to the slightly stiffled level of mass inclusivity this year, but the issue was an interesting observation.

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  • Jocelyn says:

    I just want to say that 2014 will be my first burn, and I have done hours and hours of reading and talking about the experience. I will honor the ten principles and will spread the word about how a little research in advance can really make the experience even better. Looking forward to learning and growing with all of you in the dust next year!

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  • mananabanana says:

    require every participant to volunteer for one shift, doing something.

    for years, i thought i was too busy with my own camp stuff to make the time to volunteer. but i was on a build crew this year, came out a week early to work, and it completely transformed my burn. Being part of the group and doing something for the whole community made me feel more connected – somehow made me feel like I mattered in that crazy sea of humanity.

    if i may be bold, i suggest a mandatory mooping shift for all first timers. my first day on the playa this year, i spent hours picking tiny splinters of wood out of the dust around our work site. nothing has made me appreciate the leave-no-trace ethos more than that intense playa-worship when i first arrived.

    from my experience, volunteering forces you to invest your effort, and in hand makes you feel more connected and respectful of your city. and just think what we could do as a whole, if 68,000 people each spent a few hours volunteering??

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  • sid delicious says:

    I noticed the same thing that Pockets mentioned, on several different blocks. The problem to my mind isn’t the RVs themselves, but the way they were parked. There were a lot of big sections that were partitioned off with RVs parked lengthwise along the road, often with a large courtyard within. Nice if you can get it I guess, but for me it felt very unwelcoming.

    As for first time burners, I met some amazing ones who got right into it! When it comes to the more hesitant first-timers, I don’t think it’s fair to assume that they won’t come back strong for their second burn. I think that one of the fastest ways to bring them into the culture is to interact with them as much as possible.

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  • M.C. Otter says:

    I wrote about the problem with the “anything goes” attitude at length a while back. It ultimately pushed me out of the Burn community. I think my solution is a pretty good one.

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  • Gentle says:

    Every virgin I interacted this year took the experience and the principals very seriously. I even had a revelation – some virgins who are doing their homework may even know more than I do.

    I had a similar reaction when I read about that camp that almost ran out of water. But I thought the rest of that post (which I am too lazy to find a link to at the moment) had some really good points.

    My personal opinion, and how my crew rolls: you should always have a pocket for MOOP. Whether in your camelpak or a pocket belt or in a coat or utilikilt. There are very few times (like biking to get to a volunteer shift on time!) when I don’t pick it up, but if I see it, I pick it up. Then and there. And carry it in said pocket until I’m back at my camp, where I can put it in my trash bag. I was gifted a little toiletry-style bag that a guy had put a leather patch with the man on and sewed a belt loop to it – I wore that on my belt from that point on and declared it my MOOP bag. So yes to what mananabanana says about MOOP shifts – but also, just do it all the time!

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  • Rev says:

    I love the idea that everyone needs to volunteer for at least one shift. Some of my best times were working at Artica and being a greeter at the airport.

    Some people are always going to be idiots, there’s no cure.

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  • Captain Fisher says:

    I had a similar issue. I found myself wondering if a camp with a/c offices and fuel delivery was really what Burning man is about. after some long sunrise chats, the conclusion I came away with was that yes, it is. Just as I can’t imagine bringing a family and kids to the playa, or spending the day sitting out by the airport, I don’t see myself doing it that way. That doesn’t mean that someone who does is doing it wrong.

    That said there is a danger, as you said in condo-izing the playa, or living in a RV wasteland. So what is a burner to do. Just like the real world, I think the danger is in losing the connection, losing the culture that says “of course it is ok to see if this person next to me wants to chat or hold hands”. No one would complain if someone erected a two story a/c watering hole in the middle of the deep playa for you to cool off and gaze at the city. (in fact please someone do this!)

    If there is one thing I trust it is that burners will answer a need, and now I think there is a need. What form will it be answered in? I don’t know. Maybe christmas carolers going RV to RV, or a wacky tour group going neighborhood to neighborhood to see other burners in their natural breeding environment, or maybe in a Blackrock city real estate office that has listings of camps available to crash in, for a steep fee of hugs and compliments. I don’t know, but I know the answer is in tackling the issue as burners, not as rule makers and judges of how the “right way” to do the burn is.

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  • Win"GO" says:

    This was my first year at the burn. I was lucky enough to be introduced to Burning Man through friends who have gone many times. I can’t tell you how valuable it was to have their guidance. I was prepared to honor the 10 principals on my arrival. I do have to say I thought there would be more questions at the gate as to if I was fully prepared to honor those principles. Although I was so jacked up wanting it to begin that someone might have said something. I did join a camp that had minimal requirement to be part of them but I felt our give back was great and the community appreciated us. I know being able to be of service was a key point of my overall experience.

    For the most part everyone is going to come and have their own experience. And even tho a turn key experience is not one I would want. For some people that is pushing their ability to participate higher than they would have in the default world. You can only hope much like myself that they are moved to do more and participate to an even higher level next year.

    Although I do see where the physical layout of some camps felt like compounds that you did not want to disturb. Although I did bring a travel trailer our camp was set up so it allowed the flow of visitors to feel welcomed. I can see where having a wall of motorhomes does not invite that feeling. However, I look at that as a way for me to overcome my own issues abut approaching others.

    I know the key to my experience and participation was in those who guided me. So reaching out to newbies and really sharing with them the amazing stories of how being of service, volunteering, and gifting enhanced our experiences. For myself I really did not fully understand how I could do that. Something as simple as a lavender water sprayer changed my day and provided me a way to give back and interact with others.

    I like some of captain Fishers ideas and might think of some was to incoroprate a neighborhood block party next year. Oh the ideas are flowing. Maybe rotate it around by the hour of the streets. Okay brain storming begin. Just so grateful to have found home and my family. Love all you Burners. (Even the ones locked in your RVs)

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  • MichelleB says:

    How about no sound camps or RV parks between 2 & 6? Stacks o speakers and motorcoaches stay on the Vegas side of town, and the OG that builds art and no longer feels compelled to engage in a week of sleep deprivation stays on the Village side of town. Want to play music all night or stay up doing interactive? Then lets map/encourage that on A and on Esplanade btw 6 & 10. Prefer to shut down by midnight and sleep without getting blasted w noise, then 2-6. Antisocial RV parks confined to their own zone on the 6-10 side so we can avoid them.

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  • RandyP says:

    When I first heard about the turn key camps I was outraged. That just is not the true experience of Burning Man. Then started doing deeper thinking. Ok. There are lots of people that live overseas that just can’t afford to get to the US of A and get transportation, and camp kit and water together for the traditional “Camp on the playa and be self reliant” Ok to those I will give a pass and hug. But why would anyone want to avail themselves of a turn key camp? Ok, many have read the Jack Rabbit Speaks and the survival guides and have the message of ” Go to BRC and prepare to DIE” I imagine many are scared into turn key camps (and to not go) as they have been scared right out of their self reliance. My one and so far only Burn was in 2011. Finances have kept me away since. I have attended to Element11 and enjoy them. Close to a Burning Man but not the week long survival on the playa thing. I was 60 years old at my first Burn but grew up farming in southern Idaho and the conditions did not scare me but I did realize the conditions would be different. Did I follow all of the survival guides advices? Hell no. But I do know they are talking to people from far off areas that have little experience away from 24/7 Starbucks and always connected world.

    Am I rambling yet?

    RVs, now they have their place but we need to get them to realize that the world opens up to them when they place their doors to the street and not their metal backs to the street. Park a few feet away from the street, put out a green rug and some patio furniture. I imagine you will have a much much better time inviting the world to set down a spell with you. I know I do.
    Right now I can still camp and live with no A/C in a few more years, maybe not. I also kept that one survival tip that is never mentioned for BRC. If things get bad. Pack up and go home. It is not worth it to harm yourself and put others in danger or even in distress.

    I do not see us banning Turn Key Camps or RVs they both have their place but we can sure educate them and bring them into the community.

    See you in 2014. Look for me in my teardrop trailer

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  • Juan Ortiz says:

    Hey guys, so as a hopeful burner for the year 2014 I’ve been hard at work studying survival technique, containing my heart palpitations due to the excitement, figuring out what to contribute and how to participate. I’ve already reached out to a theme camp. They’re a really nice group of people who through Facebook have already made me feel part of the culture. I’ve sifted through hours of Burning Man survival videos, art displays, and reactions and I have to admit I feel that I am ready!

    Now to answer your question, I’m going to use my experience as an example. Our themed camp will have a kitchen, showers, and we even have a pretty complete floor plan set up. Now, it’s still pretty early to consider but the camp will be presumably providing food and water. That does not mean that I’ll be taking my Puerto Rican ass to the middle of nowhere, with unpredictable weather, without my essentials. I’ll be amongst the plug and players on the Playa but it won’t stop me from setting up a tent next to strangers, inviting them in for a drink, it won’t mean I’ll be plugged up in my RV, I just want to have a sort of safety blanket for when I go. I’ve never been in such a hostile environment, much less under the influence of all the booze I’ll be drinking! (I’ll finally be 21!)

    I think the best thing that can be done is exactly what you’re doing! Keep writing blogposts and posting videos. I’ve just been converted to the church of Hug Nation literally overnight! (I haven’t been able to sleep for the last 32 hours because of my excitement over Burning Man. Burning Man which is a FRIGGIN’ YEAR FROM NOW!) Not all newbies are doomed to misery at the playa. I’m looking to get my hands dirty with my family but at the end of the day if I feel the conditions are literally detrimental to me or my family’s life, my butt’s going back into the RV!

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  • Joost van de Loo says:

    Maybe this is a projection of my own feelings, but the issue isn’t turnkey camps. It is insecurity.

    Virgins are insecure (I know because I was one this year). Most newbies are overprepared; scared of the “most strikingly beautiful and utterly ethereal locations in the world that will ever try to kill you”. They’re also desperate to fit in.

    But the culture that virgins are trying to fit into is also insecure. Black Rock City is a young city, less than 30 years old. That’s nothing compared to say San Fransisco (237 years), New Orleans (295 years) or Amsterdam (707 years). Compared to these places BRC is like a wild, fresh flower. Beautiful and vulnerable.

    I think this sense of vulnerability is why people are so irriated by the anti-social behaviour of virgins. It feels like these people are threatening our beautiful culture.

    But the solution is NOT more rules, or forced volunteering. That would be stupid, we’d be reacting out of insecurity.

    The solution is to GROW UP, to become more mature as a city and a society.

    Mature cultures are better at dealing with deviant behaviour. It’s probably the main difference between a full-blow religion and a cult, or sect; the ability to deal with differences, criticism and dissent in a relaxed and open way.

    Burning Man needs more satire, more irony, more difficult/critical/uncanny art. We need a more vibrant media, shock jocks, popular philosophers. We need more obnoxious and shocking sub-cultures (BM punks? no!), we need break our own taboos. A debate about the 10 principles? (Is it time to ditch ‘Radical Self-reliance’? yes. no!).

    All this will change the city. But it will be a change for the better. I think it will make Burning Man more confident and more beautiful.

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  • Brody says:

    Thanks for addressing this! I spent much of the event thinking about many of the same things.

    The eternal catch-22 is that the people who will pay attention (to acculturation videos, to newbie presentations, to the survival guide, to the JRS) aren’t the people we really need to reach. The people who most need the acculturation are the ones who are gonna show up for the party who don’t care about the 10 Principles, who don’t care to pay attention to acculturation. I have no idea how to fix that. Maybe someone smarter does- I hope so.

    Newbies used to be acculturated in their camps- every year, camps would have a couple of newbies. Now it’s entire huge camps of newbies. Do we just not have enough veterans to acculturate the flood of newbies? We’ve been running a big percentage of newbies the last few years…has it gone too far towards cultural dilution?

    I noticed that many people didn’t want to talk to strangers this year. It felt like Bourbon Street at Halloween, not Black Rock City, in many places. I hope to do my part to help fix it, but don’t quite know where to start.

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  • frosty says:

    it was my first time at *the* burning man, but have been to two regional burns before in utah, so a little familiar with the 10 principles, the culture, and the people. but the size of BRC and the playa was insane!

    anyways….my first night’s experience was on wednesday, out on the playa, alone (i was so stoked to finally get in left my camp-mates and went out alone). i came with a strong expectation that engaging people on the playa would be easy: a simple “hello”, “check this out, “where you from” and so on, and let the magic happen. sadly the responses were anything but friendly, some bordered on dismissive and/or outright rejection, i stumbled up to awesome art-cars, only to find a rope strung across the entrance, younger groups in tehir 20’s who looked at being engaged by a mid-40’s guys as some creepy things. all-in-all it was sort of a horrible experience, and it really caused me to crash and burn and founder in a pit of self-loathing. where was the “magic” of burning man radical self-expression and inclusion i had been able to experience and love at the regional burns. shouldn’t it be even more radical and more inclusive at the mecca of BRC?!

    oh well… 2 on thursday was different, for the better, and even more so by friday. yes strangers were strangers but as the week went on the ability to share and engage and radically participate jointly seemed to grow stronger by the day, so i left feeling the possibility of what it all could be.

    but i am still haunted by that first day, and hope that when i return i can find a place where more people appreciate and thrive on the fun and randomness that can come from breaking down the barriers and walls.

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  • Grandma Coltrane says:

    Pros and Cons of Turn Key camps.

    My first two years I came with a group of friends from home. We brought all of our supplies and followed all the guidelines set out in the pamphlets, etc. We slept in yurts, ate from camping stoves and did not shower. This year I joined a theme camp that was connected to the center camp power grid. Imagine how shocked I was to know that there even was a power grid! What the fuck? “How is this even Burning Man?” I thought. I almost shit myself when I discovered that my camp had a REFRIGERATOR!!! No ice necessary.

    The thing that made me fall in love with Burning Man my first two years was the idea that we were all stranded out in the desert with only the basics needed for survival and still somehow managed to have the most fun we’d ever had in our lives. I almost died out there so many times that I lost count. We learned to appreciate the little things that we take for granted in our daily lives. I lost weight, got dehydrated, injured myself constantly. It was great. Radical Self reliance was key those years and I really came more in touch with myself and my potential.

    This past year, my experience was so different that I felt like a virgin all over again. I had two hot (and delicious) meals everyday. We even ate fish on Friday. The electricity and the fridge made a big difference. At first I thought to myself “I’m still in the default world. Dammit!” Later on in the week I came to realize the benefits of such a set up. Not worrying so much about daily survival and comfort really allowed all of us at the camp to focus on each other. Radical Self Reliance was out the window and it made room for a greater emphasis on Radical Inclusion and Self Expression. The people that I was with this year were all strangers that I had never met before and by the end of the week I felt closer to some of them than I did my friends from back home that I came with the first two years.

    My point is this: both experiences are great ones to have at Burning Man, and I’m glad that I did them both in the order that I did. Turn key camps are great, but I feel they are an experience that MUST BE EARNED by at least one year of living out of your car and constantly getting ice so your food won’t spoil. If there was a way to make virgin burners do it this way and earn the right to live in a more luxurious camp I think that would be ideal. Virgins that start out in these luxury camps and never leave aren’t fully actualized burners in my opinion. They are missing the one basic idea that is key to Burning Man: YOU COULD FUCKING DIE OUT THERE. That is what makes everything else about it so sweet.

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  • TranquilityPeace says:

    There will always be burners who are participants, who love the burner ethos and strive to live the 10 principles in their default worlds as well as at home on the playa.
    There will always be burners who are spectators, who show up to be entertained for a finite period and then return to their ‘normal’ lives.
    There will always be burners who are somewhere in the middle, intrigued and excited by burner ideology, wanting to contribute in some meaningful way, but not quite secure enough to fully embrace it all, or not quite able to imagine just exactly how to fit it all together.
    The beauty, to me, is that there really is no ‘wrong’ way to burn. Just because you are unlike me does not mean we are divided by mythological walls. Just because I built a yurt and you rented an RV does not mean I am better than you. Just because you gifted the community with amazing, insightful art and I gifted four Rangers with hugs does not mean you are better than me.
    We are human. We are fallible. We are burners.

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  • Bubble McLeist says:

    Love the volunteering idea!! This will be my first burn and I wish I could be invited to help out. I realize if we did that with everyone you would get some major reliability issues with some people…but still…lemme in! :)

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  • Storm says:

    I’ll be avirgin this year. First time. Travelling in from overseas (Aus). I’ve wanted to go to Burningman for years and am finally doing it! But guys. I’m going to have to go RV… The alternative is buying all the camping equipment and then gifting it away afterwards… Just too hard to pull together. I get that perhaps we won’t be well received. We’re mid 40s so I guess that might be an issue as well, but geez, I love an adventure, a party, a hug. I love the idea of a welcome mat – we’ll do that. Always good for a chat, a dance, a welcome. Live colour and delight. Will lend a hand and be friendly and smile. If you’re there, say g’day. We might be in an Rv, be a little dazed and confused. But we will participate, explore and live it as much as we can (and as much as we’re welcomed in…). Cheers!

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