Business in Black Rock City: Best Practices of the Playa

At first there were wild horses, then there were Indian tribes…but beyond the last turn, loosely marked by a dusty sign there was nothing but sand and sky.  The horizon line was low.  Most of the view was blue, then amber and finally black.

This night was void of stars, void of warmth and void of all sound except my tires on the pavement.  There’s nothing like being alone.  I was completely alone and in want of wonder.

I got cold, I got lonely and the drive got long.  I pulled over to check my map.  It began to seem as though I was lost; the road that had carved out a path across the desert was at last but sand beneath my toes.  I wasn’t sure if that meant I was close or not.

Another 20 minutes of my anxiety mounting, I saw a sparkling palace, a flaming tower, flowers two stories tall, a giant, a tipi village and series of gates guarded by a skipping army.  They took my ticket, searched my car, asked me if I had weapons or drugs and drug me out of my car so I could dance and meet the dust.

They told me they loved me.  I thanked them.  As I pulled forward they yelled, “WELCOME HOME!”

All I could think was, “What am I doing here?”

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The lights were so colorful and the music just got louder.  There would be no turning around because there are few things I love as much as my cousin.  He was waiting for me, somewhere.  I needed to find him.

Although he had been a burner for many years at this point, (well known on the playa as, “Weld,” an integral member of Camp Overkill), the closer I got to the flames the more I thought he might need me to save him.

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The first person I met spoke Spanish.  The second person I met spoke Portuguese.  The third person I met spoke French.  None of the people I met for the first 20 minutes spoke English.  The one word I thought they might know was my cousins’ name.

None of them knew my cousin by his first name and I had never known him as his Playa name. Who’s, Weld? But, all of them hugged me against my will. I felt a strange, dizzying sense of discomfort.  I was cold.  It went against every instinct I had to let strangers into my personal space.

This was my first trip post-divorce after 7 years of marriage.  I did not want anyone to touch me, let alone hug me.  I had cut my long blonde hair off to my chin and dyed it brown because my ex-husband had mentioned it was what he liked most about me a few days prior.

It was an emotional time and I needed my cousin to share his global perspective/overwhelming optimism.  But I couldn’t find him; I spent the first 12 hours with people I had never met from 7 different countries.

We sat around camp making braided bracelets and stomping.  Like elephants shaking the ground to electronic music at ear splitting volumes, we motioned in the manner of every stereotypical stinky festival hippie you are imagining right now.  Just like that.

The irony came later when I learned they were accountants, doctors and lawyers with LinkedIn profiles and active practices.  They knew nothing about my past or my present and they didn’t care to.  All they cared about was “positive energy and enjoying the night.”

I realize how that sounds, but I assure you it was PG 13.  They gave me their blankets, sincere smiles and an experience I will never forget.  They fed me, made me a bed of sleeping bags and roll out mattresses and asked for nothing in return.

When the sun came up my cousin had found me.  He hovered over me and gave me a noogie, which has been his customary greeting since we were kids.  Growing up I had witnessed his strict education, daily violin lessons and an organic sugar free diet.  My mom let him watch ninja turtles and eat candy, but it was a rare indulgence.

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As my eyes focused he was barely recognizable in his feathered Mohawk, bracelets and boots.  He had come with two bikes which he insisted we were taking for an afternoon tour of the town.  It had been at least ten years since my last leisurely bike ride.  Beyond that, I like agendas and it makes me uncomfortable to waste time.

At some point he had said, “…wait here, I’ll be right back.”  He did not come right back.

The sun was directly overhead, I had a throbbing headache and after about an hour on a bike I didn’t care how nice the people were.  I missed my son.  The luster of last night’s camp out had worn away.  I waited in line for two hours with weirdo’s wielding swords and wearing face masks to place a phone call home.

A man wearing a leather loin cloth clutched his journal and asked me a series of what I considered to be invasive questions like, “… and how old were you the first time you fell in love?”

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I needed to talk to someone normal but all I got was a VM machine.  Feeling defeated and ready to faint, I was once again skeptical.  The hotter it got I was increasingly convinced that this place was hell.

In elementary school we had played the dos version of a game called the Oregon Trail wherein you were lucky if you got your whole family to the West coast without dying of disease or famine, without being crushed by the wagon while crossing the river, without being eaten by wolves, that sort of thing.

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That particular morning as I bartered for basics and thanked the lord for shade and shelter, I realized we were all playing the real life version of Oregon Trail.  We had traveled long distances and paid to do so.  With fear and fascination I came to understand this wasn’t camping, it was surviving.

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At some point I realized this was also the case for the 51,514 other people in attendance.  We would all be relying on charisma and outrunning our cowardice.  We would need to build relationships and depend on each other.

When the dust storms swept across the surface of the desert, scraping our faces and blocking our view of anything beyond the two feet in front of us; I came to learn we would huddle up together. Before even knowing what I might need, someone walking by would share their goggles.  Someone would cover my head with their scarves and someone would stand there to hold my hand until I got wherever I was going.

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A giant tanker truck drove by, spraying a long stream of followers with fresh water and turning the dust in its path to clay.  It was just enough to relieve me of my fever/dehydration and relax me.

I studied the soil; I studied the sky, stopped myself and studied the faces of strangers.  It had been a tough year, this was a tough day.  I got back on the bike.

Our first exchange was at a camp serving hash browns and pancakes to anyone that wanted them until they ran out.  A few feet further I got a bag of ice and a glass of water from another camp of strangers.  I gave them my bracelets from the night before and was beyond grateful.  I was so thirsty.

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Day and night I saw the sights atop a giant angler fish art car my cousin and his friends had created, called the fish tank.

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Some of the time we took the pirate ship across the sand, watching waves of people pass by.  The art cars circled past and in moments my reality was a day dream shared with people driving polar bears and holding on to the tentacles of giant jellyfish.

ImageThere were dragons.

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And men from the stone-age.

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Things get icky quickly under such conditions.  I had to make more of my own clothes.  I had to improvise.  And, yes…I am wearing shorts in this photo.

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At this point in my life I questioned if love really existed.  I wondered if monogamy was extinct like the dinosaurs or just endangered like leopards.  And there in the desert, I stood confronted by a 40 foot tall testament to love.  

Bliss Dance, by Marco Cochrane was made of hand welded struts, covered in steel mesh skin and she lit up beautifully in an incredible array of alternating rainbow colors.

I spent an hour sitting under her, reflecting on my life, in awe.  She was the most beautiful art piece I’ve ever seen.  She was a grand gesture in honor of a loved woman.  She gave me hope. 

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When I left that spot I wandered over to a place I had avoided the rest of the time.  It was called, “the temple,” a title odd enough to keep me out of it.  I don’t know why I walked there.

What I found inside was raw and unfiltered.  It was pain and joy and every experience that had shaken the souls that passed through it written all over the walls.  People had penned letters to children lost in tragic accidents and to parents whose lives had been lost to diseases.  There were apologies, there were notes of gratitude and there were promises.  I read proclamations from people all over the world wanting to live better lives.

Willing there to be good in their lives, they let everything go on the walls of the temple. It shocked me.  It made me sad.  It made me so happy.

In those short days, I experienced the full spectrum of human emotion.  My beliefs and schema’s were challenged.  I was confronted by myself.  By the time I left, I had embraced the Ten Principles of Burning Man.

That was 3 years ago, but 3 days ago it ended again for over 61,000 people who may or may not have known they needed it. As they come back to reality, to work and to home, they will incorporate what they learned…some more consciously than others.

Since 2010, I have made an effort to translate the below best practices from the Playa into best practices for my business. I encourage you to read them.

How can you implement these?

How will these principles improve upon the impact you make on the people you serve?

Ten Principles of Burning Man (as provided by the Burning Man website)

Burning Man Founder Larry Harvey wrote the Ten Principles in 2004 as guidelines for the newly-formed Regionals Network. They were crafted not as a dictate of how people should be and act, but as a reflection of the community’s ethos and culture as it had organically developed since the event’s inception.

Radical Inclusion
Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.

Gifting
Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.

Decommodification
In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.

Radical Self-reliance
Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.

Radical Self-expression
Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.

Communal Effort
Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration. We strive to produce, promote and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction.

Civic Responsibility
We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws.

Leaving No Trace
Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them.

Participation
Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart.

Immediacy
Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value in our culture. We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience.

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