Burning Man is an annual event where a temporary city of 70,000 people is built in the middle of nowhere Nevada desert: Black Rock City.  This experimental society has its own rules, principles, and traditions.  The grounds are called the playa and the city’s grid is set up to mimic a clock.  Every year, thousands of people come to the playa months before the event to start setting up this complex city with roads, art, civic centers, buildings, neighborhoods, and camps.  And every year thousands of people work for months to remove all trace that the event ever took place.  “Leave no trace” could not be taken more literally: after the event is over, the only thing left in the desert is dirt.  Nothing is polluted onto the playa, not even water.  All participants bring everything they need to survive with them and they take everything away– water, trash, waste water, everything.

Burning Man is not a festival; it’s an experimental temporary society.

Pictured: (left) @wildbythemile and (right) @vacayvans

There is art, music, workshops, bicycles, classes, alcohol, drugs, food, sex, love, friends, and community, all on a bed of flat endless sand that is so thin it becomes dust with the tiniest gust of wind.  The dust is alkaline and destroys everything.  Burners bring Mad Max-style goggles and scarves with them everywhere in case of the inevitable dust storm.

The book of scheduled events is full of hundreds of classes and seminars about sexuality, spirituality, activities, connection, fears, dreams, goals, addiction, loss, and everything in between.  There is literally a group, camp, or event for everyone.  There are sex camps, there’s a Mormon camp, there are camps of people who dress like vampires and talk like pirates.  Each camp is 100% self-sufficient.  There is no cell service and photography is limited, so no one is walking around looking at their phone.  There are no cars on the playa except for “art cars,” magical creations full of lights that carry people across the playa playing electronica jams and often serving alcohol.  Citizens travel the playa on bicycles.  There is no money exchanged on the playa (the only two things you can buy are coffee and ice in the center camp).  Citizens operate on a gifting principle– some camps gift alcohol, some camps gift food (the MISO camp gifts 4,000 bowls of ramen each year!), some citizens gift their skills by teaching classes/seminars in their area of expertise, some make necklaces and give them to the people they connect with most throughout the week.  This is not a barter, there is no expectation of anything in exchange for a gift.  The gifters are all selfless volunteers who work tirelessly to create this incredible one-of-a-kind experience.

There is a DMV (Department of Mutant Vehicles) that registers the art cars. There are medical centers (with real medical staff). There are Rangers who are the type of police we all love “default world”– they are not looking for people doing anything wrong, they are 100% there to help and support the citizens of Black Rock City.  Actual police are called in cases of domestic dispute or sexual assault, but otherwise, the Rangers just use their natural peacemaking skills to help people in need.

People go by their playa names, rather than their regular name in “default world.”  It’s interesting to see how people choose to dress in this world: Mad Max vibes, long colorful braids, kilts, rainbows, wigs, neon, crazy hats, tights, makeup. Men dress feminine in Black Rock City. It makes me wonder if men wish they always could dress this colorful and expressive.  It makes me wonder why they don’t do this in “default world.”

Many people hardly dress at all.  I saw more breasts and penises at Black Rock City than I have in my entire life.  Pasties are considered clothing.  There are no lights at night except for the art and art cars, so everyone must cover themselves and their bike in LED lights or they risk being labeled a “dark wad” and criticized by the veteran Burner community.

Burning Man wasn’t rooted in the hippy mentality of peace and love; Burning Man was rooted in societal anarchy. Peace and love is everywhere, but so is screwing with people– “fuck your burn.”  Black Rock City is where people go to be whoever and do whatever they please.  It is reinvention and creation, it is going with your gut and authentically connecting with each other and the immediate experience.

In short, Burning Man is a lot like Vanlife.

My virgin Burning Man experience was epic.

When I arrived at Black Rock City, I immediately realized that everyone looked a lot like me.  I was surrounded by people with purple hair who were living in their vans.  But for them, it was temporary dye and a temporary home for the week.  When I explained to people that this was how I look and live in “default” world, they were shocked.

My first experience playing on the playa was a little more like “girls gone wild” than a spiritual awakening: I had sex with everyone and took all the drugs.  But Burning Man is a lot more than sex and drugs.  It’s a world where you look and dress however you want, reject societal norms, follow your heart, and open up to whatever the universe holds for you.

On my first night, I asked a veteran burner for advice.  She said: go with the flow, say yes, don’t try to see everything, and follow your instincts. My first thought: I’m already in this mode.  Since starting my vanlife adventure, I’m visually expressive (fuchsia hair), I don’t have a plan, I say yes, and being in the present moment has resulted in some incredible one-of-a-kind experiences.  At Burning Man, everyone is in this mode.  It’s a world full of figurative (and often literal) vanlifers.

The week was like vanlife on steroids for me. I saw art that blew my mind and had conversations that inspired me to my core.  I cried a dozen times.  I cried in a Red Tantra class staring into the eyes of a new lover.  I cried at every ceremony.  I cried in casual conversations with new friends.  I met a captivating “playamate” and spent most of the week with him.  I went to the Orgy Dome.  I had sex in the middle of the playa at night as thousands of people rode by on their bicycles.  I did sun salutations as the sun rose over the trash fence at the edge of the playa.  I rode my bicycle miles and miles and miles.  I danced and danced and danced.  I tried acid for the first time.

Burning Man art is made for acid. Acid didn’t make me feel weird; acid made everything on the playa make perfect sense. The once-solid birdhouse structure became a moving stepping breathing bird machine. It had to be built for an acid trip. It was just too perfect.

Me to @joemcfluff (just a friend– not my playamate): “How much of this birdhouse is actually moving and how much is in my mind?”

@joemcfluff (slightly concerned): “Nothing is moving.”

Riding my bicycle through the flat never ending desert was like a movie, everyone with their crazy colorful costumes became characters in my visual cartoon world. Burning Man made the most sense on acid. I told everyone I met that it was my first Burn, first day of Burning Man, and first acid trip.  I made a lot of friends.  The playa is a very open place.

Burning Man is all about ceremony and tradition. At the end of the week, some of the art was burnt.  On Saturday night, the Man burns.  The Man is one of the only consistent structures on the playa.  Designed by a different architect each year, the structure is built to burn.  The burning is a celebratory event with fireworks, explosives, and partying.  It’s the New Years celebration at Black Rock City.  It’s the time to release to old and embrace a new start.  People wish each other “Happy New Year.”

On Sunday night, the Temple burns.  The Temple is the other consistent place on the playa: it is a spiritual place for citizens to go to honor lost loved ones and to release whatever is bringing them down.  The energy at the Temple is palpable.  It is covered with photos of people who have died and notes to these lost loved ones.  Everyone is crying, moaning, praying, singing.  It was a beautiful, painful place.

I could have stayed in the Temple for hours.  I wrote notes to my mom all over the Temple: “Mom, I’m ok.”  “Mom, I miss you.”  “Mom, I’m so angry you were taken from me.”  I left a pile of paperwork from the lawsuit filed by my ex-boyfriend over the van (which has now been resolved): “I am sorry for how I hurt you.  I forgive you.  I release you.  Thank you for being a human in my life.”  I stared at the ashes of the burnt Temple for hours (not on drugs, for the record).  It was incredibly heartbreaking and uplifting.  I felt freer after the burn.

Burning Man is all about reinvention and impermanence.  The art is impermanent, the Man and the Temple burn down to ashes, the slate is cleared for a new year, a new you.

I am a citizen of Black Rock City and that was my freshman year.  I can not wait to see how I grow and learn from now until I return as a sophomore in 2019.  Fuck your burn.

- Vacay Vans
Vacay Vans author Vacay Vans
Vacay Vans is the brainchild of Lisa Miriam Jacobs, a lawyer, LEED sustainable interior designer, alternative lifestyle enthusiast, and storyteller. Lisa lives and travels solo full-time in her 2012 Nissan NV2500 converted camper van named Freebird.

Follow along on Instagram: instagram.com/vacayvans/

22 thoughts on “What Happens When Vanlife meets Burning Man Life

  1. Hi Lisa your writing really touched my heart. You have very pure heart because after all the things you facec, you forgave. You are AMAZING and I’m a big fan of you and I hope I cann meet you😊

    1. Thank you so much Faisal! Watching the Temple burn in silence with tens of thousands of people filled with emotion and intention was really incredible. I’m grateful that this is an integral part of Burning Man!!

  2. Hi! I met you at the van festival in San Jose a month ago. You have done such a great job summarizing what my first burn felt like too. I felt like there were so many firsts during this week. I tripped on acid for the first time as well and completely agree with you that this place was the perfect place for it! I’m so glad you had a great time!

  3. Loved reading your piece Lisa! I’ve always wanted to know more about what burning man actually is and this really makes me feel like I was there with you! I’m so glad you found your bliss and are getting to explore this big wide world!!! <3 Much love xox

  4. I never heard of Burning Man but found your experience very interesting. Curious what your expectations as a women were and if you stayed with the other women for protection. I admire your honestly about sex and drugs especially being a lawyer. I would think it would have been intimidating to be with you considering you might reconsider and take legal action. Your honesty and openness are refreshing and I enjoy following your blogs and Instagram. Best wishes!

    1. Thanks for reading and for this comment! A couple things:

      1) I’ll share more in the future but for now I just want to say that I have never sued anyone. I was not the one who initiated this conflict and I am so so grateful it is over and that it ended in my favor. The most important thing I’ve learned as a lawyer is that lawsuits are the WORST and you should avoid them at all costs.

      2) I am not afraid in Black Rock City, much like I am not afraid traversing the country on my own in a van. If I was afraid to travel alone, I would have a life with very limited experiences!! And that would be very boring.

      It’s so interesting because I get asked this ALL the time, but I really don’t consider my gender when it comes to safety. I think my small stature is more of an issue than my gender when it comes to safety. The only place I ever felt legitimately unsafe was in Rio De Janeiro when I spent a summer there in 2009. Rio can be a scary dangerous place, regardless of your gender.

      Yes, anything can happen and it’s very important to trust your instincts. That said, I think you find what you’re looking for in this world– if you believe that people are good and there to help, you will find good people. I haven’t met anyone who made me feel unsafe on the road.

      Thanks for following & commenting!! 🙂

  5. As I sit at my desk, at my 9:00-5:00 single mother of a 14 year old, and read your blogs, and look at your Instagram. I am so envious of all the amazing things you get to see and do. I thank you for allowing all your supporters to watch your experience. I honestly started following you when you were at the City of Rocks, near Silver City, that is when I wanted to see what new adventure you are doing each day, and where you are, and wondering why you were having to go back to Austin. Your journey is amazing, and I am so glad to be a piece of dust in the universe along for your ride. Burning man sounds AMAZING, a new addition to bucket list. Positive vibes, and safe travels.

    1. Sue! This comment brought tears to my eyes. It’s incredible to think that we’ve been on this journey together– City of Rocks feels like forever ago! I’m so grateful to have you in my corner and supporting me in this wild, digital world. I’m happy that you’ve added Burning Man to your bucket list. Hopefully we can connect on the road sometime and we can mutually share stories of life, love, and travel! You have so many adventures ahead of you! 🙂 <3

  6. That was a great blog about your freshman trip! I can’t wait to read this to a few of my friends!! I think “Fuck your burn”is my new Aloha!!

  7. You’re such an inspiration! I also had a lot of negative thoughts about burning man but after meeting one friend whom I’ve fallen in love with and opening my heart to the experience she has lauded as life-changing, I’ll be excited to attend next year for my first time. Thanks so much for this very detailed summary! It helps so much and I’m more excited than ever to become a part of this incredible community and hopefully help contribute to the beauty of the burn! Hopefully I’ll see you there!! I’m a huge fan! (Actually I’m just going to make a point of it…bet on that) <3

    1. Thanks so much for reading and I’m so excited for you to experience Black Rock City next year! Hopefully the playa will allow for us to connect! I’m talking to a few vanlifers about having a Vanlife Q&A session there next year– stay tuned! <3 <3

    1. Haha…I’m getting a lot of messages about this! He’s not the guy in the photo, that was just a friend. I’ll be sharing more about him on Instagram, if all goes to plan 🙂

  8. Sounds like an awesome experience! I should check out Black Rock in 2019 too.

    Not sure if you have plans for October yet, but there is a really great festival you’d fit in with in Arkansas that I am going to. Hillberry is the name of it. Kind of just a happy happy wonderland with camping, music into the early morning and just cool art and experiences.

    Glad you had a good acid experience, that’s one of my favorites for sure! Planning to have quite the trip for the weekend of that festival. If you end up being able to make it out to this area, shoot me an email. We would absolutely accept another into our camp. Always looking for more like minded people to add to the tribe.

    1. Thanks for reading and thanks for the invite! I’ll be on the west coast October but I definitely hope to get to the eastern side of the US next year! Have a blast at that fest– it sounds rad!

  9. Hi,
    I was recently talking about Burning Man being on our separate bucket lists with some friends of mine. Thanks for sharing your story! Very inspiring.

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