My First Burn, part 3


I sleep well and wake up with sun high in the sky again. It’s probably 9am. I head to the pottie and end up leaving my water bottle there by mistake.

KennyReff2012-49On the way back to my tent, I come across Terry, the parasail biker, and the breakfast scene he mentioned to me. I stop by to say hi and they load me up with eggs, sausage and home fries. These guys look really straight. They’re not wearing skirts or wild scarfs. But it turns out they are long time burners and at least two are gay.

One of them is waiting for the water truck that comes along every morning to spray down the dirt roads in an effort to tamp down the dust. The conversation turns to something else before I get a chance to ask him why he’s interested in the water truck.

An couple of hours later I am ready to leave the breakfast group, but I remember my water bottle and head back to the potties. I don’t have much hope. It’s been a long time since I left it there, and this is a nice water bottle in a place where water is currency. But there it is, sitting right outside the pottie I used. Someone had placed it there after seeing it inside.

On the way back to my tent, I see the breakfast guy running after the water truck butt naked. The spray coming off the back of the truck is huge, and he’s getting a shower! I love this community!

It’s noon before I finally have my coffee and sit down to write this. I also start a list of what worked and what things I would change for next time. I know there will certainly be a next time.

To kill time under the shade during the high sun, I spend the next few hours bathing, cleansing, and reading about the communities and art installations. I also move the shade shelter to more directly line up with the rising sun so the tent will be protected even longer.

KennyReff2012-50It’s 4pm when I’m ready to head out. I consider leaving for the rest of the day and into the evening, but I can’t possibly dress for the day and night at the same time. Even though the sun will setting in about two hours, it must still be 100, but the humidity is probably just 5 or 10 percent. Still, it’s hot. I decide to venture out, but not go too far, then come back before sunset to change so I get an earlier start tonight. The big art burns happen tonight around 9pm.

After hanging out naked all day, I dress in the same outfit as yesterday. A short blue skirt and sleeveless blue blouse, along with a bandana and head scarf, each soaked with water. It might be 100 degrees, but I feel great. The water-soaked material cools me with every brush of the breeze.

As I bike into town I pass a camp with a bucket of huge oranges in ice water outside for the taking. I grab an ice cold orange and head to something they call Media Mecca. This is the camp for professional journalists and photographers.

KennyReff2012-51I talk to Alan, who shoots video for the Burning Man organization, and as we talk and walk around, he’s shooting live through a WiFi connection. Of course they have a bar, so I get the one drink they’re making – some kind of combination of vodka, energy drink and citrus. I ask for a knife to cut my orange and give some of the slices away. The music and energy here is cool. Then, in the middle of this rather laid back scene, Census workers storm in pretending to take prisoners, and pasting census stickers on everyone, promoting all to do the census.

I have another drink and talk to a young guy shooting with a Nikon and a very large lens. We discuss what fun it is to shoot at Burning Man, but I tell him I feel like I’m working when I shoot at a place where I should be having fun. He says shooting is what brings us joy, and to embrace that. He’s right; I decide to embrace it, head to Center Camp and really enjoy myself taking shots throughout. I’m cool with shooting now! Thanks for that gift, dude!

KennyReff2012-72Once again, it’s an amazing scene at Center Camp. Gymnasts, artists, musicians, all doing their thing. Others, taking it all in, or just chilling out.

I bike back to camp as the sun is setting and a close-to-full moon is rising. Man, is it a beautiful night! The air is a perfect temperature, there is no wind and the sky is crystal clear. I put up Santa Fe Rice and Beans and turn on Pink Floyd’s Echos. I watch the moon rise to the soundtrack of Meddle while filling my tummy. It’s a truly beautiful moment.


I take in the scene for some time, but not for too long. Need to do a quick turnaround to head out to the playa for the art burn. This is the night when all the art that surrounds the Man is burned at the same time. Ten minutes after I arrive, they are set ablaze. It is an amazing sight! There must be 20 simultaneous burns and the heat is intense. An hour later, the art still burning, but they are mostly collapsed and turning to embers. I move on.

I bike up the Esplanade between 2:00 and 4:00 and visit dance club after dance club, loud bass booming throughout. I visit a couple of bonafide art galleries, including a live painting in progress. The artist’s digital work being projected on a large screen, a hundred people watching quietly as he performs his magic on a portrait of a woman. He’s truly amazing, and it’s fascinating to watch him at work. I am impressed at how quiet it is in this large tent, everyone intently watching his every digital stroke on the projection.

KennyReff2012-53I next head into the French Quarter, where the architecture, coffee and pastries echo Paris. Even though its 2am, theres no decaf, only the real stuff. Oh well, I take a cup anyway. People here are largely in conversation, sitting around outdoor tables under the moonlight on this cool, calm evening. Coffee does that, I suppose.

I start to bike home, but then spy a really inviting geodesic dome. It’s covered in fabric and inside, among the artwork, candles and tapestries, is a full bar. It is adorned with small sculptures and pieces of art. And the bottles of top shelf liquor are just as impressive. I take a Baileys on the rocks and a bowl of pasta. It may not be a typical pairing, but I couldn’t help but indulge.

Another hour goes by, and I am finally approaching camp. Then, I think I see a flash of lightening. Sure enough, 30 minutes later it is raining! But before the rain begins, a couple gets to make love out on the desert floor, groans filling the otherwise quiet night. They leave before the brief rain hits and I fall asleep in the peaceful night air.


KennyReff2012-54I wake up cool, sun high in the sky. The new placement of the shade shelter has worked well. I have coffee and talk for some time with my neighbor who is a full time volunteer for Burning Man. His playa name is Trancer. We talk about tent construction and how it’s challenging to come here by plane. He’s impressed with my setup for a birgin, the term for virgin burners.

I walk over to Terry’s place again for a breakfast of eggs, sausage and home fries, and end up spending three hours there. A variety of people come and go during the time. Turns out their core group is not organized. They were just neighbors in years past and now keep coming back to camp together.

KennyReff2012-55Hank, about 30, has been living on a houseboat in Sausalito for ten years and we talk about that scene. Eliana reads my Oracle cards, which are like Tarot cards, but based on animals. She says my daughter, Melissa, may act out of anger in the future, but that I should have faith in her higher consciousness for things to work out well. For the two hours Eliana has been with us, she has been crafting necklaces out of polished stones and copper wire. As she gets ready to leave, she hands a necklace to each of us, with a special stone chosen for each person. Mine is Tiger’s Eye.

Eric catches the water truck again, running down the street butt naked, getting his morning shower.

I reflect on how well my birgin experience is going. I love camping so modestly, in such a beautiful and quiet space, just minutes from the most intense city I have ever visited. I love meeting the people I’ve met, and the conversations we’ve had. I love the art, the music and the dancing.

It is midKennyReff2012-56 afternoon before I bike into town. After a short time, I come across a rather small geodesic dome with a sign saying “Cirque du Cliche”. I accept a vodka drink made with real Rose’s Lime! The band is awesome. In this tiny space are two drummers, congas, keyboards, upright bass, guitar and a vocals. It feels like I’ve stepped into a Grateful Dead jam session at Jerry Garcia’s house. For this, I shoot a some video with my little camera. I stay a full hour, appreciating the mesmerizing scene.

I exit the tent into a total whiteout, don my goggles and bandana, and bike along. Barely two minutes goes by when I hear middle eastern music coming from a large fabric tent. I duck inside to get out of the sandstorm and find myself in a Arabian Casbah with belly dancing and rum drinks. I hang there for a while, trying to wait out the storm but it’s not letting up. I finally head to Center Camp for a coffee, but the dust is blowing so much, even inside, that goggles are required.

I leave and decide to hunker down in the jazz cafe. Inside, there is a jazz drumming seminar going on. After the seminar, some other musicians join the drummer and they start playing, but I gotta head back to camp.  By the time I get to my tent, I have been totally baptized in playa dust.

I get it now.

With the storm still raging, I get in my tent and remove the sheet that is covering everything. I am so happy to see that it worked! Inside, I do a vinegar bath on my hands and feet. I cream up with lotion and don white socks to protect the lotion treatment. I put up a pot of Hash Brown Reds and Greens and enjoy some dinner. After a time, I get dressed for the night and head out into the raging sand storm once again to see Burn Wall Street actually burn.

KennyReff2012-57When I arrive, at I learn the burn has been postponed due to the extremely high winds. I also hear that it’s going to be more of an explosion than a burn, with real dynamite. To placate the huge crowd that has gathered, they burn a large art piece. It begins with fireworks shooting out from its base, then two red points at the top begin to blaze and you realize they’re the sculpture’s eyes. The fireworks continue as the whole thing ignites in flames, then crumbles.

Afterward, as I turn to leave, I realize we’ve been encircled by the largest of the art cars which have been blocking the wind. As I pass by them on my bike, the full force of the storm hits me again. I can’t even see the ring of camps on the Esplanade. But I can see the Man, and from that reference point, kind of have a sense of which way I’m heading. It’s wild… when I look up, I see a clear sky and a bright, beautiful moon. But when I look horizontally, it’s a total white out. I cannot see more than 10 feet in front of me.

This environment is so totally surreal. My eyes are protected by ski goggles, I am breathing through a bandana, and I am biking into an unknowable future. Other bikers criss-cross my path, revealing their EL wire and other lights just in time to avoid colliding with me. The intensity of the storm makes me appreciate the calm and beautiful times on the playa all the more. Probably a lot like life itself.

I head straight to the Jazz Cafe, which has become my sanctuary. It gives good shelter, relatively speaking, but it’s still incredibly dusty inside. I take a flash photo of the band and the dust is captured in the image so pervasively that you can’t even see the musicians. No more flash photos. I hang there for the rest of the evening, sitting on the floor in a prime spot near the band. Over time, a parade of people come and go next to me, each time bringing with them an interesting conversation.

Hours later, I’ve consumed three of their specialty Irish Coffees. My throat is starting to bother me from the dust of the day and night, and I’m out of water. Time to bike back to camp.

The ride back is hard. The sandstorm is still raging and I’m peddling against 40 MPH winds the entire time. But I finally make it and collapse in the tent. Then I realize I’m a little hungry and really in the mood for a sweet. I also realize it’s Friday and I haven’t had even one of my deserts yet! I boil a cup of water, add it to my freeze-dried package, and 10 minutes later I am enjoying peach cobbler. Yum! I eat it up, batten down the hatches, and pass out.


I wake up just as the sun is rising to go pee. The storm is over and it’s a beautiful sunrise. I get back in the tent, put my sleeping shades on and go back to sleep. Next thing I know, the sun is really high in the sky. It’s 10am. I am so proud of myself that the shading system is working so well! I get up and do my floor exercises butt naked on my mat out in the sun. It feels just great! I put up a pot of coffee and listen to the Grateful Dead as I savor the drink and stare out at the desert mountains.

Today is the last full day of my first Burning Man. I’m looking forward to checking out more music and art today, and if the winds stay calm, tonight ought be amazing. Not only does the Man burn, but they may also explode Burn Wall Street. Trancer tells me that last night, at around 3am in the middle of the sandstorm, he saw the pyro team laying the fireworks and explosives all around and through the Man. It should be an incredible burn.

Because it’s my last day, I head out earlier than usual today, about noon. The first thing I encounter is an absolute triumph of mobile dance engineering… Playa One.

KennyReff2012-58It is a take-off on Air Force One, but the logo says it from the Altered States of America. This mutant vehicle, made of brushed aluminum and steel, is a masterpiece. Two levels hold passengers, with a third level for the DJ and his dancers.

KennyReff2012-59It has telescoping wings that become dance platforms when lowered and serve as exhibitionist dance perches when folded up. The sound system is incredible; loud, but with perfect fidelity. It moves slowly along the playa, offering an incredible dance experience and view of the city at the same time. I’m told by one of the team that it was financed by a Silicon Valley venture capitalist and cost $330,000. I travel on Playa One for about 90 minutes, getting a tour of the city and dancing up a storm.


Then, it’s on to a series of small bars and dance tents for the next few hours.  As the sun gets lower in the sky, I wait in a 30 minute line to climb the Malmart dance structure, about five or six stories high. The day is as perfect as yesterday was challenging.

KennyReff2012-61Up at the top, for the first time, I can see the true expanse of the city and the playa. Camps stretch for miles all around me, and I can even see the artwork beyond the Temple out in the deep playa. It’s calm and the air is crystal clear.

I bike back to take in the sunset at my camp and have dinner. An hour later, I’m dressed for the evening and biking out to the Man.

KennyReff2012-69As I approach, I see all the art cars and mutant vehicles of the city encircling the Man. I suspect most of the 52,000 residents are there, but because of the large expanse, it’s not too crowded. As sound systems from the mutant vehicles blast various bass beats, hundreds of fire performers dance with torches. Hula hoop torches, flame throwers, fire jugglers and more. The thunderous bass beats from the art cars never sync up. It sounds like a hundred tribes pounding out their personal rhythms.

KennyReff2012-62Finally, sparks begin on the Man. Fireworks erupts as pyrotechnics explode at its base. The Man is ablaze and you can feel the heat. Then, a huge explosion and a ball of flame engulf the entire four-story structure. The crowd cheers.

Actual tornadoes of debris-laden fire emanate from the intense heat and head downwind, passing right through firefighters in full protective gear. It is an incredible scene, unlike anything I have ever witnessed.

KennyReff2012-63No one moves for more than an hour as this beautiful, intricate wood structure is decimated right before our eyes. What is the significance of all this destruction? We’re each left to decide that on our own.

KennyReff2012-64Finally, the last pieces of the structure fall. By the time I leave, a monument that took 90 people a full month to build has been reduced to a small pile of burning embers.

I slowly walk my bike out of the crowd and peddle toward the city. It is a serene, beautiful night. What am I in the mood for now? Something calm. So I head again to the Jazz Cafe. I walk up to the bar, get an Irish Coffee, and sit down in one of the last chairs left. The band is playing a John Coltrane tune as the audience reclines on couches, bean bag chairs and rugs on the floor. Many have their eyes closed.

After a few tunes, a slender young lady walks up to a small area in front of the band and begins to do a hula hoop dance. The hoop has LEDs embedded in it, and as it twirls, the lights blur and create trails. I remark to a neighbor how it reminds me of some altered state from long ago, and I’m met with a knowing smile. The dancer is terrific. Mesmerizing. She steals the show for two songs, then departs.

As she leaves, the horn player says with a smile, “Now, if you just did that naked, you’d own us”.

The hula girl walks just past me, where she stops to talk to another woman who asks her if she likes the hoop. It turns out that this woman invented the LED hoop and lent it to her to use. The Hula Girl responds that it’s just awesome, perhaps a little smaller than she’s used to, but it’s balanced well. The woman asks her if she would like to keep it. The Hula Girl erupts with gratitude. It’s a match made in heaven. Hula Girl thanks Inventor profusely and then leaves, hoop in hand.

The band continues their set. Then, thirty minutes later, something that can only happen at Burning Man, does. After taking a break for a couple of songs, Hula Girl returns. She walks up to the front corner of the tent, puts down her hoop and casually takes off all her clothes. She steps out in front of the band and begins to perform her art once more.


I look around, and everyone is mesmerized. She has the body of a gymnast, and her talent is truly world-class. No one has their eyes closed anymore. She performs for three jazz compositions, receives huge applause, takes a modest bow, then dresses and leaves. As she passes by me, I hear someone ask for her contact information. He runs a club in LA and wants to stay in touch.

KennyReff2012-66Just then I hear an explosion, and I realize it must be Burn Wall Street. I gather myself up slowly, and make my way outside. Sure enough, a full mile away, Wall Street is awash in flames.

It’s got to be three in the morning; I have no real way of knowing. But it seems time to head back to camp, this one last time. As I bike the dusty roads, the moon is full and high in the sky. The camps are quiet. I take the route I’ve taken most of the week when heading back, going up 5:00 road, from the Esplanade out past Lima Street and into the barren playa toward my tent. As I peddle the mile, I pass so many camps that I’ve come to know over the week. There is a phrase they use here at Burning Man: “Welcome home”. I now understand it fully.



The morning comes very quickly. I eat breakfast, have coffee, wash up and begin striking camp. Ninety minutes later, everything is loaded on my little green wagon and it’s time to look for a tow to the bus stop. This time, the very first person is happy to help me. After he agrees, I mention that if he wants it, the wagon is his. He takes one look at my sturdy friend and smiles broadly. He’s in a pickup truck that is towing a camper. I tie the wagon to the back of the camper. Then I mount my bike and hang on to a strap off the back of the wagon. Our little four-vehicle motorcade, all strapped together, heads off at 5 MPH toward the bus depot a mile away.

When I arrive, I unload the wagon and help the tow dude load it into his pickup truck. I put a sign on my dusty, pimped-up bike saying that it’s free for the taking. The bus comes 15 minutes later and we load up. As I’m sitting in the first air conditioning I’ve felt in a week, I have a thought to go out and take a picture of my trusty friend with the string of pearls wrapped around its handle bars and the “Free” sign taped to its seat. But as I step off the bus, I see it has just found a new partner. Together, they are peddling down the road of a city that will not exist in two days time.

I smile, look out on this incredible community one last time, and board the bus back to the default world. In another day I will be back home. But this week will forever be burned into my mind, and for that, I will be forever grateful.


22 Responses to My First Burn, part 3

  1. Jim says:

    I just finished reading your entries for 2012 & 2013. Thank you. That brought back a lot if good memories. I only wish I had taken the time to record my experiences as well. Not so much to share with the world but to roll around in by myself.
    2012 was also my first burn and like you I went without knowing a single person. What an enlightening experience. I came back with a high that didn’t wear off for months. While I sort of think that the phrase, “the playa provides” conflicts a little with Radical Self-Reliance, the playa did provide me with someone who would later become my girlfriend. Sigh, is it August yet?!?

  2. Mark Young says:

    As a fifteen year veteran of the playa I was reminded of the magic of my first…and my second…and my third, etc., etc. year burns through your adventures of traveling to and experiencing our amazing city. Every year is different and every year is the same, every year provides ample fodder for “playa provides” stories. Thanks for your fire.

    • KennyReff says:

      I’m sure there is nothing like the first time. It is pure magic. But I can also see how it will continue to entertain and enlighten me for years to come. But I don’t need to tell you that! Glad it brought you back… :)

  3. Very cool write up! I particularly enjoyed that you told the whole story and not just the highlights. I went in 2013 on my first burn. People experience the burn in a total different way depending on what they are looking for or how open they are for encountering something new or different.

    What would have helped me in getting your story more easily would have been headers stating the weekday to not lose track of the day as one can easily while on the playa. :)

  4. Willing says:

    Hey Kenny,
    Thanks for the great read. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to how you triumphed in the face of many challenges as we do even after several years under our belts. You made the best of it. I had to miss last year, but I’m already excited about 2014. This will be my 7th burn. To a (nother) great year!

  5. Boom Boom says:

    Wow, Kenny, your story brought tears of remembrance several times. Thank you, man!

    My first burn was in 2010. I was 65 years old and had just lost the love of my life to cancer after 32 years together. I was deep into the process of trying to find out who I was as a single man after so long when some young friends of mine asked me to join them at Burning Man. What a life-altering– or maybe it was more of a life-affirming — experience for me. The biggest thing I brought back from the Playa was the firm knowledge that it was not too late for me — there would be much love and many new experiences in my journey.

    Peace to you, brother. I hope to run into you on the Playa in 200-some days!

    Boom Boom

    • KennyReff says:

      Boom Boom, you are an inspiration! I’m so glad you found your way to the burn. I can say that at age 57, I feel as young as ever, and also wonderfully optimistic. It’s not just the experience on playa; it’s the friendships and community that have come as a result back in the default world. What a gift, right?

  6. Cameron meals says:

    That was a great read! Really brought me back to my first burn and the truly magnificent environment and community that Burning Man facilitates. I’m glad your now a Burner and hope you have many years to come back home!

  7. Shane says:

    Hey everyone I am going to BM for the first time in 2014 and I will be coming from Canada.
    I am wondering if you have any tips for finding a camp to join or how to talk to other burners about this and tips besides the usual BM site stuff….real people to talk to is better.
    I will have room in the vehicle to gift if anyone needs a ride as well. :)

    Thx in advance for your comments and help!

    • KennyReff says:

      Hi Shane. You should go and find the page that lists regional organizations. If you’re in a city of any moderate size, there should be a group of burners in town. Hook into them and meet up in person. Burners are really happy to help. Hope to see you on the playa!

  8. Thanks for this well written and informative story. At 50 and having never gave me a real feel for being there. I’d probably drink a lot less and burn a lot more-

  9. ganesha says:

    Amy, just saw your question! and I’m totally in the same boat: I moved to St Pete in august (hence: I didn’t go to BM this year :( ) and since I ‘ve been here I’ve been trying to reach out to the burner community.. so far I found 2 groups:

    haven’t been in any of their regional events yet.. but I’ll give it a try :) People seem nice :)



    • KennyReff says:

      Even if there aren’t regional burns, there are often posts about smaller parties and such. Those were the things that really made the difference for me. Once you make burner friends, it all starts flowing!

  10. jade says:

    All I can say is…yes…2013 was my first year and although we did it differently I feel both you and I in the end totally understood.
    I miss HOME so much right now and do hope I can attend again this year.
    Hope you are able to visit HOME often.
    Congratulations for your journey.
    Positive energy and blessings to you.

  11. Timothy Zyg says:

    Brilliant exposition! It brought me back to my first burn. :-)

    You’ll be getting a lot of advice! Here is one from me:

    Your shade structure was too delicate! If we had had a “Hand Of God” storm as in some years past, it would have been utterly decimated. There is a fairly cheap way to put up a serviceable structure that you can put together from supplies at Home Depot, and it shouldn’t cost much more than your pop up. Or, you can go serious and make a 14” Geodesic dome! You’d have to store it, ship it, etc. But if it was made from small parts….

    Contact me for brainstorming structural protection on Playa! I’ve built yurts and domes, and other structures, all from scratch. I know what works out there pretty well, and I think enough to be able to figure out a lightweight way to bring along a sturdy shade structure on a plane. I haven’t made or designed one like that yet, but I welcome that challenge! :-)

    • KennyReff says:

      Thanks for your suggestions, Timothy, but this year is going to be really different.

      Not that I didn’t like how I did it last year, but when I returned from Burning Man last year I found that there’s a really vibrant local burner community here in the Washington, DC area. It’s been great getting to know them and as a result, I’m camping with a 50-person theme camp called DC Not Washington. This time, it will be 180 degrees from last year! For instance, as part of the dues, you get space for your stuff on a huge cargo container that is driven out by truck and is waiting for you at the camp when you arrive. They also have a pretty robust infrastructure. So I will hardly be roughing it this year.

      I’m trading the tranquility and beauty of the walk-in area for camaraderie. In a few weeks I’ll know which I value more.

      • Amy says:

        Question for you – how did you find those people in your area? I am looking to do my first burn this next time around, but am from Florida, so it sounds like an excellent idea to team up with others from the area!

      • ganesha says:

        Dear Kenny,

        Thank you for telling your story in such a humble and magnificent way. DC not washington co-camps with my camp, 88. All the people I met in 2012 are great! the camp is amazing, it feels great to be part of that community! so I’m truly happy you found them! (the container is the way to go! THANK U THANK U THANK u to DC not washington for it!!! 😉 )
        Hopefully I’ll see you there this year. Although I moved to FL, if Home calls my name this year, I’ll def camp wit 88 again! I’m missing home.. and the Familia!

        Many blessings!

        • KennyReff says:

          Hey Ganesha. Yes, Camp 88 rocks! And you’re right about the container. Man, does that make things easier! I hope you make it back out this year.

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