Burning Man! A Sober Guide to The World's Hottest Party

By Ruth Fowler 04/05/11
On Monday 50,000 people will gather in the Nevada desert for a free-wheeling festival of wacky art, free love and free drugs. But while the legendary event is not exactly a bastion of sobriety, there's no reason you have to miss out on all the fun.
The 50-foot-tall Man stands watch until he is burned on Saturday night. Adam Croce

Life changes when you get sober, but true passions don’t.

Or at least they don’t have to. If you were, when a user, a lover of music, art and craziness—and the great festivals that feature them—sobering up can allow a purer form of those passions to emerge. But there’s still a massive amount of stigma in the recovery community for Twelve Steppers who refuse to sacrifice attending countercultural events where drugs, booze and sex are the means, if not the ends, of the experience. 

No festival shouts, “Triggers!” and “Relapse!” louder than Burning Man, the awesome anarchic gathering in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert that starts next Monday and runs through September 5. Burning Man is unique among festivals in that it’s the construction of a spontaneous city on a vast dry (a "play") out in the middle of a sand-storm nowhere. Don’t expect music acts and beer sponsors—Burning Man is “dedicated to community, art, self-expression and self-reliance”. The festival, which dates back to 1986, is governed by 10 principles: radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation, and immediacy. It exists to create and to expand the mind through all and any means possible. 

Over 48,000 people will gather in Black Rock City, Nevada, come Monday, erecting hundreds of theme camps and art instillations on the playa (the art theme is “rites of passage”). Within a few days, the desert will be filled with people, art, RVs, tents, live shows, DJs, cafes, radio stations, newspaper, DMV (Department of Mutant Vehicles—only bikes are allowed on the playa) and Recycling Center—a temporary community celebrating in the harsh elements of a desert environment with temperatures up to 110 degrees. As you might expect, this community of “Burners” does not abide by the same rules as life on the rest of this capitalist-consumerist planet. It sustains itself on gifting and bartering, exempt from commercial transactions and advertising—only ice, coffee and narcotics requiring payment of any kind. Burners observe a “gift economy,” sharing food, cocktails, backrubs, even solar showers. On Saturday night (September 3) the 50-foot-high Man will burn, and then the city will evaporate, leaving no trace, until next year. (The 48,000 tickets sold out in July, so if you don’t have one, you have all year to get ready!)

Tell your sponsor you plan to attend Burning Man and you’re likely to get slapped in the face with an AA slogan like “If you hang out in a Barber Shop, you’re bound to get a haircut.” Suspicion is normal, even appropriate: Some people use Burning Man (or Coachella or Lightning in a Bottle, or the local bar on the corner) as an excuse for falling—no, leaping—off the wagon.

No festival shouts, “Triggers!” and “Relapse!” louder than Burning Man, the awesome anarchic gathering in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. It exists to create and to expand the mind through all and any means possible.

Bill, a 63-year-old real estate broker from Mill Valley, Calif., with a decade of sobriety, only started attending festivals six years ago, but is now a regular Burner. He puts the dangers plainly: “Burning Man is a sexually charged atmosphere with free booze and drugs, so it is probably the slipperiest place on the planet. If you have an active compulsion to drink or use, stay the hell away.” If your triggers happen to include (and how could they not?)  music, dancing, drunk people, naked people, free booze, free love—you’re going to be in trouble. Triggers lurk around every corner. But then so is the solution, in the form of AA meetings, yoga classes, interesting workshops, massages, sober (and sometimes even naked and free-loving!) people to chill with. Even most Burners find that the severe desert climate means water, not Jack Daniels, is their drink of choice. “Hydrate!” is the mantra.

The truth is Burning Man is about much more than burning out your synapses with hallucinogens. You can be committed to both your sobriety and the ideals of Burning Man—and, for that matter, the belief that sobriety leads to greater freedom, unshackled as you are by the chains of addiction. Sobriety isn’t about limiting experience but about learning how to directly appreciate reality without the interference of drugs or alcohol. But don’t just white-knuckle your way through the week. Healthy fun requires preparation—and taking care of your sobriety.

Believe it or not, there are hundreds of other sober Burners, so there’s no reason to feel all alone in the desert.

To prepare for what is presumably your first sober Burning Man, if not your first Burning Man period, read Burning Man’s own guide to staying sober on the playa. (Special alert from the guide: “We suggest that you go to the burn [when the Man is set afire) with people that you trust will be sober and stick close. Once the Man falls, it’s very easy to become separated. Every year a group of sober people from Camp Anonymous attend the burn together.”)

Before you leave for Black Rock City, try and get in a few extra meetings, and have a long, honest talk with your sponsor about your expectations and fears. Ask yourself the hard questions: Are you being honest with yourself about how strong your recovery is? Have you been working a solid program? Are you the type of sober person who is comfortable around loaded people, or do booze, drugs, partying and drunkards negatively impact upon your recovery?

Adam, 26, who counsels at a rehab facility in Los Angeles, spent much of his teen years at music and art festivals—and around drinkers, druggers and ravers. Still, he waited until he had five years of sobriety before he felt confident enough to attend Burning Man. His trick? “I find ways to stay connected even when I’m around people who are loaded—through a strong program, through prayer, and through doing the ground work in my recovery: having commitments, going to meetings, working the steps,” he says.

Gazelle, a 43-year-old ex-Deadhead-turned-schoolteacher who grew up in festivals all across the US, had been to Burning Man three times before she got sober. She did her first straight Burn with only seven months clean, but took the risk of relapse seriously. “It was hard to avoid my favorite bars, but I’m chill around drugs and alcohol—I would have to be, given my chosen lifestyle,” she says. Indeed, Gazelle found her first Burning Man a healing experience. “My first sober burn was magical,” she recalls. “I found a group of other sober Burners to play with and we became instant old friends. We traveled across the playa together laughing and dancing. A lot of people asked us if they could have some of what we were on!”

Because she had attended Burning Man before she got sober, Gazelle was in the uncomfortable position of encountering her addicted past everywhere. “My biggest fear was facing the many groups of people who I owed amends to,” she says. “I was so involved in the scene that I couldn’t go anywhere without being ready to face my past. But I learned from other sober Burners that I could have fun and feel welcome again.” This year, Gazelle will be attending her eleventh Burn, her eighth one sober, and she recommends that first-timers follow a few simple steps.

Sobriety loves company. You may be in a camp full of adorable, fluffy hippies who are committed to doing yoga at 6 a.m. and seem to sip only Green Tea, but once on the playa, who knows what unannounced, uh, radical self-expression the Burn may unleash! That’s part of the magic of the experience, after all—being open to the unexpected, moved by the moment. So as soon as you’re settled in, find the Playa Map and then get thee to a Burning Man Twelve Step Meeting.

The playa now hosts three sober camps, all of which offer meetings (times can be found on their sites): Anonymous Village, Camp Stella (queer and queer-friendly) and the Hokey-Pokey Camp. The tentative schedule features six daily meetings, the first at 10:30 a.m. and the last at midnight. Burning Man, as you might expect, is an all-night, every-night party. Most sober souls will have time on their hands to make themselves available as temporary sponsors. Adam suggests hitting a fellowship meeting ASAP, sticking your hand out and getting to know the recovery people. Be brave and plan an adventure with them later in the day—adventure being the point of Burning Man.

For those of you who are already shaking your head and thinking, “The last thing I wanna do at Burning Man is hit a Twelve Step Meeting,” think again. The kind of Twelve Steppers drawn to Burning Man are, well, radical, and never dull. This is Alcoholics Anonymous Over the Rainbow. “There’s something about attending a meeting in the middle of the desert with a fairy, a man dressed in liquid latex and a naked chick,” says Kelly, a 34-year-old ex-pat Australian tattoo artist living in New Mexico with two years of sobriety. “Believe me, AA meetings at Burning Man are different from anything you’ve ever experienced before.”

Gazelle volunteers at one of the tents in Anonymous Village, a portal between the sober community and the city at large. “It’s a whining-free, drama-free, proselytizing-free zone. We serve Bloody Shames [a ‘mocktail’], play a game specifically to encourage ‘bad’ behavior in sobriety and sit around telling drunk- and drug-a-logs,” she says. “It’s a structure designed to help people learn to have fun, and to stress out the Big Book–thumping curmudgeons. We have a motto: ‘We’ll laugh at you until you can learn to laugh at yourself.’” Gazelle invites all Fix readers heading to Burning Man to stop by.

This is Alcoholics Anonymous Over the Rainbow. “Imagine attending a meeting in the middle of the desert with a fairy, a man dressed in liquid latex and a naked chick,” says Kelly.

There are also many “healing” camps that offer support to an alcoholic or addict in crisis through yoga, reiki, meditation, massage, workshops and other holistic activities—an alternative to simply getting loaded. If meetings aren’t enough, AV even has tents set aside specifically for campers who suddenly find they’re out of their depth in their own, nonsober camp or who simply need to be around a Twelve Step environment.

One of the blessings of being sober on the playa is that you can float free of the nasty buzz about undercover fuzz—every year the DEA sends in more and more agents o bust people and collect fines. Last year, some 150 citations were issued for drugs, largely marijuana, LSD, mushrooms and ecstasy. Granted, that’s not many, but it can cast a long shadow over the playa nonetheless.

Burning Man is a unique experience—and one not to be missed just because you no longer get wasted. It truly is about the full expression of your creative soul in a community of the comrades—exactly what being in recovery should be all about. Anyway, as you know all too well, the fuzzy obfuscation and distortion of chemicals only gets in your way. “It’s incredibly freeing to know that I’m not missing out on a thing—I’m getting to do all of the things I always loved without poisoning myself or the experience,” says Gazelle. “I learned a lot from my past, and I’m eternally grateful to be able to report that the lessons weren’t lost.”

But be kind to yourself. Have realistic expectations, and listen to your fears. If you decide at the last moment that you’re putting your sobriety at risk, gift that ticket to a friend, and work hard on your program, so that next year you can see the Man burn, and know that you didn’t risk your health to get there.

Ruth Fowler has written for The Village VoiceThe GuardianThe Huffington PostThe New York Post and The Observer. Her memoir, No Man's Land, which documented her pre-sobriety experiences as a stripper in Manhattan, was published by Viking in 2008.


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Ruth Fowler is an ex-stripper, Cambridge-grad and writer. Find Ruth on LinkedIn and Twitter.