by Russell Gewirtz
Last week marked my second Burning Man experience. My second “Burn.” Four days the first time, seven days the second. Both of them were intense. Both of them were mind-blowing. Both of them were among the greatest experiences of my life. And neither of them would have been possible without White Ocean.
So first, let’s explain what White Ocean is, and let’s dispel a few rumors. White Ocean was not a four-star hotel. No one ever cleaned out my trailer or made my bed. No one did my laundry. My trailer and all of my crap got just as dusty and filthy as everyone else’s. Here’s what it looked like after I tidied up.
White Ocean had trailers and it had yurts, pretty much the same as the rest of Black Rock. My trailer, for the record, was so close to the soundstage that it shook and vibrated to the beat until 10am, rendering it effectively useless for sleep. I made it through the week on three hours of sleep per night, mostly 9am-noon. In terms of physical endurance, this was one of the roughest weeks of my life.
White Ocean was not some hermetically sealed bubble, some cocoon that protected its denizens from the harsh realities of Black Rock City. We choked on the same dust as everyone else. When the wind blew on you, it blew on me.
White Ocean was not some exclusive VIP room behind a velvet rope. Any burner could easily find us and walk right on in, just like any other camp. Well, it’s nicer than most camps. But that’s not the point. The point is you walk in, sit down, say hi. No one ever stopped anyone or asked anyone to leave.
Is everyone at White Ocean rich? Definitely not. For one thing, I’m certainly not. At least not at the moment. I’ve been rich. I should be rich. I’ll be rich again soon. It costs a lot to stay at White Ocean. So a lot of us were guests of friends who could afford it. It’s good to have friends.
But let’s be honest. All camps are not created equal. White Ocean is luxurious by Burning Man standards. I never had to build, never had to cook, and I never had assigned clean-up duties, although some guests did. We did clean up after ourselves in the dining area, and I did clean up my own trailer. But I didn’t have to worry about the water level in my tank or the sewage in my whatever-it-is. These things were handled for me, by people who knew what they were doing and were paid to be there. And as far as I know, when they had completed their tasks they were free to experience the burn, which is great. Anyone I spoke to who was there to work, said they were loving the experience and would do it again. Some had been for years. Were it not for these people, many of us would probably never have made it to Burning Man.
Which brings us to the Ten Principles of Burning Man.
From my experience, White Ocean doesn’t seem to be in conflict with nine of them. Inside the camp, I witnessed the same expressions of generosity, openness, creativity, immediacy and inclusion that I experienced on the playa. No one ever said, “You can’t sit with us.”
I think it really comes down to the principle of Radical Self-Reliance. To be honest, we’re not perfect. The camp was assembled and disassembled by others. Our meals were cooked for us. And while we helped out to an extent, someone else did the dishes. But let’s not forget one thing: All of these “others” were still White Ocean Burners. They too came and felt the burn. And by the way, I didn’t help create any of the art on the Playa either. But I certainly did enjoy it.
The moment I left the camp, I was no different than any other burner. I had my camelbak, my lip balm, my goggles and my scarf, my crappy bike, my boots, my tin cup, and whatever clothing best anticipated the conditions I might find for the next however many hours my outing lasted. Sometimes it worked out, sometimes it didn’t. If I ran into trouble, I didn’t pull out my White Ocean passport and pay one of the locals to transport me back to safety like some Englishman traveling through Burma. I had to rely on myself, and the kindness of fellow burners. And that was a beautiful thing.
Maybe it wasn’t radical. But it was certainly self-reliance. If the test requires 100% adherence to all ten principles, then perhaps we failed. But so would thousands of burners in plenty of camps. Frankly, I’d give us a 95/100. And that’s usually good enough.
But you know what? The day that they decided to let planes land on the playa, all of this became inevitable. First off, no one can travel in and out with all of their own food and gear on a plane. It just doesn’t work that way. Second, it brings to Burning Man some folks, like myself, who simply wouldn’t be coming otherwise. Are we different than the OG burners who preceded us? In some ways, yes. Is that such a bad thing? I don’t think so. I think that one of the things that makes Burning Man great is that it brings people together from all walks of life, (well, frankly, white people) and gives them the chance to interact in ways that simply aren’t likely in the day-to-day world. That doesn’t happen if Burning Man attracts a completely homogenous group. Camps like White Ocean, Dragonfly, Cirque Gitane, Ibiza, and many others bring some diversity. And everyone benefits from that.
Look through your pictures from the burn. See the ones where there’s some smoking hot girl posing in front of the “MAGIC” installation? She’s 5’11”, thin and sexy, wearing an Indian head-dress, black bikini, and eight-inch platform boots, and barely speaks English. She’s probably not sleeping in a tent and cooking beans over a sterno flame. Perhaps some guy flew her there with daddy’s money and put her in a nice RV in a plug and play camp. But you took a picture of her and posted it on Facebook. You want her to leave the Playa?
Last week, eighty thousand people went to Burning Man, and I’m pretty sure that most of them had an amazing time. A few people got upset. That’s all that happened.
If you’re a guy from two hours outside of Albuquerque, who works at a concrete mill, and you want to meet a Victoria’s Secret model, an international DJ, a Hollywood screenwriter (like moi, for instance), a software guru, or a Russian industrial baron, well then, White Ocean might just be the best chance that you are ever going to get. Just walk right into the so-called ‘VIP’ area behind the DJ. No one’s ever gonna stop you. Walk up to anyone and introduce yourself. You’ll get a hug, just like anywhere else on the Playa.
After that, you’re on your own. Radical Self-Reliance. Done!