I’ve done them both. Hiked the entire AT in 2009. And this year? Attended Burning Man. Two quintessential “bucket list” items for many. Folks are curious and excited to hear about my adventures, and how they compared to what they’ve read or heard. Both experiences snatch you out of your comfort zone and deposit you into a new world with different priorities and expectations.
Here's my take on what Burning Man and hiking the AT have in common:
1. There are a million ways to do it. On the AT, there’s a saying: “Hike your own hike.” At Burning Man, it’s “Own your burn.” You choose how, when, and where to participate. Focus on the daytime or the nighttime (yes, I met a thru hiker on the AT who completed the lion’s share of his miles after dark.) Enjoy it on your own or with a ton of people. Do it in the lap of luxury with fancy gear, fancy food, fancy clothes, or on the cheap, with a sarong or shorts and a reliance on serendipity to provide what you need. Both on the AT and at Burning Man, you still bring yourself. If you’re an optimist you’ll see the fun and wonder. If you're a glass half empty type, you’ll find plenty to complain about. Me? I loved Burning Man! I enjoyed it late at night, riding my bicycle from light to light in the open playa, finding amazing art or perhaps a grilled cheese stand set up at 4 a.m. in the middle of nowhere. I loved it in the early morning as the first rays of light hit the mountains surrounding the Black Rock Desert, touching the gigantic sculptures. I loved walking and bicycling alone, just me and the stars and Milky Way, and I loved joining in with giant dance parties under black lights. I loved slipping into a big crowd and I loved having a heart to heart conversation with a new friend. I loved staying in camp and watching the world go by, art cars driving past spewing flames and playing disco, and people stopping to play with our giant Jenga game. And as a first-time attendee, I know I only scratched the surface of what's possible.
2. The age range is more diverse than you might imagine. Both on the AT and at Burning Man, there’s a big bunch of people who are either in their 20s or retired. It’s often easier for folks at these stages of life to drop what they’re doing and head out on an extended adventure. However, there are people of all ages. Kids, babies, families – all manner of folks who have made it a priority to incorporate wanderlust and whimsy into their daily lives.
3. There’s an online mythology and a year-round community that get you thinking about the possibilities of how your "regular life" could be so different. You can learn a lot about either of these incredible experiences via message boards, Facebook groups, videos, images, how-tos, coffee table books, personal accounts and more. While Burning Man happens for one week in the desert in August and thru hiker season generally runs from March through September, both of these communities stay connected via events and get-togethers all year. Some people are so moved or changed by the experience that they devote large chunks of their lives to sustaining and promoting it. They volunteer. They find ways to support and serve other participants. They go back, over and over. They feel most at home with others who have shared the adventure. The philosophies are similar. Burning Man’s ten principles resonate beautifully with what you need to do to successfully complete a thru hike, and the lessons from both experiences alter the way you see the regular world.
4. Magic permeates both worlds. Both communities have sayings about how “The Trail Provides” or “The Playa Provides”. Both experiences are enchantingly infused with moments of synchronicity. On the AT, “trail magic” in the form of surprising edible treats or rides to town makes all the difference for weary hikers. At Burning Man, it seems as soon as you talk about something, you conjure it up. We were dancing at this incredible outdoor club around 3 a.m., when one of the guys in our group mentioned this amazing service where you can brush your teeth in the middle of the dance party. Not moments later, we noticed an adorable red cart with a light-up tooth perched atop it. People were gathered around it, selecting brand-new wrapped toothbrushes hanging on a string across the cart, dispensing toothpaste, getting drinks of water and rinsing in a tiny sink – all in the dark in the middle of the night while techno music blared and fire blasted from portals on the stage around the DJ and from columns all around us. Surreal and definitely magical! On a different night, one of the guys in our group wore a three piece suit, convinced that this was the night he would run across the pop–up martini bar in the middle of the desert. Sure enough, as we bicycled across the dark dusty playa, orange lights in the distance beckoned us to a full martini bar complete with comfy chairs and tables, jazzy music and top-shelf drinks in light up glasses! Captivating!
5. Some believe that the crowds and publicity have ruined the experience. I’ve heard the same complaints about Burning Man and the AT. There are too many people. They’re wrecking it for everyone else. Old-timers reminisce about the way it was back at the beginning, when there was more self-reliance, more moxie, less gear, fewer gadgets. Technology is infiltrating both experiences, and people have varying opinions as to whether this is a good or bad thing. My thoughts are that change is inevitable, and that both of these communities can handle the shifts that come. I believe there’s enough of a collective culture to maintain the essence of what’s most important about both of these experiences.
6. You will get dirty. If you have an issue with filth, dirt, dust, mud and not showering regularly, you should take both Burning Man and the AT off your list. I went through a giant pack of wet wipes at Burning Man – my camp mate said I was like a cat, wiping out my ears, cleaning my face and hands constantly! On the AT, I could splash in a stream or creek nearly every day – at Burning Man all waste water needs to be collected or evaporated so it’s more complicated. Both places offer opportunities for getting clean – showers in hostels and hotels and sometimes even on the trail on the AT, and at Burning Man, an incredible group shower rumored to be hosted by the son of Dr. Bronner, where you can have the best-smelling most wonderful soapy foam sprayed on you and rinsed off while you crowd naked into the “human carcass wash” with 60 other dancing happy people at a time! Great fun and one of my favorite memories!
7. Go ahead and do your research, but you can't be completely prepared for what you encounter. And yes, you will be changed. No matter how much research you’ve done, something about the experience will surprise you and shift your perspective. You'll try things you didn't know you could do. You'll see things you've never seen before. You'll be amazed at your own capabilities. I know that six months on the AT changed me – you can read how here (and it's amazing how what I wrote about the AT is so similar to what I hear from folks about how Burning Man changed them.) I’m still trying to determine what’s different about me since Burning Man. I've been turning over the memories in my mind, noticing what I return to. It may be a little while before I've completely assimilated my big change from Burning Man. I know this - I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of creative projects, from art cars to interactive sculptures to clever and humorous camps, events, offerings - it was a carnival for the senses! - and it inspired me to remember what is possible when people rely on their fantastic imaginations.
8. You'll create lifelong bonds in a very short time, and you'll be blown away by the generosity of fellow humans. When you spend one stormy night with other hikers in a drafty leaky shelter, you bond for good. You share your energy bars and your hot chocolate. You sing or tell stories to pass the time. You learn more about each other than about coworkers you've known for years. When you spend five hours in the Burning Man Will Call line getting rained and hailed on while lightning strikes the mountains surrounding you, you form a little family with your line-mates. You gather under the one umbrella. You share your snacks and water. You find each other later, hugging like long-lost friends. People you met for just a few moments or just one evening become people you welcome into to your home when they're traveling through. Both on the trail and at Burning Man, I was overwhelmed by the generosity of people giving because they can. While hiking I received a ride to a town over an hour away to get new shoes when I needed them, and multiple times I was treated to deluxe meals by lovely people who simply wanted to cook for hikers. At Burning Man there are so many gifts - from the peanut butter and jelly cart that wandered the city every day offering folks a station to make a sandwich to the Fish Camp that grilled, prepared and served hundreds of pounds of fresh tuna and salmon to any one lucky enough to find them. I enjoyed snow cones and lemonade, and any number of other fabulous drinks. I got free bunny ears and face painting for the Million Bunny March Against Humanity, which was humorously crashed by carrots looking for their own rights. I was gifted so much beautiful handmade jewelry that I couldn't wear it all at once. I could have picked out lingerie or costume supplies. I could have ridden on the two story zip line. There were so many workshops, encounters, parties, dances, performances - hundreds and hundreds of them!
9. You'll forget the hardships, remember the highlights, and miss your trail/playa persona. While there you'll crave certain things that are harder to get like showers or clean cozy beds or time with your loved ones, but when you return home, the happiest of memories will expand to fill your brain with endorphins. You'll forget the sore legs and feet from miles of hiking or the bruised butt from endless bicycle riding on the dusty playa. You'll remember the spectacles – the views, the burns, the interactive art, the wildlife. You'll remember connections with amazing people, and you'll remember stretching your capabilities and boundaries beyond what you knew you could do. You'll miss being called by your playa name or trail name, and you'll miss living in a different world that happily removed you from ads, news and other cultural static. Personally, I'm lucky to live a very free life in New Orleans, where I can wear and be whoever I want every day, so I didn't feel I needed to be a completely different person on the AT or on the playa, but I still loved dropping all the external routines and constraints and living completely differently.
10. Fire is important, and Nature wins. On the AT, people call campfires “hiker TV”. They’re a place to gather, warm yourselves, share your stories, dry your boots and maybe cook your food. Burning Man takes the fascination with fire to a whole new level. Everything that can spew fire does. It's amazing seeing the playa light up for blocks and blocks from the fire blowing through a small spout on one tiny art car or watching the giant man burn for over an hour before he falls. Yet no matter what people create, Nature has the final say. Heavy morning rains shut down Black Rock City for an entire day, and dust storms completely hid giant sculptures from view. On the AT, you can jeopardize your well-being or even your life if you ignore the weather or are unprepared for it, and that's true on the playa as well.
And that brings me to the way that Burning Man and hiking the AT are completely different:
Burning Man encourages over-stimulation and venerates the constructed world, while hiking the AT encourages solitude and venerates the natural world. Burning Man is fast, loud, nonstop, in your face, constant, 24 hour, party-centric, with rarer moments of quiet and grace, while the AT is stillness, meditation, openness, with rarer moments of loudness and celebration.
If I personally had to choose just one?
I would pick the AT. I don’t need an expensive ticket to enter the wilderness of the Appalachian Trail. Nature rejuvenates me more deeply than booming techno club music, which is virtually inescapable at Burning Man, no matter how deeply into the playa you cycle. I would rather happen across a wild bear than a shirtless guy in fur pants and a fuzzy hat. I missed nature so much during Burning Man! I greeted every fly, gnat and moth I saw (less than a dozen total) with gratitude. The four birds I witnessed flying across the playa were met with wonder and thanks. The two different kangaroo mice at the temple were such special encounters – I don’t know if they survived its immolation, but I didn’t know how to help them. I watched and noticed the stars, the mountains, the sky, the sun. (Others did too; every evening as the sun dips behind the mountains, wolf cries and hollers emanate from the camps as people honor the transition from day to night.)
I generally don’t go to cities on vacation – I go to woods, beaches, mountains, valleys. So while I loved the unbelievable artwork of Burning Man and the creativity of everything from the theme camps to the poems in the porta-potties exhorting people not to throw wipes in them, I missed trees, grass and flowers. I prefer nature to the constructed world, even when that world is dazzling, whimsical, awe-inspiring, huge, fantastic, and full of friendly, interesting, creative people.
Happily, I don’t have to choose. I know for certain that my feet will walk on leafy trails marked with white blazes of the AT many more times, and I have a hunch my toes will once again touch the dust of the playa at Black Rock City.
How about you? Have you hiked on the AT or been to Burning Man? Or do you dream of doing either? Which would you choose if you had to pick?