Welcome home to Burning Man

September 3, 2012

By Jim Urquhart

Photographer Jim Urquhart poses at Temple of Juno at Burning Man. Photo courtesy of Brian Erzen

As I write this I am sitting in my little camping trailer the morning after completing my Burning Man 2012 coverage. I am exhausted, a bit dehydrated, sore, my hair has become matted like dreadlocks from the combination of sweat and fine dust and I reek so horribly of body odor that I can make the sense of shame blush. But I am so aware of myself, I am alive and thriving. This is why I love what I do and the opportunities and experiences that it makes possible.

Okay, maybe not so aware of myself (I just fell asleep with my finger on the tab button after writing that first paragraph).


This was my second year covering the event and I really wanted to let go and participate more in the experience. Last year I was a Playa virgin made worse by also being working media. This year I was no veteran in the dust but I was more tuned in with what was happening around me.

I decided first and foremost I wanted to let myself go deeper into the experience of being a burner. Burning Man is an event that demands your participation. Just entering the gates this year I watched virgin burners being made to roll in the dirt, mounted and humped over their clothes by greeters. The dusty, middle-aged couple will now have that sacred memory to pass on to their loved ones. I myself was made to get out of my vehicle and asked how many times I had been to the burn.

When I answered this was my second I was greeted with a long lingering sensual hug and a soft whisper in my ear, “welcome home.”

That is key. In many journalistic ethos you are required to be just an observer and not participate in any form. But that would never fly in the burner experience. If you want access and want to witness intimate moments in other’s lives you have to let go of many of your inhibitions and let it ride. They are welcoming you into their community, no questions asked. Be respectful and participate.

You are surrounded by 60,000 people creating art with all their soul and as a matter of respect to those around you, you better be ready to be open to the experience. I am still reeling and trying to get my mind around many of the moments I shared here with others. One in particular almost brought me to my knees. I don’t know if I will ever understand and I don’t know if I want to. I am just fortunate I had it. There is nothing bad in the desert, this place is defined by what you bring of yourself to it.

Before coming out I made a firm decision that if I was going to be working, I was sure as hell going to be somewhat comfortable when I edited, transited and slept. I dragged the trusty Burro (fiberglass trailer) across the desert for another run at base camp.

It hasn’t failed me yet. It provided a great little spot to escape most of the dust. I also brought out a generator (with baffle box to cut down on the noise) and installed a small air conditioning unit in my trailer. I bought a used child’s bike trailer to get the weight off my back and to put camera gear, beer and some water in. As cell phones are virtually useless out here and I had to transmit photos out to the world several times a day I also brought out a satellite internet system.

This was one of the more important and successful decisions I made for this assignment. It was nice to be able to transmit images from camp and not go searching for somewhere to get a signal from. But with that I also had to be a carpenter, electrician and communications technician to keep everything up and going.

The hours can be long with a festival that literally goes 24 hours straight with no breaks for a week. So, I decided to set a routine for myself that would provide me with some time to rest. I would get up and shoot in the cooler hours just before and after sunrise, rest and sleep in the heat of the day and then go out and shoot again before sunset and return to camp several hours after dark to sleep again.

I camped next to Michael Troutman, a Carmel, California-based photographer. He was great to bounce ideas off, drink beer with and also a great desert cook with fresh fruit and vegetables. When your teeth are being worn down by the playa sand in your mouth, fresh grapes and bananas are a gift from something greater than me.

As a journalist, you have to be “radically self-reliant” like those around you. At the media mecca there is no wi-fi, no internet and no muffins. Hell, your working press pass states you are entitled to absolutely nothing. And in that way Burning Man is a great social equalizer. The playa does not care if you are a mechanic from Scranton, a wannabe from Los Angeles or the Prince of Saudi Arabia.

The playa will own you. By bringing out my supplies and equipment I was not trying to beat the playa, rather I was just trying to be able to work long enough to make it through.

It was amazing to be able to ride my bike, surrounded by the sights and sounds of thousands of people and art but also be able to be alone and experience loneliness in a way I want to. I could ride, meet new people and ride off again to feel the heat of the burn on my face, then off again in whatever direction I wanted. In doing this I was not Jimmy from Utah, rather, I was just Jimmy.

Honestly, I really understand why some don’t want to leave and return to the “default world.” Yes, we all smell, sharing port-a-potties with 60,000 people can be adventurous and the dust sucks. But here they are making a community they define as they go along.

I can’t wait to return and see where the the art and people of playa lead me… even though I have fallen asleep three times from shear exhaustion while writing this short blog.


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Wonderful photos and excellent article regarding your experience at BM. My son was there for the first time, and so I decided to search online for any current photos. I couldn’t believe it when I saw my son pictured in one of the photos that you took during the Friday night effigies burning….it was so cool! The photo showed up in a series on the UK Daily Mail site and the Telegraph. We lived in SLC for many years, and my son spent days and weeks hiking & camping in Escalante; so the conditions on the playa weren’t unfamiliar to him. Like you, he had an amazingly awesome somewhat life-changing experience, and I have you to thank for taking a photo right at the moment when he happened to be in the frame. Thank you!

Posted by rogueriva | Report as abusive

Simply outstanding, this great work conveys emotions

Posted by MFP | Report as abusive

I think we met in Media Mecca, but I’m not certain.

Good job with your pictures.

One comforting thing about the dust and dried sweat is we’re all init together, in a way. I never notice how filthy I am until that first shower and non-dusty hotel room in Hawthorne, NV.

On my way from Austin I traveled through Salt Lake City and, I must say, it’s a beautiful city with a phenomenal library, museum, public transit. It really makes Austin look like the redneck hick town it is.

See you in the dust next year.

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