Green Tortoise to Burning Man
October 30, 2013 3:11 PM   Subscribe

Attending Burning Man was been on my bucket list for decades - mostly for the epic scale of the art, and the experience of creating a city in the wilderness - but the logistics & cost of trying to organize a trip form Hawai`i have always deterred me. Next year I'm thinking of foregoing "radical self reliance" in favor of letting Green Tortoise take care of the basics. I do, however, have a few reservations, and I was wondering if people here had any experiences they could share.

My main concern, from poking around various forums: all I see are photos of 20-something backpackers on the Green Tortoise bus, and the kids on GT have a reputation for hard drinking and partying. I'm 47, and ... this might not be the community I'm looking for.

On the other hand, I've read that the GT camp doesn't have a strong sense of community, so that might work in my favor - I can enjoy the communal aspects of camp life, but still find my own community.

I do have acquaintances from the islands who go, but they are very much part of a "burner" community. They're nice people, but it's not a group I could see spending a week in the desert with - after about 20" of fire dancing / drumming / ecstatic dance I am bored to tears. I am counting on the actual event being much more diverse.

The advice on eplaya & other forums is generally "join a camp," but that doesn't help me with any of the logistical problems. Getting a group of friends together doesn't help either - it would just magnify the logistical problems!
posted by kanewai to Travel & Transportation around Black Rock, NM (15 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I took the Green Tortoise down to SF with all my stuff (from Seattle) and met up with friends there and continued on to Burning Man with my friends. This would have been in 2000 or so. I stopped by the GT camp a few times because I'd met people on the trip. I would have been early 30s then. It's a great way to make sure your basic needs are taken care of and you can always check in for meals and then just pitch a tent in the walk-in camping area if that's what you want to do. The crowd does skew young and more of a party crowd (or it did when I was there) but also friendly and congenial.

I'd think a little about yourself and whether you'd be okay spending days wandering around and finding things to do and people to interact with or if you're going to feel adrift without a core camp to sort of come home to, some people to share your day's experiences with. It might be possible to make a few plans with friends to get together ("Hey why don't you show me around on Thursday") and then have the rest of the time there being freeform. Different people are concerned about different things and it's been a while since I was there so I'm not sure how currently accurate my assessments are.
posted by jessamyn at 3:30 PM on October 30, 2013

Best answer: For what it's worth, that price seems a little outrageous to me and more than a bit set up to fleece people who don't know the actual costs, or just don't want to deal with it.

A lot of my friends spend less than that including transit from seattle, even if you factor in the ticket. It's still a good idea to expect the entire process to cost about 1k just in case unexpected things come up, but paying them $800 just to shuttle you to and from only SF, and feed you for the week just seems awfully high to me. I know people who barely had $500 to spend on the whole thing and had a blast. How much is a plane ticket to get to SF and meet that bus? because it's likely that with the help of your friends you could probably deal with that part and the food for something like a quarter of that bus ticket cost.

From all the rudimentary/tentative planning i've done to go in '14, and the fairly mid sized list and groups of people i know who go banding together as a group of friends simplifies a lot of the problems it seems like it would exacerbate. You just need a person whose good at doing math and a bit of discussion on how certain things like food and tents will be handled. From everything i've heard and seen the most expensive way to go there is on your own or through some transport service offered online like this. The cheapest is to meet up with someone in the lower 48 driving there with a few friends and pack the car. Every single fixed cost type thing like food and water become cheaper in a group like that and will vastly undercut this.

If you don't care about the cost and don't want to have to deal with that stuff then it doesn't seem like a bad option, but as you said, you don't know if that's the camp for you and you might want to stay somewhere else and just stop by. If cost is a factor i think there's cheaper ways to do this, and they're likely going to involve networking with your friends from your area that go.
posted by emptythought at 4:12 PM on October 30, 2013

Response by poster: because it's likely that with the help of your friends you could probably deal with that part and the food for something like a quarter of that bus ticket cost

I should clarify about my lovely friends. The majority of my friends who are reliable and good at planning either 1) have zero interest in going; or 2) went in the early days and don't want to go again (which I understand). Of the free spirits I know, the ones who would go, I would be the one doing all the planning, and there's a good chance a lot of them would change their minds at the last minute. They are so not an option.

The cost does seem crazy high - that's another reservation. However, car rental + food + water + buying cooking equipment on my own would also add up pretty quickly.

I'd think a little about yourself and whether you'd be okay spending days wandering around and finding things to do and people to interact with or if you're going to feel adrift without a core camp to sort of come home to, some people to share your day's experiences with.

And that's another major concern. Maybe the biggest. I've traveled a fair amount on my own, but I get a sense that I'd want to be part of a group at BM.

Sigh. This all helps. I think I'm talking myself out of Green Tortoise.
posted by kanewai at 4:31 PM on October 30, 2013

I can enjoy the communal aspects of camp life, but still find my own community.

I think that's very true. It's really nice to have a home base to come back to where you can depend on a meal and clean water. I'm sure there will people at the GT camp that would welcome having an "older" person in the camp. It's not a bad role to fill.

I've been with camps that had a huge range in terms of participation where some of the camp members hung out together all day, all night and then some of them just rolled back in at 3am for a snooze and some coffee in the morning and then headed back out to make their way through the playa solo, picking up friends along the way. I think you'll be glad to have the home base and also not fill bound to stick with your camp mates for every single foray out. That aspect of group wrangling is one of the most frustrating parts of Burning Man for me so I think you've got a great solution!
posted by otherwordlyglow at 4:35 PM on October 30, 2013

I'd recommend going through the theme camps and making a shortlist where you think you might fit in. Here's the 2013 list, many of which are likely to be returning. Then try making preliminary contact with them, to get an idea what their plan is for next year and if they're likely to have room for a newbie. The good thing about starting this early is that you have a pretty good shot of finding a ride from somewhere on the West Coast, as most groups are likely to have members coming from that side of the country.
posted by mannequito at 5:52 PM on October 30, 2013

There was an official bus this past year. Link. You would have to haul your own food and water and find your own camp, but it would be way way cheaper than the tortoise.

The experience is largely what you make it. Personally, I found getting involved with my camp and helping during the planning and organizing stages really brought me closer to the people in my camp and to the city at large. A camp isn't just people -- it's a Project. Often with awesome events or art or whatever. So I would suggest maybe trying to link up with a camp online and get involved in the planning and organizing of whatever it is they're doing, whether that's just meals and shelter or whether it includes some bigger plans. Maybe look to join one of the big villages.

What is your deal, exactly? What kind of person do you like to hang out with? There are sacred space / healing type camps, loud dubstep and drugs camps... people who are there to make art, people who are looking to find themselves... maybe think about approaching this as a search for others who are aligned with your own personal journey, but the first step is to think about what exactly that means. You can punt and just pitch a tent somewhere like GT or something like it and find your community at the event, but you can also start searching now.
posted by PercussivePaul at 6:59 PM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

I went to Burning Man for the first time this summer, and based on my experience, a lot of the advice you'll get as far as survival and preparation is overkill. For example, one rule of thumb is to take 1.5 gallons of water per person per day -- we followed this and ended up with more than half our water left over on the last day. The consensus on ePlaya seems to be that you'll need a heavy duty tent and shade structure, but I saw quite a few people camping in regular Wal-mart tents, and plenty of $50 EZ-up canopies. A lot of it seems to be people fetishizing the "surviving the brutal desert" aspect, when really it's just camping without the trees.

My advice is to do it yourself. Either rent a car and buy a cheap tent or (better) rent a cargo van and throw an air mattress in the back. If you're not joining an existing camp, it would be nice to have a beach chair and a shade structure of some kind, like the $50 10x10 EZ-up I mentioned earlier. Weight the legs down with water bottles. You can buy a couple of 7-gallon Aqua-tainer water jugs at Wal-mart for something like $12 each, or just get a few of the normal 2.5-gallon "suitcase" water bottles ... they're easier to handle anyway. Buy a cheap styrofoam cooler for ice for drinks, but don't plan on keeping a lot of food cold -- I prefer mostly canned goods and instant noodles. A portable butane burner is less than $20 at most asian supermarkets, and you only need one pot to cook your noodles or beans or whatever. Other than that, you just need a few miscellaneous things: garbage bags, wet wipes (showering is pointless), some rope, a roll of duct tape, flashlight/headlamp, etc.

Oh, and one more thing about the weather: It's hot, but it's extremely dry, and there's almost always a breeze. My wife and I were perfectly comfortable sleeping through the hottest part of the afternoon in the shade by our van. Keep in mind that many of the people complaining about the harsh conditions are from northern California, where people wear jackets in the summertime and 80F is a heat wave.
posted by bradf at 7:11 PM on October 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

Aaaack okay so... I hate to be that guy, but the heat this year was much less intense than it has been in past years, partially because of wildfire smoke blocking the sun a bit maybe, or maybe it just didn't get that hot. And also there were no appreciable wind storms this year during the event, nor have there been in the 2 years prior, which means a lot of people are starting to believe that the high winds and dust storms are a bit of an exaggeration and are chancing things like $50 EZ-up canopies which have a high risk of failing and maybe blowing away and smashing a car windshield if the wind really picks up (something I witnessed in 2007... I think it was a Costco carport, tied down pretty tightly, but still, smash.)

This year there were serious storms during the lead-up to the event which damaged quite a few structures. Most of the warnings are not from NorCal softies but rather from veterans who have been there are few times and seen what the wind is capable of. Yeah the water advice is on the generous side for most, yeah shade is a comfort thing and you don't really NEED to sleep when the sun is up, or maybe you will find a cool shady spot... but the wind is real. Not a given every year, but a real risk.
posted by PercussivePaul at 7:35 PM on October 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

I knew someone would call me out on the mild weather this year. If an EZ-up is too flimsy, a van plus some EMT conduit and a solar shade tarp makes a very sturdy shade structure. The conduit is cheap, and Home Depot will cut it to length for you. I got the 20x20 shade tarp from Ace Hardware for $40 on sale. It's like woven shredded plastic, so it blocks most of the sun but the wind can't pick it up. Ratchet straps were a few bucks from Harbor Freight. The only pieces you couldn't pick up easily in SF or Reno are the canopy fittings for the conduit and rebar stakes -- I ordered them online for something like $20 total.

So, it's not quite as easy as picking up everything you need at Wal-mart in Reno, but in my opinion, preparing for Burning man isn't so hard that it's worth paying someone else to do.
posted by bradf at 8:00 PM on October 30, 2013

My friend got a concussion and nearly died after getting hit by a not-secured-enough structure during Burning Man and had to go home from Burning Man this year, so seriously, PAY ATTENTION TO THE WIND. Days are hot (but windy) and nights are freezing.

I don't know much about Green Tortoise (though I have heard it is a party-20something-dirty-hippie crowd--but then again, Burning Man is like that, but for all ages). I thought I had heard of a Burning Man travel agency several years ago at 4th of Juplaya, but I can't find it via Googling. I did, however, find this not-good review of the Tortoise. I was about to say that since you have the issue of having to fly in, pick up all of your supplies and find a way there and then dispose of all of the supplies before flying home, GT might be worth it,, apparently not.

I would seriously make friends with/talk to the locals near you who are going. Even if you don't like them that much, that's still people you know a little more than random folks you find when you arrive at Burning Man. I'd also talk to them about what they do to get there and to get stuff. Getting in with your "burner community" is easy (I have gone to events with my friend with the concussion and people are super friendly even to random strangers) and even if they are too hippie for you, it's still a connection to people, and it sounds like you need some kind of help in getting there, if GT is that terrible. As long as you have help getting there, you can find others to hang out with when you arrive.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:01 PM on October 30, 2013

If you wouldn't stay in one of their hostels (which btw are great!), don't sign up for a Green Tortoise trip. They market their adventure tours to nearly the exact same demographics.
posted by oceanjesse at 8:55 PM on October 30, 2013

Why don't you just throw an IRL on here? I really doubt you're the only MeFite headed that way.
posted by oceanjesse at 8:57 PM on October 30, 2013

I did, however, find this not-good review of the Tortoise.

Trying to derail as little as possible and address the OP, bla bla bla, but i would take this review with a fat grain of salt. Anyone who travels far out of their home area with no cash for a plan B and no access to a bank account/debit card of some variety/etc is just asking to write the first 3 paragraphs of a post like this.

Part of not ending up bitter and trying to sling blame on admitedly shoddily run one-hand-doesn't-know-what-the-other-is-doing companies is having at the very least several hundred bucks. preferably 100 or so in cash and a couple hundred on a card or accessible bank account just in case the best laid plans of mice explode in your face. There's a lot in that post that's more of a good "what not to do" on a trip like this than it is a damning account of GT being worthless. Bringing no extra cash, having no bank account, having a nearly-expired ID that expires during the trip, and just a general lack of research or asking specific questions if you can think of anything that isn't clearly outlined. That type of shit would even apply if you were riding in the back seat of some yahoo friend of a friends car.

I couldn't even finish the thing, the guys attitude pissed me off so much here and there. Seriously, take it with a grain of salt. I swear i've gone on trips with people like this who had nothing but negative shit to say about every little problem and just daria'd there way through it all.
posted by emptythought at 9:12 PM on October 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

I didn't really like it either (and yeah, what a 'tude there) and I totally agree on the dude's finances, but there were enough concerns in it if you could drag yourself through reading it that the OP might want to know. The OP wanted to know about what it was like to be on one, so there you go.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:22 PM on October 30, 2013

It's also worth noting that it was posted long enough ago that tickets were $200(for the now$800+ gt trip, not for burning man... Although that would also be kinda old).

It's like reading a crappy thumbs down review of a PowerBook G3 and deciding that the new MacBook Air isn't worth buying. Isn't it plausible that things might have changed since what, like 1999 or 2002 or whenever that was written? It's gotta be at least ten years old.
posted by emptythought at 1:49 PM on October 31, 2013

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