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Open your heart and transform: the Camino and Burning Man share similar values

talk to god low-res

The Burning Man festival offers a phone booth in which
you can “talk to God,” via a true, interactive human voice.
On the Camino, such conversations are far less public.

While walking the Camino, few people probably draw parallels to the Burning Man Festival, an artsy, week-long bacchanal that draws about 50,000 people a year to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. But having attended Burning Man twice, including as a partial honeymoon destination in 2006, I began to see similarities between the two events that resonated with me.

Externally, both events use an iconic figure—a stylized stick figure man, and a Catholic saint, respectively—as a defining symbol and repeat motif. Both the Camino and Burning Man attract people from all over the world, of all ages, yet seem to draw proportionally more middle-aged folk. Regardless of what motivations individuals might have for participating, the over-reaching unity of an intentional community, along with related values like self-reliance and communal effort, are shared.

As I’ve stated earlier on the blog, many people walk the Camino for spiritual or religious regions, drawing on its heritage as a pilgrimage route through churches and cathedrals and its association with St. James. The resulting insights, however seemingly small at the time, that can emerge from tapping into this archetypal journey can be profound.


Burning Man offers an eccentric mix of huge wooden open-air temples, often designed by architects and professional artists. Meant to be enjoyed as venues for rituals and raves, these massive structures are ceremonially burned into nothingness as a tribal tribute to letting go and releasing attachment to the material world.

 A core part of Burning Man, as stated in its ten principles, is “radical inclusion.” As the festival’s website states: “We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. . . .We make the world real through actions that open the heart.”

open air templ low-res

One of Burning Man’s open-air temples, with a reflection of a mandala pattern reminiscent of a rosette pattern
on one of the Camino’s many cathedrals.


In both places, deciding when, how, and with whom to participate created initial conflict for me. On the Camino, for the first few weeks, I enjoyed the same group of pilgrims that I saw each day. As individuals, we shared our innermost views, then came together in the evenings for rituals and meals. This was a welcome part of my early experience that reinforced the sense of community that I was seeking.


Yet, I also recognized that staying with the same familiar people was becoming predictable. I wanted, and needed, time to spend alone on the path, to commune more deeply with my surroundings without the distraction of conversation and others’ presence. I also wanted to meet new people. Finding that balance between solo and communal time became part of my “dance” of the Camino pilgrimage. It required reminding myself that the choice of who to spend my time with was up to me.


At Burning Man, as part of the raw spirit of the event, I consciously chose to participate in any group activity, be it dancing, pairs yoga, or a workshop, rather than just observe. Yet this frustrated the photographer side of me, since many events, involving people in astounding costumes and startling art, went unrecorded by my camera. My eyes witnessed and composed remarkable images, yet they remained uncaptured. Instead, I put myself within the frame.  I had to let go of my frustration over missed shots.

Burning Man grid pattern

The grid pattern of the temporary town of Burning Man
in 2005, as seen from a visitor’s small plane.

 On the first day of Burning Man, pedalling on my basic bicycle through thousands of theme camps arranged in a circular, labyrinth-like grid, I got lost, unable to find a desired workshop location. In the extreme heat and dust, I had a headache and felt crabby and unfulfilled. I missed the event. This wasn’t my hoped-for blissful inner exploration. After discussing this with my husband and another “Burner,” I realized: I have to let go of my expectations. Don’t make plans. Just open myself to the experience, go out, and meet what comes my way.


That’s what I had to learn to do on the Camino too. During the first four days, when it was pouring rain almost non-stop, muddy and numbingly cold, I seriously considered quitting the pilgrimage. I thought: I wouldn’t be hiking in this weather at home, why am I doing it now, on vacation? I had not yet made a deep, spiritual connection with anyone. Why was I even doing this? I thought of travelling to Portugal instead and relaxing in the sun. But as the weather improved, and my encounters with others deepened, so did my desire to continue.

pilgrim in old style costume 920

A modern pilgrim, from Germany,
dressed somewhat in the style of a more ancient time

Both on the Camino and in the Black Rock Desert, physical surroundings and weather became defining factors for the quality of my experience. At Burning Man, with only a light rain or bucket of water, the parched, cracked earth could transform into thick, caking mud within seconds. In high winds, the super-fine dust could swirl into tornado-like eddies, blinding you if you didn’t have eye protection. Even in the heat, socks were de rigueur at all times; otherwise, you could contract playa foot, a painful condition whereby the desert’s dust lodged between your toes, creating cracks and welts in your skin.


On the Camino, I learned how important socks were because the sweating that mine caused produced an allergic reaction. It took me weeks of blisters before I realized how valuable it was to stop, take off my socks and shoes, and air them out to avoid damp feet. And in both Spain and in Nevada, I kept myself covered at all times to avoid sunburn and heat stroke.


Aspects of communal living were ever-present in both places. The Camino features bunk beds and shared co-ed rooms, bathrooms, and eating facilities at albergues. At Burning Man, we pitched our tent among dozens of others, side by side, in the Green Tortoise camp. Thousands of others sprawled out around us. The culture there is nomadic by definition; it’s a temporary town of transplanted souls, joined by the concept of a gift economy.


Through a guiding principle of “decommodification,” the Burning Man festival disallows commercial sponsorships, transactions or advertising. Except at centre camp, where coffee, lemonade and other beverages are available, there is no money exchange. Individuals are free to give away their own belongings, whether handmade expressly for this event or not, as symbols of gratitude and appreciation.


On the Camino, money is exchanged daily at the albergues, cafés, and restaurants along the way, yet the same ethos of “pay it forward” prevails. To a pilgrim with limited belongings in a backpack, a simple bandaid, safety pin or shoelace presented as a gift by another pilgrim can make the difference between grating discomfort and peace of mind.

The Man on fire

The giant effigy of “The Man” illuminated prior to its incineration at Burning Man

It’s pushing the comparisons to state that the desert at Burning Man is called, ironically, “the playa” (Spanish for “beach”) while the Way of St. James, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, is associated with a beach symbol, a scallop shell. But one factor found in both places is liquid spirits: many camps at Burning Man offer a panoply of free booze while the Camino route has tasty, cheap and fresh local wines.


Just as Burning Man glorifies the collective burn of “the Man,” a giant figure, several storeys high, displayed at the centre of the festival, and many other structures, Spain has its own legacy of fire. In many places, especially Galicia, the bonfires of St. John are celebrated in late June: people burn large figures of wood and papier mache, in a ritual called the Hugueras.

I talked to a few pilgrims who had tasted some kind of ritualistic drink with Spaniards at a raucous party, perhaps as part of these celebrations. I wondered if it was something akin to the Queimada ceremonies in Spain on Nov. 2, All Souls Day. In modern Galacia, some Spaniards set ablaze a powerful drink called the Aguardiente, a distilled mixture of grape skins, coffee beans, fruit, and sugar.(Aguardiente is also a generic term used for booze drinks that have between 29- and 60-per-cent alcohol by volume.) They scoop the drink from a bowl and pour and repour it until fire seems to run from the ladle. This Spanish custom is supposed to have originated during the country’s occupation by the Phoenicians around 800 BC.

 NEXT WEEK: Social media on the Camino: barrier or portal?


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November 25, 2013 at 5:05 pm
  • November 29, 2013 at 6:38 amNick

    Hello Heather,

    It is everytime with a smile on my face that I read your lines. Whilst reading I feel what you mean to say. Great to be a part of your story. I remember the moment when we talked with eachother about music. I have a lot of good memories on the camino 2013 !
    Greetz from Holland.

  • November 27, 2013 at 3:46 pmHeather Conn

    I appreciate your comments, George. They remind me that I’m not in a vacuum when I’m writing these posts, which is how it often feels.

  • November 27, 2013 at 3:42 pmGeorge Hermanson

    I first learned of the burning man at the academy of religion conference in Toronto. The papers while academic make the same points you have, except I feel I was there with you.

  • November 27, 2013 at 3:39 pmGeorge Hermanson

    I have been following you pilgrimage and you make me feel as if I am there with you. Beautiful

  • November 25, 2013 at 9:55 pmConstance

    Great photos and writing. Thanks Heather.

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