I returned home from Burning Man last week. It has taken me this long to begin to fully wrap my head around my experiences. For those of you unfamiliar with Burning Man, it is ostensibly a week-long art festival/party out in the desert of Nevada. But that understated description clashes with the over-the-top reality of what manifests itself during that week in the desert. Burning Man is an exercise in radical self expression, radical self reliance, non-commercial gift economics, and spontaneous culture creation — all wrapped within an instantaneously created temporary city of 50,000 people. That’s a little closer… but still not there. Just imagine everything that exists in the world of human interaction, everything we wished existed in that world, now turn the volume up to eleven. There, that comes close to portraying Burning Man.
This was my first year attending and I wanted to ease into the experience. I shopped around and found a group of folks that were calling themselves “Camp Contact” because they all do contact improv dance, which I do as well. They are a “theme camp” which means they present workshops, are listed in the events directory, and have an address in the city. Most importantly, they get early entry passes so they can start erecting their part of the city before the mobs arrive on Monday. I wanted one of those passes.
I arrived on Friday night after a leisurely trip up the east side of the sierras and a few stops to soak in hot springs. After a brief de-virginification ceremony at the front gate, we plopped down on our blank chunk of playa. The next morning I awoke to an absolutely flat dry lake bed (playa) surrounded by barely visible black mountains. Barely visible because the wind rarely ceases blowing and the playa dust, light as talc is always in the air. When the wind really pipes up at 2 pm, you often can’t see 10 feet ahead.
That first morning we erected a geodesic dome, laid out our camp and sheltered from the midday heat. The next day our big panel truck arrived from the Bay Area with food and supplies. Now we had many hands and all the infrastructure was coming together. Oddly, being a Burning man first timer, I found myself in a leadership position with all these infrastructure chores. Mechanics, construction and engineering are some of my skills and they are skills that I love to share. I had just assumed that there would be other people far more experienced and skilled than myself. I felt really plugged-in in these moments, immersed in my element actually. Even though we were in the middle of a wind-swept baking desert, I felt fully at home. By Mid day Monday, we were still working on infrastructure and I was feeling a little dissatisfied with it all. Not that I didn’t enjoy the projects. It was that the projects were interfering with connection. I hadn’t come to Burning Man to do projects. I was hoping to meet people, see things, discover things about the world and myself. Building infrastructure was old hat. I felt a little trapped by the “me” that I had created and had brought to Burning Man.
I announced to the camp that from that evening forward, I was finished with infrastructure. I would be more than happy to help, but I didn’t want to assume any more leadership roles. It felt like walking through a doorway. I left behind the tool belt and the logical world and put on the mantle of playa clothes and connection. Connection to my campmates, openness to whatever came my way.
The change was remarkable. I had a great time heading out to the open playa in the cool of the evening riding on crazy art cars. One art car looked like a tuna boat plopped down in the middle of the desert blasting dub-step tunes and surrounded by glowing blinking dancers. Another looked like a giant lady bug, another like a deep sea angler fish. Some of these cars took me far from the city to bizarre art installations such a giant electronic interactive rubik’s cube or some strange glowing dots that changed color depending upon who jumped on them and when. To a first timer, I was a phantasmagorical world of wonder. But the wonder was short lived. Maybe it is my crazy wiring, but I had this unsettled feeling. “Here I am at burning man… but how do I fit in?”
This feeling stayed with me all the next day. I went out and checked out more cool art, met people. Gave a few massages. The massages were actually a highlight for me. The connection they engendered had a depth that is rare in the default world and I felt that I was contributing. But even then I didn’t actually feel like I knew how I fit in. I didn’t feel like a misfit, just that I wasn’t socketed in, not a fully engaged sprocket. I felt like my mind was looking for some sort of unity to emerge from the chaos and I just wasn’t seeing it.
It was in this mind-space that I awoke early on Wednesday morning. By early I mean 5:30 am, which is actually considered a good time to go to bed by Burning Man standards. It was the morning of the Procession. The Procession is a 6:30 am march to the Temple at the far reaches of the playa. All the marchers wear white and it is very solemn. So, I was awake, I had on white clothes. But for reasons I didn’t fathom. I chose instead to walk on that morning in the opposite direction. I walked away from the temple, towards the outer perimeter road of the city, over the unpopulated playa towards the bounding orange “trash fence”. Once I walked passed the perimeter road I began to feel oddly at ease. Two hundred feet further on I sat on the playa and gazed back at the city. With a population of 50,000 people, a city it is. In fact it is the third largest city in Nevada when it is in action during the week. It hums like a city, but like no other city I have ever experienced. With many of the camps pumping out techno music 24×7 the combined wall of sound is a little reminiscent of an ‘80’s era video arcade with the ”wump wump” of Ms. Pacman, the “zzscheup” of Asteroids and layered with the “bing bing bing” of the pinball machines. Combine the visuals of 50 foot jets of flame erupting arbitrarily throughout the camps, plumes of black smoke and twister funnels of dust storms, It is the visceral image many have of Armageddon or even of hell itself.
Sitting on the playa and gazing across this city from a distance allowed me to encapsulate it. I was “out” of the city. I felt the vibe of wilderness in the soil beneath me. I felt at home. I felt “in my place.” Feelings I had not had for a few days. After a half hour, I felt recharged. I was ready to go back and see what else this city had to show me. As I neared the perimeter road I felt this sudden wall of energy that literally hit me like a full chestal wallop in a pillow fight. It was so powerful it brought tears to my eyes. Huge sobbing, puckery chin, quivery lip tears. Tears that were not entirely unwelcome, but tears beyond what I had experienced for many years. After a few moments I was finished indulging in tears and ready to again reacquaint myself with the city. When I turned back to the road, a large white pirate spaceship hove into view. It had masts and a poop deck and flames (of course). There were people on the upper deck. I turned away so they would not see my tear-streaked cheeks. As they passed by I saw why it was a pirate spaceship. The whole ass end was round and covered in shiny metallic material. It had a ring of red lights, like thrusters. In the center of these thrusters was a key-hole shaped doorway, like you might see in a Tunisian mud house.
Maybe I have read too many adventure/ fantasy stories, but I knew that when a white apparition of a pirate space ship appears and it has a keyhole doorway, you walk through that doorway. There is no option. So I did. Beyond that doorway was a chill space done up in glittery panels and fabric streamers, but in the far back was a little nook the size of a loveseat. The nook was reminiscent of a window seat but without the windows. I was upholstered completely in fake fur and I snuggled into a corner. Once I got my bearings and settled in, I took stock of where I was. It was then that I noticed at the other end of the nook, lying on the bench was a tightly rolled, unsmoked joint.
Even in that moment I had the thought “was that a key-hole I walked through or a rabbit hole?” At this point it didn’t matter. When the universe brings you this far, you simply obey. There is a problem however. I am not a smoker. It is 7:00 in the morning and all I have are the clothes on my back, no water, no sunscreen, just two things are in my pockets which happen to be… chapstick…. and a lighter??!!. Okay, Universe, I am listening. Forget the prevailing wisdom at Burning Man that you might want to be careful of people who approach and want to give you a drink… or give you a joint. Forget that none of this makes a whack of sense when strung together in words and read from the perspective of the default world. When the universe brings you this far, you just obey. So I smoked that joint.
I sat there in that nook serenely puffing, watching the world recede as I peered out of the key-hole shaped doorway. I felt a little like I felt in my days of hopping freight trains. I had no idea where this crazy pirate spaceship was going. I had no Idea when or where it might be stopping, but none of that mattered. All that mattered was that it was moving; that I was moving. The joint wasn’t that powerful or mind expanding, but it was a nice enhancement. A few moments later I hear footsteps and someone descends a ladder from the upper deck. They seem a little startled to find me sitting there, but not overly surprised The guy looks me over and looks meaningfully at me as he asks “Is life Good?”
We wait through my pregnant pause and in a knowing tone, I manage to voice “I belong here.” Satisfied, he grabs a bike he was after and hops off the pirate spaceship. I see him recede in the distance as my ride continues onward.
Eventually we coast to a halt. I hear other people disembarking until all is quiet. I climb out too. Emerging in to the now bright full morning sun, my world is suddenly very very clear. Somehow through this transition of less than an hour of clock time, my whole place in Burning Man, actually my place in the whole world has been rearranged. I saw in that moment that Burning Man is actually just a massive stage and it is littered with stage props, stage props that are necessary in the unfolding stories of everyone there. Ultimately I am also a stage prop in your unfolding story and your are a stage prop in my story. But this is true only if I show up and show up genuinely. People talk about Burning Man having a gift economy. This is true, but the greatest gift anyone can give in that magical week is to give fully of their genuine selves in helping their fellow burners live out their stories.
The unspoken truth however is that Burning Man isn’t just a week long… our whole lives are a story and we don’t leave our need to show up and be genuine back in the desert. I am certainly returning next year and many years to follow. Until that day comes when I am happily powdered again in Playa dust, I’d love to hop into your story and rattle some marbles loose.