Part I of IV
Capturing what Burning Man is verges on impossibility. I can only tell you what my own experience was like, and even that will be pieces and fragments. The story I tell will not help you understand Burning Man, it will only give you a glimpse of the little window I had. Like truth itself, Burning Man is multi-faceted and multi-dimensional. Each of the four posts to follow is just one piece, one facet of one little dimension, and even all of that is not all of what I experienced. Some things are too complex or too private for words. As powerful and versatile as language is, I felt a vague sense of dread as we drove home. I dreaded having to explain this to others for I was too full of the experience and I knew that putting it into words would flatten it and reduce it. I needed time to finish processing before I could open it up and share it with the outside world. So here it is, in pieces, starting with the most superficial: that of the chronicling of events and happenings. I say superficial, but it is a good a foundation as any with which to start.
Our pilgrimage (and I use that word very deliberately) began on Friday the 28th of August as we loaded up the truck with all of our camp equipment, food, dino art car, bar full of $2,300 worth of booze to give away, water, bikes and shade structures. We were running a steady four hours behind schedule and did not hit the road until 4 p.m. Going south through Montecito at 4 p.m. on a Friday afternoon is never a wise move. It took us far longer than we had hoped to hit the 126 so we could cut over towards the 395. We drove that as far as we could the first night, stopping in Mammoth Lakes around 1 a.m. We found a campground, slept in our truck, got up at 6 a.m. and continued on towards Reno. Reno is the major stop for last minute food, camp, and water items before you hit the playa and are thoroughly cut off from the rest of the world. We filled up, offered a ride to the Ranger Sasquatch, and took the long last road out to the Black Rock Desert. By this point, we were positively thrumming with excitement. Because we had early passes, we got in rather easily with only about a 45 minute wait (we had heard of others who had to wait over 6 hours to enter). So our first view of the playa when we reached our campsite was that of sunset.
The first night and following day, there were only a core group of 7 of us who had passes to arrive early. We spent that time building as much of the camp as we could and preparing for the arrival of others. As happy and as thrilled as I was to see the joy and excitement of the others as they slowly filtered in and joined us, and as wonderful as it was to burn with the people who made up our camp, it was actually the first few days on the playa that were my favorite. Those first few days were the ones of peace, quiet, solid hard work, and hard core burners collaborating to make the whole thing run smoothly.
On Monday we opened up the bar to all the people freshly arriving from the default world. Still unsure, still adjusting, still relatively free of dust, burners from all over started arriving for refreshing libation. I love tending bar on the playa because there is no exchange of money, no concerns of the precision of drink, only the exchange of service and stories. There is nothing more pleasing than telling a virgin, all hot, bothered and bewildered, that they can have whatever drink they can imagine: be it everclear, moonshine, vodka redbull or mai tai and then serving them up a fresh mint mojito and asking for nothing in return but their name and a handshake. The bar was quickly hopping and the whole of an afternoon disappeared in the blink of an eye. A fifth of the booze evaporated and thus I plunged myself directly into the event.
The first nights were also among my favorites because of the energy. It is raw, still full of awe and still full of potential as people discover what is already there and watch what is still yet to be built. The steady beat of music begins, and with it begins the rhythm and heartbeat of the playa that continues through the rest of the event (light sleepers beware). The art cars emerge, trundling along the vast darkness like glowing alien creatures across a surreal alien landscape. Everything glows and pulses and you begin to see the expanse of human creativity unleashed. You are awed not only by what human beings can imagine, but also what they can create in this harsh, hostile environment. One man brought out a large spinning cylinder lined on the inside with bright colored lights. You step inside and as he spins it around you, you feel yourself begin to lose your other senses as your sense of vision becomes overwhelmed. You wander some more and then you discover the Burninator. You feel the rush of heat engulf you as the cannons let loose hot bursts of flames. An angler fish heads towards the deep playa, a rocket is launched, and a glowing dragon rickshaw passes you by.
Every day has its own energy, its own dynamic. And even different times of the day have their own rhythms. You learn to settle, to let go, to succumb and to flow along with it and by Wednesday or Thursday you find yourself truly integrated with the playa, dust storms be damned. I lost my camera, I had left it behind at the Cubitron one night. The following morning it resurfaced, thanks to the benevolence of one generous soul. My gift to the camp is always food, taking charge of feeding the masses burritos, pasta, curry and beef brisket feasts. My gift to the larger community this year was little quote cards, which I gave out at the Temple.
The Temple is a sacred space (and this year it was a beauty) where people release their fears, their sorrows, their wishes and intentions. They share gifts and sacrifices to loved ones who have passed away. They write out their anger and forgiveness to those who have hurt them. And they express their desires for things to come. The raw emotion in the place is palpable in the air, even as you approach it. Tears and embraces are common sights in this sacred space. And at the end of the week, when everything that is meant for this place lies collected within it, the Temple is burned for all to see and to let go.
This year, I personally did not need the Temple, at least not in the way others do or that even I did two years ago. I have come a long way since, taken a lot from it, and this time it was my turn to give back. I wrote quotes on little cardboard pieces; quotes that have been important to me in my life for their ability to inspire, provoke thought, or succinctly encapsulate philosophy, human nature, and universal truth. And I wandered around the Temple finding the right person to receive the right quote. Under normal circumstances I would consider it the height of hubris to imagine I could judge a complete stranger and know which quote they should have. But here on the playa, people let their walls down. They are more vulnerable and more open. If the quote was not meant for them, I trusted that through them the gift would find its way home. I did this over the course of two days. The first day, I only gave out about a third of the ones I had brought. When I handed them to people, I received hugs and thank yous. But I also received tears. Some tears were cleansing and led to song. Others were earth-shattering and I cried too in empathy. I became very aware of the power I was wielding, the responsibility it entailed and I had to take some time away to prepare myself for what I was actually doing. So a couple days more passed before I felt ready to embark on that endeavor again. When I did, it was worth it, to see how others responded. One card I gave to a Ranger. The card read, “Sometimes you have to surrender before you can win.”
He read the card and called out to me, “Can I ask you a question?”
I turned back and nodded, feeling under my dust mask and goggles the extent of my anonymity.
He frowned at the card. “It says ‘Sometimes you have to surrender’…surrender to what?” he asked.
“That is something you have to discover for yourself, I believe,” I said.
He looked at me for a moment, contemplating my response. Then he nodded. “Thank you,” he said, and he embraced me.
The week culminates on Saturday night with the burning of the Man. A long, harsh dust storm hit that day and progressed onward into the night. With such high winds and such thick dust where you could not see 5 feet in front of you, it was uncertain whether the Man would be burned that night. But the stalwart, stubborn burners we were, a group of us clung hands together and marched out in the general direction of the Man. It was surreal wandering in complete dust and darkness, with no sense of where you are or where you are headed. But as luck would have it, our intuitions were not far off and we navigated our way out to the Man. Being so brave, we found seat at the very front row and others who had waited for the storm to pass filtered in behind us. It turned out the wait was not so long before the dust and winds began to die and the Fire Conclave began their performance. They spin and breathed fire, they lit dragons and cracked whips of fire as they danced and moved to the rhythms of drum beats. Then fireworks lit the sky above us, more, brighter, and closer than any display you’d find in the default world. And finally, then burned the Man in one giant explosion that lit our faces, heated the earth, flashed in our hearts and burned so bright the heart of the flames were white. We watched in awe as the flames erupted in slow building torches around the burning Man.
And then the party began.
The end of the week is when everyone rips out and lets loose and pure energy vibrates throughout the entire playa in one final explosion before it becomes time to transition back into the default world.
The transition is exhausting, wrenching, and a pilgrimage in its own right. After seeing what human beings can be when they are not encumbered by fear, it is difficult to reenter. You balk at the notion of having to put back on the layers and masks and reasserting your walls. You don’t wish to shut out others, though it is painful when you re-encounter the walls the outside world has constructed. It is like deliberately going back into the cave after you have seen the light and trying to content yourself with the shadows on the wall.
And on top of all that, you’re covered in dust, everything you own is covered in dust, and you have to unpack, clean and organize when all you can even think of doing is taking the longest most luxurious shower of your life, crawling into your own bed, and succumbing to that blessed thing called sleep.