I don't remember why I decided to go. I do know that I found out early in the year that my best friend and his wife planned to go for their second time, so I thought it might be fun to join them. I had also read stories about this crazy thing called "Burning Man" and I was pretty sure I'd regret not going at least once. And, finally, I respect and care very much about a woman who is very active in the San Francisco "Cacophony" community and sort of felt that I wanted to dip myself in that for a week, to see if I could really get it. I don't think there was one specific reason, which is appropriate, considering the patchwork nature of this event in the desert.
I've heard it called lots of things, and I've tried to describe it in different ways, all of which fell short of the mark. A "festival in the desert", one article said. A "week-long party". An "interactive art celebration". A "spirtual journey" is one phrase that I felt described parts of my experience. I've only heard two phrases that embodied the spirit of Burning man to me. The first is how my friend Rick Sanders described it - a "conceptual potluck." After all, it's astounding how diverse are the contributions that "Burners" give to the community. The second is that it's a "kindergarten for adults", a place where grownups can play, not be judged, and relearn how to give and accept; it restored my childish glee about experiencing new things.
The first day or so, I was actually sure it was about camping and extreme preparation. Wind and dust scraped and choked us Wednesday night and I got my first taste of the dry chalky layer that quickly coats everything. I thought to myself, "Cool; this will be about defending ourselves from the elements." As I huddled in my tent by myself in the cold that night, I figured that kind of survivalism would be fun for one day, probably no more. The next morning, with the wind trying to carry away our canopy and dusting my coffee with alkali salt, I fantasized about a hot shower and a tall glass of iced tea. By the middle of the afternoon, though, we had secured our canopy with better guy wires and cross supports, and the wind turned from a threat into just a mild annoyance.
I soon found that people stopped by to share all kinds of things with us. I knew about the "gift economy" but I didn't really get it; I brought a bunch of things to give to my campmates, which I guess is part of the idea but not all of it. A camp on the other side of our street offered us (and everyone else) a hot spam and eggs breakfast and all we had to bring was a plate. An old friend of a campmember stopped by to ink stars, moons, and comets on us with a rubber stamp. I started participating by helping the camp next door put up their shade structure, and inviting them to use our stove, since theirs had caught fire. So I thought, "Oh! It's about sharing and giving and making friends and being a community."
That evening, I made my first journey into the center of Black Rock City. My nervous system kind of overloaded as I saw all the crazy flashing lights and heard all the loud noises and music. In one spot, at "Spank Spank", visitors were tied to a wall and flogged with a leather cat-o'-nine-tails as onlookers shouted encouragement. A little further away, the "Chairway to Heaven" lifted a person at a time to what must have been thirty feet above the lakebed floor, to better see the whole city; the line was quite long so I didn't try it. In the distance, I could see the Man, made of wood clad in glowing blue neon lights. Further along, as a very small sample, I saw...
At first I giggled like a little boy when women and men walked or biked by our camp naked. Then it became routine, almost boring. All throughout the city, people milled around nude, or wearing crazy outfits that seemed at first like costumes, but later I found were more like the true expression of peoples' inner selves. Many couples held hands, men held hands with men, women with women, and all seemed comfortable hanging out together. The strict rules of the playa seemed to coexist with extreme self-expression, from prohibition of personal fireworks and ground fires to hidden discrete sex and not-so-hidden drug use. "Um, is it about tolerance and acceptance, then?"
Finally, from the burning of the Man and our subsequent visit to the Temple, and the burning of the Temple the next night, I thought the whole thing was intensely spiritual. We were all dazzled by the fire show before the Burn, and swooned and screamed and danced and finally rushed up to the smoldering remains of the Man; that was a celebration. Later, the written thoughts and memories and epitaphs written on the thin wood of the Temple brought me to tears. I took a moment to scribble goodbye to a departed friend, forgive a lover, and wish the best for a friend on whom I had to shut the door. When we burned the Temple the next day, the mood was more solemn, more contemplative, and I found myself thinking deeply about my place in the world.
I found that after five days I did not know how I could possibly explain what Burning Man was about. Indeed, since the event is so large (thirty thousand people spread out over a thousand acres), it probably wouldn't be accurate to represent what I saw as a "typical" Burning Man. Everyone has different camps and events around them, and thus each person's experience is remarkably different.
What I do know is that I was previously very focused on results, oriented towards accuracy, and low on tolerance for silliness and creativity without obvious purpose. I find now that I still feel the magical freedom and sense of wonder that came over me that week, walking on the cracked and dusty desert ground, with waves of sensation and delight and discovery washing over me. I have more of an appreciation for the different and diverse than I think I've ever had before. It was like playtime, like show-and-tell and finger-painting and recess all rolled into one; a place to learn new things and not judge and to wonder at all the things you haven't seen before. A place to feel like a child again.
I can't wait until next year.
Things I remember that I thought I'd add: