Here’s something they didn’t tell us in the brochure: it’s a virtual certainty that we will never, ever get the playa dust out of our camping gear. It’s an unpopular souvenir from Burning Man that got into everything we took. The chairs, the tent, the backpacks, the sleeping bags…they will forever connect us to the Nevada alkali desert outside of Gerlach. The permeation of these tiny particles was so bad that we later abandoned our dust-tattooed tent in a hotel room in Reno. Maybe that tent’s next owner can get it out; we never would have.
It ain’t a fashion statement; when you see pictures where everyone at Burning Man is wearing goggles and a mask, the dust is the reason. Everyone smart is wearing that stuff, anyway. Everyone who has prepared. Playa dust is everywhere at Burning Man, all the time. It’s as omnipresent as air, and frequently in competition with it. The dust is all over your shoes. It’s in your shoes. It covers your clothes and it’s in your hair. It is covering your sleeping bag and pillow when you finally lay down each night. It’s present in the air at some volume continuously, and it whips at you violently during the desert’s frequent, sudden dust storms. A thin film of dust covers your skin a few minutes after you arrive in the desert, and it exists there until the day, a week later, when you take your first post-Burning Man shower. There are almost certainly tens of thousands of these tiny dust particles in my respiratory system still, weeks after leaving the Nevada desert. I suspect that I’ll die with some playa dust in me. I’m OK with that.
The Nevada desert which hosts the annual Burning Man festival is made up of this fine, powdery, tan-gray dust. It’s packed hard for easy walking and bike riding, but the hard pack is covered everywhere with a half inch of loose playa dust. God only knows how much playa dust leaves the desert each year in the cars, camping gear, clothes, and bodies of the 70,000 attendees and 2,000 volunteers that make Burning Man happen.
Darrell and the others warned us about the dust. He first told us about Burning Man and its dusty ways while we hung out during a break at Sammy’s Cooking School in Chaing Mai, Thailand. We met Darrell the day before, at the Elephant Nature Park (read more about that adventure here), and we became fast friends. One of the things that happens when traveling for long periods in Southeast Asia is that you notice the familiar faces of people that seem to be traveling your route. Sometimes you make friends. We made a few friends during our adventure, and that’s how we met Darrell, a fellow world traveler and adventure seeker who makes his permanent dwelling in Boulder, Colorado. During the time we spent with Darrell in Thailand, no matter where the conversation started, it always arrived at Burning Man. Over several days and many, many beers, Becci and I became convinced that Burning Man is a special, magical, one-of-a-kind event. We decided that we needed to check out Burning Man as soon as possible. We even decided to forgo our beloved annual trip to Bonnaroo in order to make it financially possible to get to Burning Man (which ain’t cheap).
What is Burning Man, and why were we drawn to it? The first thing you need to know is that Burning Man is like nothing that you have ever done before (unless you have already been to Burning Man). Burning Man is a big party. Burning Man is an art festival. Burning Man is an exercise in community, in radical inclusion, in decommodification, in participation. It’s an exercise in life and feeling alive.
All of this happens in the middle of nowhere. The closest town is tiny Gerlach, in the middle of the Nevada desert. The closest place that looks like an actual city is Reno, about 100 miles away. From Nashville, one flies into Reno, and then takes the Burner Express shuttle bus into the heart of the desert. Because of the number of people traveling to Burning Man, that trip through the desert across its winding two-lane blacktop can take as few as three and as many as ten hours to make. Timing is everything. We were among the lucky, making the trip with no fuss and no little waiting in about three and a half hours.
Burning Man is a city that is built, occupied for a week, and torn down. Once removed, no trace remains. The objective of organizers and attendees is that not a single piece of litter, not a fragment of charred wood, not even a tiny piece of trash, is left behind in the end. Everything must go. Once Burning Man is over, every single trace of the occurrence is removed. Even dirty water must be removed or evaporated by attendees; it is forbidden for dirty water to be poured on the ground in there desert.
Burning Man is the third largest city in Nevada for the week a year that it occurs. This city is populated and vital 24-hours-a-day for one week, and then is it torn back down and removed.
Getting to Burning Man
Getting our gear in and out of Burning Man was no picnic. One of the core principles of Burning Man is “radical self-reliance”. What does it take to be self-reliant for one week as a camper in the middle of the desert? A ton of stuff, as you might imagine. In our case, this gear included:
- A tent
- Sleeping bags
- Camping cots
- Clothes to accommodate a pretty significant range of temperature and weather conditions
- Goggles and masks
- Camp chairs
- Camp lighting
- Eating and drinking utensils
- Whiskey (beer is far too heavy and bulky)
- Emergency supplies
- Books and magazines
- Bicycles (Darrell insisted that we each needed a bike to traverse this large, temporary city, and he was right)
- Lighting for our bodies and our bikes (essential for safely traveling at night)
All of this stuff had to be packed and gotten to Reno by airplane and truck, gotten to Burning Man’s bus depot via automobile, gotten to the desert by bus, and then moved on foot from the bus depot to our camp site. The logistical challenges alone were numerous, and required a couple of months of thinking and planning. Conference calls were made. Boxes were packed and re-packed. Darrell was helpful in getting some of the gear and the bikes to the camp site; we packed and then drop-shipped a bunch of that equipment to his friend Twinkely Dots (actual, legal name) in Reno, where Darrell picked it up in his camper.
Darrell had invited us to camp with his usual Burning Man gang, mostly his friends from Boulder. All-in-all, we represented Colorado, California, Texas, and Tennessee at Camp WeScream. Everyone at Camp WeScream, and most everyone at Burning Man, goes by a playa name. My playa name is Jack of Spades, and Becci was known for the week as Cookie. Our good friend Burton, who went with us, was addressed using his Naval aviator call-sign Woody. Our fellow campers also included Submit, Motor, Phoenix, Alchemix, Kemo. All of those names have a back story, and a whole bunch of that back story is rated R or NC-17. What happens on the playa stays on the playa. Well, except for the stuff that I’m gonna tell ya next.
At the site, before Woody, Cookie, and I arrived, the Boulder faction had set up a pretty extensive sun canopy made up of rebar, PVC, and shade fabric. This canopy was non-trivial in size, with a footprint of about 30 by 60 feet. The shade fabric sat at a height of 8 feet atop a column and beam PVC frame that had been secured to the desert floor by rebar segments. The entire eastern side of this structure supported a cloth wind break / sun shade. This setup was absolutely necessary for the desert conditions we experienced. Our sleeping / living / cooking area was shaded and partially protected from wind and sandstorms. The rebar supports, sledged two feet deep into the hardpacked desert floor, kept the whole damned thing from blowing away whenever the dust demons stirred.
This was home.
Now…what to do at Burning Man?
As it turns out, entertainment options are prevalent at Burning Man. Burning Man is a city, and in that city you can eat, drink, see bands, go clubbing, dance, take classes, jog, study yoga, play putt-putt golf. You can meet someone, fall in love, get married, and fight three rounds in the Thunderdome. It’s a city. A pop-up city that thrives for a week, then vanishes for the next 51.
Things To Do at Burning Man
Here are a few of the things that we did to stay amused at Burning Man.
- Attended a lock picking class, where I learned that I have no future in lock picking.
- Enjoyed bottomless topless mimosas. It was first thing in the morning; only the topless were served. As usual, the mimosas outlasted my willingness to drink them. I did not tire of the other.
- Enjoyed delicious fried bologna sandwiches each morning at the KFC camp. KFC was populated by friendly Kentuckians and included a guy dressed impeccably each day as the Colonel. I do not know how he kept his whites white. I loved this place and was there every morning. I went through the line two or three times each morning, enjoying a small fried bologna sandwich every time I reached the front of the queue. The crew there nicknamed me “Mustard Only” because that’s how I like my fried bologna. The nice folks at KFC also plied us all with bourbon while we waited on line; this made for a pretty smooth transition into each morning.
- Served ice cream. This was Camp WeScream’s gift to the community. Free ice cream! Turns out that ice cream, served up in the desert in the middle of a hot day, is a very popular thing. I’m guessing we served about 500 grateful people before we ran out of nitrogen.
- Drank. There are lots of bars at Burning Man. The Steampunk was a favorite. I also remember enjoying a whiskey shot one morning served directly out of a shotgun shell by a profoundly inebriated English guy who thought this was all happening in the evening.
- Dueled with foam swords whilst balancing on a shaky wooden beam. First one to hit the ground loses. Turns out I’m great at this, and remained undefeated. I was eventually made to leave because I could not be vanquished!
- Rode and rode and rode bikes.
- Looked at massive, beautiful art sculptures in the desert. These sculptures are built, admired for a week, and either burned or packed out at the end of the festival.
- Enjoyed sunrises in the open playa.
- Watched mutant art cars drive around at night. Some of these are quite elaborate.
- Ate amazing foods liked bacon tamales; s’mores; deep fried pancakes slathered in Nutella. I remember riding my bike down a street one afternoon when a guy in a wolfskin head-covering asked me if I wanted some mac ’n’cheese. Yes, of course. It was served to me in the middle of the street off of a giant spoon, out of a large cooking pot. He had made too much for his camp, and was offering what was left to lucky passers-by.
- Watched a roller derby match.
- Played putt-putt golf. Someone built a 9 hole (I don’t actually remember how many holes it had) course out there. Other Jon and I were riding bikes around and saw it one day. We stopped and played. I think I won.
- Was a witness at a wedding. This was Woody, actually, not me, but he told me about it.
- Listened to music in various clubs. My favorite was Club Neu Verboten, where Woody and I enjoyed an afternoon of Metal served up by possibly the most fired-up DJ I have ever seen.
- Witnessed matches in Thunderdome. As in Mad Max Beyond… Seriously awesome.
- Tested our skills in a bad beer tasting contest. The contest was to taste and identify small samples of nine bad beers (Miller Lite, PBR, Natural Light, Coors Light, etc.) in a blind taste test. Amazingly, between the two of us, Cookie and I got ZERO correct answers. Statistically speaking, that is a very impressive result. And hey, free beer.
There was tons more to do. I remember those.
Give It Away Now
Everything you do at Burning Man, aside from purchasing ice, is free. Nothing apart from ice is bought. Nothing is bartered for. You pay to get in, you bring what you need, and after that, everything is given. The ice cream that we made at Camp WeScream was given away. The soup we ate every night at Voodoo Soup was given to us. The banjo lessons were freely given and happily provided. All of the many, many, many drinks were free.
Gifting and Decommodification are two of the ten principles upon which Burning Man is built. Others include Participation, Inclusion, and Immediacy. I can relate to many of those, but Immediacy is the one I like best. You only go around once folks, and you never know when this ride is gonna end. You are born; later, you die. In between, you have to do as much kick-ass stuff as possible. Do as much as you can.
The full list of Burning Man’s 10 principles is found here. It’s a fun read. It might change your life.
Our camp’s li’l contribution to all of this was the generation of some mighty delicious, mighty frozen ice cream. I’ve noticed over the years that cold stuff goes down real easy on a hot sunny day. When it’s tasty, that’s even better. This trend continued at Burning Man; the ice cream was a hit.
In order to give away ice cream, one has to have ice cream. How does one have ice cream in the desert? The old fashioned way baby, we made it. We used science: we used liquid nitrogen. A five foot tall cryogenic storage dewar of frozen liquid nitrogen (as seen in Terminator 2) was obtained in Colorado and transported ever-so-gingerly to the desert, via Rob’s trailer towed by Other Jon’s truck. This liquid nitrogen setup was employed to cause super-fast-if-not-instantaneous freezing of a milk / sugar / whatever-else-is-in-ice-cream mixture. We tossed a little flavoring in for taste. Real cold; surprisingly awesome. Way better than the crap ice cream we all made as kids using rock salt.
A lot of ice cream was made; group enthusiasm and the second law of thermodynamics being what they are, it was devoured in a timeframe that I almost certainly has drawn the attention of the folks at Guinness. We made ice cream until we floated our liquid nitrogen keg.
There is a lot of fire at Burning Man. One might even say that fire is a theme there.
The most impressive thing that gets burned at Burning Man is the Burning Man. The Burning Man is a 60-foot tall wooden effigy that stands in the center of the open playa for the entire week. On Saturday, after dark, the Man is burned.
I would describe this scene as akin to Mardi Gras. It’s Carnival. Everyone at Burning Man, including great handfuls of people that just attend for the weekend, are out on the playa. Music (generally, godawful EDM) blares from every driver on every loudspeaker, and there are very, very many loudspeakers at Burning Man. All of the mutant art cars are out, are lit, and are blasting tunes. Attendees are in high spirits and are generally enjoying their favorite inebriate.
The burn starts with a world-class fireworks display. Bec…er, Cookie, loves fireworks, and I like ’em fine myself. I’ve seen a lot of fireworks displays, including the Independence Day fireworks in Nashville, which are amongst the most spectacular displays put on each year in the U.S. The fireworks display that preceded the burning of the Man is second to no fireworks display that I have seen. It was vivid, colorful; it was majestic; it was tall; it was extensive. It was dramatic, as it occurred around and behind the Man. As the fireworks display reach its climax before the cheering horde, the man’s arms, which had been down at his sides, were raised by unseen ropes. Balls of propane fire erupted and boiled up from the base of the Man. Hundreds of feet away, we felt a rush of heat. The Man was lit.
He burned, slowly at first, then more quickly. His outer surface (his skin?) burned away. A skeleton of harder, slower-burning wood remained, holding the enormous structure in place. The power of fire to hold one’s attention is a peculiar, intriguing thing, as we all know from going camping. We watched the Man burn for at least on hour with 70,000 of our closest friends, who cheered and danced around us.
The Saturday burn is a huge party. It goes on all night. A lot dancing and drinking is involved. On Sunday morning, sausage is cooked on and served off the burning embers, while a few intrepid souls comb through the smoking, hot ash for tiny wire and metal souvenirs.
Sunday has a whole different feel to it than Saturday. Saturday is Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Sunday is…Sunday morning in New Orleans. Sunday is the day after. It’s quiet. Everybody has a hangover. Many leave. And on Sunday night, there is a much different burn.
The Temple of Promise is a quiet, powerful, sacred place at Burning Man. It is a special space where impromptu shrines, small and large, are created during the week. These small areas of remembrance are almost always in recognition of a lost loved one. Some even brought the ash remains of cremated loved ones to the Temple, and those ashes joined hundreds…perhaps thousands…of other shrines and mementos. Some of these were as simple as short goodbyes, written with sharpies on the wooden Temple structure. Some were photo collages of friends, lovers, family who have died. A few were elaborate paintings and sculptures in recognition of the dead.
To move through this Temple is to be moved. During all hours of the day and night, visitors to the Temple would walk slowly through and contemplate her many memorials. I visited twice. Each time, I went through the Temple’s towering entry arch and walked slowly through the constricting, nautilus hallway, through and out into the open garden at the center of the Temple. Along the way, I would stop and read tributes. There were seemingly thousands of these little shrines. Some were simple…a sentence or two written on the wooden structure. I looked at the pictures and read the messages to the dead and for their survivors. All of these temporary memorials expressed an honest sense of loss about an absent, beloved soul. To be there and to read those things was to experience in a very direct and pure sense the love and longing of others. I was reminded of those who I love who have left us. I thought of my father, from whom I unknowingly, unwittingly learned so many of the things that make me who I am. I miss my father, and I think almost every day about the important things he taught me. I remembered my grandmother and her unconditional love. I thought a lot about the grandfather who I worshipped as a boy; who I still worship in a way. I thought a lot about my father-in-law; he and I always drank too much and had a great time together. To walk through that Temple was to remember. It is one of the most emotionally powerful places I have ever visited. I did not expect that, and was surprised at how emotionally powerful it was. Many people were openly weeping as they walked her halls and received her many messages. I felt powerless to stop the emotions and the tears once I got in there.
The Temple of Promise was adorned and visited all day and every night for a week. On Sunday night, the Temple and her many shrines burned.
The Temple burn is conducted in absolute silence. Unlike the previous evening’s rambunctious atmosphere, the temple burn is a ritualistic, solemn proceeding. Temple Guardians maintain a safe perimeter, facing the crowd. The first few rows of the crowd just outside the perimeter sit and remain seated throughout the burn. No music plays, and no one speaks while the temple slowly burns. The temple burn is the final major event of the week. The Burning of the Man celebrates the living; the burning of the Temple commemorates the dead and the lost.
After about twenty minutes of the Temple’s burning in nearly absolute silence, the 96-foot tall entry arch toppled forward in a crash of sparks. The crowd stirred but remained silent. Directly across the open space from us, behind the temple, someone raised his voice and imitated the sad cry of a single lone wolf. A moment later, a group of wolf howls barked up around him. The howls started to move through the crowd, in a wave…slowly moving clockwise through the crowd of people that encircled the Temple burn. When the howl came ’round to us, I threw my head back and wailed with abandon.
Art on the Playa
There’s a pretty significant electronic dance music (EDM) scene at Burning Man. People dance all night in the many clubs that are set up in the desert. EDM isn’t really my thing, so I’m not going to spend a lot of time on that. Clearly, many people enjoy that music, that scene, those drugs. I have nothing against any of that, but it doesn’t make my motor run, so I’ll leave the telling of that story to the many others who know it better.
I will say that some of the sound and lighting rigs were pretty impressive. Very significant audio systems had been transported to the desert to support the delivery of EDM at bolt-loosening volume. A bunch of these sound systems could be heard across vast expanses of desert. As I rode my bicycle across the playa late at night, I would hear different dance tracks simultaneously pulsing through the air from several directions. EDM was played loud at all hours of the day and night.
The primary overlap that I had with the EDM kids is that I would see the most committed of them during my morning trips out to see the sunrise on the playa. The truly serious clubbers would still be at it (“we don’t really even get started ’til sunrise!”), shaking their dusty bits in the pink-orange morning sun as it slowly crept over the low mountains to our east.
The large, open playa at the center of Burning Man, surrounding the Man himself, is covered with sculptures. Some of these sculptures are huge, and of course, none of them are permanent installations. These pieces are brought in, assembled on site, enjoyed for a week, and then taken away. Or occasionally, spectacularly burned. There are dozens of giant sculptures to admire (and climb).
Some of the art can be driven. These pieces, known as mutant cars or art cars, are omnipresent on the playa. I think we saw about two hundred different mutant cars over the course of the week. They tend to come out at night.
A mutant car can be anything from a modified golf cart to a modified truck. We saw one monstrous craft that appeared to be a yacht that had been cored out and sat atop and around a full-sized school bus. The yacht was adorned with lights and a club-worthy sound system. This thing spent the week slowly sailing through the desert, letting people on and off of her 24-hour-a-day dance party.
There were actually a couple of mutant “cars” of the same approximate shape and size of the yacht. School bus or truck-sized vehicles equipped with party decks thumped slowly through the desert night, all night, every night. There was even one mutant car with scissor lift that allowed about a dozen occupants on a platform to rise 50 feet above the desert for a better view.
Not all of the mutant cars were behemoths. The majority were more modest, having started their lives as pickup trucks, automobiles, or golf carts. They had of course been heavily modified, often having been stripped down to their frames before being repurposed. Occasionally, we observed vehicles such as El Pulpo Mecanico that seem to be have been built completely from scratch. All were brightly lit for visibility as they moved across the desert each night. The mutant cars were every bit as beautiful and elaborate as the large desert sculptures which they drove past.
What To Wear
Speaking of lights, let’s talk about the dress code at Burning Man. Basically, the dress code is “wear some lights at night”. Or maybe it’s “wear lights, goggles, and something to cover your face”. Those are the perfunctories at Burning Man; everything else is optional.
Why the lights? Well, basically so that you aren’t mowed down at night by a mutant car or someone on a bike. Imagine a vast, unlit expanse of desert, being criss-crossed simultaneously by dozens of vehicles and thousands of bicycles. Each rider and each vehicle is adorned with a few or a bunch of lights of some sort. Woe be unto he who doth not belight himself; he shall be smitten upside the head. Or worse.
Everyone does it a little bit differently. I basically built myself a “bat belt” that provided a platform for a couple of LED strands, as well as provided me with a spot for the essentials of my daily nomadic existence as I roamed Burning Man. My rig, acquired from military supply outlets, had pockets, pouches, straps, and hooks to hold:
- Two LED light strands
- The battery packs that powered them
- A canteen full of water or gatorade
- A small flask containing Gentleman Jack
- A large metal drinking cup (handy for receiving servings of food and drink)
- A compact fork / spoon / knife set
- My phone (for taking photos; there is no cellular service on the playa)
- Pat the Swiss Army knife
- A flashlight
- Money (that I did not use all week)
- Various buttons and badges that were acquired during the week
As I said, the dress code at Burning Man is all about utility. Regarding the propriety of dress, the only rule is that there are no rules. Well, maybe just one…which I’ll get to in a sec. Full nudity occurs occasionally at Burning Man, and partial nudity is commonplace. It’s so commonplace that once you become acclimated, it is not even noteworthy.
The one defacto rule upon which just about everyone agrees relates to a practice known as “shirtcocking”. As a matter of fact, there are occasional signs posted that say things like “No Shirtcocking” or “Shirtcockers Will Be Towed at Owner’s Expense”.
What is Shirtcocking, you ask? You are going to be so sorry that you wanted to know. But I’ll tell you, because I realize that you won’t leave me alone about this if I don’t.
Shirtcocking is the unfortunate practice, engaged in by a very few tasteless chaps, in which they wear a T-shirt but no trousers or undergarment. Nude men at Burning Man are no big deal, but shirtcockers are profoundly offensive. I’m not sure what it is about it but…God damned shirtcockers. Perhaps it’s that when you see a fully naked guy out of the corner of your eye, you know what’s coming. Peripheral vision is good like that, and you have time to prepare. But that shirtcocker guy, well, he seems like just another guy walking toward you and then…Oh God; surprise! There’s that guy’s man parts! Dammit, I was not expecting that! I learned that I don’t like being surprised like that, and I guess no one else does either, because their is a major dislike for shirtcockers. Apart from things that harm others, shirtcocking is the only behavior I can remember which is not tolerated at Burning Man.
I Do Not Consent to Any Search
There was a lot of reading done before we set off for Burning Man, assisting us in preparing for the trip logistically and mentally. This was necessary; as I’ve said already, Burning Man is like nothing else I’ve ever done. A little planning and preparation was in order.
One of the very best things I consumed in preparation for the trip was a short article that talked about dealing with the law-enforcement presence at Burning Man. You may read it here.
This is important to many attendees because there is an interest amongst some burners in the use of recreational and consciousness-altering drugs.
Burning Man is not a drug fest. Everyone who hasn’t been thinks that it is, and this is one of the misconceptions that I have tried to correct in just about every conversation I’ve had since returning from Burning Man. I’ve seen more drug use at Bonnaroo than I saw at Burning Man. But there is of course some illegal drug use there.
Drug laws and their enforcement is generally not a concern for me. My drug of choice is alcohol, which happens to be legal. I never get hassled at a place like Burning Man (or Bonnaroo) because no one really cares if someone my age drinks; it’s expected. As long as drinkers remain nice to everybody, it isn’t a problem.
If your inebriate of choice happens to be an illegal drug, however, you have a few things to worry about at Burning Man. The event occurs in a county whose sherriff is not a fan, and doesn’t give a damn about Radical Inclusion, Decommodification, Self-Reliance, or any of the other principles of Burning Man. He does care about people buying, selling, and using illegal drugs in his county, even marijuana.
The Reddit article that I linked to speaks to the best ways to interact with law enforcement, and it applies to many more situations than Burning Man. It addresses ways to conduct appropriate, respectful, and legal interactions with law officers, such that these interactions are not self-incriminatory and are consistent with the U.S. Constitution, specifically, the Fifth Amendment. It’s a great read; it’s a short read. It tells you some things you really ought to know and might need to say next time you are stopped for speeding or for a burned-out light on your car. As even casual watchers of Cops know, police officers routinely co-erce and often lie to suspects in order to get them to incriminate themselves. This article provides some handy guidance that we all should consume and benefit from, even those of us who are generally law-abiding.
Here’s a sample from this article:
If they ever say anything like “you are under arrest”, or ever do anything to make you think you have been arrested, such as restraining you in any way, you must immediately say the following magic phrase (memorize it!): “I do not consent to any search. I hereby invoke my right to remain silent. I want to speak to my attorney.” And then you SHUT THE FUCK UP.
Learn it; live it. Don’t be a victim of the abuse of police power.
Getting Out of Burning Man
Getting out of Burning Man turned out to be even more of a challenge than getting there. Everyone has a certain amount of Burning Man they can handle, and for all of our camp except for Burton, their Burning-Man-Use-By-Date expired one day before Bex, Burton, and I were scheduled to leave. Because of this, we all spent a good chunk of our penultimate day breaking down the large and impressive shade structure that had protected us from the sun for the week prior. Burton performed his chores whilst elegantly wasted, having spent the entire evening foregoing sleep in favor of champagne and dancing.
After hours of teardown and packing in the desert sun, Burton, Becci, and I found ourselves sitting next to our two lonely tents in the middle of our large and formerly bustling camp site. There is no recycling or trash service at Burning Man, so we had to arrange for the transport of all of our trash, as well as our gear and whatever else we had left out there. We packed up what we could and sent it away with our camp mates; all of them had driven, and the plan all along had been to have them help us with shipping for the items that we couldn’t carry. However, the plan had been for everyone to leave simultaneously. Having most of the team pack up and leave one day early created some unexpected challenges. Everything that was absolutely necessary to get through our last 24 hours there had to be kept, but it also had to be accounted before when packing out, as one of the golden rules of Burning Man is that nothing…NOTHING…can be left behind. People actually come through after everyone has left and score camp sites based on their moop (left behind trash). And when I say moop, I am not just talking about something obvious, like a pile of beer cans. An apple core is moop. A tiny piece of plastic wrapper is moop. A piece of lint from a sock is moop. All forbidden!
In comparison with the prior nights, our last day and night at Burning Man were Spartan. During the heat of the day, we sat in the small piece of shade provided by a nearby RV. We ate unheated Chef Boyardee Ravioli from a can (delicious, btw), and tried to eat as much of the other random food that we had as possible, so as not to have to carry it out. That night temperatures dipped into the high 30’s as we slept on the ground, having sent away our camping cots. A handful of trail mix and the last of the Cheeze-Its fortified us in the morning before we began our final pack up and walk out.
The three of us made the slow trek to the bus station with 200+ pounds of camping gear and clothing. We took our time, but arrived sufficiently ahead of our scheduled departure that we took an early bus. We were filthy and exhausted as we climbed aboard an unexpectedly luxurious coach for the ride back to Reno.
Back to Civilization
A couple of things happened once we got back to Reno. The Burner Express dropped us at the airport, and as we waited there for a shuttle to the casino where we were staying, I caught myself drinking whisky from a flask while standing on the sidewalk outside the airport. After a week at Burning Man, I had to remind myself that in most of the rest of the U.S., you cannot stand around drinking whiskey in public. Luckily, we were in Reno.
The other thing that hit me as we waited is that I had not handled money in over a week. That’s probably the only week since I went to Kindergarten that I haven’t touched money. This realization sorta blew my mind.
I loved Burning Man, but it was good to be back in civilization. We took showers, our first in a week, and put on the clean clothes that we had left for ourselves in Reno the week before. I washed my hair four times; it was still dusty after all that washing. We ordered room service, eating far less than we ordered. We immediately fell into a three hour nap, waking to meet Burton for dinner and then to go back to bed. And I dreamed like I don’t ever remember dreaming before. I dreamed vivid, long, film-like dreams for 9 hours. It was as if I had not dreamed for a week, and was making up for lost time. Becci described the same thing the next day: long, cinematic dreams with coherent storylines and multiple characters. I was a secret agent in mine.
Burning Man is a hidden city on a different planet than the one we live on during all of the other weeks of the year. Becci and I enjoyed our time there. We will go back. We have discussed what we are going to do next time we attend: the theme of our camp and what it will do to provide for the community. So far, this involves serving grilled cheese sandwiches and playing vinyl records.
There are a number of ideas that are central to the Burning Man experience, and for me the most important concept is Immediacy. Every one of us puts barriers in our own way every day, barriers that keep us from experiencing our inner selves, the natural world, and all of the other people in it. Eliminating those barriers can simplify life and at the same time enable immediacy. Eliminating these barriers can be as simple as saying yes to more things that present themselves in life. Burning Man is a great reminder to just say yes. It is easy to find reasons to say no to things; we need to find reasons to say yes. Saying yes involved talking chances, creating vulnerability, and exposing ourselves to risk. But is also creates opportunities for learning, growth, adventure, and discovery. Life is about doing things, not avoiding things. Burning Man is a great place to practice this important idea.
When we returned from our year of travel a few months before, both Becci and I slipped easily back into the life we had been living before our year of travel and learning. We went back to work in corporate America. We easily slipped back into that life of e-mails, meetings, and client deliverables. Burning Man was a sudden, welcome return to the life that we had been experiencing during our first 365 Days on the Road. At Burning Man, we were once again in a position to think about and do whatever we wanted to do every day. The freedom to think about what you want to think about every day: that is an addictive drug. I had forgotten how addictive; Burning Man reminded me.
All of this got us both thinking about what is next. I am hooked on that drug, and I don’t want to kick the habit. I just want more. More travel, more learning, more adventure, more simplicity, more freedom.