As much as I dislike clichÃ©s, I have to make a very clichÃ©d disclaimer at the beginning of this post: No matter what anyone ever tells you about Burning Man, or whatever you read, it will never be the same as you experiencing it. Also, every experience of Burning Man is unique. So my account of what happened there and my feelings are entirely and completely subjective and would â€“ indeed could â€“ only happen to me. So digest that, take a deep breath and read onâ€¦
On my way to Burning Man, a week-long extreme survivalist experience held in a dried-up lake bed deep in the Nevada desert, I remembered the exact moment when I first wanted to go to Burning Man. It was about 10 years ago, I was browsing the SomethingAwful forums and someone had posted a few pictures accompanying an account of their time at the burn. One of the pieces of art theyâ€™d captured caught my imagination. It was essentially a pair of binoculars that you looked through, but unlike regular binos, these would give you the perspective of a giant. Using a pair of periscopes mounted feet apart and high in the air, they made you feel like you were hundreds of feet tall. They also were mounted behind you, so you could get the impression of being behind yourself, looking down at you looking down at yourself. This one crazy piece of interactive art so fired my curiosity that I began researching as much as I could about Burning Man and in the next couple of hours it became firmly situated on my bucket list. And this year I crossed it off that list. Achievement Unlocked.
I am, of course, not the same person I was ten years ago. The art on display this year did affect me and I had many wonderful and weird experiences, most of which you will read about in the next few minutes. But the thing I am most grateful for and happiest about, is that the sense of curiosity, which led me here, from the very beginning ten years ago, has only been deepened. There are now more things about myself and about the world that I want to see and explore and that is the true takeaway from an experience like Burning Man. I suppose the best way to properly chronicle my time at Burning Man is to do it by emotion, chronologically. The first emotion that I felt wasâ€¦
ANTICIPATION: When youâ€™re days away from leaving, the anticipation begins. You begin to do your shopping. Rebar stakes for your tent so it doesnâ€™t fly away in the 100-mile-an-hour dust storms. Goggles and dust masks. Sunscreen and water. Oh, the water. 1.5 gallons per person per day multiplied by 7 days plus an extra day to account for delays and cooking and so on equals 12 gallons of water per person. Food. Trash collection and how to pack out everything that you take in. Clothes. Lighting for yourself and your bike (if you can manage to get one there, which I couldnâ€™t) â€“ the list goes on, through multiple excel sheets and google docs. The actual anticipation of waiting in line, after a 12 hour road trip through some of the most boring California and Nevada highways. That first sight of the line that you take four hours to get through just in order to collect your tickets. Another line before you actually enter the gates and go through the somewhat embarrassing ritual of ringing the bell at the entrance, proclaiming your lost burner virginity and making a â€˜dust angelâ€™. (All of which I skipped, since I was so excited to actually get in.) Finally, youâ€™re in and the anticipation gives way toâ€¦
EUPHORIA: This is it. Youâ€™ve made it. After months of waiting, countless amounts of cash and time and effort spent, after the preparation and the packing and the journey, this is IT. I lost myself in the activity of setting up, meeting my new camp buddies, having that first welcome beer, nice and cold from someoneâ€™s icebox. All around me are cries of â€˜welcome homeâ€™ and the sounds of excited greetings as old friends and new meet again. The first evening and night, everything is a blur. Walking out on the playa, I didnâ€™t even have a chance to take out my camera. I was mindboggled at what I saw. By day, all of Black Rock City is noise and music and dust and crowds, but by night, light and fire add to the cacophony of stimulus.
Everywhere you look, LEDs and bulbs vie for your attention. Music â€“ a hundred different genres from a thousand different sources, assault your ears and yet blend into an attractive force that bounces you around from venue to venue. The best bet is to walk around, aimlessly, till you get tired and thatâ€™s what I did. Along the way, the first concepts of what itâ€™s like to live in a gift-powered society begins to dawn on me. Iâ€™m carrying a steel cup around and every bar I visit in every tent, has some libation to offer me. Shots of whisky, vodka, tequila and gin with every mixer known to mankind are offered and, sometimes, I partake. In some way, this is what a hedonistâ€™s heaven looks like. There is only taking, if youâ€™re walking around, and you arenâ€™t obliged to give anything back, except perhaps for a smile and a hug â€“ the traditional Burning Man 6-second hug â€“ the default form of greeting on the playa. I went to sleep, still euphoric, a little drunk, ears ringing and eyes tired from the show. The next day bringsâ€¦
ACCEPTANCE: How could things ever have been different? This is how life always was and always should be. I wake up early, the harsh playa sun defeating the shade structure that my camp has put up, in the vain hope that it will enable us to sleep into the day. Breakfast is a cup of oatmeal, lugged all the way from a Walmart in San Diego. A day of exploring awaits and I head out with my camera. Iâ€™m still oscillating between euphoria and acceptance, though. Little jolts to my brain occur each time I see something I havenâ€™t experienced on the playa before (which is every five seconds or so). Day time is meant for exploration â€“ both of the playa and the various camps, as well as of the self. The first one happens when you walk about and interact with everything out there. The second one happens pretty much automatically.
The result of being in an environment that stimulates you so much is it makes your neurons fire in unexpected directions. Iâ€™m making connections and chains of thought that I wouldnâ€™t otherwise. Without actually being on any hallucinogens, Iâ€™m having the creative output of doing some pretty hardcore drugs. It kinda makes sense. If doing LSD makes you see dragons in the dust and that leads to creativity (bear with me here) then when you see a real dragon in the dust tower over you and breathe fire and itâ€™s actually there and followed immediately by a disembodied skull, and a 150-foot tall woman, and then a boombox on wheels and thenâ€¦ well, just imagine the sort of stuff you could come up with after 15 hours of that. I need an outlet for this, and fast. Thankfully, the next stage of the Burning Man experience isâ€¦
PRODUCTIVITY: This is the time when I found myself being useful to the community â€“ I tended a bar, I volunteered at an art project, I helped a random guy find batteries for his torch and when he couldnâ€™t locate them, I gave him my torch as a gift. You meet the most people during this phase, and the real reward is the communication and the conversation that you get out of it. Itâ€™s when you truly feel the most as though youâ€™re part of a society of equals, all pulling together against, well, against everything else. The weather, the dust, the constant hardship of being out on the fringes of the world. Sadly, however, it isnâ€™t a very long lasting phase, and eventually the overuse of your serotonin receptors begins to tell â€“ itâ€™s harder and harder to feel those jolts of excitement and euphoria and soon enough a downward spiral begins, intoâ€¦
MELANCHOLIA: There really is no reason to feel down at a place like Burning Man, except for the fact that the human body cannot sustain high levels of exertion, stimulation and happiness for a long time. As proof to the fact that you can get used to anything, your mood begins to plateau out even though youâ€™re still being bombarded with stimulus. Now, instead of energizing you and invigorating you, it begins to grate on your senses. This happened to me by Day 4, when I spent nearly all day in a funk. I couldnâ€™t understand it. I was where I wanted to be. I was seeing all these amazing things and meeting these incredible people and yet I was feeling sad and low. Every interaction seemed to be dragging me even lower and having the opposite effect of what it should. Around this time comes a realization of how ultimately fake this is.
The gifting economy is actually all bullshit. Someone paid for all the alcohol I had been swilling. I gave away good food that I paid for and would have eaten â€“ sure I was getting stuff in return, but thatâ€™s barter! Itâ€™s not a gift. No one actually labored to get any of this stuff up. What seemed like a utopian society was disintegrating in front of my horrified mind and showing me its true colors. I was able to see, for the first time, it seemed, the huge numbers of freeloaders who were just along for the ride. The ones who just came to Burning Man for the drugs and the sex and not to truly take part in the experiment that I thought it was all along.
Things came to a head when I was stumbling along, completely lost out on the playa. A dust storm whipped up. It was about 2 PM, as hot as it could ever get, and visibility quickly went all to hell as did my mood, which was sour already. Wrapped up like a little ball of misery, my hat and scarf around my head, goggles and dust mask on, I never felt as alone as I did. The murky whiteness surrounded me like a sensory deprivation experiment gone horribly wrong. In that moment, all I could do was sit and think quietly, for perhaps the first time in days. Surprisingly, almost, thatâ€™s what it took. Thatâ€™s when it happened. I moved on to the next phaseâ€¦
EPIPHANY: Nothing actually happened to me physically, but like a veil lifting from the eyes of my mind, all my cares seemed to melt away. It sounds silly and melodramatic and ultimately anticlimactic even: there was no voice from heaven or distant flash of lightning to mark the passage of my period of self doubt and loathing of this place I had come to. There was only my clearer understanding of what had brought me to this place and how everything worked. I felt unblocked, like I understood some secret puzzle. Where peoplesâ€™ motivations were obscured, they were clear now. I had been over analyzing, getting caught up in my own little game of trying to find meaning, when what I should have been doing was letting go. It wasnâ€™t a spiritual experience, it taught me nothing about what to expect in the afterlife, it aligned no chakras and opened no third, fourth or fifth eyes. It just put me in my place. Youâ€™re here to experience life.
Because this is all you have and this is all its ever going to be. I heard the sound of music again, as though it had always been there. I swung back into the thick of things. The rest of the week was a blur and yet it wasnâ€™t. I was back to a blend of the emotions I had been feeling all week. The euphoria returned, but changed â€“ it was now tinged with the knowledge that I shouldnâ€™t drink too deep of it, lest I get lost again. The crash from the euphoria returned too, but with an understanding that made it bearable and a phase to be endured. At last, after one final riotous orgy of colour, sound and destruction that was the burning of the man on Saturday night, we made a mad dash to escape the playa. Countless people in cars, RVs, semi trucks and all manner of wheeled contrivances simultaneously dealing with the combined emotion ofâ€¦
BEWILDERMENT: As we deal with the real world. The only overriding thoughts at this point are a need to return to the womb of the playa â€“ or get a nice warm shower. The one is impossible, so the second must happen. And yet as we all leave we are taking the playa home with us (not just literally) â€“ not a single one of us remains unchanged by the experience. I know the experience I had and the learning it gave me. I wonder, looking out of my window as I am driven away from the playa, what the other 68,000 people who shared my experience learned this week. I wonder how many of them changed, and how. What they felt when they came face to face with themselves. Iâ€™ll never know the answer to that, of course. But itâ€™s a nice thought to speculate on and it keeps me from longing for that showerâ€¦