Evidently, we were among the virgin-est of the virgins.
Before arriving in 2015 I’d never encountered anyone who’d attended Burning Man. Over the past few years, while Googling a local large concert or festival, a reference to BM would sometimes sneak in to the results….to the point where I finally searched to see what it was. At first it was easy to dismiss as “kooky-pyro’s-partying-in-uncomfortable-desert”, but over time I noticed two trends in the articles; nobody could describe it, and many who hadn’t attended seemed to default to hating on it for petty reasons.
And so it came to be while web-surfing this past January, a string of random articles and images somehow fell into a perfect order of destiny, and my brain declared it wanted in.
I started making big plans, only to be humbly reminded how “wanting” and “doing” can be so different. Giant roadblocks instantly appeared; I couldn’t get a ticket (despite pre-registering and hovering over every official sale), couldn’t find a Reno-based RV or even a van to attach a tent to (pitching only a tent with my novice survival skills was dodgy, and couldn’t lose three weeks for a cross-country trek), and couldn’t afford to drop 10k on all the latest Serengeti-esque gear to avoid being “that idiot who dropped dead”. It would have been very easy or justifiable to simply remain a dreamer and let it go.
But something about this looked “worth it”, so over several months I toiled countless hours to overcome each roadblock, then coerced a recently-divorced buddy who had never heard of Burning Man into joining me. His resume’ included a stint in the Peace Corps and an unwavering trust in my eye for a good time, which were pretty much the only two requirements for the gig.
We spent the summer tweaking our Last Will’s and piling internet-ordered crap high in a corner, then struggling to explain to puzzled friends at countless gatherings this incredible thing that we spent lots of money on that we’ve never experienced that’s so indescribable. By late August I was thoroughly burnt out, thinking, “Please God just let this happen already so my life can freaking move on”.
Arriving at Reno airport, we found the baggage-claim area dotted with desperate-looking travelers clutching “BRC please” signs, so we tossed every one of them into our janky 1976 friend-of-a-friend-who-knows-a-guy RV, and rumbled out past downtrodden casinos into the desert.
Unfortunately, our attempt at good-karma was buzz-sawed a few hours later when three SWAT-style SUV’s surrounded us at Black Rock City’s main entrance for “doing 15 in a 5 zone”. Such brazen hooliganism qualified our group for a 90-minute search-every-person-and-their-bags scam – just feet from the greeters – where arrogant cops exchanged my empty pipe and someone’s tiny bag of weed for a $550 ticket. So nobody layed in the dirt, nobody banged a gong, and the police actually enjoyed standing around watching us bypass everything to get the fuck out of there. A more depressing and infuriating entrance has never occurred at Burning Man.
After dropping folks off and establishing our campsite, we decided to take a brief walk towards the playa at 2am to get the bad taste out of our mouths before turning in. That decision would be the best of the week. As we stepped onto the esplanade from our dark street, the most incredible vision slowly came into view; a dream-like tapestry of flames and motion and music and drinks and hugs and a million colorful dancing lights extending for miles, and we knew right then that everything would be ok.
What followed were six days of high-octane magic at every turn. This couldn’t be real. A hundred times we laughed and said, “I’m not going to be able to describe this”. Bunnies and naked pub crawls and Swedish saunas and zombie-mobiles and phish-cover jams and drinking challenges and dance clubs and sunrises and awesome people with hard accents and a Promise Temple that makes you bawl and mutant busses with so many mounted speakers they look like giant steaks about to flip-over Fred Flintstone’s car and you’ve seriously gotta be kidding….every second was so immediate and unpredictable we found it comically useless to mentally prepare for anything.
We ran hard day and night until our bodies failed, then slept a little and hit it again. I got tased, tattooed, spanked, painted, group-hugged, loin-clothed, massaged, foamed, yoga’d, scienced, genital-photo’d, and countless more. We reveled in this extraordinary fantasy as wildly as it was hurled at us, the addictive perpetual assault of sensory distraction and eye candy appearing from every direction, with each deeply-genuine personal encounter replaced by a fresh one every 20 minutes. When things got too over-stimulating we rode our bikes way out onto K & L streets to visit isolated campers in front of small tents. From a hand-built wooden rollercoaster at 2:00 to windsurfing at 10:00, countless small clusters of neighbors along the mile-long stretch offered gifts, or delicious drinks, or fun games, or simply a great joke or story.
Over time it became evident that no human can experience more than about 30% of the total madness, so things settled into a calmer pace. By mid-week we were spending more time at camps our personalities gravitated to, more time chatting longer with strangers, more time on the playa admiring the big art, and even more time apart from each other. We discovered how fleeting these new relationships could be; we were never able to reconnect with any of our Reno hitchhikers, or anyone else we met for that matter. Despite sincere promises and best intentions, in an environment of continuous here-and-now, it just doesn’t happen. Reconnects are why God created email and October.
Did everything go perfectly? Well as in life, hell no. The desert’s harsh conditions gleefully pulverized every item “made in China” within minutes of trying to use it. We were woefully under-prepared for the freezing nights. Our bike chains and locks clogged with dust. Our weatherproof camera and RV’s cabin lights stopped working on the second day, and our only generator and water pump failed on the third, all never to return. So we learned quickly how to improvise back-up systems, work with neighbors, and sometimes just do without. Through it all we kept gifting and finding ways to help others, never daring to allow ourselves to be the weak link in any social setting. While visiting one camp, I noticed one of the cops who had searched our bags posing as a grungy pothead and loudly busted him, causing him to slunk away in shame. As I turned to exit with my small personal victory, the entire camp broke into a thank-you toast for my “gift”. The exchange was fantastic, yet within seconds was already dissolving into the vast collection of communal nuggets on the playa.
All the while we never took for granted that the bathrooms worked, traffic flowed, center base camp was staffed, and paramedics tended to minor issues alongside ambulances that were always ready and idling. Whatever general oversight was occurring never adversely affected our experience, and that in itself was noteworthy. It was especially noticeable Friday afternoon when I had to bike back to our camp during a ferocious hours-long dust storm. For block after interminable block I fought a direct headwind unable to see 20 feet, and kept thinking, “Even through this, some group of people is keeping this crazy train on the rails”.
By Friday evening crowds were assembling on the playa to witness various art-burning, and an unexpected wave of pretty people started appearing. They were noticeably more self-absorbed and unfriendly than the folks we’d met through the week, and we guessed they were just throwing money around to say they were there. We reacted by creating a game of who could offer the most spontaneous wardrobe compliments to normal women being subjected to freshly-minted feather-chickies. This was fun and cathartic, albeit tinged with the slight guilt of realizing we could have been doing this more all along. However as things progressed and the larger burns launched glowing embers high into the sky, we felt a much more substantial issue setting in; a gut-wrenching realization that at some point this world was going to end.
I choked-up for the first time late Friday. I hid it from my buddy, but he choked-up during a casual chat soon after. There were times we couldn’t speak. We had read all about the self-reliance, dangerous weather, jaw-dropping art, music, partying and camaraderie….and by now we comfortably assumed we’d experienced Burning Man’s “most indescribable” elements a hundred times over. But we had somehow missed any reference to the freight train of profound life-reassessment that was currently smashing us head-on.
In hindsight, perhaps we should have recognized when the world’s most expressive and articulate people can’t describe something, maybe that’s not some trivial thing to be ignored. In clinical terms, it felt as if we were experiencing nothing less than a complete recalibration of our world view….a stunning unveiling of how much more intimacy, fulfillment and meaning the human condition can realize when released from the bonds of outside judgment and commercialism. In layman’s terms, we were getting the holy fucking shit kicked out of us while dangerously over-stimulated and fatigued to a level unnervingly close to catatonic.
Having no remotely-similar life experiences to compare this against, we spent most of Saturday in a deep emotionally-transformative state, cherishing every hour and social encounter as though life itself might end, and by Saturday night we were 100% mentally spent. We limped onto the playa and watched the man burn while in a daze, taking it all in but processing very little. The sensory overload of a thousand hypnotically-gyrating fire artists and 70,000 partying desert-people was beautiful – actually breathtaking – but almost numbing.
We somehow cobbled together enough faculties to calculate the last possible moment we could leave Black Rock City, drop off all of our week’s trash and our vehicle, and still make our flight. And that’s exactly what we did. We departed more than ten hours later than our original plan, and didn’t leave one single minute of time or energy on the playa unspent.
A short while later a set of wheels parted from a runway, and our Burning Man experience was over.
Back home in southern New Jersey today, we show photos and tell a few stories to folks who ask, but don’t really attempt to explain the true experience to anyone but closest friends and family….way too involved, and we’re not good at it. We talk of tweaking the to-bring list next year, and already have ideas for modest art and much more entertaining gifting. We’re determined to find tickets again and will encourage our most valued friends to join us. But until then, we’ll spend the next ten months like every other burner reconciling Burning Man within the parameters of the default world; gently awash in hundreds of experiences we fuzzily remember borne from an event we’ll never forget.
“Thank You” to all the camps and artists who went way above and beyond, and to the scores of volunteers and organizers who take personal pride in making Burning Man the most amazing life-affirming experience our planet has to offer.
And yes we assume you folks are accustomed to hearing that regularly, but it doesn’t hurt to read it again from two veterans who still dream of making angels in the dust.
Brent & Bob
(I wrote the following purely as a cathartic exercise to help process the intense BM experience, and several friends suggested I post it somewhere. Since this is a BM board with a section called “2015 stories”, I guess this is somewhere. Everything is true. I’m not a real writer (but love how words work), so a little concerned folks may parse specific lines or style for criticism or judgment. However it’s a BM site and not Facebook, so this leap of faith seems less risky. Sorry it’s so long.)
Originally appeared on ePlaya