I never wanted to go to Burning Man, at first. The idea of attending a festival in the desert didn’t appeal to me.
But in 2002, I was a jealous girlfriend who feared my hot boyfriend would return from the burn with a new girlfriend. I asked to accompany him and he agreed. In fact, he wanted me there. We were madly in love.
I had the same thoughts that the people who mock Burning Man had. I figured it was a desert carnival amok with sex, drugs, and rock & roll. By the time I packed up my dust-filled sleeping bag one week later, I had completely changed my mind. It wasn’t a bunch of free-loving, doped-up hippies. The people were creative and smart–scary genius smart. They were the kind of people who went to Ivy Leagues and went on to start their own consulting firms, but came to Burning Man year after year. It was their creative outlet.
They were also the kind of people who never went to school, but were street artists who dreamed the dreams the rest of us aren’t courageous enough to dream. They dream what we think can’t be done and they build it: a zoetrope of swimmers, a fun-house, a treehouse, a rocketship. I specifically remember the first time I rode a roller coaster–a functioning, swirling attraction…in the middle of nowhere.
I especially like wandering around, meeting people, and hanging out. Because what else do you do in the desert? You find yourself in a camp, someone offers you a salty snack or an alcoholic beverage, and you talk. “Where are you from? How many years have you been burning? Did you see that totally cool art piece? Yeah, it made me think back to when I was a kid and my parents use to take us to the theater…” You continue talking. You’re not necessarily best friends, but there’s always some kind of connection with people at Burning Man. Everyone’s open and welcoming. No defenses. Here in the default world, I don’t talk to strangers. I don’t have time to make new friends. I don’t want the bums to ask me for money. So I avoid. At Burning Man, everyone’s smiling. Everyone’s waving. It’s like living on Sesame Street without Oscar the Grouch.
There’s no poverty on the playa. There’s no ‘weirdness.’ People aren’t out of place because they wear costumes and bright colors. The more awkward, the better. Bring it! There’s no vending or exchange of money on the playa (with the exception of coffee at the cafe and ice). It’s a gift economy. Give and ye shall receive. Giving doesn’t necessarily mean a material good. People set up advice kiosks. Others help build by giving their time to help build a camp or setup some struggling newbie’s tent.
In 2003, I was single and went to the burn with random girls I met through Craigslist. We fast became friends. During one of our many bike rides around the playa, we stumbled upon a group of guys playing really good music. Day after day, night after day, we returned to the camp to hang out and listen to music. Many years later, I’m still friends with these people. I’ll forever remember my friend Joanna’s description of the playa one night, “This is like the Disneyland electric parade in Afghanistan on Halloween.” Neon bright art cars were puttering along. Fireworks were booming in the horizon.
But Burning Man is not utopia. It can get sweltering hot during the day and frigid cold at night. Get sweaty naked before noon, then bundle up in your warmest, down-filled, puffy North Face jacket by midnight. Your tent gets layered with dust. You eat food coated with dust. Dust infiltrates your lungs. After painstakingly cleaning yourself with wet wipes, you get struck by a dust storm. It is fucking hell waking up in the middle of the night, needing to tinkle so badly, futzing around for your shoes, saddling up into your fur-covered bike, and charging for the nearest bank of porta-potties which are several streets away. There’s theft. People will steal your bikes either intentionally or unintentionally. Undercover cops ask you please for an extra tab of E. People get carted off to jail. People get rushed to the nearest hospital. And a man burns to death…ok…he’s really just an effigy.
Year after year, I progressively became more involved. This 2009 was my 8th Burn. I spend hours before the Burn pouring over spreadsheets, scheduling volunteers for shifts. I love my ARTery group. I love what we do to help artists get their pieces on the playa. I absolutely love the family that we’ve become. I like the long hours pre-playa and most especially on the playa, talking to the artists, problem-solving, and then having them gift you with a necklace or bracelet or some shwag that is really heartfelt.
2010 is the 25th anniversary and most likely my last. An ex-Republican who believes in God and has a corporate job that I love, I am not a typical burner. Shit, I’m the anti-burner. But I love Burning Man because it’s the strongest sense of community I’ve ever experienced. I don’t believe there’s anything else like it in the default world.
The Man burns in 338 days!