“It is like they decided how they wanted to live and they are doing it.”
My favorite question since I decided I would make the difficult, conscientious and labor-intensive decision to be a resident of Black Rock City this year has been: “What exactly is Burning Man?” Most people who have never been to Burning Man, or those who have taken advantage only of one narrow bacchanalian element of it, do not understand what the Black Rock City concept is all about. Yes, it is a giant party – in some ways. Yes, it is completely insane – in some ways. Yes, it is a totally bizarre, freakish, intense, right of passage – in some ways. But, as most of us are discovering about ourselves, it is far more than the sum of its parts.
As I mentioned before, and as the Burning Man website stipulates: “Once a year, tens of thousands of participants gather to create Black Rock City in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, dedicated to community, art, self-expression, and self-reliance. They depart one week later, having left no trace whatsoever.” For me, Burning Man represents/ed an opportunity to refocus on, and in many ways reinforce, ideas about living that are so easily pushed aside in the aptly-named rat race of our contemporary daily existence. Though there were accommodations made for cell reception this year and though my camp had the means for a sat-link for internet access (helpful for things like our musician in residence learning she had been called to perform in her class at the SF Conservatory and would not be able to make it…) I chose to completely, intentionally, disengage. For me, this experience had to be about complete immersion and I had limited time to make this happen. I had gone back to the desert to remember some parts of me that I know have been forgotten; forgotten by living overseas, by being a foreigner for so long, by drifting, by being away from a lifestyle and set of priorities I was raised with, by allowing myself to live amiably and resistance free – without intention.
Make no mistake, I am not living a life burdened with regret, but I am also becoming more and more aware that (for me) the life well-lived is one that is not accidental or inadvertent… characteristics that have plagued my ex-pat experience. Anyone who knows me knows I am a completely rubbish ex-pat anyhow, I exist overseas in a state of impermanence… I want to come home. My good friends know this and accept this about me, other people use it as a means of labeling me any number of ways from provincial to ignorant to unimaginative. Whatever. My point is this: I want to live a life with intention and to be around people who share this ambition and are willing to work for it; work hard and diligently and consistently for it.
This is Burning Man.
My presence at Burning Man was, no pun intended, a gift. Were it not for the generosity of many people, I would not have been able to participate because, as always it seems, my circumstances were complicated by logistical and chronological limitations. For years I have been ‘friends’ with a lovely person in Las Vegas through various and diverse but not necessarily tangible connections. I have been watching, contemplating and discussing the evolution of Mike since well before my own Nevada-exodus. In some ways our experiences have been quite similar – in others totally distinct. But the connection has persevered and this year, through Mike’s generosity and energy, I was able to join him on the Playa. For this I am ever grateful. I am especially grateful that Mike is the authentic and honest and amazing person/a that he has always appeared to be (I look forward to his full realization of his awesomeness as well.) I had no idea how rare this quality is until this year… my previous assumption of human authenticity being, apparently, a very naive world view. Additionally, I had to assert myself in the workplace and explain that I had to have time off. This was a non-negotiable situation and one that was met with bewilderment, confusion, and a gigantic demotion. So be it.
This is Burning Man.
I was driven to the Playa with a wonderful person whose attitude embodies much of what I have missed since I have been away from home – optimism and excitement and curiosity. Annie, though younger than me in years, is a very wise soul and has a beautiful perspective on life that I think comes from a really wonderful family background that has engendered all of these characteristics. It was the ideal segue. On arrival, we contemplated which entry line to commit to… our line seemed to be moving much slower than the others – this all being dependent on the routine employed by your greeters. To our left the greeter was an older guy, friendly looking enough, completely naked, and with the most enormous scrotum we had ever seen. We stayed our course. After having our tickets checked and a couple of questions answered, we were enthusiastically and gregariously removed from our vehicle by our greeters. Raised eyebrows ensued to say the least.
“This is the cleanest you are going to be, so get over it – you are going to have to get dirty!” She was a fairy, a pixie, with sparkles and wings and boots.
“Grab our hands, we are going to skip!” He was, in retrospect, rather elfin, but I could see little beyond his smile, which implied total hedonism and a good dose of mischief. “You are leaving everything behind, you are going to be like a kid again, forget all that other stuff out there and only look forward!”
And we skipped, around and around, in a giant circle the four of us with raucous laughter immediately supplanting any sense of surprise. The dust was swirling everywhere.
“Okay, now lay down on the ground!”
“Come on! Down on the ground! You are going to roll to us and then back to each other and have hugs!”
And there we were rolling to and fro in the dirt giggling like imps and hugging ‘strangers.’ – Ah, but who is the stranger?
“Okay, now how do you feel about spankings?” Our eyes meeting briefly – a dare? Ha! Bring it on. Our hands went to the hood of the car and multiple swipes from both of our greeters followed.
And then the bell – metal on metal signaling the arrival/initiation of yet another resident of Black Rock City, a sound we would hear ringing out across the desert for days. Dusty and giddy we were back in the car heading to 4:40 and Jurassic. Our address for the week.
This is Burning Man.
The camp was pretty much set up on our arrival. A big kitchen area, the bar, the pillow pit, a sheltered area for tents – mine and Butterfly’s. Cars behind, a shower, and everything I could have imagined. Oh, and the Cornhole boards. Yes, it was Camp Cornhole. And yes, my Beavis and Butthead past made it pretty hard to say it out loud. But it is a game, not a condition (or wait, maybe it IS a condition…) and this was going to be my family for a week – a giant leap of faith on their part, so I might as well get used to it. Cornhole, Cornhole, Cornhole.
This is where intention begins. The Black Rock Desert sits between the Jackson and Calico ranges of the Great Basin. It encompasses the dry lake bed of the prehistoric Lake Lahontan – the Playa. This is geography I am intimately familiar with as a focal area of my graduate research and as a rural Nevada basketball coach who spent about 10 years traversing these parts by bus alongside 40 teenagers for hours at a time. This is not geography for the weak at heart, but like so many things in life, the desert offers something really amazing for those willing to work within it’s demanding requirements. [Much has been written about the deserts of the American West and if you are interested in reading about them I would recommend Edward Abbey, Patty Limerick and Wim Wenders in particular. And of course the works and photos of my hugely esteemed friends and mentors, Paul Starrs and Peter Goin.]
You must be prepared for the desert or the desert will prepare you – in a way that is less pleasant. So, people who make the trek to the Black Rock for Burning Man cannot be flaky or non-committal or haphazard. Those of you who know me can see why I would find this especially appealing. At the same time, you realize you are making these preparations in order to be able to be completely free. Whether this seems ironic or counter-intuitive I am not sure, but I do know that I have always been very pragmatic about how to create safe means for freedom and altered consciousness, and this is definitively what the entire Burning Man experience is about [for me.] For all of their work and preparation Reece, Tim, Mike, Mike, Brian, Aeon and Jana & Annie have my undying appreciation.
This is Burning Man.
And so the week of commerce-free, total acceptance, and complete choice begins. This is a city of volunteers. A city of completely committed people who are there to ensure that the experience of Black Rock City can continue. It is a conscious [INTENTIONAL] cooperative effort between government agencies that Washington should take a lesson from. This includes the Nevada Highway Patrol, the Bureau of Land Management, the Tribal Police, the State of Nevada and city governments from Wadsworth, Nixon and Gerlach, Nevada. I am sure there are others as well. And they make it work. The commitment to generosity, expression and survival is spectacular. And then there is the art.
This year the theme was Evolution. Timely in many ways. Coming in there were signs and quotes posted along the way reminding us of so many of the ideas that have shaped the understanding of evolution. I was particularly fond of the one that suggested that if we teach Creationism as a theory of existence then we should also teach the Stork theory as a plausible means of biological reproduction. Seems logical to me. But then you all know my political orientation.
People work all year – and more than that in many cases – on their art installations. And they are simply stunning. Beyond this, they are unimaginably impressive and in many cases I would say they are truly UNBELIEVABLE. I will not waste words trying to explain. Pictures will truly be worth the millions of words I could construct through hyperbole.
This is Burning Man.
You can do anything here. Really and truly anything. And I would ask you to consider if you can even remember the last time you were somewhere that you could honestly DO ANYTHING THAT YOU WANTED TO DO. Free of judgment, free of drama, free of time and financial constraints. (If you can name that time and place, I do hope you will share it with me.)
I did yoga. I rode my bike more than I have since I lived in San Diego so long ago. I slid down a giant slide in the middle of a desert. I climbed things. I rode merry-go-rounds. I went to better clubs than I have been to in years. I went on swings. I got to spin. (And you all know how I love to spin.) I ate random food (I chose things that would eliminate the need for me to wash dishes, either because I am lazy or… yes, as it turns out, a Princess.) I saw the sun and full moon rise daily. I drank bizarre concoctions and had epiphanies. [I now know the origin of all bad paintings AND understand that like all of the issues in life, you can simply find a way to get rid of the Blue Cup.] I felt like Alice in Wonderland and Wonder Woman… often simultaneously. Time, age, background, nationality, size, world view were of no consequence. Asking questions and being curious and seeking were welcomed by everyone, everywhere. I saw old friends and laughed about random connections with new ones. I wore ridiculous clothes and talked with pirates. I met my old superintendent’s son shaking his booty on his car roof at the pink panty party. I saw an innumerable quantity of penises, including the hot naked guy who showered across from us everyday. I walked on my hands and made snow (dirt?) angels in the sand. I was awed by The Man and humbled by the temple. I thought about everything and worried about nothing. I shared experiences with the most unexpected of people. I got a tan. I got dirty. I smiled a whole lot.
I touched the sky with my feet on the ground.
This is Burning Man.
Towards the end of the week my camp mates were trying to come up with Playa names for us new camp members (Aeon, Jana, Annie and me.) This proved less challenging for the other three… Vibe, Sunshine and Doc/tor… For me – not so easy to define. That is okay… I have always been a bit of a weirdo and even these guys who just met me realized this. What is it that defines a person anyhow? An experience? A characteristic? A habit? Brian suggested Princess but thought I might be offended. Hmm… The thing is, he was probably most accurate in his assessment, whether I want this to be the case or not… my mom has always said I was born into a beer drinking family with champagne tastes. Perhaps (though an old friend who now finds himself in Montana, stipulated that if so, it was a micro-brew beer drinking family…)
I left the Playa with a tremendous sense of calm, accomplishment, and self. And that was the aim. In talking about it later with people who shared the experience, and those who did not but wanted to hear all about it, I found myself repeating several things again and again: It was real. It was complete. It was an opportunity to look for things… to get back in the habit of being a seeker. In one decompression conversation, I told Mike that the reality that he has found himself in is not easy… To be a seeker will never be easy, but it is so much more rewarding. And it is moving forward with this intention that will sustain him. In times like these, there is so little of which we can be sure. Right now, more than ever, consciousness of any sort rules.
Why did I need the Playa this year? Because I needed to remind myself of my own intentions. When my friend Eric came to visit me at my parents house in the far reaches of North Idaho this week – in the midst of my Burn decompression – he said of my parents, “It is so cool. It is like they decided how they wanted to live and they are doing it.” Yes. He is totally correct. And it is a way of life I am glad to be reconnected with.
This is Burning Man.
thank you Mike for sharing your photos…