On Tuesday of last week, my husband and I, dusty, weary and battered returned to Ocean Beach from Black Rock City – a sort of desert Brigadoon, appearing and disappearing every year on a Nevada dry lake bed every end of August.
Going to Burning Man is more commitment than holiday and more journey than destination. For us, while the 2012 Burning Man pinnacle is complete, the journey is not. A pile of shoes covered with the almost-white alkaline powder of the Burning Man Playa wait to be wiped off with vinegar and repaired. Tutus are piled in a corner, waiting for a good shake out, too delicate to wash. Lining the hall I’ve got washed garments air drying including a re-fabricated bridesmaid’s dress, a well-worn white morning coat, a plaid wool maxi, a pair of bright green poly-pro overalls, a skirt that was once a table cloth, a pink faux-fur jacket, hand-made bloomers and other odds and ends.
Piles of cleaned clothing are stacked in the living room. The garage is still packed to the rafters with burning man gear: countless tarps, 2 rugs, a hand-made canopy, shade structures, stoves, water canisters, propane tanks, camp signs, chairs, a small dismantled IKEA couch, tools, solar lights, buckets, and more, all covered in a fine light beige powder. My husband and I will go through these things to dust, repair and sort. We will also create lists of things we might need and begin making the things we want for next year.
See, in many ways we’ve already begun the journey to Burning Man 2013 before we’ve closed the chapter on 2012. Despite the conversations we’ve had with camp-mates about reconvening next August, every Burner knows that returning is no small feat, so much so that each person’s arrival is a little miracle. On the first night after the gates opened, I walked by a stage at Center Camp where people were sharing stories of their journey to a small but attentive crowd.
None of the many obstacles between a Burner and Burning Man like finances, work, ticket scarcity, complex logistics, guilts, fears, family obligations, pets, etc., are more tangible than the physical journey to this dusty, hot, cold, windswept place.
For us, just driving to Burning Man from San Diego is a task in itself. Since I quit smoking 12 years ago, I can’t drive long distances without the risk of falling asleep so my husband does all the long-distance driving. From our house to Black Rock City Nevada is 647 miles which, according to Google, is 12 hours and 59 minutes. We can drive all the way up to Bishop on the 395, then choose to go through Reno or straight north on Nevada State Highways until you reach the 80 and then on up north another 80 to 90 miles on the NV-447 N through Nixon, Empire and Gerlach, and on to County Road 34 to the city entrance.
Along the way we see other Burners heading towards Black Rock city and we wave to each other, enjoying a sense of kinship and shared excitement. We also strongly feel for the dozen or so broken down Burner vehicles we pass, recognizable by telltale clues like the cheap, decorated, rusty bikes precariously strapped on top of a mound of other stuff or the Burning Man Logo taped or painted on windows and RV’s.
I imagine every police officer from here to Gerlach knows Burners are on the road. One of our camp mates reported that when her RV had a flat the Reno police and fire department had her tire fixed and ready to go before she could dial her auto club number. Even so, we know some of the Burners we see broken down won’t make it. A couple years ago the bus carrying some of our fellow campers caught fire and burned to the ground with all their belongings. Like most events at Burning Man, this too came with a lesson which the bus owner and driver (who made it to the Playa anyway) gravely shared with us…
My Burning Man lesson this year? Carry a fricken’ working fire extinguisher by your side when driving an old diesel bus.
The first year we went to Burning Man we didn’t think we’d make it when 30 minutes outside of San Diego our little trailer lost a wheel, and I don’t mean we had a flat, no, it lost THE WHOLE WHEEL, complete with sparks flying from the back and a wheel rolling in front of us down the freeway. We had our trailer towed to our mechanic but we neglected to leave a note. In the morning, our trailer wasn’t in his parking lot, it had been towed away to the tow yard . We chose to persevere, abandoning the trailer at home and miraculously arriving at Black Rock City a mere 48 hours later.
This year, our fourth Burn, our truck began to have difficulty towing our trailer on the inclines. We managed to chug our way in to Reno for a planned overnight at my husband’s cousins’ house. Ron confirmed our worst fear that the transmission was going or gone. The transmission repair places were all closed for the week-end and we knew that transmissions can take days to repair. It looked like we were about to miss a large portion of the week.
Being perhaps the most generous people alive, our cousins offered us their 350 Truck despite the terrible shape it would arrive back in (covered inside and out with alkaline dust) and having to juggle jobs and their two daughters’ schedules for the whole week with only one vehicle. They also offered to take our truck in to get repaired while we were at Burning Man!
It just so happens that one of the 10 Principles of Burning Man includes “gifting.” This gifting principle is challenging because it relies heavily on personal responsibility and a respect for individual differences. For me, this means I need to figure out what I have and want to give; and to set clear boundaries on what I can give unconditionally and what I am not willing to give. But the biggest challenge isn’t giving, it’s accepting a gift with gratitude but without guilt or anxiety. So our cousins’ generosity turned into a great Burning Man challenge. Not only did we have to trust that our cousins would not offer their help without being willing to give it, we had to struggle with our feelings about accepting the gift. So, as it turned out, the best gift we got at Burning Man was given to use before we ever got there.
When you arrive at Burning Man, the most common greeting is “Welcome Home.” It may sound corny and maybe even a bit cultish but the more I consider what I think Burning Man is about, the more I embrace this phrase. I could say our cousins embody the Burning Man spirit but I think it is more accurate to say that Burning Man embodies our cousins’ spirit.
When I talk to people who haven’t been to Burning Man, I realize many people think it is just a big party for the young. There is certainly a lot of drinking and drugs but we spent our first two burns camping in Anonymous Village, a camp for members of all 12 step programs. Meetings were held 5 times a day at the village (there are also other 12 step meetings at Burning Man). The placement and size allotted to Anonymous Village speaks volumes about the priorities held by Burning Man. Anonymous Village is smack in the middle of the most prime real-estate in the city.
So, while Burning Man can be a drug addled fog for some, it isn’t for all. I could write for days and still not convey what you would experience at Burning Man. The Burning Man Organization’s mission statement says: “Our intention is to generate society that connects each individual to his or her creative powers, to participation in community, to the larger realm of civic life, and to the even greater world of nature that exists beyond society.” Burners tend to agree that no words, no pictures no videos can capture the experience. That doesn’t mean we don’t try. The website, www.burningman.com, is huge, full of blogs, opinions, advice, faqs and more. Anyone interested should browse this website.When people ask me “What is Burning Man?” or “How was Burning Man?” I like to smile and ask “How much time do you have?”
If you want to research Burning Man yourself, keep in mind that the most popular images, videos and stories you can find on the internet are sometimes the most sensational or superficial. I notice that the majority of popular photograph collections depict the sensational or the beautiful and sexy. Most collections fail to capture the real diversity of Burners and over-emphasize Burners separateness from the “default” world. In reality, forty percent of all attendees in 2011 were over 35 years of age. I saw people in their 80’s . Our youngest camp member was 40, most of us were a little over 50. I also find that Burning Man videos are often really great to watch but are often slick and sped up, making it difficult to separate the filmmaker from the experience. I have yet to see a video that captures anything like my experience of the Playa.
Before I went to Burning Man for the first time I looked at a lot of pictures, did a lot of reading and watched countless videos yet I found myself completely surprised by it all. A basic premise of Burning Man is that it is what we make of it. My husband quipped “Burning Man is like a Disneyland created and built by the patrons.” Certainly the outrageous and silly abound but there is much that goes beyond sophomoric humor. I imagine someone could keep themselves busy all day pursuing a single interest like yoga, meditating, seeing art, volunteering, working out, playing sports, discussing politics, cooking, or attending interesting workshops. Another axiom at Burning Man is “Don’t try to see it all because you can’t.”
This year my favorite activities included a biking art tour with my husband, hanging out and talking with my camp mates, an afternoon spent listening to live Irish music jam at the Dusty Swan Pub drinking their excellent(free of course) beer, a short vigil at the Temple for my cat Kismet who passed away this year, a night dirty dancing with my husband at Spankys (yes there was spanking done but not by us) and drinking their excellent (free of course) wine, attending the Black Rock City Choir’s Sunday Performance/Service, watching the Man burn, and, finally, attending the reverent and solemn Temple Burn.
For me, Burning Man is a challenging journey that opens up a Pandora ’s Box of emotion, thought and concern. The journey began way before I arrived at Burning Man this year, in fact, it began 5 years ago when I began to negotiate with myself and with what Burner’s call the “default world” on whether it was something I wanted to do while my husband and I explored what Burning Man might mean to our relationship.
In my opinion, Burners are not an exclusive group of crazy wacky people who all believe the same thing. Rather, we are a group of people who see and generally celebrate individuality, personal creativity, spiritual growth, generosity and love of our fellow man and a belief in humankind, despite everything. We know there are many people out there in the real world, people like our cousins, who we would consider real Burners even if they would never call themselves such a thing. That’s why every year we welcome and acknowledge everyone’s inner Burner by saying to those who do arrive on the Playa “Welcome Home”
Post originally appeared in the OB Rag Sept. 13