My New Year’s resolution was to place myself outside my comfort zone whenever safe and practical. I spent last week at Burning Man, living in an impromptu city in the middle of the desert, surrounded by neon and hippies and dust storms and fireballs and drugs and nudity and sweltering heat. A city that operates on a gift economy. Near the end of my time there, I had an epiphany. Perhaps it was not much of an epiphany, as far as they go, but it swept over me with deep and forceful conviction. This is the story of my first Burn.
I spend the two days before leaving for Black Rock City (BRC) at a shipyard in Berkeley, helping to construct the art car and to pack the camp’s supplies. The site is abuzz with the hiss of spray paint, the sizzle and crackle of welding, and the clangs of metal against metal. We work through the night and into the next day before finally mustering the troops and pointing our caravan toward Nevada.
BRC is a glow on the horizon as we pull toward it in the late evening. The city is still under construction; we have arrived early to set up. Fine particles blow up off the playa (ply-uh) and envelop us in a cloud of clay dust. I don my amber-tinted ski goggles, and the world is rendered in sepia tones—as though the memories here are destined to be treasured and extracted years later, weathered by time and wind and dust. A gentleman named Squirrel welcomes us. I step over a line in the sand and ring a bell; under the bright moon, I enter Burning Man.
Midnight on Sunday is the official start of Burning Man. Already, it has been three days since I had a shower. My hands are dry and filthy, layers of dust and bike grease and food coat them in a mottled white glove and outline my nails with black. I help make pancakes for the camp. That evening, I cook fajitas and then pitch my tent. As darkness falls, thumps of light and heat punctuate the flashing, glowing, musical hustle of preparations; they are huge, distant flame-throwers, launching fireballs into the air.
The first full evening of Burning Man is a Monday, and a full lunar eclipse. I begin exploring this surreal world: shots at the Tequila Shack, bad dancing penalized by fire at Dance Dance Immolation, jokes and songs in exchange for a mug of IP-fucking-A at the Carbofuckingnation Camp, building with magnetic blocks beneath a peaceful tent, pounding furiously on bongos as a carousel comes to life and animates a death-dance between a gorilla and a snake… As the eclipse begins, I bike to the Opulent Temple. There, I dance among the thumping techno, glowsticks, lasers, and dual jets of fire that periodically erupt from the DJ booth. One such flash burns an image in my mind: a beautiful woman, topless and bedecked with beaded decorations, arms and hair flailing wildly, her eyes closed. She is smiling. I dance for hours, moving from party to party, high on the energy of the city, as the shadow of the Earth consumes whole the once-brilliant moon.
Just then, when every eye is turned skyward, the Man begins to burn. The ceremonial burning is supposed to happen at the conclusion of the event on Saturday night; this is Monday, this is unplanned. Someone had torched it. Standing next to my bike, just outside the safety perimeter hastily arranged by the BRC Rangers, I watch pieces of the Man break off in flaming chunks and tumble down the sloped tent roof. The wooden effigy is fully engulfed in flames by the time water trucks and fire crews manage to tame the conflagration. The spectacle over, and I head toward home, but my attention is drawn to a cluster of red and blue lights. A shirtless man with face paint is being handcuffed and frisked, while half a dozen other officers supervise the proceedings and a K-9 team keeps the hippies at a distance. It was the arsonist, Paul Addis. I watch his arrest with the smoldering Man behind me and the red, eclipsed moon above.
The spectacles amass throughout the week. I slurp down ramen while watching a gorgeous moonrise, climb the steampunk tree, watch wraith-like kites drift in the sky like enormous white apparitions, visit the Thunderdome as people clamber over its geodesic shell and await the next battle, play with the bouncing glow-trees that left me giggling, and bike out to the fence-line that borders BRC. Pausing to rest at that edge between city and oblivion, I notice a serious-looking dust storm approaching. I cannot make it to my camp, but get as far as the Temple, a huge wooden structure that evokes thoughts of a pagoda. On the structure itself, stretching as high as people can reach, are messages scrawled in pens and markers. It is a temple of forgiveness and of loss. “Goodbye Mom, Dad, & Muriel,” reads one message. Another: “I ask for guidance…” Some are simple messages of joy (“I am alive!”) and others of hope (“Mom, let’s be friends again”). I wander around the Temple, reading these messages through my ski goggles as the storm completely whites-out the world beyond my arms’ reach. I cry. Picking up a black marker and bracing against the fierce winds, I add two inscriptions.
On the way home, a man hands me a plastic, glowing lightsaber. “Sundown at the Man,” he says and bikes away. Thousands of swords are distributed throughout the day. The evening proceeds predictably.
Midway through the week, I am surprised to discover myself sick with loneliness. It happens while I am dancing at the Deep End, watching the crazy costumes and funny people amuse each other. I return to camp and get all introspective and moody. I stand by the side of the road to watch the sunset. Just then, a man on a bike pulls up to me and says, “You need to get changed!” I glance down at my shorts and t-shirt. His wife pulls up next to him.
“This is really all I have,” I confess sheepishly.
The man stares at me for a long moment, brow furrowed. “Come with me.” And I do. He gives me a playa costume, and his wife gives me some jewelry. I return to camp looking ridiculous and absurd and wonderful. With that improbable and perfectly timed gesture, the strangers had changed my attitude. I am not lonely or out of place anymore; the camp and the citizens of BRC embrace me, and I become another comical gem in the dazzling all-night parties.
On my last day, like nearly every other day, I go to the Turkish-style steam baths. Sitting nude in a small, insulated geodesic dome with a dozen strangers, I sweat myself clean. My friend Sara begins to hum a tone, and this evolves until we are all chanting an improvised song. I close my eyes and listen, contributing notes where I can. There is no embarrassment, no self-conscious shame or blushing cheeks in that dark hut of singing naked strangers. No money has exchanged hands among its occupants. There are no debts or loans. We have all given each other gifts, and do so even now by sharing this spiritual moment. Afterward, I volunteer to help the camp prepare cleaned and boiled rags for use in the baths. My friends KB and Stephanie join me.
Suddenly, a man rushes up to the camp’s leader, and, for the first time, I hear a Burner invoke an authority figure. “There was a videographer,” he explains, “filming the camp. Should we notify a Ranger?” This struck me. I had seen the citizens of Black Rock City drive drunk and drink underage, commit public nudity and lewd acts, and violate so many drug laws I couldn’t begin to name them. But the only time anyone expressed genuine concern for the safety of their fellow citizens was when a man with a camera tried to capture them on film.
“It is amazing how important that privacy is to the culture here,” I mused. “We’re comfortable with our nudity and craziness because it’s only being shared with other Burners, who share alike. The camera is stealing that gift.”
Stephanie, a photographer, nods and describes the challenges involved with documenting a party; how do you prevent yourself from changing the events you wish to seize on film? I geek out and talk about Heisenberg and about the observer effect. It is a deep property of the universe that measurement may change the outcome. KB speculates, perhaps idly, that there must be some broader philosophical principle there. Before he is done speaking, I know the answer.
I understand why the gift of the playa costume so drastically altered my mood. Why the loneliness did not strike me until I stopped working on the camp and the art car. Why I felt compelled to share my strongest emotions with the Temple. Why the premature burn was so important and exciting, and why the ceremonial burn felt so artificial and sterile.
I nod and pick up another rag, pleased to have given this gift of my time. And then I share my epiphany, smiling at the simplicity of it.
“You can never just observe.” I squeeze water from the washcloth. “You must participate.”