IT TOOK ME eight years to get to Burning Man. In those eight years I had visions of what this festival was: glo-sticks, tutus, multi-colored stockings, hand sanitizer, mega-liter water bottles, and LED lights. Art cars and desert dust. Drugs. Naked people. Lots of drugs and naked people.
I’d heard of the “camps”, but I never really understood what that meant. People didn’t use money, but they didn’t barter either. My co-worker Tom told me about his camp one year, Random Acts of Pizza, where they would throw a dart at their map of Black Rock City and wherever it landed, one of the camp members would jump on a bike and deliver a homemade pizza cooked up in their solar oven.
At one burn, my friend Ed took 20 packs of Tasty Bites with him to the desert. “It’s just in case,” he told me. “You’re out in the middle of the desert with no way to get food if you run out. Plus you can easily heat them up on the car engine.”
Shit loads of drugged-out and sex-crazed people+desert heat+no way to escape+24 hour action. In order to go, I felt like I either needed to have the party ability of an 18-year-old or be a blissed-out person. I was neither.
In 2010, months after my married lover and I had broken up, I still felt sharp pains in my stomach when I woke up in the morning. Desperate for those to end, I went online. “Got one ticket for sale to Burning Man since the hubby can’t go. First person who contacts me gets it.”
I was the first.
At the front ‘gates’, Ross explained what they would do to me. “There will probably be someone naked who hugs you. They’ll definitely slap your ass, and make you ring the bell. You’ll have playa dust ALL OVER YOU because they will make you lie down on the ground and roll around all up in it, brah.”
What the hell am I doing? What if I freak out? I seriously might flip-the-fuck-out.
A sweet “welcome home!” and hug enveloped my now dust-covered body from the guy at the entrance. This didn’t ease my pumping blood. I spotted my friend, Jen, who had invited me to be a part of her camp, and I felt my body loosen.
After the sun set, she, Paul, and I went to the darkened playa, lit only by large art installations, fire lamps that outlined dance floors, LED lights on the front of bikes, and orange-pink-yellow glo-stick-covered bodies walking toward us.
Dark-haired with sharp brown eyes, a guy smiled as he asked for my hand while we danced below one of those lamps, sneaking a couple of mushroom heads into my palm. “Have fun,” he said, bouncing to the drum beat, kissing me on the cheek, and vanishing into the crowd.
The second morning, I sat with the coffee I normally don’t drink and watched as center camp came alive. Some people had slept an hour or two, some not at all. Paintings of strange faces, photos of Burning Mans past, and small installations — like a structure made out of popsicle sticks where you could add your own — filled the tent, along with chairs, a few couches, and an ever-increasing number of people jonesing for their soy latte, the only thing they could purchase on the playa.
Some people held their computers or phones up in the air, desperate to get the rumored wifi. Relief flowed through me that I was completely disconnected from the outside world, for once.
I walked out of center camp and climbed the stairs of an installation 30 feet away. On the first level was a circle of couches; ancient-looking books were laid out haphazardly on tables. A naked woman — except for her boots and a bit of body paint — climbed to the higher level. She smiled up toward the sky as one foot moved above the other, though I might have been the only one who caught her grin. Everyone else lazily flipped through books or looked out to the playa. One was whispering lovingly to his friend. Others had their eyes closed, heads resting against fluffy pillows.
It had been hard to wrap my mind around what hundreds of these camps set up within a 1.5-mile circle looked like. From the center of the playa — the only place where you can see it in its entirety — I could see it was a carefully crafted semi-circle.
Inside the camp region, I zigzagged my way on bike through lettered and numbered streets, much as I would have done in New York City or Berlin, learning the cross-streets of where I needed to go and following the pattern. I stopped on occasion for a mango margarita (freshly made behind a bar fashioned out of cardboard) or to get a massage from what was either a professional massage therapist or a horny young man.
At moments, like when the wind picked up and forced me to put goggles over my eyes to protect them from the playa dust, or when someone spritzed water on me as I rode by as their gift in the middle of a hot afternoon, a pure feeling of ecstasy ran through my body. This is what life should always be like.
Before I arrived, the pizza camp had stuck out in my mind as the “ultimate” Burning Man way — giving freely of something one created — and in some ways, that’s all it was about. To believe it is, or ever was, a pure gift economy is overly-idealistic, though; as is often true in life, there are some people willing to give, and many more ready to take.
Yet the faces of almost everyone I moved by smiled, eyes open and searching, a seeming readiness to accept that this was where people shed their masks. Drugs or not.
“I try not to have expectations about the experience,” Jen said later. “For me, first and foremost, Burning Man is an experience about impermanence. I hear a lot of people lament about how the experience has changed dramatically from the early years, which baffles me. How could it not change? Why wouldn’t you want it to?”
We took down the coverings that shielded our kitchen area, broke down the showers rigged up in the back of a van, and deconstructed the chill tent that had been my refuge spot many times until the last morning I was there.
My mind wandered back to the day before, or maybe it was the day before that. It was hard to know what time it was.
Fate had me see a guy I had dated briefly, three times on the playa. Fate had kept me from meeting up with my friend Leigh just once, though we’d tried three times. Fate had put another beautiful man in front of me who was married. I started to feel lost, and the desperation for escape began to creep in my spine. I can’t believe I’ve done so many drugs here. Why couldn’t I relate to people? Would I ever feel normal?
I started to lose my shit as I walked down the street to a porta-potty. I shut the door of one and started sobbing uncontrollably, though few tears came because I was so dehydrated. How was I going to get the hell out of this place?
You’ve got no choice, I said to myself. The only choice is to be here.
A knock made me lift my head up out of my hands. “You ok?” I heard a voice ask gently. I opened the door to inquisitive eyes, only to see out of 50,000 people on the playa, my friend Bhaskar walk by in the background. “I am,” I answered, and walked quickly toward B.
I sat in front of Bhaskar as he rubbed my back. He arrived as a saving grace I wasn’t sure I’d find. It was only when I was in the car with Eugenia, leaving the playa, that I got that being at Burning Man means letting every single emotion roll through the body. The euphoria, the tease of ecstasy, the pain of inhabiting a reckless and undetermined path — there is no other choice. It comes in quick bursts, and moves out just as succinctly because you have to face each moment. Often, fate rewards you just by moving through the process.
There, you can’t run. But if you hold out, something eventually arrives.