WHEN I tell my husband “This is my last year for Burning Man,” he just rolls his eyes.
“No, really,” I say as I replace the batteries in my dusty EL-wire, “after this year, I’m done. I’ll spend the money going someplace else. Barcelona or Belize.”
“Why even say it?” he asks. “You say that every year.”
This will be my eighth year at Burning Man, which still makes me somewhat of a newbie, considering the twenty-plus year veteran “Burners” out there. The difference, though, is that I never want to see the same place twice. I don’t understand the notion of the vacation home or the timeshare. While I understand the need to visit friends and family, I don’t see why anyone would want to go to the same place on every vacation? Aside from a small stint of frequenting Grateful Dead concerts in my twenties, I have tried to avoid repeat experiences, favoring the excitement of the unknown
Not so with Black Rock City. Even though I could spend the time and money going somewhere I have never been — say Bolivia or Barbados — I can’t seem to stop myself from going to Burning Man instead.
Those longtime Burners will complain, “It’s not like it used to be,” but that’s what keeps me coming back. Or maybe it is the sameness juxtaposed by the unknown.
My first year at Burning Man, I bicycled around in awe at the car-turned flying carpet, the metal women worshipping an oil rig, the gigantic Hummer (called Bummer) with the psychedelic paint job, the skeleton tree stretching its brittle bones into the desert sky. I marveled at the expanse of the Black Rock desert playa, the dust storms that would begin as a wave on the horizon and then tumble over everything, coating the world with a fine white film. I loved the way everything was a gift: the art, the yoga and geology classes, the DJ dance parties, the bacon and Bloody Marys, the red sun rising from the dust. For a week, no one was trying to sell me anything, and if there’s no other reason for going to Burning Man, escaping getting and spending is enough. I say this fully acknowledging that we ride around on our Walmart beach cruisers and sit in our Costco camp chairs, making the escape from consumer culture nothing more than a dusty, dub-step illusion. But this illusion allows us to imagine an alternative reality, and that’s a start. It’s enough to make me question the way I live my life, the gifts I can offer to the world, and what it means to expect nothing in return.
I went back to Burning Man a second year, expecting that everything would be different. But my favorite bar and cabaret sat in roughly the same spots on the semi-circled grid of streets. The Thunderdome still reported ZERO days since the last injury, Bummer was there with “wash me” fingered into the dusty windshield, and the bone tree still gleamed in the sun. Though it would be a waste of resources for these theme camps to remake themselves every year, I thought, somehow, they would. I was disappointed to see The Deep End, even though it had been my favorite daytime dancing spot. I adored Celestial Bodies bar and the lovely men who ran it, but I wanted to find a new favorite straight-friendly gay bar. I had expected a whole new city, but what I found was some of the same, but not all the same, forcing me to look harder for a new city, to pay attention, to fully occupy each minute as it came — a re-visioning of the place itself and of my place within that space.
The old timers continue to shake their heads and say, “It’s not how it used to be.” And thankfully so. Black Rock City isn’t a timeshare condo on the beach. The streets still curve along the hours of a clock but Estuary becomes Edsel or Edelweiss. “The Man” still stands at the center, but he is atop a different platform, sometimes taking stride (I am still waiting for the day I arrive to Black Rock City and see a Burning Woman instead). And the temple takes on a different design every year, decorated by new hopes and lamentations. The art installations erected across the playa always offer something new (since many of the previous year’s installations are burned, dismantled and donated, or find their way into other cities as permanent installations). And it’s that creativity, the unbelievable things humans can make from our minds and our hands that give me hope in the human race in spite of all the atrocious things we do to each other and to the planet. Everything at Burning Man is a work of art from the costumes to the large-scale art structures, from the fire-breathing dragon art cars to the parade of a thousand light-decorated bicycles wheeling under the black desert sky.
When our friends ask my husband if he’s going to Burning Man, he says, “It’s not my thing.” The truth is you can’t know if it is “your thing” unless you go. It’s like saying you don’t like ice cream when you have never put it in your mouth. Or even seen it up close. Burning Man isn’t just one thing: Plenty of people party all night; others bring their small children and go to face-painting and snow cone camp. You can treat it like a giant rave, staying up all night (and yes doing drugs if that’s “your” thing; it just happens that I outgrew that around the time Jerry Garcia died) or you can get up early and do yoga (and then have a Bloody Mary with your bacon. Or a vegan sandwich with kombucha). You can have a different Burning Man every year, though I suppose you can have a different Paris every year. It just seems more likely at Burning Man, where everything is both the same and different—Celestial Bodies might be next to the Quixote Cabaret, or maybe it won’t. Nothing is ever for certain.
Or maybe I just have a very bad case of FOMA: Fear of Missing Out. Part of me, the narcissistic, self-centered part believes that Burning Man couldn’t possibly happen without me. How could all those people be there, costuming and cocktailing, without me? But they would be, and it’s that fact that gives me a deep-seated anxiety, connected to the old existential crises of living and dying—knowing that the world, without me in it, will keep on happening just the same. I can’t control that. But I can get myself to Burning Man for one more year.
When I have worked greeter shifts, I have shouted “Welcome Home!” when people arrived at the gate, but the truth is I don’t think of the playa as home, at least not exactly. Burning Man comes with its own vocabulary of Burner-speak: The Man, The Burn, Home, Moop, Jack Rabbit Speaks, Decompression, and the list goes on. I am not opposed to Burner-speak because it gives people a sense of connection. And even if I don’t fully subscribe to it, I understand this business of home, that at Burning Man, you can be your very true self, as freaky as that may be, and no one will care. Home, then, is the place of the self — as schmaltzy as that sounds. Even schmaltzy is okay at Burning Man.
But Burning Man isn’t really home, nor is it vacation or travel; it isn’t a festival or a concert, an art exhibit or a theme park, though it certainly contains elements of all of these things. Every time I try to label Burning Man — the way people who haven’t been there, including my husband, tend to do — I can’t quite do it, except on a moment to moment basis. And maybe that’s another reason I keep returning to that ephemeral city in the desert, the place that challenges boundaries and defies categories, a place that forces the moment, as a famous poet once said, to its crisis. I want to stay tethered to each moment, to see it to its crisis. I want to leave the last moment behind in the dust. And let the next one in line wait at the horizon for its turn.
Although I can’t seem to stay away from Burning Man, I resist calling myself a Burner because I want to leave all the labels behind, if only for a week. Maybe I just want to go someplace where everyone knows my name, but it’s not the name I use the rest of the year, or in Burner-speak, the Default World.
The word default comes from the Old French defaute, meaning to fail or to fault. And though our modern lives fail us in so very many ways, I refuse to see life outside of Burning Man as a failure either. Instead, I try to bring the lessons of creativity and community, of immediacy and of gifting back with me. I’ll be reminded that the way I live my life could be infinitely more interesting, and when I return, I will see more clearly what is lost in a culture where everything is for sale.
“Last year for Burning Man?” my husband will call as I drive off to Burning Man this August.
“Last year,” I’ll tell him and smile, knowing I’m not exactly lying, for nothing is ever certain.