By John J. Staughton
The first howl that sliced through the painted night shook me from my thoughts, but it was quickly followed by a second, and then a dozen more. It was a haunting moan of collective ecstasy, soaring boundless across the dying sky. The middle-aged woman clad in a bikini beside me barely flinched; instead, she turned her head to the mountains west of the playa and let loose a carnal wail towards the streaks of pink and gold. The day had turned, the night had begun, and primal souls were beginning to show.
Thousands of distant cries and catcalls cascaded across the dusk like a subconscious wave around a football pitch, but she turned back to our conversation as though nothing out of the ordinary had occurred, instantly diving back into the stream of our chat regarding “virginity” on the playa. As a first time denizen of Black Rock City, the capital city of Burning Man’s global sprawl, being called a Virgin by a complete stranger within moments of beginning a conversation was surprisingly normal. However, the traditional “Virgin” label of implied ignorance or pitiable purity was instead seen as a badge of pride, a level of experiential emptiness that inspired wistful envy in those Burners that had already been initiated into the dust.
This “lifer”, as she referred to herself, had been to the past 12 Burning Man festivals, because each summer trip to that beautiful wasteland 120 miles north of Reno marked her anniversary. A dozen years earlier, she had taken the plunge into the desert of madness with a boyfriend of only a few months, but after the Man burned, dirty and bedraggled by a week of dust, love, and dancing, she came out with a partner for life.
She spent the better part of the fading sunset explaining the ins and outs of romance, through her eyes, as well as the difficulties inherent in an alternative lifestyle. Her words were effortlessly poetic, shared in that casually impassioned way that can only come from certainty and sincerity. She was cluing me in to her meaning of life in the same offhand way that most of us discuss the weather with single-serving friends around an ashtray. This was her truth – she needed no proof that the sky was blue.
Minutes earlier, I had been slowly padding forward, staring aimlessly at the intricately designed Temple, letting my mind drift thousands of miles and memories away from my body’s reality, when the woman, standing a few feet to my right, offered me one of those rhetorical musings from which conversation inevitably springs – “It’s amazing, isn’t it?”
Now, when most strangers offer up some banal platitude about the quality of a certain song or the unbelievable length of a line outside a bar, I tend to switch off my brain and mindlessly reply to their banter, but the rare note of honesty in her voice was unmistakable. Her skin was crisped by years in the sun, and the overabundance of energy that she released with every subtle gesture or meaningful shift in her expression seemed surreal…cosmically endless. She spoke like someone who had not only seen fires burning, but had walked through them. She seemed eager to share a Playa Minute with me, offering me that shared moment of reflection as a form of inspirational wampum.
I contend that the variety of chemicals waltzing through my system had nothing to do with my perception of her effervescent soul; rather, it came from the same magic that coursed through the alkali dust beneath our feet – “the same thing they put in batteries”, as I was told half a dozen times over those eight days in the heart of nowhere.
“So how do you make it work every summer? Jobs…kids…?” She had drawn me in, and although I had been welcomed into the inner sanctum of people’s stories a dozen times a day since arriving on the playa, there was something more powerful about this crossing of paths – the difference between a summer shower and a squall.
“We’ve figured it out over the years. Once we had kids, we had to get more creative, but when you find something like this…it’s hard to imagine letting it go,” she preached to her congregation of one and motioned to the polychromatic parade of humanity wending around us. “We wouldn’t want to live a life together where this place couldn’t exist. Every person designs their life in different ways for different reasons. For us, Burning Man is important enough to be our focus.”
I once again found myself in a rare moment of speechless wonder, an emotion that I’d become quite familiar with in those first few days of Burning Man. In the “default world” (the Burner term for the space outside of Black Rock City), I had always been a chameleon, priding myself on being able to fit into almost any crowd and carry on a conversation with nearly anyone. Depending on the situation, I might elevate my humor, drop the occasional consonant, play into assumptions, slow down or speed up…I could find ways to relate to high, low, sober, rich, smart, drunk, professional, sexy, hipster, homeless…it didn’t matter to me. Much of the world is a stage, and I so easily fall into roles that I rarely even feel disingenuous – I am simply an actor, a tourist, a ghost.
When the silence stretched out after her short speech, I slipped into my normal storytelling mode, my fallback social trope that has developed over the years and miles.
“We took a road trip all the way from Chicago. There was so much to think about just to get here – we’ve been planning this for months. I can’t imagine doing it every year.”
As soon as the words left my mouth, I wanted to snatch them back, although I wasn’t sure why. Maybe they had struck my ears as slightly dismissive, or perhaps as though I wasn’t having that grand of a time in this paradise of the mind. I felt a surge of awkward anxiety rising, but her expression didn’t change. She looked me right in the eyes and smirked.
“But you will. I can already tell.”
While some would argue that Burning Man is a stage of epic proportions, it serves a decidedly different function than the theatre. There are no scripts there and you don’t need to worry about dropped lines or second takes; every person is the star of their own production, but there is no such thing as upstaging. This woman was sharing the soulful truth of her life, just as my 10th Burniversary campmate had done earlier that week. A survivalist grandfather from Alaska had also shared his solitary tale with me while we were standing in line for ice. A 19-year-old wanderer who had sold everything tying him to any one place had also laid his brief, deep autobiography at my feet. These stories were everywhere; the playa overflows with the jagged, gorgeous edges of humanity.
I knew that everything she had been saying was her truth because she had no reason to lie. In that alternate world, where judgment and dividing walls are replaced by acceptance and a unifying effort towards compassion, telling the truth was the path of least resistance, which is hardly the norm in the default world. A first impression on the playa is an honest and unrepeatable snapshot of a person’s soul as it dances with most (or all) of its veils stripped away.
I had fallen silent because the slow tide of the playa’s magic had again flooded my skull with too many sentiments to sort out – speech was my first skill to fail. The idea of being a virgin at Burning Man did have some of the same implications as it did in the default world. There was an immaturity inherent in being a first-time Burner – there was still something we hadn’t experienced, a high that we hadn’t yet reached. Sometimes, that blushing naiveté left us speechless.
I wanted to laugh with this woman and stare at the sunset, perhaps even offer some profound tidbit of my own as we sat chatting breeze in the growing dusk.
I was desperate to let her words sink in, mentally clutching at the sensation of the moment like quicksilver as it dripped into the image of words on a page.
My thoughts snapped back into normal speed as I realized what I had been doing. I was already framing that perfect moment into a memory – a story. I was already churning life into work, transforming a momentary breath of genuine enlightenment into fodder. This is hardly a rarity among writers; in fact, that instinct is probably the lowest common denominator among the timeless ranks of literary hopefuls. However, I wasn’t even allowing the ideas to percolate and brew; my present was instantly being prepped and formatted for the future.
No matter how much I thought that my typical consciousness had taken the week off, it still reared up in certain moments of self-awareness. It has taken months to properly reflect on my time on the playa, and I still find myself grasping at the edges of realizations that haven’t fully taken shape. The evanescent nature of Burning Man makes it nearly impossible to define, which makes writing about it with the “right words” a particularly daunting challenge. In the overwhelming moments between scribbled journal entries, I was reveling in the pleasures of the world, but my thoughts seemed eager to leap towards the stories those pleasures might become.
The fact is, being a writer means having a motive.
We passed a few more moments together, sharing and laughing about the impossible place we both found ourselves in, equally mesmerized by the world around us, despite seeing it through such different eyes. One would think that after a decade, the novelty of week-long treks into the desert would have faded, just as trips to Disney World and state fairs lose some luster once cynicism and age set in, no matter how much we pretend otherwise. However, that process of adulthood jading is contingent on time, age, and the conventional boxes or schedules into which most people place themselves as years go on and the seemingly limitless forks in the road seem to dwindle.
I still have no idea how old she was, nor do I particularly care; at times she spoke to me as though we were old friends, at others like I was a Lost Boy, rather than the Peter Pan I so indulgently imagine. I never asked her name, nor she mine; typical introductions preceding talk of sports teams and outside world jobs rarely arose in the dust.
After I mentioned the road trip I had taken to reach Burning Man, she seemed to latch onto the subject, suddenly curious about why I had come and how I had spent my journey.
“I came on this trip because I needed something to happen. I’ve wanted to come to Burning Man for years, and it finally all came together this spring. The road trip, the people, the timing…everything. But it was something more than that too. I knew that this was going to change me – it almost had to – but I wasn’t sure how. Frankly, I still don’t know.” I was rambling, but she seemed to hear and understand even those words left unspoken.
“No one knows when they come here. The playa doesn’t concern itself with what you think you want; Burning Man gives you what it knows you need.”
She was a half-naked Yoda from somewhere out east, and we talked of existential breakthroughs and the dramatic changes that can happen in the path of a life, the power of individuality, and the ecstasy of bliss.
“So many people stop looking for happiness and just drift along, hoping it will just fall into their laps. But everything takes work, and you need to care. You need to find your happiness, and then follow it, even if it brings you back to a desert every summer for the rest of your life.”
She wasn’t trying to pontificate; she was simply in it – the sage sphere of a sunset on the playa, where things suddenly seemed to make sense. She felt a clarity so intense and exhilarating that not sharing it with someone felt selfish, and I was the lucky virgin beside her when she started unraveling her story. In brief instants between her anecdotes, we talked as lovers, intimately comparing our deepest emotions, effortlessly, without giving any thought to vulnerability or the walls of privacy that so quickly rise in the default world.
“Isn’t it hard to keep this alive out there in the world? It seems like there’s a reason that Burning Man happens in the middle of nowhere. I feel like this can’t survive in the real world. It would break down somehow – it would be corrupted,” I offered honestly, revealing my hand – a full house, questions full of doubts.
Looking back, if I could guess, we had probably been speaking for less than twenty minutes, yet it seemed like it had been hours. Her husband approached and gave me a hug, the standard welcome in Back Rock City. She kissed him on the cheek and beamed at him; he was roughly ten years her senior, but was still in good shape, bronzed and toned. She turned back to me, as though suddenly remembering to answer my question.
“It might seem like none of this could last out there, but it can. We all take it with us. We come from the default world and survive here…blossom here, burn here. Why can’t Burning Man come back with us and continue…or even flourish?” she answered my question with another, hardly missing a beat.
The last smear of the unforgettable sunset disappeared, and the surreal world of nocturnal neon began spreading out in every direction, refusing to be cowed by the night. We said goodbye and spun away from one another into the endless darkness of possibility; I knew that I would never see her again.
96 hours earlier, I had heard the term, “default world” for the first time, right before a fur-capped man at the gates of Black Rock City directed me to lay on the ground and make an angel in the dirt. After a momentary pause, the pull of childhood nostalgia overcame whatever hesitation I may have felt and I was quickly supine, covered in that fine, white, social equalizer – playa dust. “Look out there,” he said, pointing towards the distance behind my car, where I had just passed the previous sixteen hours amidst snorting cars and snoring drivers. “That’s the default world. This,” he continued, as he turned like Mufasa before the endless plains of Simba’s kingdom, “is Burning Man.”
Passing through those gates was something unforgettable; it was the first of many moments imprinted on my already crowded mind, but that instant is stored in a different cupboard, a new steel niche of my memory.
Within thirty seconds of entering the hallowed grounds of Black Rock City, I had gleefully covered myself in dirt, embraced two complete strangers, and was encouraged to scream into the gathering morning light that I was “A Virgin no more”. Side note – our lives are spent interacting with and understanding the world based on points of relativity. Human nature, and in fact, all of human progress and evolution, is dependent on pattern recognition. Suffice to say, the pattern recognition software existing in my grey matter was short-circuited into submission; it simply shrugged its shoulders and turned off, mischievously eager for a rare rest.
Even as that system began to shut down, I felt a surge of anxiety. The voice in the back of my head kept one toe in the door as I tried to slam it shut on the default world I was officially leaving. Despite my penchant for wandering and the unpredictable nature of travel, stepping into Black Rock City still represented a journey for which I couldn’t possibly plan. I was officially going off the grid, and that prospect felt more intimidating than I had ever expressed to my travel companions.
After spending a night crawling through the desert darkness of Nevada, silently convincing my overloaded car’s battery not to die through sheer force of will, the last thing I expected to encounter was a pair of bubbly, beautiful human beings welcoming me home. In fact, that was the second thing I heard, after standing up from my dust angel and instinctively brushing myself off – “Welcome Home”. That phrase seemed so out of place at the time, given that I had left my closest idea of home 3,000 miles and five wild days of cross-country driving behind me. Over the years, my concept of home has transformed in myriad, unexpected ways, but this process typically takes months, even years; the suggestion of a long-awaited destination already being “home” is rarely offered to me during my bleary-eyed arrivals in cookie-cutter airport terminals and train stations.
Perhaps it was the lack of sleep (I had spent 21 of the past 24 hours molding my ass into my own driver’s seat) or the exhaustion-fueled expectation of police dogs suddenly springing from a far-off dune to sniff out my drugs, but I could only politely smile at this intimate welcome from a total stranger. I hadn’t yet changed over; my body may have entered the playa, but my mind was still on the long road behind me, the twisted path that had led me to that philosophical border crossing.
My traveling companion for that sliver of the adventure, one of three who would factor mightily in the coming days, was similarly awestruck as she speechlessly returned to the passenger seat. She was a diminutive paradox from New York, an Asian fusion firecracker of beauty and brilliance that laughed at every joke I told, an ideal audience for long-winded riffing on long, rambling roads. We’d taken the final leg into BRC together because we both had tickets in hand, whereas the other half of our caravan had split off hours earlier for the unknown world of Will Call. Of the three travelers that had stretched their legs across half the country with me, I knew her the least, having only met her six days earlier on the eve of our journey west.
You learn a lot about a person on the road, but six days versus seven years still posed quite a difference in terms of familiarity. That being said, it took less than a week for her to clamber into my heart. The immediate intimacy of friendship is inevitable in the close quarters of a road trip, but this felt like something else; our souls winked knowingly at one another upon introduction and never stopped laughing at their unspoken inside joke. In other words, she was an ideal person with which to experience the sprawling maze of the playa for the very first time.
We were directed into the dull distance and warned to drive at a dehydrated snail’s pace for fear of rabid policemen eager to pop trunks and spoil dreams. Our fur-topped spirit guide could only bring us across the threshold; from there, we appeared to be on our own. There are few things as arduous as driving precisely five miles an hour through an empty desert when every instinct tells you to floor it and kick up the drudgery-inspired dust of a 20-hour traffic jam. I resisted the temptation – horrific visions of Nevada’s penal system held my lead foot at bay. As we rolled and crunched our way into nowhere, home began to take shape.
The night before, during our epically slow approach to the playa, we had seen manic lasers and shadowy idols teasing us from the void, but in the rising light of Monday, a day typically scorned and lamented by the default world, we finally found what we’d been looking for. The horizon was scattered with fuzzy dots, which eventually shifted into blurry mounds, and then identifiable structures – tents, campers, cars, three-story facades of brothels, wooden sea creatures, metal tarantulas, jungle dance party lounges, and steel lollipops jammed into the ground. At the center of this bizarre sundial was a figure, an idol – a Man.
Despite the immediate draw to pay homage to that eponymous deity, our virgin mission was finding our camp, our own corner of the sky to open our minds and cool our tires for the next eight days. The idea of visiting The Man was a monumentally intimidating experience in my mind, yet something that I knew would be nothing short of everything – how could it not be? After all, it was the focal point of a festival that drew the globe’s summer wanderers to a profound wasteland. T.S. Eliot would have finally been proud…August is the coolest month.
It was 6:30am. Nearby humans had not emerged from their sunrise slumbers. My car was a time machine; leaving it meant abandoning the final vestige of the default world, but we were happy to plant our feet in the dust.
Creating a home is far different than simply existing in one, and as my NYC partner and I first stumbled into the half-erected Camp Kick It, it was hard to mask our surprise. Through a circuitous and fortuitous mixture of tangled social webs, our quartet of quixotic wanderers had been linked up with an already established camp that had been at Burning Man in some fashion for over a decade. The 30 or so people that composed the camp were peppered with virgins and buttressed with veterans, creating a wild mix of energy and expectation, storytelling and teaching.
There were jobs to be done, monkey huts to be built, grey water to be emptied, and ice runs to take. In the first two days, it was more likely for someone to be holding a crowbar than a cocktail, although even in the midst of blistering heat and heavy lifting, there was an intoxicating sense of purpose within a supportive, collaborative community. Strangers and best friends mixed with quiet virgins and seasoned Burners to create a livable space for a new family. We shared stories and anecdotes between the clangs of hammered rebar, reveling in cigarette breaks in the shade whenever a lull in tasks arose. Two-person projects were like blind dates, unpredictable opportunities to discover a new friend.
The camp family had unofficial mothers and fathers, as well as some overbearing aunts and crazy uncles, but the family pet was truly the crowning glory of our desert clan. Clifford was a sea dragon…and a dog, a psychedelic version of Falcor, perhaps. Our art car had been shaped around an old fire engine, was decked out from tip to tail in scales, flags, glinting teeth, and a wide smirking snarl. With two levels and a DJ booth above the beast’s brain, Clifford could carry our entire camp into the night, streaking towards the Outer Playa or adventuring through the mesmerizing rows of camps, dropping Burners off, picking new ones up, and surfing his own strange waves through the beautiful chaos.
Clifford was our nightly beacon, the familiar glow of his head would shine out from across the playa and call us home. He was the physical manifestation of our camp – a mobile haven that snaked and danced and absorbed the limitless energy of a thousand new strangers every day. The veterans of the camp held Clifford in understandably high regard, since they had dedicated weeks, or even months, of their time bringing him to life. Given the love that so quickly develops between men and dragons, Clifford’s broad back was the only place I could imagine sitting to watch the Man burn.
I had never seen a dust storm, let alone been in one, until Burning Man. I had seen my first during one of our first wanders through the mad landscape of the playa from the top of a giant climbing tower topped with a steel mesh viewing bubble. After scaling the metal gears and jutting edges of the tower, the view was magnificent, one of the highest on the playa, and it was from there that I watched a small gathering of dust devils converge and swell into a dust storm about 30 feet across.
As it whipped and wound its way across the central playa, the five or six ragged climbers in that bubble had secretly (and vocally) hoped that it would pass right over us and through us, wrapping the tower in a dusty natural embrace. The miniature dust storm veered and missed us by about forty yards; we watched as a few daring bikers chased it down and flew blindly through the whirling dust. The storm disappeared a few hundred yards away, fading into nothingness like a firecracker of sand.
However, when measured against the dust storm that rose on the night the Man burned, that viewing bubble dust devil was a flickering match compared to a lightning strike.
Our quartet of road-tripped Burners, myself included, had trekked out hours earlier to find some adventure before meeting back up with our sea dragon in the center of the playa for the evening’s main event. The sun dipped low over the playa and the four of us turned our toes towards the middle of Black Rock City. Whatever comparison of Black Rock City that you want to make, be it a cosmic engine, an organic clock, or a pint-sized universe, I always saw it as a living organism, a myriad body of disjointed misfit parts – a beautiful Frankenstein. For me, the figure of the Man, which had loomed large in my vision and thoughts for days and months, respectively, had always been the heart of this recumbent desert giant.
As that afternoon had waned, the air had grown thick with anticipation, but a dull haze from the distance seemed to hasten the sunset. In the constantly changing landscape of Black Rock City, time played tricks on the mind, stopping entirely or catapulting forward into the next adventure. This was no trick, however; a massive dust storm had risen and swept into the center of the City, obscuring even the Man, who had rarely been out of sight since we’d arrived.
The exotic musical muse and a treasured existential wanderer, both from Chicago, braved the storm with the New Yorker and myself; we had all quietly decided that watching the Man burn would be something we did together, a crystallized moment of our joint journey.
The memory of Burning Man, for me at least, is punctuated by meaningful walks, seminal hikes to unknown shores, like our acid afternoon, my first sacred trek to the Temple, and one particularly endless cigarette break from which I still haven’t returned. As the four of us walked into the dustbowl oblivion of the playa, the coming evening took on a dramatic edge. This night had been the payoff that we’d been waiting for, the eponymous moment of this wild festival that would baptize our Virgin minds in fire.
The particularly mild week of weather, with the exception of the downpour delays on the first day, had brought our guard down, to some degree, but on Saturday night, Mother Nature threw us a final challenge to overcome before we were allowed to level up. With scarfs tightly wound around our mouths and noses, and goggles defending against the swirling dust, we moved towards the center of the darkness, following the roar of the crowd and avoiding LED-strung cyclists when they popped out of the emptiness. After numerous wrong turns and imagined dragons in the dust, we eventually spotted the pastel neon glow of Clifford and were welcomed home. Dancing ensued, along with drinking, carousing, smoking, riffing, and philosophizing, but our eyes kept being drawn back to the unseen center of the invisibly swelling crowd.
Once night had fallen and murmurs of delaying or postponing the Man had begun to gently rumble, I found my way to the top of the Art car, hoping that any small change in altitude would give me a better view. Garbed in a white fur coat, a glowing top hat, and aviators, I dangled my legs from the second level and peered out as the dust began to thin.
Within minutes, the winds shifted and the world returned to view. A horizon-spanning parade of flashing designs and gleaming atoms bouncing from one party to another that blurred into an ocean of liquid light. The most beautiful soul from our group joined me on the roof of the car as dozens of torchbearers began moving through the crowd. The heart-pounding hum of those thousands that had gathered swelled to an even higher pitch, as the collective knowledge that the moment had arrived began streaking through the amassed ranks of beating hearts.
Looking back, that night is too overwhelming to put into words. My eyes were on overdrive, drinking in a hundred sights with every blink, desperately happy that I didn’t have a camera in front of my face. I felt my pulse rise, and I was keenly aware of the woman beside me, the swing of her feet, the classic line of her profile, the shift of her weight as we gravitated closer. In the next moment, I was lost in a hallucinogenic dream cum reality; rolling waves of silly humans glowing and exploding energy in every direction, circling me like a clock or a solar system as I sat quite still, a blissful microcosm within another. One feeling flowed into the next; energy passed in chance looks and smiles between strangers as the feverish rhythm throbbed and grew and peaked.
More than 50,000 glowing souls had gathered to watch the heart of the city burn. As the flames licked up the wood, hungrily climbing the torso, its appetite pulsing shadows for miles, whatever final shreds of restraint remained fell away. I have never seen an ocean of id on such a scale. I could feel the tick-tock surges of racing blood and passion in my veins as my eyes widened to take it all in; every door of my senses had been flung open. From the epic human spectacle before me, my awareness was pulled back to the universe of two in which I sat. I turned to her for another knowing glance, similar and yet different from so many others in recent weeks. We said nothing about everything.
I kissed her because Burning Man is about growing wise without growing up.
I kissed her because I knew that moment would last forever.
Time stopped for moments immeasurable. My universe was an unwound watch.
The whimsical soul of Burning Man eventually drove our merry band into an evening of hedonism and celebration until dawn broke over the smoking embers of our wooden deity. We drifted through the sunrise, wandering but never lost in the vast expanse of the playa. We swam past parties, soaking up energy and attracting new travelers, riding the high of the Dalinean dream until it was lulled into a serene morning of music, intertwined hearts, and slow-rolling reflection.
Perhaps the real obstacle that I faced in Black Rock City wasn’t a crisis of faith or disbelief that this sort of universe could (and should) exist. Many of my reservations arose because I had fallen in love with lifestyles before. In fact, the past 6 years have been composed like a patchwork quilt of impulsive choices in the pursuit of something sublime. On each successive leap into a new life, whether it’s into the lap of luxury or years of living out of a suitcase, I have eventually realized that I’ve fallen too hard and too fast, starving for experiences and new things to believe in.
Burning Man is more than a music festival; it’s a wildly powerful and pervasive celebration of existence. No one that comes to Burning Man leaves the same way; the change can be revolutionary or invisible – but it will be there. I suspected and hoped for that exact catalyst as I was driving across America towards Black Rock City, but I didn’t consider that once again, I was chasing down another fantasy – a new perspective, a new lifestyle, a new set of passions and pursuits. Once I felt the welcome pull of Burners from all over the world, silently suggesting a new take on life, I recognized that I was once again falling.
There’s nothing wrong with expanding your mind; it’s the most honest pursuit that existence offers, but there is also certain dangers in leaping from one shooting star to another. Falling in love with a lifestyle is like falling in love with a person. Infatuation to passion to love to devotion…it is a naturally occurring trajectory in our lives, but when that path is followed too quickly, one can stumble or burn out, never reaching the end, or losing the plot entirely. The lifestyles and lovers that we embrace overnight come to affect us, influence us, and even change us in ways that we don’t realize. Over time, this begins to feels like a lack of control, and one of the most unfortunate and unavoidable responses to that feeling is resentment. It is at this point that our minds wander to greener pastures – or simply different ones.
I knew that Burning Man would change me, but I wasn’t expecting the overwhelming desire to transform my life within a day of being in the dust – the intensity of the experience is indescribable. However, I now see that my hesitation was nothing more than the front lines of my soul’s defense. Every person’s life has held pain, forged through disappointment, and shifted in ways that they possibly regret. The longer the story, the more moments of joy and sadness that a life contains, so as we get older, something inside tries to protect us from repeating the mistakes of our past. The little voice in the back of our heads is the whisper of memory warning us not to leap off yet another cliff before at least peering over the edge. We may ignore those words of caution, but they exist for a reason.
That being said, it is essential to remember that patience is not the same as apathy; hesitation is not the same as cowardice. My initial worries about entering the world of Burning Man as a tourist, fearful of being found out, were replaced with the realization that I had stumbled upon a new revolution for my mind. My soul, recognizing those well-known rumbles of sparked passion, had intervened accordingly, finding ways to slow me down, but ultimately allowing me to breathe the sparks to flame.
I will be making the trek back to Black Rock City next summer, as I will likely do many times in the future. To that extent, Burning Man has become a part of me. I don’t think I’ll begin devoting a quarter of my year to hopscotching between related festivals in a grand caravan of summer madness, but nothing is certain. Life is short; the road is long.
I went into the dust and came out as a different man. I may not be ready to scrap my past and move into another uncertain future, but I do have a new lens through which to view my own life.
Everything burns, but some fires take just as long to fade as they do to form. New ideas, old ideas, skin, earth, beliefs, bones, hearts, minds…nothing lasts forever, not even the stars. The most unique and inspiring city on the planet appears and vanishes in the space of three weeks; Black Rock City is an enigmatic empire that survives in perpetual limbo, the alkaline Atlantis of our modern age.
There is a reason that I never took out my camera at Burning Man. It is the same reason that putting my experience into these words took months. Moments on the playa are meant to be remembered, not captured. Every element of Burning Man is designed to be transient – evolution, change, rebirth, dynamism, and growth are fundamental conceits of the adventure. Orchestrated words and transposed images will never do justice to ephemeral human poetry. We don’t have a Rosetta Stone for the languages spoken on the playa, because it is an experiential culture, one that must be touched to be fully understood.
You feel this sense of impermanence in the complementary cocktail conversations and spontaneous dance parties while waiting in line for the bathroom. It takes a single glance to fall in love, and a single shining burst of light in the sky to draw you like a moth to one of a million flames. The playa is an apt name for the bizarre environment of Black Rock City; it is the place where the ocean meets the earth, where fantasy and reality tangle their legs along the shoreline of existence. Waves of energy surge and roll through the dust, stirring bodies to throb and shift and be swept along into new wonders. A dance can last for a single bass drop or an entire night; an innocent stroll for a reflective cigarette break can take you down a rabbit hole into a new chapter of your life. It is this balance between the known and the unknown that makes Burning Man so magical; it is a place of duality, but not opposition.
Burning Man exists for a slice of days each summer, but the shower of sparks that it leaves in every Burner lasts far longer. You can see it in their eyes and in the way they move through the world, their generosity to strangers and their open, welcome nature, a mixture of etiquette, common decency, and sincere interest in the lives of others.
Once you have walked through the fire, your gaze will linger a moment longer, your smile will be wider, and your minutes will seem more preciously spent. There is an inner glow, that flickering remnant of the playa that never fully disappears. Every life you touch, story you tell, memory you immortalize, or dream you pursue is imbued with that passion – that is how fires from the long-distant dust are spread.
You take them with you.