Well, folks, I think I’m finally ready to talk about Burning Man.
I’ve marinated a good two weeks on my time at the Burn, and it’s time to share. Burning Man has given me a lot to think about, and I wanted to process my experiences a bit before sharing them. At least that’s what I told myself. Honestly, I returned to default world and found myself in an incredibly strange space, mentally and emotionally. Part of me really wasn’t ready to spill my guts, but part of me was also just buying time. Finally, though, I feel like I’m ready to give you all the nitty gritty.
There’s so much to say! I told someone this weekend at a friend’s Decompression BBQ, you’ll never get every last bit of information about someone’s Burn. I even tried to keep a running list of everything I did or experienced at Burning Man this year, and it was damn near impossible to write it all down. There is so much going on — all. the. time — and I was more interested in experiencing it at the moment than anything else. Still, I did have my camera in hand for so much of my time there because if you don’t see pictures of it, chances are you won’t believe me!
The biggest challenge I encountered with this year’s Burn was making sure that I didn’t compare this year to last. It was incredibly difficult — my first experience at Burning Man was beyond stellar, and I tried to return to Black Rock City with no expectations. Still, I couldn’t help but notice numerous differences between this year and last — some pertaining to the city, the people, or myself. Here’s what I found to be different my second time around in Black Rock City:
1. The city grew significantly slower.
I didn’t witness any rain myself last year, but this year got off to a strange start for many Burners. Monday morning brought a few rainstorms to Black Rock City, which made any attempts to drive or bike around completely futile. The city is built on a dried-up lake bed that is incredibly dusty and turns to a thick mud when wet. Walking around in it (or the aftermath) means you gain inches of mud on your shoes with every step until you’re walking around with Playa-fied Elton John platforms. Layers of mud build up on bike tires and gears instantly. Cars not only have to battle mud buildup but they can completely destroy the roads of the Playa. Landing a plane would be a complete disaster.
Because of the weather, the gate closed for 24 hours. Cars that were on their way to the Burn were advised to spend the night in Reno. Cars that had already hit the Playa but weren’t through the gate yet were stopped and simply waited until the next morning to be let in.
This had a large impact on the rate at which the city had life breathed into it. There were many camps and art installations that weren’t completely assembled until Wednesday due to delays. The first few nights on the Playa I felt like the city wasn’t completely there — I’d look out on the horizon and it felt strangely empty in a way. It really wasn’t until Thursday night that it looked and felt like the bustling metropolis I remembered. It got there, but it certainly took longer than I expected!
2. The art wasn’t speaking to me in the same way.
That sounds like a completely hippie way to phrase it — “It’s just not speakin’ to me, man!” — but I think it’s actually the best way to describe how I felt. The art was fabulous, no doubt, but there were far fewer installations that completely blew my mind hole.
It’s been discussed amongst my friends, and we agree that this year was not great for sculptures on the Playa. Obviously, other people may feel otherwise, but that’s the opinion I have. This means, however, that there were some pretty fantastic interactive pieces that were completely amazing. I found a maze made entirely of green noodles out on the Playa, and walking through it made me feel like an insect walking through grass. There was a “Civilian Outpost” in outer Playa where it appeared some poor souls had been camped out until they had to evacuate.
By far my all-time favorite experience this year was the volcano sacrifice, called Paha’oha’o. Inside the volcano there was an eight foot clay sculpture of a hula dancer who was making an offering to the Goddess Pele, and there were two Hawaiian drums. You could climb the outside of the volcano and then literally jump right into the mouth of the volcano, sacrificing yourself and burning away your outer shell to start a new beginning. The drop down into the volcano was legitimately a scary ten foot drop or so until it curved out into a slide. It was fun, frightening, beautiful, and completely phenomenal.
3. I had fewer meaningful interactions with new people.
I adventured out on the Playa just as much (if not more) than I did last year, but for whatever reason I felt like my weeklong adventure had fewer notable events that involved other people. Instead, I was on my own a lot.
Last year, I felt like I was meeting so many new people all the time, but this year I knew people already. I had campmates that I’d been with in 2013, friends from default world at the Burn, and folks I’d met at last year’s Burn. Almost everyone I met last year was new, while this year I came to Black Rock City with a small group of people I personally knew.
I had wonderful and significant interactions with these people, but as my friend Greg mentioned, these relationships feel safe at Burning Man. Isn’t the whole point of the week to go out of your comfort zone? Well, of course you should push yourself, but after thinking about it, I’ve also realized that it’s a wonderful feeling to have those strong ties at the Burn. I’m not just some chick going to Burning Man for the Instagram photos and the DJs — I’m part of the community. That’s a lovely thing that takes time, and I am so lucky to consider myself a true participant in Burning Man.
4. I got to see the Temple burn.
When I left Black Rock City last year, my only regret was that I could not stay to see the Temple burn. This year, I made it a priority, planning to leave shortly after it fell to the ground Sunday evening.
This year’s Temple (called the Temple of Grace) was ridiculously beautiful, with wood that was carved like filigree. I saved my Temple experience for Wednesday evening, and just like last year it turned me into a puddle of tears. While everyone’s experience in the Temple is different, I feel a great deal of empathy while I read the stories other Burners have written. Many of the notes left are about loss and regret from the past year, and it just hits me right in the feels. In recognizing that pain that others have, it makes me aware of the qualities I dislike about myself. To read about the pain that some people have gone through really puts my life in perspective, and it is the ultimate time to make resolutions to be a better person.
To witness the burning of the Temple was extraordinary. During the Man’s burn, onlookers are cheering and yelling and playing loud music, but the only sound you hear as the Temple burns is the fire devouring it. The Temple of Grace burned and collapsed beautifully, taking all of that pain with it. I’m not sure if I’ll always stay for the Temple burn in the future, but I do feel like I would have been missing out on an important aspect of Burning Man if I hadn’t seen it fall this year. It was perfection.
When friends and family ask me about my Burn this year, my response is, “It was different.” I view Burning Man as a pilgrimage in many ways, and I’ve learned that some years are going to be harder than other years, and this year was a little harder for me. None of those differences were for better or worse, though — it just meant that this was the Burn I was meant to have this year.
Saturday night as the Man burned, I was still in a state where I was comparing this year to last year, and I was honestly kind of feeling weird about my experience. As I mentioned above, the art wasn’t calling me in the same way and I hadn’t met many new friends — and I hadn’t had the time yet to reflect on how great all those things actually were. I kept wondering to myself if Burning Man had lost its magic for me, if last year was a fluke, or if I something had changed inside of me.
After the Man burned to the ground, I went adventuring on my own. I almost didn’t, but I’m so glad I did — because that night ended up meaning the world to me.
I walked around the Playa and rediscovered “The Eternal Return,” a zoetrope powered by a bunch of row machines. I’d only looked at it from afar, but a campmate told me to view it from right underneath. I did, and it was unbelievable! I then came across the Front Porch art car, which is designed just like the front porch of some small southern home. On the porch were a bunch of live musicians playing astounding blues-y music. Most of the art cars on the Playa play electronic tunes, so to find live music was a complete treat. I also ran into Kalliope, another art car, which was playing just the right kind of music for me to end my night.
Around 4am I decided to stop dancing the night away and turn in for the night. I felt marvelous. The art that I got to witness and experience that night left such an impression on me, and I was counting my lucky stars that I found them all on my last full night at the Burn. I had kept to myself mostly that evening, so I was of course a bit down that I hadn’t had any fun interactions with others, but I was still blissfully happy.
As I was nearly at my street to get back to camp and go to bed, someone walked right up to me. He said he had been working the Exodus that evening (Exodus is the trip that all participants take out of the city) and he was looking to go out and join in the festivities. But when he saw me, he thought it was strange that I was walking alone. “You don’t see many people walking alone at night,” and he said he wanted to check and make sure everything was okay.
I was honest with him about how this year felt so much harder for me, and how I couldn’t help but compare and notice what felt different. He told me about his experiences this year and the challenges he encountered. We had an absolutely wonderful talk, and I felt like he was a good friend or even a campmate and we were catching up. As I crawled into bed that night I realized that was the perfect end to my Saturday night, and to my Burn. It was the last thing that I felt like I had really been missing, and it made everything whole. Thank you, Wookie, you saved my Burn — and for that I am forever grateful. <3
Burning Man is full of monumental and unforgettable experiences, but I was reminded how big the small things really are. I was one tiny person of about 66,000 wandering around Saturday night, and every small discovery acted as the last few remaining puzzle pieces to complete my Burn. I didn’t have to do anything different or change anything at all — I just had to go out and be myself.
Any Burners out there have similar experiences to mine? Whether you’re a Burner or not, have you ever returned to a travel destination you loved? Did your outlook of that place change after your second visit? Do you have a trip that you view as a pilgrimage?