My memories of Burning Man include the best nights of my life. And yet, I’m not there this year, and I couldn’t be happier about it.
Granted, I made a lot of mistakes during my one and only Burn. I had just arrived on the West Coast from Boston with everything I owned in the back of my car, and decided to go with a couple of friends at the last minute. People from New England think that “the burn” refers to what happens to your face on the 15 days a year when it’s warm enough to go outside, but not so hot you can feel your liver melting. Accordingly, when I heard that people camped out at Burning Man, I expected to, well, camp out. I did not expect to be surrounded by air-conditioned RVs in which people spent hours getting ready to go out or to be invited to workshops with names like “How to Manage Playa Hair.” (Playa refers to the uninhabitable mass of sand upon which arguably the most fun city in the world is built for a week). I had brought a couple of sarongs that I wore in increasingly revealing arrangements along with the cowgirl boots I’d happened to find at the Salvation Army just before I left. I knew before I got to Black Rock City that it was a shabby costume, but I expected Burning Man to be about much more than appearances. My final (nearly fatal) blunder was planning to stay for the full eight days, not taking into account that a week without sleep is literally three times as long as a regular week.
As it turned out, Burning Man was about much more than appearances: it was probably the closest I’ll ever come to going to the moon - which, similarly, is going to be much more enjoyable if you plan accordingly, appearances and all. But proper Burning Man planning takes months - months I’d rather spend on other projects. So it will always remain a mystery to me - along the lines of how computers work - that people manage to create full kitchens and 30-foot art installations in a place where I could barely survive a week with just the proper supply of food and water.
That thousands do just that every year is, of course, the beauty of BRC: it offers the most convincing evidence I’ve yet to encounter of the age-old maxim, “Another world is possible.” In this case, it’s a world in which a naked girl on a bike that is spray-painted to look like the wings of the butterfly that is painted on her body stops and puts a homemade necklace around your neck, saying, “Here, I want you to have this.” And you hug this spray-painted stranger before stumbling into a Buddhist stupa tent - which from the outside looks like an exact replica of the Buddhist stupas in India-where people are lounging on pillows and silk blankets while a girl on stilts sprays everyone with lavender water and another girl teaches a yoga class, which you participate in naked after your sarong falls off. And somehow you don’t feel uncomfortable at all doing Happy Baby - AKA Wind Relieving - Pose in just your underwear.
Or you go to your neighbors’ Fairy Princess theme camp to enjoy the elaborate buffet breakfast they’ve prepared, and while you’re waiting in line, the 50-or-so grateful diners spontaneously begin singing “Sweet Caroline” between bites of eggs. After breakfast, a boy wearing a three-foot-high hat made of pipe cleaners offers you a seat across from him on a giant seesaw attached to an enormous metal wheel, and you two wheel around the playa like that for hours, laughing hysterically at everything. Later that night, you find yourself 20 feet off the ground, climbing an elaborate jungle gym with a giant rectangular trampoline at the bottom, upon which you do flips as the gym’s creator explains his rationale: “I like to work out a lot, so this year I thought, ‘Want not bring the gym with me to the playa?’”
Clearly, creating such a city one week out of the year requires an unfathomable amount of work. When a friend of mine declined to see a movie with me last May because he had to go to a Burning Man planning meeting, I couldn’t help wondering how, and perhaps more importantly why, does one create a full-service beauty salon or a running bus that looks and functions like a castle in the clouds in the middle of a climate that does not support any sign of live?
This is precisely the amazing part of Burning Man, and the part that eludes me: it is entirely pointless. Not because it’s nothing more than a ridiculously fun party (that it is, but the people who go solely for raucous merriment are in the minority), but because all of these creations toward which people spend time, money, and energy for months on end simply disappear at the end of eight days. People do it anyway. That’s why I have such respect for the whole enterprise, and it’s why I think the people involved are fucking nuts.
Unfortunately for these amazingly talented nutjobs, as Burning Man has grown over the past few years, it has also attracted thousands of people who are there because it’s a much more exciting spring break than Miami Beach. I encountered numerous guys who looked like the jocks I tried to avoid in high school, which is to be expected since Black Rock City is after all, a city, with all the disparate elements and offerings therein. But in a regular city, the guys you want to avoid are not likely to yell things like, “Hey, you’re hot! Wanna take a shot with us?” from their front stoop, or to stumble drunk into your camp at 4 a.m. and asked if you want to go to the “make-out tent.”
And then there was the time I stopped with a guy I was just getting to know at a camp that offered a table of chapstick and sunscreen for weary Burners on their walks around the playa. (Contrary to popular myth, Burning Man does not thrive on a barter system; rather, gifts are given and received freely, and they can be as elaborate as an acupuncture treatment or as simple as a lollipop.) This camp was one of many places in BRC that had a healthy array of leather and handcuffs, both of which I’d successfully avoided so far. But before I knew it, the guy I was with was handcuffed to a metal bar above my head and I was being handed a leather strap. “He wants a spanking,” one of the camp’s inhabitants said to me. And that moment represents where I went wrong at Burning Man: in a world where anything goes, one has to be firm in her boundaries.
But I didn’t want to be the uptight one donning a sarong and boots instead of calligraphy painted over my bare breasts. I halfheartedly flogged the guy with the soft strip of leather and then we walked awkwardly away, parting company shortly thereafter.
It’s not that I’m against long-term planning, roughing it, or being in situations that are outside my comfort zone - it’s just that I would rather do these things for the sake of say, the Peace Corps, than for the party of my life.
Nevertheless, the mind-blowing-ness of the burn is magnetic, and there was one point this summer when I called up the friend I’d gone to Burning Man with three years ago. “I’m thinking about going back this year,” I said.
“Why?” she asked with genuine curiosity, which forced me to honestly consider the answer. I realized that I was thinking about going back because I was sick of dealing with my regular life. I simply wanted something drastically different. A few weeks passed, and the fireworks of my inner life subsided, as they always do. I realized I’d rather spend eight days working, sleeping, and partying when I deserved a break: in other words, living in balance.
But that’s just me. And I don’t say that to be Burner PC, but because the playa makes it so cuttingly obvious that each person’s experience is unique - some people are able to soberly enjoy the sandy, moonlit evenings riding art cars from raves to Absinthe bars to trippy mazes; others can be drugged insomniacs for a week and somehow come out of it feeling more alive. For me, neither of those things are possibilities - and they don’t rank high on my list of challenges I’d like to overcome.