Reflections from a virgin at Burning Man
The lure of Burning Man has ebbed and flowed in my heart every summer since 1994 when I worked in Montana with some fun-loving hippies who’d tell me amazing stories of this annual “festival” that occurs in the Nevadan desert. Somehow something always intervened though, and year after year Burning Man would come and go, and never did I make it. I know now that the time simply had not yet arrived. This year, however, the universe was shouting “Burning Man!!!” and I could only respond with the obvious, “Of course”. At night while I’d try to sleep, a cryptic phrase kept me awake: Some things must die, others go up in flames.
I first began considering Burning Man earlier this spring while traveling around India with my dear friend, Rosanna. She and her sister were planning on going and invited me to join their camp. For the first time in my life, I had this strange sensation in my heart that somehow this could be the year my dream would become realized.
However, after traveling for most of the year in Nepal and India I wasn’t really seeking another epic adventure. In fact, I wasn’t even really considering Burning Man because a) I was broke, and b) I was supposed to be trying to find a job. But while leaving Fiddle Camp mid-August, I was saying bye to my good friend Ed Howe and he mentioned that he was getting ready to head out to Burning Man. My heart began accelerating, my eyes opened wide. (Ed is a great fiddler who would be performing with guitarist friend John Cote, creating super-funky and danceable music for the festival’s first contradance in history. ) Ed quickly noticed my intrigue and proceeded to tell me everything my heart already knew but had somehow minimized in my mind. Had I known then that what lay ahead was a promise for one of the greatest weeks of my life, it would’ve been a no-brainer. But unknowing these things, as Ed spoke I was nervous for I knew he was right: Burning Man will change your life! In one of the most spontaneous decisions I’ve ever made, just after that conversation I knew this had to be the year of Burning Man.
With less than two weeks to go before the festival start-date, I began strategizing like a madman. Time was NOT on my side— I had way too much to get done in only a few days. Nonetheless, every cell in my body was buzzing, especially on the night when I got my plane ticket. My few remaining days were spent busily in focused determination to procure all essentials tools and garb, doing my best not to drop the ball. After all, I was all too well aware that mistakes in the desert have significant consequences.
For example, one thing I’d read about, but couldn’t properly comprehend prior to experiencing it, are the grim dust storms that ravage the silty desert whenever the wind blows. You need goggles to prevent your eyes from burning in the alkaline dust, and you need a gas mask to keep your air intake dust-free. Ed surprised me one night on a phonecall when he reminded me of other essential attire: “great costumes”. Now, this perplexed me. I barely eek out a Halloween costume every year, and I definitely don’t have multiple costumes that I could just toss in my suitcase. But with the spirit of Burning Man upon me, I accepted the challenge and rounded up some spandex, capes, crazy hats, purple shorts, and villains vests.
I arrived in the airport in Reno late Friday night and was thinking I would be able to find a ride from the airport to the festival grounds, about 100 miles away. The airport thinned out pretty quickly though, and before long I was sitting lonesome and stranded with a large backpack and cello. Plan B: take a taxi to Walmart and look for anyone with a massive quantity of stuff in their shopping carts. Hanging in the chill Nevada night parking lot, I approached many people, most of whom just shot me befuddled glares, unaware of this “Burning Man” I was speaking of. Two hours had gone by when I noticed a smiling hippie girl getting out of her Econoline van that was packed to the gils with bikes, water, and various crap. Her name was Is (which I learned was very short for Elisabeth). She was an angel and when I asked for a lift, she enthusiastically began rearranging all of the truck’s contents and carved out a 2×2 foot nook that was just barely large enough for my contorted body and luggage. After driving several hours into early morning, we arrived at the gates of the festival. The sun was just beginning to rise.
It was 6am and all around me was the breathtaking expanse of electric desert morning sky meeting boundless beige earth. The desert floor, surrounded by distant mountains, appeared like a vast open field of infinite possibility. Surreal and profound, this vision instantly set the tone for what would come to be a week of unparalleled enchantment.
My new friend dropped me off in the middle of sandy eternity with a dust-storm in effect. I told her I’d be fine and I knew I would be. But at this moment, my situation was pretty grim. I unloaded my crap out of her car and found myself standing in a vacant lot wondering if any of my friends were even here. Anyhow, I was really tired since I hadn’t slept in a long time, so I set up my tent and got some rest.
I awoke to discover my tent was being ravaged by insane wind. Pressed flat against my sleeping body, the walls of my tent were threatening to suffocate me as ferocious gales were ripping my tent to shreds and puffing dust clouds into my tent through every gap the wind can find. I looked out the window and witnessed a total whiteout, with occasional ghost-riders on bicycles clad in post-apocolyptic attire riding by unfazed. Adding to this apprehensive feeling in my heart, the morning was wintery cold, and in light of the current dust storm, I remember feeling a little leery about whether spending ten days in the desert would prove to be WAY too long. The website described the “radical self-reliance” that was required for one’s survival in this inhospitable environment, and now I finally got it.
It was two days before the festival would officially begin. I arrived early to assist in setting up camp and laying the groundwork for the other members of our contradance tribe. After seeing the awe-inspiring bulk of infrastructure, it was no surprise to me that the Burning Man city has been abuzz with activity for several weeks and months now as many hands have been engaged in installing art and tools of wonderment all around the playa.
Over the course of the weekend, everyones’ camps were slowly taking form all throughout the festival grounds, which span a thick arc measuring 2 miles in diameter. With clouds of dust came more and more cars, and eventually the vast festival grid filled in with campers and RVs and inexplicable motorized vehicles.
On Sunday, at the stroke of midnight, Burning Man officially began. A few hours earlier a beautiful sunset had set the tone for the night and by sundown the electricity of many very happy people was abuzz in the night. Many wait patiently all year long for their week of Burning Man. I was seeing all things for the first time, but already this group think ecstatic vibe made my heart beat rapidly and instilled a perma-smile. Now that the sun had gone down, the city was illuminated by exotic light sources and fantastic fire-breathing dragons prowling the festive playa. The moon was on its way out, but the stars were amazing. Everyone was wearing outrageously excellent garb, full or color and soul and spirit. The night was tremendously charged and as I roamed around trying to understand what Burning Man was I took in all the wild ecstatic energy and quickly it began to sing my soul electric. I was ready to rock.
By day two, I got it. I realized what I must do. I realized that the simple mindset attendees of Burning Man share is just this: BE AMAZING! One of the core tenets of Burning Man as described by its’ founders is that Burning Man is a place where“radicial self-expression” is encouraged. Inspired by this noble objective, all of us put on our most fantastic outfits and accessories that make us feel the way we want to feel. Many choose to wear nothing at all. For others, their self-expression inspires costumes and creations– many of which are the true artwork of a visionary. How refreshing to be existing for a week with 50,000 people all of whom look incredibly sexy, fantastic, hilarious, and joyful. Perfect!
For seven days I ate minimal food and barely slept. Every minute was precious. NOW was happening everywhere I turned, and I didn’t want to miss these sacred experiences that seemed to be finding me on an hourly basis. I never even felt tired, which surprised me, since many of those nights passed by without even a moment of shuteye.
Before going to Burning Man I thought I might get bored with all this time on my hands, hanging out in the middle of a scorching hot desert for ten days. But curiously, time always went by swiftly in a continuous sequence of engaging activity.
A common way to begin the day is like this. I’d usually wake up from my brief slumber sometime around 7am, always because I’d need to pee so badly that it would hurt. The porto-potty was a little ways away and once I’m up, I’m up. When in the desert you need to constantly be hydrating, drinking around two gallons of water per day– which is kind of a nuisance when you lay down to sleep.
Anyhow, so I’m waking up and groggily walking a zigzagged line to the bathrooms when all of a sudden I’d hear great Eightees music cranking out from an artcar loaded with a bunch of people laughing and partying and dancing. In disbelief I’d shake my head to be witnessing this inspirational vision of smilers– many of them naked– celebrating in a fantastic dance party. Dancing with reckless abandon, they couldn’t care less that it was only 7am and no one was there to remind them that people don’t normally dance like this at this hour. It’s Burning Man, I smiled, and then proceeded to dance joyfully to enchanting music.
Time is irrelevant at Burning Man. 24 hours a day, everywhere, Burning Man is in full-effect Happening. Everywhere you turn, literally, there are great fire processions, outlandish artistic creations happening, fire-dancers twirling mind lassos, and all sorts of random occurrences unfurling simultaneously, everywhere!
So with a wide-open day of opportunity before me, I’d often hop on a bicycle and set off with a friend or two and just ride without direction, just exploring and checking out the myriad imaginative art installations spread about. You really need a bike at Burning Man, because it was quite common to log several miles of travel per day and distances in the desert are so much further when on foot.
One day when I was feeling reflective and solitary, I rode out to the Temple by myself. The Temple is the spiritual heart of Burning Man and upon its walls are written heart-wrenching sentiments. The Temple would eventually be burned, on the final night of the festival, so it’s an ideal place to lay your baggage, your loved-one’s ashes, your grievous messages of forgiveness and loss, etc. The idea is that you add them to the Temple, make your peace, and then watch it all go up in flames on the final day of the festival. The Temple was a giant wooden structure, a wave of many planks gracefully reaching towards the heavens irregularly. The Temple offers many nooks and caves and lots of blank wooden space for people to write messages. The energy in the Temple is intense, and immediately upon arriving my heart was arrested. I spent a good five hours at the temple that morning, my eyes a teary mess and my heart aching to read the grief and loss and regret that so many of us have been carrying for much too long. I found a Sharpie pen in my backpack and added some of my own prayers and a few words of forgiveness. I forgave myself for everything I am not, and agreed to walk proud into a bright new world.
All around me in the temple you can see great tears of joy and liberation, as well as a few ghosts. They appear lost, dehydrated and sad. You can tell who was who, and when I saw big tears falling from one mourner’s mascara eyes I went over to her and wrapped my arms around her. She couldn’t see me because I was behind her. We sat like that for several minutes, and when a new breeze came, our eyes opened and we smiled to each other before parting in perfect understanding.
While the external stimuli of Burning Man are extraordinary and sensational, the real magic at Burning Man for me was the people. Unlike anywhere else on this planet, at Burning Man you can truly approach anyone whose grace or intrigue captures your attention. At Burning Man I came across many of these people, and it thrilled me to be able to approach them with full confidence of belonging, absent of any of the reservations us strange humans often have towards approaching people we don’t know. At Burning Man, that is exactly why you approach them. You know they are beautiful, you know they possess the seed, they are the life-force of a unique work of art, and if you are like me– you really want to know who they Are. And so, with a smile and a simple greeting, most invitations for conversation were met with the warm familiarity of a friend I knew long ago. It would fascinate me to no end to observe the organic evolution of social interactions at Burning Man, from a starting place of open-ended curiosity quickly becoming illuminating, exciting, and profound. I may’ve only met this person a short while ago, but already I’m cheering him onwards on his path and grateful for our conversation that has left me feeling challenged and excited about my future. For many of us at Burning Man, it was a week of epiphanies and life-realizations, and each person I’d speak with seemed to be divine messengers sharing the inspired word intended for my ears right here right now.
The week was proceeding onwards along this river of powerful emotions and awe-inspiring experiences. Half-way through the week, however, I figured out the true heart of Burning Man, and that changed everything.
It’s easy to get lured in by this party, which is truly the Party of the Century, far surpassing the very best, over-the-top party or rave you’ve ever been to. The party is incredible, and all day and night a dazzling waterfall of diverse stimuli delight your senses. Joyful mayhem is everywhere. And while there are plenty of hallucinogenic drugs and alcohol and X, not everyone chooses this path. There are so many paths one can take– wherever one’s interest lies. For me, I discovered the true heart of Burning Man was not the party, but rather the higher-consciousness that permeates the space and the extraordinary high-vibration group psyche. Burning Man attracts spiritualists of every kind and all across the playa seekers and healers are experiencing synapses and understandings enjoying inspired conversations and the myriad diverse workshops being offered by experts of diverse traditions.
The burning of the 70-foot tall wooden effigy of a Man on the final Saturday night of the festival was definitely awe-inspiring and impressive. But, for me, the peak of Burning Man came on the final day of the festival. I was hanging out with my good buddy John Cote. We were in the middle of an intense Van Halen appreciation session, cranking out killer tunes over the PA system blasted good and loud to rock the nations. He was dressed in a pink tutu and I was wearing very tight spandex pants and a leather vest, and together we were putting on the concert of our life. Playing air guitars and lip-synching the classics, we were David Lee Roth and Eddy Van Halen for a while, and it felt totally exhilerating!
As our dance party was winding down, I heard music coming from a distant tent. Suddenly, this music was calling me like the actual voice of God. The singer of the familiar song was chanting, “I’m alive, I’m aliiiiive, I’m alive!!!” I took off sprinting in the direction of the music and came upon a spirited soul-shakedown taking place over at the extraordinary Five Rhythms Dance Camp. These people organize spiritual dances that miraculously pulls your mind and spirit into the dance as the whole dance floor seems to move along as one organism, united in communal ecstasy. My heart fluttered, tears welled up in my eyes, and in my mind I was leaping out of my skin. Meanwhile, the shaman director of this dance was speaking the words of my heart, repeating slowly in cadence with the music, “Someday you will love the stranger that is your Self.” When I opened my eyes, this beautiful goddess was standing before me with eyes locked directly into mine. Her smile melted everything in me as she continued to speak the words that touched the deepest part of my soul. Like a surreal dream, I listened to her message and applied it directly to my heart. I got it. I suddenly understand everything I needed to know about Burning Man.
Burning Man is a vehicle for liberating the mind. It’s a place where you are encouraged to be fully yourself. Burning Man celebrates the moment as the only time when we can truly make a difference in making the world a better place. When we are called to be our best, to be our most beautiful, to act with kindness, generosity, and integrity– this is when we are truly living a meaningful life. And all of the other times– when we put our gifts in a closet, when we filter down our communication to boring insignificant conversations, and when we protect our heart with tall walls around us- this is slow death. This life is about being amazing. It’s about celebrating the gift that we are to this world, by giving ourselves to others and sharing our talents and joys with those we encounter. When we celebrate our divinity and enjoy laughter and good times with friends, these are the only moments we are truly alive. Burning Man shocks the body and mind on so many levels, obliterating all your judgements and preconceived notions about people and sexuality. Perceived limitations in this life are left behind in the smoking embers.
Wow. Wow. Wow. I've been struggling to write my own thoughts and observations and philosophies about this year's Burn – my 4th — but now I feel like I don't need to — you've said it all right here in this essay. I share so many of your perspectives and ideas expressed here, especially about the people at the Burn, the way people drop their armor and let their light shine, the authenticity and community and creativity and joyful loving. BE AMAZING. Yes! That's it in a nutshell, huh? I'm so glad you got to experience this simple truth. This is amazingly written, honest and unvarnished, and you demonstrate an incredibly perceptive eye and open heart. Your words, when you took me in to the Temple with you, and the Five Rhythms ritual and encounter with the goddess, brought me to tears, and connected me to my own powerful transformations on the playa this year. I will share this with my own tribe of merry Burners. Thank you for taking the time to write it all down it, friend."Someday you will love the stranger that is your Self."
You might enjoy exploring my site dedicated to Burning Man at http://destinationburningman.com/. Under "About">"What Is?" are some words from various friends that likewise try to explain the magic of the Burn. The "Stuff" section offers some podcasts you may enjoy listening to, and the dBM blog has some good stuff on it too (though it is currently broken and I haven't been able to add anything since returning home from BRC.) Namaste!
Kieran, this a beautiful essay. Thanks so much for sharing it. Your first year was also my first after a several year hiatus, though I began going in 1999 or 2000. The meaning of the event and my experiences have changed over the years, but last year was a good one reuniting with old friends and also sharing it with my boyfriend, who was a virgin in 2010 too. We brought a mountain board–like a snowboard with big off-road treads–and I have this wonderful memory of sitting in a beach chair out in the shade of someone’s camp on the playa, trying to get away for a minute from the driving bass of my own camp’s endless techno as they have grown to something I can hardly believe during my several-years absence, and seeing my boyfriend, wild-eyed and dressed in some crazy costume, getting towed on the mountain board really fast on a rope behind a man in a full silver suit on an electric bike. Ah, the memories. Perhaps we’ll meet on the playa one of these days . I’m trying to think–it’s been 23 years since you and I spoke last? Life is pretty crazy. Good luck getting your ticket!!!
I happen to call myself a writer too , but you are like the way I want to be when I grow up Hahahha……..I loved your description and you should be proud that you were blessed to have this experience.
I have a retard question, but I know you will give the honest answer. Is burning man basically a white person’s festival. I am an Asian [from India] and somehow for whatever reason I have this calling for the burning man ever since Ive known what it is. However, the question I just asked you always hovers in my mind…..