Third Burn's the Charm
Phil and I have just completed our final Burning Man for the foreseeable future and oh, what a ball we had ! 2016 marked my third year at Burning Man and Phil's seventh, and it felt like we finally nailed all the elements to provide the groundwork for an excellent week in Black Rock City !
I have to admit that I initially hesitated to write about Burning Man because - 1. There's been so much written about it already 2. People get really self-righteous (aka burnier-than-thou) about what it is and what it means and 3. Everyone's experience is so vastly different. I've only been three times, but I think even if I'd been 15 or 20 times it would be difficult to elucidate its meaning. Seventy thousand people converging on a desert to create a temporary city is a living, changing organism; every year and every person's experience unique and varied. So I hereby absolve myself of any authority on the subject, and am simply sharing snippets of my own experiences and photos from the past few years !
2014 - DISCOVERY
When the sun begins to set in the desert and you look out at the horizon you'll see hundreds of twinkly LEDs and giant bursts of flame begin to light up the night sky. It's a sight to behold and one of my favorite parts of Burning Man - a promise of any number of adventures available to you out there - all you need is an open, curious mind to bike out and see what lies ahead.
You can truly find anything at Burning Man, depending on what you're looking for. People who haven't been before take their cues from the media and imagine a debaucherous drug-fueled orgy filled with naked hippies and weirdos. Many of those elements do exist there (and lose any negative connotation within the walls of the city - weirdness, nudity, self-expression are all encouraged !), but so do innumerable other experiences - inspiring art, dancing to incredible DJ sets at sunrise, building community, exploring your spirituality and reflecting upon oneself. Everyone can curate their experience to be as wild or tame as they see fit and no one will judge you for it.
Phil (my boyfriend at the time, now husband) moonlights as a DJ, so our week is usually centered around finding excellent music and art. In 2014 we caught an amazing DJ set by The Crystal Method, our shared favorite electro band in our teens. We laid in a hammock someone had set up in the middle of the desert to watch the sunset, and kissed on the LOVE sign just as a dust storm began to hit (pictured above.)
We'd only been dating for a few months at the time, but I like to say that we began to fall in love during a magical sunrise on Thursday morning, dancing on top of a giant fish art car at Robot Heart.
Going into Burning Man, I felt like I had a decent idea of the scale of art and people I was about to see. Phil had begun sharing his experiences with me as early as our third date, he'd often send me articles to read and documentaries to watch on the subject. Yet the one thing that is perhaps a bit difficult to describe and is one of my favorite things at Burning Man is the wonderful and unique interactions that take place between people on playa. The act of "gifting" (there is no "barter" system) breaks down walls and barriers between each other - strangers walking up to give you a hug when you look down, someone handing you a bottle of coconut water in the unbearable heat, a handmade bracelet that matches your outfit. It makes everyone friendlier and warmer, more receptive to interacting with people that they would pass by without so much as a glance in the "default world." The environment itself, harsh and unforgiving, further builds this sense of community. One afternoon we got caught in a "white out" dust storm out in deep playa (meaning you can't see more than a few feet in front of you;) we sought shelter inside a small enclosed art structure and were joined by a few German blokes. Huddled up, we handed them a beer and talked about life, bonded over the ferocity of the storm until it passed; a "playa moment" that would not have existed given other circumstances and environments.
Fortunately, my first year was great. I was awed by the sheer amount of art, quality of musical acts, and community involvement. When we left, I knew Phil and I would be back together again.
2015 - GROWING PAINS
2015 was a difficult year, for a number of reasons. While Black Rock City has always been inhospitable, many veterans claimed it was the worst weather in more than ten years. Some were unprepared for evening temperatures in the 30s, and though we had packed enough long-johns and fleeces - it was still bone-chillingly cold. The dust storms were frequent and intense. Whether it was day or night, it seemed that every time we left camp to check out an art piece or find a friend we would get caught in an hour-long whiteout in the middle of nowhere. Many people don't mind dust storms (some even enjoy them), but lost in them I often felt claustrophobic. Despite vigilant care for my skin, after a few days the dust infiltrated and tore away at me - my face became scaly and began to peel and crack, my nose began to bleed, and I broke out in rashes on my legs and arms. The real kicker, however, was my autoimmune disorder began acting up in a way Phil and I didn't know how to deal with at the time. A short bike ride often left me exhausted and in pain, barely able to get back to our camp. Needless to say, my experience differed drastically from the previous year and it was difficult for me to get out there and adventure.
That being said, I felt it was OK to have a different experience ! Burning Man is never meant to be easy. It made me appreciate the previous year even more, and I knew the weather the following year would be undoubtedly better. As the week came to a close, Phil and I had seen a few stunning art pieces and caught some great musical acts (stumbling upon Bob Moses performing a sunset set was my favorite), yet we felt a bit underwhelmed as a whole. After The Man burned Saturday, it appeared as though the skies and dust had cleared at last - and we decided to have one "big night out !" We drank a ton of Red Bull and powered through till the sunrise - returning to our fish art car from the previous year for music and dancing at Robot Heart, making friends with an amazing group of people, and feeling satisfied that our burn ended on a good note.
2016 - THIRD BURN'S THE CHARM
We knew this would be our last burn for awhile. We've had our fun, and with hopes of starting a family soon - the next few years of our lives would take on a decidedly quieter tone. So we thought about what would make this our most epic burn yet ?
AWESOME FRIENDS ! We were thrilled that so many of our best friends finally decided to join us for our last burn / their first time. Phil and I have always loved exploring together as a couple, but going out in a big group of friends has an entirely different energy ! One of my college roomies even flew out all the way from Singapore for the festivities.
AND A WEDDING ! We decided to hold a playa wedding that was quirky and silly (contrasting with our traditional wine country wedding back in June.) We almost skipped it but our friends insisted, and it ended up being the highlight of our week.
Phil and I still felt planning-fatigue from our real wedding and couldn't think up anything worthy of an audience. Two of our good friends - Tom (our officiant from our June wedding) and Cheryl (my college roommate) - promised to take the helm and surprise us with a location, ceremony, and vows to read - all we had to do was show up. Saturday afternoon we were blindfolded and taxied out to the surprise destination by one our campmates. As they removed our scarves, the reveal showed a beautiful location at sunset near The Temple, with more than 20 friends and campmates' beaming, smiling faces.
Our officiant Tom wore a silly squidhat, and made us recite even sillier vows. We all shared a giant group hug, popped champagne, and danced to "Barbie Girl." It was spontaneous and heartwarming, a bright and beautiful memory for us to cherish.
The rest of our week was somewhat mellow - exploring on bike and chilling with friends back at camp. Our friends Scott and Cindy constructed an incredibly spacious and comfortable yurt their first year - a haven from the elements and amazing hub for us all to reconnect, relax, and chat. When we did venture out we found some wonderful art installations, my favorite being the impressive "Sonic Runway" - a 1000 ft-long tunnel of lights, synchronized to sound. Other highlights include Phil dancing on top of the Robot Heart bus as Lee Burridge deejayed (a feat usually reserved for scantily-clad models), and a man making a fresh batch of curry udon noodles in the middle of the night - building flavors for over 30 minutes in a meal that was as much performance art as culinary cuisine. The wonderful randomness and absurdity you encounter is another of my favorite things about Burning Man - listening to your camp neighbors making loud cat noises into a microphone while running into someone you met once on a backpacking trip in Australia while wearing a rainbow tutu and eating some exotic tropical fruit someone gifted you - wouldn't seem entirely out of place ! But rather a collision of elements and people and all the creativity they bring coming together in one crazy place.
On Saturday night, ten of us biked around searching for Robot Heart in vain. We rode for hours in a thick duststorm with limited visibility and eventually settled by a giant sheep art car playing some great music, and danced into the sunrise. In the past, I've never been comfortable in whiteouts - so this was my first time feeling safe among friends (and even having fun) as we adventured together, calling out to one another frequently to make sure we stuck together. The duststorms are another experience that for me, feel incredibly unique to Burning Man.
Surrounded by a white haze, a fine dust whipping at your skin, a desolate landscape gives way to some incredible art installation covered in magical twinkly lights - it is truly the only place I've experienced that feels like some alien planet.
I feel that each of my burns had a different "theme," if you will. My first one was about falling in love - learning more about Phil and exploring this strange and wonderful desert land together. 2015 was about struggle, as we tried to deal with the limitations of my health and the harsh climate exacerbating my autoimmune disorder. And I felt that 2016's burn was about friendship - reconnecting with old friends, and building deeper connections with new ones. Phil and I have mellowed out over the years, and this year's burn struck just the right balance of party time and rest time, socializing and relaxing. We'd brought out a bunch of our first-time friends and turned them into certifiable Burners who would surely return next year to create bigger, bolder things.