Burning Man Nostalgic
Every year, as the summer winds down, with my birthday around the corner, and the smell of school in the air, I feel the lure. Fellow “pilgrims” scatter dusty reminders on my Facebook wall: photos of fire and art, bikes, goggles, bandanas, ships on sand, braids, tutus, furry jackets, steel trees, giant Tetris games, smiles for miles, and, of course, the Man. Art and fire. Fire and art.
Burning Man. It’s been nine years since my last burn, and still, still to this day, although I’m a mom with a business living way too far from the place where Burners gather, I wonder if some how I’ll get one of my famous last minute tickets, camp invites, rides, and some how make that crazy pilgrimage once again.
2001. I lived in a bungalow in Venice, California with K. and M., a five-minute bike ride to the beach. We had banana leaf wallpaper, a back yard with lemon trees, and we threw parties where Amanda Peet and “the Southpark guys” would show up. I thought it would be funny to serve tater tots on a baking sheet so I did. My dog, Puck, tolerated these parties mildly. At least two people per occasion would tell me I looked like Renee Zellweger. That was also the year I freaked out and cancelled one such party – my own birthday party – because I was 26 years old and my dreams of becoming a famous screenwriter or director hadn’t magically happened yet, and I felt like a loser that I was still babysitting and catering for work (no matter that I had written two full length screenplays and CAA had “hip-pocketed” me). A few people didn’t get the party-no-more memo though, and M. made me an almond chocolate cake, and it turned out to be one of my favorite birthdays yet, especially because one guy brought his fire hula hoop, and so I got to hula hoop fire.
26 years old and dancing in a circle of fire.
A week or so later, M. mentioned to me, a sparkle in her brown eyes, that she and her brother had an extra ticket to Burning Man, which happens the week before and weekend of Labor Day every year. I had read about Burning Man in Rolling Stone when I was a senior in high school, or maybe in my early college career, I don’t know, but it was the mid-90s. I still remember the image that had me hooked: a man in unusual attire, with large goggles, hunched into a small, Star Wars-like vehicle, traveling across a flat gray cracked expanse, the blue sky too blue behind him. I was sitting at my parents’ dining table and announced, “I’m going to this.” Even at 17, I recognized these people as my people.
I told the family I babysat for that I would need a week off. They were cool about it, so, thinking I was going on an elaborate camping trip, I packed and went along for the ride.
A., M.’s brother, was a set designer and did things like the MTV Awards, so he and his DJ friends had rented a truck, complete with scaffolding, pillows, some shiny sheets of metal. We met at a warehouse with our bags of groceries and our jugs and jugs and jugs and jugs and jugs of water. M. had already schooled me in the rules of Burning Man.
- There is no money exchange. You give gifts. A gift can be a hug, a toothbrush, a meal, a piece of clothing, a costume, a ride on an art car, home-back cookies, or the shirt off your back – anything really. The only thing you could buy: lemonade, coffee, and ice.
- You must participate. Burning Man is not a spectator sport.
- It’s about self-reliance. You bring everything in, and you take everything out. We are borrowing from Mother Nature here so let’s respect that.
- You can’t drive a vehicle unless it’s registered with the Department of Mutant Vehicles, and even then, two miles per hour was the speed limit. To be registered, your vehicle had to qualify as an “art car,” therefore bikes were the vehicle of choice.
But the favorite thing M. explained to me: Burning Man was about “letting go.” It was founded on that notion. A man named Larry started Burning Man in the late 80s in San Francisco. He built an effigy out of wood of a man, about 8 feet tall, and asked his friends to come to the beach and party with him as he burned it to the ground. He had broken up with his girlfriend, and he wanted something to symbolize a new start, and a dramatic ritual of sorts. His friends happened to be artists and people in the tech world. They had fun – there was something to it – so they did it again the next year and the next, with people bringing their art and burning it, again, symbolizing “letting go,” and the “impermanence of things,” and new beginnings.
We drove through the night, caravanning, and yes, these folks used the word “pilgrimage.” Los Angeles to Reno, then two hours down a two-lane road to that flat crackly expanse known as “the playa,” or “Black Rock City.”
It was camping, but it wasn’t at the same time.
It was camping because we had to create the place where we slept, we had to bring our food, our water, our showers.
It wasn’t camping because it was a city. There is no other word for it. There’s a place in the middle of Nevada where a city builds itself for a week-long festival…and then dismantles after that week. Ten-thousand people. I remember A. and M., seasoned Burners, being amazed that it had grown that big.
I had considered myself worldly and adaptable at the new age of 26. After all, I had been to Europe, lived in the Bahamas, and Austin, and Wyoming, and now LA. But that first hour at Burning Man, in the late afternoon sun, I shuddered about the fact that I had no choice but to hang out in the dust, with the porta-potties, and electronic music, still foreign to my Southern-bred ears, for an entire seven days. The nighttime was descending fast as my campmates and I hurried to set up, two shimmering standing towers with dance platforms two stories up and a lower level with shiny panels surrounding the desert dance floor, with the back of the truck holding the DJs’ equipment for the parties we would be holding – right next to my tent – every night. And the costumes. People walked around in lights, like glowing stick men in motion. Lights everywhere, while the sun set, chilling us, while the “night creatures” (aka, People) came out to play.
It felt totally alien to me. This place. Like, actual aliens.
After 24 hours of being there in a sort of daze, what can only be described as a sort of culture shock, something clicked. I surrendered. I succumbed. The art, the music, the wonder and delight, the fire and dancing, the sheer freedom of a place that is six miles in circumference of 10,000 alien-people meandering around, handing out pancakes and Tecates and Grade A sushi from Oregon to stranger after stranger.
I didn’t go back until 2005, although I was offered free rides and free tickets, at least two of those years. It called me, but I didn’t answer the call, for no good reason, in hindsight. And then in 2007, when they announced the theme “The Green Man,” I knew I had to be there. And then my final and last time to go was 2008, where I reunited with an off-and-on again boyfriend. In 2009, I was pregnant with his child. And in 2010, I was living back in my home state of Alabama with a newborn, where we still are.
I haven’t found myself back there since ’08.
Today, the event is busting at its Deep Playa seams with over 70,000 people. Even in 2008, I was shocked seeing the playa at night. When it used to be a significantly few lights dashing and flashing back and forth across the black void, now the playa teemed with countless art cars, fire, and motion. It was downright lit up.
The Man is built every year and burned every year. But instead of being eight feet tall like the San Fran beach days, it’s now something like eight stories, an engineering feat with a well-executed art installation at its base that people enjoy and experience all week, until it goes up in flames too. The Man burns on the Saturday night of the event, the peak of the festival, where everyone gathers, people’s faces illuminated by the orange glow of the largest “bonfire” any of us have ever experienced.
I dream of returning, maybe even taking my little girl with me (yes, there is a Kid’s Camp, and yes, it can actually be a kid-friendly event with the right guidance), but I also wonder if I got to see Burning Man in its prime, before the rush and the media and now there are cell phones (ugh) on the playa, I hear and see from social media posts. Maybe it’s best preserved in my memories, yet my friends are still going back, year after year after year, despite the packing, the preparations, the dust, the after-exhaustion, the people, people, and more people. Despite the celebrities and the pre-pay, catered camps. Despite the jadedness of some of the old-timers and the spectatorship of some of the “virgins.”
I asked one such friend, who is still returning, what he thought about my musings. His response?
“Yeah, it’s changed. But the heart of it is still in tact.”