We had arrived.
I’d read about the dust, and with it billowing around us, there was no mistake. We had made it to the playa.
Pulling into the bus depot, we all rush off the bus – we’re here, we’re here! As the baggage gets unloaded, we’re herded into a small group where the virgins are asked to step forward. Knowing that’s me, I move to the front of the group. We’re given a hammer and told to hit a bell as hard as we can as part of our initiation ceremony.
A guy about my age steps forward. The ring of the bell is deafening – man he really went for it. He then gets on the ground and rolls in the dust as the sound of clapping overtakes the ring of the bell. The greeters walk up and give him a hug, welcoming him home.
I take the hammer and BANG! the vibration from the ring rolls up my arms. I drop to the ground, cover myself in dust and rise – no longer a virgin. I’m immediately surrounded by a hug from every direction and told “Welcome home!”
This “welcome home” thing is a big part of Burning Man – it’s how you’re greeted when you arrive on the playa. I didn’t get it, but went along with it – when in rome!
Properly initiated, everyone grabs their gear and heads for camp. The bags are heavy in my hands and the camp seems like it’s forever away. Walking, I notice that there are street signs at the intersections – this is how I’m going to find my address. Black Rock City is arranged in a horseshoe formation, quite cleverly designed. The streets are giving names starting with letters A-G and a clock overlay lets you know on which side of the horseshoe you reside. I was headed for 6:30 and D.
The enormity of the city is sucking me in. Already I can tell this was bigger than anything I had excepted. Later in the burn I would learn that it wasn’t just the city that was bigger than I expected, but everything about Burning Man and it’s community.
Arriving at camp I greet my camp mates – I’m nervous. The burners take the 10 principles very seriously! I want to make sure that I’m strictly upholding them so that I can be accepted into the community. At first it’s like walking on eggshells. Having only ever been exposed to my God-fearing parents and their God-fearing friends, it’s weird for me to be around adults who swear and drink. I have a feeling though I’m going to get along with this group just fine.
Out for Adventure
We settle down, pitch our tents (good thing I practiced at home) and hang out around camp as other camp mates trickle in. One of my camp brothers, Omega, and I decide to take a walk to explore our surroundings. Filling up our camelbacks with copious amounts of water, and me with some paper flowers I’d made, we head out.
The city is still being built. We’re surrounded by hardworking people putting camps up, and others exploring on foot or with their bikes. We come across a pair of rangers (non-police folk who are there to help you when you need it) and begin to chat them up.
One of the rangers is named “Touch”. As someone who already sucks with names, I’m still adjusting to everyone having unusual names. These are called “playa names”, and they represent you at the burn. As you may have guessed, my playa name is Zoom (you can learn how I got that name here).
We have a lovely conversation with the rangers and prepare to head our separate ways. Before we do though, I give them both a paper flower that I’d made. “Thanks for your service”.
Before the burn, I spent hours making making paper flowers. I even invited friends over for a paper flower making party. Why? One of the 10 principles of Burning Man is gifting. SPOILER ALERT: There is no money at Burning Man.
All of the bars, classes, restaurants and shows are free for you to enjoy. Those services and events are gifts to the community. Each citizen, and camp, of BRC is expected to contribute a gift of some sort.
For me, it was paper flowers. For others it’s compliments, hugs, homemade jewelry or helping people out who are setting up their camp. This gifting-economy is one of the things that makes Burning Man so special (and you’d be surprised how much money you actually save not spending money for 8 days).
Returning to camp, my excitement for the rest of the week is building.
Authors note: I’m finding this series incredibly difficult to write. I want to share every story, every memorable moment, and everything awesome that I experienced with you..but if I did that you’d be reading for 10 pages straight! If you’d like to hear more about the trip, or have any questions about Burning Man, just leave a comment and you might get more than you bargained for as an answer!
As the next few days roll on, our camp is beginning to take it’s form. All the campmates have arrived, completing our ABC family. I’ve seen more art in the last three days than in my whole life – and it’s interactive art to boot! After typing out my life story on a typewriter I just stumbled across sitting out in the desert, I climbed to the top of an art structure and overlooked the city.
I’ve also seen an incredible amount of nudity. Here’s an excerpt from my audio journal:
Researching Burning Man, I had read so many stories from people who said “Burning Man changed my life”. It seemed like everyone who has ever attended Burning Man has been impacted and had their life changed.
I’m half way through the burn now and it’s just not happening for me. I don’t feel any different. I’m having a great time, but when is this life changing moment going to happen? What if it doesn’t happen for me? Would I be sad? Was I doing it wrong? Did I not “burn the right way”?
The Alien Siege Machine
Another day passes full of adventures and I’m still not feeling ‘the change’. Maybe I’m focusing too hard on it. I decided to let it go, accepting that maybe I’m just not getting it. I was never going to understand what everyone was talking about.
Distracting myself from disappointment, I walk down toward center camp, open to adventure taking me where it will. An art car is stopped not far away and I run over and ask the driver if I can hop on. CONSENT CONSENT CONSENT!
He invites me on, hands me a beer and off we go! We uunz uunz uunz (that’s the sound of bass-heavy electronic music) our way around the playa and return to center camp. He tells me that we’re picking up a bunch of elder / disabled people for an art tour, but that I’m welcome to stay on board.
Nothing better to do (one of the things I love best about Burning Man…nowhere you have to be), I decided to take the art tour. The car loads up with people, zipping off to the first art installation. The tour guide educates us about the different art structures: who the artist was, the history of the piece and other tidbits.
While it was all interesting, one art installation in particular stuck out to me because it had the most interesting backstory. It was the Alien Siege Machine.
On Friday night, there would be an awakening ceremony at alien siege machine. One of the factions, the cultists, would attempt to awaken the alien so that we could learn from his knowledge and power. The opposing faction, the scientists, were strongly against this idea. They feared that if the alien were to awaken, he would call his alien buddies, resulting in the enslavement the human race. I am cracking up at this story, and hope that I remember to see the ritual. With no technology, no sense of time, no idea what day it was and knowing how adventure happens at the drop of the hat, part of me knew I wouldn’t be there to see it.
Are you Burning yet?
Another day passes, full of adventure and conquest, but I’m still not “burning”. This has been an amazing experience, but it will just be a cool festival with amazing feats of engineering that I once attended.
That was, until this happened:
The last few days were amazing. I was FULL ON ZOOM. I had finally found a community of people I can not only be my TRUE SELF around, but that I can be my FULL SELF around.
Ever since childhood, I’ve been told to keep my personality in check. Don’t talk too much. Don’t laugh too loud. Don’t give away your feelings so quickly. I’m sure you’ve experienced something like this – where you’re told to contain yourself in one way or another.
It’s this education that has created “abbreviated” versions of us. At Burning Man, your full self is encouraged. Nay, required! Anything less magnificent, and your abbreviated self would shrink away with the dust.
Leaving the playa, I was already being gripped with depression. It would be a whole year until the next Burning Man. Even though I wouldn’t be welcomed home again for 12 months, I knew that my life wouldn’t be empty of the essence of Burning man during that time.
Continue reading part 3 here.
So, do you want to go to Burning Man? If you’d like to hear more stories from the playa, I put together a YouTube video playlist with my favorite memories here.