For me, Burning Man is some parts magical and some parts frustrating and some parts blissful and some parts devastating, just like everything that regular life is – except also dusty. There is so much gushing with positivity around Burning Man that I feel almost embarrassed to admit that two years in a row, I had both ups and downs to my burn.
I do truly believe that for some people, Burning Man is a non-stop highlight reel. But for me and many others, it’s a rollercoaster. And when it comes to a festival that worships at the altar of catharsis, I feel an even stronger urge than usual to show you not just the beauty and the bliss, but also the challenges and the exasperations. I learn more about myself and the world from the moments that challenge me than the ones that peacefully pass me by, so for that I am eternally grateful to these struggles from Black Rock City 2015.
The weather was tough in 2015. Here’s a quote from a six time Burner, that makes me feel a whole heck of a lot better about how difficult I found the weather situation:
“I love a good dust storm, I love a good challenge, I love some chaos, but this year the cold and repeated dust storms really took it out of me, physically and emotionally… We had to rebuild our camp shade structure four times, my gig which I was excited about was canceled due to dust, and some of my beloved guest DJs were too cold to play my own party. All these were really tough for me and slowly chipped away at my spirit throughout the week.”
Me? I just spent seven months in Thailand without air conditioning, so I think it’s safe to say that the heat that many struggle with during the day is not a factor for me. The evening cold, however, is another story. Monday through Wednesday I was actually beside myself with happiness over the evening temperatures – they were super mild and for once, I felt prepared. But Thursday night things took a turn for the frosty. I heard afterwards it was thirty eight damn degrees. So yeah, pretty much literally freezing. Friday night, my entire camp — a camp filled with some of the most hard core ravers I’ve ever known — hung out inside one of the camp’s RVs, huddled in blankets. It was simply too cold to be outside, no matter how impressive the party on the other side of the camper door.
And then there was the dust. I remember in 2013 getting very excited about “the” big dust storm and gushing after about how beautiful it had been. HA! The entire burn of 2015 was a dust storm. I actually heard that the Black Rock City airport, which offers charter flights on and off the playa, was more inundated with requests to leave early than they’d ever fielded.
As someone who is high functioning in high temperatures, I love the daylight hours at Burning Man — I ride off on spontaneous adventures, I look at art, I go to yoga, I attend workshops, whatever. Black Rock City after dark is one of the most magical things I’ve ever encountered in my lifetime, but I’ve just been too cold to enjoy it for sizeable portions of both burns. My first year, I think it was understandable that I was caught of guard. This year, I made a better effort, but was still kicking myself for not being better prepared.
I’m a girl who prides herself on her ability to be out the door in ten minutes, on not owning a blow-dryer and on being able to live blissfully for three months on an island in Indonesia without fresh water showers (brackish water, which is rain water mixed with sea water, was the best we got). So it is humbling for me to admit that for two years in a row, my lack access to a shower had a big psychological effect on my burn.
The desert is just not my natural setting. I love being submerged underwater, set in the middle of lush jungles, and stranded on technicolor islands. I’ve been in a several situations throughout my travels when I went days and days without showering – hiking the Inca Trail, camping on a remote Panamanian island — and it barely crossed my mind. The desert, however, is a whole other challenge. You know how a lot of people feel about nails on a chalkboard? That is how dry skin feels to me. With my skin cracking from dry air, my hair caked in dust and my eyes burning red from the wind, I crave showers like I never before have in my life. It might only last a moment before the next dust storm, but that cleansing ritual resets my soul and sets me up for a day of happiness.
Both years I’ve gone to Burning Man, I arrived under the impression that I’d be able to shower a few times throughout the week at my camp. Both years, that has not happened due to technical failures, misunderstandings… whatever. Moving forward, I know that being able to take a brief shower every two days is absolutely essential to my happiness at the burn, and I’m going make it happen either by investing in renting my own RV, or joining a large, organized theme camp that offers a reliable camp shower.
It kind of kills me to write that once again, not feeling like I fit in with my camp was my biggest heartbreak of Burning Man.
In 2013, I camped with a group of college friends and an established theme camp of veteran burners. In 2015, I camped with my boyfriend and a thrown-together group of friends-of-friends brand new to Black Rock City. We formed a three RV and one tent caravan, and all met for the first time the night before the burn. There was no planning email thread, no group discussion, no conference call ahead of time. Anyone who has seen my color-coded excel sheets and detailed planning calendars is probably picturing me going into a stress coma right now, but I was actually amazingly unfazed and after a summer of hectic travel planning, ready to just sit back and enjoy the ride.
In some ways, the whole thing added up to a pretty beautiful organized chaos – we shared some gorgeous meals, made some amazing connections, and had an absolute blast partying together. In other ways, it was straight chaos chaos. There’s no way to sugarcoat it: I wasn’t on the same page with my camp when it came to the cleanliness and eco-friendliness of our camp at what is admirably the largest leave no trace event in the world.
Striving to live and travel sustainably is my jam, and so I was pretty dismayed to find that the group shopping — which I hadn’t been a part of — included pallets of single-use water bottles, sleeves of styrofoam plates, and several other non-Burning-Man-approved products that made me twitch. I think this planet I’ve been so blessed to spend the last half a decade traveling is pretty gorgeous and generous with its resources and the least we can do in return is try to treat it nicely. I also take the ten principles to heart and think they are what makes Black Rock City the special place it is, so it definitely stressed me to feel like my camp wasn’t paying attention what the founders call Burning Man’s “most important principle.”
Clearly, I couldn’t go back in time and change the shopping list, so I slapped on a smile and vowed to make sure every single recyclable item in our camp made it to the proper facilities. And I did. I spent hours throughout the week shoulders deep in my camp’s garbage, pulling out cans and water bottles and separating them into their own bags, and when we left Black Rock City I drove them to a specialized recycling facility and I felt happy and good.
What didn’t feel good was the routine of awkwardly putting on a chipper voice and reminding everyone to please sort out cans and bottles, a drill I don’t think endeared me to my camp mates. I felt pretty fatalist, like, if people don’t care about this stuff here, how is there any hope for the world out there? The thing is, it’s just not easy to talk to other people about sustainability without sounding like a condescending asshole, and I shudder at the thought of being a condescending asshole. The last thing you want to do is be judgemental when someone is being generous with you, and I also cringe at the idea of coming off holier-than-thou when I know I’m as flawed and in-progress as anyone.
In some ways, I so desperately wanted to be carefree and go-with-the-single-use-plastics-flow like the rest of my camp. Why couldn’t I just let it go and not care? Why couldn’t I be more likeable? Why couldn’t I be an easygoing girlfriend and make Ian’s life a little easier for once, instead of the other way around? But I just couldn’t. I’m not the most easygoing human. As deeply as I try to please those I love, so many years spent traveling alone and working for myself have left me fiercely independent and borderline stubborn. And there are just a few things I’m not comfortable compromising on.
So yeah, I stuck to my guns and made sure out camp stayed as close to Burning Man’s leave no trace ethos as I could personally manage. But in the process, I spent a lot of time wondering if the hilarious, generous and fun people I was camping with liked me or wished I would just stop being such a buzzkill. It didn’t help that they were significantly more party and pack-mentality oriented than I was, and I often found myself biking off to explore alone while they all biked off to day rave together. Personally, I was totally down with this arrangement — I love doing my own thing! — but I know it further ostracized me. That said, when I was in the mood to rage, I couldn’t have asked for a better wrecking crew. I hope if they read this they know how much I adored them, and how much fun I had partying with them on the playa.
I’ve been traveling for nearly five years. I regularly throw myself into new communities where I know no one and walk out with lifelong soulmates. So I feel a little embarrassed that twice now I’ve felt so desperate — and perhaps unsuccessful — to click with my camp at Burning Man. I want to camp with my tribe. I don’t quite know exactly who they are yet, but I’m getting a clearer picture every day. And I think they have color-coded excel spreadsheets.
They say there are no spectators at Burning Man — everyone is an active participant. With each burn I understand more clearly how important contributing is. So many burners put so much love and energy and money into creating special experiences for strangers, and that is what makes Burning Man magical. Sure, I’ve brought little surprises to gift to others on the playa. In 2013, I think I participated at or above the level one would expect from a first-timer. In 2015, I kind of disappointed myself in this aspect. In the future, I really want to be one of those people who gives more than they take.
At Bonnaroo last summer I was blown away by the presence of Planet Roo, a village dedicated to sustainable living and social change. This beautiful space held classroom space for yoga classes, lectures on green living, and a learning garden where workshops were held. Yup, in between the big sets at ‘Roo, one could attend clinics such as Letter Writing for Change, Chicken Clinic: The Basics of Hen Health, and Death to Landfills: Take a Bite Out of the Waste Stream. I was obsessed with the fact that Bonnaroo was gifting its community the tools it needed to take the sustainable values of that festival and go out in the world and implement them elsewhere.
As I flipped through the booklet of burner events this year, I found myself wondering, why doesn’t Burning Man have that? Why wasn’t there anyone running a Green Your Burn seminar, why wasn’t anyone teaching how to set up a composting garden, why this, why that. Yet the really empowering thing about Burning Man is that my immediate next thought was… that person could be me. (Step one: learn how to set up a composting garden.)
I plan to seriously reassess the way in which I interact and contribute for my next burn. In the short term, I hope to get involved with and volunteer at Recycle Camp, since I really admire the work they do there, and use Alex in Wanderland as a platform to help burners plan a greener burn. (Stay tuned for an upcoming post on this topic — I’ve decided I can make up for my lack of citizenship at Black Rock City by contributing to the community here on this blog!) In the long term, hell, I want to dream big. Someday when I have a more stable year-round home base I’d love to really go wild and run a playful, sustainably-minded travel-themed camp, design an underwater diving-inspired art car, or contribute to a whimsical, larger-than-life piece of art (oh, how this former fine arts student misses making things with her hands).
pre-dust storm, post-dust storm
. . .
Reading through my equivalent to this post from my last burn, I realize that yes, I made a lot of the same mistakes twice. And that’s frustrating. But you know what? I also learned from several of them, too. I lived more in the moment. I thought more about the activity I was doing or the person I was talking to or the party I was at than the ten others that I wasn’t. I felt close and connected to both my boyfriend who I camped with and my best friend who I traveled with. I put less pressure on myself. I understood more what I wanted out of the week and I knew how to get it. I felt confident and at ease. I did my own thing — and I loved it.
Still, if at this point you’re thinking I’m a whiny baby who ran around shivering and fussing over my hair and nagging my camp and wondering why I continue to torture myself… you’re not totally wrong. Ha! Just kidding! I adore Burning Man. It’s one of the most creatively stimulating, emotionally empowering, ideologically inspiring, and wildly fun experiences I’ve ever had. Is it a rollercoaster? Heck yes.
And I can’t wait to get in line for the next ride.