The year was 2012. I had a golden ticket in my hand for a faraway land that seemed more like a figment of some misfit’s imagination than a dot on the map. An elusive memory retrieved for the purpose of storytelling during beach bonfires and late-night parties at someone’s downtown loft that I had only met in passing.
While I had been on the receiving end of these stories more times than I bargained for, Burning Man was still only a fairytale to me. This ticket promised a departure from the clean lines and straight edges that made up my tiny, little vanilla existence—a departure that, until recently, wasn’t always so easily entertained.
I remember the first time my boyfriend told me nonchalantly over dinner one night that he had made the journey to Burning Man…ten times. I balked. My lip curled, ungodly thoughts popped in my head like a bag of microwave popcorn, and I spewed mindless banter about twilight orgies and LSD highs with manic pixie dream girls. Because that’s what Burning Man was all about, right? A melting pot of sex, free love, drugs, dust, and hardcore techno beats that shattered any sense of familiarity.
Where this stereotype and I became one, I will never quite recall. Maybe it was a photo or one of those forerunning stories passed on from a friend of a friend that confirmed what I wanted to hear. But I chose ignorance, and like most, I was quick to dismiss what I did not understand. I was your average middle-class, 20-something living in Los Angeles who owned a pair of boyfriend jeans and traveled when my 10-vacation-days-a-year allowed it—I thought I had enough excitement in my life. So I knew I had a lot to learn when I completely caved to peer pressure and cashed in that ticket to travel the 600 miles from Los Angeles to Black Rock City and ring the Playa bell—marking the eternal loss of my Burning Man virginity; I just didn’t know how much.
Rather than explain at length just how wrong we can be when we jaunt through life with our eyes closed, I thought it would be more enticing to explore the lessons I learned from just one trip to the eternal fairytale known as Burning Man. Here’s to hoping I reach one hopeless soul as blind as I was.
Lesson #1: People are generally good. We hear about the senseless school shootings; the abduction of young girls locked in captivity for three decades; poisonous gassing of civilians in Syria. By the sounds of it, humanity is doomed. Still, Burning Man is an undisputed reminder that there is great in the world.
Each morning, I was treated to a complimentary breakfast a short bike ride away, ranging from hot, syrupy blueberry pancakes to French Toast—and nothing was expected of me in return except gratitude. A wanderer gave me the coat off his back while I sat freezing in the middle of the desert at dawn, and asked us to help him sip down a bottle of champagne in exchange for good conversation. And let’s not forget the Dutch man in his birthday suit who gave me his necklace after I simply told him I liked it. These were not random acts of kindness—this is a pay-it-forward culture that strives to embrace these same values in the real world. Can this altruism scale? It’s up for discussion. But this selfless giving and awareness shows promise that humanity is not lost. For all that is bad in the world, there is a lot of good.
Lesson #2: The mind is limitless. Think there are feats beyond your ability? Spend a few days in Black Rock City to see just how ridiculous a thought that is. People, with two hands just like you and I, build kinetic amphitheatres-slash-mega-clubs, wrapped in panoramic digital video screens, that rival multi-million dollar entertainment venues in—dare I say it—Las Vegas. They build abandoned ship wrecks; 50-foot-tall robot cyclopeans that spit pyrotechnics from recycled trashcan bins that double as tentacles; spaceships; larger-than-life rubber duckies on wheels; makeshift islands with motorized surfboards; temples assembled from intricate wood panels as thin as toothpicks—you name it and some beautiful mind at Burning Man is already drawing out the plans. All of these works of art are miraculous in their own right, but together they form the most innovative expression of creative energy imaginable. Oh, and they build it in the middle of nowhere and burn it down for a week. Our minds are a radical force when tempted.
Lesson #3: Community over commodities. People don’t care what you look like, what labels adorn your clothes (if you wear them at all), how new your iPhone is, or how much money is in your bank account. In fact, your money is as good as scraps of paper in your pocket. There are no bottles to pop, Tom Ford to be rocked, or paper rain to be made. Character and community act as currency.
Lesson #4: Work hard, play hard. From the creation of costumes to camps to art cars, Burning Man is not just one big party—it’s a lot of blood, sweat, and labor. People spend the entire year (and more) leading up to the festival assembling planning committees made of freethinkers, architects, designers, builders, painters, wielders, blacksmiths, technicians, and transporters—all to give something back to the grassroots community that helped shape it. For every glow stick and flamboyant fur legwarmer, there is an arsenal of people behind the scenes that worked overtime to materialize that experience. Things often work the same way in the real world. Life is a balance.
Lesson #5: Judgment is our worst enemy. Too often, we make generalizations based on fear of the unknown. We hear chronicles of exhibitionism, topless femme bike brigades, sparkly pasties and old men in assless chaps, and assume debauchery. Well, at least I did. And while I’ll be the first to admit that much of what you hear (and see) is often true, the only debauchery I experienced at Burning Man was that of the mind and senses. It wasn’t about rebelling against society—though for some, I’m sure that’s exactly what it’s about. For me, it’s about questioning and simultaneously surrendering to the judgments and conventionalisms that plague the status quo and just being whatever the hell you want to be. It’s about personal expression. It’s about freedom. It’s about letting go. It’s your pursuing your own spiritual journey.
Burning Man teaches us to open our eyes and look at life in a way we never have. Once I succumbed to the experience and gave it a chance, I wondered how many other things I missed out on in my life due to quick judgment—which led to my bucket list (a story for another time).
Lesson #6: Participating is believing. Photos. Videos. The much-toted stories you hear. While they all paint an imaginative portrait, Burning Man is not a spectator’s event; it’s something you must see for yourself to believe. I remember waking up at dawn my first day on the Playa for a wedding—yes, a beautiful wedding, at that—and seeing a colossal copper dragon moving hastily along the open desert like there was a princess to catch, a few dozen people dancing to distant beats atop its scaly back, and a fiery sun rising over the horizon. It was a juxtaposition of two images that the mind couldn’t quickly process as reality. And I had never seen something so beautiful in my entire life. That was until four days later when I saw The Man burn with a desert sea full of art on wheels surrounding me, and a sultry cacophony of sounds competing in my ears. Everyone who makes the journey has had that “aha” moment(s). It’s a feeling that even the best storyteller or photo can’t capture, and one that fails to ever lose its fire. Life is a bubble…until it’s not.
Lesson #7: Minimize your footprint. Operating strictly on a “leave no trace” mentality, Burners leave the Playa the way they found it: empty. They actively encourage participants to consider their impact, and take steps to limit it. This includes reducing your packaging, opting for reusable containers, minimizing your waste, and respecting wildlife. The best part is that the entire community puts everyone else in check to make sure they deliver on that promise.
While being mindful of my environmental impact (and annoying everyone in my wake in the process) was a practice I adopted a long time ago, we could all learn to limit our use of plastics, think twice about the amount of trash we consume, and where it all goes. Of course, for participants of Burning Man, the alternative is losing location privileges for the temporary city they call Home one week a year. But for us, it’s the planet we live on—a lot more at risk.
It’s officially been a full year since I embarked on this journey outside of my comfort zone, and the impression it left on me still burns strong. Will I go back? Without a doubt. Only this time, I’ll come with less inhibition and a much bigger lens…