Let me get this out of the way first: Nothing I am capable of writing or taking a picture of is going to adequately illustrate just how surreal, beautiful, or harsh an experience Burning Man was. Its a place so wholly different from the norm, that since my return to the real world, things seem bland and devoid of character - like taking off a pair of colored glasses or leaving out the salt from your food. It was a wonderful and unique experience, and though I can't do it justice - I hope that my description may at least inspire you to consider the journey yourself.
Officially, the trip to Burning Man should take about 15 hours from Phoenix. In reality though - it takes much longer than that. No one seems to get to the Playa (the dry lake-bed in the desert where the festival is held) without a number of random disasters. We changed no less than 3 tires, and had to grind off 2 locks just to get half way there. Then you have to pick up all the items you forgot or lost along the way, and finally once you arrive there is a long line of vehicles like overstuffed sausages waiting to get in. Every vehicle is searched for free-loaders (those without a ticket)and if your unlucky enough to get pulled over by the local PD - contraband as well.
Fortunately we were able to bypass most of that fiasco thanks to some early entry passes our friend Jessica floated us. We waited about an hour or so, rolled around in the dirt (as is the custom for first timers), banged a gong, and we had officially arrived at Burning Man!
Even though we were a little bit early, it wasn't that easy to find a spot to camp in. Lots of areas were already roped off or reserved, and even the area we finally settled in turned into a bit of a land dispute at one point. We made our camp just past 6:45 and Graduation. The city is set up like a clock where the spokes are numbered from about 2:00 to 10:00 and the streets are alphabetical from the innermost "A" to the outermost ring "L". The alphabetical streets do have names, but people constantly replace them so "Engagement" quickly became "Enlightenment" which turned into "Ecstasy" etc... The system is easy to follow and we were just down the way from our friends at Radio Electra who were camped at 7:00 and "A".
That first day was a little rough - it took most of the night to finish setting up our camp and it was sunrise before I finally got to crash out in the structure I had worked so hard to build. The Yurts worked brilliantly - they were dust-proof, warm at night and cool during the day. They weren't as sound proof as one might think, but the further you are from the center "A" the quieter it is in general so noise wasn't that big an issue. I had rigged a heavy duty exhaust vent to go along with the solar power system so the swamp cooler only got turned on a couple of times, but it too worked amazingly well and kept me cool during a 24 hour recovery period I required after a long night out.
So we had arrived, setup our camp, and finally gotten a little rest - thus began a series of strange adventures and rest periods that made up my burning man experience. The festival seems split into several different phases - the daytime events, the nightly burn, and then the after-party which goes on till the sun rises. At any point in that daily cycle you can also venture out onto the playa and check out the surreal art-pieces, go participate in some random occurrence (ie. march of the Waldo's - the unicorn stampede, or the gathering of bunnies), or just hang out at camp and watch the random shit parade which is constantly roaming by.
I can't say I was too successful at making many of the events. As fun and as crazy as many of them were (Jamaican accent party, unicycling tutorial, flamethrowers 101, etc..) I either couldn't find the right place or when I got there the party was over. I did have a great time though wandering around the playa checking out the art and just wandering around in general until I found something that sparked my interest. I spent one whole night doing that until I ended up at this place called the "Avant Yard". They were putting on a storytelling night kind of like The Moth
that I missed in NY. I had such a wonderful time there. I even got up and told a story of my own. It was probably my favorite night of the festival... at least until I drank too much, threw up, and had to be dragged off the desert into a random dome to sleep it off. Special thanks to the kind souls who did that for me... whoever you are :)
Most of our camp spent the daytime napping and trying to keep cool. Occasionally folks would venture out to center-camp to check out a concert or do some acro-yoga. I think I spent most of days though out on the playa just sort of awe-stricken by the sculptures. The pyramid containing the man was pretty impressive, but what really took my breath away was the temple.
I don't think I knew what to expect when it came to the temple. I had donated towards that project as it seemed like such an important part of Burning Man, but I had no idea that it would be such a powerful place. People write things on the temple walls they want to let go of or put objects of loved ones in there to burn along with the temple on the last day. There are pictures, shoes, poems - I saw a wedding dress someone had hung up and written on it the words "I will love myself first". Every time I went in the temple without fail I found myself crying. Even just entering the main room made me choked up... it was weird and very moving.
When I was done sobbing and missing events, the nights usually began with some major object being lit on fire. I've been to a bonfire or three but nothing close to watching a 4 story wooden horse packed with fireworks and kerosene go up in flames from about 50 feet away. That night in-particular was pretty amazing as the person crying and laughing behind me turned out to be "Ohio" - the progenitor of the Trojan Horse Project (or so said his wife).
The nights usually ended after I was done gawking at the myriad of kinetic light sculptures that are fondly termed art-cars. Light up party barges or psychotic neon death-traps would be more accurate descriptions in my humble opinion. There were hundreds of them at a time on the playa - turning the horizon into a sort of state-fair midway on crack. The lights, the dub-step music, even the dust they kick up are all ingrained in a picture in my head I can't seem to loose. Every evening was a crazy parade of light, sound, and flame.
Thus went our days and nights until it was time to leave. There were epic fireworks displays, the man burned (from which a giant ember fell out of the sky searing my neck) and eventually we found ourselves on the last day of the festival trying to start our vehicles for the first time in a week. Stephanie was the unlucky winner of the dead battery contest. This was followed up by her winning the stalled vehicle race and finally the overheating engine competition... basically her truck was loosing the battle. After getting things running again though, Stef and Denny were anxious to get on the road so we joined them and made the long trek back to reality just before the burning of the temple.
In general - I'd love to say that Burning man changed my life. I think for the last few years I've been on various excursions hoping to have some cathartic experience out there in the world that would mortar the gaps in my being or show me some new way of looking at things. I guess I'm a little saddened to return with the message that it didn't... at least not wholeheartedly. It did however brighten my world and spark my imagination. I've never been quite as inspired by a place or heard myself say as often "next time I'll...".
To all the amazing friends I made out there, to the radicals at the Avant Yard, to Ohio, to my camp-mates, to Jessica and Chris, all the people who put so much work into making that a special place, and to my girlfriend who put up with my madness while getting ready for this thing - Thank you. I can't way to see you all there next year. I might even be done washing the dust off of all my stuff by then ;)