"Well, whatever you’re looking for at Burning Man, you’ll find. You just need to figure out what it is you’re looking for."
Dirty, tired, and more than a little burned out, I looked at Laura (Z) as she said this and had to stop and think for a while. It was about 3:00 in the morning on wednesday night – I’d been on the playa since monday afternoon and had been away from the comfort of my shower since Sunday morning. The first day had been a complete whiteout – dust so thick you couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of you – bad enough to make some seasoned burners go home. Fortunately, things cleared up enough of monday for us to set up our tents, and by mid-tuesday we had our shade structure set up (it looked a lot like this when it was done), so our basic necessities were taken care of.
Strangely enough, though, it was not the portapotties, air mattresses, camp food, or wet wipe showers that were getting to me. Instead, I was getting increasingly frustrated that I wasn’t achieving the epiphany I had hoped for and even expected from coming out to the desert. I was camped with my best friends in the world (even better friends after that week) at possibly the most avant-garde venue I’d ever been to, but something felt flat. I’d helped with building a crashed UFO, I’d done naked jumping jacks on a bar, I’d played the bass with a random band, but it wasn’t enough. After this third night wandering the playa, dream dazzler in hand, giving relationship and career advice and occasional salsa lessons to random burners, I had come back to our camp with a distinct impression I was not getting what I wanted from the experience. Laura’s comment really made me think, though, and in many ways it was the turning point of my experience (thank you Laura!). I realized that in fact I didn’t know what I was looking for, other than an abstract sense of wanting to find "the answer," and this was definitely coloring my experience. I was in fact seeking both the question and the answer and not finding either one.
The next day, I tried to heed her advice by letting myself gravitate towards what moved me. As usual, Sam, Steve, Phil, Donna, Ryan, and I biked off in the morning to explore the inner neighborhoods for interesting people and experiences. One of our first stops was the Interaction Camp. Instead of food, they served from a menu of interactive experiences. We had an appetizer of telling stories about recent events, but when the main course came around I jumped on the entree for singing humorous songs. The waiter sang us a song, and then I asked if I could sing my own and belted out my craigslist number. Suddenly, something clicked for me, and I felt a little better – I hadn’t sung on the playa yet, and it felt wonderful. I made a mental note and we moved on.
After various other adventures, Sam got a tip on the location of the fabled Pink Mammoth, from whence the famous Pinky’s night in Seattle was inspired. As you might expect, it was a fabulous daytime dance party, and as we got into the music, I realized how amazing it was to be dancing to fantastic music in the middle of a desert in 100′ heat (much cooler in the shade, mind you) – I also realized how great it felt to be dancing (I’d only danced a bit so far on tuesday). We stayed a while and then the others wanted to find the Rockstar Orphans. I went with them, but as they went back to camp, I found my way back to Pink Mammoth for another four hours of dancing. I met a few new people there, and even ran into some old friends (Shahid!). I had an amazing time and didn’t go back to camp until just about sunset.
It was becoming clear to me that playing music, singing, and dancing were doing the most for me, so I decided to go with it. These were things I could look for, and as Laura predicted, I could find. That night, I wandered the length of the esplanade, from Opulent Temple (at 2) to the Roots Experience (at 10), stopping everywhere there was a chance to dance to or play music. I ended up spending several hours in the red dome at the Roots, dancing to amazing music and having a great time. Shahid had mentioned some excellent electro-funk at the Green Gorilla, which was practically next door, so I wandered over there for more dancing. The music was fantastic, and I lost myself in the dancing for a while. I noticed a guy in front of me who was a really fantastic dancer and started to track his moves (as I often do) looking for new steps. Without warning, a beautiful woman (who clearly didn’t know him) came up to him and gave him a wristband, asking him to come to some event that was described there. "Damn," I thought, "I wish she would come give me a wristband too!" But, then again, he was an awesome dancer, and I can see why he would draw people to him. The woman then wandered off into the open playa, so I forgot about it, and was getting ready to take off. At that point, Maggie, who I’d met at Pinky’s earlier that afternoon, showed up, and said she’d be right back as she wandered into the dome. As such, I kept dancing for a while, when out of the blue came the beautiful wristband woman. I gave her a big smile as she came by, and a few minutes later she came back with a wristband for me! I was ecstatic. Her name was Jordana, and she sweetly asked if I would come to her event. The invite was for a soul brunch at Soulicious the next morning. I went home that night with the sense that somehow I had caught some sort of wave and events were now pushing me as much as I was seeking them.
I came to the brunch the next morning (it turns out the "VIP" bracelet wasn’t a requirement for admission, but instead a means of reminding tired burners where and when they should show up the next morning) and couldn’t find her initially. I got a drink and on the way met a fellow with a black "8" hat who said, "ask a question of the magic 8 ball." Still hoping for that abstract "answer," I said, "Will I find my path by the end of the week?" He wrote down a few words from what I said in various places on a whiteboard, then scribbled for a minute or two. He then handed me the board, and it read, "Finding the right path takes a lifetime. Relax and enjoy the journey." It was beautiful, and exactly what I needed to hear. I wish I’d given him one of my playa gifts, but given his level of insight he probably didn’t need one!
Drink in hand, I went out to the dance dome. I met a few friendly folks there and had a great time dancing. Then, on a brief foray out, I saw Jordana and went up to chat with her. We danced for a while but it was clear there was a weight on her. Later, when I was in line to get a drink, I overheard her talking about some tough relationship issues going on in her life. I thought she might benefit from one of my playa gifts – I’d made a series of ten small framed drawings representing various roles: healer, mediator, crafter, dancer, musician, listener, explorer, storyteller, thinker, and dreamer. The idea was that the receiver would choose one that either represented an aspect of their being or an aspect that they aspired to. Jordana chose the dancer, as part of her life she wanted to celebrate more, and I was happy for her and wished her luck on her journey.
I went back to the dance floor and met the lovely Rachel (Vegas) from SF (like so many other burners!), who I think was camping with Soulicious. We had a fantastic time dancing for an hour or two and planned to go dancing again later, but as is the ephemeral nature of the playa, we never saw each other again. I wandered back to camp refreshed and re-energized, just as Sebastian and Adam were planning their performance that night at the UFO. I was dying to go out there an play with them, but didn’t want to suggest it – and amazingly, Steve brought it up. "Why don’t you go out and play with them tonight?" he asked. "That would be awesome!" Adam replied. We decided that after Sebastian’s set, I’d do a short jam with him on the Dream Dazzler. I was super-excited, and spent the rest of the afternoon playing with little motifs in A minor (the key Sebastian was planning to end on).
When we went out the playa that night, the UFO was looking beautiful with the lights and lasers, and Sebastian played an amazing (and humbling) set on his violin. I was a bit nervous going up after that, but still excited to play. Plugged in and ready to go, we tried to tune up, and realize that the Dream Dazzler wasn’t true to pitch! Luckily, it was sharp by precisely a half step – which meant I had to do my jamming in Ab minor! It worked out fine, though, and I ended up playing some fun bass patterns with Sebastian’s killer melody lines. I wasn’t sure how good it sounded, but I definitely felt the groove during the performance and had a fantastic time. Fortunately, the folks at the show liked it too, and were frankly amazed that that crappy pink keyboard could put out some decent sounds.
The next days and nights were a blur of music and dancing – I had hit my stride and had an amazing time. Probably the most memorable moment was yet to come, though – early Saturday afternoon, following a 110′ day, a raging dust storm rolled in that made it clear it wasn’t going away anytime soon. We were stuck in the camp, and instead of tucking our heads into our tents and RV’s, Sebastian, Adam, Lisa, and I decided to play a concert in the dust storm. Sebastian set up a small PA, and the rest of us plugged in and played. We started off playing a bunch of folk/rock songs that Lisa sang/played – Adam and Sebastian would do guitar/violin solos, respectively, and I held down the beat via the percussion pads on the Dream Dazzler (I knew those pads would come in handy!). Later on, when Lisa’s voice tired out, I got on the mic and did some rhymes/vocal jams with Sebastian, which was super fun. My favorite chorus was "In the middle of a dust storm /covered in gray/ In the middle of a dust storm / Whaddya say…" A bunch of people from neighboring camps wandered in, feeling and hearing their way to our camp, and at our peak we had 15-20 people hanging out under our chute listening to our grooves. A few days before then, Steve had asked me what would really "make" this burn for me. "It would have to be some kind of experience or insight that couldn’t have happened anywhere else." Well, playing a concert in the middle of a dust storm and feeling the joy of bringing music to good people pretty much satisified both counts for me. Here’s a picture (I’m in center in the fedora with the pink plastic keyboard on my lap):
Saturday night was the burn, which was a bit anti-climactic for me. Given how interactive and individual Burning Man is, and given how (as I found) each person must find their own experience, having everyone go watch the same thing seemed almost antithetical. "If Burning Man were real life," I remember saying to Phil, "the burning of the man would be the fourth of July." I still went, though, and then went out for a last night of dancing (we were leaving on Sunday). This night, I spent most of the time with Sam, Steve, Donna, Phil, Laura, Jeremy, and Tessa, and we went to all the dance parties around the 2:00 region. We started at Opulent Temple and went inwards to Nexus and then Emerald City. I loved the latter as I thought the music was GREAT and they had a concrete dance floor (my knees were pretty tired of dancing on sand by this point), but noone else in my group of friends did. We went back to Nexus, since Bassnectar was coming on at 2:00am (and located at 2:00, how’s that for confusing?). I love Bassnectar, but I wasn’t too into the set he was playing, so I went back alone to Emerald City and started dancing up a storm. I met a few people, including a nice person from the Deep End camp whose name I don’t remember, and then noticed a very cute woman in a cow costume dancing near the stage. I really wanted to dance with her, and (unlike my usual self) asked her, "hey, come up on stage, aren’t you tired of dancing on sand? It’s much better up here!" Amazingly, up she came, was even more lovely in person, and had some great moves to boot. "So where does a cow learn to dance like that?" I asked. "In Seattle!" she said. "You’re from Seattle?" I was amazed. She was the first Seattle-ite who I didn’t know from before that I’d met there, and I’d never seen her on the burner scene here. "I knew you were from Seattle from the way you danced," she said, which also amazed me (I’m still trying to figure this out, but my friend Ariel says she has some idea, and pointed me to the well-known phenomena of the East Coast Rave Ball). Anyway, her name is Cindy, and she turned out to be part of the very camp we were dancing at (Emerald City). I gave her the last of my playa gifts that I would give out (I came home with three), and she chose the Crafter – my absolute favorite – "because I want people to recognize me for my creative side." Wow! I really hope I’ll see her again on the Seattle scene.
Finally, the time came to pack it up and head home. I felt different, and could tell that somehow I had grown, but couldn’t really put my finger on it. As we got off the playa (which took four grueling hours) and then made it to the small California town of Alturas, I had the first chance in days to see myself in a real mirror. To my amazement, the face that looked back at me from that gas station bathroom was – get this – a bit rugged. I’ve always thought of myself as soft (and in fact had said for many years that I was too much of a princess to ever go to burning man), but seeing my face after a week of merciless sun and minimal washing and pulling rebar and pounding rebar and tying guy ropes in 100′ heat surprised even me. In fact, even on the way to the playa (at Alturas, in fact!) I’d pointed out a few locals in town who had that "rugged" look and said "as Natalia once told me, I’ll never be rugged." Well, guess what – perhaps there’s more to me than even I thought!
This went further than the look, too. Suddenly, I felt myself willing to take on challenges I was scared of before. On the way down, I had my fingers crossed that I wouldn’t have to drive the Suburban+RV trailer combo and was relieved when I didn’t have to. On the way back, though, as Phil was completely tired out and Steve needed sleep badly, the responsibility fell to my hands and I was rearing to go! I can’t say it was the smoothest drive ever, but I took on the challenge and drove around 200 miles in that beast over the most desolate stretch (between Alturas, CA and Bend, OR).
Now that I’m back, things have been different here, too. Mostly, I find myself missing the playa much more than I expected to. Of course, I’m eternally grateful for flush toilets, hot daily showers, indoor plumbing, the lack of dust, and did I say flush toilets? At the same time, though, I’m sorely missing the level of interaction and engagement on the playa – it’s strange to walk by people and see them avert their eyes (as is the city norm) instead of saying hello and starting a conversation. Suddenly, the city seems a lot lamer and colder than it was before I left. At the same time, I find that I’m still at a higher level of engagement, and the times thus far I’ve pushed through and chatted up a random person back here in Seattle they’ve responded well. Perhaps, then, the spirit of the playa is here in all of us, we just have to break through a bit of social crust to get to it.
The last thing I’ll say here is about the many press accounts of the burn. On the whole, they’re extremely myopic – basically saying how the burn is just a bunch of privileged, self-indulgent hippies throwing a drug-addled party (see, for instance, Jessica Olien’s account (she’s never been to the playa), in which she likens Burning Man to the Republican National Convention). Another negative account is from Travis Kavulla, who went, and found it an exercise in debauchery, excess, and escapism. To these folks and the many other critics, my response is simply the quote this post started with – whatever you’re looking for at burning man, you’ll find. These folks go in looking to find drunken and drug-filled debauchery, and – big surprise – they find it. I went in looking for insight, and found out more about myself than I had ever expected. I hope that I can carry the lessons I learned there through the rest of my life back here at "reality camp," as many folks call the real world while on the playa.
Here’s a cheat sheet of my insights from the playa (and the journey):
- Music (creating, playing, listening) is very important to me. I need to spend more time at it and not be afraid of doing it imperfectly. As in research, it’s better to fail early and often on the path to success instead of being catatonic and going nowhere.
- Dancing elevates my mood and helps me engage with people.
- I can be rugged – and I can be far dirtier for far longer than I ever thought possible.
- I should smile more when I dance – people smile back!
- My friends are beyond amazing. I spent 24/7 with them (quite literally) and loved every minute of it. Sam, Steve, Tessa, Jeremy, Donna, Steve-O, Izzy, Laura 1, Laura 2, Eric, Sebastian, Lisa, Adam, Lucienne, Ryan, Phil – I love you all, and without you, I don’t know how I would have gotten through the week.
- Photos and videos do not to Burning Man justice. To have all of that amazing stuff, at unbelievable scales, out there in the desert – is purely magical.
- Whatever you seek at Burning Man you will find. What you find you’re seeking can tell you a lot about yourself.
- People like gifts that tell them about themselves.
- Burning Man is not just a big party (though if that’s what you’re looking for, you’ll find it).
- From the 8-ball man: finding the right path takes a lifetime. Relax and enjoy the journey.