I’m on top of a double-decker bus, dancing to techno blaring out of speakers welded to the bus’s side. I can feel the music thrumming beneath my feet, running up my legs, entering my bloodstream. Thousands of people pulsate below me. The sun hasn’t come up yet, but it will soon, bathing the playa in the warm glow of dawn. This is Robot Heart — one of the most coveted parties at Burning Man.
I’m dressed in a faux-white fur coat and a captain’s hat. Walking up the stairs of the bus I see Diddy — yes that Diddy — dressed in exactly the same outfit. We come face to face and share a laugh about this bit of synchronicity. After dancing for a few minutes, I lean close to mention that I named my chihuahua after him. He gives me that classic Skeptical Diddy look and dances his way to the other side of the roof. Maybe I should have told him it was a pit bull.
That was then, and this is now. In the five years since my last trip to Black Rock City, I’ve quit alcohol, gotten strict about working out, learned to meditate, and practiced yoga daily. But I still wanted to Burn. I still craved the connection that the festival holds for so many. In fact, I craved it more than ever.
In August of last year, I returned to my hometown when my dad was diagnosed with cancer. The doctor assured us that he could beat it and he was going to be better in a year. I uprooted my life and made helping him fight my one and only priority. Upon his diagnosis, I stopped enjoying the company of strangers. I felt fake in almost every social situation. He passed away five months ago. And ever since, I’ve become anxious, depressed, and worried that something terrible is around every corner.
Point being: I needed this trip, to learn to trust the universe again.
On the moment of my arrival to the playa, an extreme white-out swept through the city. You couldn’t see 10 feet in front of you. I retreated to my tent, laid down on my air mattress and thought, “What the fuck are you doing back here?” I had a heavy wave of anxiety crash over me. I was still grieving, how was I going to handle seven days of storms, drugs, and general mayhem?
Enter Disco Glitter Cowboy. This stranger — a bizarre sight anywhere on earth besides Burning Man — was dressed in a ripped denim jacket that was completely bedazzled in faux diamonds. In his backpack, he had a $100 bill on a fishing string, plastic scorpions, and rubber snakes. He was a mischief maker of the highest degree, but always with the sole intention of bringing joy. I found his southern accent and hospitality simply magnetic. We had dinner together on the first night and, though I was feeling low, he made me an offer that I couldn’t refuse, “Party with us tonight and you can use all the water you want from our RV for the rest of the week!”
As a tenter, you’d be a total idiot to turn away that deal. Minutes later, I found myself getting ready for a night out.
It was a hell of party, as all Burning Man parties are, but there’s no reason to give it the play-by-play here. I’m not going to regale you with tales of the drugs that I took or the wild sex I had, because there’s more to Burning Man than the cliché stories you hear (though the clichés can be fun too). The point is that hours later I found myself watching the sunrise with my new friends and my best friend.
Suddenly, with the sky turning purple then pink, I felt flooded with gratitude. Rather than feeling cheated, I thought about how lucky I was to have had my dad, my favorite person, for as long as I did. The fog that had swallowed me for a year started to lift. I began to feel whole again.
In the center of Black Rock City lies the temple — a sanctuary built to provide comfort and a place of worship. A few days after partying with the Disco Cowboy, I sat among the wounded in front of a spiraling altar. Many of us were crying. Others bent, their faces pressed to the ground in prayer. In that space, and across the playa, I felt fully accepted. If the social experiment of Burning Man has succeeded on any level it’s in creating a community of people who genuinely give a fuck about each other. That’s no small feat. Black Rock City is a place to feel accepted and understood. A place to recognize the humanity of others.
Standing up to exit the temple, I pinned my father’s photo next to a picture of Larry Harvey, the founder of this wild festival. Two visionaries that died too young at the age of 70.
I didn’t leave Burning Man this year with another epic celebrity story. Instead, the festival gave me something this year that it never has before: a sense of clarity. A certainty that I would feel like myself — or some new, better version of myself — once again. Even when surrounded by chaos (of either the emotional or dust storm varieties).
That clarity is the gift I needed — more than the parties or the drugs or the sex. And that’s a high that not even dancing with Diddy on a bus can compete with.