Caviar is forked into my mouth. Champagne is poured down my back. Someone passes me a joint lit from the flame of an antique candelabra. I’m wearing a cheetah print bodysuit and more accessories than I usually put on in a month. A live violinist plays along with a DJ spinning deep jungle house. Persian rugs. Velvet tapestries. This is hedonistic, Bedouin bourgeoisie. And like all parties in this city, there’s no cover charge, no VIP list, and everything is free.
Sexy people surround me. A guy whispers in a Scottish accent, “You are what you are seeking,” kisses me, and dances away. A bombshell in a lace gown leans over the table. A sculpted man in a wolf mask lifts her dress and licks caviar off her ass. It’s erotic and gross and weird and amazing. It’s Burning Man.
Fast-forward a few hours. I’ve flirted my way to a sleeping situation upgrade. My minivan has been traded for a real bed in a carport. My host is kind and nurturing, exactly what I need for day three on the playa. The only qualm – he’s camped far from the port-a-potties. Good festival real estate is near the toilets, but not so close you can smell the smells. My host offers me a bucket to pee in. I go with it. I came here to push boundaries, right? He says he’ll throw out the bucket in the morning. I insist it gets taken care of right then. I can’t sleep next to my pee. A girl has limits, you know?
I wake up at dawn. Something’s not right. I remove my earplugs, scramble across the carport, find my bucket. I puke. Perhaps caviar in the desert wasn’t the best idea. My thoughts – “This is so real right now. This is so humbling. I’m so glad we emptied the bucket.” I wonder if somewhere across Black Rock City, the babe in the lace gown and her wolf man are caviar puking too?
Burning Man is an experience best told in anecdotes. I led with the sexy story because that’s what you came for, right? You want to read about the debauchery, the absurdity, the descriptions of tech billionaires and celebrities “ruining” the Burn and everything it stands for.
Well fuck that.
Burning Man can’t be ruined, nor can it stay “the way it was.” That’s the whole point. It’s a meditation on impermanence. Every year it’s literally burned to the ground. It’s also a social experiment, a microcosm of real life. In the default world there are the wealthy who sequester themselves in material comforts. There are the citizens who build the community, rebar by rebar. The spiritual breakthroughs come when you’re at your lowest, peddling through a dust storm, exhausted beyond all reason, trying to find your friends, depressed because everyone seems to be having fun and all you want is a shower and a nap.
Each year at the Burn, there are endless stories told of people looking out for one another by sharing water, lights, a hug. Stories of the volunteers who deal with the city’s roads, toilets, safety. The same stuff we overlook in daily life, in favor of sensationalism. As the internet floods with post Burning Man articles, I’m saddened by the experience being described flippantly as a bunch of people looking to “connect.” Who the fuck snarks on connection? Since when is that a bad thing?
In a perfect world, I’d be able to write about the small miracles that make Burning Man one of the most magical places on earth. But perhaps the easiest way to describe the indescribable is to simply recount my experience… and tell the story of “El Guaco.”
First, some context. I didn’t want to go to Burning Man this year. Didn’t want to get sun scorched and dust bombed, didn’t want to make deep connections and life affirmations, didn’t want to be inspired by the ingenuity of the installations, the dedication, the gathering of the world’s greatest speakers, DJs, artists – wait, what am I saying?
Enter my new friend Alexandra. It’s early August and she’s persuading me to be her Burn buddy. She’s a Virgin, I’ve been five times (which makes me a … Courtesan?). I’ll relive the wonder through her eyes. I’ll be with a camp for the first time and have chef prepared meals. She’s so bright and blonde and pretty I’m having a hard time saying no. So I say yes.
And I make a series of promises to myself. How my time on the playa will reflect the more grounded, spiritual person I’ve become since my first Burning Man 10 years ago? I’ve spent the summer rewriting a script, doing breathing exercises and getting grounded. I can continue that enlightened spirit at the Burn, right? Right. I even write these promises down. And then my promises become lies as I break every single one.
LIE – I will be helpful to my camp
I think the ultimate Burn is to go by yourself. Total freedom. No obligations. Which is what I’d done at my last Burn, so the idea of camping with 60 other people was novel… and terrifying. I knew a few awesome humans in this particular camp and I wanted to curate a good experience for Alexandra, so we signed up.
“I will get into the community spirit!” I told myself. I fibbed. “I will do work and be helpful!” I swore. I lied.
Truth is, the group was incredibly intimidating. How are these people killing it at life (lots of movers and shakers in this camp), partying, and making camp in a hostile environment? My lone wolf tendencies got the best of me and I waited all week to actually hang out with them. I did my chores, but I also hid during camp meetings. But by Saturday night I’d been in 2 bike collisions, and the thought of watching The Man burn from our narwhal art car was very appealing. And who doesn’t love narwhals? No one.
I thought of a few ice-breakers, brushed my teeth, and boarded the art car like Forrest Gump on the school bus right before meeting Jenny. Turns out our art car played funk music (the original ice breaker) and I proceeded to have my best Burn night yet. By the end of the night I loved my campmates, to the point I even did something out of character and kept a commitment – to help break down camp on Monday.
Yes, I had to be roused from a dead sleep a few times from my minivan (I mean, do you know how good AC feels in 100 degrees?), but in between those naps I lugged gray water, packed boxes, and raked the playa for glitter, feathers, and other “matter out of place” or “MOOP.” It was the hardest physical labor I’ve ever done, in the worst conditions imaginable. And my campmates had been doing it all week. The fulfillment when we’d “left no trace” was so rewarding I’d almost do it again.
LIE – I will not be judgmental
I was sure I’d stay in a positive mental state throughout the Burn, because I’ve nearly achieved a positive mental state in life (hahahaha). But why push yourself to sleep-deprived, drug-induced exhaustion in hopes of never getting irritated, jealous and judgmental?
Some of the things that crossed my mind in my less transcendental moments:
“Burning Man is so white, we need more diversity out here.” (Valid.)
“Why are people still wearing culturally appropriated feather headdresses at festivals? What is wrong with these fools?”
“Uh-oh… What about my Balinese crown? It was a gift from a local! In Bali! Do I never get to wear it now? Also, what about my teepee tent? It’s so cute and it was only $60 on Amazon. Never repeat that out loud. Amazon is evil, but it’s soooooo good. Why am I thinking about Amazon when I’m supposed to be blissing out?”
“That girl over there is having fun. I should be having more fun.”
“Does anyone actually like this music or are we all pretending?”
“I don’t want to hug anyone again for an hour.”
“Where is Alexandra? She’s probably having more fun than me. She looks cuter in my costumes than I do. I hate sharing clothes. I’m a bad Burner. I should be more open. I should be looking at cool art, not zombie dancing. I should stop should-ing on myself. I hope we have steak for dinner. I should get better at face paint. I should’ve got us a room in Reno for decompression. Don’t think about the after-Burn, be present!”
“Is it too #SpringBreak to do the foam showers? Are those people having more fun than me?”
LIE – I will not do drugs, only earth grown “medicines”
Oops. Awwww, fuck it.
LIE – I will have something to “gift”
I was determined to hand out something cool. But I forgot. It was so hectic getting ready to leave, etcetera. Friday rolls around and my camp is hosting a workshop where you write yourself a letter and they mail it to you in five years. This is my chance to improvise! I take my drum and my spritz bottle to the workshop, and in between nodding off from the heat and writing a nonsensical letter to future Erin, I mist people and play little ditties on my drum. Our camp guests might not have been aware they were receiving my playa gift, but I felt good about it.
LIE – I will get rest
What a joke! Sleep and Burning Man are like vodka and GHB – you can’t have both. In my pre-Burn fantasy, I was getting at least six hours a night. I might have gotten six hours total across the week. There’s just too much to do. I’d planned to sleep on the night we got wind Bob Moses would be playing sunrise at Robot Heart. One of the most mysterious things on the playa are the world-class musical acts playing unannounced sets. You have to be lucky enough to stumble across them, or trust the word of mouth.
So we’re waiting for Bob Moses to start and getting a little bored, so we cruise over to an art car that maybe five people are dancing at. Wait a minute – this music is lit. Wait a minute – that’s Diplo up there. What proceeded was hours of booty shaking to our own personal Diplo (we got on the art car! he smoked my joint! he gave me a beer!), followed by a red sunrise as Bob Moses played a live set. Sleep be damned!
LIE – I will drop right back into my normal life and be productive
It’s been almost a week back and I’m still hugging hello and being inspired late at night to don something festive and go dancing. I have parking tickets and bills to pay, but that would include using money, which still feels alien. The rental minivan has been returned, but my serotonin is still missing. Every day I’m marveling at a new photo on Instagram of something from the playa I never even saw.
Perhaps the biggest lie of all, however, was telling myself I didn’t need Burning Man. That I’d been enough times, I get what it’s about, it’s an incredibly unique experience, but been there, done that.
This is where I tell you about El Guaco.
It was sunrise near the trash fence, that turning point when the chilly pre-dawn morphs into harsh daylight. I didn’t have my sunglasses and I was getting very hangry, very testy, when out of the dusty sky materializes a remote control truck with a sign labeled “El Guaco,” loaded with chips, guacamole, tequila and limes. We can’t figure out who’s operating it, which is part of the fun. We gorge ourselves on the snack, and at the perfect time El Guaco zips away, onto another group.
El Guaco was sweet, playful, whimsical. If you still don’t get it (or never have, or refuse to), this is Burning Man. It’s humans creating magical moments for each other, for no reason other than to inspire a smile. It’s the camp with the 747 airplane you climb aboard to “check” your emotional baggage and write a new destination for yourself. It’s the gorgeous Shabbat dinner at Merkabah, with the full ceremony and two seatings, so no one is turned away. It’s the older gentleman who flagged Alexandra and I down because we didn’t have enough lights on our bikes. He had a fanny pack full of lights for just this reason, he’d been to the Playa 15 times. He wore totally normal clothes; just a senior citizen in an otherworldly place.
Yes, Burning Man used to be different. There was more fire and more climbable art you could fall off and die. Now they card at the bars and Black Rock City is on Waze. But when I look back at my first Burning Man in 2007, I’m what’s different. And I should hope I’ve had growth and change in 10 years!
It’s still the weirdest, most wonderful temporary society on the planet. Still the place my friend can make a headpiece out of the skull of her deceased dog, bedazzle his fangs in rhinestones, and it’s somehow… normal. But don’t listen to me, luring you in with my sexy anecdotes and personal lies. As I always say about Burning Man, you just have to see for yourself.