Last week, early morning so as to miss a non-existent Exodus, the Mighty Mr. B arrived at my camp and, after loading my generator and whatever else fit into his car, he and I made our way off playa. That was a few days after Burning Man had officially ended and it seems like just yesterday or years ago now.
That morning I saw the Black Rock City sun-rise one last time, pink and heavy over the aftermath of our event with black smoke rising from random sites out on the open playa. We drove slowly, trying to find and follow streets that were so defined only days ago. We passed the dismantled colorful detritus of last week’s Black Rock City; deconstructed domes, impossible buses stacked high with bikes, and poles and tarps that sat alone in places, hopefully waiting for someone to come pick them up. Camp strike was in full force just a week after Black Rock City was invaded by all manner of ecstatic pilgrims who built structures to hang their themes upon, and now spent and winding down, gradually one vehicle of tired pioneers repatriated at a time, carrying off all that made our city amazing.
We passed the straggler groups of people packing up the last of their encampments, loading trucks and trailers, cars and semi-trailers. Small last gasp ghost camps of dust colored citizens waved goodbye as we passed them, some reclining beneath minimalist shreds of shade. They sat in fold out chairs sipping morning coffee, milking the last sweet dollop of camaraderie cultivated since they’d first arrived.
We waved back. Bye bye last Happy Campers. See you next year. We were quite happy to be out of there.
This year was wonderful and as they keep saying, challenging.
Small cultural idiosyncrasies of this young, new century have invaded Burning Man. They are little trappings that let you know our culture is not within an un-breakable bubble. There were selfie sticks and drones. I never once saw someone walking along the Esplanade talking or texting on their phone, thankfully. Hopefully the cell towers were overwhelmed. There was a lot of vaping this year.
The night of the Burn I was on the periphery with art cars parked and once the fireworks began I made my way past Ranger Sarah Problem into the outer circle and found that I was standing behind a concert sized wall of phones and cameras held up all filming the Man. Once the fireworks ended, only about five of the one hundred folks who were filming kept holding their phones and cameras aloft. I’m not sure if the massive fire balls that rolled up to engulf the Man flashed their video and they quit or if they just wanted to see a good fire and perhaps contemplate what was happening rather than just recording it for later entertainment. I like to believe it was the latter.
As Mr. B and I navigated out of the city on 6:30 towards Laughing Sal, we saw a few young couples clumsily pulling luggage being them, sending up white alkaline powder as they dragged their bags to the Burner Bus Depot to depart. I felt like we were moving through some post apocalyptic video game dream-scape of a frosty dusted roofless airport terminal. A girl was followed by her mate, both of them laughing hysterically at the absurdity of the puffing surface tossing up white spew between their once black rubber luggage treads as they forged on. We saw MOOPed and abandoned properties with only a semi-trailer or a big fresh water, black or grey tank awaiting pick up. It seems that you can rent those now and have them delivered then picked up after the event.
Black Rock City at 70 thousand is a real city and the days of knowing everyone are long gone. We are no longer a small town and there’s no turning back. A Man must burn and everyone knows he will and they want to be there to see it. The cowboys of Burning Man Past still ride before and after the event, masters of that lake bed building it or restoring it, but the event belongs to a much larger swath of humanity now.
Burning Man has evolved and you adapt or die in this particular instance of our existence. There’s a law somewhere to that effect. Some like to say the event jumped the shark car long ago and in my opinion, if you have the expectation that Burning Man won’t change, you’ll always be disappointed. Black Rock City is a canvass spread wide across that expanse for everyone to fill up. It can be cool and self referential. It can believe it will change the world. But in the end, it is the sum of everyone who attends. There is guidance in the Ten Principles that is pretty straight forward. My favorites are Leave No Trace, Embrace Radical Inclusion, Be Radically Self Reliant and don’t bring your culture of commodification with you to intrude in a commerce free zone.
The event continues to be a place where there is an abundance of bounty, beauty, time and kindness. It is a place where we can bring all our amalgamated talents to one place to gift the fruits of our brilliance. It is still a place where you can hopefully disconnect from everything that exists outside of that dusty god forsaken lake bed and just be human with other humans. And it really is amazing to see how our species can get along and groove on each other despite our differences when we’re in an environment conducive to letting us just be who we want to be.
As Mr. B and I made our way up 6:30 we saw two BLM trucks parked a short distance from each other. The officers were throwing a ball to one of their dogs, back and forth. The dog seemed to be enjoying it immensely based on the happy wag of his tail. We passed “El Pulpo Mecanico” disassembled. Once we made it to the outer rings, camps became scarcer and the playa surface appeared fully MOOPed with only criss-cross tire tracks of art cars, bicycles and so many other wheeled vehicles, and with the foot prints of tens of thousands of us left behind.. We knew those remnants would soon be obliterated entirely by the never ending winds and dust that cleanses that space in Black Rock Desert.
Now into year twenty nine, new generations are arriving and seeking what those of us who’ve been coming for a while have created. Burners talk about Burning Man. They effuse unrelentingly, they reminisce, they bitch, they evangelize. They can’t help but talk about that week, that TTITD, whether they liked it or not.
Sunday night after the Temple Burn was cold. Thirty-five degrees in the desert when you’re riding your bike and wearing a kilt is a kind of cold that cuts you to the bone. I stopped off at First Camp because the fires were burning even though all the founders were out on the town or asleep and warmed myself by the fire barrel. A youngish dark haired guy named Rocket walked in off Esplanade and asked me if I lived there. I told him I was just enjoying the fire. He looked around then asked if I’d been coming to Burning Man for a while. I told him what year I first hit the playa and suddenly more Burgins arrived and we had a “Oh look everyone listen up, we have a Last Century Burner here. Take a seat by the fire and let him tell us about the olden times” moment.
Rocket told me how Burning Man had awoken him from a walking dead numb slumber back where he was from. He said,, “This week changes everything.” We shared some bourbon to accentuate the warm glow of the fire and he continued, “I almost didn’t make it here. I wanted to come but had no money and my car only works sometimes. A few days before the event a friend of a friend couldn’t make it and he gifted me a ticket so I drove out here to Nevada. My car made it and I’m so glad I came. This is real. This is the gathering of all the thinking people tribes. This is freedom.”
He’s coming back next year to do something huge. He isn’t sure what it is yet, but next year, that’s going to be his year.
Days later I attended a potluck and met a young girl named Lucella, a bright eyed Burgin who struck up a conversation as I sat back enjoying a post dinner cocktail. She told me how she worked at one of the plug and play camps and what a pain in the ass it was. She told me how one of the “campers” got upset when a Sherpa told his girlfriend that she could put her own trash in the can that was only a few feet from where they were standing. Lucella told me the best part of that interaction was later in the week when that same couple ended up MOOPing their camp spot once all the RVs had been removed.
Lucella told me she’s coming back on her own next year. She doesn’t need the hassle of having to work the event. Her countenance radiated with wide eyes elucidated beneath dark lashes and her enthusiasm blossomed around her as she told me, “All the things I believe in are here, in one place. I’m coming back forever.”
After our last lunch at the Commissary, we were talking with Pillow Talk about the newbie who’d camped with us. We hadn’t seen her in a while and were told she didn’t go feral. She’d finished up her shifts and was being taken well care of with lots of hydration and just then our newbie appeared all smiling and shaking her head saying, “This place is awesome.”
I’ve heard the stories. A prominent Burning Man photographer kicked out of a dinner “for guests only” at one of the big camps by an overzealous camp border patrol agent. There was the day some Gate people found one of the plug and plays, couldn’t figure out how to get in until they finally saw a Segue ridden out of a small curtain, then they went into the extravagant bar and were told drinks were for campers only, so they left and returned with their own Mint Juleps in a round orange drink cooler, to sit for hours drinking among the guests who eventually warmed up and got it. I saw the hilarious sandwich ad obviously written by someone who’s been part of Burning Man for years but who made the mistake of using trademarked images. We heard of a the celebrities and of a Prince MOOPing his own camp and who really connected. But none of those things affected most of our Burn. 70 thousand is a lot of people, each with their own experience and stories they will take away from the event. Our community makes Burning Man what it is and no handful of clueless folks can ruin that, just like no handful of drunk violent assholes can. Burning Man is bigger than our weakest elements and we prove that each year.
On Gate Road, we passed a VW going three miles per hour and rode alongside a Winnebago with a large Burning Man icon done in dusty black duct-tape. There were no slow downs along that long four miles of lanes strewn with defeated orange candy cones lying on their sides. We passed the Exodus portapotties and up on the gravel then hit Highway 34 and passed the disappointment of garbage bags, trailers, campers and other abandoned remnants of Exodus. I was reminded of Saturday night at the ARTery when people were discussing when they were going to be leaving and Bambi said, “What? You can leave? I thought you just fell off an edge somewhere.”
We stopped in Gerlach at Heidi and Lacy’s coffee shop for an espresso and some talk about the past week which was very good for them. We said we’d be back soon to drink at Bruno’s, Bev’s and Joe’s and clean my camper. We rounded the Gerlach curve, passed Empire and headed out 447 on the journey that never seems to take as long as it does when you’re coming to Burning Man, on to 80 through Reno to meet up with friends at Boomtown for a breakfast.
When we arrived there was a group of people sitting at the booth just inside the door and a large guy wearing black asked me, “You coming from Black Rock City?”
I looked at my boots all playa white, rubbed my beard still shedding alkaline, smiled, and said, “Yea.”
He gave me a 2015 necklace with a nice Burning Man on it he’d made. His friends raised their coffee cups in a toast. He said, “Here’s to another great year,” and I agreed.
We had a hearty breakfast. We were exhausted. The running water in the casino bathroom was pretty awesome.
You return home from Black Rock City over whatever mountains or through whatever valleys your journey takes you. You cross distances great and small to get to and from Burning Man, but Burning Man sticks with you. How can it not?
On your journey you encounter the white footprints leading into casino hotel lobbies for check in. There are garages full of playafied cars with Man icons finger carved onto dusty windows. That first night in your hotel, motel, hostel or home you wake up and for a moment in the darkness you don’t recognize the big tent around you. You still smell the playa and see it suspended in the air. That place has seeped into your dreams.
Back home, there are the piles of poles, tarps and other infrastructure, mannequins, electronics, clothes and costumes all dusty. There is the great washing back to the normal. Cleansing those piles of playafied fabulous that fills your backyard or sidewalk,well they can wait for your attention and you’ll get around to it eventually depending on your situation.
You clean your boots and shoes so you can appear slick and polished, but the alkaline somehow seeps back and one cleaning and shine is never enough. After a few hours your fingerprint will again nlock your phone. You go online and try to find all that new music you heard out there that you’d never heard before.
There is that playa dust that puffs from your car or truck’s air conditioner every time you turn it on and the scent that takes you back. There are the chocolate milky colored smudges of playa miasma that reappear on your windows and rear-view mirrors regardless of how many times you clean them, and social media has weeks of Burners uploading pictures and commenting on whatever went on out there this year.
People so fully clothed in 90 degree weather make you shake your head. The cars blaring music passing by your house remind you of art cars. Heavy machinery in town seems like it should be erecting large art.
More importantly, for me at least, is the yearly reminder that real community is indeed a possibility. Our city may be 70 thousand strong, but communities exist all over Black Rock City. Sitting in my truck back home and fully immersed in the off playa world, I waved people walking or on bikes along. I let cars go in front of me. People seem surprised when you talk to them and look them in their eyes. It’s as if some afterglow of seeing the fabulous stream of humanity flow along on playa has you in its spell and you live in a state of grateful exactitude. You try to keep it going for as long as possible because it feels good. You notice people behaving badly and wonder why the hell someone is yelling as they drive furious to make the free-way on ramp. You give generously to people in need. You feel somehow closer to a mass of society you were so disentangled from weeks ago, before you went out there.
Making that feeling last can be difficult.
A week in Black Rock City affects you. You tell your friends about it. You discuss the year’s “scandals” and remember the great art and the good times. Some people will proclaim they’ll never return. Some Newbies will proclaim they’ll return forever. The guard changes and those of us who’ve been coming for a while will share our stories and our knowledge of how to best survive out there. There will be Decompressions and parties, fund raisers and Regionals, and planning, reacquainting with friends and starting all over again if you intend to return.
Over the year, that afterglow may dissipate no doubt, and missing Burning Man may hit you just around the time that a late spring rain falls and rivulets of light cocoa colored playa seep like veins down your truck’s rear view mirror. You may see them appear in your eye view, like a spontaneous painting of something you’d almost forgotten, and be reminded of that time back in Black Rock City.
That playa dust will probably continue returning for years. It will let you know that Burning Man, even with all its challenges, waits for your return and will always welcome you back.