Can a Love Sparked at Burning Man Survive the Default World?

An excerpt from a personal essay about two people with “heat-seeking hearts”

Burning Man, as we all know, can feel like a secret dimension where miraculous and marvelous things manifest. Can a love sparked in that environment outlast its magical surroundings?

Maria Finn ponders that question in a personal essay for Longreads in which she tries to make sense of a deepening relationship at Burning Man while grieving her brother’s suicide. This is an excerpt from her story, which picks up as Maria and Danny hit Black Rock City as their rawest selves…

The playa at night is a hallucination, a dream, an open-ended LED-lit adventure filled with a flame-shooting octopus and neon shark art cars darting by. Danny convinced my Aunt Kaye to dance for possibly the first time in her life, under a huge sculpture of a woman, naked and incredibly sad and powerful under the dark desert sky. Danny and I took ecstasy and couldn’t stop touching, until we finally split from our friends and groped each other in a dark part of the playa. I joked that I didn’t want to die by getting run over by an art car. “It would be a heroic death,” he insisted.

At the Human Carcass Wash, we stripped naked and washed total strangers with our bare hands. We touched their scars and bruises. “You want your taint washed?” Danny asked a guy. “Then lift up your balls.” I marveled at his wholeheartedness.

We visited the Temple, a wood structure papered in notes to loved ones, lost pets, family members, and friends who had passed away. There were letters of rage, and symbols of love and pain and regret. Outside was a box for placing forgiveness letters. Danny scribbled a note and tucked it in there.

“I forgave my mother,” he told me.

“What about your ex?” I asked him.

“It’s strange, but I’m not angry at her,” he answered.

He hadn’t seemed heartbroken at all by the breakup — just very inconvenienced. So I believed him.

“Who did you forgive?” he asked.

“My contractor,” I answered.

One morning at a Sweat Your Prayers dance, my brother’s death hit me. A stranger saw me crying and approached me on the dance floor and held me as my tears ran down his bare chest. When he moved on, another man stopped, and I cried and cried in his arms. I rode my bike out to the Temple and wrote a letter to my brother, promising to stay close with his wife and kids. And I wrote one of forgiveness to myself for not being a better sister to him. I didn’t help him; I couldn’t. When we were kids, I tried at times. My parents had married young and had five children in seven years. We all just survived as best we could. I tucked the letters into the Forgiveness Box at the Temple.

That night, we passed the Burning of the Man ceremony while dancing on top of art cars. I knew the man was burning, heard the roar of house music and cheering of the crowd and felt the heat from the flames. On top of the art car, I was tucked between my Aunt Kaye and Danny, and surrounded by friends. I felt only warmth, not pain. At dawn, Danny and I cuddled together on the embers and watched the sunrise over the desert, spraying it blue and gold and pink hues.

The next night at the Temple Burn, Danny and I joined the silent crowd. He grieved his father, and I my brother. The air smelled of dry wood, and as the fire grew, the heat blanketed us all. Danny and I sat holding each other, united with everyone in a gentle, burning grief until the building finally collapsed in a heave.

Afterwards, I blurted out that he had the best heart of anyone I had ever met.

He looked a little scared. “This got serious, fast,” he said.

I begged him to not break my heart.

“I wouldn’t have gotten involved with someone so soon,” he said. “But I’ve never felt a connection like this. I think you might be my soul mate. Don’t break my heart either.”

Danny and I were leaving in different cars, but planned to meet in a hotel room in Reno to shower and rest before traveling home. But the exit line was four hours and hotels were completely booked. Once on the road, I kept nodding off at the wheel. So, I stopped in a parking lot in Sparks, Nevada, and snoozed in the cab of my truck. Danny met me there. I was dust-coated and my hair was matted, with makeup smeared under my eyes.

“This is the worst you will ever see me,” I told him.

He pulled me into a dusty hug.

After coffee, I kissed his chapped lips and rubbed my face against his scratchy cheek. Then I watched him get into his minivan and drive back to his default world.

We scheduled a camping trip for Big Sur, and it happened to be the weekend of the lunar eclipse. I looked for the perfect camp site — close to the ocean, but also near redwood trees. We planned to visit the hot springs at Esalen, to sit in the tubs under the stars with the Pacific Ocean crashing below. It was almost too much to hope for. That chunk of the California Coast seemed preternatural to me — towering redwood trees and cypress twisted by onshore winds, dramatic slopes of mountains dropping into white-capped waves that licked up into fog cover. I couldn’t imagine having him to myself for four days in this setting.

Then he called and canceled our trip.

To read the whole essay and see what happens next, click here. Has your love survived the playa? We’d love to hear in the comments of this post.

Top photo by Zipporah Lomax

About the author: Mia Quagliarello

Mia Quagliarello

Mia Quagliarello is Burning Man Project's Digital Community Manager. She went to Burning Man for the first time in 2006 (seven months pregnant, no less) and immediately wanted to leave. (She didn't know dust storms were a thing.) But 24 hours after that initial shock, she fell in love with it, and it's been a part of her life in big and small ways ever since. On playa, you'll usually find her camping in Kidsville, riding Bahamut the dragon, or hugging a speaker because she loves music so much.

15 Comments on “Can a Love Sparked at Burning Man Survive the Default World?

  • Remedy says:

    At Burning Man 2016 (my virgin year) I had a similar intense and breathtaking connection with someone (another virgin) I met on day two. Our romance on the playa was intense and difficult to believe.

    As the burn drew to an end, he switched his decompression plans and left the playa with me.

    During the next two weeks we adjusted back to the default world together which I believe due us even closer. I felt like I was getting to know a whole new version of him. We had some open and frank discussions about our relationship and the obstacles we would face.

    After those two weeks things became more real since he lives in another country and had to fly back home. We both committed to frequent contact and visits.

    We celebrated our 1 year anniversary on playa this year and I honestly couldn’t have a better partner. Regardless of the distance he is my soul mate both on and off the playa.

    We have faced difficult times but always decided that we were both happier together. I cherish having someone who understands me the way he does.

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  • Redwich says:

    We didn’t meet on the playa; we met on Tinder. But we spent our first date talking about wanting to go to Burning Man. We agreed to go together (each of us for the first time) even if dating didn’t work out.

    Thankfully, we scored OMG tickets. Then we scrambled to prepare everything for our first burn. And, with the help of a few friends, we made it to the desert. It was our fourth date!

    Burning Man turned out to be a magical love-accelerant. The burn and planning for it allowed us to have so many different experiences together in a very short timeframe. It revealed the best, scariest, most pathetic, creative, secretive, loving, weakest, and most hopeful parts of each of us. We also learned a lot about ourselves, but while the other was there to see. We were our most vulnerable, together.

    By Friday, we’d decided that we enjoyed and needed and loved each other so much that we were going to spend as much of our time in default world together as possible too.

    That was two years ago. Woof is snoozing next to me in bed right now. Wherever he is is where I belong, still. It’s not that our Burning Man love survived default world. It’s more like our love survives in default world because we learned how at Burning Man.

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  • Nat says:

    I fell in love with a handsome stranger on the playa in 2016, moved from LA to London to be with him, and got married on on the playa in 2017. It’s been a wild ride but we couldn’t have done it any other way!

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  • hannah! says:

    2015 was my first burn. I came in on Wednesday as a mere weekend warrior because I couldn’t imagine what kind of festival anyone would want to stay at for more than a week! (hah). I only knew one person in my camp, but became fast friends with the rest. I took a particular liking to one campmate, and he to I. He was also a virgin. Thursday night we connected so intensely, it felt as though he saw my whole heart and self and I felt the same about him. We stayed up till sunrise, dancing like it was our last at Robot Heart, then wandered back to camp, bedraggled, and passed out for the day.

    I was moving out of the country a week after the burn ended, and all of a sudden the timing of life felt so unfair. We stayed in touch every single day for the first month after the burn ended until we had the difficult conversation that staying in touch like this while thousands of miles apart was harder for both of us than it was positive and beneficial.

    We lost touch.

    Fast forward to a week prior to the burn 2016. We reached out via text “I’m so excited to see you”. “Me too”.

    Our love was immediately sparked anew. I still remember the first time we saw each other at our camp’s pre-burn meet-up spot in Sacramento and when his eyes met mine, still as beautiful and intense as ever, he just said “wow…”

    Our relationship was a fast-forward rollercoaster throughout the 2016 burn. It went from exuberant and passionate to dwindling over the course of just 10 days. By the last few days of the burn, I think we both knew we had to face the real world and decide what this Burning Man Love was to us in the default world (I had moved back to the US at this point, but was still vagabonding around… I could move to where he lived!)

    He shot me down. Told me he wanted me to choose what was best for myself, and that he knew that wasn’t living with him. I knew it too, but my heart had never been so broken. I’d never felt such a connection with anyone, never been so in love, and never felt so hurt. And I’d had many relationships before! But there was nothing like this one.

    He cut ties with me after the 2016 burn and for months I was in agony. I was depressed, wasn’t myself… I had spent the whole year between the 2015 and 2016 burn expecting to finally be with The One after the 2016 burn… I had let him fill a huge space in my heart that I never expected him to vacate.

    Eventually I healed and found new love, and before I knew it the 2017 burn was upon us. Once again, a week before the burn, a quick text: “I’m excited to see you”. “Me too…”

    We hardly interacted in the first few days. Then, while wandering the playa in a group during the middle of Tuesday night, I found him next to me.

    “I wanted to apologize”
    “For what?” I asked stupidly, knowing what he meant, but wanting more.

    We talked briefly while we wandered, but I wasn’t ready to accept his apology. I told him I wanted to talk about it, but not now, later, when we were sober and in the light of day, so I could see into his eyes.

    The next day we talked on our camp’s day bed. I told him how much he had hurt me, how I forgave him but that I could never trust him in that way again, and that he should never abandon another person that he connected with so strongly in the way he abandoned me.

    I knew he heard me, and understood, but he didn’t have much else to say aside from that he was so sorry.

    What else can you say?

    After that talk, we were friends again. We spent some good time together during the remainder of the 2017 burn, and it felt entirely amicable and platonic.

    Burn night, we were standing in a small huddle with a few friends, waiting to run to the fire and encircle it in a sea of naked bodies (a pleasure that would never come), when one of our friends said to us, mid-hug, “I wish you two were still making out”.

    It was a silly, drunken comment, although I know she meant it. I had no idea what to say, but before I could think twice, my old love said “I think we do too”. The friend immediately giggled and said “in that case!” and darted away, and him and I were left alone. We looked at each other with sad eyes, hugged again, and that was that.

    The fact he said that stuck with me for weeks after the burn. What did that mean?? Why would he say that?? If that were true, why did he ever break my heart?? I finally found consolation in sending him a gut-wrenching poem I had written after the 2016 burn, feeling that sharing this raw emotion that I had felt after he broke my heart would give me closure.

    It did.

    We haven’t spoken since the 2017 burn, but I still love him, and I know he still loves me, although I have a wonderful partner at this point and I’m fairly certain he does too. The love we created at Burning Man has survived, in some special, dusty place in our hearts, but it could never survive the default world, and for that I appreciate it all the more.

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  • Doug says:

    Such a beautiful heartfelt essay.

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  • TapeMaster says:

    Amazing stories…! Thank you everyone.. here is mine…. i went to Burning Man partly to put 2 past hurtful relationships behind me. I wrote letters and posted pictures of 2 exes in the Temple to burn. Burn the pain away and renew my heart. And then, I fell in love with this woman in Black rock City…. . I don’t mean in lust. I don’t mean an instant crush. I don’t mean a “oh look at HER”…. I mean lightening bolts and punch in the stomach. Immediately. Totally unexplained. And the intense certainty that she was the one. Literally the minute my eyes met hers.
    I went to BM 2017 as a birgin alone because my friend canceled last minute…. so another friend arranged to connect me to a burner who she said was cool… we had arranged to meet at the left foot of the Man on day 2. Well… I waited for her but she never showed up…. Instead she showed up the next day (lol) at my camp totally unexpected, and as I raised my eyes to look at her, I saw her smile but a big dust storm was looming in the sky right behind her. Within 1 minute of meeting and her apologizing for her missing our meet up, we had to rush for protection into my RV. My RV mate was also there so we all had a drink, waiting for the storm to pass. I was filled with love instantly and felt a natural and spiritual fit and was so excited. I could hardly contain my emotions. But I think it didn’t show. There was one issue … I knew she had a girlfriend. She’d talked about her when we had made meeting arrangements. And as soon as the dust storm calmed down she got agitated and said she needed to run back to camp as her girl would worry about her. Reality hit me then. Somehow she suddenly had the idea that I should come with her to her camp and hang out with both of them… I was hardly prepared and ready but said yes immediately. We biked across the playa for 20 minutes or so as she stayed at the opposite side of BRC from me. And on the way, biking in the sunset, she started telling me about her relationship and the risks because of their age difference , and the fact that they broke up 3 times before but she was committed to making it work and that this time it was going well. We got to her camp and i met her lovely and beautiful lady and the fun father in law… Here i was trying to save face and bottle up my virgin playa love… the love of my life was right in front of me but guess what… We would never be together. . We made plans to all meet again the next day before they headed back early to the default world but I didn’t have the heart to see her all loved up when I knew she was meant to be with me. So I didn’t go…. after exodus when I was back in cell range, i saw a friendly text from her hoping it all went well for me and that we should meet in LA for a drink before I fly back to London. We did and we talked for hours. The more we talked the more I knew it was right. Then my friend joined us and it was all nice and pleasant. Inside, i was burning my love for this playa creature whom I knew I would never be with. Well to fast forward , we stayed in touch… so intensely and frequently so that I thought I couldn’t be the only one fueling this…surely something had to be happening for her too…surely she couldn’t ignore the natural fit , flow and connection we had… or was it just me ? At some point she drew the line. She established a boundary as she saw it all slipping into a dangerous zone for her relationship. I respected that. Later she started making plans to come visit in London… not just me of course ;-) she had other friends to visit so why not see me while she was there and we could hang out… well 3 days before arriving, she cancelled. And after heartfelt exchanges about the situation i told her exactly how i felt . I think she was flattered…but stayed true to her commitment to her girlfriend and just said we sadly had bad timing. I slowly just stopped communicating or at least only occasionally To chat about gigs or music. To this day I am not sure if she just liked the attention I gave her or… if I experienced a playa love that would never be. I wish my playa love had ended as well as others I’m reading about here…

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  • David says:

    Yup, and now we’re married with 3 kids who prevent us from getting back to BRC. We glanced at the live webcast between diaper changes this year though, almost as good as the real thing.

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    • Cryoman says:

      Ya we have 3 kids all adults now. We Went to BM for first time this year. Can’t wait for next year. Anyway they grow up too fast, before you know it you will be back home!

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  • Vulture Chow says:

    We met in 2012 when he gifted me a cup. It took another 3 years before we spent more than a few minutes together,

    We just celebrated our second anniversary. We had an amazing Burning Man themed wedding in New Jersey which was the perfect mix of burners and default friends and family.

    Also the most epic wedding cake ever.

    We’ve built everything. A love, a life, even now our own theme camp.

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  • Warmbaby Louise says:

    I came over from London as part of a team building a large scale sculpture in 2011. We were mostly all virgins. One of the Americans on the team who met us in San Francisco was helping us navigate the realities of the playa. We fell for each other quickly and he convinced me to stay in the US for another few months after Burning Man. We got married 4 months later. That was nearly 6 years ago, and I’m now expecting our first child. Due in 2 weeks! The intensity of burning man and our project forged such a strong foundation for us as a couple, and completely changed the direction of both our lives.

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    • Yes.. love can survive the Playa! On September 2, 2011, aboard my camp’s Mutant Vehicle, Christina: Quenn of BRC, I met my now husband.

      I was camping at Tahoe Twisted with my besties from the Lake. We camped next to our Sister Camp, Playaskool, and parked our yacht outside Playaskool on the Esplanade.

      My man listened to a lecture then boarded Christina that fateful day. As he was about to leave, we arrived on the yacht for a cruise and photography session.

      6 years later, we are married and residing in Silicon Valley. Ours was and is a match made in the Ethers. With such a powerful beginning and the magic of the Playa, our love has bloomed and we know it was destiny!

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  • Burning Man 2015 changed my life. My previous girlfriend and I had broken up in the emotionally-charged weeks leading up to that Burn, and I wound up reconnecting and camping with a girl I’d met randomly in Asia in 2012 (she’d been my Couchsurfing host for a night in Shanghai!). The power of the Burn (her first, my fourth) helped us connect far faster and more powerfully than we might have otherwise, and we wound up spending that Burn, the next, and nearly every moment since then together. We got married in front of 300 friends (including MANY Burners) almost exactly a year ago today – November 13, 2016.

    I’d say this was a Burning Man success story for the ages, even if the rest of the story is a tragic one. Turns out she contracted metastatic cancer and had less than 6 months to live after our wedding. We scattered her ashes in a ceremony at the Temple this year.

    If you’re curious, read from the bottom up. :(

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  • RoMo says:

    We met on the playa in 2015 as a one night fling, her from NY and me from London. We kept in touch and after a year of long distance, I proposed to her the following year on the playa. Fast forward another year and I’ve since moved to NY having gotten married 6 months ago. Yes, love conquers all, even the playa.

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  • L0L0 says:

    Burning man 2017 was my first burn. I worked on an art car all summer and became friends with the artist I was working for. Fast forward a couple months and next thing I knew I was cruising out on the art car with a crew of people Black Rock City bound. I met him my second day at Burning Man. We were camping at the same camp and he was good friends with the people I came with. After a shaky first date we ended up hitting it off. I spent the rest of the burn with him, And afterward we went to Reno to decompress and find a flight home together to NYC. There’s something so special about falling in love with someone at Burning Man. You’re naturally a more caring and thoughtful lover there, and I feel as though that is carried to the default world afterward. I felt vulnerable at Burning Man, and even with that vulnerability I felt safe with him. I told him things about my family I only tell people after knowing them for years. That experience alone taught me so much about myself and about my expectations of other people that I had previously made false assumptions about.That trust we built on the playa helped us to be honest with one another. It’s months later and I’m still dating that same man. He’s even more caring and understanding now than ever before. As for my opinion on the longevity of playa love…….ask me at the next burn. One thing is for sure. Burning Man love is the most pure form of love I have ever found. ❤️

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  • Denise Hanley says:

    My husband went to his first burn in 1998, and didn’t return until 2004. That year (my 3rd), I met him, randomly walking toward center camp. We just knew. He lived in Northern CA, me in Southern, but we eventually figured out all that STUFF, got married at BM in 2008, and now have 2 kids. So grateful.

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