Let me start by telling you a bit about myself. My name is Alex and I am 60-plus years old. I am half Dutch and half Indonesian, and hold great pride in having been a blue-collar worker, a craftsman, all of my life. On the scale of introvert to extrovert, I’m pretty far on the introvert side. I don’t like crowds and don’t like going to parties unless it is with people I already know. And don’t ask me to dance, I’ll start to panic inside and have an immediate flight response. It is extremely difficult for me to start conversations with people I don’t know, and it is not easy to carry on a conversation in a genuine manner (though I am slowly getting a little better at it). Awkward only begins to describe how I feel around people.
In March of 2012, I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. It is a slow-moving but finite blood cancer. My first chemo gave me peripheral neuropathy and I had to learn to walk all over again, which is why my balance is terrible. I have been through many many rounds of chemo as well as a stem cell transplant. Because of it all, I am extremely weak and my heart is bad, so I am easily exhausted. In short, I am no longer in peak physical condition.
I have always been interested in Burning Man and began talking about it with a new friend who has been a few times. Between my friend’s connections and Burning Wish, which is an organization founded by “Slim” Aaron Muszalski to help people with cancer go to Burning Man, I was on my way.
Now, I consider myself a good camper. I have a small teardrop trailer that a friend and I built. So before I knew it, it was already time to throw everything in my truck and trailer and hope for the best. About 20 miles before getting to the playa, I was pulled over by highway patrol because there was smoke pouring from my trailer. My axle had distorted so much that my tire was rubbing on the trailer body. I called my friend, he picked up my trailer, and by 2am, I was back on the road.
The playa is dead flat and consists of a very fine alkali powder that gets into everything mechanical and biological. As I made my way to Gate, the wind came up and the dust was blinding. Welcome to the playa! I could not see more than five feet in front of my truck and there was nothing in that five feet that could help me. Lines strung with flags marked the lanes to the entrance at Gate, so I looked out my side window at the lines and slowly crept along. While a Work Access Pass allowed me to arrive a day before the Gate opening, it still took many hours to get into the city.
After maneuvering Gate, inspection, and Will Call, I was officially in Black Rock City… then, before I knew it, I was lost in Black Rock City. After wandering around for a while, I was able to find my camp: “Enchanted Forest Booty Camp” or the “Enchanted Booty Forest Camp” (I can never remember the right order). Either way, there was much enchanted booty, and much enchanted forest.
Introvert warning: it didn’t take long before I felt the need to hide! That meant I had to find the person I had corresponded with as my camp host. Once I found her, I was greeted warmly with hugs. Looking around, I noticed I was older than the others in the camp, a group of very attractive young people. I tried my best to look comfortable but felt a bit out of place and a lot intimidated, being notably rounder in shape and older in age. As an introvert in an unfamiliar environment, I did not want to stand out. You’re probably thinking, how could anybody look out of place at Burning Man?
To get around more easily, I was loaned a trike to explore for a bit. Later, Mobility Camp kindly set me up with one of those little four-wheeled scooter things, like the ones they sell on late-night TV — imagine a “Rascal.” I was so embarrassed. Am I as old as those seniors on TV? Yeah, I am, rats. I found myself puttering around on a chair with little wheels — oh, the indignity. It also did not have much range. Maybe I should just go all in, get a white belt, shorts and underwear that I can pull up past my nipples, wear a golf shirt, black socks, white shoes, and sock garters. This would work really well if we got a herd of us, all talking trash and acting threatening to the young’uns as we putt by shouting, “Get off my lawn!” Eventually, Slim from Burning Wish set me up with an electric bike instead. Less embarrassing but, boy, was that seat painful (my butt is no longer accustomed to such hardship)!
When I set out exploring I went out alone. Black Rock City can be sensory overload. So if you need to find some quiet time you can head to the deep playa. The back of the city is less crowded, with mostly a distant techno beat in the air. I passed by the sound camps with big crowds and loud music, did my best to stay away from drunk people, and enjoyed the other side of Black Rock City. Yes, there are a lot of people who come here for the big party, and more power to them. But solitude is only a short walk away, and you can be free of an introvert’s worst fear: the critical mass of happy friendly people (oh, the horror!).
That evening, we went out to see some artwork on the playa. Because I arrived a day early, much of the city, the camps, and the art were still being built, providing a different vibe than later in the week — everyone was scurrying about.
The main thing that attracted me to Burning Man was the art, and it was amazing. It is not like art that hangs in a gallery to be sold by pretentious salespeople and bought by people who pretend to have money and taste. It is not practical, most of it will not fit in anybody’s house or airport hangar. It often doesn’t have an easily quantifiable monetary value in the default world. It exists purely for the enjoyment of the artist and for the people who experience it — ordinary people, the people of Black Rock City. The magic is that this unique desert art is fully realized when people interact with and become part of it. Subject matter and materials range from the sublime and beautifully crafted to stuff that is fairly rough, with a bit of “what is that?” thrown in. The scale also varies wildly, from a four-story fishing village that could accommodate hundreds of people and a huge, yellow inflatable elephant in a sitting position, all the way to fairly small and simple art installations. Still, somehow none of it looked out of place, it all fit perfectly into this odd landscape.
The art cars mirrored the stationary art, both in scale and complexity — some were the size of a golf cart while others were built on top of buses and semi-trucks. Most had sound systems blasting various music (often techno). And fire was everywhere on the playa, with many art cars having large propane flames that could shoot fire 20 feet into the air. I especially loved El Pulpo Mechanico, a steampunk octopus with flames going off in time with the music of other nearby art cars.
Nighttime, when the desert cools off, is when the city really comes to life — with all the art aglow, flames popping up all around, lasers overhead, music and sound bouncing everywhere, and people going moving in all different directions. So even though there are 80,000 people, there is plenty of space to not feel crowded but still feel the energy surrounding you.
The Temple is one place that definitely leaves a lasting impression. People come there and leave notes addressing the loss they’ve experienced. For most, it’s more solemn than the other places on playa. Everyone seems to sense what this place is, and they are innately respectful of its meaning. I was not able to stay very long — I could not hold it together. Next time I will be prepared with notes to my parents, for the other people who I have lost along the way, and attach them to the Temple. When the Temple burns all the notes will be released and those messages will find their way home.
If you dump all of this in a big parking lot somewhere it would never work. It takes the shared pain of this desolate place, the hard work to simply achieve being uncomfortable, to be dirty, to be in a place that is hostile, unforgiving, at times trying to kill you… and, oh my God, the porto-potties. (I may bring my own next time; a man has to have some standards! There is simply not enough hand sanitizer to make you feel whole again.) But it is this shared suffering that serves as the bonding equalizer which connects it all together. It eliminates hierarchy and status; the playa treats us all the same.
The expenditure of time and treasure is astounding out there. I feel forever indebted to those who gave so much of themselves to have all this land in the desert for a week, like some strange, temporary UFO convention. The experience cannot be adequately expressed through words, photos, or even video. It requires being there in person to take it all in, to let it soak through your body and feel the harshness of the desert. The playa is the only canvas that can do the art justice. It never takes away from it, but rather enhances it. The vastness of the playa with the mountains in the background is breathtaking. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking the desert is soft and cuddly — it is brutal, vicious, without remorse, and hiding behind it, great beauty. The scale of the playa can put a person in their place, and show us that we are small and insignificant.
What have I learned because of Burning Man?
I have learned that human beings can be caring, loving, accepting, and generous. I also overestimated my body’s ability to cope. I thought I was prepared, having a lot of experience and good equipment. But I am no longer young and strong. I found that I wanted an air-conditioned space to retreat to and cool down. I needed a bigger pee bottle. My teardrop trailer was far too small. I was surprised by how much I missed my cat. You don’t need so much food — the desert environment seems to kill your appetite — you can get by mostly with food that does not need to be refrigerated. I need to work out my transportation beforehand (not just to the event but on-playa, as well, so it has more range and some shade.)
When my friends learned that I was going to Black Rock City, they gave me a look of questioning my judgment, but my statement was “you get out of it what you put into it” and I still feel that is very appropriate. You can do anything you want on the playa. If you want to hang from bungee cords and beat the tar out of someone with a foam bat, the world is your oyster. If you want to take a foamy shower with dozens of your closest strangers, there’s a camp that offers that. On the other hand, if you want to explore the art as I did (sans drugs or alcohol), no problem. Theme camps have all sorts of things to offer — all gifted, of course, since no money or bartering is allowed: bodywork, food, shade, meditation, roller skating, and even TED Talks. It was beautiful, I really want to explore Gifting more next time. (Note: You can buy coffee at center camp and ice at various locations — as long as you’re okay waiting in long lines in the sun — but those are really the only things you need money for.)
As a dysfunctional introvert, I hope next time I will be more social. Going to Black Rock City really pushed my boundaries and activated my fears. In the past, I would go with somebody else, but going alone is a fear I want to face. It has been stated that Burning Man will change your life, and I thought yeah, yeah, OK. But it truly changed so many things for me — I have been inspired by the art and by the wonderful absurdity of it all. My creativity was fueled and my mind hasn’t stopped spinning since! One of the concepts I came up with is this: a hall of gargoyles (the statues with roof drains) and grotesques (the regular statues). In my mind, it would be a covered hallway with different artists’ versions of the statues. One could be a gargoyle of Winnie the Pooh or Popeye or Olive Oyl (since I have a thing for her). Experiencing playa art clearly stoked a fire in my mind. My mind is now outliving my body, and I am only saddened by the fact that I learned so many of these lessons later in life…
Out of curiosity, what would an introvert camp look like?
Hardly anybody would talk and if they did, it may be awkward. Nobody would look directly into anyone else’s eyes. Everyone would slouch, nobody would stand up straight. Clothing would be muted. If a pretty girl was too close, one might pass out or say something really odd or stupid.
Bottom line: I recommend Burning Man to all my fellow introverts out there. What’s the worst that can happen? Trust me, if you are brave and go in with an open mind, Burning Man will change your life.
A word to the wise: To those with cancer, be careful. See if you can find someone familiar with the road to Black Rock City. I did not really have enough time to prepare and I made some mistakes. Give yourself months to plan and prepare (I only had weeks). Inadequate planning and preparation for people like us can be very stressful, since we don’t have the reserves and strength to overcome the unexpected like we used to — we can’t take those chances anymore, and the stress really takes away from what Burning Man has to offer. Tip: leave early if you need to avoid long waits in the car for health reasons. While I did not experience Exodus, I would not want to sit in a hot dusty car for hours on end with my own health limitations. Leaving early was not a plan I had, but it was what I needed to do, and I have to admit, I was very relieved when I finally got on the highway. (Confession: By the time I got home, I was already sad and found myself watching hours of video footage from the playa.)
Burning Man has shown me the value of art and expression without the need for justification or rationality. “That thing in the desert,” the thing viewed by some as pointless or absurd, holds more meaning to me — in many ways — that most of my experiences over the past 60 years.
Cover image of Alex Ebbinge on playa, standing beside the Shrine of the Macabre art piece he helped create (2019)