A 60-Year-Old Introvert’s Journey to Burning Man

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. 

Alex welding pieces for the Shrine of the Macabre, photo by Ezra

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.

Enchanted Booty Forest camp members, photo courtesy of Alex Ebbinge (2019)

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.

Enchanted Booty Forest, photo courtesy of Alex Ebbinge (2019)

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…

Alex working on his trailer, photo by Laura Hubaide

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)

About the author: Alex Ebbinge

Alex Ebbinge is a 60-something designer and fabricator with a diverse background that includes long-haul trucking, heavy equipment, and even dairy farming — as he puts it, "I know my way around a cow." He's a lifelong learner and an introvert, with a bevy of creative projects outside his professional life. Alex was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in March 2012, forcing him to give up his beloved practices of Taiko drumming, cycling, and sailing. Alex's strong will to continue fighting helped him surpass his doctors’ expectations, and he has survived well beyond his initial three-year prognosis. It's important to Alex to pass on the knowledge he's gained from his vast experiences, always looking for ways to give back and make the world better. In that spirit, Alex offers his perspective as a participant in the Burning Wish program at Burning Man 2019.

37 Comments on “A 60-Year-Old Introvert’s Journey to Burning Man

  • Tom ( the Bishop ) Andrejko says:

    Excellent story Alex. In 2014 I was diagnosed with stage 3 throat cancer. After 37 radiation treatments and 6 – 4 hours chemotherapy treatments. I was making progress. My son had talked about Burning Man a few times and said that we should go. I thought he was completely out of his mind. But in 2016 I tried to get tickets, but failed. I tried again in 2017 and surprised my son with good news , we are going to Burning Man. Your definitely right it will and does change your life. I got tickets again in 2018 ,and my son and I went again. I got tickets in 2019 but my son was no longer interested. So I brought my friend who was going through a ruff spell. And it changed his out look on things. 2/20/2020 I beat the big C. Hopefully for good. I consider myself a lifelong Burner. Hopefully I will return home to the Playa again soon. And my friend wants to return as well. It definitely gave me a new lease on life and a new attitude as well. Definitely a positive experience. Good luck and peace.

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    • Teresa Lowery says:

      I loved your story, thanks for sharing.
      The 1st time I when twas in 1999. I am disabled now not sure I can go again, but It gets in the blood.
      I lost, We lost, a friend, a fellow burner to melanoma a few years ago. He was afraid to get his leg mole checked out, until too late. He told me I could share his story because it was something he wished he did take care of and hoped it could help others. He was a big volunteer, for burning man and we worked on the Temple build one year in Reno together. Him and his dogs..

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      • Alex Ebbinge says:

        I would love to hear your friends story. I hope you are able to go again. I am very limited in what I can do physically, a short brisk walk will leave me out of breath and it takes me a long time to recover, so I keep looking for solutions that will help.

        Thanks,
        Alex

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      • Ronni says:

        Wow. Both are such incredible stories… It’s terrible how easily overlooked cancer can be until it’s too late. My best friend was diagnosed a couple years ago and I would take her to her treatments.. Luckily I could convince her to get to the doctor in time! What a wonderful way to meet a friend.. we all lost a beloved burner!

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  • Dustin Fasman says:

    Great story Alex. We 60+ year old have to go to the playa to show the young’uns how to behave!

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  • Geomom says:

    Alex, how lovely that you shared your experience. One can become a little jaded after many years, so it’s great to hear that the impact is still there for folks discovering Burning Man. Stay well, and I hope to see your gargoyles on the playa.

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  • Hi Alex,
    I have very much enjoyed your story . I aldo want to go to the burning man for some years but because of a bad health never dare to take the risk . art mesns everything to me it is my way of expressing life and its beauty and pain .
    I am a dutchie Of sweet sixty and do not know if this year there be a playa but love to meet up . To hear youre story .
    So stay goood and lots of love and respect ✊

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    • Alex Ebbinge says:

      I hope it will happen this year I doubt I will be able to go next year as the cancer progresses. I am from Groningen we moved here in 1962. I hope everything will work out.

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  • Marion says:

    Wow, very poetically written. You spoke from my soul. I think everyone feels out of place somehow at the beginning.Maddie from Playa Chor asked at the 2016 closing concert, “Who looked at pictures on the internet before their first burn to find out what a real burner looks like?” Almost everyone raised their hands and had to laugh at themselves. Probably we all just want to belong somewhere where we feel comfortable as a person and just appreciated for who we are.I’m glad you decided to be part of this Burner family. Thank you for sharing your experience with us. It was a pleasure to read this.

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  • John Welsh says:

    Beautiful story! Thanks for sharing so much good advice and being a nice part of the community. I love reading about Playa experiences and it makes me want to be back there someday. Can’t wait til we all do this again!

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  • CincyKid says:

    Heart warming story Alex. I attended the 2018 Burning Man, my first, also as a 60+ year old man and found the event to be a true growth experience. Like you I felt a bit out of place being 1+ generations older than most of the participants, but the spirit there quickly washed away much of the age difference. I have to admit I was finding myself in much agreement with your observations as being true for me as well. Unlike you Alex I don’t have any health issues and found getting around on my big tire bike to be liberating as I explored the Playa with my camera. I hope to return one year soon and perhaps be a bit more bold in exploring the venues so freely offered with less temerity. My gifting was suggested by my son, “Dad, you like photography, so take people’s photos and send them to them as a gift” which I did. So much fun. I also learned to like EDM music and DJs so I grew in my appreciation for music.

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  • Sara / Pixie says:

    Love your story, Alex! Thank you for sharing. As a fellow introvert, I truly understand. You are also a great writer, you should do it more! XO

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  • Molly V says:

    Thank you for your story, Alex. You managed to locate the true heart of Burning Man in BRC. When you find it, it does change you, and the world around you too. I hope you find your way back when we’re able to build the city again.

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  • Marlena Govaars says:

    Alex, I love your writing voice, and how you captured your first Burn. Writing is an introvert’s podium — I hope you share more with us!!

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    • Alex Ebbinge says:

      ” Writing is an introvert’s podium” I have never thought about that, such a great insight. When I talk to someone in person I am often unable to express myself, I stumble and feel awkward. The chemo has taken a lot away, my words, short term memory, and slowed my cognitive thinking. I have never done anything like this before, I flunked most of my english classes and struggled with anything that required a lot of reading. I have little time left to try new things and my mortality has helped me fight my fears.

      Thanks,
      Alex

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      • Jeff jones says:

        Alex, “Nailed It” . A do-er’s (Burner’s) condensed introduction to the BM universe. You covered many bases with a beautiful economy of words. Nine years running I have nursed an “Old School Unmolested” (read: CLAPPED OUT) $900 1976 winnebago onto the Playa. Since “ Temple of Promise” I have been on Playa about three weeks a year ( build, event,LNT). I’m on the wrong side of 60+ and feeling it. Your story has sparked an interest in mobility/introvert camp. It is a small step from “mobility camp scooter” to “Alex’s electric Gargoyles” (AEG). I teared up at your mention of “The Folly” . It was an amazing concept, crew, experience. None of those things are unusual on Playa. Thank you! . PS I believe there is a therapeutic benefit in the alkaline environment of the desert. (Season to taste. Three weeks is into decline for me).Again Thank you…. KITCHEN CREW ROCKS!!!

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      • Peter says:

        Thanks so much for sharing Alex! Loved your take on BM :)

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  • heavyhenry says:

    Alex you’ve made your first step… The Burn of 2019 was my first too! I am glad we were able to help you at the Mobility Camp. We have transportation tours of art all over the playa.

    Curiosity and patience are important aspects of the Black Rock City experience. They will open you to social interaction in examining what surrounds you at Burning Man. Take your time to feel and share it.

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    • Alex Ebbinge says:

      Thanks for the little wheels. I wrote this as a way to say thank you to all the people that helped me.

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      • heavyhenry says:

        Alex you are welcome! It is what we can do… At the next BM drop by at the MobCamp for a playa tour on Capt Billy’s short bus or the Gibson tractor avec trailer. Bring your mask/sunscreen/goggles for good measure. %?) hh

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  • Laura says:

    Hey Alex
    I’m an Introvert & a cancer survivor too. Loved your story.

    May the grace of survivor’s power bring us back Home to Burning Man some day

    Laura

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  • Heather says:

    I really enjoyed your article! Thank you for sharing.

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  • Sandra O'Brien/WildChild says:

    Alex I loved your story! You captured the magic of the Playa beautifully. I went for the first time in 2016 and was captivated by the art and creativity everywhere. I came back in 2017 with some of my own art and was an exhibiting artist in 2018 and 2019 as well. So go after your dream of bringing art to the Playa! Participation makes life worthwhile. Blessings of good health and dusty hugs to you!

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  • Corbo says:

    I’m glad you got to go and despite all of your fears, you want to go back! I bet next time, you will feel even more confident and you will be happy for dusty hugs with your campmates and strangers alike. Thanks for sharing your story. Beautiful to hear your experience and your internal dialogue. If I see you out there one day, you’ll get a eye contact free hug from me. :D

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  • Nikki (Sparky) Castle says:

    Alex, thank you so much for sharing your story here and for sharing part of your burn with our camp! It was an honor and a delight to meet you and sit around a fire together.

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  • Katy Tahja says:

    Spread the word about Mobility Camp…we’ve been getting disabled people out to see art on the playa for more than a decade and we’re a fun, but quiet, group to camp with. NO ONE should think they can’t come to BM…check with us first!
    p.s. I first came at age 63 and have returned every year since…

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  • Kristen says:

    I loved your story! It just goes to show that no matter who you are, what your personality type is, what your beliefs are, what you want to believe…we all fall for Burningman and it gets in your blood and fuels it for however long. I thank Burningman for all the memories as I have a massive cache of photos and whenever I am blue, I look at these and all is well again very fast. p.s. you are an awesome writer!

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  • sve (a fellow dutch-indo) says:

    It may have been your first time but you still managed to find the heart of that place! I think you should definitely make those gargoyles and get them out there. I think they’ll be able to find a spot and plenty of admirers for them.

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  • Dr. Ra says:

    Thanks, Alex. You brought the magic of the first time back. I’ll start an introverts camp with you any time, with introvert art where everything turns inward.

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  • Stardust says:

    Alex, This was so beautiful to read. I know what it’s like to be relieved to hit the tarmac only to mourn a few hours later. I want to see your Gargoyle Hall!

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  • Alan says:

    Very moving story Alex. Thank you!

    My first experience in the dust was 06 and I have been back 11 times. I like to gift a ticket or 2 every time I attended. I feel that strongly about the potential impact it can have on a person.
    I found a deep connecting experience with the Art and the struggle to maintain balance while on the Playa. It changed my life. It is a challenge even for people who are healthy, I can only imagine your journey.
    It is a fantastic journey as I read your story. Thank you and be well. Who knows when we will be able to return to the dust. Perhaps soon, perhaps not.
    You can’t explain it fully to anyone who has not been. I took my son in 2018 and it was a very special experience. Thank you for sharing your special time.
    I will use your line, “Get off My Lawn” when the drunken masses arise to plunder!

    Be safe and well. Meat Master

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  • "Wayne Travolta" says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience with us! Reading your story reminded me of my first experience and how it also changed my life. I wish you great success in your journey and look forward to seeing you there!

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  • TonyDaBaloney says:

    Really great story. I can relate, as I am in my late 60s and a little introverted. Have always wanted to go to burning man, but life got in my way. Now I’m taking care of five grandkids with my wife and no longer think I will make it. I have so many experiences I am lucky enough to be able to pass on to my kids. My best hope for all my grandkids and I tell them this, is to have no regrets! I don’t want them to look back and say they wished they had done this or that. I have far,far to many I just can’t get away from. They haunt me late at night ! My wife and I have decided we want to get rid of our ghost and live the rest of our lives as if we were 20. Dont wait, do it now ,no matter your age or circumstances. NO REGRETS!

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    • Alex Ebbinge says:

      Regrets, I have so many. I tell people that when I look back on my life I am not thinking I wish I worked harder. Two weeks vacation a year blows, In Europe some of the countries have four weeks a year. In some cases people have smaller houses, smaller cars, less possessions than we do but they may live more. I hope you find a way to go, it is only one week out of your life.

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  • T says:

    I love this story Alex. A wonderful description of your experience. Someone asked me recently “WHAT IS Burning Man?!” And I feel it is really so hard to describe. I told them 10,000 people could go and have 10,000 very different experiences. What you put in and what you get out is unique to each individual. My first time going was in 2017 with my then 67 year old, introverted Dad (we also went with my cousin, her 2nd year). As you described your experience, to me it really echoed much of my Dad’s experience as someone older and introverted venturing to the playa for the first time and experiencing the magnitude of it all.

    Thank you for sharing your journey.

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  • Pita says:

    Thank you for this beautiful story. It is full of hope and humor and real-ness. I feel like Black Rock City allowed me be who I truly want to be in life. This spread into my ‘default’ world life, helped me to leave a very soul-crushing work situation (just a few years before ‘real’ retirement age), and find more happiness and satisfaction. I wish you well and hope our paths cross in BRC 2021.

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