Quiet Moments, Quiet Magic: Black Rock City 2022

My first several days on the playa did not feel like Burning Man to me. It felt strange and unfamiliar. I was looking for big, showy moments of overwhelming magic. When Burning Man began to happen to me, it happened in quieter moments, almost private. 

These are the first few moments when I realized: yes, I’m here, it’s happening, we’re at Burning Man.

Friday, the day before Gate opens:

I was sitting in the lounge area of a camp that I have often visited over the years, and a young woman came in dressed as a very old woman — wig, make-up — and playing the role of “Gertrude,” a widow who had begun rediscovering herself after her husband died. Burning Man had always been a bucket list item for her, and now that she was having an awakening she’d come to Black Rock City and wanted to live her life to the absolute fullest for the four to eight days her doctors say she has left. (Her life is cut short, sadly, because of all the venereal diseases she picked up at the old folks home once she found herself again).

This was funny, and she was wholly committed to the bit, so I bantered with her about it for a while, and eventually she went away to “take a nap.” She came back later out of costume and character and sat down next to me and introduced herself.

“I’m “Sylvine,” she said. 

“Hi, I’m Caveat.”

She gave me a look, “I think we’ve met before.”

“We could have. I’m afraid I don’t remember.”

“Do you hang out here a lot?”

“Yeah, it’s been my home away from home for a while.”

She nodded. “Yes,” she said, “I think we met at my first Burn.”

It’s possible? I suppose? “Okay,” I said. These are always embarrassing moments.

“Do you,” she asked, “remember calling me a delusional optimist?”

I blinked. Oh dear. “Um … I’m afraid I don’t.”

She gave me a piercing look: “I think you did. The night we met. Here, at my first Burn.”

“Which was…?”


“So you were…”


“Right… well… I don’t remember… but I admit it does sound like something I might have said back then…”

Actually, literally everyone I’ve since told this story to has said, “Yep, that sounds like you.”

She nodded. Definitively. She was sure. “It was you. You told me I was a delusional optimist. I don’t remember much about that burn, but I do remember that. And it stayed with me ever since. I’ve actually written a book about my life I want to publish some day, and that’s part of my book: that some guy at Burning Man called me a delusional optimist, and it stuck with me. And I’m still a delusional optimist, I’m just more jaded now. And now here you are. I’d like to pick that up where we left off.”

That was the first moment this year when I knew, deep in my bones: yes, this really is Burning Man. 

Saturday, Gate night:

I went to the party at the Gate, where people celebrate the official opening of Black Rock City to all ticket holders. There are mutant vehicles, some of which have stages, and some of which have flame poofers, and people walk along the outskirts of the Gate road and mingle and watch the cars waiting to come in. At midnight, when it formally opens and the line can come in, there are fireworks. 

“Adrienne” was there, along with her stepson “Tommy.”  Tommy is six. A well-meaning relative stranger had given Tommy a caffeine drink earlier in the day, so he was wound up and full of energy. He was holding Adrienne’s hand and running in circles around her, over and over again, so that she had to spin, too. People made jokes about his being in orbit.

“This is my life now,” she said, still spinning. 

“Hey,” I said. “Can I orbit you, too? Doing an outer orbit to Tommy’s inner orbit?”

She shrugged. “Knock yourself out.”

So I started running around Adrienne too, at a farther distance. And before I’d made two complete circles I looked around me and realized that now everybody in this crowd was now orbiting Adrienne, making a whole solar system. We were all dashing around at various distances, a spontaneous celestial body of people in the dust. And it was giddy and silly and Tommy couldn’t stop laughing. 

A few cycles later, I started running backwards. I shouted, “RETROGRADE MOTION!”

And just like that, the whole solar system flew off in every direction, dispersing.

A moment later it was midnight, and a massive fireball exploded 60 feet away from us to announce the opening of the Gate. We gaped as a cheer rang out from all around us.

Tommy walked up to Adrienne and held something out in his hand — one of his baby teeth had fallen out.

Since it had fallen out at Burning Man, his parents would later decide the Tooth Fairy would leave a piece of art, not money, under his pillow. 

I honestly don’t remember exactly when this happened. Maybe Monday of event week?

Late at night, back at camp, we were sitting around a burn barrel, drinking and singing. I’d been struggling a lot that day, and was carrying a lot of anger and worry around with me: am I up to doing it all again this year? Can I live up to my past self? This was affecting my song choices, and so I was leading a lot of songs about death and loss. 

The camp kitchen had an oven, and someone had baked a batch of fresh cookies that night, which we had out on a platter, and as people walked by I would interrupt my songs of death and loss to make sure they knew they could have a cookie. It went something like this:

And the long road will ease my pain … FRESH BAKED COOKIES!

“No gem of womankind will make me … SIT BY OUR FIRE AND HAVE A FRESH BAKED COOKIE! 

“E’er whisper love’s words again … HAVE A FRESH BAKED COOKIE!”

Sometimes people stopped and joined us, and usually they had a cookie. But after a while an older couple, a man and a woman, sat down but turned the cookies away. They’d been passing by and heard the singing and asked if they could stop and be part of it for a while. Of course they could. 

I kept right on going with my depressing songs that had choruses where everyone can sing along. I sang “St. James Infirmary,” about a dead lover. I sang “Irene Goodnight,” about loss and a broken family. I sang “Rambling Boy,” about a childhood friend who died while traveling. 

After a while, the couple got up and said they’d be moving on. The woman leaned down to where I was sitting, gave me a hug, and whispered in my ear so that this was a moment just for the two of us:

“Thank you so much for this. We lost our son four years ago, and we’re going to put him in the Temple tomorrow.”

They walked away into the darkness. 

I gaped. Stunned. 

“What are we singing next, Caveat?” someone asked. And I didn’t know — the spell of my dark and terrible mood had been broken.

Cover image of “Seed of Dreams” by Martin Taylor and the Chromaforms Art Collective, 2022 (Photo by Leori Gill)

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

15 Comments on “Quiet Moments, Quiet Magic: Black Rock City 2022

  • Mike Sciurko says:

    Thank you for sharing , Beautiful .

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    • Greg (skilly) says:

      Thank you for your wonderful prose and, as I read your article, I got lost in the tale. Thank You .
      As a fourteen year Burner, it so reminded me of others I have known and burned with, and the way that I have felt at a couple burns. I guess sometimes it takes the right spark to light the proper emotional fire, that takes us to the place that we all ultimately find, which is the energy and raw love that is Burning Man.
      People have unbelievable stories from the playa and my story of my trials and tribulations at Black Rock City is as good as any. In a short nutshell, I got engaged as the man fell in 1998, met 8 strangers that observed me drop to a knee and propose, and ran with them the whole night,on what was perhaps the best night of our lives. I married Tyrabbit and we burned 10 years straight 1998-2007.
      Burning Man became the focal point of our lives but It took 3 burns to find those strangers, ( it was such an amazing night we didn’t even think that we should give each other contact information in the default world)
      Missed the burn in 2008 ( it really hurt us) because we discovered that my beautiful wife had late Stage 3 cancer, which we discovered in the months after the 2007 burn and was too weak to attend. In March of 2009 Tyrabbit passed away, and I put fer ashes in the Temple Burn of 2009.
      Life stood still, but in true Burner fashion, those “strangers”, ( who were now lifelong friends) bought my ticket, forced me to go, and babysat me. Truly incredible.
      I would love to talk to you someday and thank you again for the great words.
      Skilly ( cause I have the skills)

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      • Luna says:

        Wow. Such powerful, raw experiences. We really do experience some of the extremest highs and lows out there, and still somehow find a way to heal after it’s all said and done. Thank you for sharing, Skilly <3

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  • Joanna Priestley says:

    Thank you Caveat. I am a fan!

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  • Cynbad says:

    Powerful piece. Thank you.

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  • LovAh says:

    A waking dream…

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  • PoppaDaddy says:

    Brought tears to this hardened soul with the last four paragraphs.

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  • eric tussey says:

    OMG your shared (song) experience just made me cry.

    thank you
    thank you
    thank you

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  • HD says:

    Awesome little essay there Caveat, that stirred up some pretty damn strong feelings. Lots of laughter, and some other ones too at the end.
    For all of the Disney in the Dust that BM has become, it is the human to human level stuff that means the most.

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  • HD says:

    I’m gonna risk being preachy here . . .

    “Can I live up to my past self?” ? ? ? Caveat, seriously?

    IMHO that is not possible or desireable. Dive into the future and continue to grow and develop and and discover more about yourself , you have infinite potential !

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  • Thomas (the Bishop) Andrejko says:

    It felt Great to be Home at Burning Man again. This year I made the journey alone and had the Best Burn yet ! Thanks to all who made it possible.

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  • Giuseppe Campi says:

    I loved it, Caveat.
    So inspirational.
    Many thanks

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  • Honey Bee says:

    As always, your words struck home. Though I wasn’t there this year, I felt your rise and fall, your ebb and flow. Getting older (62) makes me wonder how I will approach TTID, but you have shown me the path is always clear.

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  • It was a rough burn, Caveat, although my only regret is that I couldn’t stay longer. I hope you’re feeling better, I know it wasn’t easy for you, either. (I briefly ran into you on opening day at the commissary, and you were looking slightly frazzled.) Best wishes, and hope to you next year.

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  • Coliflower says:

    Please write more, Caveat! What about the rest of your week? Love this, thank you.

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