For some, what you see and what you partake in at Burning Man can be life-changing. At the very least, the festival affects the way one looks at human interaction and expression.
This is a place where the deepest corners of our imaginations break through to the material world full-force. It is where a post-apocalyptic fantasy—in which art, fun and love are the most important things in life—becomes a reality. And along with it, a portal opens to the energy of something I believe to be quite spiritual.
I had a different approach to this adventure than I used to have when I was younger, hitting up raves, any kind of festival, or anything that included serious partying. I wasn’t heading to Burning Man to get laid or fucked up.
I came to Burning Man as something of a symbolic summit to a journey I’ve been on for a few years, one filled with plenty of soul-searching. I guess you can call it self-realization, transcendence or enlightenment. Maybe it’s simply growing up.
Ultimately, I didn’t know what I would find at Burning Man, or find in myself, but I was confident I would understand it when I found it. And in some ways, I didn’t come here to find myself at all. I came here to lose myself.
The first night, after catching Skrillex and Major Lazer together on stage—both unpaid, unannounced performers you had to hear about or read in the daily pamphlet they print to know they were even playing—I was riding my bike back to the camp where I was tented up at. I passed through Center Camp, probably around 3 am, just to look at art pieces on the way back to base.
Sitting on a bench was a young woman, early- to mid-twenties. Looking ahead, not hiding her face, she was crying. Alone, weeping. I walked up to her and asked, “Are you okay?”
She looked up at me slowly and just nodded as if to say, “Yes.”
I still figured she was hurt, physically or emotionally, maybe by a boy or a shitty friend. So I asked, “Do you need anything?”
Again she just looked up at me, this time nodding as if to say, “No.”
The tears didn’t stop streaming down her face, and she never broke her sad expression, but I could tell in her eyes: She was comforted by the fact that someone cared about her in the moment. The last thing I told her was, “Everything is going to be okay.”
I turned to go, but she pulled on my hand. We hugged for a minute or two. When I finally turned to leave, I looked back to make sure she was going to be safe. I saw she had mustered up the strength to get up and, hopefully, go back to her camp.
The next morning, I caught up with my friend Tambo at her camp, Deep Tribe. She’s a veteran burner, and her presence is something you can feel coming down the road from 100 feet away. I chilled with her and some new friends.
Tambo told us how her bike got stolen. Now, everyone at Burning Man has to get around on bike, except for the art cars. The place is huge, lined with long, sandy makeshift roads. If you’re walking, you’re on a major mission. So I gave Tambo the whole speech about locking your bike with a lock, which she had already received.
“You don’t understand. Everything works out on the Playa,” she told me.
In any case, someone lent her a bike—so kudos to her—and we took off to the Esplanade, the inner ring where a lot of the party camps are.
We stopped at some cool Swiss cheesed-out dome playing funky electro bass, and we tripped out for about an hour with some equally tripped-out other people, dancing it up, locking into the groove. When it came time to move on, we headed outside, where I thought I’d left my bike.
“It’s an old black and red cruiser,” I told peeps passing by.
No dice, it got jacked. After my high-and-mighty lecturing about locking up bikes, I forgot to lock mine. It’s yet another chapter in the continuing education of yours truly.
I had bought a cheap-ass bicycle for $80 before coming. I didn’t actually want to take that janky, dust-crusted thing back home, anyway. I had planned to give it away—just not on my second day at Burning Man. I had two days left and no bike. Some people urged me to just steal someone else’s bike. “It happened to you, you pass it along, grab one, then they’ll grab one, and so on,” someone said.
A few years back, I wouldn’t have thought about it. I would have taken the nicest bike I could find with no lock, like the delinquent I once was. But not now; fuck that. The cycle of negative energy ends right here. The buck stops with me. I’m not stealing nobody’s bike. I’m not putting someone else on a mission. I can handle walking, probably better than anyone I’d end up jacking.
“I’ll take one for the team,” I said.
You wouldn’t think it, but the rest of that day was awesome. A new friend, a blonde named Cali with a big heart, shared her bike with me. I pedaled standing up, while she rode on the seat behind me, legs flared, trying to stay on.
I drank absinthe (the real wormwood stuff), had a cold drink licked off my belly by some insatiable woman, partied alongside a roaming art car called Robot Heart with a mega sound system, and met a ton of interesting people (to say the least), many of whom were completely naked (women and men), which felt completely normal.
The next morning, I walked to Center Camp, on the quest for coffee and prepared to walk a whole lot. That’s when I ran into my friend Stefan. He’s kind of one of my gurus in the “real” world. And he’s a savior. I was sitting with him and his beautiful girlfriend Katie, and they invited me to a yoga class at a place called Red Lightning. On the way, I told him about my lack of a bike.
“We have an extra one!” Stefan exclaimed.
This is how the Playa works, I learned. Not only did I get a bike again; it was way better, sturdier and faster than the one I brought. After hanging with Stefan, who fed me breakfast and blessed my journey, I went off to ride on the Playa.
The Playa, which is about 30 acres of desert in between all the camps, is where the main, official festival art installations are located. These installations are huge, often interactive, and isolated from the partying. As dust devils warp around the pieces, you can’t help but feel you’re on another planet.
At the center is the 50-foot wooden “Man,” which gets burned down on Saturday night.
One particular installation that moved many Burners this year was a wooden structure called “Embrace,” a 30-foot-high piece depicting a man and woman sharing an intimate moment. They burned that down too, Friday morning, as hundreds of couples lay on the sand and watched.
The one piece that hit me the hardest was the structure at the far end of the expanse—the Temple. Here’s the thing about the Temple. It’s sad, super sad. It’s one of the most depressing places I have ever been in, and easily one of the most beautiful.
As I approached the arch entrance, I noticed there were no smiling faces inside. No one talked above a whisper. In fact, inside the Temple, many people were crying. I couldn’t hear any of the music from off at the camps.
Along the walls of the temple were thousands of notes, some including photos of deceased loved ones and messages to God, some hopeful of a better future, some venting about an awful past. All these memories filled with trauma surrounded the 40-foot-high installation. The juxtaposition of the sorrowful, emotional energy of the Temple with the frolicking raucousness of the parties just on the other side of the festival was jarring.
I looked at the people’s faces, I read some of the notes, and I couldn’t help getting caught up in it. I figured this was a good place to meditate on some serious shit. I found a corner to sit in. I buried my head in my hands. I thought about the regretful things that anchor my sometimes heavy heart with negative emotion. A tear strolled down my cheek.
Then, I got a tap on my shoulder. I heard, “Do you need a hug?”
I looked up, and it was the most beautiful girl. Her eyes were the bluest blue. Her hair was light brown and long, and it fluttered in the wind. Her skin was smooth and soft, without a single mark. She looked like an angel.
We embraced for so long, so tight. I tried to pull away about a minute in, somewhat embarrassed that it would come across like I was being a little too familiar. But she wouldn’t let me go until she could feel my sadness fade away, until she sensed that my mind went blank. It must have been like 10 minutes. I kissed her hand. She kissed my cheek. She walked off. I went to go look for her moments later, but she’d disappeared into thin air.
After that, I finally felt like I’d earned the right to go party down. I hit Distrikt, where the party rivaled any hot club anywhere, and the people were off the chain. Did I mention they handed out unlimited free booze? Yeah, it’s like that at every party at Burning Man.
I ran into actress Michelle Rodriguez, who was dancing in the crowd. I walked up and told her, “I think it’s very cool that you’re here.”
She high-fived and hugged me, yelling, “That’s what’s up!”
Toward the back, I was dancing, enjoying the breakbeats and electro bass, which are surprisingly prevalent at Burning Man. A few minutes after I hit the spot, an exotic, dark-haired young woman in a leathery, lacy getup started dancing behind me. We kind of traded places, and I noticed a tattoo on her arm that didn’t make any sense. It was a bottle of something crossed out. I worked up the nerve to ask her what it meant. She laughed at the fact that I’d spotted it. “That’s for me…”
I lit up a smoke and asked, ”Have you been to the Temple?”
She looked taken aback. Softly, she said, “I just came from there.”
We got to talking about what we had experienced in the Temple, why we went there in the first place, and what we took away from it.
“A lot of times we try and forget, but the thing is not forgetting what caused the pain. It’s about forgiving…” I began. Her eyes welled up. “…and that includes forgiving yourself.”
Her response was, let’s just say, emotional. She went on to tell me, so tenderly for a woman who looked as tough and sexy as she did, “I guess you don’t get the Burn you want. You get the Burn you need.”
And then, what would you know, another long, heartfelt embrace. I could get used to this.
“Well, because you used this opportunity to work out the kinds of things most people bury, now you absolutely deserve to have fun!” I said.
She answered, “You do too!”
I know what many guys—and probably a few ladies—reading this are thinking: “Are you hooking up with these chicks?!”
Whether or not I did, I wouldn’t write it here. I don’t think any sex, or any high, could beat these moments of deep connections I had with strangers or relatively new friends. It was ethereal. I could feel the download of divine inspiration. I know the universe works in mysterious ways, and at Burning Man that became only clearer and more apparent than ever before.
I could go on about the nighttime parties on the Playa, where the neon lights of roaming art cars and their sound systems created a psychedelic trip come to life, and how it was all an über sensory overload. I could tell you more about how freakin’ sexy the scantily clad, costumed women were, even when covered in dust. Especially when covered in dust. I could even harp on some of the negative energy I saw on the last night, when way too many cranky people needed to catch up on way too much sleep.
But what I think you need to know about is what I needed, and what I got, from this experience. Regardless of whether I ever return—and I intend to—I will take what I experienced at my first Burning Man with me for the rest of my life.
All photos by Humberto Guida