Tuesday, September 22, 2015


Picture me in a tent in the Nevada desert, the night I first arrived at Burning Man. I am alone and I am not happy.

For the two previous days I’d been on the longest road trip of my life, over sixteen hours in the car, the last three of which were in both a dust storm and a broiling traffic jam—the bottleneck at the single-lane entrance the Black Rock Desert, where Burning Man is held. I had loved the road trip, and hadn't minded the traffic jam. It was all part of this very different vacation I was taking with my boyfriend, whom I'd met speed dating six months before.

Our tent at 2:45 and G on the Burning Man grid, with the Cascadia Flag.
Once through the traffic jam, my boyfriend and I found our way to our campsite (an empty spot on a largely empty block, since it was the first day of the festival). We immediately got to work pitching tents and helping set up a shower as the sun blazed hotter and hotter. We were two of the first four to arrive at a campsite that would eventually have sixteen residents, and we worked steadily to get everything done before sunset. Without a kitchen, I sun-brewed coffee on the dashboard of the car, gratefully drinking it down and setting up a second round. I was short of sleep even when we left Seattle, and that coffee was the only means to keep myself going.
The first thing I saw when we arrived was part of the shower
system, an 'evap pond,' to prevent the graywater from draining
into the desert ground. Nothing else at our camp was up yet.

As we worked we listened to James Brown, not by choice. A block away a group of twenty-something men were building a Geodesic dome, and they had chosen the music—not a few songs, but the sex-machine’s entire repertoire. It was a lot of James Brown, and loud enough that I considered getting out my earplugs. As the Geodesic dome grew and the soundtrack switched to electronic music, I found my earplugs and put them in, which only cut the sound by a fraction.

The sun blazed on. We helped put up the giant kitchen tent that would serve our whole camp, unfolded chairs and a table, and a camp mate produced cookstoves and kitchen gear. Suddenly things were civilized. We ate dinner as the sun set and the techno beat drummed on.

The kitchen tent at the end of the day
Our neighbors with the Geodesic dome,
and non-stop electronic music

After dinner I started to walk out with others to the playa, the center of Burning Man, but I turned back before I made it there. I was so tired I could barely think straight or walk straight, and realized I wasn’t up for seeing anything spectacular, so I walked back to the tent by myself.

Picture me an hour later, in the tent alone. I’ve put on my pajamas and spent 45 minutes going through my nighttime medical routine, taking everything out of the half-sized cooler which I’d carefully transported from Seattle with a bag of ice so my medication wouldn’t be ruined by the heat. Lyme-fighting routine done, I lay down, although I had little hope that I would sleep.

When I closed my eyes, they filled with tears—because there were three different tracks of electronically generated music blasting into the tent from three different directions. It was so loud I couldn’t hear my own breath. My heartbeat involuntarily accelerated to the competing, frantic, synthetic beats.

Among the many things I had bought to prepare for Burning Man were both earplugs and construction worker’s earmuffs. I had understood there would possibly be unceasing music, and there would definitely be loud music. (“That thumping techno beat,” said a friend who had been to a regional Burning Man event, “it’s going to always be in the background and you won’t be able to get away from it.”) But the truth was I had no idea what I was in for.

While getting ready for bed I had put in my earplugs and over them the earmuffs and I still heard and felt the music, blasting into my ears, through my veins and bones. Desperate, I tried playing a white noise track I had on my own MP3 device, of waves crashing on a beach. Instead of drowning out the techno, it only sounded as if someone had setup an obnoxious, thunderous techno party at the beach.

If the music weren’t so inescapable and exhausting, if my nerves hadn’t felt so shattered, this would have been funny.

This was music transformed, remade into a destroyer god—if this electronic stuff, pure repetitive, aggravating beats, could even be called music.


I was once in a yoga class when the teacher said, “Now that we’re in pigeon position, see if you can reach your right hand back to grasp your right leg at the ankle or the calf, and from there hook your heel into the crook of your elbow to stretch your ribs.” (or some such complex, yogic pretzel-ish move)

“I’m not quite picturing how to do that,” one of the students said. “Can you demonstrate it so I can see what to do?”

“Actually,” the teacher said, “if your brain can’t follow the description, it’s a good indication that your body isn’t ready to do it yet. So just stay in the pose you’re in.”

Your brain cannot conceive of what the body cannot handle, or what the brain itself cannot handle, not until it encounters these things in real life. Before that moment in the tent at Burning Man, I had not been able to conceive that this assault on my nervous system could possibly happen, precisely because it was far too much for my nervous system to handle.

So I lay on the air mattress and cried, and I understood that coming to Burning Man had been a giant mistake. It occurred to me that I had written two fantastical/sci-fi short stories about women who are driven almost crazy by ceaseless music (one of them you can read here)—and even those stories the music never reached this pitch. I had willingly walked straight into a nightmare beyond my imagination.

What I was missing: night scenes from the Burning Man playa

At 11:30 pm, my boyfriend, who had walked out with the others to the playa, came back our tent. I turned away as he unzipped the door and came in. I didn’t particularly want to see him at that moment--or rather, I didn't want him to see me.

I had come to Burning Man because several months before my boyfriend had asked me if I wanted to go.

My boyfriend had not asked me to come with him to Burning Man, he had asked me if I wanted to go, and this was an important difference. That past winter, before he met me, he had decided to go because a group of his close friends were going back that year. When he asked me if I wanted to go, he had said something along the lines of, “I don’t want to influence your decision. I won’t like you any less if you don’t go. Burning Man isn’t the center of my universe and you should only do it if you want to.”

I decided that this was an opportunity to go somewhere and do something new, which is rare for me, because of Lyme disease and chemical sensitivy. I was motivated by curiosity, and by a sense of challenge. (Could I actually manage Burning Man while also managing Lyme?) And let’s be honest, I was also motivated because I wanted to do this with my boyfriend. I wanted to go on what amounted to an adventure with him.

It would have been very easy at that moment to blame my boyfriend for the shape I was in, but I couldn’t. This was my own mistake, from start to finish.

“You’re not asleep?” he asked now, when he saw me shift in the bed. I shook my head. I tried not to show him I was crying. In a few minutes he figured it out anyway. He put his arms around me and said things intended to comfort me.

“It’s just so loud,” I said through my tears. “I didn’t know it would be this loud.”

He said more things that under normal circumstances would have comforted me, but the music was still happening, and my body was still in shock.

At the same time, I was trying to understand how my boyfriend could think this was an OK place to be, not just for me, but for him, a place that was worth driving twelve hours to get to.

What had I seen so far of this man that would have given me a clue? The way he doesn’t like loud restaurants? The hours he spends tending his garden and hiking? Or quietly, deftly turning out watercolor paintings? The way he talks about the importance of getting out into nature, away from electrical devices and the electrical grid? Or that he decided against buying a piano in part because playing it would bother his neighbors?

“I know it’s loud,” he now said. “I remember the first time I came and I was trying to go to sleep and it felt so confusing, all this music coming at you from different directions, but then you just close your eyes and fall asleep.”

It was then that I understood that my boyfriend, as gentle and calm and tuned in to music as he is, has a nervous system work that works entirely differently from mine. That was why he hadn’t warned me clearly about the electronic dance music. He has the ability to simply block the music out, and so he assumed that I did too.

Soon this gentle, thoughtful man fell asleep in the middle of the maelstrom. I lay next to him, not asleep. I tried paying attention to my body. I sought out my breath. Yes, it was still there, if I concentrated I could feel it.

This is the oldest meditation technique in the world, literally: paying attention to your breath. My breath felt like a battle, but I told myself that as long as I could I feel it, it was some minuscule benefit to me and I could therefore make it through the night, sleep or no sleep.

This must have done some good because eventually I remembered there was one last herbal medication I could take, a tincture (called NT Detox) which I reserve it for when I absolutely can’t sleep. I found it in my medicine cooler at the end of the bed and used a flashlight to open the little bottle and take one drop, which is all I usually need to knock me out.

I lay back down and put my pillow over my head instead of under it. It didn’t muffle the music, but it was comforting. I found my breath again.

I must have fallen asleep because I woke at 4 a.m. The music was still blasting from all directions. I fell back asleep and woke again at 7:30. The music was still blasting. The fact that I had slept, however, seemed like a miracle.

I got up and found my shoes and started on the two blocks to the port-a-potty, knowing I’d been a dufus to come to Burning Man. The only thing to do was to get on a bus to Reno and then fly back to Seattle. I would figure out how to do that after breakfast. As I walked, the music faded away behind me and other sound systems from other camps took over.

The bright glow of sunlight across my face distracted me from my thoughts, and I looked up from my feet. I took in my surroundings. I was in one of the most visually stunning places I’ve ever seen.

The morning light across the desert was a fresh, yellow-gold hue. There were breathtaking mountains spiking across the horizon, in browns and russets.

A corner of Black Rock City in the morning. My iPhone photography skills don't do it justice.

The camp-city around me was a variety of tents and hexi-yurts, which are yurt-like structures made out of silver-sided, insulated sheeting. The hexi-yurts looked both ancient and futuristic at the same time. People were also putting up lace-like netting for shade, and building towers that would be the markers for their camps. I saw bikes tricked out to look like animals, and people wearing playful, elaborate clothing it was joy to see. Everything looked as if I’d stepped onto one of the best sci-fi movie sets imaginable.

A neighboring camp

A steam bath other neighbors set up, with evap pond

Another nearby tent

On the far side of the port-a-potties there was no blasting music. I walked on in that direction just for the sake of the quiet. Someone was building a giant golden dragon on wheels, the size of a city bus—one of the art cars I’d heard about. In the far distance was a bright red satin tent that looked as if it came out of fairytale.

The golden dragon: when it wasn't touring around Black Rock
City, it rested a few blocks from our camp

As I drew closer it seemed it was just someone’s tent. I suddenly felt hungry. Needing breakfast and coffee, I reluctantly turned back to our camp. When I arrived, the EDM was still blasting and my body and brain returned to their state of shock.

This is the wrenching contradiction of Burning Man. Visually, it was wonderful. People often compare Burning Man to the movie Mad Max, and this is partly true. I would say it’s Wes Anderson mixed with Mad Max, mixed with Steampunk, mixed with Traveling Circus. If you want to be endlessly amazed visually, go Burning Man.

But when it comes to the auditory side of Burning Man, it’s a disaster. It is entirely acceptable that anyone can blast any kind of music, most often the worst kind, at the highest decibels possible. People who return to Burning Man year after year are those who either like electronic music or have the ability to tune it out, no matter how loud. Even with earplugs, Burning Man is a recipe for going deaf young.


I am not able to tune out music. In normal life, I get worn out by the music playing in so many places. I once felt myself growing exhausted because a cellist was playing Bach at an outside seating area where I was having a conversation with a friend—I couldn’t handle both at once. Reading or writing while there’s music is impossible for me. This is the primary reason I don’t ever spend time in cafes: there’s always music, and it’s always loud. I’ve had moments when I’ve struggled to finish grocery shopping because of the background music in the store.

“How is that possible?” someone once asked me. “You dance all the time.” True, I am a dedicated dancer, taking classes and three times a week and practicing at home. And yet there’s no contradiction. I am all for listening, actually listening, to good music and connecting with it.

What I can’t do is shut it out, which is an ability most people take for granted. Since I came down with Lyme, this has been impossible. I remember playing John Coltrane while I wrote my college thesis, and spending tons of time in coffee shops writing and reading before I got Lyme. Now, however, I listen to music only while I’m moving to it or doing repetitive tasks like cooking. (And cooking and music is not the best combination, because I end up dancing instead of making dinner.)

Now that I am living with Lyme, my brain does one thing at a time only, and silence is essential for my well-being.

So, back at our camp at Burning Man that morning: I did not figure out how to get on the bus to Reno. I managed to get dressed, brush my teeth, and make breakfast while the multiple techno played, although all this felt like scaling a climbing wall. I had some vague thoughts about finding the bus, but it was something that would require me to pack up my things, dividing them from my boyfriend’s, and then get down to Center Camp, a place I hadn’t been yet, and navigate through the noise I imagined would be there as well, to find information on buses. This series of tasks, by no means challenges under normal circumstances, seemed impossible in the face of the EDM.

More camp members arrived Monday, and we helped them
put up their hexi-yurts while I contemplated leaving.

And so I stayed at Burning Man because my brain was too paralyzed that first day to leave. And because, despite how tormented I was, I didn't quite want to admit defeat. Not yet. To escape the little musical hell of our camp, I walked around our section of the city, in and out of zones of blasting music. I went to a figure drawing session that was in a blessed pocket of silence, and walked out into the desert for silence. Every time I came back to our tent there was the music, leaving me feeling like a deer in headlights. Still, I managed to fall asleep again Monday night.

And something utterly surprising happened Tuesday. That morning, my boyfriend coaxed me out of the state of shock for for an art tour. This was my first encounter with the Burning Man’s giant art installations. I was enchanted and moved and felt utter awe. It made sense for the first time that I’d come to this place. We rode the oversized VW bus (which, by the way, was also blasting music, but good music) until we were tired of it and decided to walk the mile back to our neighborhood, stopping to see friends from Seattle on the way.
An example of the art we saw Tuesday morning

The Totem of Confessions from inside (above) and outside (below).


An entrance to the art and activities at the base of the Man (above) and an organ created for Burning Man (below)

The stained glass ceiling from inside the Totem of Confessions, 
and a giant sculpture of a woman.

A mosaic, altar-like installation at the feet of the Man

Outside the ever-present port-a-potties, the dust was picking up

Back our camp, neighbors with assembled hexi-yurt

When we got back to our camp and the inevitable techno, I found I didn’t mind so much. I had adjusted enough that it didn’t seem worth taking the bus to Reno. I would stay at Burning Man. For the rest of the week, the EDM kept playing, but my brain managed by and large to put it in the background.

As the days passed, I encountered a few pockets of electronic music that was actually good: creative, melodious, joyful, and energetic. Music it was a pleasure to dance to, and so I danced. (This, however, was the exception.)

All dressed up on Saturday night, when they burn the Man. It was cold, so we wore our jackets.
(I'm in the middle, wearing a headdress I made, with my fellow campers Jan and Rebecca.)

I also managed to sleep around seven hours a night most of the week, but I never truly rested. How restful can sleep be under those circumstances? As the week wrapped up, a sense of just not being well crept into my body. Much as I had loved being there, had loved doing and seeing things I couldn’t have anywhere else, I needed to go home. I needed to rest.

We had to organize and dust off all our gear clothes
before we packed the car, but finally we got it done!

As we drove out of Burning Man and I heard true silence for the first time in eight days—pure, gentle, comforting silence—my body went limp. I simply could not move. Or talk, or do anything. Fortunately, my boyfriend was driving and I lolled my head against the passenger-side window. I felt the profundity of my exhaustion. I felt, finally, at peace.
The road home

Friday, September 11, 2015


I’ve done quite bit of travelling in my life, but Burning Man was hands down the weirdest trip I've taken. 

Yes, it’s practically a tautology to say Burning Man is weird. Burning Man—the gathering, festival, temporary city, giant party, make-shift religion—is supposed to be weird, and also wonderful and blow your mind, and that it did (although not in the way you think, dear reader). So that part of the strangeness was in fact not a surprise, not all that strange. For me the weird surprise was the entire trip--the process, from its start weeks before I left home, to its finish, which is still underway (I'm still washing the desert dust out of my clothes).

PaleoGreens & coffee making equipment in my food bag
But let’s back it up and say:
I DID IT. I was on the road and in the desert for ten days. I carried my medicine in coolers, which I kept cold by changing the ice daily. I did my injection in a tent, I translated my special diet to dried food (Paleo Greens powder, anyone?) and raw foods that would keep in a cooler (fortunately I’m already fond of sugar snap peas and red cabbage). I exposed my nervous system to far more stimulation than was good for it, and somehow zen-improvised my way through. I cried a every other day, rarely got a full night’s sleep, and for the first 48 hours I was back in Seattle I felt like my body was made out of lead. (I'm now feeling better.) 

It was complicated, sure, but I’m glad I went.

I saw art that was wonderful and inspiring, and I took in as much as I could of the detailed visual cacophony that was everywhere I turned. I got caught in outside in the dust storm that made national news, cooked dinner in a smaller dust storm that didn’t make national news, danced a lot but far from enough, met interesting people I wish I could have gotten to know better, and heard far far far too much really bad music (more on that in the next post). I took away some valuable lessons about taking care of myself.

A participant who made his bike into a moving fish sculpture.

All of that, plus a surplus of love and support, were part of the weird journey.


It’s not the weirdness itself that makes Burning Man strange. No, that’s far too easy. What made Burning Man so crazy for me, what kept me marveling every day (besides the amazing visual artistry) was the effort-to-benefit ratio.

In normal life, the effort-to-benefit ratio at least 1-1, if not less. For example, by working 40 hours, people have the means to sustain myself and members of my family the entire week. We make cars on production lines in a matter of days that people drive safely for years. Casablanca, shot over the course of several weeks, became a motion picture people watch for decades.

When it comes to Burning Man, this ratio is inverted. On a personal scale, my boyfriend and I spent weeks planning, shopping, altering tents, finding bikes and special lighting, making headdresses (ok, that was just me), then devoted five days to driving there and back, in addition to hours packing and unpacking the car (we spent six hours packing up on the day we left, in the blazing desert sun)—all of it to be there for seven days.

One of the smaller headdresses I wore in the desert
While we were there, we could easily spend a morning sweeping dust out of the tent, shaking dust off our bedding, buying ice for the coolers and pouring the previous day’s melted ice out of the coolers, putting water into our solar shower bags to we could wash in the evening, etc. The bathroom (port-a-potties) was several minutes walk away. If you had to pee, it took ten minutes. I was constantly applying sunscreen and moisturizer. This also took time.

For Burning Man, the norm is to spend a couple days setting up a camp that will last a week, a camp that somehow contributes to the gathering itself, by being artistic or quirky, or having a bar open with free drinks for passersby. Our neighbor arrived and spent two days building a giant, iridescent octopus that enveloped his jeep. He drove it around the city three times, then he took it apart before he drove home, to Alaska.

The gold standard is a team spending months building a four-story tall, heart-breakingly beautiful work of art that is a tower, a temple, a church and a photography exhibit all at once, and will exist for only a week out in the middle of the desert—before the same people burn the thing down, dousing it with fossil fuels so the conflagration will be all the more dramatic. (Yes, this is terrible on many levels.)

The Totem of Confessions, my favorite work of art at Burning Man. It no longer exists.

I suppose this fleeting quality is what makes Burning Man so special and so frustrating. There is so much, and you can’t get to it all, and you make such a colossal effort to be there and to see and participate as much as you can, and you know that if you could do and see it all your brain would explode anyway.

And yet, the effort itself is play and is love. Although part of the planning and packing and pitching tents was hard and felt like work, I loved much of it. The drive down and back were part of the adventure, the hours in the car with my boyfriend were some of my favorite parts of the trip. Going to the Goodwill to find the most dramatic clothing I could—it was not a hardship. But then I altered some of that clothing in ways that make it extremely unlikely I will ever wear it anywhere besides Burning Man. And it’s extremely unlikely I will ever go back, despite the wondrous weirdness.

Neighbors, with pig

More on Burning Man, including notes from my journal, in upcoming posts.

But this post is mostly going to be about the noise at Burning Man.