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. 

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