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

1 comment:

Refugia Stein said...

When I went to Burning Man, the ceaseless pounding of the music took me by surprise, too. It’s an exhilarating trip, but not a relaxing one. Luckily, exhaustion from the heat and partying acted like a sleeping remedy, and I was able to doze enough to limp through the week.

Refugia Stein @ Container Domes