I always struggle writing about the burn. In 2011, Burning Man changed my outlook on the world and renewed my love for humanity forever. I had a hard time writing about it then. Any description of Burning Man is too reductive. There is too much to relate in one tiny conversation or blog post. It’s too important to me to be haphazard with my words, so I’ll try to be careful, but brief. At the risk of sounding cliche, it really is the kind of thing you have to see to believe.
All descriptions of Black Rock City start something like that. Your mind needs time to cope with happens out there in the desert and I went to my 2nd Burning Man having not had the time to process the first one. I suspect I’ll be thinking about it for the rest of my life.
Its the unconventional convention. People from all over the world come to this ancient dry lake bed to do it their way without the boundaries that may or may not hold them down in the real “default” world. People shed their notions about how life is supposed to be lived. People shed their clothes. People shed their minds.
Everything you’ve ever heard about Burning Man is probably true, but there’s more to it than the naked, drugged out hippy/raver bonfire you may have seen on Malcolm in the Middle, and I bet you CAN find a re-birthing ceremony out there, but there’s more to Burning Man than meets the third eye. Black Rock City also has churches and airports, AA meetings and Kidsville, Hushville and a hospital. There are every manner of liberal weirdo, but fully 1/4 of burners self-identify as Republicans according to last year’s census. Sure, there’s a lot of art and a few orgy tents, but Burning Man is a complex man, who’s average age is in the late thirties and he just doesn’t think about partying all the time. He spends the week halfway between humanity and the temple. Somewhere in between a spiritual place and earthly celebration, he keeps his head above the din, watching and learning.
Burning Man always teaches me something. If I open my eyes and listen carefully, my head explodes with some amazing truth. This year, my truth was family.
Last year, I left my wife and very young child at home to help paint the Bank of Unamerica building in Otto Von Danger’s “Burn Wall Street” project. It was extremely difficult being away for even just a week, but I felt like I really needed to give myself to a project and really participate in the event that had changed my life forever. I wanted to give back to the community that had opened my eyes. I anticipated spending a lot of time away from my family and I tried to adapt. Working on that project was hard work and I was merely painting; many gave blood, sweat, tears and a full 3 months to that build. I rationalized being there by thinking “if soldiers could leave their families to go to war, then I should certainly be able to do it for a good cause.”
When it appeared as though my wife and child couldn’t join me at the Black Rock City until mid-week during Burning Man, I went stupid in anticipation, thinking I could act out a week-long Dionysian Bacchanal binge event with no parental responsibilities and husband duties to distract me, all the while having given myself to Burning Man, the big wooden guy I love so much. I wanted to wake up in the dust at sunrise after an all-day long bender-explosion of fun and creativity, weak and powerless under some piece of art whose days were numbered in a psychedelic dehydrated heap of hang-over skin and bones, all bonds, covalent and ionic, weakening in the Sun. You know, like a good burner should.
This might be my last chance. Fatherhood and responsibility were upon me and extended to the horizon line.
After a week of being in Reno, both my wife and I were feeling the distance. After 15 years together, this week had doubled the amount of time we had ever spent apart. The stress of caring for a baby and working a full time job, so that her husband could ‘make art’ was too much to bear. I came home after a week on the project. It looked like we’d all be going to Burning Man together and the my hopes for one last crazy week of crazy, craziness were dashed. My cliche Burning Man mind explosion would have to wait.
The drive to Lake Lahontan, the ancient dry lake bed where the event is held, is about 10-12 hours from Southern California through some of the most beautiful terrain in the country. It’s a tour of the Eastern Sierra Nevada that’s hard to forget. We made this trip together with a good friend from New York we were chauffeuring to his virgin burn in a vintage “53 passenger bus. This alone made any change of plans advantageous and as they say, “you’re at Burning Man as soon as you leave your door.” I was thrilled and I hadn’t even made it past gate.
This year, we stayed at Kidsville. We simply picked our spot, volunteered for a greeter shift and was embraced by seemingly the only part of the city where you don’t get points for every decibel over a 100 you can broadcast your personal faves. The constant ever present boom of music at Burning Man actually gives way to the sound of pedestrian traffic and kids playing in the dust, along with a little Bill of Rights bullhorning by the Nevada ACLU across the street. You can actually get a good night of sleep, which, already critical in this harsh desert, was even more important to 9 month old Scarlett Varden and her Mom.
When I realized my little girl was coming with us on the first day, my 1st concern was that we’d be forced to leave early because we couldn’t get Scarlett comfortable in the hot dusty environment. After much research, I built a Hexayurt, a rigid shelter built with insulation, complete with a battery-powered swamp cooler that I built just to make sure our little lady had a place to stay cool. Confident that I’d be able to spend the whole week at the festival, I tried to look forward to viewing the party from a distance (so as not to corrupt our daughter), concentrating more on the art and family-friendly happenings. I should have grown up years ago, anyway.
Showing our little girl the city that she had only heard while in her mother’s womb the previous year was amazing. She was more stimulated and well behaved than the previous week spent in the default world. She took to the playa like an old dusty veteran, parents in tow. She even learned to crawl that week. The citizens of Black Rock City made her feel like a rock star. We realized after only a short time, that Burners love babies. Her getting so much attention meant a lot to Heather and I. It does seem to lend credibility to the idea that this isn’t a party, it’s a community, and after all, communities encompass all demographics. Someone called her an “ember.” I love that.
The families that comprise Kidsville made us feel very at home. New families arrived throughout the week, each one solid gold. I love Burning Man’s edge. Sometimes its dangerous and sexy and on fire, but here just East of Center Camp, lies the innocent, quiet heart of city. That is until Deathguild showed up during a dust storm to hold a Kidsville version of Thunderdome inside a hemispheric jungle gym resembling the dome on Esplanade. One day, we saw a Yellow Submarine tow a Peanut Butter and Jelly cart to the heart of Kidsville for an impromptu feast with kids singin’, “peanut butter jelly time, peanut butter jelly time….”
Midweek, the captain of the Nautilus from Distrikt knocked on our Hexayurt door and handed us a ticket to board his craft for a special Kidsville event in deep playa. Off he went to each and every family in the ville, knocking on every door to make sure no kid missed out. They drove us to the Black Rock Bijou, a glorious and unbelievable movie theater miles from anything in the middle of desert for a special showing of the Wizard of Oz. They even handed out free candy to all the kids. There truly is “no place like home.”
The next day, we were taken on an art tour of the playa by the Surly Bird, another fantastic art car created by someone I never had the opportunity to thank. As a family, we watched the greatest city in the world roll by effortlessly. I had another in a long series of moments and realizations here that tiptoed around like ninjas in my head waiting to pounce at the right moment.
It wasn’t until later that I realized how wrong I was about this Burning Man and what it meant to me.
My wife was nice enough to crash out with the baby when it was time and let me explore the city late into the night. This made for a slightly more lonely burn that previous year, but allowed me to see almost every piece of art and more importantly allowed me to think. I spent many a late night riding out to deep playa contemplating art, community, philosophy and family. Each night stacked new revelations up against the levy, that was now trembling and ready to burst.
When asked how her burn was going, Rockstar Librarian told me in 2011, “never quite what I want, but always exactly what I need.”
The damn broke at the Temple burn. I met Heather and Scarlett just South of the Temple of Juno. When they saw our baby, we were invited by an awesome fuzzy rabbit art car, to lounge on their cushy plush accomplishment and promptly offered drinks. They gave their hospitality without hesitation and welcomed us with open arms. It wasn’t until I saw the first flames licking the temple that I started to realize what I had learned that previous week. When Scarlett started to cry, Heather and I leaned into to convince her to keep quiet. We wanted to honor the temple burn and not disturb our hosts. They reassured us it was no trouble and let us off the hook with knowing smiles and love. Seconds after that, I began to weep.
In the light of the fire burning one of the most beautiful buildings Ive ever seen, I felt more complete than I ever have. I felt ashamed and foolish at my brain-cell-killing, late-night, early-morning, last hoorah, party-of-the-century, wacked-out plans. There, in our city’s spiritual center, was my family, my artistic, desert-adventuring, life-savoring, wilderness-camping, burner family. I’ll never forget the beauty of my wife and child, their faces bathed in fire light. I loved myself for the first time in a long time at that moment and forgave myself for being an idiot. My mind explosion happened anyway. Clutching my wife and child and letting go of myself, the week, the temple and the universe, I realized that this, a family burn, was the burn I wanted all along.
If you’d like to attend Burning Man, feel free to ask any questions. Also, check out their Survival Guide here: http://survival.burningman.com/
Our guest of honor. The Man base served as a great meeting place and was much larger than previous years.
The Cosmic Carousel by Michael Walsh
Star Seed by Kate Raudenbush
Burn Wall Street. I was fortunate enough to help out on this project for about a week. It took some very hard working folks about 3 months to put this whole thing together. It took about an hour to vaporize the whole thing.
Looking out to deep playa from Burn Wall Street.
This piece was covered in graffiti, something you don’t normally see here.
Burn Wall Street pre-wedding.
Bouquet toss; from the wedding of Short Fuse and Ninja.
Close-up of our guest of honor. I wonder if the guy on the right is looking right at me.
The movie theatre, Black Rock Bijou and the amazing art-car the Nautilus, organized a special showing of the Wizard of Oz, just for the little ones from Kidsville. They even gave everyone candy. Amazing. Best theatre ever.
Home Sweet Home. My father loaned me his vintage bus for this year’s burn. I thanked him by overheating and killing the motor on the way home on the 395. Turns out you can’t get tow insurance for one of these things. Ouch. All in all, we had an awesome time.
Our little lady, who learned to crawl right there that week, happy as could be in Black Rock City.
“Guess where we’re from?,” they said. We hit the neighbor jackpot, thanks to Siberfi, Bel, Julius and Rhea for being awesome.
Our little Scarlett got a lot of attention. Someone said,”Burners love babies,” and we won’t disagree. Another admirer called her an “ember.” We both thought that was brilliant.
Our buddy and crazy awesome photographer, Patrick Roddie.
Center Camp tension.
My Scarlett & Heather.
Do not bring feathers to Burning Man!
…and Be Free.
Unicorn Man and Guy with Airplane Ring!
Ninjas and pirates and lazers n shit.
This guy had the same vintage bus we had.
Black Rock Roller Disco, no broken bones this year!
Yeah, if you’re old enough, you know what this is.
Someone please tell me what liquid nitrogen was doing there!
Akihilesh, one of the amazing Burn Wall Street Crew.
Body Paint by Harry Daily
Byron, our neighbor in 2011, driving his Anubis art car.
I gave away many of the photos I took at Burning Man this year, attempting to GIVE pictures rather than take them. It was difficult to let go of some of them, but the result was a selfless act that sent me home with the joy of the interactions and the people nice enough to pose for me got to keep their photograph, a one of a kind, with their privacy and anonymity intact, no internet involved. It felt great.
On board the Surly Bird for a Kidsville art tour.
The A.C.L.U camped across the street from us. There were times we couldn’t even see them. Dusty.
Prepping the Man for the burn.
I’m in love with the playa just after sundown. It’s magic.
The Temple of Juno
This was an amazing place. Ill hold it in my heart forever.
The C.O.R.E. burn, where regional effigies representing communities spawned from Burning Man all over the world burn in unison in one giant circle.
Scorpio and Sagittarius over Artemis Moon, one of my favorite pieces this year. It was simple, but the detailed mosaic was just beautiful and when you push on it, the piece jingles with the sound of a hundred copper leaves. A small, personal experience, that contrasted the large art-peices made with broad strokes. This was intimate and interactive.
I love this community.
Nothing Lasts Forever
….and the fire personnel were showered in sparks and embers.
After the wind picked up, the perimeter folks moved every one back….
Zonotopia and the Two Trees with Star Seed.
Ursa Major or the Big Dipper over Black Rock City and an awesome art car.
Ill never forget rounding the corner to this sight. Everyone around was just aghast and mute and immobilized. This was my favorite piece of art this year.
I couldn’t resist some long exposures with all of the lights flying around the city.
The Man’s final hour.
The Man burns and dust and ash devils carry him away.
The Man was still burning the next day.
Jazz funeral for the Man. There are some awesome, talented folks in this shot.
A Yellow Submarine brought the PB&J cart to the center of Kidsville one day. The kids were on the P.A., singing “peanut butter jelly time, peanut butter jelly time, where y’at where ya’t, peanut butter jelly, peanut butter jelly with a baseball bat.”
My transportation for the week.
Deathguild came to Kidsville and held a mini-Thunderdome. Kids dueling with pool noodles. Yes.
My wife and daughter, nice and cool in the Hexayurt. We made a battery powered swamp cooler to make sure we had a cool spot for Scarlett during the day.
This person chose to remain anonymous. Staying incognito is sometimes important in this city.
The dust creates its own atmosphere.
No war but class war.