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 Disorient 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/