Untitled Burning Man Story

Part 1: Getting There

Burning Man 2013, photograph by Scott R. Kline

I need to get this out, before I forget. And no, I’ll never forget on a deep, cellular, spinal level what Burning Man means to me, what it did to me, how it continues to change me. But I don’t want to forget the details, the articulation of these accumulated experiences. Because I feel like I forget all the time. I forget when I get caught up in wanting more from someone or a place than what I’m getting. I forget when disappointment takes my breath away as shattered expectations glitter the path before me. I forget when I get so focused on what’s not that I can’t even appreciate what is. I don’t want to be someone who forgets.

Burning Man has been written about endlessly, with as many different perspectives as there are participants. But those two things, those two things precisely are what underscore Burning Man and help us gain focus: Perspective and Participation. You cannot have one without the other. You cannot gain a true sense of perspective about what’s keeping you up at night without participating in this life, and you cannot truly participate in this life without having the perspective of what’s worth keeping you up at night.

Aside from Perspective and Participation, Burning Man is synonymous with another binary couplet: Gratitude and Release. These two hold hands when no one’s looking, but I wish they would anyway. Then maybe we’d see how closely entwined they really are, and we’d be able to enjoy them both at the same time. Maybe we’d even realize how naturally they flow into each other, riding each other’s fabulous yet MOOP-free coattails. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In fact I got ahead of myself the very first hour I was on the playa. I had come from Reno like many others before and many others behind me, with two friends I had literally met just hours before. Even if you don’t really have the opportunity to talk when you get back to the default world, there will always be a special place in your heart for your first ridemates to your first Burning Man. Because you’re all going somewhere new, together. You’re all taking off on the same rocket ship to land on different planets, because ultimately it will prove different to each one of you. The only thing holding you all to the same time and place together is literally the time (that week) and the place (that desert), but even that’s fluid and debatable.

That morning before the caravan was an adventure in and of itself. Before I even turned my eyes toward Black Rock City, I had already met so many amazing, wonderful, fun people, even fitting in a mini hotel party or two.

That’s why people get so caught up in the spirit of Burning Man: we want this sense of openness and adventure to be in all of us, all the time.

If the default world was like this, it’d be heaven on earth, without all that unpleasant god business. And the thing is, this spirit IS in us all the time; that’s how we’ve even come this far to begin with. But to be surrounded by so many like-minded people….well, it’s like coming home to a family you’ve never met to a place you’ve never been. But it’s unmistakably home, perhaps more so than the one you actually came from. That’s why when you get to the playa you’re greeted with the open arms of the expression “Welcome Home”. Because we are.

After meeting a dozen or so of these displaced angels, my ridemates and I headed towards the Mecca of Burning Man’s Medina: the last Walmart on the way. Playa principles illustrate a post-consumer society, and encourage a gift economy. Walmart, however, holds its tongue as burners far and wide wildly stock up on the necessities of desert and drug survival: water, food, 5HTP. We were among the masses filling up our cart while my boyfriend was filling up his van with his own ridemates. We had met only a month before at another Burning Man party in Manhattan, but that is another delirious fairytale for another time. We were in communication the whole time leading up to that, including the night before. We were texting each other dreams we had about each other. We were sharing pictures of our separate views of the sunrise. We were calling each other trying to find out where the hell in that store we were. Finally he was at the entrance. I remember walking over, and his back was turned to me. Almost as if he could sense that I was approaching, he turned around, and the minute he did I ran up and jumped into his arms, my military boots encircling his skinny-jeanned hips. We kissed deep, and hard, and long. It was burner love at first sight, the millionth first sight we had.

So our desert journey began with reckless kisses and romantic raucousness. Much like how any journey should begin, and end for that matter. Let me go back to that first hour on the playa. I arrived with my ridemates to our future home for the week, an elaborate and beautiful camp with its own geodesic hammock dome. For some it was home, for me it was insurance. Just in case things didn’t go as planned with my boyfriend, and I needed an escape. It’s not like I had one foot out the door, but I mean, we did just meet a month ago and here we are traveling to another universe already. Some couples had more solid foundations and completely fell apart out there. You never know. We ride into an aggressively abrasive atmosphere, with people yelling and fighting and assembling yurts not quite finished yet. Tensions were understandably high, camp builders being out there for a week before the rest. If I had known these folks beforehand, it might have had a different affect on me. But to walk into an unknown camp in an unknown place with unknown people, and angry people at that, well it was a bit much to take in. I helped as much as I could, put my suitcase away, threw on the CamelBak, and walked out in that great unknown.

This was a huge mistake. I got horribly lost, immediately. Street signs weren’t even quite all put in yet, but little good that would have done me even if they were. My initial intention had been to find that romantic boyfriend of mine; last I heard from him was that he was in line to get in, and I assumed that several hours later that would’ve happened. It didn’t. It took him eight. I was wandering off in the vague direction that I thought his camp was located, wondering what the hell I was doing. I remember a feeling akin to despair, as I looked up at the stars and wished with all my might that if there was any one language I could speak it would be that of the constellations. I was filled with this mixed feeling of invigorating curiosity and desperate hopelessness. I wanted to take in everything around me, even though I didn’t even know what that everything entailed and couldn’t even begin to see in all that blackness. Eventually I gave up on trying to find him and started to give up hope that I’d even know how to get home. It took an hour of lonely meandering before I stumbled upon something familiar, and crawled back into my sleeping bag uncertain of what tomorrow would bring.

Now that I think about it, lonely is a good word for it. I remember feeling so awfully lonely that first hour that first night. Here I had come to this end of this earth, surrounded by friends and loved ones and future friends and future loved ones, and I was all alone under those watchful stars. The realization that I could be, and am, so alone with all this around me, and that that’s okay, was one of the first of many realizations that week would bring.

I also remember feeling disappointed that same hour. Foolishly, childishly disappointed. I had done some reading beforehand, talked to many friends beforehand, been to so many parties beforehand. All this beforehand preparation is absolutely meaningless, and can only lead to failed expectations. I think part of me expected to be sprinkled with this soul-changing fairydust the minute I set foot on Black Rock City soil, and that I would be instantly transformed into this better, more magical and life-giving and life-appreciating person, the person that I always knew was in me and the person I always knew I could be.

Walk out into the desert and bam! You, only better!

It would rightfully take the whole week before that transformation could set in. It’s impossible to change before you go through anything. The whole mad week with all its mad inhabitants living in our mad dusty metropolis would have to be experienced. And that’s how it should be. You have to earn your life lessons, they don’t just get handed to you. Otherwise it’s not a lesson and just another thing you throw away, because it doesn’t mean anything to you because you didn’t have to work for it. The most meaningful things are the ones you work for: relationships, art, and…..actually, that’s all there is. You have to invest in it before you deserve it. You get as much out of life as you put in, and nowhere is this more plain than at Burning Man.

The following sunrise found me with the same uncertainty I fell restlessly asleep with. It was early, but I figured I should find my people. I knew a few friends in neighboring camps; somehow we were lucky enough to be all in same quadrant on that clock of a map. There was an innate sense of how to dress and what to bring, so at least I felt at ease in my own skin if not in my surroundings. Daytime redressed the whole world; I almost didn’t recognize her in that sunlit getup, so different was everything the night before. At least now if I got lost I could pinpoint exactly where I was lost. I headed back to boyfriend’s camp. “Oh, him? He hasn’t gotten back yet from the night before.” I almost wanted to laugh with the painful absurdity of that implication. So not only did he get in, but he didn’t try to find me, and not only did he not try to find me, but he went out doing who-knows-what with who-knows-who and hasn’t even come home yet. Oh boy.

Did I have a lot to learn about letting go of expectation.

I tried not to feel like the foolish girlfriend, like I was just another girl looking for her wayward man, and headed off towards my good friends’ camp also nearby. These two were passed out in their own geodesic dome, decked out in burner wear that they were too exhausted to take off. So naturally they looked fantastic. They took one sleepy look at me and held out their arms, and I was embraced between two of my favorite cuddlers. I told them my woes, of my disappointment and loneliness the night before. They wanted to slap me as much they wanted to hug me, like how best friends do. “Did you REALLY expect a big change, ALREADY?” Uhm, I thought so. “REALLY?” I guess not. They offered me sympathetic anecdotes of their own first hour the first time, and it seemed like I didn’t go through anything unique at all. I also told them of my MIA lover, to which they also exasperatedly and lovingly told me to let that go too. “You can’t have expectations of time, or people, on the playa. Everything happens when it happens, with the people that it happens with. Not that it’s meant to or anything like that, it’s just how it is, and the only thing you can do is accept and possibly go so far as to appreciate.” With enough repetition of this mantra in so many words, it finally sunk in by the end of the week. But before I could get there, I wanted to at least find out what happened to my guy. I kissed my friends goodbye for now, and walked unsuredly back to his camp, for the third time in two days. Did I feel like a fool. This time, however, he was there.

He was happy to see me. He was janky from hard partying the night before, lack of sleep or food or water, tweaked out beyond belief, and shaky and sweating, but hey, he was happy to see me. I was….something to see him. Happy, but also half-resentful. It took me a while to realize, though, that my experience is completely dependent upon one person and one person only: myself. I am responsible for my own experience, there or anywhere, and cannot, truly cannot, hold anyone even remotely accountable for that. But I wasn’t quite there yet. So the alienation lingered. He could sense my weirdness, and pulled me on top of the van he rode in on, almost like he was pulling me on top of his white steed like a janky knight in sweaty armor. It was dramatic and romantic and completely like us. He pulled me up there and laid me down and kissed me, like he was offering our display of love on some playa altar. Somehow, it wasn’t enough to make the weirdness go away, but it helped alleviate some. Even as I write this now, I shake my head at my own foolishness, at my terrible lack of gratitude. We hopped off the van, and I met some of my new family for the week. He explained how it took them so long to get in because they stopped somewhere to get me a bike so I wouldn’t have to walk everywhere. They were late because they were doing me a favor. Then when they finally did get in, they decided to let loose and celebrate and headed towards the Green Man and went to Duck Pond and the Temple of Whollyness and by all accounts had the first night that I so wanted to have. This made the weirdness fuller. I rather petulantly took my gift and told him I needed to go for a walk. He looked half-hurt and confused, but let me go. Kissed me once more and told me okay. I started wheeling my bike away.

I took not but ten steps before I stopped. What the hell was I doing? Then came my second realization of the week:

Unhappiness Is A Choice.

I was at Burning Man, the culmination of a crazy year of beautiful experiences with amazing people, surrounded by loved ones and adventure, and here I was having an attitude? You could let the bad get to to you and ruin your time, or you could run off with the good like you should. Unhappiness is a choice, and I chose then and there to be happy. I turned right back around, walked straight back to him, told him my epiphany and said, “I’m over it. Sorry. Let’s do this.” To which he essentially replied “Thank god!” And from that point on we were inseparable. Not out of desperation or clinginess, but because we simply wanted to experience this experience together, with everything it had to offer and everything it didn’t. Burning Man is a litmus test for the strength of a relationship; it pushes boundaries you didn’t know existed with needs and desires you didn’t know you had. It shows you not only what you’re made of, but what you’re made of in relation to another human being. Some couples, they break; with us, we soared. Simply soared.

Everything to this point of the story is prologue, much like how all the burner parties and drug experiences and passing relationships of this past year was the preamble to the constitution of life that can be Burning Man.

Like what you read? Give Hana Lee Goldin a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.