Last week, I returned from my second annual pilgrimage into the barren expanse of Nevada desert that plays host to the festival of decadence, drugs, and house music known as Burning Man. Last year, I was caught completely off guard by the world I was abruptly thrust into, and was quite taken aback by the number of things I could classify as being “outside of my comfort zone” that I encountered in the Black Rock Desert. This year, however, I had a much better idea what to expect. I knew how hopelessly sand-encrusted every inch of my tent, campsite, and person would become. I anticipated the relative level of cleanliness that I would accept after just a couple of days in the desert, where “washing” usually consists of applying a baby wipe to your armpits and nutsack. I knew I’d be drinking almost exclusively hot water, eating non-perishable foods that were very high in fiber (and, as a result, having surprisingly regular and healthy bowel movements!), and wearing little to no clothing as I sauntered about in the desert sun.
With this wisdom already under my belt, I was confident that I’d be able to have a more enriching and relaxing experience out on the Playa (as the desert is affectionately dubbed by its temporary inhabitants), and fully enjoy my respite from the frenetic bustle of the NYC. I mean, I’d already been exposed to man-on-man humping to the sounds of Paul McCartney’s “Silly Love Songs” at last year’s Burn (don’t ask), so how much crazier could things get? Bring that shit on, son.
To an extent, I was right. I was much better prepared for the Burning Man experience in 2008. I wasn’t nearly as phased by the shirtcockers, nude bicycle parades, and middle-aged men spanking each other. I respectfully looked the other way as a woman performed loud, slurpy oral sex on a man casually perusing his Burning Man event guide. I had no problem flashing my bum in exchange for fresh guacamole, sipping home-brewed Hefeweizen with Bill, the hairy nudist from Portland, or sexy dancing atop a cage at one of Burning Man’s many E-fueled, all-night raves. I was indeed a seasoned Playa veteran.
But despite my burgeoning knowledge of the Black Rock City community, there remained an intangible energy about the place; a mystique that was as palpable as it was inexplicable. I don’t know whether it’s the epic vastness of the desert, the survivalist living conditions to which we’d adapted, or the relentless, balls-to-the-wall constant partying that defines the Burning Man social scene, but something about the experience tends to make me get real introspective. Perhaps I treat the event as a marker for where I’m at in my life (last year, I attended Burning Man just days before moving to New York, so I was naturally going through a period of significant transition), and the complete disconnect from society that one experiences while on the Playa forces me to reflect on the course of my life in the “real world” from a removed vantage point. Or maybe I was able to tap into some greater energy, a force generated by the mysticism of the Playa and its residents, guiding me down a path of spiritual reflection and enlightenment.
I doubt it, though. Burning Man is just some crazy-ass shit, that’s all. As a twenty-four year old dude who’s engaged in the full time pursuit of figuring his shit out, my feelings about Burning Man constantly fluctuate between thinking, “this is the greatest thing ever!” and “Jesus, am I really doing this? I need to, like, get a job or something.” And I think a lot of that depends on whom you experience it with. Both of my years in the desert, I was fortunate enough to be able to embark on my Burning Man journey with a group of some of my closest friends, and that obviously makes for a more meaningful experience, no doubt about it. Last year, though, I think I was so distracted by the spectacle of the whole thing that I sort of failed to realize that I can have meaningful experiences with my friends anywhere, without subjecting myself to a week of sunstroke and haggard, sandy genitalia. I guess the key is trying to find the balance, and how much you immerse yourself in the Burning Man culture has to be a choice made by each individual, based on myriad factors in one’s life that I can’t even begin to understand.
If you ask me, though, Burning Man is indeed something to experience, but it sure ain’t no way of life.
Stay tuned for Parts II and III of the Burning Man saga, “Playground of the White Man” and “The Battle of Darkness and Light.”