Burning man is around six hours drive from San Francisco in the Nevada desert. It’s 3 days after we left the city and we are still not there. A week of pre organizing, stressing, buying so many survival items I can’t take home but need right now and last minute plan changes with a sleepless night in a Reno hotel room. More supplies, re-packing, then climbing slowly through the mountains the next day, overtired already we realize this is going to be an epic mission.
Along the road, hippies on bikes with “NEED TICKET, HAVE CASH” signs on them look hopefully at every passing vehicle. Breakdowns are pulled off the road, ourselves included, the 20 year-old gunmetal Chevy van “Gigi” protesting the tonne of bikes, coolers, carpet and plastic bins full of sandwich-bagged clothing we are towing behind on an overloaded trailer.
For a few minutes, it’s a stressful highway moment, stuck on the mountain range with no reception or idea of what help we need even if we could get some.
All the cars are going one way, and there’s no tow truck that way. I pass my hands over the searing engine as the pink sunset streaks across the sky, knowing she is just too hot but also sending her mechanic reiki & asking for her to please deliver us safely. After half an hour of frowning & trying to be patient, she gurgles to life to whoops from us.
We have been in the line since 3 pm yesterday, pulsing along the highway in an endless snake of RV’s, trucks, art cars and vans as far as the eye can see. Six hours on a single lane road, travelling one mile, then stopped for twenty minutes, we reach the event site, a giant dry lakebed called the playa.
It’s another three hours of stop & start until we are parked miles away from anyone, by frazzled parking attendants, and can go collect our tickets at the box office. When we reach the line, it’s a dark mass of thousands of people, huddled together like emperor penguins to keep each other warm as white outs of dust pass over us, blinding all vision. It’s one am, and six hours wait standing in line for pre purchased tickets. It’s this moment when we exchange looks and I realise. This is insanity.
We take it in shifts, I collapse into a hard sleep in the back of the van, dreaming of an unknown lover, someone who had made himself AI somehow, and the only way I could communicate with him was via a computer, the circuitry that was him contained in a small blue trailer with clowns painted on it, and suddenly some people hooked it to their car and started racing across the desert. I ran after them, and was crying, explaining why they couldn’t steal him from me…when I was shaken awake.
Our time in the line had come. The line was full of hugs, exhausted overtired people being friendly to each other. We got to the front and cheered, whoops each time another soldier got their pass to awesome. Riding back to the van on bikes through the dawn, flashing with lightning as the black sky turned shades of blue and pink with the rising sun. We jump in the van as the rain starts, and quickly realise this is a very bad sign. The dust of the playa turns into alkaline mud, sticking to itself, making all shoes into giant stilts of crusted thick goo. We have travelled a few meters from the box office and suddenly everything onsite stops. We are not going anywhere, the thunder rocks us all awake with a start and the rain pours down, turning the ground quickly back into the lake that it once was.
For the week that it operates, the 70,000 people that build Black Rock city make it the third largest city in Nevada. Alas, right now it glimmers on the horizon, man standing tall above the metropolis, and we are not there.
It’s six hours later, and the party has already begun. The city shimmers in the distance, but we have got friends united in stasis. There’s bacon cooking, rum being shared, ukuleles playing, break beat and people hugging in the mud.
Everyone offers what they have, everyone approaches each other, there is no that guy and this girl. Once you are here, the cliques fade away. My shoes weigh ten pounds and I’m drinking whiskey and cherry juice in someone’s shade, the mission for survival has already begun as we share wasabi peas and face wipes and turns at being optimistic. Now and then someone is out for the count, too tired, headachy or hot to be happy, and that’s okay too.
We have not passed through the gates and I’m already in my right state of mind. Even though it’s day three of travel I’m calling this day one of festival.
Only eight days to go. The reprogramming has begun.
After 12 hours of being stuck in one spot we finally arrive just before sunset and set up camp. Eat some much-needed hearty lentil soup, and jump on our bikes to explore.
Around a few street corners, and a giant fish playing bass tunes rolls past glowing green and blue. Ahead a neon city skyline & pirate ship from last century pass by each other on the road ahead.
As we make our way to the centre of the playa, the lights get brighter, the energy increases, dings and whizzes of hyper lit humans as they fly past us on bikes increases. We reach the esplanade and the giant man standing tall at one point of the circle, I realise how incredibly magic this city is. I’m left breathless.
Hundreds of small intimate themed dancefloors, all self driven & people powered, every person lit up & whooping, bikes and crazy art cars the only vehicles that pass on the roads with no rules.
It’s wonderland. It’s the best dream you’ve ever had.
It’s friendly people who don’t judge you for being yourself, because everyone’s a freak out here.
It’s however drunken, fun, hilarious, insane or exciting as you want to make it. It’s the most amazing playground in the world.
With everyone pitching in and few paid workers, the scale of this event is mind blowing. The stage we set up at our camp looks welcoming & inviting, the sound from the self built speakers, warm.
It’s just like any city, with a post office and radio station and rangers and a grid of streets mapped out in the middle of the giant playa.
It’s loose and serious, politics and playfulness, sex and innocence, with everything neon, everyone sparkling with giant beams of light shooting into the sky as we make an alien city in the desert.
The food passing around today is better than anything. Waffles and fried chicken you are forced to eat at the same time with someone yelling into a megaphone, French toast with berry cream cheese compote and crispy bacon, chicken tortilla soup with fresh coriander and avocado, this is just at our camp.
Beverages consist of either booze or water, everyone take a siesta in the afternoon and waits for the cool of night to descend.
When you need something here, it is given freely. When you even just want something to make your moment that little bit better, it manifests.
You hug hellos out here, real hugs too.
It’s day 2 and I walk the night streets alone like flashing tank girl in candyland with a huge grin on my face in the dark.
I understand now why everyone says “welcome home”
The temple rises out of the dust, intricate lattice pieces slotted together that forms a circular magical spire with wooden panels everywhere.
As soon as we dismount our bikes, everyone is silent. I have never experienced a place with the energy of the temple at a festival, or in fact, anywhere. I have traveled the world and visited temples, mosques, churches & sacred spaces & nowhere has ever felt as reverent as walking around this temple, constructed only to burn with the elements in a few days time.
The wooden structure is covered with messages and altars. Framed portraits sit next to wedding dresses from the fiancé who died in the war, bras from breast cancer victims, homages to loved pets, grandparents passed, and special friends taken too soon.
Everyone enters and is immediately overcome by emotion. Burly gay guys hold each other as gang members light insence for a lost brother, naked hippy girls sobbing splayed on the ground, all allowing each other to be totally vulnerable and letting go in the dust.
There’s an altar in the middle, piled with mementoes, Robin Williams is there looking young and happy, and so many parents, friends & lovers. There are messages to people in the afterlife about lessons learnt too late.
I leave a note for some friends who lost someone dear in a plane crash recently, and a couple messages for me. Different each time I visit, letting go the fear, letting go the soul of my aborted baby, allowing the letting go myself. My friend places his fathers ashes in a little baggy there, and we all meet silently outside, to cry, to hug each other. All who pass by are doing the same, feeling the same.
It’s humbling, powerful.
It makes all of us realise what each other has lost.
Everyone has experienced so much loss.
People sit under eaves and write messages, quiet sniffs the only sound, temples of one praying, meditating, sobbing, reading, writing, reflecting. I wish there was somewhere like this for all of us to go. Somewhere in every metropolis that felt like this, no matter your beliefs.
For us to retreat when we need to.
A place where the others accept and understand and support each other through any loss wordlessly and allow it to be let go. To burn it to the ground at the end, when the suffering is done.
We mount our bikes are ride in silence across the playa, a troop of souls seeking. Mad max bike crew of spiritual warriors who want desperately to let everything go with the wind.
I visit the temple multiple times, each time leaving something and leaking tears from the bottom of me.
I keep going back, it draws me in a way no dancefloor can.
I come back to hang onto the feeling.
I come back to let it all go.
Whirlwinds of dust that rise in a minute to blind and choke you, then are gone in twenty minutes to reveal blue skies. Trying to ride deep playa and we get only 100 meters, blinded with a foot of visibility in front of us, the dust rushing above us over the sky.
All week there has been an incredible freedom here. Booze is cheap, drugs are cheap & plentiful, food is gourmet and abundant, and the element of giving is evident constantly.
People run up to you to give you presents, day and night.
Everyone gets trashed and dances and kisses strangers like other parties, but everyone collects their own MOOP (matter out of place) & encourages others to do the same. Largest leave-no-trace event in the world, pretty amazing. Saturday night we trek out to see the man burn. It’s the most firey most beautiful spectacle ever. It’s so magical watching a giant wooden effigy burn with 70,000 other people whooping all at once. Similar to watching an eclipse, there’s a feedback loop between nature and sky and earth and humans. It’s a heaving mass of all the craziest sparkliest people on earth.
Afterwards, everyone is high and walks back to camp for a lovely mushy gathering of 40 of us. We head out in a big group after many false starts for torches and toilet and another beverage, still managing to lose each other quickly. There are so many varied sound systems playing different music, it’s a smorgasbord, if you are bored you just move on to the next one.
Art cars everywhere, a giant set of glowing teeth race past as we see a small porch with a house facade, just a porch on both sides. Electric Mayan gods, cloud buses, pirate ships, a giant Pacman ghost streaking across the playa.
People just walk into camps here, and say Hey. Everyone shares so much booze, has booze left over, has a selection of booze, the bars run out of mixers before booze & serve you a half cup of straight vodka or gin, then give you more booze instead of a mixer.
As the camps disperse over the next couple of days, someone comes to say goodbye to us, a line of dancing people forms, waiting to hug him goodbye. We dance to eighties music and drink rum and ginger while others drift in with the promise of Madonna. Punters help fill the toilets with rolls of paper as a guy from our camp known as ‘Evil Brian’ (there’s another guy, good Brian, too) hides in vacant porta-potties in a giant penis costume, freaking out punters desperately needing to pee.
There’s heckling with megaphones on every street corner where the signs are stolen rapidly. People run up to you to give you jewelry, a piece of paper that folds into a one-use cup if you forget yours and happen to pass by a bar, rowdy ladies with stop signs tell us to halt or drink & when I tell them I’m sick from too much gin yesterday, they run off to get tummy pills & essential oils. It’s fucking beautiful.
We walk around in a little group, high and silly, dancing for a bit at each stage, then moving when bored or when something twinkly catches our eyes. Stood in front of a giant wall of bass bins and danced hard to trap, my boots kicking up sand around me, then had it in my head for days afterwards.
We lay under a giant tree made of glowing boxes with sequenced lightning playing in time with classical music. Magical.. Like out of a Disney movie, but real and with the night sky above it and with new friends clutching each other in glee.
Arrive back at camp to lie on the giant trampoline as the sun rises, heckling those ten meters away at camp with a walkie-talkie to deliver balloons & cuddle under a blanket as the sun rises. I don’t care if “drugs are bad”, being high is actually super fun, good to clear your mind from random worrying about regular life crap and allows interactions other than the norm to occur. It allows extra connections to sprout. People you might not otherwise connect with. Like all these new friends who add me the second we get back into mobile range.
It’s the biggest craziest mission all these people make each year and it’s totally worth it, even and ESPECIALLY with the moments of this-is-total-insanity-and-I’m-doing-it-anyways.
And now I’m back in the city. Default world.
Somehow, things feel different.
I feel at home in myself, with myself.
There is love sprouting & growing & evolving & I am changing & everything is fluid, even more than before.