The following is a recounting of my first experience at Burning Man in 2004. I have been back many times since then, but that first trip was the most magical.
As I sat quietly tears streamed down my face. All around me thousands of people sat quietly humming in different low harmonious tones. The heat from the flames of the temple was so hot it was quite uncomfortable. Although we were seated over 300 feet away the 80′ Temple of Honor burned with an intensity I have never seen in any structure fire in my 4.5 years as a firefighter. I big part of me was glad to see it burn. I have been to visit the temple 8 times in the last 3 days and each time it brought tears to my eyes. I have traveled across a great deal of the planet and the temple was one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen. The love and tremendous amount of energy that was put into the temple was staggering. It made me realize that once you see what’s possible you’re no longer interested in what’s probable. For the temple the gift was in the giving. I thought about the huge amount of resistance I had put up in switching over to the Burning Man gifting economy and I realized that a great deal of that was the difficulty I was having in seeing that the gift was in for the giver, not the receiver. There was a big part of me that was glad to see the temple go and another part that was just beginning to appreciate the transient nature of life. All the work that had been put into that temple that was only around for a week made me realize that no matter how hard I worked or how much I accomplished that it wouldn’t change the fact that even if I lived for 100 years that it was still a brief glimpse of time when compared with the timeline of the universe, the earth or even mankind. It was sobering in a deep and meaningful way. The night before we had burned the 40′ neon blue man at the center of the city and the atmosphere had been a world of difference, there was hooting and hollering and dancing. The burning of the temple was a far more solemn occasion. There was so much emotion in that place, frequently visitors made no attempts to hide their tears. The energy of the place was so intense it was hard not to feel sadness.
That night I left the temple burn not knowing what to do. I ended up at Zoe’s Pee Funnel Camp since they had offered me a bed there and they were just going out. I took off with Zoe and her man and we bounced around for a while, eventually we ended up at 2:30 and I was dancing to this crazy industrial remixes of 80’s songs when who should I see there but Tree. I could write a whole book on Tree and how I felt about tree that night, but lets just suffice to say that she is an amazing woman.
During my week at Burning Man I found myself moving through the 4 quadrants of emotion. I started out feeling mostly fear. I was so afraid of this new surrounding that I had a hard time talking to people and was very hesitant to go into any of the hundreds of cool theme camps. Once I moved past the fear I moved into a place of anger and I battled the alpha male of my camp for exclusive breeding rights in a life-sized Thunderdome. It was one of the most insane experiences of my life. There was a hundreds of people crawling all over the 60′ geodesic dome. They were screaming like the end of the world was near.. Four guys pulled me back and let go and I flew through the air and collided with him mid-air. We fought ferociously with padded bats that hurt like hell when you got hit with them. The crowd went wild when he got a bloody lip and nose and started spitting blood everywhere. I really thought for a moment that it was him or me and that only one of us was going to walk out of there alive. They even had the wheel for losers from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, but instead of death, exile, hanging etc it had Oral Punishment, Get us more beer and Drink This. Although I had to bribe the people to let us fight, once we were in there it was well worth it.
There was another ride called the Roaster Coaster, which was MAD fun. They strap you into a car and drop you from 5 stories up. As you drop down they shoot a flamethrower at you, thus the name Roaster Coaster. Their motto was Safety was rule number 3, the other 2 rules have to do with drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. That theme camp was run by some of the scariest Detroit street scum I’ve ever met. The first time I managed to get on with someone else with the random pick and the 2nd time I had to dance in the Go-go cage with the guy I fought in Thunderdome. It was fun dancing in the go-go cage, though I did get a little wild and ended up rocking the cage so hard that the guys yelled at me, they did not want to see me crash 30 feet down and die. How touching, I never would have thought they cared the way they were shooting that huge flamethrower at me while I was falling and spinning through the air at 80 MPH.
Another cool theme camp was the rockem-sockem robots. If you never had a rockem-sockem robot set when you were a kid you certainly saw the commercials. The red and blue robots got moved around and you could punch and the idea was to knock the other robots head up.. These rockem-sockem robots were 8′ tall and one person stood behind and wheeled the robot around and one person got inside the robot and used the metal arms to try to punch the other robots head up. It was mad fun but the pipes you put your hands in were too small and it hurt a lot to punch. I teamed up with some foreign guy who was incredibly drunk and we managed to win 10 rounds against other people. If you block with the left arm and punch with the right it was pretty easy to win.
Other items of interest were the giant 10′ diesel powered killer robots that fought over a bicycle. They had huge jaws full of sharp teeth and bladed arms that grabbed the poor little kids banana seat bicycle and would pull it into the gnashing jaws. At one point one of the robots knocked the other one over and it took about 220 big guys to stand it back up. Also there was an industrial band where the main instrument was this string percussion fire-breathing thing. They played every night of the Burning man weekend and I really enjoyed watching them. There were 2 guys in holocaust suits that set up 10 8′ fans inn a circle and created an 80′ tall spinning fountain of flame. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before; they seemed to be using a combination of kerosene and propane. There was another contraption, which pressurized the propane and oxygen mixture with liquid nitrogen and made huge fireballs in the air. It was also an impressive display.
Considering that of the 500 art cars probably 200 of them had flamethrowers, and some of them had several flamethrowers I am amazed that no one got seriously hurt or killed during the weekend. It was a testament to organization and function of the Department of Mutant vehicles and the Black Rock Rangers. Aside from the installations I have mentioned here there was at least 100 more art installations scattered throughout the desert and the theme camps. All of them were wonderful and fascinating. I felt very much more at home in this place than any other place I have ever been. I wanted to share this awesome experience with everyone I cared about, to show them that there is another way.
Although it was the most emotionally draining week of my life it was also the best. For the first time in a long time I let myself feel the full spectrum of emotions, totally and unrestrained. I moved from Fear into anger and then grief and finally joy. I don’t think I would have been able to fully experience my joy if I did not have a chance to feel all of the other emotions. Every night I stayed up late jumping from art car to art car, checking out cool scenes and dancing like I was high on crack. The energy and the love of the place were really overwhelming. Everyone I met seemed genuinely happy to see me and wanted to know where I was from and what I was about. The people were friendly, the food was great, the atmosphere was incredible and the weather of course sucked ass. But what do you expect when you throw a party with 35,000 people in the middle of the desert?
My week at Burning Man was the best, and one of the hardest weeks of my life. I feel very blessed to have been able to be a part of it. I would encourage everyone to attend this festival to see what is possible, not just what is probable.