Returning to Reno from the Playa this year Doug and I were high on life. This year had been the best burn yet and the desert had left us feeling raw to the bone. We had a bunch of food left over that we wanted to give to a homeless person. The first homeless guy we found could not accept any food as he had just had his last supper. He was dying of cancer and was headed to the hospital to be fitted with a feeding tube. Oh yeah, this is reality. Full of pain and suffering and death. Somehow after 10 days at Burning Man we had completely forgotten about the real world.
It hit us like a ton of bricks.
This was my first year of early arrival, Doug and I were excited to spend an extra 4 days on the playa to help setup our favorite camp at Burning Man, Rhythmwave. I started dancing at Rhythmwave about 6 years ago and it quickly became my home. Once I started camping with them it was hard to imagine camping anywhere else. Burning Man is a lot like love. The more you give, the more you have. The Playa will take every bit of energy, moisture and emotion that it can from you. More often than I you are left feeling like an empty shell of a man, wandering around completely empty and alone.
There is a connection that people make with each other through dance that is incredibly strong. RhythmWave is a conscious dance community filled with spiritual, yet also somewhat irreverent souls who feel a burning need to create a safe space on the playa for people to be fully self expressed without judgement. The bamboo dance floor invites its guests to leave their shoes and their baggage at the edges and only to bring their authentic, full expressed self onto the floor. All are welcome, regardless of whatever pain and projections they are carrying. The container that we build there is strong enough to hold anything that you can put in it. Miracles seem to happen several times a day on the floor and it is not at all uncommon to see people crying, laughing or completely falling apart on the bamboo floor. It is a beautiful thing to witness. It is very much unlike any other place you are likely to find at Burning Man.
Arriving for early setup was a pretty intense experience. The city was still mostly vacant and the giant shade structure at Rhythmwave was already erected. The bamboo floor was trying to survive it’s 10th burn and many of the panels were damaged beyond repair. We had little choice but to make them work so using a sledgehammer and a lot of blood sweat and tears we proceeded to slam it together. About 1/2 way through the floor construction, I lost my patience and had to walk away and work on other things. Trying to get the floor together felt a lot like smashing my head repeatedly against the wall. It ended up taking over 12 hours to get the floor together and the last set of panels needed about 10 different shims. I just hoped that it would be able to survive a week with hundreds of people dancing on it all day long.
Anyone who has been to Burning Man inevitably gets stumped when they try to describe what it’s like being at Burning Man to someone else who has never been. There really isn’t words to describe what is essentially a shared experience between you and the other 70,000 people on the playa. For me it felt like every day was more intense and surreal than the last. I don’t really understand why some people tend to do psychedelics on the Playa because even in a non-altered state you constantly feel like this thing could not possibly be real. Doug and I want to get T-Shirts printed with large block letters “Undercover DEA” then spend next burn shirt-cocking (walking around with a shirt but no pants) with them on. It’s all about radical inclusion, right? Even the undercover DEA shirt-cockers should be welcome (or not).
For all intensive purposes I would categorize Burning Man as a kind of Tribal Jungian Sandbox where people are able to experiment with themselves. If you want to see what it’s like to wear a tutu on your head and not be judged or singled out for it, then there is no doubt that Burning Man is the place to do it. For thousands of years humans existed in tribal cultures where members of a tribe worked hard to contribute to not only their tribes, but also surrounding peoples. There is a part of this that feels very natural and instinctively correct to us. In the default world we are constantly surrounded with extreme differences in access to material goods. The Walton family (owners of the Walmart chain) in the US has more wealth then the entire bottom 30% of the population. Under Capitalism this is perfectly acceptable and even encouraged. In some ways I feel like our society is broken beyond repair.
Most days I managed to dance at least 6 hours. I connected with a deep intensity to so many people on the Rhythmwave dance floor. When I made eye contact with someone and I was dancing with them, I suddenly remembered. Oh, yes, this is why I am here. To feel alive and connected to others. Early in the week I made it over to Spirit Dream Cafe which is one of the most amazing camps on the Playa for some spiritual healing. For months I had been struggling with trying to decide if the reality I was in was really just a simulation or if it was real. When my brother passed away 2 years ago I spent several years working as hard as I could to understand him and the way that he saw the world. His worldview was solidly in the ‘simulation’ camp and somehow subconsciously I had managed to adopt his worldview. I had spent a great deal of my spare time waxing philosophic about the double slit experiment and trying to convince myself that this existence I was experiencing was indeed real.
My session with the spiritual healers at Spirit Dream Cafe reminded me in no uncertain terms that this life is real and is not a simulation and that love is what ties us all together. The more love I was able to share with other people on the Playa the more love I felt that I had throughout the week. Love is funny like that, the more you give it away, the more you have. So many people in the world and at Burning Man are wounded souls, wandering around wanting to use other people and experiences to fill up their empty lives. The truth that I came away with over the 10 days I was there was that is was only through hard work and contribution that I was able to fill that deep emptiness that haunts my very existence.
One of the experiences that I was glad I didn’t skip this year was a trip to foam camp with 16 other members of Rhythm Wave. Usually at Burning Man you can tell how good a camp is going to be by how long the line is. There is no longer line on the Playa than the one at ReFOAMatation camp. Loaded naked into a giant Plexiglas cage with hundreds of strangers and being blasted by high pressure foam is an experience not to be missed. The hardest part is trying to remember not to laugh, as the people on the other end of the foam cannons are always aiming at your mouth. The foam doesn’t really taste that bad, and it’s pretty fun having a bunch of complete strangers rubbing their hands against your foamy body to scrub off the weeks accumulation of playa dust. Every year I visit foam camp the same thought crosses my mind, “I can’t believe that I was thinking of skipping it this year”.
On the Friday night before the man burned I had somehow managed to dance for almost 7 hours when Doug and I made it over to the Reverbia stage. Black Rock City is huge, and if you manage to explore even 5% of it then you are doing better than me. Reverbia had impressed me with top quality live music all throughout the week and tonight was no exception. There was a tribal electronica band from Australia which was hands down the best Tribal Electronica band I had ever heard. I got stuck dancing in Chaos for anther hour and when the set was done I could barely walk back to my camp. So many days on the Playa were like this, one amazing experience after another until I was so exhausted and drained that I could barely crawl back to my tent. My evening rituals involved rubbing vinegar on my feet and superglueing the cracks back together to stop them from bleeding. The first night I knocked over my half liter vinegar container and everything in my tiny tent was covered with vinegar. I was so tired I barely noticed.
The music at the Mayan art car was better than the big sound camps on the corners. It was still too loud for me to get very close to, and someone told me they has spent over $5 million dollars on that one art car. This is a common theme at Burning Man as art becomes more of a penis size competition than what I would call real creativity. My favorite art projects this year on the Playa all cost less than $1000 to build. The giant LED 8 wheeled bicycle dragonfly, the dancing on Balloon LED wire sculptures, the G-string slinky, and a 3 wheeled unicycle trike with a giant art wheel in the center and a Xeon timing light. The 747 from Big Imagination seemed like more of an Ego crowdfunded artcar and even after 6 years no art car can seem to beat El Pulpo Mecanico which is mostly built out of scrap metal and trash cans.
There was a huge surge in ebikes at Burning Man this year, some of them were clearly powered at over 750 Watts as they screamed past me going 40mph on the playa. I would very much like to see more ebike art cars, as 750 Watts is about 1 horsepower and you could build a really cool structure and not have to go through the hassle of getting your art-bike approved by the Department of Mutant Vehicles (assuming you don’t have flame effects). Be aware that lots of ebikes were disappearing even when they were left locked up. I would not take that $8000 ebike out to the Playa because 20 seconds with a Lithium battery powered angle grinder is going to chop off any lock and there is no shortage of degenerates.
With the exception of illumination camp, there seemed to be a serious lack of interactive flame effects this year. My sister & step brothers’ camp Plunderground at the 4:30 keyhole was one of the only ‘poofers’ left on the playa. They were flooded with about 40 kids making the long exodus from Kidsville to see their museum of dead things and to make their ‘poofer’ go poof. There was also a zen fire garden that you could rake with a sand that people really seemed to enjoy. My favorite flame effect this year was the one in the middle of the Playa where flames shot down from the ceiling then filled up a large disc. People would lay down underneath it and watch the flame patterns roll across the ceiling and out to the edges. It was totally memorizing as well as completely sleep inducing.
The darkest and most sinister encounter I’ve ever had on the playa happened the night after the man burned. Doug and I had finished watching the man burn after doing a complete circuit and looking at all 500+ art cars. When the man finally collapsed he asked what I wanted to do and I told him that I usually just took my bike out into the deep playa to watch the city and the art cars from afar. We got on our bikes and rode a pretty long way away from the man until we came upon a giant table representing Jesus’s last supper. There was 13 chairs and tons of junkfood and drinks that other burners has left there as an offering. I never eat junk food but this was a special occasion so I started in on a giant bag of kettle corn and was having the time of my life hucking it up with Doug.
After about an hour there was a man in the distance with no lights on who was standing and watching Doug and I laugh it up. He approached out of the darkness with an intense and intimidating presence. His hair was cropped very short and he was wearing a skin tight military tee shirt with an eagle like emblem on it. His muscles bulged out of the shirt every which way and he was wearing dozens of burner medallions around his neck. He asked what we though of the man burning. I told him that I thought they should really burn a woman for a change just to be fair and maybe they could alternate years between burning man and burning woman. That must have struck a nerve with him because suddenly he started going off about how he was a predator, pedophile and basically did whatever he wanted to whoever he wanted and was completely unrepentant. He went on a tirade for about 15 minutes during which I just sat there and listened, not sure of what to do. He asked for a hug and I declined. When he walked away Doug and I just looked at each other in disbelief. Doug though maybe he was putting on a show, I told him that it seemed pretty real to me. I felt like crying, I knew that there was people like that in the world but I had never had one come up to me and confess openly waiting for me to try to stop him. It felt like I had drank poison and my entire spirit had felt violated.
After another 10 minutes two young women appeared out of the playa and we offered them a bunch of free junk food. We warned them about the sexual predator we had just encountered and they asked us what camp we were from. When we mentioned Rhythmwave they got really excited and talked about how they had found so much joy and connection at Rhythmwave and it was their favorite place on the Playa. Although we heard stories like this pretty often from people at Burning Man it seemed incredibly strange to hear such positive input after such a negative encounter with the self proclaimed pedophile. Doug and I preceded to have something of a break down and spent about an hour telling the women about how life changing Rhythmwave had been for each of us. It was strange the retelling of the profound effect that this camp had on my life, while I was aware of it on a subconscious level I had never really verbalized it’s importance. I think a similar thing was true for Doug and in that moment I realized just how much that dancing camp with the bamboo floor had meant to me.
After 10 years on the Playa the leadership of Rhythmwave decided it was time to burn some of the panels. While breaking down the floor we separated 22 panels that were loaded onto trucks and then taken out to the man on Monday night. I found myself procrastinating and not wanting to participate in the ceremony, but in the end I’m glad I did. It started out being pretty emotional as several people said words while we all touched the floor. Human beings are intrinsically meaning creating machines. Although my logical brain knows that it was simply a pile of wood and bamboo screwed and glued together my heart told me something different. My heart told me that this floor held a kind of healing magic for all who had chosen to dance on it. Somehow it had absorbed all the sadness and anger and heartache and were about to release all of that stored energy into the universe. As a meaning creating machine who has been so profoundly affected by this dance floor and those who expressed themselves on it, I found it impossible to detach myself emotionally from the situation. As we threw the panels on the flames one by one I was amazed at the heat of the fire. When I got within a few feet of it I could barely stand to look at it and my skin felt like it was on fire. As the panels burned I danced in front of the fire as much as close as I could. One of my camp mates named Z grabbed a pallet and a marshmallow and a stick and very irreverently roasted a marshmallow on the fire while hiding behind the pallet. Several others joined him in a show of solidarity. Afterwards Z stood in front of the fire with the pallet in front of him and irreverently dropped his trousers for a wiener roast. 3 other men from our camp joined him while the rest of the camp cheered them on. This was what I loved about Rhythmwave, at one of the hardest moments of the last 10 days instead of crying we were laughing and joking and celebrating life.
It always feels like home.