The year I went to Burning Man – 2012 – was the year the entire ticketing system was restructured, ostensibly giving newcomers a better shot. Lucky me! Prior to 2011 it was possible to walk up to the gate and purchase a ticket on-site. In 2011, the festival sold out for the first time ever. From 2013 to present, tickets have sold out in under an hour, even as the number of tickets available has increased. This says just a bit about how popular this festival in the desert is. Wondering why?
Well, aside from the fact that festival culture in general is pretty healthy (I met many people in line buying supplies in Reno who are festival followers from Cochella to Bonaroo), there are also people at Burning Man who come just for its unique culture. I met an older couple from Great Britain who had attended for 18 years straight. The two guys – brothers in law – that we camped next to, and became very close with, have been attending for more than a decade even though their wives aren’t interested and stay home. Picking up our RV in Salt Lake City (an eight-hour drive to the playa), there was a virtual United Nations of other renters – Russia, Germany and the UK – just during the 15 minutes we were in line.
Just before I left for Nevada I was getting my hair cut and telling my hairdresser (who I’ve seen now for 17 years) about my plans. He gasped, looked worriedly at me and said, “Be careful,” as he began to tell me the story of the daughter of one of his clients who was a long-time burner. She practically lived for her time on the playa each year spending months in preparation. “Well,” he said, “she came home from the desert last year and killed herself.” The way he told it suggested that he thought something that happened to her at the festival was responsible for her death. After I returned I gave him my, albeit limited, take on the situation.
It can be hard to come home from Burning Man. After a week of hugs from strangers joyfully welcoming you “home” – the common greeting among burners, living in a gifting culture where everyone gives freely and little to no money is ever exchanged (except coffee and ice – the only things for sale at the festival) and a sense of safety and connection like I have never felt anywhere where no one is a stranger, coming back to the “real world” can feel harsh and cold and completely disconnected. Our society in which people are immersed in their phones, few ever make eye-contact and would NEVER hug a stranger on the street, pales in comparison to the colorful, open and accepting world of the playa.
My best night, as alluded to in the previous blog, was one that started out alone. My friend had asked me to join her group, but I had an agenda for the night and had picked out a few events I wanted to attend, so I hopped on my bike and rode off into the night solo. Around a bend I was hailed by a cute guy in a kissing booth and stopped to sample the wares on the way to the tantra class where I was paired with a stranger for some exercises in connection and touch. Though there were some who were interested almost solely in the sexual aspects of tantra, and openingly practicing those, many of us were surprised to learn that of the 108 principles of tantra, only eight are sexual.
Next I was headed to the Prom. I pedaled my way to the outdoor event playing 80s tunes complete with a disco ball, and donned my pink strapless prom dress (picked up for free at the costume camp earlier in the day) over my other clothes. A king and queen were crowned and I danced with a group of new friends before ending the evening slow dancing with a handsome Marine. There was no prom after-party, so I pedaled off in search of my next adventure and soon found it. A cool elaborate colorful striped tent beckoned and there was a long line to get in. As I patiently waited, I made friends with the people around me. One guy was meeting up with some people from his camp to go hear some music and asked if I wanted to join them. We were finally almost in the doorway to the bar complete with oriental rugs, beautiful furniture and huge wooden bar with a large mirror behind, so we grabbed a quick drink first.
Back at his camp, inhabited by doctors and nurses from the Midwest, and featuring a huge blowup bed right in the center of the common area, he had some things to do first, so I plopped myself down on the bed and started talking with the small group gathered. I quickly made friends with one woman who went to get me a gift – a pink headpiece decorated with flowers. It was getting late by this time and the temps were dropping (I was still wearing my strapless pink prom dress), so she invited me to crawl under the warm blankets on the bed. That is where I was when the guy who had invited me to hear music finally came back an hour or so later. Time to go. At that point, I was cozy, warm and comfortable and told him I changed my mind. I was just going to head back to my camp and get some sleep.
After offers to take a blanket with me for the road and bring it back later, which I declined because my camp wasn’t far, I took off. I was on the right street, but had gone quite a ways before I realized I was going away from my camp instead of toward it. I was freezing, and just as I was turning around, I spotted a 24-hour tea house, so I decided to stop in to get warm. I sat on a cushion in front of the tea bar and the waiter asked if wanted to stay awake longer (caffeinated) or was headed to bed soon (uncaffeinated). I said definitely the latter, and chose from the dozens of non-caffeinated teas on the menu.
As he brewed my tea, the guy sitting next to me offered to share the quilt he had wrapped around his shoulders. I gratefully accepted. We sipped our tea and chatted and soon he was inviting me to go meet up with his friends. It was about 3 a.m. at this point and I declined saying I was headed toward home and bed. He said he wanted to hang out with me some more, but I was too tired. The waiter overheard our conversation and said, “The camp next door has a dozen or so hammocks. Feel free to take our quilt and go cozy up in one if you want.” Perfect! That was where we spent the rest of the night huddling for warmth under our quilt six feet off the ground with other people sleeping all around us. We woke with the sun and parted ways.
That was just one of my seven magical days at Burning Man. They weren’t all quite so idyllic, but the tenor of each day was the same – some plans, some spontaneity, always new friends to meet and new fun to be had, amazing art to be seen and incredible natural beauty too. What would your days be like if you knew no one was a stranger, everyone you met had a hug for you and there was never anything to fear, everything was free and everyone was smiling? Burning Man offers ten principles for life on the playa, but their hope is that these principles expand into the larger world as well.