Desert Dreamin'

January 26, 2017
by Anonymous Crew Member

On day 1, you board a converted school bus with 15 other people, most of them strangers. You head south out of Minneapolis, take a right turn in Des Moines, and drive 1600 miles west to the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. The bus only overheats once.

You step out onto the playa on day 3, after two days of driving and one night in a Walmart parking lot. As you gaze out across the inhospitable, barren desert that will be your home for the next two weeks, you wonder what you've gotten yourself into. Don't you usually hate the heat? You hope you've brought enough sunscreen. Shit.

You awake at dawn on day 4 to the sounds of beautiful, otherworldly music. You ride around on your bike, the morning sun warming your skin, seeking the source of the music. Though it waxes and wanes as you ride, its source remains elusive. It seems to be emanating from the ground as it crunches beneath your tires.

By day 5, most of the camp crew has arrived. It seems every time you bike around the city, dozens of new wonders have popped up, seemingly materializing out of thin air. You watch the art cars line up each night in their slow, otherworldly parade, drawn to their mesmerizing lights like a moth to a flame. Biking around one night before the festival has started, you already feel as if you're living in a dream. What the actual fuck is even happening right now? Is this real life? Is it even possible for things to get more surreal than this? (Spoiler alert: YES.)

On day 7, Burning Man officially begins. You get up early and do yoga out in the deep playa. You stop by the temple and find that you are instantly, unexpectedly sobbing. One of your campmates said it best: "I didn't come here to be comfortable."

You're feeling overstimulated and overwhelmed by day 9 of the trip, only the third official day of burning man. On a solo bike ride across the playa, you come across a small stand on the side of the road. It's the Hug Deli, complete with a full hug menu and two fit British men wearing aprons behind the counter. You stop to order a hug (the "Classic Warm and Fuzzy") and are abruptly swept into a group hug for a woman the Hug Deli workers dub "Birthday Mom."

You keep biking across the playa after leaving the Hug Deli. You're feeling somewhat rejuvenated; the spontaneous warmth of strangers has pulled you out of your mind and into the palpable, pulsating energy of the playa. At the 9:00 plaza you find a geodesic dome in which people lie sprawled out on various pillows and blankets, listening to Pink Floyd as it blasts from the speakers as loud as physically possible. You join them.

Naked strangers wash your naked body on day 10. They use squirt bottles and sponges. It's the closest thing to a shower you’ll get in a period of a little over two weeks.

On day 11 you go for a midnight bike ride around the playa with a friend. You stop and stare at flames as they lick the ceiling of an art structure, feeling their warmth on your body in the chilly nighttime desert air. Hungry at 2AM, you find an unlikely soup shack in the middle of the dark, deep playa. It's a rectangular structure painted like a giant box of saltine crackers. An enormous soup can stands nearby. As you wait in line, the two men working behind the counter direct everyone in line to do something they call the "soup shack wave." The first person in line hugs the second, who then hugs the third person, etc. After each hug, everyone in line yells, "yeahhhh!" It takes a few minutes for the hug wave to work its way down the entire line. Full and enthusiastic participation results. You run into a slight hiccup when you realize you've forgotten to bring a bowl and utensil. Not to worry, say the soup shack guys, you just have to showcase a talent for the rest of the line and they'll give you your ramen in a bowl, complete with a plastic spoon. Ten-cent ramen has never tasted so delicious.

The next day you're biking across town and you pass a camp where a sad, floppy stuffed animal lies on the road out front. Burners walking or biking past the camp are encouraged to stomp or roll (respectively) over the stuffed animal as the camp members perched on lawn chairs cheer gleefully.

You round a corner near camp one day and see a group of costumed revelers accost a passerby, yelling, "ICE CREAM SHOTS! Get on your knees!" "What's happening?" asks the passerby, confused, as he obeys. The accosted victim manages to stammer, "Wait, what's happening?" as he hesitantly obeys. The cheering group plops a scoop of ice cream into his mouth, followed by a dollop of whipped cream and a shot of booze. Cheers and general merriment follow, and then onward they go, looking for their next lucky victim.

On day 12 a whiteout dust storm rolls through the city as you and the rest of your campmates are about to leave to go watch the man burn. You muddle your way through it, managing, somehow, to stay together through the storm though you can hardly see more than five feet in any direction. By the time you get to the man everyone's hair is coated in playa dust and they all look like themselves in 40 years. For a brief moment, time is irrelevant. The past, present, and future collapse to a single point and become indistinguishable. Someone snaps a candid picture of you as you sit on a friend's shoulders, the man glowing red-orange behind you, playa dust swirling around like snowflakes. Weeks later, when the picture shows up on social media, people tell you they've never seen you look happier than you do in that moment. It looks like you’re in heaven, they tell you. Pure bliss, captured in a snapshot.

Miracle ride to the Man on Day 12, 2016

The temple burns 13 days after you left your home in Minneapolis. You can't tell if you've been gone for 13 days or 13 years. Or maybe you're 13 galaxies away from where you started. It feels as if you've been on the playa for an eternity, yet you can't believe Burning Man ends tonight. You bike to the temple at sunset through a dust storm. You watch the flames swallow this structure that you had found so captivating and holy, a place you had found yourself drawn to almost every day. You're overwhelmed as you contemplate the things that burn along with the temple. Love, grief, pain, joy. People's losses and dreams. As the remains of the temple smolder and glowing embers float gently above your head like snow, your heart feels ready to burst out of your chest. Or maybe the pressure will make it collapse in on itself, you're not sure.

You return to camp feeling an overwhelming sense of peace and happiness. Most of the other people from your camp are there, too, warming up with snacks and drinks and conversation.

Suddenly you hear a beautiful song coming from a nearby bar and you find yourself drawn magnetically into the dark, empty street, overwhelmed with emotion and with tears running down your cheeks. You sink to your knees and look up at the stars, wishing you could stay in this place forever. But Burning Man, like life, is fleeting. Everything is temporary, even our time on this planet. Yet that doesn't stop us from pouring everything we have into our lives: we build, we create, we love, we lose, we cry, we laugh, we try to make meaning in our lives however we can. And in the end, we all vanish like the temple, slipping away into the desert air. You remember one of your favorite lines about death: For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and melt into the sun? Just like Burning Man, nothing really makes any sense at all, when you get right down to it.

You're ruminating on these thoughts, starting to get caught up in the sheer implausibility of life - how preposterous and incredible it is that anything exists at all - when suddenly something snaps you back to reality. You notice a giant, glowing lobster slowly approaching you from down the road; it's an art car full of joyful passengers. As it passes you a man near the back extends his hand and suddenly you're on your feet, your legs carrying you toward it, trying to jump on the crowded landing near the back. You land safely on the car and go rambling down the street, passing dark corners and brightly-lit bars. You smile at the people in the car and they smile back. A half mile or so later you jump off, hitting the hard sand of the playa at a gentle jog. You keep running all the way back to your camp, where you find a friend at a bar nearby. You drink tea and talk. The week is almost over, yet it feels like a new beginning.

You walk through the chilly night air to another bar where you see the smiling faces of your campmates - people who two weeks ago were strangers and who now feel like some of your closest friends. A man plays a grand piano with colored LED strings that light up with each note. You could be in Cheers, you think. This place is full of love and you feel as if everybody - friends and strangers alike - knows your name.

On day 15, fully saturated with dust and only a little sunburned, your feet leave the playa for the last time as you step back onto the brown school bus. Your mind feels euphoric and serene and open to anything and everything yet to come. What just happened? you ask yourself with a mild, bemused curiosity. You may not ever know for sure, but you do know how you feel in this place: home.

Just across the Nevada border on Day 2, 2016

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(Playa address announced in July)
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Saturday Aug 29 - Monday Sept 7, 2020

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