When I first heard about Burning Man 15 or more years ago, my first reaction was, "What kind of idiot goes camping in the high desert in the middle of summer?" I can now say with utter certainty that that reaction was not wrong. This is not a smart thing to do. But I can't help thinking how different it would be if it weren't set in such an extreme and alien environment. So the answer is that a particular kind of idiot goes camping in the high desert in the middle of summer. Or, more accurately, a whole slew of different but particular kinds of idiots. And it turns out I'm one of them.
When you pull in at the greeter stations, the greeters gleefully shout, "Welcome home!" I thought this was cheesy but kind of cute when we got there, and I enacted the ritual procedures, got my bell rung (thanks, dancingwolfgrrl!) and was invited by a masked man to visit Vamp Camp sometime during the week (I never got there.) But Saturday night on the way to the burning of the man, watching tens of thousands of people, hundreds-if-not-thousands of different kinds of weirdos, stream across the playa, I had chills, not because it felt like home, but because it felt like a place I didn't know to miss until I'd been there.
Radical self-expression isn't about who can have the most fabulous outfit, or who can be the weirdest, or who stands out the most. It's not that people are wearing costumes. Black Rock City is full of people living -- more or less -- my utopian ideal: I'll do what I want, as long as it doesn't impact you, and you'll do the same. And along the way, there's a framework for me to talk to people I might not talk to in the "default world", to stop at the corner dome and have a rum soaked peach, to pick up a woman's hat and hand it to her and have her kiss me as a thank-you. It's not a city full of "my people", but a city with some of my people and full of people who didn't particularly care what our differences were, because, hey, shiny. And, oh, is that a snow cone? 'Cause I could really use a snow cone right about now.
Before I went, I didn't think I was the sort of person who should describe herself as a "burner". I'm not sure why; it just felt like, no, that's not quite right. I still don't fully know what it means to be a burner, but it seems pretty clear that I'm one. Who is this? Ask me in a few months.
It's not like everything there was good. It was uncomfortably hot most of the time, and I was overwhelmed by the noise and the people a lot, so I didn't do as much as I said I was going to do. I didn't even get out onto the playa to see all the art I wanted to see, though I did see a lot of fun stuff. I only wandered through town a couple of times, and several of the things I said I wanted to do, or to do a second time, I didn't manage to. I spent a lot of time at the bottom of my emotional reserves, which is a place I don't typically hang out much -- for good reason -- and I didn't get enough sleep.
I did some new things, including at least one thing that has been near the top of my list for more than a year. None of them was awful. Most of them were really great, and even the ones that weren't, I felt good about doing them. Sitting on my sofa, here, it's easy to say to myself, "Why didn't I go back to the shiny box?" or, "I can't believe I chickened out of the second zap from the cattle prod!" but in the moment, I did the things that I could do, and if it doesn't seem like enough, I'll just have to set myself a higher bar for next year. Or, perhaps, the bar will be at the same level and I'll just clear it with a wider margin.
It's too soon to say it was a life changing experience, but I think it might have been.