Free to Be Burners

I’ve written numerous posts on this blog listing reasons we love Burning Man and feel others our age will love it as well. Those reasons have included the creativity, the diversity of people, the whimsy, and the eroticism that are hallmarks of the event. But one factor I’ve never mentioned – possibly because I didn’t notice its presence until this Burn — is freedom. This year, arriving as we did to a raw and unstructured Playa, it was clear the moment we stepped out of our RV that we were unencumbered by our day-to-day lives. We felt totally free – untethered to anything outside of the next two weeks. The feeling of weightlessness was palpable, and energizing. Here we were, parked in an empty plot of desert with practically no one in sight, and feeling totally fine with our situation. It was exhilarating.

We may have noticed this sense of freedom, this absence of pedestrian constraints, because we had been away from Burning Man for two years; hence, 2017 felt a bit like our first Burn. But because we were experienced Burners, we weren’t overwhelmed as are most first-timers; we were instead aware of our deeper feelings. In the nothingness we encountered arriving this year, we found liberation.

Tent-top light show underway in Deep Playa

This lightness of spirit permeated our entire experience and left us at ease in the face of challenges such as leading a camp for the first time and dealing with the typical harsh elements of Black Rock City. It also allowed us to revel with abandon in the joys we’ve always found at Burning Man. I remember watching a deep playa light show, transfixed at the movement of the LED’s synched to mostly classical music. Burners laid on the floor of the tent-like structure watching the light show projected onto the “roof”. You felt like you could watch forever.

That same night we saw a gigantic puppet created by a French artist. I had seen her before, but she was attired so differently that I thought this was a second such art installation. It turned out that the artist’s crew changed the puppet’s look daily – quite an undertaking for a figure that was probably 25 feet tall.

Giant puppet in open Playa. Her outfits changed daily

The art not only inspired us with its beauty, creative effort, and remarkable desert-ready execution, but also spoke to the sense of freedom in which we basked the entire time.

weather largely cooperated in giving us leeway to set our own schedule. In fact, this year’s greatest meteorological challenge was not dust storms, but heat. The temperature reached at least 119 degrees and confined us to our air-conditioned RV between 11 and 4 most days. The nights cooled, but not as much as usual. As a result, our lighted outerwear was too warm for the balmy desert evenings – even at the 4,000-foot elevation of the Black Rock Desert – and remained back in the RV or hung on our bikes. Desert weather is fickle and I would recommend bringing warm clothes for the evenings despite this year’s warmth. I also think we made the right decision staying out of the heat during the hottest part of the day. Some of our young campmates were fine taking on mid-day activities, but I’m certain it would have sapped our strength.

But even the heat could not dampen our sense of liberty at being at Burning Man. It was, without a doubt, our best – and freest – burn ever.

Burning with Buddies

We’ve made many friends at Burning Man over the years, and we’re always eager to see our Playa buddies when we return.  In fact, we are often amazed at how many people we know as we wander around Black Rock City.  For example, this year our vehicle was inspected by a former Lamplighter friend (Playa name: “Hey You”), who had moved over to the Perimeter Department.  We love the fact that we have a unique set of Burner friends in addition to those people we’ve known from the default world.

We came away from Burning Man 2017 with a whole new set of Burner Buddies: the (mostly) young people we camped at Temple Guardians.  As a result, we now have new Facebook contacts whose lives and achievements we can follow.  It’s as if we’ve gained more grandchildren to brag about.  Some of the “kids” (yes, I know they were all adults, but they seemed like kids to us), were incredibly caring people.  I remember a time I was on a ladder trying to erect our big shade structure and one of our campers insisted that I come down before I hurt myself.  I don’t think I was shaky while on the ladder, but there’s no question that I was old while climbing.  Like this camper, many of the other young people treated us like respected family members who needed, and deserved their concern.

This year we also found out how much fun it could be to share our Burn with good friends from the other parts of our life.  A couple we’ve known for years were invited to camp with Temple Guardians, and we were thrilled to learn they had accepted.  Our friends parked their trailer right behind our RV and helped make 2017 our best burn yet.

We enjoyed nightly Burner-style happy hours with our friends, often ate dinner together, and even went on a Temple Guardian shift together.  Our friends were also part of our wedding party and presented us with a thoughtful, memorable gift: a set of Champaign glasses commemorating our 50th anniversary at Burning Man.  Those glasses are now in a treasured place in our house.

The 2017 Temple, the site of our main focus for the entirety of the Burn

Camping with generationally correlated people meant for at least part of each day we wouldn’t have to ask what some word or phrase meant, or do our best to tolerate music we normally shied away from.  The four of us could relate seamlessly.

Spending this special time together has not only strengthened our relationship but has also inspired us to continue going to Burning Man.  This was our 10th year on the Playa, and though we’ve asked many friends to go with us, it was the first time we actually experienced the Burn with personal friends who were near our age (please don’t take offense, Jason and Mishy.  We know you’re younger).  It enriched our experience so much that we will now put even more energy into convincing others to join us.

This lighted tree in deep playa changing into its fall colors

If you’re planning to go to the Burn in 2018, I recommend strongly that you share the experience with good friends.   It’s well worth the effort. But you have to keep in mind that asking older folks to go to Burning Man is like selling door-to-door.  You’re going to be turned down many times before getting to “yes”.

Art on the Playa: A Moveable Feast

It was our first night out on the Playa after spending nearly a week getting Temple Guardians camp up and running, when we saw what appeared to be a traffic jam — albeit, a very colorful one — along the Esplanade. Once our eyes and brains had adjusted to Black Rock City phenomena we realized that it wasn’t heavy traffic we were seeing, but a long line of art cars waiting for their stamp of approval from the DMV (Department of Mutant Vehicles). We had never noticed a line with so many cars in previous Burns, and we were stunned by all of the creativity in one spot. The effort people put into designing and building art cars is extraordinary.

Art cars lined up for DMV licensing

We’ve often thought about building an art car and bringing it to Black Rock City, but have never had the commitment or skill to do so. Still, I can’t imagine anything more fun than riding around the Playa, picking up Burners along the way, melding into the array of Burning Man activities, and making indelible memories. But it’s not easy to do. Burning Man sets a high bar for approval of art cars. Check out this link for more about the requirements.

Art cars purportedly began with the Cupcakes – motorized, round confections that zipped around the Playa. These one-person mobile snacks return every year even as most art cars have morphed into elaborate designs with room for passengers. My first year at Burning Man (2005), the most memorable art car was a gigantic flower built on a cherry picker. The blossom moved up and down and reached out toward people in an inviting, albeit scary, way. I’ll never forget that flower. It symbolized the size, scope and creativity of art at Burning Man, and it inspired me to return year after year.

Another art car played a major role during my second year on the Playa. We were telling a couple we met at Elders’ Camp about the wedding we would be holding in a few days to celebrate our 40th anniversary, and they offered to take us on their art car. It was a solar-powered trike with a gigantic toilet at the center. You had to climb up to and through the toilet to board the car, and we laughed our heads off about riding to our wedding in a mobile commode.

 

Art car picking us up at our RV

Happy couple aboard their wedding chariot

 

Some of our favorite art cars over the years have included a gold duck apparently built on a large truck chassis. It required spotters walking in front to help the driver avoid obstacles – including people. This year we were entranced by a mobile bear that kept changing colors. We’ve always loved the rolling Boom Box, and this year we also saw a roaming Rockola jukebox. The last two were blasting music from speaker displays that might have been found at an arena rock show. Wherever these art cars stopped, a crowd of dancers gathered and a party commenced.

Our favorite art installation this year was the lighted tree in deep playa. It continually changed, rotating through the four seasons – the deep green of summer, the multiple colors of autumn, winter’s frost, and spring’s light greens. We sat mesmerized in front of it along with hundreds of other Burners who couldn’t get enough of this homage to nature.

Burning Man is endlessly stimulating. We had forgotten, after a two-year absence, how much we had missed the intensely creative environment of the Playa. It always inspires us, urging us to keep moving forward, no matter what our age.

Creating our Burning Man Home

Returning to Burning Man after a two-year absence was reminiscent of to our first-time experience. The visceral excitement upon reaching the Playa, the sense of awe from gazing across the brightly lit Esplanade at night, the greetings with hugs rather than handshakes by friends new and old. It was a thrill to be back.

2017 was also exciting because we were participating in a new camp – Temple Guardians – and we were appointed camp grandparents. Well, not exactly. Lashes was appointed mayor of the camp and we both had a multitude of responsibilities from readying our plot of playa for camping to taking everything down at the end. In fact, at a little more than two weeks, this year wound up being our longest stay on Playa.

When we arrived six days prior to the official start of the festival, Black Rock City was more raw and undeveloped than we had ever seen it. It was challenging to find the site of our camp because most of the road signs had not yet been erected and we arrived in the early morning darkness. Once we figured out exactly where we were located (which turned out to be literally inches away from where we parked and fell into bed), we realized the extent of our responsibilities. There was practically nothing at the site of our camp. One structure at the front was partially built by the Department of Public Works, but it was the training area for the Guardians and had very little to do with the camp. There was also a container with what we hoped would be the camp’s necessities.

It took us a few minutes to figure out how to get the door open, but once we did we found ourselves facing a Pandora’s box of “stuff” – some useful and some not. After digging through the seemingly random contents, we located piece parts of our camp including a huge shade structure that would cover the entire tent camping area, a much smaller “kitchen” and a yurt that would become part of our common space.

This training location at the front of Temple Guardian Camp was the only existing structure when we arrived

We jumped into action, erecting some Temple Guardian flags and banners and setting up benches in the training area, then we were stumped. There were hundreds of seemingly random metal and canvas parts in the container but no instructions to follow. We were clueless about how to put together the critical structures and began wondering why we said “yes” to this job.

Suddenly, as often happens at Burning Man, an answer appeared in the form our new friend Casey, who was a Guardian volunteer and had been involved in taking down the camp the previous year. He made sense out of the pile of parts, then showed us how to put them together. At first, it was just Casey and me doing the building while Lashes plotted out placements and created a map of where people would go. Soon, campers with early entry passes began trickling in and each one joined the build team. Together, we managed to pull the camp together before the bulk of campers arrived. Meanwhile, Lashes drew the placement map on a whiteboard and set it near the camp entrance on the Esplanade. Then we located a light so the board could be illuminated at night.

Camp “kitchen,” our first completed structure

By opening day, our camp looked organized and neat – almost as if we knew what we were doing. We were not only thrilled with the results, we were also amazed at our good luck. As campers arrived, they took their assigned spots and settled in, never realizing how close we came to a disastrous start.

I’ll begin to describe some of this year’s art and other Burning Man adventures in my next post.

Celebrating our 50th at Burning Man

After a two-year hiatus from the Playa for health reasons, we returned to Burning Man in 2017 with the intention of renewing our vows at a wedding ceremony celebrating our 50th aniversary, just as we did on our first year together on the Playa for our 40th. Many people plan real or symbolic Burning Man weddings, so I thought I’d share some details of planning process and how it compares to a “default world” event.

One of the earliest items on a wedding planner’s list is booking the location, a task best handled early while the top spots are still available. But everything about Burning Man is ad hoc and the planning window is as short as the seven days of the event. We actually got an early start on setting up the wedding because we arrived at the playa six days before Burning Man began in order to organize our new camp.

One of the special delights this year was to have the wedding officiated by our oldest son, known off-playa as Jake but on-playa as Carousel. We chose to return to the Ashram Galactica Hotel International, a Burning Man stalwart that includes a bar and disco plus a small number of beautifully equipped tent-guestrooms. The Ashram was the site of our 40th anniversary vow renewal, so it held special meaning for us.

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L to R: Perky, Lashes, Carousel awaiting the big event.

Arriving early assured us a booking at the Ashram, but not at the time and date we preferred. Of course, we wanted to get married on a busy day for the Ashram, and at a busy time of night. So it took a bit of convincing to get the time and day we wanted; but, well before the Festival had begun, we were set for 10 p.m. on Thursday, August 31.

For most brides, the wedding gown is not only one of the most important elements of the wedding, but one of the most expensive as well. But you don’t go to Vera Wang to purchase a multi-thousand-dollar wedding gown so you can marry the love of your life out in the desert dust. Lashes (Judie) shopped at multiple thrift stores and ended up buying a hand-me-down from a shop sponsored by the local hospice organization. Price? $25. Of course, a Burning Man wedding dress requires extensive alterations, but those were performed at home at little to no expense.

In the default world, invitations have to be printed, and they’re usually costly. Our invitation was a laminated address label on a lanyard, which read: “10 Years on the Playa; 50 Years Together. Join us for The Wedding of the Half Century.” Once the details were finalized, we hand-wrote them on the back of the invitations, then gave them to friends and strangers alike on the Playa. Everyone would be welcomed at our big moment.

Booking the entertainment was easy since the Ashram is a disco with an array of available music, but we also created our own playlist on my iPhone for the ceremony itself. There was music by The Supremes, Buddy Holly, James Taylor — in other words, the music of our original wedding’s era. We also added a more recent song – Burn, by Ellie Goulding – because it’s become entwined with Burning Man.

One other major item that we almost forgot was the wedding cake. We had to call friends who were on their way and have them pick up a cake in Reno. Next, we asked a few people to participate — a matron of honor and a best man in particular. But there were no bridesmaid dresses or rental tuxes involved – just playa finery. No wedding rehearsal or rehearsal dinner either.

As the night approached, our only concern was finding a ride that could get us to the event on time and in style. We originally asked the people at Art Car Camp, our next-door neighbors, to find an art car that could take us to the wedding. But we ended up falling in love with an art car we saw roaming the Playa. When we asked if they could take us to the wedding, they gave us an enthusiastic “yes”. It was then that we discovered that this particular car was one of the winners of this year’s art car contest – something we didn’t even known existed.

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The wedding party. The happy couple on the left; best man and matron of honor on the right; officiant in the center.

On the night of the event, our award-winning art car with its animated colors that seemed to rain down on the Playa, ferried us to the Ashram Galactica, where the staff greeted us and shuffled us into a private area until the time was right. A short time later, they accompanied us into the Ashram’s disco, helped us up onto the bar, quieted the crowd and introduced us.

We read our “vows” that included such items as helping each other remember to take our pills, reminding me to take off my glasses before I went to sleep, and always saying “I love you” before going to bed. My final vow to Lashes was to love her for the rest of our lives, continue going with her to Burning Man, and keep having great sex for the rest of our lives (that one got a big cheer). Then we turned the ceremony over to our son to “marry” us. He was a bit startled by that final vow, but recovered nicely saying: “Well, I guess that 43 years ago, I was the result of some of that great sex.”

We were delighted that so many of our Playa friends had come to the wedding, including many of this year’s camp-mates and some of our Lamplighter buddies as well. The crowd reacted with enthusiasm and asked us a few questions, including the de rigeur “what’s your secret for a long and successful marriage.” Lashes talked about never going to bed angry, listening to each other actively, and a few others. Then they asked me.

“Whatever she said,” I responded. Another big laugh.

With the wedding completed, we waded into the crowd, greeted friends, then walked outside where more people came up to congratulate us. By the time we got back to our RV, we were exhausted, but very happy. Our 50th anniversary actually occurred in January, but we had long before decided to celebrate the entire year. We still had a cruise with our other son and his wife coming up, so our year of celebration did not end with Burning Man. But we felt renewed in our marriage, excited about our future, and still financially intact.

Next year, it will be Carousel’s turn as he marries his high school sweetheart during the Burn. We look forward to just as many great feelings.

Automation Avoidance

I read a newspaper column the other day that talked (yet again) about automation and how advanced robots might someday replace people. And while I’m pretty sure my automated vacuum cleaner will never replace me (because I do a better job), I can genuinely understand the concerns. As humans become relegated to more automaton sorts of jobs and electronic equipment takes on the intellectual heavy lifting, the future begins to look like something out of the Matrix or any number of dystopian novels and movies.

Then it hit me that there’s one place I go every year where the only automation is for the sake of human entertainment – Burning Man. A trip to Black Rock City offers seven days of back-to-basics living, of walking and biking, of human-powered innovation and of real relationship building among people. No wonder I breathe so much easier and feel so much better when I return from the Burn. It’s all so real.

In a desert environment where you have to rely on yourself and other people, and can’t turn to technology to solve your problems, living takes on a sense of super-realism. Dust storms, intensive art experiences, bodies often unadorned with clothing (albeit with plenty of “body art”), sets Burning Man so far apart from the deadening default world that you can’t help but feel alive, vital and excited to greet every day. It’s challenging to find those feelings in the day-to-day routine of life.

Human-powered fun at the Burn.

Human-powered fun at the Burn.

There’s never a day at Burning Man that seems routine. Even if you start every morning with a cup of coffee from the Center Camp Café, you’ll have been exposed to myriad unconventional activities – art, performance, whimsical art cars – during your walk or bike ride.   If you’re part of a theme camp, chances are you’ll be asked to help in set-up or take down. You can’t call in professional services you’ve found on the web when there’s work to be done. It’s all performed by hand, and it’s all a work of love.

Want to memorialize a lost friend, family-member or cherished pet? Put something together yourself to be placed inside the Temple. And if you didn’t think of it in advance, just write your thoughts down on any open space – Sharpie’s are usually available from one of the Temple Guardians.

In fact, the idea that writing on the walls of a building is encouraged rather than forbidden is one of the best examples of how Burning Man diverges from day-to-day life. You’re coloring outside the lines from the moment you enter the gates of Black Rock City and receive that magical greeting: “Welcome Home.”

I’m sure the Burning Man organization could have robots built to replace the Greeters, but why would they want to? Greeters provide a true human welcome, usually including a hug; and they help Virgin Burners become one with the Playa immediately. I remember one night when Lashes and I were doing a Greeter shift and a fellow came roaring in driving a spotless sports car and wearing a white suit. When we told him he’d have to get down on the desert floor and make a “dust Angel”, he looked mortified. But after he’d added a layer of dust to his immaculate clothes, he seemed to feel much better and far more relaxed. He was now ready to park his fully automatic vehicle and go into manual mode for his week at Burning Man.

On Friends Who Go to Burning Man

Over nearly a decade of attending Burning Man, we have made a lot of Burner friends – individuals who we met for the first time at the Burn, see annually for the event, and occasionally meet for camp-related activities. But it’s a different kind of thrill to meet old friends who, after years of hearing us talk about it, have finally taken the leap and trekked out to the Burn. We always love to show Burning Man virgins around, but it’s especially rewarding to do so when they’re our friends from the default world. There’s a special joy in sharing in their amazement at the size and scope of Burning Man, and the atmosphere of love, caring and non-commercialism that marks life in Black Rock City.

But showing virgin Burners around the playa is far from a one-way street. You get to see the Burn through the eyes of first-timers – as if you’re viewing it for the first time. In fact, it’s as close as you can come to repeating your treasured first year on the Playa. Your friends will spot things that you’ve overlooked or might have missed. Seeing the awe that is inspired by the big burns in your friends renews your own sense of wonder about these incredible events. Your own experience becomes that much richer.

As a result of our greeting old friends on their first Burning Man visit, we have become evangelists for the event – especially to people our age. It’s one of the reasons I started Sunrise Burners. We’re always honest with people about the harsh desert conditions, but we also let people know that such conditions invite increased camaraderie among attendees and allow you to open yourself to the kinds of friendships that can last forever.

We also try our best to describe the scope and size of artwork on the Playa; so it’s especially rewarding to see their amazement when they come face-to-face with the massive art installations and innovative art cars created exclusively for the Playa. We’ve had a couple of friends who went once, enjoyed it, but never felt committed enough to return. On the other hand, some of them have become regulars and look forward to getting back to the desert each August.

Morning Pickup:  Our usual job as Lamplighters.  We're greatful to the kindness of fellow Lamplighters for guiding and inspiring us.

Morning Pickup: Our usual job as Lamplighters. We’re greatful to the kindness of fellow Lamplighters for guiding and inspiring us.

I think I’m inclined to help people enjoy their first Burn because of the way my son and I were treated during our first year at the event and as part of Lamplighters. One of our campmates who had been around Lamplighters forever took us under his wing and made certain we had the best possible experience. I’ve never forgotten his kindness, and I know from our communications that he’s never forgotten us and remains proud of how we became true Burners because of his efforts to cushion the bumps and bruises so common to virgins. It’s our intention to do the same with new Burners – young or old. So thank you Know Matter What for showing us the way to be good Burners.

Only a few months remaining until the Carnival of Mirrors kicks off and our 2015 Burner experience begins. We’re excited to see some of you there, and to do what we can to make it a fun event – one that you’ll want to repeat every year.