you go to Burning Man



You go to Burning Man.

Your friend Julia, who has never been, asked if you would go and you said, “Yes,” thinking it was way too last-minute, not thinking that a day or so later Julia would text that she has two of the sold-out, impossible-to-get tickets, and then texting again with two places in an RV.

Julia is a journalist with a vast social network. You have to be careful saying “yes” to such people.

When the private pilot stands you up, leaving you stranded on the tarmac at Santa Monica Airport for several hours – “This,” a friend remarks dryly, “is what some might refer to as a rich people’s problem” – you haul your stuff and yourselves to Southwest Airlines and then to a rental car and then to the middle of nowhere. Otherwise known as Black Rock, Nevada.

This is the place where a city unlike any city you’ve ever seen springs from the dust…and disappears right back into it.

Burning Man is a feeling and a state of mind. “You’ll get out into the playa and look around and wonder, What the fuck?” a BM veteran tells Julia. “You’ll be irritated and dirty and annoyed. But then two days later you will feel yourself opening up to it. You’ll feel the magic of it.”

It’s a place of topsy-turvy. Lords and ladies of misrule roam an alien landscape. Giant letters rise from the desert floor spelling out L-O-V-E. The one, lonely tree is made of neon. Art cars crawl in every direction. The Man stands over it all. On Saturday night they will burn him to the ground.

Regular life falls away.

You wear whatever you want, whether it’s a purple tutu or a garter and stockings or furry legwarmers or a bellydancer outfit that jangles when you walk.

Strangers hug you and say, “Welcome home.”

It’s the kind of place where you hear yourself saying, “It’s interesting taking relationship advice from a man in a fuzzy animal costume.” Or: “No, I haven’t been to the disco roller rink yet.” Or: “You go past the Thunderdome and turn left at that giant dolphin thing floating in the sky.” Or: “I got lost because all my landmarks kept moving.” Or: “I walked out to the Temple, I didn’t bike, because I wanted a sense of pilgrimage.” Or: “Have you seen Rosario Dawson’s giant vagina?” [Ahem. You are talking about an art piece inspired by Dawson’s involvement with the organization V-Day.) Or: “We lost the bike. Another sacrifice to the playa.” Or: “Crystal Method played there last night.” Or: “Are you going to Prom?” Or: “The New Orleans camp is serving gumbo. Look at the line for it. In the middle of the desert.” Or: “I like your devil ears, but they would be better if they lit up, you know?”

Regular names fall away.

People get to know you and call you something else. Julia is Princess. (When you tell her this, she laughs hard and says, “Well, at least it isn’t Diva.”) Justine is Phoenix. You dance all night. You walk around and look at weird and random stuff. You watch the sun rise in the deep playa (your friend yells, “Deep playa, baby!”). You swing in a hammock and have heartfelt conversations. You open up like a hothouse flower. You feel the magic.

On the flight home they make you put your luggage in giant plastic bags because it’s caked in playa dust.

Burning Man is the most creative place you’ve ever been. You see the relationships between art and play and risk and freedom and trust. People are free to be, without censor or judgment, and they make things, build things, create things for no other reason than that they want to, and they can.

Nobody sells anything at Burning Man, except for the espresso drinks at Center Camp (…and thank those pagan gods for sweet caffeine…). There are no prizes or gallery shows or contests. There’s no money. If you want something, you barter for it. There’s no WiFi, no Twitter, no blogging, no texting, no constantly checking your cell phone. There’s only the vast, unplugged, white space of the playa: space to wander, dream and think, to expose yourself to all kinds of random interestingness, bits and pieces of which will get under your skin and into your brain and combine and recombine with other things of interestingness that have lain in wait there all this time. Your grooves of thinking are disrupted, your ways and patterns scattered like coins. The brain makes new connections – it has no choice — and readjusts paradigms, looks over edges and into corners and sees things it never truly registered before. You uncover new elements of you.

How, then, to create that kind of space for yourself back in the World?

How to hold it, and keep holding it, so you can enter it at will?

So you can dislodge the familiar and see it from strange angles?

So you can play toward new realizations and insights?

So you can make stuff because you want to, tapping the fire of intrinsic motivation that enables whatever genius you have in you?

So you can guard your solo time, your dream time, your wandering-around time, so you can expose yourself to ideas that meet the ideas already existing in your head, where they can have idea-sex and give birth to new ideas, your own?

So you can grow and become more of yourself, bigger in yourself, explore your edges and push beyond?

So you can live full and whole, with your sense of purpose and your playa name, so your other names reveal themselves to you, one by one, over time, as you are ready to receive them?

So you can navigate the fear, anxiety and uncertainty that come with any creative endeavor? Let it fall away, because you know that in the end – the end that comes for all of us – we go back to the dust from which we came?

Nobody gets to stay here for long.

Nothing stays.

We burn it down.

We sort through the embers for souvenirs. We cycle round.

We start again.

You start again.

Sep 8, 2011

16 comments · Add Yours

Beautiful words, truly inspirational!


wondered where you’d got to. :)


Sounds like a marvelous experience…at least keep the embers glowing and sort through them every day. Welcome back…you have a new you to see through:)


I’ve always been curious about Burning Man. Reading this makes me want to go.


That pic looks like it came straight out of Bradbury’s “The Martian Chronicles”.


Hey, Justine—I’m really envious that you’ve gotten the chance to attend Burning Man (I’ve always wanted to go—but professional commitments in the summer always seem to kaibosh any spontaneous opportunity to make the pilgrimage…). Many thanks for the anecdotes, and keep up the great posts about creativity—my students love them….


This is just so good. Perfect pic. Can’t you teleport there?


Bright lights, big Black Rock City.


Wish I could go but that isn’t happening this year. Please tell us all about it, we don’t mind good stories you know.

Have a great weekend.


Sweet capture, Justine! I’m eager to see how you incorporate the experience into your work!


Girl, you *must* come visit me if you’re ever in Europe! My place here in the Black Forest is a small pocket of creative paradise. My life is about creative play and trying to draw others into my evil plans of merry-making. La vie est belle!

You are yet another soul I didn’t get the chance to meet in Napa at the OTK….I needed an extra week to really connect with everyone!

I love your description of BM. I have never been..yet. Pretty high on the list of must-do.
And I lmao when I saw Julia’s photos and the amount of luggage she brought.
Can’t say mine would be much different. I *looooove* costumes.

I am now off to read your past posts.


Sharon, I have been to the Black Forest, and it is
magical indeed


I am a long time burner and I simply loved reading your description of the whole experience. I always come back with the same questions and strive to live as fully as I do on the Playa… I’m so glad you went!


ive been going for years and keep asking myself why
thanks for reaffirming my faith in radical creation


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