In the playa, looking west at the city.

Hello world. I’m writing this on the heels of a week out in the desert at Burning Man: fully offline and thoroughly dusty. In the days since Savannah and I have returned to Boulder, we’ve been unpacking, cleaning, and de-muddifying all our stuff. Simultaneously I’ve been sorting through my thoughts and experiences, processing everything that I did and saw out there - and there’s a lot!

For those unawares, Burning Man is a very do-it-yourself week-long festival for artists, engineers, cosplayers, partiers, trolls, and degenerates to come come together to build a city, party, and burn some stuff. Everything required for this debacle - water, structures, food, and fuel is brought in; everything that results - gray water, ash, moop (matter-out-of-place), and poop - is brought back out. The only things on offer are ice, water, and sewage pumping. Everything else is either gifted to you or sorted out by you or your camp.

It was a stunningly beautiful, exhausting, hilarious, and frustrating journey, interspersed with moments of pure magic and absolute chaos. There is no way to pack it all into words. Photos and videos, while “accurate” in some ways, fail to communicate the feeling of being out there in the middle of a desert-turned-interactive-art-exhibit, completely reliant on your past self’s preparation and the people around you. Burning Man is a full-contact, participatory experience: I didn’t return the same person I went in.

Part of the reason I had a good time was enough people shared their experiences, offering some semblance of what to expect and prepare for. So this is my own attempt, for anyone curious to attend someday or simply wanting a peek into the world that is Black Rock City, and for my future self to remember it better.

I’d recommend anyone go at least once. I’ll be back for sure, albeit with a more ambitious art project and food tastier than dehydrated camping meals.

Sitting on the top of a tower of hammocks, one of my favorite pieces.

a newfound sense of building #

It’s my dream to live with a bunch of friends in nature and I suspect doing so will involve hammers more than keyboards.

One of the biggest shifts I feel since returning is a newfound confidence in building and fixing things with my hands, even when there is no clear guide or procedure on how to do so. I assembled and raised shade structures, battened down the hatches in preparation for wind and rainstorms, helped build an evaporation pool, assembled hexayurts; all the while dealing with the elements (heat, cold, dust, wind, rain, and mud) and at times no clear leadership or plan.

There is a different felt sense to pushing code onto a bunch of servers and seeing green charts, as compared to seeing the structure I helped put up hold up to the wind and rain without falling over. It showed me with the right people nearby to help guide and teach, a group of eager friends can do much to put up sustainable housing and infrastructure while still having a hilariously good time. This recent video from Cabin DAO (thanks Em) speaks to some of this energy.

When the rains came and made everything muddy, it was fascinating to see the decentralized nature of the festival play out - everything in our camp was built by us, meaning understanding and fixing something was just a conversation away. We weren’t reliant on the central burning man organization to help us, nor some contracting company from far away. Each camp would figure out its own stuff, and then become available to help out the camps nearby. This FGP newsletter (thanks Nancy) has more on how this all played out.

It was impressive and inspiring to see what was built by others. My attention was caught most by the art cars - basically giant roaming artistic vehicles. I had several hilarious encounters with Edna the Elephant (our friends’ art car). Giant ships with sails, rocket ships, multi-story dance floors, hammocks hanging off of them, integrated steam rooms, flame throwers, giant moving insect legs.

There were no rules about what could be built, the only limitation was whether you could pull it off and fix it if something went wrong.

I’d like to bring a little bit of that energy back to the default world. Both at the scale of my room, in the way I consider adding a new shelf Van Neistat style, and in my neighborhood: how can we organize and create new things that we can steward together? Can the process of learning and teaching can play out simultaneously, spawning social and material connections alike?

on being a couple at Burning Man #

Savannah and I at golden hour, wandering the playa on our bikes.

People say going to burning man as a couple will either strengthen or end your relationship, and I’m glad to say our love absolutely deepened out there.

A few nights in, Savannah and I realized like our default world sleeping schedules, our schedules there didn’t align either. She would be tuckered out and ready to turn in around 10 pm, whereas I was gearing up for another adventure out, often joining the party animals of our camp (though I was never the last one to turn in).

I’d usually get back to camp around 2 or 3 am, with her waking just a few hours later to go do stretches in the sunrise. We soon learned that the terms “day burner” and “night burner” described us and some of our friends rather perfectly.

We made it work though: late afternoons and evenings were our together-time. We attended a range of fantastic workshops on dancing, sex, breathwork, and DAOs / governance. We got to swing dance in an old western style saloon, watched the sunrise while cuddled up on a mattress in the middle of the playa, biked with hundreds of other people behind Tycho’s art car, and got gifted the most adorable little clamps from Clamp Camp (on my hat in the photo above).

Most importantly, we got to follow our curiosities on interesting things, completely unattached to anyone else’s plans or preferences or schedules and explore as ourselves.

We grew as a couple. The city has a way of pushing you out of your comfort zone and into places and situations you simply didn’t plan for. Though we’ve lived together for a while, sleeping in a tent together for a week and having zero way to contact one another while out of earshot invited us to improve our communication and planning skills.

When I got too hot, my functional brain cell count reduced to nearly zero. If Savannah got too cold, the same would happen to her. We got good at asking each other for help and doing our best to take care of each other, whatever the conditions and insanity raging around us.

We were deeply inspired by how community was the verb that made everything possible out there; from the way our camp came together to be a genuinely fun and capable group of people, to the way we would show up at vulnerable social events to find strong social norms and principles keeping everyone safe, despite the chaos raging beyond the tent.

We were encouraged to see the incredible emergent possibility of a bunch of people showing up with their gifts and offering them to the world, and intend to bring some of that magic to our home and neighborhood.

assorted observations #

There’s a lot else to write about: more than I can fit into this post. The following are various thoughts and excerpts about the different elements of Burning Man and my own emotions throughout it all.

This was maybe the sketchiest thing I climbed. I decided to keep my butt below top of the rim, for my own health.

climbing stuff #

I love climbing stuff. Rocks and boulders; so-so. Trees, usually. But show me a giant cube made of water containers or a tower made of hammocks, and I was completely in. I returned to a child-like state I rarely access and express in a world far too concerned with liability waivers and safety harnesses. Almost everything is climb-able there; save for places where the organization decides people might die too easily. And the views were worth it: you only needed to climb up 30 or so feet to get to see the whole city and the desert beyond.

hosting a workshop #

I hosted my first-ever workshop! It was on journaling; how I do it and a few prompts to get started.

In the days leading up to Burning Man, I was nervous about it. Once I got there I hardly had time to think about it until hours before. I brewed some coffee, sat down, and wrote out what I wanted to say. With some helpful notes from Savannah on structure, I took a deep breath and started.

About a dozen or so people showed up. It went better than I expected; several people thanking me for hosting it. This is something I’ve wanted to do for a while, and knowing I was able to pull it off in a chaotic dust storm with giant banana-shaped art cars blasting techno driving by makes doing it in the default world a less intimidating proposition.

Savannah brushing her teeth while dancing in the morning, a regular routine.

cleanliness and civilization #

Creature comforts. I miss them. And I realize how luxurious they actually are. How much I take for granted on a normal day. When I turn a spigot and fresh, clean water comes pouring out, endlessly. When I shit a giant pile of poop into a toilet and it all rushes away, sight unseen to be treated. The fact I just have internet all around me; if anything - too much internet. It’s incredible to recognize how much is offered by base level infrastructure.

I dislike being dirty. To be more specific: I don’t enjoy getting dirty when I know I don’t have running water and soap to get clean with after. There was a shower at our camp but by the time I got around to using it, we constrained the water use to drinking and cooking only. Taking showers was squarely off the collective water usage menu.

Between the shower situation, the reality of trying to eat or drink anything in the dust, sleeping in a non-dust-proof tent, and adventures in the porta potties - I got rather comfortable with the discomfort of it all. In some ways, my bar for what constitutes shelter has lowered, in a expanded-adventure-possibilities sort of way.

into the deep playa #

1000 Hands Art Piece
photo credit to Janitha, one of the members of the art team & camp

The wildest night of our adventure was on Monday, as our whole camp biked out to the art piece together for a inaugural celebration.

It was shortly after a warm round of intros and a shared camp dinner, with everyone looking fresh; blissfully unaware of what the dust had in store for us all later that night. The act of getting dozens of people ready and onto bikes was chaos; Davi shouting on the megaphone and me running around with a bike pump and wrenches; hilarity ensued.

Eventually we all made it to the art piece and Maria and Nick, the lead designer and architects of the piece said some nice words and thanked us for our support. We popped champagne and danced around as the dust storm picked up. Soon you could barely hear anything over the raging music from nearby art cars and groups started splitting off. Savannah and I went off with some friends, intending to see more of the playa that night.

Visibility continued to reduce, from 50 to 30 to 15 feet. There was virtually no telling which way was the city and which way the trash fence on the far opposite end of the playa was. I’d lock onto Nancy’s blinking hat lights and pedal vigorously to keep up, lest she disappear into the dust and I’d be on my own.

As we were riding around in this soup, art pieces would suddenly emerge out of the dust, like islands on a foggy ocean. Some were gorgeous, others creepy, and some nonsensical.

Savannah and I split off from the group. Tony, a seasoned veteran of the playa, gave us the heading back to Temple and we set off looking for the light atop its spire. I’d never biked in anything like this: the dust limited almost all visibility but the music from dozens of nearby art cars was clearly audible, beckoning with their accoustic signal.

We found lampposts, and then by following them - the Temple: a beautifully intricate wooden structure housing thousands of messages, photos, and wishes to loved ones. We parked our bikes and stepped in.

The Temple
photo credit David Holz from Twitter, er

Stepping in from the chaos outside into the safe, dim, mystical space was like entering a womb. Dust drifted gently down from the pourous ceiling, alight with the warm glow of the recessed lights. The space was alive with care, a different sort of care from the party outside: this was somber, raw, and sacred. Tears rolled down my cheeks.

Familiar feelings arose; of church, of prayer, of that deep well of silence found in moments as humans encounter something deeper and older than ourselves, collectively yet individually. It was a beautiful outpouring of soul, of heart, of pain, and of love.

It was one of the most special places and moments of the festival to me. We would return during the day to walk around and read the messages on the walls, to witness and hear them, and leave some of our own. Our messages are ash now, along with the whole rest of the structure; to be built anew next year, as is the cycle of this place.

dust turns to mud #

On the day before the first scheduled burn, it started raining. It kept raining, and it did so for a long time. When the storm stopped, the world was transformed: walking the 50 feet to the kitchen would accumulate so much clay mud to your shoes as to make walking nearly impossible, and getting to the porta potties went from mild inconvenience to a hilarious proposition. Everything simply hit pause. The world shrank down to more or less the camp.

Camp Bigtime showed up in a big way. The morning of the situation we all gathered around at the front of camp; some barefoot while others in plastic bags up to their waists. We did an inventory of camp, made a plan to fix things, and got to work. The following hours were full of laughter and good attitudes, even amidst what was a pretty sticky situation. The news dramatized it like they do everything; the headlines made it seem like things were far worse than they were.

On my first night out in the mud, I climbed up a hammock tower.

Within 24 hours of the rain stopping, we could walk around the city (biking and driving were still out). It was slippery in places but enough desire paths had formed as to create a network of sidewalks. Because of the reduced traffic on the roads and fewer open camps, the streets were darker and a little wilder. Parties formed using the old “bump your beats and flash your lights” strategy to attract the wandering people looking for a floor to dance on.

Some of our funnest moments as a camp were during this time, our long bike tours turning into humble neighborhood bar crawls on foot. The mud was annoying, yes. It was weird to be cut off from the rest of the world, and have the world cut off from us.

We didn’t get to do everything we wanted and spent more time in the tent than planned. But it also brought out some fascinating moments of cooperation and sharing, with everyone in the camp becoming closer and making the best of our situation, together.

In the Exodus line with Savannah and two friends, and a trailer full of dust

what next? #

What is a camp? What is a neighborhood? Can we solve local problems together, better?

Burning Man showed me, in technicolor, what can happen when a group of people agree to play a game based on self-expression, gifting, and improvisation as the keystone values instead of the default money & status ones. It’s not that this didn’t take money to do; it did - a bunch of money.

But neither having money nor burning money were the point of this endeavor. Creating something beautiful was.

Doing things simply for the delight of putting a smile on someone’s face, like when Kim handed me a bowl of warm pasta on an exhausting, hot day and brought me back to life. Hosting a dance floor blasting music as the gift in itself; not as a way to pull people into getting them to buy something. Using the megaphone to invite people into our Tiki bar, simply to give them a drink and a listening ear. It was a peek at a world that’s more participatory, more inviting, and more human.

From this place, we get to bring a little of it back to the default world and share it: from the way we show up with the people we love to the art we seek out in new places. Trying to practice a little more presence, curiosity and immediacy instead of trying to fill my calendar like a Tetris game. A little more magic, more whimsy, and a deeper belief that the world we are trying to build is not somewhere separate and far away, but inside each of us.

I can’t wait to return to Black Rock City. But perhaps the most important thing I learned there is that the spark that makes that city light up is available everywhere, to everyone, everywhen. We just have to welcome it, to give it space to come out and play, and to celebrate it when it shows up.

Nancy and I finally made it out here, 4 years after first discussing it.
Boo finds a bike she likes.
I find a mud sculpture.
I sit in a cute butterfly art piece.