Last year, circumstances resulted in Chris going to Burning Man alone. This year we attended together. Wow! I had an awesome time and I hope I’m able to go back next year, or soon thereafter. I think it would only get better with experience.
There’s a narrative arc to my week, the ways in which I responded to the events around me. I found myself becoming more open as the week went on. As I found my niche, I also felt more at home. I started to understand more clearly why people get so excited (and devoted to) this crazy event. There’s so much I could say about our experiences — here are a few things that really stuck with me.
The desert tries to kill everything, including your relationship
On our third date, Chris and I discovered that we had both recently burned upright pianos — and that we both think this sort of thing is a ton of fun. I remember thinking, and telling friends, that the connection seemed auspicious. Still, it was beyond my imagination that almost ten years later we would be on playa together participating in burns of a different scale!
I’ve heard from several sources that Burning Man can wreak havoc for couples. There’s a “relationship survival” guide on the Burning Man website, and “How Burning Man is going to destroy your relationship” was this year’s cover story in BRC Weekly. So I’m kind of proud of the many ways Chris and I got along during the intense week of activity. A new friend, one of our across-the-street neighbors, commented to me that Chris and I work well together and don’t seem to fight. That’s mostly true, although we certainly did have our moments.
Yes, there are many relationship challenges at Burning Man; one of the biggest was described well in the above-mentioned BRC Weekly article:
This place is a never-ending series of distractions, and the distance between what you THINK you are going to do at any point in the day vs. what you ACTUALLY end up doing can be measured in light years.
Your partner can tell you that they are just headed out to get some ice, and end up coming back three hours later because they ended up getting involved in trying to set the world’s record for the world’s longest conga line or some shit.
Chris & I had those moments of distraction or missed expectations, along with the hungry, cold, hot, dehydrated, tired, or overwhelmed moments too, all of which create pressures inside a partnership. Especially because some of the other good advice about surviving Burning Man with your loved one includes this: (1) plan dates together to stay connected, and (2) leave time for yourself and your own interests too. That’s A LOT of planning and logistics for a place where planning doesn’t work that well! Still, it helped to be aware of the duality of these needs.
I’m also extremely grateful for everything Chris and I have learned during these travel adventures about how to communicate, share space, have fun, get time apart, get needs met, plan, anticipate, adjust, iterate, and (importantly) move on. It really helped us rock this event, despite some inevitable moments of frustration. I think that Burning Man would been a lot more difficult for us as a couple had we not had the practice of living in close quarters on the road for 14 months. It’s a strange event, at which people don’t always act like they normally would. It helps a lot to be flexible.
It also really helped that Chris attended last year, and we had some experience to build on as we prepared. For months and weeks leading up to the event, we’ve been talking, asking, planning, and dreaming. We came up with some good practical solutions, like cooking yummy meals in Durango and freezing them to bring to Burning Man. We put together costumes. We argued about how much water to bring. We talked about the things that made us nervous. It all worked out.
Make like a lighthouse and shine
Obviously, there’s no shortage of cool stuff to do at Burning Man. Each day is so chock full of potential and unique experience that it is difficult to mentally process or to sum up. One of my most memorable and favorite experiences was helping the Lighthouse crew with burn prep. I had no idea what to expect when I showed up onsite Saturday morning. I simply knew that I loved the creation of the Black Rock Lighthouse Service, and that the crew wanted assistance with getting ready for that night’s burn.
The Black Rock Lighthouse Service is the name of a project on playa. It was one of a few really large wood structures that were burned during the course of the week — first the pyramids, then the man, then the lighthouse, then the temple. The lighthouse was actually a cluster of whimsical lighthouses, outfitted with steep staircases, a spiral staircase, high balconies surrounding the lanterns, and rope bridges to connect each tower. (Pics and info about the artists here.)
Many of the smaller lighthouses in the cluster were leaning, by as much as 20 degrees. Everything was askew intentionally, including the balconies you walked on. There were art installations inside. At night, the lighthouses used mirrors to send light onto the playa. They also shot fire. (Yes, you heard that right. The cupola of each tower was equipped to make bursts of flame.)
Late Saturday night, after the man fell, the lighthouses were burned. I feel so lucky to have helped in a small way (with emphasis on small; the artists and team responsible for the lighthouse have been thinking about this for years, gathering materials since fall, and building since winter; they worked long hours in Oakland and on playa). I learned a lot. I was able to spend time up close with a project that really impressed me in both design and execution. I worked with the people who had conceived of and created this piece of art. I got my hands dirty in service of their goal. I feel lucky.
So what is burn prep, anyway? It includes a lot, I learned. I don’t know all the terminology yet (but oh my, I want to read and learn more) but it includes … Setting perimeter to secure the space. Removing everything that shouldn’t be burned (wiring, lights, fuel hoses, glass, materials that could blow in the wind while alight). Placing ignitors and accelerant, sorting and hauling scrap wood, placing tinder and kindling. Decisions had been made about how they wanted the structures to collapse, and everything was done with that goal in mind. Holes were cut as needed to ensure airflow. A rigger came in to wire. We used highway flares and boxes of wax and sawdust. There was a lot of activity.
There was also something gratifying about experiencing the wildness of Burning Man while busy at tasks. I like this way of experiencing the stimuli, compared to simply riding around looking for adventure. Throughout the day, I noticed the music changing as different art cars rode towards and away from the lighthouse. Most of the day, there was the thud thud thud of electronic music that’s so prevalent at Burning Man. It’s not my favorite, but I minded it less on the work site. At sunset, orange rays shone melodramatically while classical music filled the air at a terrifying volume. As darkness fell and a dust storm rolled in, tribal sounding drum music set a rhythmic beat. This (and many other factors) all set a festive mood unlike a worksite almost anywhere else.
A rainbow of colors, and not so green
Being an east coast gal, I don’t know many people from back home who attend Burning Man, and I haven’t heard a lot about it. Thus, my preconceptions of the event were mostly based on: (1) what Chris told me after he attended last year, and (2) what I read in the Survival Guide and on the Burning Man website. Add to this my predilection for appreciating back-to-the-land and minimalist lifestyles, and hippy events, and ended up with some expectations that were a little … off.
Once at Burning Man, I realized I had been naive. Yes, Burning Man might be the world’s largest leave no trace event. Yes, radical self reliance is another of the ten principles, and everyone is responsible for hauling out their own trash. Yes, the organization works closely with the BLM to ensure no detrimental impact to the playa on which we party. Yes, there is an alternative energy camp and there are a lot of old hippies. But.
We’re still bringing in tens of thousands of cars, trucks, and semis hauling all the infrastructure to make a temporary city. Each day a 42-foot long truck hauls in more ice. Pump trucks are in and out of the city, emptying porto-potties and RV black water tanks on a constant basis. Did I mention that it’s about a 100 miles to the first town of any size? That’s a lot of miles back and forth. It’s really quite a display of extravagance.
Plus, each camp hauls in all their own water, usually in disposable plastic gallon jugs that can be difficult to recycle. I didn’t recycle all the cardboard, plastic, and glass that I normally would, because of disorganization and/or laziness. Generators are running all over the city. And that’s just the tip of the (melting) iceberg. Thankfully, EL wire means that glow sticks, which end up in landfills, are mostly passe. Still, there’s a lot of disposable plastic at this event. A cacophony of stuff.
Even as I had fun, the waste gnawed at me, along with the realization that there’s a LOT of money poured into making the event happen. I expected the “plug and play” camps and famous attendees, but I didn’t expect how well-off the regular attendees would seem, how many comforts of home people would bring with them into the desert. I wasn’t prepared for the overall scale of the art pieces, or the scale of the city itself. It’s a LOT of material to haul in.
For most of the week, I felt like I was in a post-apocalyptic scenario in which only the wealthy and the artists had survived and were living off the scraps of a consumer society. Dressed up on the dusty playa, partying in style in an inhospitable environment, it was as if we were spending our last days on earth with as much spectacular glory as we could muster. As if the end was inevitable, and this was one last hurrah. Or at least that’s how it seemed in my head.
I’m not saying this is “bad,” per se. Indeed, much of the excess of Burning Man is not all that different from regular American life, although it does feel more extreme, more condensed, more in-your-face. Even as environmental matters weighed on me, I also had fun and appreciated the wonderful things people created and shared. The flip side of my complaints about the impact and excess of Burning Man is that I really liked it and I participated willingly. Black Rock City is beautiful. People make ingenious things. In addition to the money that pours in, people devote time and love. Often materials are recycled, reused, saved from the landfill. The coolest things don’t usually cost the most money.
Besides the lighthouse, my favorite piece is one that I’m told comes back every year: El Pulpo Mechanico. It is a big metal octopus mounted on a truck bed. It has eyes that move in and out, and tentacles that wave. Oh — and each tentacle shoots fire. Fire also comes out the top of the octopus’ head. And sometimes the truck plays music over loud speakers, and the tentacles wave and the fire bursts forth in sync with the beat, like the octopus is dancing. This piece was created by people who are smart, creative, and resourceful. If you look closely you realize a lot of the materials are discarded baking tins. If you look closer you also see the scale working model that was built from old soda cans and other scraps. If you stop to talk, you’ll hear that the creators are designing and building a new piece, which they’re really excited about.
It’s the excitement for creating and experiencing that would keep me coming back to Burning Man, despite some of my reservations about the event’s excess. This excitement can be found in places both large and small. We camped with a couple that Chris had met last year, some really interesting people from California. They built their own dome from scratch (you can catch a glimpse of it in the first photo, behind the Cricket), teach robotics classes to school kids back home, and are enthusiastic about all the neat people they meet at Burning Man. They had curious minds and were really fun to talk to at the end of a long day exploring. Their smiles helped me stay grounded, and I appreciate that. Their stories kept me inspired about life, and I appreciate that too.
In the end, there’s no way for me to perfectly reconcile these conflicting feelings. Burning Man is a large and varied place. (Every day I would ride down to the info station and check the population census, which peaked around 66,000 this year.) If I am lucky enough to return, I’d want to be more involved in a project (like the lighthouse) both before the event and on playa. I’d want to learn a lot more about making fire, safely. I would continue to think about the meaning of the event, the ways that Burning Man’s ten principles help create an immersive experience unlike almost anything else. I would continue to wrestle with the rest.
It’s been a while since our last update, largely because we have been dealing with life (travel) choices and resetting some of our daily patterns. Plus, the longer we go without updating, the weightier each update seems to feel.
In many respects, these things are exactly what I want to be writing about — the real challenges of scrapping everything and heading out on a new adventure. What happens when you change your life so dramatically? What are the ways you grow? What are the ways you fight growth? Where do you come out on the other side?
I always wanted this blog to be a place where I can choose authenticity. As I’ve said before, neither Chris nor I feels good posting an overly curated version of our adventure, one that makes it look like we’re always wandering around beautiful vistas with sparking eyes and big hearts. As this recent post indicated, it’s not true. (Although in many instances it is true!)
I find though, that it’s difficult for me to write about growth and change while still in the midst of it. It’s also challenging to write about the not-so-fun moments without sounding like I’m complaining too much because really, our life is pretty amazing, and I don’t want to forget that. So I’ve been thinking a lot about this tightrope — how can this blog be a space where I highlight the things I’m grateful for while still being honestly reflective about the things i’m struggling though? (Some folks do this quite well, and I’m trying to use them as inspiration to push through.)
Where (both geographically and metaphorically) have I been lately?
We’ve settled for a little while in San Clemente, CA, halfway between San Diego and Los Angeles. It’s warm enough to keep smiles on our faces. We camp on a bluff overlooking the ocean, and we can bike into town to use the library, visit the farmers market, do yoga, and grocery shop (we drive the truck, too, of course). Chris has taken up a new hobby (I’ll keep it secret until he decides to tell you about it) and I’m starting to build the routines that allow me to feel creatively productive and fulfilled.
We laugh about it — we’re basically trying to recreate a normal life here. We had to drive 12,000 miles (6,000 on the Subaru and 6,000 on the truck) to end up 3,000 miles from home, trying to recreate the patterns of the life we once knew? Funny, but true.
Recently we were in a similar geographic location that almost offered these things but, somehow, not quite. We spent several weeks before and after Christmas in Morro Bay, CA, just a few hours north of here. It was a beautiful town, smaller, quieter, and a little less built-up than here; further from the highway; right on the ocean with some really stunning natural formations and a lot of cool outdoors stuff to do. (The big rock foremost, but not only.) I loved it. In many ways it was a better “fit” than here as far as the culture and vibe, for me, personally. Plus, there was a bar called The Libertine that I could have gone to every day to try carefully curated beers, like sour stouts with yummy vanilla overtones. I felt like one lucky duck. Yet — almost every day was a struggle. It wasn’t about the place, of course. It was about who we were at that moment, what we were fighting in ourselves.
We had stopped there to make some sort of routine, having identified all the benefits of doing so in Morro Bay. It was the first place we could reasonably bike from our campsite into civilization, which was a big deal. It was warmer and drier than where we were coming from. I reveled in everything awesome about Morro Bay, and yet, floundered. Everything seemed hard. When I had a week alone, during which I though — I can finally make my own schedule!! — I didn’t do any of the awesome things I had hoped to.
(As a sort of aside, I’ve been wanting to write about Morro Bay for awhile and a recent post by Nikki, the female half of the Wynns, dislodged my writers block. She blogged and made a video about her solo adventure in the RV that was awfully similar to my week alone in the Cricket. It kind of makes my heart sing to know that I’m not alone in sometimes struggling through moments of girl power. It makes me a little teary, too. I can be sometimes overly independent, and it was an interesting lesson to find that just because I can do something by myself, doesn’t mean I really want to. Teamwork is awesome.)
So, even though the place was obviously not the main problem, we moved, and I have to say, it felt GOOD. No, it felt GREAT! Just putting some miles between us and whatever funk we were in was awfully therapeutic. Plus, there was the benefit of moving south, to a location where the nights wouldn’t be nearly so chilly. That’s helping a lot. Every moment of challenge is created by a whole web of factors, and sometimes sorting out the practical physical ones makes dealing with the more complicated behavioral ones a lot less challenging.
I’m learning about the minimal things I need to be comfortable. Sometimes I feel like a badass camper chick, and sometimes I feel really spoiled. It is what it is. I know I need warmth, and to not spend all my nights or days bundled in layers. Hot showers are also surprisingly important to me. Having found a yoga studio with bathing facilities that makes me feel like I’m in a zen spa makes a big difference in my overall mental health. I probably will, but I wish and dream about never having to pay for a lukewarm shower with quarters again. I like a hot beverage in the morning. I need quiet time alone. I value stability in my friendships, and regular opportunity to connect with those I love.
I’ve learned that I have some either / or both preferences, too. I can take a lot of discomfort, if I know roughly when it will end. I kind of revel in that dichotomy. Similarly, I really like going “offline, and off the grid” because it helps me clear my mind and live in the moment, but I also really like good cell service and the ability to create a wifi hot spot, because it helps me connect.
I need more routine than I thought I did. I’ve long known that I need some regular practices like morning pages, I’ve long loved to set goals for myself and to live by lists, and I’ve learned that I’m pretty good at helping others set these patterns in place for themselves, too. Still, I thought of myself as kind of a disruptive force — I don’t like set mealtimes, I like to move between many projects, I’m always craving some kind of change or something new. I pushed past my own limits though, via the many vagaries of this travel lifestyle that I wanted so badly. Which brings me back to being here, in San Clemente with Chris, laughing about how all we want to do is be normal, predictable, stable.
We have four weeks stretching ahead of us, in which we know how all of our basic needs will be met. We have some exciting things we want to do as day trips in the area, but we’re both so keen to focus on the day-to-day life patterns. We’ve talked a lot about routines that will work for both of us (together and alone), and we’ve scheduled several of those into place. I’m trying not to overwhelm myself, but there’s a lot I want to do. Every time I accomplish some small goal that I set for myself, I feel a little stronger. It’s really exciting! I’m starting to feel like Alexis again.
I’m grateful for the friends and family who have listened patiently as I worked through all of this, and who have encouraged me through advice, empathy, and reminders of the broader context within which I exist. I’m so excited for this new lease on life and travel in the new year. I know there are more challenges to come, but I’m feeling a lot more optimistic.
Plus? Chris and I are learning so much about how to work together. Making our way through all of these challenges, as friends and partners, is strengthening our relationship in ways I never even dared to hope for. It kind of makes my heart swell. I’m not necessarily getting what I thought I would out of this trip, but I’m getting good things all the same. I guess that’s life.
I’m spending these weeks in Durango with our good buddy Dave.
He was kind enough to welcome the idea of hosting me while Chris is at Burning Man so I flew in, procured a bike from Craigslist, and we got to having fun. In the picture above we’re at the San Juan Brewfest. He also took me (and his awesome new lady friend) to an opening at his favorite local gallery, Studio &.
We’re hanging out and talking, and writing, and talking about writing. And art. It’s great! Durango is the sort of happy place in which, on rainy days, you see rainbows. I love it here. (I’m secretly — or not so secretly, now! — rooting for Chris’ parents to relocate here.)
The scenery is amazing here, but my staff photographer is on vacation. So I took a few snapshots like this one of Dave & the Animus.
Meanwhile, Chris had “our” first Cricket sighting on the way into Burning Man.
I just love seeing people, especially kids, interact with art. So while Alexis and I biked around the Minneapolis Sculpture Park, I was thrilled to see so many kids playing on the sculptures they were allowed to touch.
It also reminded me that outdoor art can take a beating.
Just an hour or so after I’d wondered out loud to Chris about any remaining hope of getting Burning Man tickets, an email came — & he’s in!
One curious cricket will definitely be going to the Carnival of Mirrors. Maybe two?
At left, an image from the Burning Man gallery, by Yaan Anderson.
At right, Chris’ piece in the Music Room at Wisteriahurst, Holyoke.
Those of you who know his’ work will surely agree that Chris is a Perfect Fit for this experience in the desert. Yay!