I write first thing every morning. (To clarify: first thing means after making tea or coffee.)
Most days, I end my morning pages with a list of three things that I am grateful for. This practice helps to keep me positive (not always a simple task for this ever-striving perfectionist). There’s a little bit of science and a lot of anecdotal evidence supporting regular intentional gratitude.
Now that we’re back home, I’m reflecting on themes of our travel adventure. This morning I typed up all of the gratitude notes that I made while on the road. It was pretty amazing to be reminded that even during the most difficult cold and lonely times, even when I was angry at my travel partner, I could find three things to be grateful for every day.
Making word clouds is an awesome way to see patterns in qualitative data. The website wordle analyzes text and creates a graphic that shows word size based on the frequency of the individual words in a text. There are several display settings and other options.
I think the above image speaks for itself.
XO with gratitude,
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.
Throughout our travels, we’ve been the beneficiaries of great hospitality, generosity, and openness. That’s especially true of Oregon, perhaps because we spent so long there, perhaps because the state attracts a special kind of people. I’m not sure. Probably both, and more.
I’ve been meaning to send some gratitude out into the world for this. It’s a post I’ve been avoiding (I mean, we crossed the border into California two moths ago now) for various complicated reasons. Maybe I was worried that I’m not up to the task of properly honoring all the people I want to mention. Of course I want to make each unique. Maybe it felt too personal, as if we were exposing not just ourselves but also these other friends to the blogosphere. Maybe it just made me a little bit sad that we’re not there anymore, that it will be some time before we are able to return.
(We will return, no doubt about that. I have a list of unfinished business, things I still want to do, or to do again, people to spend time with.)
In keeping with Chris and I practicing routines, we’ve started an accountability group (a “group” of two). My goal for the week was to post the two topics I’ve been struggling with. So, here goes!
When we cruised into Oregon, we already had some social plans. Chris had connected with a woman who he grew up with, someone who had since moved to Oregon for college and then settled and started a family. I have to say, I was skeptical about meeting someone he hadn’t really spent time with since he was a child. Would we have any connection? What would we talk about? Was this nuts? Oh, Alexis of little faith.
Chris’ friend is awesome, as is her husband and their two small kids. Her mom even came to dinner! It was really good fun. Of course I’m grateful that they hosted us in their home, made us a nice meal, provided us a warm welcome. One night staying with them turned into a weekend of house and dog sitting while they went to the beach. We got to play at being regular people. That was cool.
The thing that has really lasted though, in my memory, is how completely open they were — the kind of people who seem to be unfailingly authentic, who are willing to open their hearts and their minds, who (seemingly) easily bring up “real” topics as easily as they do they “what to do in our area” kind of conversation. I won’t divulge all their secrets, or their not-so-secrets here, of course. Yet I have to mention how much it meant to me to spend time with some really genuine people. Living on the road can be lonely and isolating. I clearly felt a little bit cynical about my ability to relate. It was a good lesson for me to have this comfortable connection, to feel human. Thank you, Chris’ childhood friend and her family. That meant a lot.
Leaving Portland for the Coast
While in Portland we also saw a former colleague of Chris’, someone who had recently moved out west. He and his other half are on an adventure of their own, and it was really fun to feel that spark. We met at cool place called the Hungry Tiger and had a fun evening of conversation about the area and their discoveries, both logistical and personal. It was exciting to hear about how their careers are developing, how they are exploring the world, finding things they love. I so admire their willingness to pick up and go. We wonder whether we’ll find a place on this travel adventure that we might want to relocate to, but it’s a pretty scary proposition. There’s something about the safety of the network at home that’s pretty hard to break. I so admire the bravery of these friends for getting it done.
Plus, they gave us some great suggestions, including a list of galleries to visit. Several weeks later, when my mom was in town, we used that to create a half day art outing. While we might have found the galleries on our own, they felt more intimate for having been suggested by a friend. I regret that we didn’t properly connect back to him to say “thanks” and share what we enjoyed, or that we didn’t do another outing with these folks. It wasn’t because of them. If anything, it was because of the ways we were discombobulated by travel at that time. I hope (I think) we are getting better at being appreciative visitors.
We also had a couple of lucky friend-of-a-friend meetings. One in particular bears mentioning for that same reason again — the openness and willingness to make time for a real human connection. In this case, with an almost complete stranger!
Let’s see if I can make this make sense — a friend back home had made an introduction for another friend we know when she was living in Oregon (but who sadly for us, went back east just before we arrived out west). So friend #2 (who I adore, but who was properly Chris’ friend through the arts long before I came into the picture) provided an email introduction. We thought Chris and I would stop in for a visit, but logistics worked out that I would be going alone while he was in Alaska. So these lovely people in Oregon found themselves wondering who this woman was — a friend of a friend’s of a friend’s partner, or something like that — arriving at their house to stay. I found myself wondering about them, too! (Yet also trusting our friend’s recommendation, as I suppose they did.) We sorted some of this out via email, and I arrived, trailer in tow.
This couple, who are closer our parents’ age than our own, had long lived and made their careers in Corvallis, but had recently relocated to Bend for a variety of personal reasons. That is where I visited them. The visit was a whirlwind of activity and energy. Multiple hikes. Directions to some of their newly discovered favorite eats and drinks / and discovering some new ones with them: ocean rolls at Sparrow Bakery, Looney Bean coffee overlooking the river, savory yogurt and other scrumptious middle eastern treats.
As someone who tends to be calm and watchful, I am in complete admiration of the energy radiating from the female half of this couple. She had the two of us writing together and the three of us playing drawing games; she was cooking and coming up with ideas; asking me to read them my poetry; showing me their art. He shared his music with me, and his interesting mind.
I feel like this is where I start to fail in my ability to describe these connections – especially the one in Bend. When I write it down, it sounds like a list of stuff! These details are part of my memory, but they don’t capture what seems so special, so unique. That’s more personal, intangible. I liked that I immediately felt like almost an old friend, a trusted one. It’s a nice quality, to make someone feel like that.
Some connections were more fleeting, but cool all the same. I visited the oldest cemetery in Eugene with a new friend, a fellow traveller, adventurer, and camper-liver. We wandered the moss covered hills for a couple of hours, talking about life, appreciating history. She showed me a slice of this town that I wouldn’t otherwise have discovered.
And finally, we made another set of new friends who might be lasting (we hope!). They are a sweet couple roughly our age, so full of excitement for life, especially life in Oregon. Once again I’m going to fail at describing everything I appreciate about them. They provided thoughtful lists of things to do in their city and around the state. We discovered Cape Perpetua because of them — a place we went back to again and again to watch the surf and to crawl around tide pools. They might someday (when parenting responsibilities allow for it) travel camp like we are doing. I know they’ll come up with some grand adventures, and will do it with full enthusiasm for all this planet has to offer. I hope that we can repay some of their kindnesses then, with some recommendations of our own.
I’m not sure if I’ve done any of these people justice. I wish I could mention everyone else, too, outside of Oregon. For now, I’ll just shout out to a couple of cool people in Poky. You know who you are. We appreciate you, too.
Just after we roll into the new year, Chris and I will be halfway through our “year” of travels. (I put year in quotes because sometimes we make up excuses to extend the trip — Burning Man 2016, Wyoming in autumn, too many things to do and not enough time. Other times, on those hardest or coldest or wettest of days, we contemplate going home early, although I don’t think we really would. “Year” is a flexible term for us.)
This is most definitely a time of regrouping, and it feels appropriate to me that it coincides with a season of fresh starts. We have learned so much in these last six months. Nearly every expectation that we’ve had for the trip has been foiled on some way. Perhaps the only one that stuck was the notion that we would learn something and be changed in some unforeseen way.
As I write this I’m sitting in a warm home, in a comfortable chair, looking out windows at a snow-covered back yard. I slept in a real bed, took a proper shower this morning, stacked my breakfast dishes in a dishwasher. I’ve spent the past couple of days in the company of family: talking, laughing, drinking, playing games, eating, and just being together. It’s all that I hoped for when I wrote about my struggles with Christmas. And it’s more.
It’s easy to find oneself wanting to stay in all this comfort, although it’s also clear to me that I (and we) wouldn’t be growing in the ways that we are if we had opted for simple security and sameness. This was elegantly expressed in a New Yorker article from earlier this month, about learning Italian. Sometimes we have to pitch ourselves headlong into the unfamiliar in order to find something new about ourselves.
Usually, such growth is an uncomfortable process. I’m a little unique in how much I enjoy it, how much of my professional life has been spent steeped in change, and how much I consistently seek it out personally. I find it to be very rewarding. But still, it can hurt.
The kinds of change and growth and decisions we face are both big and small.
With day after day of unstructured time, we’re forced to confront our creative habits and the ways we allow ourselves to explore (or don’t – and why); ditto with healthy routines like exercise. While I’m not as creatively productive as I’d hoped for, I’m finding that my writing is turning to new topics as my newly-freed-up brain and soul allows itself to explore more widely.
We are two very independent people, and we’re learning how to share a small space and to be together (usually within three feet of each other) during most of our waking hours; we are also learning how to build in time apart, which is necessary.
We did not anticipate how cold winter nights would be, even in places warm and sunny during the daytime. Nor how frustrating it could be to cook dinner outside in the dark evenings of winter.
On a positive note, I also didn’t anticipate how much time we would spend camping in places where we wake up to see the ocean from our Cricket window. Many good surprises include things about the places we are lucky enough to visit; we were both surprised at how undeveloped the northern California coast was.
I had no idea how many small things there would be to worry about. In our daily lives, Chris does most of the worrying. I recently had a week alone with the Cricket, and I was shocked how much burden it was to ensure everything was in order day after day: bikes still secure on the roof, the Cricket packed away properly for moving around, electrical charged, turning around and backing up in small parking lots, propane safety, etc. I could go on and on but I’ve done enough complaining about these small burdens to a few patient loved ones.
There are of course the good surprises too. I am awed by the easy camaraderie we find with fellow travelers. We recently spent two delightful days laughing ridiculously hard with a fellow travel couple, swapping stories about grumpy moments and the small comforts we miss, all while acknowledging how privileged we are to participate in this lifestyle.
I had some similar conversations with a solo traveler last week, and I’m still trying to wrap my head around how easily I can approach a stranger with an ask for help, and how quickly we then found ourselves sitting on the ground barefoot talking about things like loneliness and cold showers. I knew we would have these sorts of connections, but I didn’t expect how important they would feel.
When we fly back to California to regroup with the Cricket, we will be contemplating some pretty big options about what could be next: Heading down to Baja California for some warm weather and cheap living? Would we feel safe? Scurrying over to the Gulf Coast area for warm nights and a place to chill for a while? Can we feel fulfilled in Texas? Taking one or another kind person up on their offer of a home to use for a little while? Would that feel too easy? Like we were missing out on too much? Do we head over to Death Valley and enjoy a different landscape for a while, cold nights be damned?
I was raised on the idea that I have options and choices, and I love how rich and varied that has made my life. But interestingly, with these travels, even I am starting to hit my limit for uncertainty. Some days I just crave sameness, routine, predictability. I’m glad to know that I will appreciate these things more when(ever) we do return home. And I’m trying to figure out how we build some of these things into our daily lives a little better, while still keeping the freedom that’s so central to this kind of travel.
I’ve felt a little more like complaining lately, a little less secure. That probably comes across in this post. It doesn’t mean I’m not grateful for all the opportunities we have, that we have made for ourselves, and that the universe has afforded us. In part, writing like this helps me keep the little nuisances in perspective while still feeling like I’m being honest about the realities of our adventure — we never wanted this blog to be a spot to simply show off.
So I suppose all of this leads back to where I started this post — we are halfway through, and soon we will be regrouping, deciding how we spend the next half (or however much) of our “year” across the U.S. I suspect there will be changes both big and small. And a lot will stay the same because, truthfully, it’s awesome. Our days are our own, our minds and hearts are our own, and we can do (almost) anything we want.
And so it continues. We are still catching up on fun adventures from the months past, so stay tuned for more.