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.
Chris is working on a post about a BLM camp spot in which we spent almost a week camping almost alone in a cactus flower wonderland that so surpassed anything cool I could imagine.
Here’s what I loved about that spot:
- Morning walks, when the sun cast magical long rays and shadows across the landscape.
- All the improbable spring flowering cactus formations spread across the land like a Dr. Suess-ian social gathering.
- The ways that the above inspired me to write.
- Our relative isolation.
Here’s what I hated about that spot:
- Our relative isolation.
- Sun-bright hot days that kept me corralled in the shade of the Cricket.
- Monotony of the desert.
- Settling in to a place and still not having a desk.
We spent almost two whole months in the desert, from leaving LA in early March to arriving in Durango in May. (With a couple of stops in more mountainous areas like Prescott, AZ, which had some trees.)
That’s too much desert all at once, for me. There are things I love about the desert that you can’t get anywhere else. Years ago I traveled to Utah on my own, to sleep out under a full moon and to write poems about the kind of awe I get in certain places, like the desert, like the Holyoke mills.
I’ve learned though, that I need to drop in and out. (Here’s our route, below. You can click on it to open our interactive map.)
In addition to NV, AZ, and TX, I was on some familiar ground in New Mexico (having worked a summer in Santa Fe 11 years ago, and traveled a bit in that state) and I remember how even then, when I had my bedroom in Stephanie’s nice adobe house to return to, I could get burned out on desert hiking and camping trips pretty quickly. Even on winter B&B road trips, which I’ve also done in New Mexico, I’d feel the same way.
The open desert landscape just sucks the energy out of me. It makes me want to crawl into a hammock under a tree. It makes me want to crawl into bed. Or under a rock. All that bright sun and hot, and so little shade. So much open. It disequilibrates me. And I LOVE that feeling, experiencing the difference. And then it’s too much.
I have a hard time admitting this because I don’t want to sound closed minded or like a snob, but I also started to really miss my familiar liberal east coast culture, Connecticut and western Mass and proximity to NYC and Boston. More so than anywhere we’ve been on this Cricket adventure, I started to miss familiar kinds of people and business establishments.
I think that after 10 months on the road, there was also a lot of need to stop built up, that didn’t have anything to do with the desert. (Just to be fair.) A general sort of ennui that I’ve experienced at times when the logistics of travel make it difficult for me to think, write, create, or otherwise explore my inner landscape and learn/plan/and do in the ways I’d hoped to.)
Some fun was had, of course. Chris and I walked into Mexico for an afternoon. We worked a lot on our annual slideshow, a perfect quiet activity for hot days. (Sometimes maddening to creatively collaborate but always also fun to review the year and make something together.)
I was kind of holding on for our visit with the Nelsons, in Terlingua and Big Bend NP, Texas. I know that going to west Texas sounds like a crazy plan for a New England girl missing home, but it was the draw of family and some good times hanging out in good company that I was especially looking forward to, wherever it was. (It was all that goodness, and more – Big Bend exceeded my expectations as a destination, too. AND we got to hang out in fancy Marfa on the way.)
I think it’s a good thing to be aware of, when traveling. That the way I might enjoy the sudden alteration of environment into a place gets altered when it becomes the every day norm. By the end of our cruising back up through New Mexico, to get to Colorado, I was so anxious to get out of the desert that I didn’t fully enjoy the nice things that our route did have to offer.
Not to fear though. I am re-equilibrated and contemplating where I might go for a long weekend in July! (Yes, I know that the desert will be scorching. Maybe we should go when there’s a full moon. )
After Chris & I were in Joshua Tree, scrambling around on rocks had me thinking, once again, about fear and adult learning. This weekend in Durango I met a young man who has me thinking about adult learning (and fear, and perfectionism, and inner drive) yet again.
(Photos of me by Chris at White Sands.)
This young man is 26ish, wiry and strong, and a brilliant acrobat. He seems, from the couple of hours that I watched him play in a mutual friends’ home gymnasium late one night, to have some innate sense of how to move his body through new challenges. And yet —
When we first met, earlier that night at a bar, he was terrified of dancing. He wanted to, would move to the edge of the bench we were sitting on, but he couldn’t quite. He gritted his teeth. He was scared.
He couldn’t see it as: Just Have Fun. All he could think about were the things he couldn’t do yet. Perhaps that he wouldn’t be good enough.
(The way he perched there reminds myself of on a cliff edge, bouncing my knees and on the balls of my feet, contemplating cannonballing into a river while friends watch. Fear and excitement.)
While sitting, not dancing, we talked for a while about his fear. I had been prepped for this (our mutual friend mentioned earlier that the young man is awesome, and doesn’t own it yet) and I was interested to try to understand why. (NB: I wasn’t in the mood to dance either, for my own reasons.)
The part that I can relate to is this: every time he masters something, he thinks immediately about what he wants to learn next. (Or, that’s my personalized paraphrased version, at least.) His orientation is to focus on what he can’t do, and try for it. Or at least want for it.
It feels fun because he gets excited about the process of learning itself, figuring out how to do things. He told me about practicing on his skateboard as a kid, about getting a trampoline and learning flips on that, about these activities that seem to be both practice and play. (It’s the same kind of thing as the guy or gal who codes on their computer all night, or plays guitar all the time, or writes, and more.)
He also told me about so many things he wants to do. He referenced an amazing dub step dancer that I assume is this guy or someone like him, and I could see his eyes widen with awe as he spoke about it. He was thinking about the distance between his own abilities and the youtube dancer’s. It was tantalizing and torturous.
(I know that feeling. It can hold you back, or it can push you. It depends.)
This young man really does try hard, and that impressed me later in the night. I watched him flip upside down across the floor, over and over, toppling his hat off his head and trying to catch it with his foot as he landed right side up. Over and over. And other moves, tripping up and continuing to try. It looked like fun and work, all rolled into one.
He tried brand new things, too. The young man does floor work as his “thing” I think, and he wanted to jump through the Lyra (a big aerial hoop, higher off the ground than I am tall) and what google tells me might be called a flow staff. He wound his arms into silks, I think, as well, hung and swung in the air. (Other people did these things too, and other things. It was an amazing group of talented people. I’d like to write more about our hosts themselves. And take pictures! But I’m interested today in this particular young man’s learning process because we had talked about it together, and I had related to it, even though I learn different kinds of things.)
The vibe was definitely different in the privacy of the home gym, and you might think that he was worried only about strangers watching him at the bar, felt comfortable with his friends. But as he finally got up to dance at the bar, he asked those of us with him not to watch. And then he was comfortable around us later.
He seemed pretty serious about not watching, because he seemed like a serious person. So I tried to honor that, focused my attention on conversations and other parts of the room. Someone pointed me to him though, and for a moment I saw him agile on the dance floor, moving his body in ways I couldn’t even figure out how to mirror, before looking away.
I mentioned it later. “You weren’t supposed to watch!” he said. I explained.
Later, when parting ways, I told him it was nice to see him relax, smiling, playing in the gym. How different his face looked from when we were at the bar. Now he was lit up.
“I’ve got to work on that,” he said. And in that moment, it seemed like whatever was holding him back at the bar would be just one more thing to master, for fun.
Last week I was in Joshua Tree, wedged into a rock crevice about eight feet off the ground, afraid to go up, afraid to go down. I suggested to Chris, “I’ll just stay here. Forever. You can throw peanuts into my mouth.”
I had scrambled here by pushing and pulling myself over some easy low boulders and into this narrow “V” that led to a softly rounded spot where I could sit, if I could make it that far. It wasn’t radically dangerous, and the next step didn’t require an exceptionally risky move. It was just scarier to do anything — to trust my foot my fingers, my arms, to trust that I am strong enough to use my limbs in this new way — and less scary to do nothing.
Kinda like life, right?
This was my second try. Chris had tried once. I really wanted to do it, because I’d spent the week thinking about fear: what’s reasonable fear that should be heeded, what’s psychological fear that should be overcome? I was determined to overcome some of my fears on these rocks and, in particular, in this moment.
In our prior tries, Chris and I had each jumped off before making it this far, before wedging ourselves too deeply into this spot I was in now, with each foot pressed against an almost vertical projection of rock, my fingers each gripping a small handhold tightly.
Chris spotted me from below, offering encouragement.
“I can’t do it,” I moaned.
It might have been only moments but it felt like I was there for a while.
I’ll spare you all the back and forth, and my cursing. To cut to the point, I wanted to go down, I wanted OFF THE ROCK, but he pointed out that is was probably easier to go up. He was probably right. At least I could see what the next move would be.
All I needed to do was put all my weight on one foot while straightening that knee and swinging the second leg into a new position on the wall, then using that second leg and my finger grips to rise a little more. After that, I’d be almost clear.
But I was scared, really scared, despite the fairly low stakes. This was the aforementioned psychological fear.
This scramble is a perfect metaphor for the kind of adult learning that I’m so fascinated with. I’ve used rock climbing (a friend’s writing on her learning curve) as an example in work talks about learning & growth and the risks and victories of taking on new challenges. Learning is different as a grownup. There’s little formal system for acquiring new skills and abilities, and so if we do it, we do so by the force of our own desire. When we get to the sticky points, the fear blockages, how do we keep going? There’s no one making us go to school or do the task, so any movement is by the force of our own curiosity, motivation, or pride. Whatever it takes.
In my own case, stubbornness helps a lot. I don’t like to give up. In the case of being stranded in a crevice on a low rock wall, there’s not too much option of giving up, either; in some regular life situations, it takes a little more time to work through!
At Joshua Tree, I decided to keep going, to brace myself (mentally and physically) and try. I made it — pressing and pulling and prying myself up there until I could lean in on my stomach and wiggle the rest of the way. Although we shared a laugh that I wouldn’t win any points for style, I felt really proud. Then Chris did it, too, slightly faster and more gracefully than me. I’m proud of him, too!
I guess the lesson here is that in physical and mental situations, our fear often tells us to stay still, or even to go back, but that the way to grow is forward. I feel like that’s what each us of have been doing on this trip as we work through creative blocks, comfort challenges, relational conflicts, and learning to live and make in new ways. I’m finding that living small and simple makes it easier to face those scary moments. That in our current travels situation it’s not as easy to avoid things, and thus it’s easier to take that next, scary step. Because sometimes you just have to.
How can I be authentically in the present moment while also kicking ass at getting things done? I think a lot about that. Most days, I wish I were more productive. Yet on this trip I also spent six valuable months fighting my usual urges to organize, to schedule, to discipline. I know I got something out of the uncertainty.
The kind of control that’s familiar to me is like a marked path — even if you haven’t travelled a stretch of land before, there’s a predictable route to follow with known information about distance, elevation, and forks along the way. I’m a planner by nature, and I’m quite comfortable both making and following these metaphorical maps. I know quite a bit about “what works” — for me and for humans in general — with regards to productivity. I’m starting to use these skills again, but first I had to let them go.
This trip was intended as a journey of discovery, which does require going beyond the known — while literally exploring the country, I’m also studying my soul. Looking back at my first post, A Manifesto, this purpose is clear. I knew the kind of growth I was after. I didn’t know how I would need to get there. I don’t think I understood that it couldn’t even be charted in advance.
One of the reasons I was so attracted to Steven Sagmeister’s TED talk on the power of time off is that he grappled with free time in a way I could really relate to. He thought he would leave his sabbatical completely open to create and discover, and he discovered that he got nothing done. As he put it, he became his own intern, responding to other people’s queries and letting the external world drive his time. In a brilliant move, he created a schedule for himself.
Such organization is how I am comfortable — my projects tend to be goal-aligned, color-coded, white-boarded, excel spread-sheeted, and tracked for progress. I’m the kind of person who makes to-do lists on vacation: write in journal, brush teeth, make sandwiches, go kayaking, walk to happy hour.
I studied Sagmeister’s slides. I was interested in him and curious about how he approached experimental organization. I’m enough of a dork that I took screen shots and zoomed in his schedule, was charmed that he included things like “future thinking” and crushed on him a bit over activities like “typographical research.”
I invested a lot of time and energy planning for our travels, but I focused on the practical things – budgeting, saving, minimalizing, planning, and outfitting the camper. While I was still employed, I was steadfast about not wanting to pre-define my creative time off because my intention was to discover new things about myself once I had the space to do so.
I thought that “I’ll figure it out later” was enough to accept openness. I thought that that once we got on the road I’d go Sagmeister-style and lock in some kind of routine and project rotation. I thought that even if I didn’t know quite what I wanted to do, I should have structured time for experimentation.
I had a lot to learn.
I didn’t know how much freedom I would need before I could even begin to understand the path my soul wanted to follow. Sure, I could think of tasks with my head, I’m rarely short on ideas. Yet when I tried to knuckle down to these projects, it felt false, like there were things I had to learn before I could benefit from familiar discipline. I could not predict how scary it would be to let go.
The first six months of our travel included many fun adventures, but much of my personal time was about the darkness of these fears.
I wanted the security and predictability of everything being planned, and our trip logistics, my travel partner, and my own brain conspired to prevent that. I fought against it, hard, and I was always unsuccessful.
I felt like I was trying to jam a changing person into old expectations. I didn’t know yet what I wanted to be focusing on, because I hadn’t grown into it yet. I could try to schedule myself into the activities that sounded good, but they felt a little false.
Six months sounds like a long time to be adrift like that. It still astounds me how long it took to shake off some of the ways I felt burdened and constrained by my old life. Interestingly, in some cases I’m now returning to interests that I’d previously held and thought I would discard as more oriented towards my professional than my personal self. Perhaps they are actually both — which is a good thing. To know this, I needed the space to go away and then come back on new terms and for new reasons.
I’m starting to understand how much this kind of personal adventure is truly about what’s around the next corner, over the next hill. It’s about open space and about discovering as you go, maps not needed. I hope I can bring this knowledge home with me, too. I’d like to always leave a little space in my schedule — and in my heart — for discovery.