I woke up this morning inspired to write on this dusty blog and to tell a bit about my journey to Burning Man and how it has shaped my life in the past few years. It’s that time of year again when everyone from around the world gets to “that thing in the desert” and I just stayed up till 4am packing and am now wide awake at 8am ready to make the trek, or rather, the pilgrimage or ritual of sorts to get up there.
For those of you who have read my blog over the years faithfully and encouraged me to write on it, this post is for you. 😉
Burning Man shattered my box in a way I didn’t think was possible. Already before I had arrived at Black Rock City for the first time in August of 2011, I had traveled pretty wide and far and had seen various ways of life. I had slept in yak hair yurts and participated in annual horse festivals in Tibet, lived in Europe for a year in an international intentional community, trained across India and worked in slum clinics, and had traveled to close to 40 states in the US seeing the wide array of diversity the country has. As someone who had an “anthropological lens” I was always observing and data-filing in my head all the ways us humans live and work and love and marry and parent and procreate and protect and fulfill roles, live in community and shape identity.
When I arrived to Black Rock City for the first time in August of 2011, I had not thought that this type of environment could ever exist on this planet. I could not believe that this many humans could come together, and participate in a form of community that I had not thought possible, given all the industrialization and civilizing, consumerism and individualism that had set in.
It captured me, and I have never looked back.
My first day was one to remember. I had arrived on Thursday, which even though 4 days into the event, was the earliest I could get there because I was working an event for World Vision in Texas yet I had arranged with friends from Seattle and California to bring supplies like my bike and water, and I would be able to come with my little tent and duffel bag.
I had been dropped off at the gate of Burning man by a friend and had to switch cars to get in and I got driven to Distrikt Camp, a large sound camp. I was wearing my jeans and a shirt and as I got out I realized not many were wearing these daily type of clothes that I had on. Sure, I had my international hippie-ish garments ready to wear but I hadn’t put them on yet.
I made the trek walking to my camp, which was on the other side of the city , and as I walked I became more and more excited to be in this environment.
There was no cell reception, or wifi, and you had to arrange to find your friends BEFORE you go to the event. I was lucky enough to spot that yellow penske truck at the 3:30 and G location. My friends were there and I was happy to see two camp groups that I had connected being neighbors. One from Seattle and one from California and they were the Zepto Space camp and Mini Man Camp. Zepto had about 6 peeps, and MMC was a camp of 15 coming from Italy, Canada, France and Santa Cruz.
Yay! I was here! I set up my little cheap tent I had bought at a Texas Walmart the night before and before I could even do the next thing, I was roped into “Shawn, let’s go on a bike ride!”
Bam, off we went, a crew of five, and as we biked, my eyes lit up everywhere. Every little participation and interaction was fascinating and fun and new and exciting. Typing on this typewriter, drinking this cuba libre, talking to this 70 year old colorful woman, seeing groups of all demographics and genders talking to each other and sharing life…We biked out to the open playa to see some art…
And very soon I came across my cousin, Kirsten Berg’s art piece the Constellation of One. It wasn’t hard not to recognize, it was made of mirrors and would reflect in the sun. I told our bike crew “That’s my cousins art!!” another replied, “Let’s go!”
We went to check it out and it was beautiful. A star tetrahedron with bubble mirrors all over it. I was happy to see my cousin expressing herself as an artist, as I had seen her small art pieces in our grandmothers home growing up, which also involved shards of mirror.
I knew there was a secret door, and so I told my friends, I have something to show you….
We opened the small portal and went in…There was a man, shaved head, all dressed in white, sitting in the lotus position surrounded by battery powered candles. “Welcome,” he said.
We sat around him and he said his name was Mr. White. He began to explain the deep significance of this geometric shape and how it was resemblant of a Merkaba and could take you to different dimensions as he packed a pipe with what looked like some green powdery substance.
In a ritualistic way, he handed the small pipe to each of us to take a puff and hand it back to him. He carefully cleared the bowl and repacked for the next person, making sure none of us took two puffs. I don’t know what it was, but I could tell I was instantly high.
Thanking him for his gift, we walked out of the multi-dimensional spacecraft art of my cousin, and lo and behold there she was with her partner! We hugged, yay! I was finally at Burning Man for the first time. I tried my best to act sober as I said hello to them, and soon I was on my way biking again.
Our group went to another art installation right after, and this one was always held a special place in my heart to this day . It was Marco Cochrane’s welded torso of “Truth is Beauty.”
One could climb it and I did. I went to the top of the torso, and I found the piece moving to me and I loved it. (To this day, it has been my favorite piece on the playa. Maybe because it was one of the first I ever interacted with.)
So yeah, movement happened around the playa, the sun was setting, and my heart was bursting with energy and joy as I traversed around this playground.
The night had came and I knew some of my friends from my small hometown of Woodside were throwing a little gathering and party near the main man base structure in the center of the playa. Happening north of the man at 12 0’clock I saw the group There was a table and drinks were being served and I saw my hometown friends and they gave me great big hugs lifting me up in the air. Some 50 of us hung out and reconnected, some of whom we hadn’t seen since the middle school years.
Then all of a sudden as we were close to the man in the center of the playa, two large fires ignited about 200 meters from us, then another 2, then another, 2 and another 2, and soon, there were 24 large fires surrounding us ALL AROUND. As I attempted to wrap my brain around the fuck was happening, my crazy long red haired friend Tyler yelled out to us all and the playa, “BURNING MANNNNNNN!!!!!!!!!!!!“””
Indeed it was. Indeed it was.
So what now? Did I expect that I would connect with a person that night who would become my partner for the next year, helping me become a better human and more conscious and aware? did I expect that I would go back year after year to help with my cousins art, deepening our relationship and friendship in ways I had wished to have with a cousin? did I expect I would discover this radical environment to be a social experiment that could be prototyped and applied around the world pushing and breaking cultural boundaries and values, some which need breaking and reflecting again? did I expect that I would travel around the world to the first regional burn in Israel to see some of those cultural boundaries pushed and write about it as a journalist? did I expect that I would eventually work for the Burning Man organization helping facilitate social impact projects that burners do around the globe???
The short answer is no, but what in life can we expect? The journey in Burning Man culture has been amazing and I am excited to see where it manifests and iterates next. Last year close to 30% of those participating at Burning Man (20,400 people) were from out of the country. Burning Man is going global. From the roots of the San Francisco Bay Area where I grew up, to the far reaches of the world.
All the open minded, pioneering, rule breaking, and envelope pushing peeps from every country are coming to the petri dish of Black Rock City; of Burning Man; to be inspired, encouraged, shaped, and whatever else they may experience that brings them to another trajectory and vision. These spirits and artists and makers and dreamers are going back to their home communities and bringing the spirit of Burning Man locally. And now that spirit is being brought to the highest levels of governments and corporations and non-profits around the world we’re seeing. There are lessons to be learned and extrapolated, and indeed the 100 plus academic papers and publishings prove there is an unlimited amount of philosophy and analysis into this thing in the desert that is blossoming around.
For those who know me well, they know Burning Man has been a large and exciting part of my life. and they know for a crazy ass adventurer like me who never seems to satisfy his thirst for new countries, cultures and experiences, Burning man must be important for the amount of time and energy I have given to it.
I’m leaving today for the playa, and I’m excited as fuck. Thanks for reading. Thanks for supporting, if you’re at Burning Man this year. Find me at 2:45 and Esplanade at Burners Without Borders Camp.
Video of our Zepto Crew including my first sunset walk for me on playa
Film about those 24 burning effigies, made by my co-worker at BWB, Christopher Breedlove 🙂