Now fully in the groove, my day starts off in a delightful way. Dancing.
Camp RhythmWave comes to the desert with a large, genuine bamboo dance floor. Guests are protected from the harsh sun by a huge shade canopy. High-quality speakers are arranged in all four corners pointed inward and their DJs make terrific house music.
But it’s the bamboo dance floor that sets this camp apart. All shoes and boots come off. And for some, this freedom goes beyond the footwear. What a marvelous feeling, to finally free those feet and feel the cool, playable wood beneath. I see Ako from our camp here and we dance for a while. What a lovely way to begin the day.
After a couple of hours, I return to camp for lunch and then decide to drop in on a workshop Khady is running. The name: “Amazing Sex Every Time”. Sounds intriguing. And it is. A co-ed group of more than a dozen discuss what works for us and what doesn’t, fun love, complicated love, the meaning of love, why we love.
After that, I bike out to the Temple of Whollyness.
Each year since 2000, there has been a temple at Burning Man. My understanding is that the first one was built by architect David Best as a tribute to a loved one. Over the years, it became a gathering place for anyone who wanted to contemplate a loss. Now, each year’s temple is as significant as the Man.
The temple is always made of timber. This year, as is often the case, it was crafted completely out of interlocking geometric wood pieces that fit together without the use of nails, glue or metal fasteners. In fact, this year’s temple, designed by Gregg Fleishman, is the largest interlocking wood structure ever constructed anywhere in the world.
The temple always burns on Sunday, the last night of Burning Man. While the burning of the Man is a joyous and festive occasion, the Temple burn is a somber, reflective event. Inside, it is quiet the entire week. People write on its walls, leave photos and mementos, and sit in contemplative silence.
This year, I bring something to the Temple… the bonnet my ex-wife wore on our wedding day.
I don’t know how I ended up with Linda’s bonnet, actually. But one day, just weeks before I went to Burning Man for the first time in 2012, I found it amongst my things. The divorce had become final just a few months earlier.
This year, I find a more suitable destiny for it. And so, as I bike out to the Temple, Linda’s bonnet is in my backpack. I walk around the temple for a long time, reading the inscriptions, appreciating the numerous photos that were on display. Then, I find myself in one back corridor and see a slanted panel with one of those interlocking buttons protruding from it.
I carefully hang the hat, stand back and think about what to write. It doesn’t take long.
Love lost. I wish we were wiser.
I sit down in the larger, central chamber and think about things. I’ve been pretty darn fortunate. My world is pretty comfortable. Depending on my mood and desire, my life can be calm or exciting. And I usually get what I want. There have been only two exceptions to this lucky streak… the emotional challenges faced by my daughter, and my marriage.
But I’m the kind of person that compartmentalizes the unpleasant things and focuses on the future as an optimist. So, when the divorce finally came through, five years after our separation, it was a great relief and a time to look toward the future. It helped that by that time I was in a solid relationship with April, who I dearly loved.
But now, sitting in the Temple of Whollyness, the enormity of the loss hits me. Almost 20 years, gone. Why? Was I a victim? How did I contribute?
After a long while, I leave the temple. I feel calm and at peace. What’s done is done. And in a few days, the bonnet would be no more.
Another wonderful meal is whipped up by Jim, Christian and the team. Conversation at our table centers on what we’ve each experienced during the day. Discoveries are shared and promises made for our outings the next day.
That night, I join a few campmates to go on a little trip. Orhan is our guide. He’s a friend of Khady’s and knows the location of very special dance place. Special, because it’s on wheels; a bus to be exact. It starts off near the edge of Black Rock City, but by midnight it’s on the move, heading out away from the lights into the absolute darkness of the deep playa.
This is not something you just happen on to. You have to be in the know, and be committed to its journey. The music starts around 10 or 11pm and it doesn’t stop until well past dawn. By that time, the party bus is miles from the city.
The sound system is about the most advanced I have ever encountered. The entire length of the bus is lined with two rows of large sub-woofers. Four towers of speakers are mounted on each side of the bus.
Total wattage: 85,000
But it’s not just the sound level that’s impressive. It’s the quality of the sound. Theirs is the cleanest I have heard since the original Pink Floyd concerts. You can feel the bass in your chest from hundreds of feet away. The dispersion of high frequencies across the spectrum is perfect.
And then there is the quality of the sets. Selected DJs from around the world are invited to perform over the course of the week. Their music is Progressive House. It’s the kind of stuff you can dance to all night long. And we do.
Welcome to Robot Heart.
But first we have to get there. Easier said than done, because about this time we’re all, shall we say, feeling pretty good. Thankfully, Orhan is wearing a set of glowing angel wings on his head. And those wings are probably the only reason we all survive the trek to Robot Heart as a group.
We bike down through the city streets easily. But about the time we pass across the Esplanade and into the playa, the wind picks up. Playa dust obscures our vision. Thousands are crisscrossing this way and that in front of us, visible only by their LEDs and EL wire just moments before colliding. And Orhan is speeding!
Breathe hard. Peddle fast. And keep those wings in sight!
Finally, we arrive at the edge of the city. Orhan picks a spot a few hundred feet from the bus, we group our cycles together, and we each lock our bike. We’re experienced enough to know not to lock them together other because if someone goes missing, you’re stuck.
I take a huge gulp of water from my bottle and join the others as we dance our way toward the front of the crowd. This is easy to do because unlike a club, there are no walls around us. There are maybe a couple hundred people here at this point, and the crowd contracts and expands as it needs to, as it wants to.
I regress ten thousand years. I am an Indian dancing to the drums of my tribe. I look up and see all the stars of the heavens, clearer than I have ever seen them before.
We are now at a new location, one impossible to define. There are no landmarks, no lights, except those from the Robot Heart bus and the EL wire outlining its pilgrims. We are deep into the playa. If time is passing, I am not aware of it.
And then I have this intense sense that we are all one. It may sound like some kind of new-age speak, but the feeling is quite real. I clearly sense the interconnectedness of all of us, and of all of us to the earth and even to the universe. It is profound.
Weeks later, while researching this feeling at home, I find that this experience of “oneness” has been described in many cultures and spiritual disciplines over the years. But I was surprised to learn that it’s even been documented by modern scientists. One example is something dubbed “The Overview Effect.”
It happens routinely to astronauts while in space. And it changes them.
Here’s an excerpt from an article in Universe Today.
“Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell (joint record holder with Alan Shepard for longest-ever Moon walk of 9 hours and 17 minutes) reported experiencing an “Overview Effect”. He described the sensation gave him a profound sense of connectedness, with a feeling of bliss and timelessness. He was overwhelmed by the experience. He became profoundly aware that each and every atom in the Universe was connected in some way, and on seeing Earth from space he had an understanding that all the humans, animals and systems were a part of the same thing, a synergistic whole. It was an interconnected euphoria.”
Yet here I was down on Earth experiencing the same thing. Perhaps there were some similarities to space. When I look away from the Robot Heart bus, I see nothing but a black void. When I look up, the clear, cold atmosphere of the high desert presents the Milky Way to me like never before. I feel insignificant and connected to everything all at the same time.
After a while – I’m not sure how long – it seems to me that the sky is beginning to lighten. It happens so slowly, I’m not sure it’s real. And then it hits me… dawn. I have literally danced through the entire night.
By the time I make it back to camp, the sun is perhaps 20 degrees above the horizon. That’s my only time reference. And the fact that I’m really hungry. I walk into the cube and find Cobalt and a few others sitting around talking. Everyone else is either still out, or still sleeping.
I wonder through the pantry to see what I might whip up. There’s some tortillas and cheese sitting out, so I light the propane stove and start making quesadillas. Kara walks in, grinning broadly and amazingly awake. Last I saw her she was spinning ’round and ’round in front of the Robot Heart bus somewhere miles away. I double the quesadillas and we walk up to the second level to eat and watch the sun as it turns from the deep orange of sunrise to a brighter shade of yellow.
Others, like Michael, who have not seen their beds last evening start to join us. We bath in the warming rays of the sun and shares our stories from the night before. Finally, I make my way to my tent, put in wax earplugs as deep as they will go, cover my eyes with a nightshade, and fall asleep. In an instant.
For me and many of my friends, Thursday begins in the late afternoon. You can only party so much before your body just takes control and gets the sleep it needs. But after only five hours, I wake and feel great. Due to some technical issues, the camp still doesn’t have any kind of running water, but no matter. I fill my little tupperware tub with fresh water from the 50-gallon drums, take a sponge bath, and have a shave. Refreshed, I head over to the cube to see what’s going on at camp.
I enter the space to see perhaps 30 guests taking part in a class on improv comedy. One of our members, Shawn, is a professional instructor of this sort of thing, and is offering a series of these classes throughout the week. I join the group and give it a shot. Being funny on demand is a lot harder than it looks! But Shawn is gracious and always supportive. Still, I know standup is not in my future.
Afterwards, some of us from the group the night before decide to bike out to the temple. When we get there, I show them Linda’s bonnet and tell them my story. I find out days later that some of them left their own mementos beneath the bonnet. I didn’t know it then, but my story also touched some of them, especially Kara.
But, of course, Kara has her own amazing story.
I met Kara (on the left, with her bud, Agnes) when I arrived at DCnW, but didn’t really get to know her until earlier this morning while eating sunrise quesadillas. At first glance, she looks like a typical free spirit hippie chick. It turns out that up until just nine months ago, she was a stereotypical southern conservative socialite housewife. And that’s her description, by the way.
Then, her husband ran off with another woman. And Kara ran off with her life.
She divorced him, sold the house, moved into her conversion van, and took off exploring the country. Along the way, she found Burning Man. When the literature speaks of transformations that occur here, this is what they’re talking about. It was a joy to see Kara living her life to the fullest, despite the shit that came before. Or maybe, because of it.
She is testament to the fact that when it hits the fan, it’s important to stay true to yourself and look to the future, because it just may be brighter than anything that came before. It was clear to me that today’s Kara is a new person, a happier person, a more connected and grounded person. She is living Life 2.0.
We spend about two hours at the temple, sometimes as a group, sometimes on our own. Then, we find each other to leave and walk out to our bikes. But when I go to unlock mine, I realize I don’t have the key (my lock is the kind that can be engaged without the key). I must have left it back in my tent.
Oh joy. It’s time to walk a couple of miles back to camp, turn around and walk back out to get the bike. But Orhan says “No. Hop on up.” And that’s how I find myself dangling from the handlebars like a schoolgirl whilst being biked across the playa. What hard work it must be for Orhan with this added weight, but he never once hesitates or complains. I love my Burner friends!
Nighttime comes quickly and then it’s time to head out to the CORE burn. Remember all those art pieces that surround the Man? Tonight, they all burn. I head out to the DC CORE pyramid and watch it go up in flames. I know Andre and a few others who spent months constructing that thing and I can only imagine what it feels like to watch all that work go up.
Later, I walk the neighborhood. What a difference to be walking! Even though I cover far less ground, I notice new details, and it feels good to be on my feet. It seems I take in a drink or a dance every few hundred feet. But after a while, the energy of last night catches up with me and I decide to head home. I retire that night modestly early. You have to pace yourself and exercise some degree of restraint here or you’ll burn out just as things start to climax at week’s end.
After breakfast, I look for the key to the bike lock. Sure enough, it’s attached to a bag I had worn two days ago, laying under some clothes in my tent. Time to make the trek back to the temple to rescue my bike.
I take my camera, load up on water, snacks and sunscreen, and head out for the two-hour hike. Like everything here, lemons do indeed turn to lemonade. It doesn’t take long to realize that this walk is going to be really fun. I am having a thoroughly enjoyable time photographing art, people and mutant vehicles along the way.
The Man is on the way to the temple, so I stop in and shoot photos that present themselves… little kids peering into a “spaceship control panel”, couples taking glamor shots of themselves, people inscribing words of wisdom on the walls.
I continue my walk, and as I pass Truth is Beauty, a dust storm picks up and she is momentarily obscured.
But then the storm starts to pass, she peeks through, and looks as beautiful in the monochrome landscape as she did a few nights earlier bathed in crystal clear blue light.
I also pass by the Like4Real monument, which recreates the Like thumb of Facebook. For many, it was a huge platform on which to let your freak flag fly, and be photographed while doing it. Others saw it from a distance and stayed away, thinking it was some kind of endorsement and went against the Burning Man principle of decommodification. Like4Real created quite a bit of controversy.
The artist Dadara (on the left), who is based in Amsterdam and has created a half dozen thought-provoking pieces for Burning Man over the years, explained that the point was to question the value and “realness” of the Facebook Like. And also to question whether some are disconnecting from real friendships as they engage in this virtual world. In fact, he gave a Ted Talk about this art installation. My favorite point was when he said, “Some people don’t realize that reality has more pixels than the screen of your iPhone.”
Finally, I approach the temple, and see my bike just where I left it, though it is now a pale shade of gray, covered in dust. But instead of unlocking it and biking away, I decide to seek refuge from the hot sun and go inside. Again, I am taken with the intensity of the solemn scene. But this time I have my camera, so I ever so quietly snap a few shots to remember it by.
I lay down to rest, have a drink of water, and absorb the tranquil energy of the room. I close my eyes and can hear the gentle sound of a harpsichord and the sniffles of someone near by. I am thankful that my life has been blessed with no tragedies.
After some time, I say goodbye to the temple for the last time, unlock my bike and peddle away. I decide to head to an area of town I’ve not yet visited. A few minutes later, three huge white geodesic domes are before me. Calm music is emanating from one of them, a camp called Fractal Planet. I lay my bike down and walk inside.
But I don’t get far. The entire floor is covered with people laying on their back, eyes closed. Two sound towers are positioned on either side of a small stage. A woman is at a computer console and a man is on stage, speaking gently into a microphone. His words are mixing with the music coming out of the computer. I soon realize they are conducting a sonic meditation. I look around carefully and find a small spot on the floor I can squeeze into. I put my backpack on the ground, take off my boots and lay down. For the next 30 minutes, I drift into an extremely peaceful state, perhaps even being hypnotized. And then, it’s over.
I sit up and take a deep breath. It was only 30 minutes, but it feels like I’ve just had a three-hour nap. Beautiful. I consider whether to leave, but it’s still really hot outside and the wind has picked up. No, I decide this is much nicer. And that’s before they announce that the next workshop is on aphrodisiacs. Gotta love Burning Man.
Sure enough, for the next hour about a hundred people under the dome learn about the aphrodisiacs that are all around us, and how to brew some of our own. Samples are passed around, though I think they’re pretty small. Either that, or we all just had very good self control.
By the time the aphrodisiac workshop has ended, the day has cooled somewhat. The sun is starting to morph into twilight and it’s time to go to one of the very few events that I actually planned for.
Thievery Corporation is one of my favorite bands. They’re an international act, but based in DC, so we usually have the opportunity to see them once a year. Rob Garza and Eric Hilton are the creative force behind Thievery. They collaborate with a host of other musicians to create a unique sound that can very from year to year. But before they created Thievery in 1995, they each had thriving DJ careers creating house and electronic music.
And so I was elated when I found out Rob Garza was doing four DJ sets at various camps around Burning Man over the course of the week. I was even more thrilled when I saw that Thursday’s set was at Pink Mammoth, one of the most fun dance camps I discovered during my first Burning Man last year.
So, off I bike to Pink Mammoth.
I pull up to the same scene I witnessed last year. Pink Mammoth gifts to the city a large dance floor, sound system, DJs and stocked bar. Their specialty sets are during the hours leading up to the sunset. The vibe is just so friendly, people dancing every which way and with anyone who happens to be in their path. Great music. Generous drinks. Beautiful way to end the day and begin the night.
One of my camp mates, Tim, has joined me. It’s his first Burning Man and I’m pretty sure he’s here in the desert only because his girlfriend probably said she was going with or without him. So, Tim is acclimating slowly, shall we say. But it’s a delight to see him start to loosen up here at Pink Mammoth. In fact, he ends up dancing on an elevated platform with a few other guys for the entire time we’re there.
And I just know he’s never danced with guys before!
I step outside the dance area to catch a breath and see the sun just minutes from going down behind Granite Peak. When the early sunset does occur, everyone howls good and loud, and as the line of the sunset moves across the city, I hear air horns and screams from afar. Howling at the sunset is a Burning Man tradition that’s hard to beat.
I’d like to tell you what I did the rest of evening, but I can’t. Only because I honestly can’t remember.