Pop Philosophy

I went to Burning Man and all I got was this new lease on life

You never forget your first time: the copious amounts of sweat, the fog on the safety goggles, the desperate need to shower. No, I'm not talking about popping the fruit on your sundae; I'm reminiscing about my first Burning Man. And it only happened last week -- talk about nouveau retro.

For 10 years I resisted the temptation to go out to Black Rock City and revel in the inspired insanity of Burning Man. My decision was based on a collective dislike of grime, people who say "playa" instead of "beach," and stinky Goddess-worshipping hippies, along with a general distaste for camping (spending a year living in a tent on a ridge, wiping your 6-year-old ass with leaves, will do that to you). My idea of braving the elements is making it from sound check to last call without spilling my beer(s). Besides, according to such avatars of culture as the Bay Guardian, Burning Man is so over.

But like obsessive-compulsives working their scabs, my friends wore me down. Suddenly, I found myself digging through thrift-store bargain bins, looking for something to match my fluorescent yellow parachute pants and wondering whether a leather Flying Ace cap goes well with leave-nothing-to-the-imagination silver pants. By the time I ran into some other "newbies," I'd gotten excited about ... well, whatever it was exactly that was out there.

In the Bay Area, it's hard not to have some knowledge -- or a strong opinion about -- Burning Man, even if you haven't been. But when we arrived on Thursday evening, I had to throw out my expectations. The whole place seemed genial and orderly, with all the camps in rows and the campers waving as we drove by. It was more like Jellystone Park than Anarchy in the U.S.A.

When we found the site for our theme camp, Trampaloid, other friends who'd shown up first were just erecting the moonscape backdrop. Soon, attendees wandered over to don wings and space helmets and have their photos snapped while airborne. After they were finished, some gave us gifts -- candy rings, slightly bruised fruit, and, my favorite, a creepy "smile extender" -- to thank us. Imagine for a second this kind of barter occurring in the everyday world. Now keep imagining.

All around us, people were bringing their dreams to fruition: a giant crawl-in vagina, a mud-wrestling pit, a 30-foot-high wire ride in which people glided face first into a mattress on a wall. (This year's theme was "The Seven Ages of Man," and we were stationed at the appropriately named Infant Street.) We wandered around, taking it all in, from the Costco Soulmate Trading Outlet to the roller disco site to the whipped-cream- and-chocolate-sauce helpings one couple poured into the mouths of passers-by.

But after a day and a half, I began yearning for anarchy, not gentle frivolity. And then, as the full moon rose and the crowd assembled for the yearly burn, I got what I wanted. The landscape became an apocalyptic free-for-all, as the sandstorms clogged our eyes, noses, and throats and flames burst out of every nook and cranny. Men with firecracker launcher hats walked on flaming stilts, cars covered in yellow fur lurched across the sand, and the scent of gasoline filled our nostrils. We donned our Middle America garb and bad Southern accents and went in search of "the Burning Ham," a fictitious barbecue where we pretended Kenny Rogers would play. Some got the joke and others didn't, but that wasn't the point: This was Halloween on a mammoth level, a place to reinvent and perform to your heart's content.

Naturally, there were downsides. Any remotely cynical person couldn't help but notice the SUVs that pulled up to the burn on Saturday night, or the sleazy men who seemed to drift around the "group grope" camps with their eyes peeled for wayward girls, or the hippies praying to the Goddess of Womanhood and Destruction. Sometime around day three, perhaps as I woke to the feel of techno pounding across the desert floor, I wasn't sure I'd make it through to the end. Since my suggested theme -- "Wash Dan Camp" -- had gone unheeded, I was beginning to feel like a club sandwich made of dust, sunblock, sweat, and gunk. Every pore screamed out either "Wash me!" or "Don't smell me!" But just when I would be ready to cash in my chips, my campmates would drag me over to the giant Scrabble board, or fill plastic bags with rock salt, sugar, and milk to make fresh ice cream, or gather on the trampoline for dinner, and I'd see the world anew again.

Then the week was over. Backed by the strains of the Rev. Robert Wilkins singing "That's No Way to Get Along," we packed up our saris, Twister board, parachute, and trampoline and headed toward home. I thought the experience was finished, but then it took a new twist -- like a roller coaster that takes off for one last dip after arriving at the usual destination.

Not far outside the campground, we stopped for junk food in the minuscule town of Empire. Adhering to the spirit of the week, I let two strangers get in the checkout line ahead of me. When they'd finished making their purchases, the woman turned to me, smiled, and said, "Thanks a lot. See you at home." I was confused -- I was sure I didn't know her -- and told my friend Tim about it. He explained that people refer to Burning Man as "home," and that she was saying, "See you next year." A week ago I would've scoffed at such silliness, but now I felt immensely happy, like I was a part of a community I didn't even know existed. For the whole five days I'd felt very close to the terrific group of friends I'd gone with, but I'd been missing something larger. I was skeptical and shy and uncertain around so many strangers, but in that moment of kinship at the convenience store those feelings melted away. We continued driving, and with each thoroughly dusty car I spied on the highway I got a lump in my throat. I felt incredibly stupid because of it, but I didn't care. I belonged, we belonged, and reality couldn't snatch that away from us. The freaks had come out at night -- and during the day -- and for that week we ruled the world.

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