Camping: nature’s way of promoting the motel industry. — Dave Barry
“Are you a Burner?” asked the guy sitting across from me. I couldn’t remember his name, only that he was a college student by day, restaurant server by night, and not as picky about the hour when it came to smoking weed. Years of surfing had bleached his tawny hair; it was on those briny curls that I focused my attention when I nodded. Had I met his earnest gaze, I might have felt compelled to clarify that though I had been to Burning Man, I didn’t officially rank: real Burners want to go back.
It was ten years ago this week, in the middle of northern Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, that I attended the annual festival that culminates with the burning of a giant human effigy made of wood. To say I had “fun” would be like referring to the Grand Canyon as a crack in the ground. From the moment I set foot on the dusty “playa” (the dry lake bed on which the temporary “Black Rock City” is raised, then razed, each year) to the time I packed whatever I had left into my ruined Toyota Corolla for the long drive home, my condition could best be described as manic hysteria.
My diary reflects only a handful of highlights, the kinds of things that would impress a girl just over drinking age, such as chronicles of sexual encounters and what it was like to belong to one of the more popular camps. What I failed to document were the myriad magical moments, those fantastical episodes that defy description. Blasted out of my mind on LSD, GHB, coke, ketamine, mushrooms, and ecstasy, it didn’t seem imperative to note every colorful detail.
Over 25,000 people attended the festival that year. For a week, I felt as if I were living in a surrealist painting. During the day, revelers flaunted their homemade costumes, which, due to the heat and the prevalence of exhibitionism, often amounted to no more than small strips of cloth and fur-covered boots. At night, neon creatures scampered across the desert, pierced-up people with dreadlocks spun fire, and crowds either danced around DJs or gathered on dust-covered couches to “connect” and “commune.” Art, nudity, sex, music, and drugs, Black Rock City was an Elysium for the modern hippie.
More “Hollywood party girl” than “hippie,” I maintained my high at stellar altitudes, not only to see how far I could push the limits of my recreational drug use, but also to distract myself from the comfortless reality of living in the desert for a full week.
The low, cracked terrain was prone to dust storms. Despite the goggles everyone brought to protect their eyes from the talcum-like soil, one day the wind was so savage that Laura (my tent buddy) and I declared our dome a party sanctuary. We remained in the tent for eight hours, continually ingesting chemicals while using Laura’s digital planner to try to calculate what time it was in Australia. Every so often, we welcomed visitors who sought respite from the storm. During one particularly long stretch between guests, Laura took time to manicure her lady garden.
That year, the desert was as unbearably cold at night as it was hot during the day. When not dancing or too pixilated to care, we bundled up to protect ourselves from the raw chill. The worst thing about the frigid air was that it made me have to pee. I would huddle in several layers of clothing, swathe myself in whatever blankets were on hand, snuggle into my sleeping bag, and, as though cued by my comfiness, it was then that I would need to use the loo.
There are no amenities in the desert. No air-conditioning, no fluffy bed, no running water. It’s not fit to be lived in. The nearest row of outhouses was a five-minute walk from my tent. That meant each time I had to go during the night, I had to dig myself out from my cocoon, arm myself with a flashlight, and hoof it to a dark, dank, and downright disgusting box. I learned there is no combination of narcotics, hallucinogens, uppers, or downers that could make me okay with having to share an outhouse with thousands of heavily intoxicated college kids.
Fortunately, the dust storm that blew in on the fourth day precipitated a solution to my late-night needs. It was Laura’s idea, of course. It would never have occurred to me to convert a container into a piss pot. In the height of the storm, she had to go, and being an adept Aussie, she flipped open the top of my cooler, emptied the contents, squatted above it, and closed it back up when she was finished, all while I stared on in horror and admiration. A few hours later, equally desperate to relieve myself and unwilling to brave the same wind that had just taken down huge parts of our camp, I caved in and followed suit. Because it had been her bright idea, I appointed Laura as our chambermaid, whose duty it was to empty the pot each morning, far from our tent.
Despite the outrageous time I had, the following year when friends began planning their annual trip (in more ways than one), foremost in my memory was the hassle of it all. Why would I want to do that again? I had yet to experience my first boutique hotel, but I always had a predilection for privacy and cleanliness, and there were countless places to party that were way more comfortable. Places with plumbing.
All of this flashed through my mind as I smiled and nodded at those curls before me, at this friend-of-a-friend who’d pulled up a chair when he spotted my crew in a corner at Starlite. When asked if he was a Burner, David responded, “No, but from what Barb’s told me, it sounds interesting. Where else can middle-aged men go and expose themselves to 20-year-old girls without being thrown in jail?”
I elbowed David playfully and then put on a friendly face for the guy, who would soon be heading to Burning Man for his first time. “You’re going to love it,” I said. “Sure, there’s art, crazy installations, and wild costumes — cool stuff you wouldn’t see anywhere else. But underneath all that is a blur of days blending together against a backdrop of sex, drugs, and trippy shit to look at. Who wouldn’t enjoy that?”