When you arrive at Burning Man, the greeters welcome you with big hugs and the salutation "Welcome home." They say it even if it's your first visit.
Last year, my virgin burn, I found the phrase both cheesy (I'm more East-Coast than West) and touching. When I mentioned the tradition to a non-burner friend, she placed it somewhere between cheesy and revolting. For me, this year, the cheese factor was even lower than before. Even if you don't know what's going to happen or whom you're going to meet within the gates, if you're in the right state of mind, the discoveries and experiences should all seem somehow fitting. You are in the right place for being you. You are home.
This year, despite some pre-burn trepidations of the "Will I enjoy this as much as I will enjoy having done this?" variety, I felt very comfortable out there. People keep asking me how it was. The cliched answer is that Burning Man is indescribable. Oddly, I am more at a loss for words this year than last year.
For me (and for many others) the 2007 and 2008 burns were very different. Last year it was all about having my mind blown. This year it was more about settling in, creating intimacy, and building community. So in 2007 I came back with stories of big rigs stacked on top of each other, of giant fireballs, of new neuropharmacological experiments, of sights and sounds I could plainly describe. This year, well, first of all, there weren't the types of huge art projects or double rainbows or early man burns that we had last year, and second, I had sort of come to expect much of what I did see, so my reactions weren't as much "wait till they hear about this back home."
I think with less of the shock and awe I was able to resonate more with the people surrounding me. Instead of running around trying to take it all in, I sat back and took the time to shoot the shit with friends new and old. What kind of shit did we shoot while avoiding the sun's death rays and the wind's dust showers? Well, in just one afternoon there was a cheese ball eating contest, an attempt to define the golden ratio algebraically (in the context of describing the coiling of a campmate's large penis in his tight shorts), and the composition of Spam showtunes. Then there were the kind of frank discussions of sex, hygiene, and bodily functions--in mixed company--that you only find among people truly comfortable with each other. Living closely with others in semi-extreme circumstances where you must rely on each other for mental and physical comfort and safety makes certain walls disintegrate. After all, one of the two main newspapers at Burning Man (the one that stopped circulating this year) was titled Piss Clear, a piece of common-sense anti-dehydration advice that we take for granted but that to an outsider may seem a bit crude for the title of a periodical.
A few other factors domesticated the playa for me this year. First, the dry winter meant that the ground was highly unsuitable for bike riding--soft and duny--keeping people from traveling much. Second, our camp had better shade structures, with Quonset huts dedicated for use as a kitchen and a living room. Third, I was in the desert three days longer than in 2007, 9 days versus 6. I obtained an early arrival pass by volunteering to work at Playa Info, so I spent the weekend before Burning Man officially began helping set up the information hub and providing information to others who were there early to build Black Rock City. (I also did a fair amount of building and formed quite an attachment to the rebar driver.) So I gained much more of a behind-the-scenes view of the whole endeavor, interacting with people who were at least as dedicated to working and contributing as they were to playing and letting loose.
On my third shift at Playa Info, I was an Oracle, a position I wasn't sure I would be qualified for on only my second burn, but I stepped up. One word that kept popping up to describe the Burning Man community: do-ocracy. More than in any other community, you gain power not through connections or even so much talent, but rather by stepping up and taking responsibility. If something needs to be done, or you would like to see some amazing thing take place, whether it's an art project or a theme camp or an event, if you're willing to put the sweat (and sometimes money) into it, you've got the job. By the way, it turns out that the job of an Oracle isn't so hard. 1.) If you don't know the answer, look it up or ask someone more knowledgeable. 2.) Be sure to give people a friendly hard time (e.g., make use of the wheel of fortune and and don't let them get by with a weak-ass Hammer Dance before you help them.) And 3.) when things get slow, play strip poker at the desk.
And of course it's easy to feel like you're among family with such awesome campmates. As an example of the cohesiveness among the 35 or so of us... On Wednesday night we conducted what we fondly referred to as the Death March. 29 of us, most of us tapping other dimensions, left camp together and wandered across the empty inner playa to the other side of the horseshoe, stopping to look at art along the way. That's over a mile, and groups of three sober individuals have been known to not make it intact. But with enough glowsticks and blinkies and yelling of "Kaos!" (our camp name), we hung together. Even when we arrived at, say, a giant series of steel flowers spewing fire and surrounded by a crowd, we recollected and lived to descend upon another location. At one point a couple of us noticed a girl on crutches by herself looking lost and we ran over to assist her. Soon the rest of Kaos caught on and came over to join. This bewildered, thankful young woman apologized for engaging 30 people in direction-giving. No problem, we told her. All in a day's work. We eventually penetrated the far side of Black Rock City and emptied our bladders at the porta potties. Marching back out toward open playa, we began to follow a diner on wheels. It's not often that the more you walk toward a restaurant, the more it stays exactly the same distance from you. Finally, we disengaged to head for a new destination, prompting the instant catchphrase "Stop following the diner!" Ok, it was funnier at the time. Our final group effort that night was dancing at The Opulent Temple, after which we split up. Total Death March time: 2 hours, without a single person lost. We look out for our own.
Finally, home is a place where you can feel comfortable with yourself. You don't need to worry about people looking at you funny if you do or wear something odd. And at Burning Man I feel very me. I come out of my shell more than usual. In my mind at least, I'm funnier, I'm a better dancer, and I'm warmer. Things I value in myself become accentuated. And I wear flashier clothes. People out there talk about wearing costumes, but I just call what I wear outfits. I'm not dressing as something else; I'm dressing as me, only more so. (Actually, a lot of the stuff I wear out there, like the big pants and silver jacket, I wore as my everyday clothes in college a decade ago. Hardly costumes, unless one argues that I'm dressing as my own unbridled youth.) The last time I went out like that in New York, I stopped to ask someone directions, and all I got out was "Excuse me sir" before he sternly said "No" and hustled away.
I'm not one to yearn for home when away. Even at a week-long sleepaway camp in first grade I didn't long for my parents or my bed or my toys. But post-playa I'm experiencing some serious culture shock. And right now, sitting in my apartment in New York and counting the weeks until Burning Man 2009, I feel homesick.
*Not affiliated with Kick Ass Oral Sex camp. Although we had offers.