Decompression and beyond

Sunday was the day to strut your dusty playa duds one more time before putting all those summer outfits away for the season. It’s getting chilly and wet now, and sparkle shorts and bikini tops won’t work so well when the days get short and the temperatures dip.

Sunday was the day of Decompression in San Francisco, and this gathering of the clan will have to do until the next time we get together in the desert.

That is, if  there is a next time.

Oh, we’re not saying that there WON’T be a Burning Man in Black Rock City next year (even if the 2012 theme is still an enigma wrapped in a mystery.) And we’re not trying to be all melodramatic and end-of-times.

But there does seem to be an inordinate amount of self-examination and Burning Man examination going on, and we can’t say that it hasn’t made us thoughtful.

There were so many good and amazing things this year. By many accounts, it was maybe the best year ever — great weather, great playa, more and better art, one of the most amazing Temples ever, the Regionals stepped up … lots of stuff to like and to feel optimistic about.

But then, the grumbles: My friends didn’t go because they couldn’t buy a ticket. Or … the city has gotten too big! The Esplanade was so crowded! Or … there were soooo many art cars, I felt like I was missing out if I didn’t have one or wasn’t on one.  …  And  the RVs! Everybody was in an RV! They were having their own good time and not  being part of the community! That’s not Burning Man! Air conditioning is not Burning Man!

Sigh. It almost makes you want to wash out the playa dust and be done with it once and for all.

And that’s exactly what some folks are going to do. They’ve been to their last Burning Man. They won’t be going back. And you know what else? We honestly and sincerely think they’re doing exactly the right thing. And we wish them nothing but the best.

Because here’s the truth about Burning Man: it has changed. And here’s another truth: it will continue to change. It won’t ever be the same as it was  in the ’90s, or five years ago, or six weeks ago.

And that’s good. It’s not a museum piece, or a stage play. It’s jazz. It changes. It’s not the same every time. It’ll never be like that again.

Gather round the campfire now, and let me tell you tales of the olden days, when there were only a few hundred people out there in the wilds, and they built and lifted the Man into place themselves, and they had to follow a map to get to the site, and they huddled in the shadow of their vehicles to escape to the heat. They weren’t quite outlaws, but they were definitely fringe players — jokesters, pranksters and artists and musicians.

But here’s another thing: Not all of the old timers had the experience of a lifetime. Some of them were miserable and out of sorts and felt disconnected from the other people there, who all seemed to be loving everything and were  being fabulous. They didn’t know if they fit in, they didn’t know if they were doing it right, and they weren’t exactly sure of just how to act under the circumstances. And yes, there were even a few people who were just along for the ride.

Does that sound familiar? Did you have moments like that this year? Of course you did. That part hasn’t changed. It was always better last year.  And it’s always been crappy for all the people some of the time.

Burning Man always has been an event for the people who have the time and money to be there. Are there more trust-fund babies in the population now, proportionally speaking? Maybe. Maybe not. But there are still people there who have to scratch and claw to come up with the dough to make it happen.

So what’s to be done?

We think the people who run Burning Man figured out a long time ago that all you can do is set the stage, and the rest is going to happen on its own. You can try to direct things, orchestrate them for a good outcome, but you can’t control what happens. You can try to lay out a city that fosters community, but you can’t make it develop.

The whole point, the whole essential point is that there ISN’T the kind of control that tries to make, and keep, Burning Man a certain thing. The event has been allowed to change, to grow, to be organic. Lots of people have tried to anticipate what’s needed to allow a certain kind of magic to happen, but then they have to sit back and watch what actually does happen.

And things take a left turn sometimes.

For all the “leave no trace” proselytizing, there is plenty of trash that gets left behind.

For all of the talk of radical self reliance, we still see people who have instead a  radical sense of entitlement.

And for all the talk of fostering community, we know there are plenty of people just looking for an easy lay.

Even Sunday, at Decompression, some bright lights thought that glass Christmas ornaments and sprays of confetti would make wonderful additions to Esprit Park. Of course, they didn’t have to clean it all up, and didn’t think much about the people who did.

But there were still dozens and dozens of people who had signed up to clean the neighborhood the next day —  in the rain, we might add — and somehow what happens at Burning Man motivates involvement like that.

We talked to Kelvis, a chef who put on a fabulous dinner for a VIP group out there a couple of years ago. He knew what he was up against — lack of resources, a distracted all-volunteer staff, the lure of the event. And yet he pulled it off,  his whole group pulled it off, because they were energized and motivated by the challenge of contributing, of maybe playing a small part in accomplishing something big. They believed they were doing a good thing, and it showed.

Will and Katie's beautiful baby

It’s going to sound trite and simplistic, and maybe that’s just the way we roll, but Burning Man is going to go its own way. … It’s going to go the way the people want it to go, and that’s not anything to get riled or disappointed or disaffected about.

We like gifting. We like a non-commercial society. We like feeling that we can do whatever we want (without impeding others from doing the same). We like the rituals, we like being, or trying to be, our best selves. We like the random people we meet who turn out to have amazingly relevant insights to share.

We like it. Granted, it’s not the same as it used to be. But it hasn’t worn off. We still feel excited and energized by thinking about the contribution we can make.  We won’t go to  be entertained, we’ll go to be the entertainment.

We still don’t know of anything that brings so many fun, thoughtful, creative, supportive and appreciative people together.  Are there some assholes around? Yes there are. But we’re willing to bet that there were some assholes around in ’91, too. Maybe they were hostile or  aggro or cynical. And maybe they were looking to get something and weren’t very interested in giving anything. And they came away from Burning Man not liking it much, either.

The dislikers have always been with us, and they always will be. But some people will discover that the spirit and the atmosphere and energy that they find at Burning Man will have an effect on them, and they’ll go with it, even be nurtured by it.

Others will remain untouched. And that’s ok too.

Minding the store for the Flaming Lotus Girls

As Burning Man changes, those it touches will be different from those it once touched. Or those that it once touched will need to be touched in a different way. And that’s not to say that they have lost their humanity or their vulnerability or their hearts have hardened, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re just thrill-seekers, looking for a new hit.

It just means that Burning Man is not working for them anymore.

Burning Man isn’t a lifelong commitment — at least, not the part of Burning Man that says you have to get a huge group of people together in the desert and wear funny clothes and burn a bunch of stuff. But the other stuff, the desire to leave commercialism behind, to include all who wish to be included, to take care of your own shit, to gift and be gifted — well, these things might stick with people, even if they’ve decided to not go back to Burning Man.

And that’s not a bad thing.

As you leave, though, please don’t make me feel bad or guilty for still liking Burning Man.  Because I still get to do it the way I want to do it. If I want to, maybe I’ll be in an RV. If I don’t want to, or can’t swing it, maybe I’ll be in a tent.

Maybe I’ll be with a huge group of people in a theme camp on the Esplanade, or maybe I’ll be in walk-in camping, enjoying all the glitter and glow from afar.

Maybe I’ll be with the sparkle ponies at Pink Mammoth, or maybe I’ll be having tea at the perimeter fence.

But not matter how I try to do it, big or small, fancy or bare-bones, I’m going to look for ways to make the experience amazing. I’m going to look for ways to live in style and grace.

And I’m going to be around a lot of other people trying to do the same thing.

As ever, your thoughts, observations, feedback and participation are most welcome. We’d love to hear from you, and thank you in advance for taking the time.


Ok, how ’bout some pictures:



The Gerlach jail is apparently missing some laundry

A lot of the DPW folks who had been out in the desert and in Gerlach since July made it back for Decompression. The crews passed the BLM playa inspection with flying colors. Phoenix and Logan were getting used to being back in the city, after 80-odd days away.
Jane and Jen
Will and Katie and the little one

There were plenty of people on stilts roaming the streets

This couple got engaged at Burning Man this year, after meeting in the desert last year. We'll be looking for the playa wedding ceremony next year.

Josie was on duty watching over the art in the park
Kids had a good time too
This little girl was having a good time twirling around on the monkey bars


KidHack and pal relaxing in the park
Not everyone was having a dance party at Decompression

Three hoops at a time

D.A., the leader of the Playa Restoration team, was another one of the DPW people who had just rolled into town.
Angela and the MegaFlame crew were among the performers
Megs and her man after the MegaFlame show

Club CoCoMo was plenty crowded


Anyone want to have a caption contest for this one?


Playarazzi Andy, one of the finest Burning Man photographers around
When there's fire around, Dave X isn't far away

SFPD, please note

Opalessence and Lord Huckleberry have been friends for 38 years. They both moved here from Indiana. They didn't know each other there, but met each other within weeks of moving here. The rest is (very interesting) history.
Flash, the man in the middle, called this picture an Oreo cookie shot.
The Senator and an aide from BRAF
Campmates reunited at the Media Mecca booth
The jellies lit up the street as darkness fell
She's the one who designed the beautiful jellies. We didn't get her name, so if you know it, please let us know in the comments below

This might look like trouble, but it's not. Both of them were laughing. It's just the way DPW decompresses.

About the author: John Curley

John Curley has been Burning since the relatively late date of 2004, and in 2008 he spent the better part of a month on the playa, documenting the building and burning of Black Rock City in words and pictures. John is a longtime newspaper person and spent many years at the San Francisco Chronicle, where he was a deputy managing editor in charge of Page One and the news sections of the paper. Since leaving the Chronicle in 2007, he was a contributing editor on Blue Planet Run, a book about the world's water crisis, and for the past two years has been a lecturer at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. He has also started an event and editorial photography business, and is also working on a book about the "Ten Dollar Doc" from Arco, Idaho, which will make a lovely film someday.

64 thoughts on “Decompression and beyond

  • 2011 was my first year at burning man and i was blown away by how much art there was, it’s magnitude and how much money people spend just to drive a huge boat in the desert! i think that burning man is and always will be in the eye of the beholder. no one can quite explain it, you just have to experience it to understand. with that said it will always be what you want it to be. for me it was inspirational and made me realize even more that anything is possible. the only thing constant in life is change.

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  • Burning Man has been a yearly ritual for me since 1997. What keeps me coming back? One thing I recognize and appreciate is that -for me at least- it’s life condensed. Every year at some point during the Burn I feel overjoyed, connected, alone, annoyed, exalted, exhausted and appreciative. What hasn’t changed is that every year I get an opportunity to contribute. I make giant toys that people play inside of, and I LOVE watching people enjoy what I’ve created for them.
    Has the event changed? Yes and no. It’s obviously bigger, and I have some idea of what to expect, but I’m new things still surprised me. I continue to make great new connections, deepen old ones and get a chance to share myself and my art. I’m very grateful to have experienced the gift of attending 15 Burns in a row. I hope to make it 16 in 2012.

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  • …Oops, I should have proof read my comment. What I meant to say was “I now have some idea of what to expect when I go the Burning Man, but every year I come across new things that surprise me.”

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  • I needed this article, right now. Thank you. It found me the same way I found home for the first time in 2008 – fortuitously. Both the Burn, and the previous month volunteering in Peru with BWB were pivots in my life. And I couldn’t be more grateful for the way they spun me around (or I spun them around?).

    Thank you to all the Burners. The fire never dies; the flame remains inside. Welcome home.

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  • I first heard the faint beat of a pumping heart 20 years ago until it pounded loudly for me in 2002. This year was 7 or 8 for me. I had my best year ever. My first few years were all about me…I couldn’t fill myself with enough of anything to feel completely satisfied….through the years I’ve learned that the more you give @BM, and in life, the more satisfied you feel. I know it sounds corny, but it’s quite true. I’m still evolving but I’ve had some major breakthroughs. I still hold out hope for those who may be “assholes” in their first few years…I was one. I try not to be one any longer, often failing. I’m lucky BM found me.
    Thanks for the wonderful article.

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  • Great article. 2011 was my 11th Burn. My first Burn (2001) is a fuzzy memory. My favorite years were 2004 and 2006. 2007 was such a downer I almost did not go back in 2008.
    But I joined a funk/fusion band and they said they wanted to take the band out there. So in 2008 I came as a musician. Three years of playing a lot of music, 2008 and 2010 were both pretty good years. Still, after 10 years, I felt that maybe I had done it enough. Seven years of partying, 3 years of working as a musician.

    Then the bass player hatched an idea. Let’s build an Mutant Vehicle! 2011 was such a completely different adventure. We spend almost 6 months designing and building our Mutant Vehicle (the pink elephant). We were both so tired of it, just getting it to the playa was a hard time, breaking down in Nixon. However, the Saturday before the Burn we got Beau Le’Phant put together and took it for it’s first drive and folks ran out of their camps to cheer the pink elephant and take pictures! It was a moment I won’t forget and an experience I never expected to have. I think Beau gave folks more joy than all of my previous years of giving.

    So I have reinvented my Burning Man experience three times in 11 years. Each gave a new perspective. I think I will run with the Mutant Vehicle crowd for a while. The amount of happiness that our pink elephant brought was overwhelming.

    Burn long and perspire!

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  • AMAZING, let all the haters hate and let the dreamers dream, then we’ll see who’s enjoying themselves!

    This article not only summerises Burning Man but life in The Universe in general.

    Evolution not revolution!

    Will Couch


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  • Yo I only recently heard about Burning Man because one of my fav youtubers posted her show there. I’m from the Caribbean, and while i know its going to be expensive, I’ve determined that before I die, I WILL go to burning man. I’ll be a newbie, but I know it’ll be great.

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  • This was my first burn. It was magical. It put me in a place in my life that I had been yearning for. I felt like I was exactly where I was supposed to be. I feel more awakened than I have ever felt. Now that I am back, I dream of the feeling of being home again. I know it will never feel the same way as the first time, but I do know it will grow into a different version of that feeling that I experienced out there, home.
    I don’t want it to be the exact same. I’m ok with it changing. Because I am constantly evolving I want it to evolve with me, with us. I want it to evolve like any community, reminding us to grow. It reminds me of why I live for this. We have much more to keep giving. People search their whole lives for it, and I feel blessed to have found it at the age of 24. Thank You!

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  • A friend shared this link awhile ago, and I just read the post. Whole lot of goodness here.
    I’ll share what I told her, before her second year:

    Your second year may be more enjoyable than your first, because if the stress and anxiety of preparation can be high for you, the second year allows you to be-and-feel much more prepared, and therefore better-able to simply BE, and enjoy your surroundings.

    She reported afterward, that I was right. ;-)

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