Survival

It has been a long night.

No one is stirring in camp. It is dark and quiet. As quiet as things get, anyway. The dance still rages on in all directions, but it sounds faint now that you’re home again.

The stars have moved a lot. The wind is chilly. Your legs ache, and your eyes are heavy. Take a slug of water. A few drops spill on the dust. Take another swallow.

You pan through the darkness with your pale headlamp. There’s your tent, just like you left it, rainfly flapping around unzipped. Pop a squat on the fold-up camping stool that wound up becoming yours. Your feet feel glad.

Time to untie those boots again. The laces have hardened and caked with dust, as have your fingernails, but you manage to loosen the knot. You work the laces free. Grab onto your right boot with both hands and yank, harder, prying the heel off first. Feel your toes in your stiff socks slipping out. Peel away that sock and throw it in your tent. Forget about it for a few more days until it’s time to pack up and go.

Now the other lace, the other boot, the other sock. Your grateful feet feel the wind. You turn on your stool and slip into your flip flops, which live outside your tent flap this week. Don’t touch the bare playa with your feet, they said on the first day. You’ve done your best.

Twist the grooves, flip the lid, drink more water.

Remember dinner? Remember the pasta Val had just finished making when you rolled back into camp, sunburned, elated, knowing more about acupuncture than you knew there was to know? Your bottles were empty, so you refilled them from the jug hidden in the shade under the car. You put on your chapstick, which a woman in a top hat had given you that morning. And Val handed you a steaming bowl of green linguine covered in marinara sauce she was making all day long.

Then everybody started getting dressed, trying on different colors, painting faces in the side mirrors of each other’s cars, clipping LEDs onto various parts of outfits, then moving them. Everybody refilled their water bottles again. The sun set behind the mountains, and the neighborhood erupted with whoops and hollers and cheers.

Finally, at last, everyone was ready, and you rode off down the spire toward the thumping drums and blinking lights.

The night whirled by in song and dance and shouted conversations. Your party split and rejoined and split again, everyone pulling in different directions. You jammed for an hour under a geodesic dome. You were nearly run over by a Victorian mansion on wheels, and then you jumped aboard and rode for a while. You traded jewels with a man whose accent you could barely understand. You watched hapless players lose an impossible game, and flames shot into the sky.

And after all that, you’re home again. Another day and night blown away. Slug more water. Time for bed.

Unclip your lights, remove your bracelets and other charms, stuff them in your pack. Remove the glowsticks from your shirt pockets.

Get the graywater jug, your toothbrush and toothpaste. The bristles are hardened now, but it feels good and clean. Spit into the jug, try not to smell it. Rinse with clean, cold water from your bottle, spit again. Screw the cap back on and slide the graywater back under the car. A few drops spill on the ground.

Splash a little water on your face, wipe it with a dirty shirt. Who cares? You’re really fading now. Shuffle over to the tent. Yank on the zipper, yank some more until the flap gives way.

The horizon is starting to glow. Just a little bit.

The quiet pulses in your ears. Throw down your coat. Collapse onto the air mattress. You sink toward the ground, and it folds around you. Pull the dusty, woolen blanket over you. You made it. You’re home. It’s warm again.

You survived.

All photos by the all-seeing Scott London.

About the author: Jon Mitchell

I'm the managing editor at Burning Man. I wrote this book and this record. I co-wrote a big story about spending 24 hours at the Temple of Juno in 2012, which lives at templestories.com. I've been a Burner since 2008.

11 thoughts on “Survival

  • I want to go back – so bad – I can’t believe it either – ‘cuz I have been saying since the ticket sitch “fuck it.” “Fuck it.” But today – suddenly – a pull, in my plexus – a yearning out of nowhere, the nowhere of my hidden heart – To be on the Playa, home, the comfort of it…and now, this beautiful essay – I feel tears rise…

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  • This was not the experience of a plug & play patron ! :P

    IMHO, bringing the comforts of home out to the playa is borderline sacrilege.
    In 2008 several times a day walking by a trailer parked just off of Center Camp, way more often than not, the occupants were inside sitting in front of a TV. Hey, it was their burn, I have no business judging that. Let’s just say it was severe cognitive dissonance for me every time I saw that.

    The spartan harsh simplicity of living with the most basic amenities possible cements the clean break from the default world for a precious few days in a year.

    Intensity, immediacy, tribalism, primal behaviors, and simple basic sensory experiences are what it is all about on the playa. The suffering, discomfort, dust, physical and sensory overload, stress, as well as the occasional hellish harshness of the place amplify and enhance all of this as well. All of this shit provides the stark contrast that make the positive experiences there that much more positive and delightful.

    The playa can be literally lethal. You survive. Burning Man builds character.

    Mr. Mitchel’s essay here captures the experience nicely, good read sir!

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  • Rounding the corner for home (this is my street?) and landing with my tribe always brings a smile and a deep appreciation for the beautiful experiences and encounters I’ve had on the playa. Even now, time and distance hold no power over the exquisite and cherished connections that will forever inform what it means to be free and in community. The simple act of “turning in” for the night has found new meaning in your words. Well said, Jon. I look forward to the quiet and distant echoes of a new day on the playa come August.

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  • I love stories that show a glimpse of the real flavor of Black Rock City.

    No one can know what it is like unless they’ve been there. It’s not only the people, the sights and sounds, its the FEELING of the open playa, of 4am naps in a chill dome, of sunrise dancing in the dust, of refreshing morning yoga.

    It’s the fact that it’s 168 hours STRAIGHT of doing whatever the hell you want(within the 10 principles) and no one caring, but plenty of folks caring…for you!

    Protect it we will, but never forget the mystical qualities that are found on the Playa. Don’t let them go.

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