Successful theme camps, it seems go through a common life-cycle. According to organizers from various camps I’ve spoken to:
- They start out as an incredible idea. “Hey, do you think we can pull this off?”
- And then they pull it off, and it’s amazing, and more people want to get involved, and a couple of growth years go by.
- Then there comes a point where people who have spent so much time and energy and money on this project for the last several years ask themselves … “why are we doing this again?”
- At which point they either recommit to taking the thing to an even crazier next level of awesomeness … or they let it go and find something else to do with their time.
Individual burners seem to have a similar life-cycle. It’s noticeable how many serious long-time Burners I know have lost all interest in “The Man,” and most interest in the Temple, and keep only a low-grade interest in the art and spectacle.
Instead they keep coming back for the people: to see friends who are lost to them the rest of the year, or to be there when their friends dress up and go crazy like they otherwise never would. They’re here to chill out with their people, and everything else is secondary. Go out to the fire sculpture and dance naked under the moonlight? Maybe, but … their friends are all right here, with deck chairs and whisky.
I’ve noticed the change in myself, and have come to the gradual conclusion that – at least for me – I’ve been doing it wrong.
My first year at Burning Man I did absolutely nothing but wander around the playa and take in all the bizarre and wonderful things people were doing. I interacted with no-one but strangers. Baffling serendipity dogged my heels.
The next year was like that, only I had more of a home base, so I didn’t get out quite so much and I hung around with a few more of the same people.
Two years later I was mostly hanging out at my two home bases, but still managed to get some good wander time in.
But last year? 2012? I lived an almost entirely Center Camp based existence – not because I was lazy (although sure), but because that’s where all my friends were. I’d cycle back and forth and back and forth between Media Mecca and BMIR, back and forth, back and forth, and then occasionally wander off to where another friend was camping to make sure I got to chill with them. Oh, and I saw the Temple.
I’m not saying I didn’t have a good time, or that good things didn’t happen to me. The pop-up absinthe bar was awesome. The war I started between the Census Bureau and Media Mecca was pretty sweet: I’d never been wrestled to the ground by three people in lab coats before. I had a great time rolling out in a golf cart with a member of Burning Man’s staff (who shall remain nameless), driving up to random people, flashing our radios and staff laminates, and insisting that we were from Burning Man’s Department of Linguistics and needed to know all your synonyms for sex RIGHT NOW.
But the truth is that I spent the vast majority of my week cycling between people I know, and who are therefore known quantities, having very few of the experiences that change the way you see the world.
And I had a great time. But … well, here’s the thing.
Whenever people ask me “Why do you keep going back to Burning Man?” I never say “Because there are these awesome people there.” I could, if I wanted to, get on a plane and see many of these awesome people any time during the year. And not every awesome person goes every year. (Am I bitter that BMIR’s Mao will not be attending in 2013? Yes. Yes I am.)
No, what I tell people is: “I keep coming back to Burning Man because in most of my life I have a pretty good idea of what’s going to happen next. Most days, I wake up in the morning and have a clear sense of where the boundaries are, the limits are, how far I’ll be taken. There aren’t all that many surprises. But at Burning Man, I honestly have no idea what the hell is going to happen next. Anything is possible. I go back because it’s good for me to have that in my life.”
And it’s true. I do need that. And yet it’s clear now that I’ve been moving away from it, bit by bit, with each new Burning Man. Falling into a comfortable – if not to say awesome – routine. And that’s great, but … I’m doing it wrong.
For me, at least, it seems clear that whatever I’ve gained from my later years at Burning Man (and it’s considerable), I’ve lost the mission.
It’s surely not a coincidence that this last year was also the least challenging burn I’ve ever had. And I don’t mean “exodus” or “weather” challenging – though actually, yeah. I mean that I’ve come to expect, as a recurring part of my Burning Man experience, at least two major existential crises during the course of that week. At least two breakdowns where I’m stewing in the foulest of my inner issues, wondering “why am I such a failure as a human being?” and “how can I make all of you pay for the happiness you have that constantly eludes my grasp?”
Two a week. Guaranteed. A couple years ago I even had to bound myself off from the playa for a while in order to restore my mental equilibrium. It was terrible, and hilarious, and wonderful – and my people came through.
But last year? Nothing. No existential crisis at all. Smooth sailing. What a party.
And … great, right?
There’s no reason I shouldn’t be happy with that, and who knows – maybe it even represents personal growth. But I can’t help thinking that they go together: of course I’m not risking an existential crisis if I’m mostly hanging around my friends and favorite haunts.
I’m not really risking anything.
And if you get out of Burning Man what you put into it … what does it say about my potential experience that I’m playing it safe, even if for the best of reasons?
I don’t know what it might say for you. Your mileage may vary. But it means that I’ve let go in practice of what excited me most about Burning Man in principle. If I want to be part of a space where anything can happen, I have to go outside my comfort zone.
For the happiest of reasons, I’ve been doing it wrong.
This year, then, has to be different. Steps have been taken. I’ve dropped out of my on-site volunteer role. My time will be my own. I’ll be camping outside of Center Camp. And if I’m dedicated enough, if I really mean it, I’ll spend only a little time back at my old homesteads hanging around with the old gang, and instead will wander through the hot and dusty streets, opening myself up to whatever wonderful and terrible things you amazing people are cooking out there.
Is this crazy? Will I really spend less time with the people who like me … on purpose?
I’ll let you know how it goes.
In the meantime, I want to ask our veteran burners how your experience of Burning Man has changed over time. I know, I know … it isn’t what it used to be, we all sold out. Fuck you too. But for those who are still going: how has it changed for you (emphasizing the “for you”), and what have you done about it?
Tell me in the comments below. I want your wisdom.
is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man likes to sing by the trash fence at night. His opinions are in no way statements of the Burning Man organization. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com