At Burning Man in 2007, a French man in a maid outfit coached me how to eat dark chocolate. Savor it. Mindfully let it melt in your mouth. Let the chocolate work on you. He talked softly in my ear, coaxing patience when I wanted to chew already. It took 15 minutes to fully dissolve. It felt like a nearly orgasmic experience.
In the present day, as I was typing that last paragraph, I very unconsciously gorged on an entire bar of 70% cacao dark chocolate. His lesson didn’t stick. I still eat food like a monster.
They close the Burning Man arts festival in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada by burning an effigy of a man. To me, it symbolizes the temporal nature of this wonderland. This imagined city of make-believe doesn’t last. And it wouldn’t have the same meaning if it extended more than just one magical week a year. It’s up to you to take the lessons you’ve absorbed back into the real world, where hopefully they can change your life.
The first year I came back euphoric, hailing Burning Man as the life-changing transformative experience that you simply had to get to. It was all I could talk about. Burning Man will change your life! I sounded like a broken record. My whimsy didn’t last very long in the real world.
I’ve kept a journal since my first year there in 2o07. On the first page I wrote:
It is overwhelming how true that statement is for me in 2017, nearly ten years later. I go on wild adventures, like traveling to Burning Man or solo trips to Europe, Esalen, or Bali. They provide me insight into my inner workings, but my limiting behaviors haven’t changed so much. They’ve imperceptibly shifted a bit, that’s all. It’s a bit terrifying to realize that but also sobering.
No matter their lasting impact, I have wild memories from my four trips to Burning Man. So much happened in such altered states, it can be a bit hard to recall, but here are smattered stories, in no particular order, representing roughly 2% of what happened on my adventures:
I remember it as the most epic moment of my life, though I was tripping on Ketamine and other things, so that colored the experience. I climbed a crystalline pyramid, wearing light-up disco pants and a British flag, at the top I screamed into the wind, “God, save the Queen!” This is the video:
Soon after, a crowd formed below me and began chanting, “You win Burning Man!”
Another year, I went out into a dust storm and climbed a pyramid made of baseballs fused to baseball bats (I like to climb things). At the top was an opera singer painted all in blue, like the diva from The Fifth Element movie. She was singing a Mozart aria into the storm. I joined her and improvised a counterpoint melody as best I could. She smiled like she didn’t mind.
I went down a rabbit hole of an acid trip one day and lost track of my friends. We had travelled to the ashram that raffles away a stay each night in one of their 5-star rooms for free (there’s no money exchanged at Burning Man), complete with food and butler service. I later found out my friends won and enjoyed the luxerious stay-over, but I ended up in someone else’s wedding in another part of the ashram. There was a piano — of all places a piano in the middle of the desert! I hobbled over to it. There was a compendium of Disney’s greatest hits on the piano. I opened it to The Bare Necessities and started playing and singing the song. I ended up playing Disney songs for the entire wedding and reception.
We were biking on the wide open plain of the playa. The sun was setting and it was somehow still warm (the desert temperatures normally plummet at night). I was only wearing underwear. The sunset made a rainbow across the sky. It made me fall off my bike and weep. I felt a calling to visit The Temple — a solemn place built every year for spiritual and religious moments. I went in and burst into tears, feeling the loss of my mother two years earlier. I hadn’t truly cried since she died. A Temple Guardian I didn’t know and never saw again came and held me tight as I sobbed. I remember I thought she had my mother’s eyes.
Daft Punk was — actually— playing on the night of a lunar eclipse. They were DJ-ing at the huge outdoor dance camp. There were flame throwers set-up on all sides which could be controlled by the DJ’s touch. As the moon began to shade itself dark red, Daft Punk switched to a pounding, steady beat. The energy reached a fever pitch. People were screaming. The second the moon fully eclipsed, they played “Lucy In The Sky with Diamonds” and turned every flame thrower up to an 11. My heart exploded.
It was a life-size game of operation played on horizontal 60-foot man game board splayed out on the desert floor. I went and crouched in the heart and waited for someone to rescue me without touching the sides. There was no electrical current if they did. It was just a game. Someone eventually came by and freed me and we laughed.
Tired of waiting inside our tent during a major dust storm, I ventured into the unknown. I stumbled on Comfort and Joy, one of several gay sex orgy tents. I went inside and was very intimidated. I was 22. I just wanted to check things out. There were people in all states of masturbation or copulation splayed over the plush multi-colored pillows. A large black man came up and started touching me, without my consent. “No thanks,” I said. “Racist,” he replied, following me as I got up to leave. “Racist!” he screamed into the storm, as I ran away.
I went back to a sex tent the next year: The Down Low Club. It was ostensibly a secretive place for straight guys to experiment with man-on-man sex. I doubt anyone in there really identified as straight, but it was a nice idea. The club was pitch-black — more like a Berlin basement than the rainbow 1970’s-esque orgy of Comfort and Joy. There were slings and lots of bearded guys in leather or nothing at all. People didn’t smell that bad. One day in humid New York City, I think I have worse body odor than a week in dry arid Black Rock Desert. I took a foam shower once at the Dr. Bronner tent, but the experience was scary. We were herded, naked, into a packed compartment and sprayed down with foam hoses. The whole thing set off alarms in the Jewish side of my brain.
At The Down Low Club, I did some fun stuff with a hot guy I approached. No one spoke. Like all gay bathhouses, everything was done strictly via eye contact and gestures. Afterwards, buzzing all over, I went back to brag to my friends about my escapades, when I realized my ID wasn’t in my sock, where I kept it for safekeeping. It must have fallen out while I was fucking. So I went back to The Down Low Club, turning on my cell phone for light. The things I saw in the harsh glare of my Iphone 5S backlight I won’t repeat. I never found my identity. I later learned you can fly home without an ID, they just ask you give you an extra pat-down.
A major tenant of Burning Man is freely gift-giving to others, without expecting any reciprocation. I made my gift the gift of teaching improv. The first time I offered to teach kids. No one showed up. The second time, I opened it to any adults. No one showed up. So I never taught improv at Burning Man.
You can discover your Playa name at Burning Man. A name just for people to call you there. My second year, some friends christened me with the name “GO!” Because I always wanted to go and do stuff.
When I got back to the real world that year, I wanted to immortalize my Playa name and remember the experience. So I got a Groupon for a tattoo and went to a parlor, a bit intoxicated with my friend Thrisa. I got them to tattoo “Go” on one foot and “Slow” on the other, so I’d remember both my strength and my challenge in my life.
But because I was a bit buzzed, I didn’t think about which word should go on each foot. I figured a tattoo should foremost be readable to others, so I did it like this:
Which is great if you aren’t me looking at my own feet. From my perspective, it says “Slow Go.”
Burning Man may be ephemeral, but tattoos are for life. I googled laser surgery removal to fix my mistake, but ultimately I let it go. It was too expensive.
My Playa name changed in later years to be “Pip,” which was my nickname Freshman year in college during my short-lived time in an a capella group called The Undertones. I liked the name and how it sounded vaguely British, so I brought it back:
The four lessons I wrote down from my first year at Burning Man, which I still think are good advice, are:
I have no idea what I meant by this drawing:
Except that I’m still exploring my sexuality as a 31-year old gay man who’s never been a Top yet. My gay friends assure me I am missing out.
Sophomore slumps are real. The lively group I travelled with my first year in 2007 returned in 2008. Our camp was called The Post Apocalyptic Dust Pirates, and the three most commons words I overheard were “death, dust,” and “haggard.” I went off and decided to mushroom trip by myself, to get away from the negativity. I found a camp playing the song “Pop Muzik” by Mon repeat as a joke. I danced to that song for two hours and had the time of my life.
One night I was feelin’ funky and lit up my giant butterfly wings outside a disco-playing camp. It was my favorite camp because most music at Burning Man is EDM, which gets old.
I started doing the electric slide outside the camp. 40 fire-dancers saw me dancing and joined me. They started playing with fire as they did the slide. I kept cool in the center, in my own world.
I flashed back to this moment when I was recently on the paradise island of Gili Air. It was full of timid honeymooners. I started a dance party there at a bar blasting Michael Jackson music, and no one would join my dancing except the Indonesian staff. It made me realize the most special thing about Burning Man is the people there. The first thing they say to you when you arrive is, “Welcome Home.”
If you’re wearing an animal-themed outfit, you can sometimes be chased by Animal Control. It’s an Art Car (no real cars are allowed to roam at Burning Man; they have to be moving for artistic purposes) which will chase down anyone resembling an animal, seize you, throw you in the van, and ply you with beer. Then they put “dog tags” on your neck as a token of your experience and throw your wasted ass out onto the Playa. I always wanted to get chased, but it hasn’t happened…yet.
I walked into a marching band with a flaming tuba. They were playing “Amazing Grace.”
We took my best friend Aaron to Slut Court. The judge wore a crazy red cape and charged him with being a slut. His sentence was to fake jack off another friend in a cage for awhile. Burning Man is funny.
It was the last day of my first year. I’d already packed up my belongings and was ready to depart. I had some time to kill, so I wandered over to the aviation camp. I discovered they held a raffle to go up in a biplane to 10,000 feet, where you could see it all. Of course, I won the lottery. They strapped a parachute to me and I went up in the plane. “Wanna jump?” they offered, “just pull the cord after like 10 seconds.” I really wanted to, but I decided it was too dangerous. Part of me really regrets that decision and the other part wonders if there would be a part of me to regret it had I jumped.
Being on a drug-addled trip every day can feel like you’re chasing a high. It should be said that many people don’t touch drugs at Burning Man. One sober day, I drew this:
I’m diagnosed as a bit bi-polar, so I can run myself ragged trying to feel epic all the time. Or, life feels septic. There’s very little in-between. I’m realizing that in the middle of those extremes lies contentment. But the only way to reach it is through experiencing your fears. The only way out is thru. Meditation helps me reach that place.
Burning Man is a city that exists for one week in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. I encourage you to go, if you want. The challenge is to remember what it felt like and bring your reflections back into the real world. To still savor dark chocolate.
I think I’ll go back again this year.