Burning Man 2017 – Burn, Baby, Burn
To those of you familiar with the Myers-Briggs Type Scale, I will introduce myself to you by letting you know that I identify as an INFJ. For those of you less familiar with this personality questionnaire, fear not – I’ll elaborate. The Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator is a quiz designed to identify a person’s personality type, strengths, and preferences. As an INFJ – or Introverted iNtuitive Feeling Judging – I am defined as a gentle, emotional, and intuitive individual who places great importance on having things orderly and systematic in day to day life.
Large crowds intimidate rather than invigorate me. The prospect of meeting new people is daunting, not desirable. And an environment where rules and standard social constructs are blown away as easily as a piece of MOOP in a dust storm? Absolutely terrifying.
So why the hell did I go to Burning Man?
Burning Man is a gathering that takes place annually in Black Rock City – a temporary city erected in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada for exactly one week out of every year. Attendance varies from year to year, but it has been estimated that this year’s city had somewhere between 65,000 and 70,000 attendees.
When my friends first went to Burning Man two years ago, they couldn’t stop talking about it. I kept hearing words and phrases like “gifting”, “radical self-reliance,” and “immediacy.” The event is described as an experiment in community and art, influenced by 10 main principles: the three quoted above, radical inclusion, radical self-expression, community cooperation, civic responsibility, decommodification, participation, and leaving no trace. It all seemed a bit much for me, but as my friends kept talking about it, my interest began to stir. What was this magical place – constructed from the dust for one week just to be burned back down to ashes – that had made such an impact on my group of usually level-headed friends?
I finally caved and decided I had to see what all the fuss was about. Once I secured my ticket to the event, I learned that the road leading to Burning Man is just as strenuous as the desert conditions themselves. One does not simply walk into Burning Man. Our camp of eight (lovingly dubbed Camp You Are Here) had an extremely active group text, a private Facebook group where we posted tips, informational articles and a plethora of mandatory camp meetings where we met to coordinate logistics for our trip to the desert. This isn’t Coachella – there are no water stations or food booths. As stated on the back of each attendee’s ticket, you are expected to bring enough food, water, shelter, and first aid to survive the duration of the event in a harsh desert environment. Luckily, I was going with a group of veterans who knew what they were doing and were able to assist me as I haphazardly attempted to prepare myself for the unexpected.
After months of group texts, meetings, and seemingly never ending stress, our group finally caravanned out of California and eventually made it to Black Rock City. As soon as we drove through the welcome gates, all the veterans rejoiced. They were home! I, on the other hand, felt uneasy and completely out of my element. I immediately felt overwhelmed by the size of the event (the city spans over 1.5 miles in diameter), the massive number of overwhelmingly peppy volunteers welcoming me in with huge hugs, sparkly outfits, and wide grins, and the fluidity of it all. I’ve done music festivals before and work very well within the confines of a schedule – “Okay, everyone. Artist A is playing at X Tent at This Time; then, we’ll go see Artist B who is playing at Y Tent at That Time. After that…….” Black Rock City, on the other hand, operates… well, like a city. There’s no lineup. There’s no main stage. There’s just miles and miles of campgrounds, people, and huge, intimidatingly interactive art. How was this sensitive little INFJ supposed to survive an entire week of this?
Our very first night on the playa (the locals’ name for the desert), after we finally finished putting our structure together, we took our bikes and drove out to the Man. We were able to perch on the second story of the structure surrounding him. As my friends looked inward to stare at the Man towering over them, I turned to look out at the city… and it all just took my breath away. The lights, the art cars, the pulsing music, the sculptures, the people… it all just seemed so unreal. In that moment, I could feel my anxiety melting away, and, for some reason unbeknownst to me, something just clicked. I felt ready to be open to new experiences, new people, and everything that my “default world” (the Burner community’s name for the life one leads outside of Black Rock City) self feared so much. It suddenly made so much sense to me.
This, I realized, was a group of individuals who came together for one fleeting week to create a magical, warm, and welcoming community. Back in the default world, everyone has their own struggles, trials, and tribulations. On the playa, there are people from all different walks of life. There are people of all different ages, ethnicities, social standings, genders, financial statuses, religions, political beliefs, IQs, and professions. Throughout my week, I would meet people who trekked out to Black Rock City from all over the globe, and I would learn of the long and difficult journeys everyone conquered in order to arrive at Burning Man. But everyone, regardless of who they were or what their story was, for just one short week in Black Rock City, put all of that aside in order to create a safe, beautiful space for people to connect in a way that seems impossible in everyday life. In that moment, as corny as it sounds, I understood why so many people simply refer to Burning Man as “home.”
I spent the next seven days in a state of weightless bliss. I abandoned my defense mechanisms and preconceived notions about social interactions and opened myself up to new experiences. I said “yes” to interactions and opportunities I would typically run and hide from, and went out of my way to experience things that, well, one would only be able to experience at Burning Man.
I can’t remember the last time I was so carefree. I felt like I had the opportunity to truly and unapologetically be myself while wandering around this magical city. Every street, every corner, every person presented an opportunity for a new experience. I interacted with neighbors, strangers, old people, young people, friends, and everything around me. It felt like the suit of armor I wear every day had been lifted off me, and that vulnerable, open feeling was something like no other.
On Saturday night, per Burning Man tradition, our group (along with the tens of thousands of other attendees) went out to the Man to watch it fulfill its namesake. As we watched the flames rise, felt the heat on our faces, and held each other tight, I understood why this moment is so symbolic for so many Burners. Everything I had been taught in the default world – everything I had been trained to do simply because someone told me to – was melting away. I felt like I was finally free to forge relationships on my own terms, make choices that were my own, and act in the ways I wanted and felt was right. It was a beautiful feeling.
Right now, I’m comfortably situated back in my bed (no more dusty tents or semi-deflated air mattresses – thank goodness!!) and typing this blog from the comfort of my air conditioned apartment (I’ve never been so thankful for central air) without a trace of playa dust in my hair or on my skin (well…maybe with a few more showers)… and yet, I still feel that Burning Man is with me. No, it’s not just because I still haven’t unpacked from my trip – it’s because Burning Man is something that you take with you long after you leave the playa.
I’ve never written a travel blog before, but I feel like this isn’t your typical post. Burning Man isn’t a place that can be summed up by explaining the topography or the “must-see” sites. I can’t list the top 10 attractions or the hidden gems of the playa. Cecelia Ahern summed it up well with her well-known quote, “Home isn’t a place, it’s a feeling.” In the context of Burning Man, this couldn’t be more true. Burning Man isn’t just a location you can go to and visit, snap some pictures, and leave. It’s an experience, through and through. It’s exhausting, insane, wild, overwhelming, and completely mesmerizing. Ahern summed it up well, but she’s missing just one thing. Burning Man isn’t just a place, and it’s not even a feeling – it’s a state of being. And I’m so happy to say that Burning Man has empowered this little INFJ to embrace and share this state of being until the next time I am able to return to my new, dusty, beautiful home.
Burning Man is always held the week prior to and including Labor Day weekend. In 2018, the dates are August 26 through September 3. Ticket information can be found on tickets.burningman.org. More information about the event, culture, and history can be found on the official Burning Man website at burningman.org.