Shortly after two in the morning, after a reoccurring nightmare woke me up for the third time, I began to wonder if my forthcoming trip to the Burning Man was such a great idea after all. It was late summer 2002, and for the third time in several hours I dreamed that I was standing at the gates of hell. (There was a seven hour wait to get in.) I had been warned for weeks about the withering heat and relentless sandstorms, and suddenly it dawned on me that unless you were born and raised in a Mad Max post-apocalyptic future world, the Black Rock desert of northern Nevada might be a fairly inhospitable environment that could resemble a trip to hell.
Riding shotgun in my friend, Daddy Vegas’ minivan a few weeks ago, I chuckled at the memory as I was about to make my 15th entry to the annual week-long festival. The face of the surrounding desert peaks began to blush pink against the face sunrise as I peered into the cracked rearview mirror of my mind. As I approached the beginning of my 15th year at Black Rock City I found myself in a self-reflective mood. The festival’s founder, Larry Harvey, had recently died due to a massive stroke. Losses have a way of causing pause, and then flinging us forward into the unknown.
That’s what it had been about all those years ago-pushing myself, a budding Southern Baptist preacher at the time, through the gates of Dante’s Inferno. I had questions about my chosen path. There was the gnawing clench of my heart muscle that told me I was missing something. That the universe was a bigger place than I had previously imagined, and I had an all-too-eager friend coaxing me to a budding festival once hyped by writer Daniel Pinchbeck as “more decadent than Warhol’s Factory, more glamorous than Berlin in the 1920s, more ludicrous than the most lavish Busby musical, more of a love-fest than Pepperland, more anarchic than Groucho Marx’s Freedonia, more implausible than any mirage.”
“Come on!” she implored as curly dark locks danced around her impish gaze,” Go with me to the desert. If you still want to be a preacher when we get back, then go to it!” Of course, there was no going back. There never is for anyone, but I didn’t realize that truism at the time. All I saw was the cracked, bleached pavement of a single lane road leading me to an open-ended journey set on the salty dust of a prehistoric lake bed.
As I look through the rear view mirror of Vegas’ van the words read that objects in the mirror were closer than they appeared to me, but inside I felt the vast distance of a by-gone time. That first year of Burning Man, as many others before me had experienced, had changed my life. I never preached again. I literally became myself with each new year of attending Burning Man. My life grew larger as the festival expanded. I found a new career in special education, learned to climb, ski, and mountain bike though I have a slight form of cerebral palsy. I discovered that I had a talent for photography, and traveled the lower 48 states documenting arts and music festivals. In 2015 I married my wife Greta at Black Rock City.
The festival grew up and I grew up with it. When I first attended Burning Man there was around 25,000 participants and now there is over 70,000. The art structures are larger, more plentiful, and as beautiful as ever. The city is more sprawling with lit-up fire-shooting grandeur. The festival’s live music presence continues to grow as well. There were surprise shows from the Alan Parsons Project, Infected Mushroom, a significant funk/New Orleans jazz presence that included the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. But that’s not what brings me back anymore. I most certainly enjoy the eye-popping sights and gaudy fashions. But I do understand the worry of some critics who say that in its size, Burning Man has lost its way sort of like a wayward itinerant preacher who is no longer certain of his beliefs. For some there is no longer any reason to go. For others, there never will be a reason to go.
Except for me, there is a reason. Family. Back in 2002, I and my impish curly-locked friend were invited to camp for that week in the Reno-based theme camp Gallavant with their modest, but still-sailing pirate ship mounted on a bread truck. That camp, as the larger population of Burning Man, is a varied group of doctors, electricians, artists, accountants, teachers, misfits, construction workers, wayward seekers, finders, anarchists, doubters, and dreamers-all of whom want nothing more than to find and create their place in an indifferent world. There are more posers, preeners, and naval gazers that attend Burning Man now. (The bigger the population, the more of every kind of folk you’ll experience.)
Still, for many of us, for at least for one week, we reach across the wind-scrubbed empty canvas of our differences to find what binds us all together. That magic still happens out there. All these years later. I and my wife are still members of Camp Gallavant. And each year we return is a joyous reunion. Unlike my fevered dream, Burning Man didn’t deliver me the gates of hell-or heaven-for that matter. Just home. If you decide to venture their one year, you might find that too. The festival’s impulse, at its best, is less Dante and more Laura Ingalls Wilder-if she hooked up with director John Waters. It’s all about finding family-a weird, wild, and wacky family for sure-but still, family. So, here’s to all the misfits and dreamers who still believe the Burning Man spirit still beats deep in the heart of the sprawling spectacle of Black Rock City. Even if there is a seven hour wait at the gate.