“Black Rock Desert?” says the elderly gas station attendant, peering at the map in Sean’s hands. “I went to a wedding right around that place last year.” She leans over to hit the gasoline grade button and slides the nozzle into the gas tank. “Why you going there?”
I’m in the driver’s seat, aching from 9 hours behind the wheel. My friend and I are just over halfway to Nevada on our roadtrip from Vancouver, Canada.
“We’re heading to the Burning Man Festival,” says Sean.
“It’s a gathering in the desert, with art, music…that kind of thing.” I say, realizing the absurdity of trying to describe what I have little knowledge of myself. It’s my first time.
“Well, I’ll tell you something,” she leans into the car, wisps of white hair dangling from her cowboy hat. “There ain’t nothing out there. And I mean nothing.”
Days later, as our car pulls up to the front gates of Burning Man, I realize her words spoke a peculiar truth. There’s literally nothing around us besides the distant Nevada mountains. Dust kicked up by the cars is already seeping through the closed windows.
Most of the year, the desert is entirely devoid of anything. But for 7 days at the end of every summer, the ancient lakebed hosts a circus of 50,000 participants engaged in radical self-expression, self-reliance and unbound creativity. They manifest a temporary city on the sand, as surreal as a Dali painting come to life.
Or so I’ve heard.
I nudge our car forward as the vehicle line inches ahead. My phone suddenly vibrates in my pocket; it’s a text message from my wife. Her aunt has spent the last 2 months in the hospital, losing her battle with breast cancer, and I’ve been awaiting word of her condition. I flip open my phone and read what her entire family has anticipated:
“I’m on my way to the hospital. They say Aunt Lily only has a few days left.”
I stare at the words. I’ve only known Aunt Lily for 6 years, and it’s easy to conjure her image in my mind: her white hair and smiling face was always at family functions. She never forgets a birthday, and always produces a card from the folds of her purse, a $50 dollar bill inside.
But there was also unmistakable pain buried beneath her clear blue eyes.
Lily never married, having lost her fiance in the Second World War – instead she devoted herself to work, family and friends. She lived humbly, traveling the world until it became harder to find the courage to leave her apartment. We began seeing her less and less, and wondered how she coped with the loneliness.
Two months earlier, a doctor’s checkup revealed Aunt Lily was in the advanced stages of breast cancer.
Soon after she was rushed into medical care, and suddenly her world shrunk to the size of hospital bed. Her days oscillated between reflecting fondly on her life, and simply waiting to die.
Now, in the desert hundreds of miles away, part of me feels I should be home, aiding my wife through this difficult time. Yet I know there’s little I could offer besides comfort.
I text her words of support and close my phone.
“It’s our turn,” Sean points ahead to the greeter’s gate, one of many set up on the Burning Man playa.
The gates are stocked by middle-aged men, wearing bizarre hats, bandannas and shoes. Otherwise, they’re completely naked.
Our greeter arrives at the window. “Is it anyone’s first time in the car?” he asks with a toothy smile. Sean and I reluctantly confirm we are. “Out of the car, please,” the greeter instructs. We step out amid the hooting and hollering from the other gates. In the distance, we can see the edge of the first campsites, rising out of the heat like an apocalyptic mirage.
“First, you must be christened by the desert,” says the greeter. He points to the sand, fine like talcum powder. “Now roll.” Sean and I roll. Laughter ensues.
The greeter then hands me a forearm’s length of rebar. “Second, you came out here for a reason. I want you to think of this reason, to hold it in your mind, and consider what you want to get out of your time here.”
My mind blanked. Truthfully, I don’t know why I’d come. I assume the answer will reveal itself over the course of the experience, and give a nod to the greeter. He walks me to a football-sized bell, suspended in a wooden frame.
“Now, take that bar, hit that bell, and scream so the whole fucking camp can hear you.”
Without hesitation, I wind up and hammer the bell hard enough to produce a ring that echoes in my eardrums like a gunshot blast. I raise my head, arms outstretched, and hurl my voice at the clouds. I feel exhilarated, heart pumping faster, atoms alive.
“Good,” says the greeter, encircling me in his arms. “Welcome to Burning Man. Welcome home.”
To the jaded, Burning Man is a drug-fueled excuse to release your inhibitions and lose your mind. But those who know realize it has the power to transform; to take the person you thought you were and strip you down to your core.
My first thought is Woodstock meets refugee camp.
Walking the streets are colourful festival-goers dressed in a variety of elaborate costumes. From mermaids, to clowns, to cowboys, some clothed, others are entirely in their dust-coated skin. Tents, RV’s, yurts, buses, and a variety of shelters clamour for room.
Ross, my friend and second time burner, had informed me months earlier that the best way to navigate the massive camp was with a mountain bike. After parking our car, greeting our fellow neighbours at Camp Nomadia, Sean and I decide to explore the mayhem on two wheels.
By satellite, the camp resembles a gigantic C. The streets radiate out from the center like hands of a clock, which is also how the organizers conveniently decided to label them (from 2:00-10:00). This year’s theme is “Evolution,” which is why the cross-streets bore names like Genome, DNA, and Hominid.
We ride past Center Camp, the only place to spend money, and even then, transactions are restricted to the essentials of water, coffee, juice, and chocolate. Otherwise all regular forms of capitalism are forbidden. Instead, Burning Man operates on the principal of gifting.
You give because it feels good. And likewise, you receive in an innumerable number of ways.
For instance, one camp may host a cereal bar, complete with soy milk and recyclable bowls. Another camp provides repairs and maintenance for malfunctioning bikes. And another may offer back massages for the weary. It all operates under a living, breathing form of karma. And since most of us are used to the soulless, capitalistic transaction…this new system is an entirely unsettling experience.
The bike ride continues onto the Esplanade, the main strip on the inside of the C. The massive expanse is dotted with hundreds of people, some viewing the art installations (a rocket ship, a gigantic Rubic’s cube, a twisted butterfly), others simply soaking in the receding sunshine.
In the distance, the 40 foot figure of the Burning Man towers over the desert like an impassive king. In a few days, the effigy will continue tradition and burn until it teeters to the ground. Until then, it serves as landmark and gathering point for the festival goers.
“Let’s check it out,” Sean says. With his shirt removed, blonde dreadlocks and sand goggles glinting in the light, he already looks like he belongs.
We pedal towards the Man.
The desert plays tricks on my eyes. Eventually the distance slowly grows shorter, the Man larger, until we’re gliding beneath his eyeless gaze. On the opposite side, we can see another monument, this one even further out in the desert.
“That’s the Temple,” says Ross, slightly out of breath from biking to meet us. With his short hair, thick beard, and 80′s vintage glasses, he also resembles an eclectic burner. “People write on it things they want to let go. Relationships. Pets. Loved ones.”
He wipes the sweat off his forehead. “It’s heavy.”
Sean and I stare solemnly at the Temple, curled spires of wood above specks of people milling around the base. Even from here, I can feel its power. For reasons unknown, my thoughts turn back to Aunt Lily.
The sharp fumes of sanitizer assault my nose as my wife and I leave the elevator. Third floor, extended care. We walk past the open doorways, past closed curtains, rattling coughs, and worried family members huddled in the hall.
The reception desk is staffed by a few tired nurses, who respond politely when we ask for Aunt Lily’s room. We follow the numbers until we find her name written on the card outside. Karen enters first, and I grip her fingers tightly, walking close behind.
Then, Aunt Lily.
Her unfocused gaze lights up when she recognizes us, and her hands clasp in delight. She asks us to sit down, her voice weaker than I remember. Her features have changed as well; cheeks slightly sunken, skin pallid, eyes sullenly retreating into their sockets.
This is no longer the inevitable march of old age. I realize it is the first fingers of death.
We sit and talk for a while, about our own lives outside the hospital. Aunt Lily reflects on her experiences traveling the world, mentioning with conviction that young people must travel when they can. She’s in good spirits, considering the cirumstances.
She appears resigned to the reality before her. “I’ve had a good life,” she says, smiling wistfully. “I have nothing to complain about.”
Soon after, against her wishes, it’s time to go. Karen and I each hold her hands and wish Aunt Lily well. She squeezes my fingers warmly, proving life still pumps through her veins. She bids us goodbye and asks that we visit again soon.
It’s the last time I’ll see her.
At night, the Burning Man playa truly comes alive.
LED adorned bikes, impossible art cars, deafening Thunderdomes, flamethrowing warriors, dancing glowsticks, heart-exploding music, tribal drum beats, 30-foot Astroturf slides, pirate ship discoteques, mind-bending mirrors, and too many stars to count.
And through it all, whenever the night threatens to disorient, the Man stands tall in the center of the playa. Now he is lined with neon ribs, limbs and skull, resembling a geometric skeleton. It makes me think of death.
I never went back to see Aunt Lily in the hospital. Even though I had had the opportunties, as my wife gathered up her coat and her keys. Karen never asked, but I mentally created excuses just in case: too much work, not enough time… maybe next visit.
I took shelter in my Buddhist worldview that believes life is suffering. Impermanence is the only constant. Nothing remains without change. Aunt Lily lived a long and fruitful life. There is no tragedy here, no regrets. I should have been able to sit quietly in her presence, confident that all was right with the universe.
And yet. I never went back.
In the morning, my wife texted me again.
She’s gone. She passed away at 10am.
“What is the meaning of Burning Man?” The question is posed to the sweaty faces seated in the Ascension Tribe’s hut, early in the dusty afternoon on Saturday. It’s the day the Man will burn.
The crowd is silent. All eyes hang on Nanice, the 40 something year old spiritual teacher from New York. Her raven hair is tied in a ponytail, her wrists wrapped in stripes of cloth. She smiles wide, teeth glowing, enjoying the anticipation in the air.
“You have all come here to grow. You’ve all had moments of insight and awakening. You’ve all had epiphanies about who you are and what you’re really doing on this earth.”
Heads slowly nod in agreement. Hearts beat faster.
“And so we burn the Man as a symbol,” she announces. “It is the burning away of your old self, your old worldview. The pretences you hold dear, the person you thought you were. We burn the Man to mirror the burning away of our outer shells.”
She pauses for emphasis. “And what’s left is the divine self. What’s left is the truth.”
That night, the Man crackles in a blazing inferno.
I watch with my friends and thousands of other burners surrounding the totem. Some shout at the Man, urging him to tumble faster. Others crack jokes to others in earshot. But many people also conjure an inner silence, even as the techno music and belching art cars motor along the playa.
As I learned earlier, the Man means truth. And that truth is as individual as the person watching the flames lick his blackening ribs.
I realize in a moment of clarity that Aunt Lily taught me my truth: my inability to face death. Instead I intellectualize my understanding, hiding behind the belief of impermanence. As Aunt Lily faced the eternal chasm, all she desired was someone to watch with compassion. To sit by her side, without judgement or fear.
And I couldn’t do it.
Aunt Lily’s passing was my lesson, and her final gift to me.
I stay up until dawn, and even then, the playa is alive with activity. The nightclubs throb with dancers, the art cars hum with lights, and various bonfires draw festival-goers seeking warmth in the cool desert morning.
The sun paints the horizon, hope after a night of contemplation. My companions are friends from home and new friends gained over the course of the week. We’re weary, clad in googles and facemasks, sitting on the sand, enjoying the promise of a new day.
We’re quiet. Somehow, watching the sun climb above the mountains, we all agree the moment is a fitting conclusion to Burning Man.
It isn’t long before a few of them break off, retrieve their dust-caked bikes and begin the long pedal back to camp. I hold back, pedalling slowly, Sean and Joanna in tow. We arrive at the Temple, shimmering golden in the light. A few burners are scrawling their messages of forgiveness and loss on the wooden planks that still bare some room.
This night the Temple is set to burn. Only unlike the Man, the Temple cremation is a silent and somber affair. For three hours prior to setting it alight, the entire playa goes quiet. All music is stopped. All art cars frozen.
Thousands make the final pilgrimage to surround the Temple, steeling their minds and hearts for the true transformation – letting go of the past that haunts them, and honouring the memory of those that touched their souls.
“Do you want to write something?” asks Joanna, holding a pen in her outretched hand.
Perhaps she noticed me studying the Temple. Or perhaps she sensed my desire to leave a mark.
Regardless, on the morning of the Temple burn, while there’s still time, I realize what I have to do. I take the pen from Joanna and circle the perimeter, searching as much for an empty space as the place that calls to my being.
They say Burning Man has the power to change you. Nobody can really say why; the sum of all parts is far more complex than a single aspect alone. You can only let the strange and surreal environment seep into your soul like the fine sand that permeates every crevice.
I will take away the resolve to witness death with courage.
At the Temple, I find the spot and approach. After a moment’s thought, I reach up and give thanks to my teacher:
In Remembrance Of Aunt Lily.