Tuesday, September 18, 2012


Deep in the Playa at Burning Man there is a temple.

It is a spectacular structure, made out of wood.  The carvings are intricate, elaborate, beautiful.  The energy of the place is heavy, very heavy.  It's a place where people put their hopes and dreams, their sorrows and losses.  Photos of loved ones.  A loved dogs favorite frisbee.  Notes of loss, notes of sorrow, notes of anger, notes of love love and love.

And on Sunday night, everything burns.

It's easy to dismiss this place as just some hippie mojo bullshit in the desert.  It's easy to think it doesn't actually contain anything special or anything powerful.  It's temporary.  It's nothing...

...but to dismiss this place would dismiss something amazing.

People talked about the temple before I went.  My roommate Brian says it's his favorite place on the Playa.  A friend in my camp said "If you want to get to the 'spiritual' side of Burning Man, goto the temple".  Now, I'm not a big fan of the overused "spiritual" (no offense Sam) that is tossed around a lot.  Living in California, especially, I meet a lot of people that are "Spiritual, but not religious".  It's nebulous, and really seems to mean different things to different people.  Some folks think there is a proper way to be spiritual (and those folks are hypocritical in the same way extreme Christian's or Muslim's are in thinking there's is the only way to worship or to pray or whatever...but that's a discussion for another time :). 

The temple of Juno (as it's called) is not one of those places where there is a right way to be.  Just be.  And it changes every year.  Dramatically.  Completely.   This temple will never exist again. 


My first trip out there was on Thursday.  There was so many things to see at Burning Man, I think I was building up to it.  Or maybe I didn't think it would be such a big deal.  The temple is a beautiful piece of art, but is it really anything other than that?

All I can do is tell you my experiences.

When I walked through the surrounding outer wall for the first time I was so overwhelmed with sorrow, tears welled up in my eyes.  It was like I'd jumped into a swimming pool of...something.  Whereas most places in Burning Man are filled with noise, music, laughter, talking.  There' s a hush over the temple.  A respect?  A fear to let loose the emotions we're feeling?  If the stories are true, the first temple was built by the artist the year his father died.  If that's true, then my impression of it being a temple of death makes sense.

Inside the main building people were sitting, kneeling.  One woman was reading a poem, and when she finished people clapped.  Then it was just silent for awhile.  Another woman burst out in tears and her friend held her. 
Crowds gather day and night.  Altering the temple as the week goes on.

I looked to the walls, and there were notes and photos.  Right next to me was a note to someones Mom, missing her, loving her.  I had to step out into the courtyard.

As many of you know, my Mom died of brain cancer in 2001.  She fought for a year, but in the end, death took her.  As it will take us all someday.  If you don't know that about my mom, then you don't know me at all.  It's the single most significant event in my life.  It sucks.  I hate that it happened, but it's also brought out many of my best traits, and my Mom's always with me, and for that I am ever grateful, and even right now I puts a smile on my face through the tears.   (And me being me, I made a movie about my Mom's struggle.  I'm sure a lot of you have had similar experiences, so I warn you it's a challenge to watch.  But if you do take the time to go to the link below, it's 88 minutes, please let me know your thoughts:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LUKlXDGq3QI).

Out in the courtyard I watched people come and go...and watched a wedding!

Even though my main impression of the temple is a temple of Death, it seems it's also a temple of life.  The amount of messages and expressions of sorrow at losing people (or is it just that I feel sorrow at losing my Mom and others are expressing joy, and happiness?).  I see sorrow.  Death sucks.

So as these two people expressed their love for each other (anyone can walk up and join the audience, particiapation is encouraged), I was looking for a place to write a note to my Mom.  I wanted to write something, anything, I wasn't sure what.  And there, written on an outer pillar on the temple was one word, that overwhelmed me.  One word, with a little heart under it.  My Mom's name.  JANE.

The Playa provides.
Hi Mom!
Hi Mom!

I did write my note to her, right there around something someone else had written.  (That note is for me only).  I don't know the story of their Jane.  I'll never know who wrote it.  But as things happen at Burning Man, their expression mixed with my emotions and my expression.  I hope their Jane and my Jane are dancing a jig right now.

The thought of all of this burning kept choking me up, and eventually I had to leave. 

On the way out, I saw folks taking wet gate photos (the technology from Civil War times), and got that great picture of me in front of the temple.  The temple is a cool place, and not at all something I would expect out here at Burning Man.  (Now it makes total sense, but before I went, the idea of the temple was cool, but really?  Is it as cool as people say?)

So after grabbing a shot of Jesus carrying the Cross through the Playa (yep, that happened), I was off to dinner and out and about for the night.  Drinking, dancing.  Fun to be had.

Even Jesus goes to Burning Man!

But that night I went back to the temple. 
People had said it was different at night.  The energy was different.
So I went in.  It's lit up.  Beautiful.
And still filled with sorrow.
I went and sat by my note to Mom.  I listened and watched some folks inside.  It was nice to be there, and again, not what I figured I'd be doing at night.  It was much heavier than I anticipated.  I was exhausted from the day, and eventually just rode my rickety community bike deep into the playa, laid on the dirt and stared at the moon and stars.  We are indeed very small pieces of this giant puzzle of a universe.


Friday I avoided the temple.  It's pretty far out, and without a bike takes a long time to get to.  And frankly, I didn't want to go there today.

Now one of the great things about Burning Man is the potential to connect with so many interesting things.  But the reality is that it can be hard to do.  I was solo a lot of my times at Burning Man, and though I met cool folks, it was rare to really hang with anyone for very long.  So it was great that on Saturday that Brian and I finally got to really hang out and explore.  We rode bikes past art, took photos, picked up the temple pic, lost my camera, found my camera, got caught in dust storms, explored wall street, spun the wheel of fate, hung out on this shiney, spinning couch /disco thing (yep, some things at Burning Man are hard to describe!), and eventually made it to the temple.

Again.  Sorrow.  Heavy energy. 

Before we went in, we got some great pics taken together.  Nice to have good pictures of good times with good friends.
Me and Brian - Thanks for bringing me to Burning Man!

But inside, it was heavy.  I wanted to show Brian the note to Mom.  Her name.  I wanted to somehow make him understand what was going on.  So I explained how I came over here and found this pillar and there was her name.  And then I just cried.  He gave me a long hug. 

And then a New Orleans style second line jazz group marched in for a wedding!  (Go Burning Man!)  They lined up, and the guy running it asked everyone to grab people next to them and tell them what they appreciated about them.  People trio-d off, and I was there by myself.  (The paradox of Burning Man).  Eventually Brian and I met up and talked.  And I can tell you, it's really great to just look at someone in your life and tell them you appreciate them.  And why.  I think too often in life we hold our feelings in check, either for fear of being hurt, or made fun of, or of being "inappropriate".  Who the heck decided we have to hide our feelings in life?  That's a stupid rule.

Off we ride.  This is Saturday.  Night of the Burn (See previous entry).  Chaos.  fun.  Awesomeness.

After the burn, I rode art cars, I saw Wall Street Burn...and there in the distance.  The temple.
Tomorrow it burns.  All of it.  The thought of that was so overwealming to me.  It's hard to describe, and I don't know if other people feel it the same way, but every time I would say to myself "This all burns", I would get choked up. 

So I went back one last time.  (They close it at 8am so they can set the charges for the night time burn).  It was 2:30am by this point.  It was getting cold.  Again, I walk in.  Again, I'm overwhelmed.  And I'm thinking, "Man, this is going to be too much tomorrow when it burns, way too much".  I went, I sat, I cried.  A lot.  I haven't cried this much in years.  Too many years.  The earlier tears I would fight, I wouldn't let totally go.  But tonight, it's too much.  I sit and cry and miss my Mom and it sucks.  All I want is some fucking connection here, someone to give me a hug, and people just walk by (in their own thoughts, joys, sorrows, contemplations).   I would look at people, hoping they would see me and come to me and hold me.  I didn't care who they were.  Someone see me. 

Eventually I went to the entrance of the main building and stood there.  A woman with a fuzzy coat walked past me, I reached out and petted her coat to get her attention.  She looked at me, reached out and hugged me.  I proceeded to cry and snot all over her coat.

After a few minutes I felt better. 
"I'm sorry I snotted on your coat".

She said a few kind words and suggested I go inside, and then she walked off.  I don't know her name.  But thanks for the shoulder to cry on.

I stayed a little longer, before taking off.  I was cold, hungry, worn out, wrung out and just plain beat.  As I walked away I looked back and thought "Tomorrow, it all burns." 

The next day I adventured a bit in the morning, and ended up seeing the Playa Chior.  Full on, huge choir show in the old Thunderdome.  It was amazing music, super uplifting and fun.  The choir director at one point spoke about the connection to "the infinite, the universe, God, Allah, whatever you want to call it, it's all the same shit".  Amen sister.

She also spoke of transforming emo0tions (you might remember the Judgement revelation from the first email).  Hey, it all comes full circle!

I mostly spent the day at camp.  I was exhausted from an amazing, awesome week.  Both of exciting new things, and sorrows.  Hot and cold.  Dust, rain.  And the fact that tonight the temple burns and I don't know how that's going to affect me.  The whole thing.   So I sat in my car with the AC on and napped.  Take that nature! :) 

As the sun set, an amazing milky twilight set over the world.
I found a community bike and rode out into the Playa. Past the temple into the other world.  (No, I wasn't high).  It was so cool, the temp perfect.  Because of the dust in the air, everything seemed like it was under water.  So beautiful.  My bike chain broke on the ride back to the Temple.  Crap.  So I walked the bike and chain to the perimeter and sat down facing the corner of the temple where Mom's note is.

All day long I had been hoping for a connection.  Again, something more than just a party conversation.  Something deeper.  Just, please Playa, send me someone, anyone.

Waiting for the burn...

As darkness was approaching, the lights began to glow.  Some music played from art cars, but it's much more chill and subdued on Sunday.  The temple isn't just a party, it's more than that (I'm sure you've figured that out by now. :).  So I'm in the front, unobstructed view, snapping photos, and this girl walks up and says
"Is anyone sitting here"
"You are".

She sits down and we chat.  It's her first burn too.  We share some warm PBR's she brought.  I bust out a Lara Bar for both.  She tells me of her experiences, how she imagines it would be different if her boyfriend were there or she was single.  How sleeping in a dubstep camp 20 feet from a bank of sub woofers that shake the ground and vibrate the sand isn't very easy.  I warned her that I might lose my shit when this thing starts to burn and I might need to lean on her.  She said that was fine, she might do the same thing.  
"Did you write a note to anyone in there?", I ask.
"Kind of.  Not really to anyone, but a note."

The time comes.
Silence over the crowd.  (mostly).  They start the fire.
And it's beautiful.
Mom's pillar goes up first.  It's a blaze before any of the rest of it is.
As my Mom was. :)

And as a brace myself for the sorrow...the sorrow never comes.
I don't cry.
I don't shed a single tear.
Maybe it's because I cried it all out already.
Or maybe it's something different.
Maybe my sorrow is what burned up with temple.
I've felt it for so long, and it's so strange, but it's gone.
Sadness, sure.  I still miss my Mom.
But sorrow.  No.

Magic?  God?  The Universe?  Energy?  Emotion?  Love?

As happens in life, the emotions I think I'll feel in a given circumstance, are often times not the ones I do.

After the main structure collapsed, and the outer wall continued to burn, my new friend and I started talking again.
"I guess I didn't need the shoulder.  But thanks" I said.
"Me either."

I told her about the note to my Mom.  How she died of cancer 11 years ago.
"Mine too.  Three years ago.  What kind?"  she said.
"Brain tumor"
"Mine too"
"And that's why you sat down next to me".

I gave her a hug.  I held her a little while.  She cried a touch.  She told me how it sucks, sucks, sucks everyday.  I told her it does.  That I miss my mom every day.  But, and this feels cheesy to say, it will get better.  I remember when I was where she was at.  When I couldn't accept that my Mom had died.  That I was pissed off all the time.  But then came the year that I accepted that she died, that was 2006.  And now I watched my sorrow burn and float up into the sky...6 years later. 

"I know it sucks, but I promise you it will get better."
"I hope so"
"It will".

When the perimeter came down, we went into the temple.  You could go through the fire remains of the walls and into the courtyard.  It's amazing how all these things fall perfectly in their footprints.  It's spectacular to be inside a temple of fire.  Where else is this possible?

We snapped some pics, swapped emails (If you're reading this, I hope you are well), and then went our separate ways, as happens at Burning Man.

There are times in my life where I connect with people about death.  If you've lost someone dear, you know what it feels like to be in the club.   If you haven't, unfortunately someday you will.  I wish I could make that not true, but unless we go all mad scientist, that is life.  That is death.  It was cool to me, that for the first time, really, I was the caregiver.  I wasn't the one seeking support, or comfort.  I was the one giving it without the need for the support to be reciprocated.  I don't know if it meant as much to her as I hope it did, but I didn't do it for anything in return. 

Burning Man is about gifting.

And it gave me an unexpected, incredible gift.

This is Craig Ouellette,
Last surviving member of the Nostromo,
Signing off.

Saturday, September 15, 2012


Brian would tell me about "art cars" before I went.  He'd say you could hop on an art car and ride around, or dance or what not.  But the description and the photos really don't capture this strange and unique (I think) experience.

Art cars are EVERYWHERE at Burning Man.  In fact, once you park your car or RV or motorcycle you are not allowed to drive it anywhere in town, other than if you are leaving again.  The only cars are Art Cars.  These have to be registered and inspected by the DMV (Department of Mutant Vehicles) and if deemed artsy and safe (enough) they are allowed to drive at 5mph or less down the roads, the playa and all around.

What constitutes and art car?

There's a motorized easy chair.
the aforementioned 30 foot long neon shark.

The giant, fireshooting octopus.
golfcarts covered in furry carpet,
Is that a 2 story unicorn with a dance dome and fire shooting out the front?

A dragon (or is that a centipede) type car with multiple segments.  There were two of these that would chase each other around like giant snakes, and at night it was really cool.

A sail barge like Jaba the Hutt's from Jedi.

A walking beast, that had no wheels and shot fire (I never saw it walk, but it did).
(I'm looking through my photos as I write this, and will include most of them on the www.Craigotravels.com blog link).
One looks like sculpted ivory (of course it's not), over an old schoolbus with a slide on the side.

Is that a giant dune buggy drag racer?
Robot Heart was a 3 story beast with a giant, you guessed it, pulsing light heart and huge speakers
There was a billowy whale
A giant snail
A space shuttle
what looks like a giant fossilized dinosaur
A dayglow lounge
A wildwest saloon complete with inside and outside portions
And a 45 foot YACHT that would drive around on wheels.  (A real yacht!)

I'm not sure how these are built, or how they get brought here in the fist place.  But I'm glad they are!

I wish I'd taken pictures of all of them so I could remember, but then all I would do for 6 days would be take photos of art cars.  You never know what will come around the next corner.  It could be anything.  From the size of a chair to 60 feet long.  Who knows.  In theory you can hop onto most any of them and ride around, dance, drink, and hop off where you want.  But don't think they go in any patterns or any logical routes.  It's wherever the driver would want to go, and that might not be where you want to go.  Either way, it's a blast!


Yep.  It's called Burning Man.
They burn shit.
Lot's of it.
Big things (the Man, Wall street, the Temple)
little things.  Hundreds of things.
MUCH of the art out in the Playa was burned on Thursday night.  As in, 30 or 40 sculptures all at once.  I saw the glow and smoke, but that's when I was trying to honor my DJ offer from the slave auction.
Inubus burns

It's quite a site to watch things burn.  As you get towards the end of the week, more stuff goes up in smoke.  But it's not all willy nilly.  Anything large is "sanctioned" and is monitored.  They have Black Rock Rangers (volunteers) and the fire department set up a perimiter.  (Keep in mind it's not a fence or any actual barrier, and people would run across the space, sometimes streak across.  I'm not sure what happens when they get caught...they're probably just put back in the crowd unless they do it a lot.). 

Once the barrier is set, people start to gather round.  It all seemed random, people would say "Oh, they're burning Inubis at 9pm", "Wall street's been postponed because of wind/problems/issues until 9 or 11 or tomorrow".  Seeing anything burn, seemed to be a bit of a... "wow, what are those people waiting for?" and going to check it out.  Other than the MAN (Saturday night, show starts at 8pm (or is it dark?  Or 9pm?, or when the weather cooperates.  One year it was delayed 4 hours because of wind and dust).  The Temple:  Sunday at 8pm (or is it 9?  10?  This year was earlier than past years, but it was later than planned...:)  You get the idea.

Barrier's set.  People have gathered around.  Glowsticks.  Lights.  Art cars make a wider perimeter, and with the exception of when the temple burned, all play their music, so depending on where you are, you will have a different mood and feeling for the burn.  Electronic.  Ambient.  Hip Hop.  Country (yep, some country). 
Wall Street Burns

Then there's a spark, and FIREWORKS!  At least the big ones like Inubus (an egyptian styled statue), Wall Street, the large EGO letters, and the Man all had fireworks.  My first burn was Inubus.  I was impressed by all the fireworks.  Then the fire spreads and burns.  The show could be 5 minutes, or in the case of the Man 45 minutes.  It goes until the structure has collapsed and there is nothing left to fall down.  Then the barriers are lifted, and you race in...


This years Man was the tallest of all so far.  80+ feet including the base.  The crowd gathers an hour or more before hand.  I got about 10 feet from the front.  People had set up tarps and coolers.  The front folks sit down and you wait and chat and laugh.  Brian and I had talked about meeting up afterwards.  He said "It's going to be nearly impossible.  YOu don't understand the chaos after the man falls." But we set a place to meet and he was off to photograph the fire conclave Burning Sensation.  (You can check out some of the photos here: www.ErzenDesign.com  http://www.erzendesign.com/burning-man-2012-night)

Around 8:30 the fire conclaves start to spin.  There are 25 or 50 of them, completely circling the man.  They have all worked on routines and shows for months or even the entire year for this 15 minute window.  Conclaves can have up to 50 people, including the safety folks, and she shows are pretty impressive.  Burn Academy (who I camped with) did "the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse".  They had folks on stilts, burning swords, girls with these burning frames on them.  It was really cool.  Burning Sensation (which was right next to them) did a sexy, salsa dance to start with (But they had burning staffs they encircled each other with), and there was a dude with a FLAMING WHIP!  Indiana Jones would be proud.

After the routines, the man goes up.  (if it were a movie, the Man would go up immediately, but it's real life so there is safety prep and positioning required :).

The man starts with fireworks.  TONS of fireworks.  Like 4th of July in Chicago over the lake fireworks.  Like Boston Pops fireworks.  (Okay, I'm exaggerating, but it's an impressive show).  His leg starts burning first, and then it spreads.  Gets bigger and bigger.  Then there was a GIANT EXPLOSION that shot a fireball out and around!  The whole thing begin to burn so enormously that all the folks in the front got up and ran back and away, and the area where I was everyone stood up and were ready to bolt.  Huge smoke and dust tornadoes begin to spin away from the structure.  Everyone on that side must have moved, because the smoke and plumes of dust would have been nuts. 

Then the man collapses inside the structure.  Everyone cheers! 
And then it burns and burns and burns and burns...and at some point a fireball shot out and landed on my friends from Burn Academy!  Holy Shit!  They put it out fast, but how crazy!

I shot a video of the whole thing.  It's 25 minutes long, and then I stopped.  I think I should cut out some of the duller parts to give an idea of what it was in 3 or 5 minutes.  Being there is very different from watching a video though. 

It's funny that I think that.  I love movies.  I make movies.  But direct experience is still the best when it comes to things like this.  My words, photos, videos.  They give you a glimpse, albeit a contained, shortened, easier to digest glimpse.  But seeing the man burn (and all of these things) is different when you are there.  It's like skydiving...the experience of it is TOTALLY different than watching videos.  Don't get me wrong, I think the power of a good movie is that it DOES give you the direct experience, the emotions and fears and joys of the characters involved.  But that is movie magic, and rarely happens.

Back to the burn!
When the structure fell down there were a couple of standing pillars still burning.  Everyone was on their feet, wanting to charge in, but the rangers and firemen were keeping the mass of humanity back.  The throngs would pulse closer, but not break free...

...until the dam fell.

One person broke the line, another dude (naked!) charged in, and then the whole thing went.  CHAOS!  As 50,000 people stormed in towards a giant raging fire pit.  They fell in, dancing, cheering, and flowing around the burning madness.  It was very much still a fire.  (It burned through the next day, they always let these burn themselves out.  You don't put them out).  The people flowed counterclockwise in a river around the man.  It was amazing. 
Curtis and Cameron smoking their last cigarettes before quitting!

 The heat was insane.  If you were on the inside of the river, it was 5 feet between you and a 50 foot square of burning wood.  It was HOT.  Really HOT.  Blistering hot.  But if you had just one person between you and the flames it wasn't too bad at all.  (I guess people make good insulation...hmmm, that's a weird statement. :).  I don't know how the naked guys and girls could stand being that close to the flames.    I ran into some friends from camp, snapped their pics, and just enjoyed the absolute insanity of the whole thing.  This was participation done burning man style. 

It was all joy and joined humanity for one celebration.
For this moment the world was in perfect balance. 


Monday, September 10, 2012


Once the sun starts to set Burning Man becomes a different (and more awesome in my opinion) animal.

The sunsets are beautiful.  Epic even?  And a big relief to not have the sun beating down.  One day, Friday, the dust storm day, I was up on top of the 77 foot tall structure at Mall Mart camp.  You had to get spanked by a paddle to climb it (no exceptions!) and it looked (sort of) like a giant penis.  Yep, a 77 foot tall penis...only at Burning Man. 

What does this look like to you?

The thing was rickety, shaky and in the wind felt fantastically unsafe...(though a guy from that camp said it was inspected 3 times by officials, so I guess it was "safe").  The view of the city at sunset was awesome.  I stayed up there for an hour plus to watch the sun vanish, the city lights come out.  It was really amazing to see the scale of Burning Man from the top of the tower.  Met a number of interesting folks too.

View from the top!

Another fabulous sunset was on the last day.  I was riding a Yellow Bike (these are community bikes that are painted green and have a sticker on them that say "yellow bike".  If you find one, pick it up and ride away).  I was riding out onto the Playa as the sun was gone and there was some dust in the air and it felt like I was underwater.  I rode past the temple and deep into the playa.  Saw all sorts of random art structures (easy chairs with umbrellas, mazes etc), and was even offered Margarita by a random dude riding past.  I never did make it all the way to the end of Burning Man.  Someplace out in the distance was a movie theater and the trash fence that surrounds the city limits.  Maybe next time I'll make it all the way out.  On my way back to the temple the chain broke...oops!  I wrapped it around and brought the bike back.

Blessed night.
Filled with lights.
Music bouncing from everywhere.
People wearing glowsticks/flashlights/blinkys.  (You want to light yourself up because the playa and city are dark at night (especially if there was no moon).  And you might get run over by an art car or bycyclist.

I'm not doing a good job of capturing what this is.  It's 360 degrees of moving lights, art cars, music, and more.  Things that in the day looked plain, at night look magical.  Camps will be lit up.  One geodesic dome in the middle of no where would dance to pitch.  So if you sang or hummed, the lights would change colors.  One art car is a 30 foot tall mechanical octopus that shoots fire out of it's tenticals.  Lot's of fire.

There's a lot of fire at night too.  Walking metal robots the shoot fire.  Art cars that shoot fire.  On the last night I saw the pirate ship shooting fire for the first time.  (Apparently it did it all week, I just missed it).  There was "Super Street Fire", where you strap on gloves with motion sensors, and stand on platforms with flame throwers in between and around.  You then "fought" by punching and swiping your hands in the techniques from the video game Street Fighter.  (Harukin!  Sonic BOOM!) and the fire shooters would respond accordingly.  It was all pretty chaotic, but looked awesome when 26 fire jets blasted flame into the air.  I really wanted to do it, but the line was a little long, so I figured I'd come back with Brian later... I never did. 

There's also the THUNDERDOME.
This is a long running staple of burning man.  I'd heard about it before, it sounded like fun.  It was a giant dome where 2 men (or women) enter and strap into these bungee harnesses, grab a staff with padding on the ends, and proceed to battle it out.  The music blasts (one fight was to an industrial version of "Tubthumping", you know "I get knocked down, but I get up again, and you never gonna keep me down"!).  The crowd climbs up on the dome and cheers.  It's pretty wild.  Once I saw how much impact the guys were dealing out, I thought "with my neck, this is probably not the best choice out here in the desert", so I didn't do it.  Maybe I should have anyway.

"Two Men enter, one man leaves!  THUNDERDOME!"

I like to think I participated a lot, but as I'm writing this I realize how much in observation mode I was for a lot of this.  I guess you can't do everything. 

There was karaoke at one point, but I got there too late.  Would have been fun to blow it.  But, as I was riding down a street at night a camp was doing "Dinner and a show".  The camp was sitting in chairs, watching the street, and they had guys on mics grabbing passers by to be "the show".  So I freestyled some Ice Ice Baby to a clapping crowd.  One guy did a love poem and proposed to his playa love.  Another girl was a contortionist.  Just right there in the middle of the dirt street.

Dancing, dancing dancing. 
You could dance 24/7 at Burning Man if you wanted.  I did a fair amount of it on various nights.  The two biggest camps, Opulent Temple and Root Society are at the ends of the city.  They are some of the biggest dance places I've ever seen.  50 foot LED walls that danced.  Towers and cages you could dance in.  Or just on the ground.  One night, late, as I was coming back from the deep playa, it started to rain.  So I dropped my bike and ran into the crowd to dance a bit.  Awesome.  I wish someone had played "Sandstorm" by Darude.  That would have made my night! 

Dancing under this thing was nuts!

Much of the music is EDM.  Electronic.  Rave type stuff.  Some of the worlds biggest DJ's come through burning man.  I didn't recognize any of the names, but I don't generally follow that scene.  Still, it was fun to be with so many people who were REALLY into it.  (And maybe a bit high).  But it's not all that kind.  I heard blues.  I heard country.  Hip Hop.  Brian says 5 years ago it was ALL Dubstep.  But now that Dubstep is popular and mainstream, there is less of it.  Some might argue that Dubstep started at burning man.  They would likely be right.  I heard Journey, Boston, and drifting over the city one night "Total Eclipse of the Heart".

My favorite dance night was at Crossroads Camp.  I stumbled upon a live band, had to have been 15 pieces, playing Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Cee Lo, Prince and more.  The place was energized and awesome.  Such a blast.  The band was amazing.  A nice surprise.  I enjoy EDM, but it's awesome to hear the classics!

All of this bouncing around from place to place to place highlights something that is definitely a factor at Burning Man.  (Brian says it is more so your first few times there) which is the classic "Fear of missing out syndrome".  Only here it's highlighted twenty fold.  I know a lot of people who have this in normal life (I do, though it's less pronounced now than when I was in High School).  But man, at Burning man, you really COULD be missing out on the coolest thing EVER just around the next corner or across the playa.  The trick is to just trust where you are and enjoy that moment.  "But wait, is that a firebreathing dragon?" "Oh man, can I dance on the robot art car?"  "Or should I dance on the hillbilly art car?" "Is that a neon shark drifting across the desert?" "Can I do the thunderdome?" etc etc etc.

The list is endless, and I know I would rarely stay in one place very long.  The tower or waiting for the burns or the temple probably kept me the longest.  But so often I'd be enjoying myself watching the grinders shoot sparks out, then think "I should move on, what's over here!".  Because of course, every day I see a half dozen people blasting sparks in wild patters 25 feet in the air.  It's just so common, there MUST be something more exciting just over here. :)

Let the sparks fly!

I imagine if I went back I might stay for the whole class rather than leave after 20 minutes.  I might dance to more than 2 songs before I moved on.  I might watch the entire performance... or I might not.  It's Burning Man.  As long as you trust your instincts, I think you'll be rewarded with fascinating and interesting things.  If you're worried about missing out, you won't engage with what's there.  But if you go with the flow and if the flow says "let's move on", then I think that's okay.  It really is a lesson in living in the moment (Which I'm pretty sure is one of the Burning Man principals if I remember correctly.  If it's not, it should be. :). 

Live in the moment.
Enjoy where you're at.
And I almost always enjoyed where I was at during the night.  (Except when it got really cold on Saturday night.  That wasn't as fun.  But that's what warm geodesic domes with flashing lights are for!).

Mystical Magical Mystery Land. 
Nightime at Burning Man.

Sunday, September 9, 2012


So there is a distinct difference between Burning Man at day or night.
The day's are hot (though nice in the morning).  The sun is blazing (except the one day it was cloudy and sprinkled...yep!), and everything is dusty (okay, that's the same both day or night.  But during the day you have dust storms more often).

If you're afraid to get dirty and be uncomfortable, this isn't the place for you.  I'm a pretty flexible, enduring guy, and there were numerous times I sat in the shade, sipping a water, sweaty and miserable, thinking "What the hell am I doing here?".  A lot of people would just lay under their shade structures (possibly on a couch or camp chair) and sleep during the day.  Sometimes all day (there was a gal in our camp that crashed out all day long and partied all night...every night).  On the Sunday, I'd had enough of the heat and sat in my car with the AC on for 2 hours, napping.  It was heavenly.

Dust storm, white out

Brian, (my friend, roommate, and the man who's been to Burning man 10 times now), says you have to listen to your body at Burning Man.  You may want to go out and see the sights, but your body may say "no way, sit your ass down, drink and chill out.".  To not listen to your body is a bad choice when the consequences are heat exhaustion, dehydration or worse.

Now, this isn't to say that the daytimes sucked.  They didn't.  The mornings were nice (sleeping in a tent, the sun and heat and neighbors force me awake by 10am at the latest every day).  Chilling, eating, chatting.

Then hopping on a bike or walking to some sort of event.  There's a book of activities based on time and camp, where you can go do anything you want: 
Learn to cook?  Check.
Yoga skills?  Check.
Kissing Puja?  Check.
Topless bike ride for breast cancer?  (5000 checks!)
BDSM workshops?  Check.
Photography classes?  Check.
Slave auction?  You guessed it...check.

Yep...you're seeing this correctly.

So on Thursday I thought "I'm going to the slave auction. "  Some campmates had done it, and they had had fun.  They'd sold themselves as slaves, which basically means you can choose whatever you want to sell:  2 hours of camp cleanup, or a 30 minute massage, or learn dirty Russian phrases for 10 minutes, a full Indian meal.  Basically anything you want to offer, and then the "masters" bid on you, by trading similar items:  A bottle of booze, a shower in an RV, a naked lap dance.  Anything goes.  It's up to you.  And the slave gets to decide which offer is best.

It was at Uli Babba and the Horny Thieves camp.  They had a whole tent set up.  If you wanted to be a slave, they put these plastic shackles on you with a chain.  I figured I'd slave myself up and offer DJ services, old school hip hop style for someone.  I wanted to DJ while at Burning Man and figured this would be a good way to make friends.

At the Slave Auction

We all pile into the camp.  There's a full on mermaid sitting on the center platform.  The slaves on one side.  The masters on the other.  It was all tongue-and-cheek and silliness.  They'd call up slaves and explain the services you'd give, and people would bid.  Private showers, hair washing and meals seemed to go a long way.  One set of slaves offered to compliment you for an hour.  Another offered to cook you Indian meals.  When I finally got up there, people enjoyed my "old school hip hop dances", but when I said I had the music and mixers, but no speakers, my bidding price went WAYYYYYY down.  (Guess everyone's a DJ at Burning Man).  The only person to bid on me offered me a topless hair washing from 4 women...um, I have no hair.  Not the best deal, but the only one I got.  So rather than be killed, I took it. 

I wish the rest of that story was exciting, but when I went to DJ the party (for the woman's wife), they just wanted to go get drugs and asked if I could come back the next day.  I'd missed a big set of burns on the Playa to show up on time for them, but figured it would be fun to DJ the next day.  So I show up at 5pm on Friday in a big dust storm...and the wife hadn't come home last night and was still partying someplace.  So the DJing never happened.  Nor did the hairwashing.

Which brings up a good point about Burning Man:  plans are flexible.  Rarely locked down.  In fact, it's almost impossible to make arrangements to meet people.  We might say "Let's meet at 7oclock and B, at the Mardi Gras camp at noon."  (All the streets in Burning Man are labeled from 2 oclock to 10 oclock around the center playa area.  And then go from Esplanade, A, B, C etc back to L).  Well, one or both of us might find something more interesting or more fun, or just plain forget to meet up.  Or we might just be running late, and you'll be there and think "I guess they aren't coming" and head off".  There's no cellphones, so we can't be lazy and call and say we're late.  It really is a "go with your instinct" kind of place and you're more likely to have fun. 

That being said, there were a couple of times I wish I'd actually tried to make plans to meet up and didn't because I was in such a "go with the flow" mode.  What can you do?

One day I was out by the Temple in the late afternoon and there was a big trailer set up that was actually a wet-plate camera (the kind used in the Civil War).  The folks had built it and were taking pictures.  I got one of me in front of the temple.  It's so cool. 

But they couldn't finish it up at that time, so I'd have to go pick it up at their camp at some point.
Oh boy.
On Saturday, Brian and I actually hung out during the day.  We hopped on bikes and rode around.  Taking pictures.  Saying hi to people.  We got to the camp and picked up the photo.  It is AWESOME.  It's printed on metal.  Really special.  A great playa gift.  Thank you.

This is no Instagram

 I'd forgotten to bring water (yep, good call!), but they were cool and we filled up with them, took camp photos for them, and head out. 
A quick stop at the porta potti, then down the street to a camp called "Mis information Camp" or something like that. 

"Something great will happen because we go in here" Brian said.
So we take off our packs and...oh shit, my camera is gone.
Shit shit shit.
I leave my stuff with Brian and run back to the photo camp.  Not there.
Oh no, it has all my Burning Man pics, plus a trip I took immediately before this to Cabo for a friends Bachelor party. 
I goto the toilets.  Look inside.  No camera.
I run back to where Brian was.  "Can't find it."
But, at least my driver's licence was in the case (which is bad if I don't get it back, but is good if Burning Man is as cool as people say, since they can find me.  (This just gave me the idea that the first photo on any card should be a photo of a drivers licence, or at least email/phone number, so when people scan forward they see it and have the contact info).
At this point I'm pretty bummed.  I'd just bought the camera too.
Anyway, we go back to the toilets, Brian yells really loud "Did anyone find a camera?  Did anyone find a camera?".

A guy walks up.  "You looking for a camera?"
"Yep.  Did you find one?"
"It has a drivers licence in it."
"Okay, yeah, we have it."

I got it back...with crotch, butt and boob photos from the whole camp. 
Clearly they didn't expect us to actually see their faces in person!  They were going to turn it in and then I'd have some laughs at the photos.  Oooops!

Thanks for the camera!

The Playa Provides.

That's one of the big sayings at Burning Man.  That it'll provide what you need.  (Or is it what you're looking for?).  I think it's more likely the first.  You may be looking for one thing, but need another.  Who knows?  But this was awesome.  Thankful for those folks for being so cool and not just taking it.
That is after all the vibe of burning man.  Supposedly things can get stolen, but it doesn't happen very often. 

Why does the Playa provide? 
You could say it's because there are 50-60,000 like minded people in a small area, all circling about in a gifting mode, and thus it's likely you'll meet or find someone with what you're looking for.  Or you could say it's something more magical, that there's something about the energy of Burning Man.  Of that specific place.  That things all happen for reasons if you are living in the moment.

One story of this will come near the end of these emails, but for now I'll sign off.

Thursday, September 6, 2012


Okay, so I'm actually back from Burning Man, but they don't have internet there (bliss!), so I'm writing it now.

This is my first time to the crazy art festival city in the desert, and if I only have a couple words to describe it: AMAZINGLY OVERWHELMING.
And that, my friends is a compliment.

The Man on Burn Night

Other words could be: Beautiful, bright lights, noisy, music, cacophony of sound, 360 degrees of crazy, up all night, up all day, hot, dusty, exhausting, cold, lonely, friendly, filled with adventure, shocking, naked, drunk, sober, mellow, high energy, educational, uplifting, energizing, filled with sorrow, filled with bliss, revealing, borderline unsafe, blissfully unregulated, still in America--barely, mars, the moon, another planet, filled with love, friendship, joy, stimulation, giving, gifting, stories, dancing, biking, dust storm, porta-potti, baby-wipe bath, Thunderdome, pirate ship, art cars, neon, burn, burn burn, firestorm, explosion, wall street, graffiti, sculpture, painting, body painting, body art, orgy dome, poly-camp, kidsville (yes, I just typed those words in a row), and more....

But we don't want just words, do we? We want some stories. So here goes.

This is my first time on the Playa. I've known about it for a number of years because my roommate Brian has gone 10 times. So I've seen pictures, heard stories, met other burners. But I can tell you NONE OF THAT WILL PREPARE YOU FOR THE EXPERIENCE OF BURNING MAN.

 I've been fortunate enough to travel a bit and have been to some totally amazing places, and I have to say that I've never experienced anything like Burning Man. It. Is. Insane.

And that, too, is a compliment. Experiencing new things, breaking out of the ever-limiting comfort zone, meeting new and interesting people...these are all reasons I travel. And I sure did all of these things at Burning Man.

And to answer the question that is on everyone's mind who has heard of Burning Man: No, I did not do any drugs. There were drugs available, had I wanted to experiment with a wide range of options, but I've never been inclined to do them in the past, and didn't feel the need to now. If that's what folks wanted to do out there, I wasn't about to judge them for it. Everyone seeks experience in their own way, and as long as you aren't endangering each other, then I'm in no place to tell you it's wrong. But for myself, I wanted to engage in what was going on in a way I felt comfortable. (Yes, I did drink! More than usual in fact). Technically drugs are not condoned at Burning Man, but the authorities seem to not come down to hard unless you're being a dick, or doing it in the open. Enough about that, it's not really what Burning Man is about.

So Burning Man operates on 10 principals. These are important for understanding what it is you're getting into. You can read about them in more detail on the Burning Man site (http://www.burningman.com/)
The Human river around the fire...it was HOT!
. Principals that stuck out to me, are

LEAVE NO TRACE: It's hard to believe that a temporary city of 50,000-60,000 people can be built and removed completely every year, leaving no garbage, but it's one of the main principals, and it happens. People take every little scrap home with them. Sure, it uses a ton of gas to get there and lots of shit burns (though all the burn scars are maticulously cleaned), but it is still pretty amazing.

RADICAL INCLUSION: Anyone can participate. There's no VIP status here. (Though, human beings are human beings, and people still won't always let you enter their camp to play). Still, if you want to battle in the Thunderdome, you can. (yes, there's a Thunderdome, very similar to the Mad Max movie...and you may battle. Though it's not to the death. :) If you want to ride an art car, or dance at a club, or take a class, you can.

GIFTING: I thought it was a barter system before I read the survival guide. (Yes, when you get your ticket, you get a survival guide. You need to read it, because you are entering a very unforgiving environment. The back of the ticket says you could experience serious injury or death as a result of coming to this...and it's no bullshit. Take care of yourself out there.) But Back to Gifting. This isn't a "I'll give you this if you give me that" system. It's literally, "I have something to give you, enjoy." With no thought of getting anything in return. ie: "Here, have some booze" or "Would you like to join us for dinner, we just made steak". It's really amazing and one of the coolest things about it. The generosity of people: Have a meal, enjoy a shower, join our class, get a massage, listen to a chior sing, climb on our art car and dance, enjoy world famous DJ's spinning music all night long.

But Craig, didn't you have to buy a ticket? Yes.
Doesn't that money go to paying for all this? No.
As far as I can tell, that money goes to paying for the permit to hold this crazy event, and the additional police officers and rangers out there. Also the awesome porta potti cleaners (they do it VERY regularly, thank god), as well as some other infastructure things. But otherwise, everything else is done by volunteers or gifted by the community in whatever ways they want.

RADICAL SELF-RELIANCE: As much as people gift and will help you (like one day I forgot to fill my camel-back before going out for the day. Dumb mistake. But I wasn't worried. I simply asked some folks at a camp if I could have some water, and they gave it to me with a smile). But despite this...you are on your own. You bring EVERYTHING to the playa. Shelter, food, fire, water, goggles, what not. I like this principal a lot, as I feel in the real world a lot of people don't take responsibility for themselves and their actions: here, you have too.

PARTICIPATION: You can come to Burning Man to watch, lord knows its some of the best people watching ever, but that's not the point. Join in. Play. Dance. Cheer. Paint. Roller Skate (yep, there is a roller rink complete with skates and 80's tunes). Don't be a douche and watch the "crazy" folks and take pictures...join in. Truth is, we're all crazy and weird in our own ways, this is a place where you can be crazy and weird and (almost) no one will judge you.

One of the best things I learned was about Judgement. I try to keep an open mind to things in life, but I find that I can be critical of people at times (Some of my friends are probably saying "yeah, no shit Craig!"). I don't like that I do this, and I think it has to do with expecting the best (perfection perhaps?) from myself. On Sunday morning I was watching the Playa Choir tear the roof off the dome they were in, and the director said something like this about judgement: (I paraphrase and embellish here)

Judgement is a bastard. You can't fire it. It won't go away. If you try it will come back and go postal on you. Instead you have to transform it into something else. For me, that is curiosity. Instead of judging, I will be curious: why does it work like that? how do people create that? what the fuck is going on? :)

 I'm sort of doing these emails backwards, as I just gave a big lesson I learned at the end of the trip in the first email. Oh well, if I learned one thing from Burning Man it's that things don't always go according to plan.

Hopefully this overview gets you in the right headspace for some of the stories that will come in the next few emails.

Burn baby, Burn,
Yes, that's a pirate ship sunk in the Playa