We wake at four a.m. to the trill of the alarm and slowly drive out past the sleeping campers who shared our site the night before. In the dark, we bump down the forest service road, headlights throwing shadows into the pine trees. We ease onto the highway, hurried, excited; our destination is just a hundred miles away. The stars fade. Pink ribbons wind across the eastern horizon as morning breaks over the high desert. Usually a desolate stretch of road, we join a kind of caravan with old RVs, a heavily loaded U-Haul trailer and a white-painted school pus piled with a jumble of bikes. We’re all going to Burning Man, the annual gathering in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada that defies description. It’s an enormous art project. A weeklong party. A celebration of human creativity, community and ingenuity. A dance. A memorial. A test of survival skills. Yes, all of that.
Every moment there were a thousand new things to see. You might plan to bike across the playa to look at the 20-foot tall flaming cactus sculpture, but along the way become distracted by a mutant vehicle steamboat blaring dance music. Or the intricate neon-lit wooden sculpture of a snake eating it’s own tail. And there’s a man playing a tuba, which happens to be on fire. Wait – there’s a giant birthday cake car, complete with candles. Where were you going?
I was anxious about Burning Man. I thought I’d feel out of place – too ordinary among all these creative free souls. I may not have learned how to do flips from a trapeze or bashed someone with a Nerf bat while suspended on a bungee cord (both options), but I was awed by the scale of the art, deeply moved by the memorials written on the wall of the Temple and overall impressed with the strong culture of respect and cooperation.
One night I held a 1,600-foot long string of helium balloons, each one lit with an LED light. The balloons felt like a living creature, tugging at their tether, wishing to be free. From my hand they drifted above the pulsing desert, up over the dance stages, the flaming art cars, over the holy Temple and the neat rows of camps, their small lights stretching to meet the stars.