Burning Man, Part 1

I’d assumed that I’d write one big blog post about Burning Man; something all-inclusive, an attempt to describe the experience for friends and family (and anyone else) that might be interested.

The thing is, I can’t. There’s too much to describe. Too much happened, and there are too many things that can’t be put into words.

It’s impossible to articulate the feeling of being immediately at home with 66,000 strangers, and the grief of having to leave them behind. This sadness also forces you to accept that you’re one of them.


Instead of attempting to describe the event/festival/experiment/temporary city/art bomb/wonderland that is Burning Man, I’m just going to be lazy and let them describe it for you.

One thing I would like to say is that Burning Man is a completely different thing for every individual. Whatever you think it is, whatever kind of experiences you think you might have there, I guarantee you that you’re simultaneously 100% right, and 100% wrong. 

I saw people that partied hard all week. I saw people that were purely there to help others.

I saw:

  • sober people 
  • definitely not sober people
  • naked people
  • elaborately costumed gods and goddesses; human beings that appeared to be from other planets or realities
  • wide-eyed suburban families
  • people that were there to eat well and do yoga every day
  • people who were there just to support other people

There’s a 50km marathon. Artists and creatives flock to showcase their limitless imaginations, or to be inspired. Rumor has it that Silicon Valley elites use Burning Man as a networking opportunity. It’s the promised land for anyone curious about life in general, or for anyone that needs a break from the real world. If you like fire, it’s fucking great.

Burning Man is exactly what you think it is, and it’s exactly the opposite, too. It’s everything for everyone. It’s eight days of Choose Your Own Adventure.

Had I been to Burning Man last year, or if I’d been in good health this year, I’m sure I would’ve fallen into the party hard category. However, I’ve been sick since April. At this point, it’s an undiagnosed mystery illness, but everyone around me that has seen the complexity and variety of my symptoms is saying the same thing: they think it’s Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, or Myalgic Encephalomyelitis.

To describe this to anyone properly would take a hundred blog posts, but in short, I’m existing (on average) at about 50% of my previous capacity, both physically and mentally. It’s the kind of super fun disease where if I do even slightly too much exercise, I wake up the next morning in pain. Sometimes it’s localized, sometimes it’s all over. Headaches and body aches are a daily occurrence. Painkillers and I now have a worryingly intimate relationship. I’m fatigued so easily that sleep and rest have become the most valuable assets I have.

This isn’t limited to physical exertion, either. Socializing (especially with unfamiliar people) is equally as exhausting as going for a short jog, and can induce physical symptoms. I often have to shift into hermit mode – exist in a dark, quiet space, with as little stimulation as possible – just to allow my brain and/or body to recover a little bit of energy so I can keep functioning like a normal person for another few hours before I crash again. Needless to say, my mental health is all over the place as I try to accept my new limitations while experimenting with treatment options.

But that’s a story for another day.  

This isn’t the ideal situation for someone about to spend 8 days in the desert, surrounded by parties and people and neon lights and things on fire and music and noise and drugs and alcohol and dust storms and fire-breathing dragons on wheels and swing sets and trampolines and things to climb and play with – oh my! – while attempting to participate, to help out around camp, and to see, feel, and do as much as possible.

Thus, after melting down a few times prior to the event and freaking out about the stupidity of putting myself in such a physically dangerous situation, I took the smartest approach I could think of, and made sure that:

  • I had a good tent, comfortable mattress, and medications that would allow me to sleep and calm down whenever I needed it. My prescribed medical marijuana also had the side benefit of lowering my body temperature, killing my anxiety, and – once in a while – letting me get into the spirit of things without endangering my health the way that alcohol would.
  • I didn’t touch alcohol for the entire event. Somehow, this illness has caused me to become completely intolerant of alcohol, and I didn’t want to risk dehydration on top of that. So I became an enthusiastic enabler instead, via bartending at our camp. I genuinely enjoyed watching others get happily tipsy. (Disclaimer: I also pestered everyone to keep drinking water while they were drinking booze, because I’m like that.)
  • I made peace with the fact that because I’m running at about 50% capacity, I’d probably only do and see 50% of what I wanted to do. For anyone wondering: in Black Rock City, 50% is still enough to blow your mind and change your perception of everything you thought you knew about humanity and social conditioning.
  • I was militant with my health and safety. 50+ sunscreen every morning, a dust mask and goggles always with me, and I was constantly drinking water. 
  • I was selfish with my energy and attention, only engaging with people or activities when it felt right, and lying still with an icepack on my head whenever I felt overtired or hot. 
  • At night, when it was quiet around camp and cool enough to sleep comfortably, I seized the opportunity and slept. The latest I stayed up was on the night of the actual burn, and even then I was asleep by 2am. My dream for next year is to go out and dance at Robot Heart until sunrise… just once? We’ll see. 

I’ve accomplished many things that I’m pretty damn proud of, but leaving Black Rock City feeling as healthy as I did going in made me feel strangely victorious. It sounds trite, but until you’ve endured Burning Man with a chronic illness or disability, it’ll be hard to understand.

I forgive you for thinking I’m making a big deal out of nothing. I could’ve easily ignored my sensibilities and drank, partied, and worn myself into the ground, and who knows? I might well have come home a little extra tired and sore, and taken longer to recover, and been all #YOLO, #totallyworthit, and all that. I’m sure it would have been just as awesome. I’d probably have more stories to tell than the ones I do now. But I could have done serious damage.

I don’t feel as if I missed out on the intensity of the Burning Man experience, even with this illness. I might still be sick, but I didn’t make myself sicker. That, in my mind, is something to be proud of, especially given that the temptation to push physical boundaries is right in your face: every single second of every day.

Erica, come on – get to the point. What did you do? What crazy stuff did you witness? Is it really just a drug-fuelled orgy-rave in the desert?

Well, no. And this is just my introduction. As often as I can, I’m going to update with a fresh blog post about singular experiences that I had in Black Rock City, instead of trying to fit everything into one wall of text. This post is just background information, so that I can tell each story more completely on its own, even if only for myself to look back on later. 

Part 2 (if I get to it) will be about the day I stepped out of a port-a-loo and was immediately surprised by a small crowd who handed me a trophy, cheered loudly, and told me that I’d “won Burning Man!” before proceeding to force me into making an acceptance speech. Surreal.

Dustily yours,