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  • Finding Meaning at Burning Man

    Kids on a rampage.

    The next morning began roughly. I was jerked out of a brief slumber by shouts that breakfast was ready. “Can’t miss that,” I groaned to myself and struggled to stand. Out the RV door, twenty steps, and around a corner I was in line with other souls awaiting sustenance. Breakfast looked delicious. Everyone politely but firmly took what they figured was their fair portion.

    As I was sitting and snarfing up the only meal I would have all day, one of the cutest girls in our camp, Tina, sat down next to me. We struck up casual conversation in a half-awake stupor. Minutes later my homeboy from Knoxville, Caleb, showed up and started discussing the day’s explorations. When we rose to begin preparations, Tina asked if she could come along. “Sure,” we said. “Fuck yeah,” we thought.

    The city by day was an entirely different beast. It was no less bustling, no less bizarre. But the sun seemed to vibrate the town into an even broader smattering of weird. Camps came alive with their interactive whatevers, wanderers got their second (or third, or fourth, or who cares how many) wind, and the music moved with renewed enthusiasm.

    Like three gleeful kids just out on a summer break, we rode our bikes aimlessly and with a carefree pep. The world was ours. We shouted jokes, made snap decisions, stopped for drinks, chatted loudly with whomever, hugged, laughed, relaxed under the occasional shade, raced, flirted, and danced. We played tennis with a racquet the size of a beach ball. We taunted the lifeguard at a fake pool as he megaphoned playful insults at passersby. And we rode. Always onward—always to nowhere and just where we wanted to be.

    At some point the Temple came up in conversation. “Should we go? It’s pretty awesome, but, you know… it’s powerful. Are you ready for that?” Always and never, we decided.

    So we ventured out deep into the playa, towards the Temple. The search for what it really meant to be there was just beginning.

    I’ve been struggling to find my center, my power core. Curiosity, optimism, and often reckless enthusiasm have carried me around the world. I’ve discovered treasures, studied people, manifested dreams, loved in unforeseen ways, conquered fears and uncovered new ones. But all of this life, as full as it has been, is merely the first phase. I’m ready for the next era of Augustin. I see it there in the distance, looming beneath a sunrise, its outline barely visibly—my Destination. But right here before me lies a mile of desert—my Rite of Passage.

    We arrived, parked our bikes somewhere in the swarm, and stood together silently staring at the Temple of Transition. The structure consisted of six towers; five in a ring around the middle tower. The five towers represented Birth, Growth, Union, Decay, and Death. The middle tower, the one that connected them all, stood the tallest for Gratitude.

    Center tower at the Temple of Transition

    The Tower of Gratitude

    Caleb handed me a green sharpie. I took it gratefully, breathed deep, and wandered off and into myself. As I remembered what my loved ones had told me to write for them, I found a space and did so… plus some. Between each frantic scrawling, I stepped back and reread, reflected, maybe added something, hands-together bowed, and walked on. In a short time I was in tears, shaken, overwhelmed. I blew some snot rockets and walked on… slowly.

    Eventually I found myself in the Death tower. It was a sad and reverent place. Silence filled the space like the humidity of Atlanta summers. Photos of loved ones covered the spaces between writings. Jewelry, clothes, journals, objects of all sorts—mundane, curious, and heartbreaking—lay with intention everywhere. One man sitting cross-legged in a corner was crying, rocking, and occasionally pouring emotion onto the wall before him.

    My heart ached with thoughts of inevitable death. None came more powerfully than my mother’s. It made my knees buckle. My hands went to the table for support. I choked back a wail and gasped. Tears clouded my vision.

    Then it hit me. If I were to bear my soul (which I needed to do) and give a full confessional, there was no one better to address it to than my mother—the one who invested the most in me.

    But there wasn’t enough wall or sharpie for what I had to get out. I found a journal that said “open me” on the cover. I opened it. Inside the front cover it said, “please fill these pages.” Pens were scattered nearby. I tore 4 blank pages out of the journal, swiped a pen, and left the tower of Death.

    My mojo was settling. I was falling into that even, calm place—that place where my heart expands to embrace the weight of the world and my mind tingles and goes blank.

    I sat in a bench near the periphery. I took out the pen and paper and began writing. All my regrets, weaknesses, fears, and doubts—things that I didn’t just offer up to anyone with a fading interest or wouldn’t even give myself the time to air—came out in a torrent.

    And word by word I was filled with the hope that I could burn all of this; that I wouldn’t cringe anymore with past mistakes and insecurities nagging my idle mind. I could honor my mother’s great sacrifice and be an extraordinary person.

    When I finished I reread it. Then reread it again. Finally, I folded the paper, stood, breathed deep, and walked looking for a place to put it all to rest. The tower of Gratitude beckoned. Tings, tungs, tams, and toms radiated out of it… louder and louder as I approached. In the hallway from an outer tower, I felt a strong breeze push my body back as it drew my heart forward. I came to the entrance, found a supporting structure flush against an upright with just a sliver of space between, gave the folded confessional a kiss, and crammed it home.

    Inside the Tower of Gratitude

    Then I looked up. Inside the great tower of Gratitude rose the energy of all within it. About two dozen people lying, sitting, standing, and bowing, soaked in the orchestra of sounds, sights, and feelings. It. Was. Glorious. God laid his hand down on the earth, palm precisely on the Tower of Gratitude.

    A perfect little spot was there towards the middle. When I saw it, I knew where I was to go and be. So I did and was. The wind blew dust in a constant barrage. I kept my handkerchief over my face, my sunglasses on. I sat cross-legged. I listened to the echo of chimes from dozens of bells mounted around the inside of the tower. Time became irrelevant. I’d look up and be blinded by sunbeams bursting through the upper levels, between people looking right back down at us… just as still, just as blissed out.


    Eventually I stood, stretched, and left. We picked up our bikes and headed on to the next adventure, ate, and partied. Before I knew it life was back to a bizarre but somewhat meaningless cacophony of sensory input. At some point I remember thinking back on those moments at the Temple and wondering if there was more to it. Was there a message lingering in the memories of that place that I’ve yet to find? What was I doing here, really? I didn’t know. Even now, I’m not really sure. The blinding shock of clarity that unequivocally kicks me in a new direction wasn’t there. All my problems didn’t go away. Life doesn’t seem any easier now. In fact, since then I’ve felt even more like a small boat on a big turbulent ocean.

    But what was I expecting? I wanted some reassurance that I’m on the right path. I think I got that. I receive that reassurance every day in little victories, little beautiful coincidences that delight and inspire me. The universe isn’t showing me my future all at once in a dump of cosmic prophecy. The universe is rewarding me for moving forward, for creating my future, one small act at a time.

    If I’ve learned anything—if I have to declare Meaning—I’d say this: grand, unique experiences no matter how inspiring, odd, beautiful, etc. are no sure pill to heal ails or reveal the purpose of life. Sometimes when we go out looking for meaning, for clarity, we come away with nothing but the mandate to keep on looking. Keep on moving. Sometimes we’re in the midst of a Rite of Passage.

    A Rite of Passage is a road of indeterminate length.

    Settling Into Burning Man

    I managed to stay awake well into the afternoon that first day. I helped setup three big parachute tents and an art car. I met many of the organizers and participants in our camp. I wandered around aimlessly, ate, drank, and sat. Eventually, just as the sun was beginning to set, I crawled into the darkest bunk in our RV, plugged in the earplugs, slapped on the eye patch, and tried to sleep. The DJ stage right on the other side of our wall had started already. My bed was shaking violently to a quick bass electronic rhythm. My head was beginning to ache.

    In a few hours I was up again and my head was throbbing. I told myself I had to shake it off and go see stuff. I told myself this was Burning Man, damn it, sleep when it’s over. My friends agreed. We got ready for wandering and wandered.

    The town of Black Rock was beginning to swell. Art cars, brightly lit, in all shapes and sizes, and usually blasting some variety of techno, meandered at a comfortable 5mph around the playa. Everyone glowed. If you didn’t have some variety of glowy or blinky someone would shout “Dark Wad!” at you. The community didn’t want your dumbass run over by art. That’d make for some messy moop.

    Most of the partying/dancing/wandering activities of that entire week are blurred together in a mishmash of memory. We’d notice something cool and giggle, point, and alert each other. Like a 40-foot-tall (but otherwise pretty normal-looking) 4-legged chair scooting across the playa. We’d laugh and say to ourselves or each other “What the fuck?” and keep walking. We’d hear a tune we liked drive past and run after it. We’d see an art car with people swarming all over it dancing and run after it. We’d see people standing around some lights in the middle of nowhere and head towards it. We’d stare at interactive art until we understood what to do, did it, said cool, then moseyed on. We’d scream when a fireball burst a hundred feet up from the ground or erupted in a cascade from an art car. We’d relish the warmth it laid on us. Then we’d move on.


    The Pier

    As the sun began to rise I set off alone on my bike into the playa. I found a pier… like the kind you’d find sticking out into the ocean. But this one stretched a few hundred feet from playa to playa. Underneath, towards the end, was a hammock. I set my bike against an upright and fell into the hammock. The sounds of ocean waves gently crashing into the pier and seagulls chirping radiated from speakers hidden somewhere above me. I sat and stared at the mountains cradling the sunrise far in the distance. Orange soup gently morphed into a brilliant yellow spray as the night’s black sky peeled away to the blue embrace of day. I don’t remember falling asleep.

    But I awoke shivering. The seagulls were still chirping. The sun was staring at me low on the horizon, not yet ready for hugs, just saying hello. I hopped on my bike and headed back for some deep recharge sleep.

    Arriving at Burning Man

    The greatest adventures start well before you think they have. Burners have this saying, “as soon as you leave your house, you’re at burning man.” So chill, the saying implies, and remember that each step is the destination. You are already home. Burning Man is an attitude, a way of living, not a place or a group of people. It lives in our hearts, mostly dormant, always there when called upon to burst out and radically change our perspective on life. Not just the life we inhabit, but all life.

    I tried reminding myself of this when I was going through the final planning. I was happy then, excited for the new adventure… but knowing that through all the preparation, I wouldn’t be prepared. I had my costume (a green helmet with alien antennae and a space suit), my essential survival gear (goggles, hats, hankies, sunscreen, etc.), and various just-in-case supplies (first-aid, extra everythings, etc.) Camping hundreds of times has helped make this whole “survival stress” a somewhat non-issue for me. But what else did Burning Man have in store? What else would I wish I brought once there?

    I shelved that concern for the immediate need to get friends and start the road trip. Sonny and Kester missed two flights to get to San Francisco. “If it were easy, everyone would go,” they reminded themselves to choke the thoughts of giving up. I could see in their tired eyes that determination had won out when I picked them up around noon at SFO. But they still had energy to shop, which kind of blew me away, so we hit the Haight for final costume accessories. Towards sunset we booked it down to San Jose for a final stop at Sonny’s brother’s girlfriend’s house. I ditched half my clothes down there… which reminds me, I need to go to San Jose again. ;p

    That was our last night in the “Default World.” Black Rock City, infinite dust, ridiculous art, the playa, wacky people, controlled chaos, unbounded beauty, and all manner of unusual experiences awaited us just a few hours north of Reno, Nevada. By about 5:00AM Tuesday morning, after at least 4 hours of “waiting” in the coolest line of my life, we had landed. There was no Houston to notify. There was only dust… and dreams manifested right before our eyes.

    The view from our camp upon first arrival.

    Walking towards the temple after arriving.

    The Temple of Transition loomed gloriously nearly a mile out from our camp. The very first thing I did was grab water and booze and walk out towards it. I stopped on the Esplanade (the first street lining the inner circle of Black Rock City) stared out at the various art installations, mountain ranges crested with orange gold of the rising sun, and hundreds of burners meandering, working, wondering, and doing god knows what else. I took a deep breath, smiled broadly, and laughed. I was home.

    That morning I watched the sunset while sitting in the sand at the Temple of Transition. I meditated, prayed, and let the glory of the heavens and earth wash through me. I thanked for being there, prayed for beauty to come, and dreamed of what might. I made marks in the sand before me then reflected on them. I stretched my body and felt it ache and relax and ache and relax. I breathed. I listened. When the sun was fully before me, shining its brilliant heat on my face and chest, I stood up, turned around and started walking back. Like I would experience a thousand times before the week was over, life had given me a moment of perfection so that I could turn around and walk away.

    Theme: Esquire by Matthew Buchanan.