I Took My Marriage to Burning Man
“Burning Man has a funny way of pointing out your fears.”
The night I met my husband, Karl, he spent almost half of the evening talking about this thing that he went to every year called Burning Man.
Karl and I were having dinner at an East Village restaurant with a mutual friend, and the conversation was flowing easily. We didn’t even mind when our friend left us alone with our burritos and margaritas to retrieve a colleague from the airport.
Our friend wasn’t gone for very long before Karl pulled out his phone and started showing me pictures of art projects he had worked on at Burning Man, including a giant wooden structure called the Honeytrap, with pods for visitors to discover and climb into. It sounded like little more than a big playground in the middle of nowhere to me, but the people in the photos looked like they were having a good time.
I was intrigued by Karl because he seemed to be such an authority on the subject—one, it turns out, that I had little understanding of and which had made such a big impact on him. I admit that I was also drawn to the fact that Karl’s playa name (the name he goes by when he’s at Burning Man) is “Sota,” only two letters shy of my own last name.
Who was this person, and what was so great about this party in the desert he wouldn’t stop talking about?
Over the months we got to know each other, Karl and I learned that we had a lot more in common than a name, and we made a fast and happy decision to get married. He kept talking about Burning Man. I joked that Karl’s most common reference in a conversation with just about anyone was Burning Man.
We started attending Burner parties together. I learned that New York City is home to thousands of Burners, who religiously trek out to Black Rock City, Nevada, Burning Man’s temporary address, during the week before Labor Day, and who during the rest of the year throw parties that involve lots of creative attire (horns and antlers, apocalyptic body armor, metallic hot pants), fire, and bass-heavy dance music. At these parties, the Burners always greeted me with a hearty “welcome” and a hug, but I felt like I was on the outside of some club.
Karl would jump right into the activities—a “Funderdome” fight pit or blacklight body painting—as I would do my best to enjoy myself while trying to figure out what the hell was going on, exactly. People at these Burner parties—people I had never met—knew my husband and even treated him like family. How could I be married to someone who had “family” I didn’t even know?
With some trepidation and a desire to see why this desert festival was so important to Karl, I decided to make 2015 the year I trekked out to Black Rock City with him.
We started making our plans months before flying out to Reno. But Karl soon became upset with me. I wasn’t taking the endeavor seriously enough. There was a lot to do—securing plane tickets and hotel rooms, reserving a vehicle, and preparing our lives so that we could be completely off the grid for one to two weeks. (There is practically no cell phone service or internet access in Black Rock City.) He tried to instill the importance of our preparations by explaining that getting ready for Burning Man was a bigger deal to him than it had been to prepare for our wedding. Fellas, a tip: this is not what your wife wants to hear. But Karl was talking straight logistics, and since we got married at the city clerk’s office, I have to admit it is actually true that Burning Man preparations were more of an effort than our wedding.
Our journey began in Reno, the Biggest Little City in the World and home base for Burners prepping for their journey to the playa—the dehydrated alkaline lake bed that is the location of Black Rock City. Like many serious Burners who don’t live nearby, Karl keeps a year-round storage unit in Reno, full of Burning Man gear. To survive in Black Rock City, you have to take everything you need with you. This means not only sleeping gear and shelter, but also all the water and food you’ll consume for a week, plus costumes—a very important element, it turns out, for maximizing one’s Burning Man experience—and pickles, essential for combating dusty playa mouth.
Working with Karl on preparations gave me a whole new respect for his resourcefulness and dedication to things he cares about. Every item in his storage unit, from Q-tips in baggies, to funnels for peeing into bottles, had been inventoried and photographed after being cleaned by Karl following his last Burn. I saw that storage units next to us, accessed by other Burners, were packed up without the care that Karl had taken, their haphazard stacks shoved into corners.
As we organized the stored supplies for our journey, I started picking up some bits of dust from years past on my pants and shoes.
“Look, Karl,” I exclaimed. “I’m already getting dusty!”
He gave a little chuckle and said, “That’s nothing—wait ‘til we get to the playa.”
We gathered our rental van (with a warning from Alamo that we’d be charged $450 if our vehicle came back unclean—some places won’t even do business with renters who plan on taking vehicles to Burning Man), and stopped at Wal-Mart for additional supplies. I felt a little gross about Wal-Mart being an essential stop for Burners, especially because one of Burning Man’s Ten Principles is Decommodification. Karl and I argued about this for a bit, but it turns out that Wal-Mart really is the best place to pick up a cheap Huffy bicycle, everyone’s main mode of transportation for the week. Cars aren’t allowed to drive around in Black Rock City unless they’ve been decorated as Art Cars and registered with the Department of Mutant Vehicles.
Other key stops (and Burner gathering locations) included Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. Shopping for food was an especially pleasant experience, and different from our everyday grocery shopping, because we were making a point of choosing not only healthy food together, but also lots of our favorite fun snacks—chocolate, chips and salsa, grapefruit soda, beer. The playa is a harsh place, Karl explained, so it’s important to take things that bring you joy. This was starting to feel like a cool adventure we were taking together, rather than “the biggest test for our relationship yet,” which was how Karl had so lovingly described what we were getting into when I first made the decision to attend Burning Man with him.
Karl’s early assessment had made me nervous. “The biggest test to our relationship yet? What do you mean?”
“Well, Burning Man is pretty confronting. It puts a lot of pressure and strain on you and on a relationship, and it will force us to work through that together.”
I had wondered why we were going into a situation willingly that could tear us apart.
One thing I learned early is that getting ready for Burning Man is no joke if you want to stay healthy and have a good time. Before Burners go to the commodity-free zone that is Black Rock City, they pour a ton of effort, and a good deal of money, into their preparations. It takes resources to be totally free for a week, which is my one lingering criticism of the Burning Man enterprise, though there are options for making the experience as inexpensive as possible (sharing rides, qualifying for discount tickets, etc.).
In Reno, I chatted with local business owners to understand the culture of Burning Man, and to understand the impact that Karl and others make on them. Every year, Reno is overtaken by the 70,000 residents of Black Rock City. But no one seemed put out by this invasion—perhaps in part because of the influx of cash that Burners bring with them, not only for car rentals and supplies, but also for hotel stays, restaurant dining, and gambling. Kim, a cashier at the local CVS, told me that their store does more business in the four days before Burning Man than they do in a whole week around the holidays. “Burning Man is our Christmas,” she explained.
We had opted to join Ashram Galactica, one of the established camping groups at Burning Man, to be a part of an organized infrastructure and to give our week a sense of direction, however small. Going into an environment where pretty much anything is possible can be disorienting, and working with a team of good people to build a temporary home, cook meals, and make projects together goes a long way towards keeping a person sane.
Another one of the Ten Principles of Burning Man is Gifting. There is no exchange of money on the playa, save for in Arctica camp, which sells ice to Burners daily, and Center Camp, which sells drinks at a 24-hour café, to provide a hint of normalcy to Burners who can’t deal with a complete break from currency for a week. The Ashram Galactica gift to the Burning Man community is “the playa’s only five star hotel,” which includes a two-hundred-person capacity Moroccan tent called the Gilded Lily, where we entertain every night with a booming sound system, DJs until 5am, and dancing on the bar. Complimentary cocktails are served between legs to happy Burners. Ashramers also raffle off four intricately decorated hotel suites, gorgeously appointed luxury tents with themes such as “Shanghai Suite” and “French Boudoir” before we entertain visitors with an original musical theater performance. We are one of the classier camps on the playa.
You’ll notice I am using the term “we” and not “they” when referring to Ashram Galactica. I learned very quickly on the playa that there is no such thing as “they.” If everyone doesn’t participate in the experience and the creating, the magic doesn’t happen. Giant bar tents can’t get built with only a handful of people. Each camper helped to the best of her abilities. Karl did a lot of construction work, drawing on his background in carpentry, and I brought my experience in fine arts and project management to the decoration arrangements and heavy dusting of the carpets and cushions in our lounge.
Occasionally Karl and I combined forces and finished projects together, such as when we assembled the “Cambridge Suite” hotel tent. Our team leader was so impressed with our work and efficiency as a couple that she insisted we enjoy a stay in the swank suite one night ourselves before Ashram Galactica raffled rooms to the general public. That was a lot of fun—clean sheets, satin bedcovers, and lush décor, and we had earned it together. But not every camp experience was a joy.
When we purchased our Burning Man tickets, Karl said to me, “All first-timers have a nervous breakdown of some kind.” We didn’t know that my breakdown would come on the first night.
Burning Man presents a lot of unfamiliar stimuli all at once. Hugs from everyone! Naked boobies everywhere! Manual labor in an inhospitable environment! By the end of my arrival day, after dealing with an afternoon-long headache, I started attacking a friendly fellow Ashram camper with my frustrations.
“Why do you even like coming to Burning Man? It’s hard, and I can’t find my toothbrush. Fuck this shit.”
Instead of telling me to stick it and going off to enjoy himself, this veteran Burner brought me some water, sat down with me, and chatted calmly until I was done bitching. He refused, in his gentle and persistent care of me, to let me feel like I was on the outside of this Burning Man experience.
My kind fellow Ashram camper asked me, “Why did you come to Burning Man?”
Karl looked at me, eagerly awaiting my reply.
“I came because it’s important to Karl,” I said, immediately sensing that this wasn’t going to be a satisfactory answer.
My new friend said, “Okay, that’s what brought you here. But what do you want out of this experience?”
He made me think about my motives and helped me figure out how to get the most out of my week. The key, I learned, is to follow your own desires. I had come to the playa with a desire to understand my husband, but I was being challenged to understand myself. Someone besides Karl had helped me to realize this, someone who had met me only hours prior but was giving me full attention and care.
Burning Man is a place where people help each other out. If we didn’t, we’d all die out there in the desert. On our first morning, we woke at 6 a.m. to a dust storm with seventy-miles-per-hour winds. Everyone, Karl and I included, rushed out of our tents in underwear, goggles, and dust masks to hold down and reinforce our shade structure, which was quickly turning into a sail. We got the situation under control, drank some Tecate, and started our day invigorated by successful teamwork.
You may ask: if Burning Man entails headaches and crankiness and dangerous winds full of dust that eliminates visibility and settles into your lungs, why the hell does anyone bother?
There is a saying at Burning Man: “The playa provides.” Appropriate for this year’s “Carnival of Mirrors” theme, the playa became a reflection of myself. Nearly anything can be experienced at Burning Man—drugs, nudity, abnormal sleeping schedules, sexual experimentation, 24-hour drinking, 24-hour yoga practicing, skydiving, child-rearing. I could have chosen to participate in any of these things, but the only activities that were visible to me in the first couple of days were the ones I had reservations about. If there was something I was judgmental about, that was what I saw first. Burning Man has a funny way of pointing out your fears.
One of our early meals on the playa was served to us by an excellent chef who only ever wore panties, and nothing else. At the end of the meal, she stood on a table to make announcements to campers about that evening’s activities. I sat there finishing my salad, trying to figure out what was bothering me about this situation, while Karl chomped away at his food, with no sense that anything unusual was happening. This scene was normal to him.
Not everyone is naked at Burning Man, but a lot more people are barely clothed than I would find in my daily life in New York. But once I realized that no one was forcing me to be naked too, and that there was absolutely nothing threatening our relationship in all the skin showing around us, it became no big deal at all.
In the following days, Karl and I made many bicycle journeys and always found new and unusual sights to absorb. I discovered that the best approach was to be open, to let things be, to say yes as much as possible. This led us to some fun in adult situations, but also some very innocent ones too, like our visit to a pirate-themed camp, where I found a bucket of nail polish on the bar. I took my leave from Karl for twenty minutes to paint my fingernails silver and purple, while around me rowdy Scottish Burners, dressed as pirates, downed shot after shot of homemade rum.
Later, I watched my husband jump on one of the many giant trampolines we encountered at various camps, flapping his shiny turquoise cape like wings and exclaiming, “I can fly!” His actions made sense to me. He no longer looked like an exhibitionist craving attention, which is how I had viewed him in my less generous moments at home in New York. Instead, he looked like someone who was doing exactly what he wanted to do, because there was no reason he could not. It sounds simple, but it’s powerful—the realization that the only thing preventing you from doing as you please is the (false, at Burning Man, at least) idea that someone won’t let you.
By the end of the week, folks were surprised to discover that I was a Burning Man virgin. I’d acclimated completely. The sparklier (or sparser) my outfit, the better I felt. It didn’t take me long to be the one out there in deep playa (the area of Black Rock City far from any camps and most people), helping out lost Burners who were alone and sad and couldn’t find their bicycles. The deep playa is a vast expanse of cracked, pale land, interrupted here and there by an artwork made of light or fire, or an interactive sculpture. I found myself calm in that harsh desert environment, at peace being blinded by white-out dust storms, the only hint of other humans the colorful lights and sounds in the far distance. I had explored it enough times on my own to recognize the landmarks of the populated Black Rock City streets, and this knowledge helped me guide people back to the locations of their camps.
Karl and I found pleasure in bringing comfort to people together. In front of our tent, we set up a little table and made fresh snacks and tea with honey and lemon. We invited neighbors to join us and gave cookies to passersby. If there was a Burner virgin who hadn’t prepared well with hydration supplies, we were ready with an extra Gatorade.
I learned in these instances alone and with Karl that just being there for someone can turn their whole day or night around. Optimism and possibility were the most powerful drugs, it turned out (and I did my research).
Drugs, sex, dust—these are all in abundance at Burning Man. But so is art of all kinds. Groups spend months and sometimes years constructing giant sculptures to be placed in the deep playa, such as the Honeytrap that Karl had worked on in a previous year, and, one of my favorites this year, Storied Haven, a two-story boot that I wandered around inside, discovering the tiny treasures of the old woman who lived in a shoe.
The art projects also included group experiences that exist only at Burning Man, such as an hour-long gong bath at the Gong Love camp (Karl and I participated twice by lying down on our backs, our heads facing a wall of gongs played in various successions for a full hour—I highly recommend it) and the Dr. Bronner’s foam bath camp (disrobe and scrub yourself clean in a giant tent with fellow Burners!).
When we got around to trekking to the popular Dr. Bronner’s camp ourselves, the line was so ridiculously long that we opted to hang out at a small Bloody Mary bar across the street instead. There I met first-time Burner and UK resident Will, who was having the time of his life, exclaiming that Burning Man is “different from all other (mostly music) festivals,” in large part because the focus at Burning Man is on art. Will said he’d give me a face massage any time I wanted (only at Burning Man does this not come across as creepy), and in the spirit of Immediacy, another of the Ten Principles, I accepted that offer on the spot. While I was getting my massage, Karl had wandered off to chat with a couple of other Burners he’d just met. We temporarily lost track of each other, but that didn’t matter—we knew we’d find each other eventually.
By the time the Man was set to burn on Saturday night, I was invigorated by my week in a place where anything is possible and every decision is perfectly all right to make (assuming you don’t make a decision to hurt another person). With no responsibilities to anyone but our own selves, Karl and I felt a kind of freedom together that I hope continues through our daily lives. We were relaxed, happy, and having some of the best and most frequent sex of our marriage, which is pretty remarkable considering our living quarters consisted of a dust-filled tent crowded with clothing, costumes, water, storm gear and an eternally deflating air mattress.
After the burn, Karl and I drove back to Reno and did about a thousand loads of laundry (with vinegar mixed into soap to cut the dust), packed up our gear in the storage unit (along with my no-longer-new Huffy, now painted and decorated with sticker gifts), and decompressed for two days in a hotel hot tub. Water never felt so good as it did in that tub on my dry, cracking hands.
I never did pick up my own playa name, but I was happy keeping my own full name at Burning Man, so close to Karl’s playa moniker (it’s the closest we’ve come to sharing a name as a married couple). Burning Man didn’t break us. It turns out that we do quite well as a couple in an environment of absolute freedom. And now I’m the one who won’t shut up about Burning Man.
This past week, Karl and I were having dinner in the East Village again, this time with a group of fellow Burners we’d met at our Ashram Galactica camp. We were all family at the table.