The next morning, we were quickly put to work. A lot of things needed setting up: the tents, at least a dozen of them, tucked beneath a shade structure; a yurt, complete with swamp cooler, to keep the vegetables cool; a kitchen tent, with several buckets of soapy water for washing dishes; and the wooden stall for the Farmers Market itself. My friends and I spent most of the morning decorating the dome; hanging fabric from the PVC supports, setting up the sound system, rigging up a chandelier. Later, there was the bike-powered blender to set up, and our dinner to prepare.
At this point, we’d been working non-stop since we’d gotten to Reno, getting by on very little sleep, and, for that matter, very little food. All we wanted to do was get out there and explore the Playa. Luckily, our camp was placed in one of the liveliest neighborhoods of Black Rock City — the French Quarter. There was a bakery, a gumbo cookery, a coffee-shop, and a camp that offered grilled cheese and PBR every morning at noon. We kept stealing moments away from work to pick up the latest beignet or drop by for a beer or wine-tasting.
When evening came around, we gathered in the dome to eat the feast that my friends and I had prepared in Reno. As we reveled in everyone’s accolades, it seemed like the long and arduous set-up process had come to an end. But there was more — as the cooking≠ team, it was our job to clean up the kitchen and wash everyone’s dishes. Huddled over bins of soapy water, we watched as the rest of the camp put on their costumes and prepared for a night out on the Playa.
I understood now what people meant when they said that being part of a theme camp was an entirely different Burning Man experience. For the past three years, I’d been more or less on my own, and had no responsibility. This year, most of my time was going to be spent in and around our camp, with the same group of people we’d arrived with. It was great to finally feel like I had a role in the wider community. At the same time, this was supposed to be our week away from the stress of the default world — a vacation, if you will. I worried that, after all the effort to get here, my friends might not get to see the side of Burning Man that I’d fallen in love with.
Late that night, we finally got a chance to head out onto the Playa. We stopped first at the Man, and then the Temple, serendipitously running into several of our other campmates along the way. A few of the folks took pot brownies. After a terrible experience at last year’s Burn, I decided to pass. We climbed on board an art car, a massive yacht blaring dance music.
Art cars can be fun when they cruise across the Playa, but if they stay in one place for too long, they can start to feel a bit claustrophobic. The yacht wasn’t moving, and I wasn’t in the mood to dance. After a while, my friend Jonah turned to me. The brownies were getting to him.
We bid the rest of the party goodbye and started the trek back to camp. It was a long walk, and the dust was picking up. It was my friend’s first time on the open Playa. I could see him starting to panic, trying to get a sense of where we were, worrying if he had enough water.
I knew what he was going through. I’d been there myself. I could imagine how strange and barren this stretch of the desert must seem to him, how long the walk back to camp. But this was home to me now, this was my turf. I knew exactly where we were going; there was nothing to worry about. We had our goggles and dusk masks, and plenty of water in my Camelbak.
In the past, it would have been me freaking out, and he would have been the one talking me down. It was the first time since I’d known him that I’d been in this position. It hit me that part of my role this week was to act as a spiritual guide to those who were new to this place.
We talked about how Burning Man was like an extended mushroom trip. The first few days were the “oh, shit, what did I get myself into?” period: isolation, claustrophobic, a sense of being cut off from friends and family in the default world. No way to escape except to wait it out and work through it. But we were all in this together. And once we made it over that initial state of shock, once we embraced the craziness of this place and stopped resisting it, we’d be OK.
It sucked to see my friend in such a state, but it felt good to know there was a place in the world where I felt so comfortable that people could depend on me to get through it.
We made it back to camp and sat in the dome for a bit with several of the other Carrots. We’d only been here for a day, and already the course of the week was beginning to take shape. There would be times when we’d feel like we belonged here, and there would be times when, like tonight, we’d feel lonely and out of place. But it would all come together in the end.
We made one last trip to the restrooms, and then found our tent. With any luck we’d get four or five hours of sleep. We had a 7 AM shift at the Farmers’ Market the next morning.