Burns of the Fourth Degree Part 1

Burns of the Fourth Degree is a series of essays about Burning Man and its effects on one formerly repressed Catholic school kid. It mostly focuses on Burning Man 2012 and the trials and adventures of the More Carrot Camp.

This year was a very strange Burn for me, my strangest, most intense one yet, and yet the most rewarding. It challenged me physically and mentally, forced me to break many principles and create many new ones. My previous Burns seem like child’s play in comparison.

And yet Burning Man has never been easy for me. You could call it a spiritual retreat, except that the moments of peace and meditation are few and far between. It is a grueling ordeal, a vision quest, a magic mushroom trip that lasts for a week. It leaves you naked and exhausted and ready for home only to miss it immediately the moment you step off the Playa.

In the struggles of forming a temporary community, of breaking down the dividing line between self-identity and other,   friendships are deepened or destroyed. Several of my close friends have been lost to these forces. Others whom I saw on the  Playa, even for the briefest moment, are that much closer to me now. Whatever journey they took on their own time,  whatever person they become when they return to the default world, the very act of being there, of submitting themselves to this process, endears them to me.

And yet, like soldiers returning home from war, we face the blank stares and mild amusement of those unable to wrap their minds around the stories we tell. They regard our dust-covered faces with polite skepticism, expecting our starry-eyed idealism to last no longer than a week― or as long as it takes us to find a shower. These are the ones who need to Burn the most. In time, they will make it there, and they too will feel the forces of the Playa shaping and molding them into their best selves.

***

For the past few weeks, I’ve been telling everyone that I was “transformed” at this year’s Burning Man. Now comes the  difficult part of putting it into words, and trying to explain what happened to me, in a way that doesn’t sound like a bunch of transcendental gibberish.

I faced a lot of challenges, from personal insecurities, to the pressures of being part of an organized camp, to juggling the emotional ups and downs of the people close to me. Fears and hang-ups that I’ve had since childhood played themselves out in unexpected ways. Even now, I’m noticing differences in my thought processes, my ways of interacting with others, and even my body language. I feel more open-hearted — better able to look people in the eyes and know that I’m not just a blank slate staring back at them.

These changes were sudden. They have not gone away, even after a very rocky return to the default world. I feel grounded, stable. I know who I am now, even when most of the things that make me who I am are stripped away from me.

For three years, Burning Man had been an outlet for some of these tensions, a safe space to confront my insecurities and return to the real world feeling more like myself. This year, with the ticket situation being what it was, I faced the prospect of not even being able to go.

Then, in an unexpected coincidence, our Airbnb guest, an Australian globetrotter, happened to be part of the More Carrot Camp, which runs the Black Rock City Farmers Market. They had applied for directed tickets, he said, and they needed more members. Would we be a good fit?

The Black Rock Farmers Market

Absolutely! Me and a couple of my roommates immediately jumped on board. We sent them info about ourselves and waited patiently for an answer.

A few weeks later, we got the news. They had enough tickets for the three of us and one of our friends from the east coast. The camp leader, a middle-aged businesswoman from D.C., chatted with us on Skype about the various projects going on in the camp.

We signed up for a few tasks, mostly video editing and fundraising stuff, and got to know the rest of the campmates via email and Facebook. A good dozen of them were Australians, but a few camp members were based in LA, so we met up for some craft-making and other projects. For most of us, it was our first time being part of a fully-formed theme camp.

One of the camp trademarks is a “carrot protest” where we demonstrate with signs and banners against the “Billion Bunny  March,” a major event on the Playa. Our friend Jonah had been put in charge of coming up with songs and slogans for the march, and although this was his first time at Burning Man, he approached it with his usual enthusiasm. He printed up an entire sing-along songbook, and invented several carrot-themed cocktails for the pre-march party.

Preparing for the Burn from the perspective of the Carrots made everything seem even more surreal. This was my first Burn with a organized theme camp, and even I wasn’t sure what to expect.

The Bunny March

[Read the second installment of Burns of the Fourth Degree next Monday]

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