Feeling the Burn, Part II
July 1, 2009, 5:21 pm
Filed under: art, Pop Culture, traveling, Uncategorized, World of Wonder
Prow of SS Bacon

Prow of SS Bacon

It seems I am so literal I am damn prophetic, as I made it to Lakes of Fire but I missed the historic burning of the SS Bacon.  Temperatures on Saturday were above ninety, about ten degrees higher than expected, and after very little sleep it was all I could do not to throw up or pass out.   At that point it was clear I was just a burden and I didn’t want to rain on anybody’s fire processional, so I wound up crashing at the Fairfield Inn while my spouse and daughter stayed for the festivities.  I am sometimes picky about my hotel accommodations, but I have never before in my life been so grateful for a room on the ground floor facing the parking lot.   There I showered, slept and nursed my sunburn, grateful to have met some lovely folks at Lakes of Fire and reasonably at peace with my own physical challenges.  I had no regrets for going, which became even clearer when I realized I was mentally surveying workarounds that would allow me to attend next year without bailing.   I had felt the burn alright, just not the one I asked for.

I’ve always been alternately fascinated and repelled by Burning Man.  The culture and spectacular art installations in the starkness of the desert landscape were enticing, but I’m afraid of camping, heat, and dust storms.  The cost of traveling to Black Rock is prohibitive and the size of Burning Man seemed overwhelming, but I thought a few days in Southern Michigan with several hundred people might just be doable.  As I’ve remarked already, I was intrigued to get in on the ground floor of a new regional event and hopefully help shape it.    For much of the time I was there I was not in any shape to do much shaping, but I was lucky enough to enjoy and hopefully contribute to the congenial atmosphere of the family zone.  One of several reasons I’d decided to go was frankly that I wanted to see what the experience would be like for my daughter.  The only bad thing I have to say about this was that my heart stopped when I saw her climbing trees above my head, but since that and the burn were her favorite parts of the weekend, I can hardly begrudge it.



I think one of the best things about this event was the mix of seasoned and new Burners, imposing enough of a structure to inspire those of us who were just figuring it all out for the first time.  I would suspect this process was infinitely more challenging for those of us with children on board, and I was pleased to see the event planners had obviously gone to a great deal of effort to accommodate families and anticipate their needs.  Within the spatial limitations of the property, they placed Hushville as far away from the loudest music as they could have.  There was also room for kids to run and play, although the terrain was just rough enough to mandate socks and sneakers.  The atmosphere was mellow and respectful, people shared, and the youngsters managed to amuse themselves with no Disney Channel in sight.   Who needs Hannah Montana when you can shoot water balloons or make sock puppets as you attempt to process the equally unsettling and intriguing information that your parents are not fazed by naked people walking around in public?

Speaking of naked people walking around in public, this seems like a good time to announce that I see Burner culture as  perhaps our best avenue to provide our daughter with a sense of community and spiritual foundation.  Since we are Atheists and our daughter is an only child, we have puzzled over how to nurture positive humanistic values in the absence of a church.  We want our daughter to learn to treat other people as she would like to be treated, but we also want her to learn self-reliance, cherish freedom of expression, and respect her surroundings.

Burning Man events are organized in such a way as to help and support parents who wish to raise open-minded children without exposing them to sights that will sear their eyeballs, because eyeball-searing should be reserved for those of us over eighteen.  They were also very strict about checking IDs and issuing wristbands for drinking.  As for drinking, there was plenty of alcohol around but I saw very few people who were visibly intoxicated.   The expectation that you will do basically whatever you choose within the three main ground rules of the event is paired with the expectation that you will not make yourself a sloppy nuisance to others.   Freedom and responsibility are two of the main tenets of existentialism, so perhaps that explains why it all made so damn much sense to me.

The short version of the Lakes of Fire rules were as follows:

1) Ask first

2) Protect the community

3) Leave no trace

Granny may not exactly have asked before he and his cohort quite abruptly but nonetheless endearingly reeled my spouse and I out of the woods into a Hunter-S.-Thompsonesque encounter I’ll never forget, but I’ll forgive him because, well, he was Granny.

From babes in arms to folks who clearly get the senior discount, everyone at Lakes of Fire was friendly as can be without crowding me.  I’m a hard-of-hearing classic introvert and was fighting the quease, so I struggled a bit to communicate and didn’t interact as much as I would have liked.  Nonetheless, I felt welcomed and I valued every opportunity I had to get to know these fascinating people who had all descended on this rustic space in the Midwest for the first time and created magic.   Folks around our camp gave me my space because they knew I wasn’t feeling well, but I knew they were there if I needed them.  Even when I felt to ill to talk or approach the fire, I just sat in my camp chair and took it all in.

I think everyone remembers the first time they saw day turn into night at a Burning Man event.   The premises looked a bit scrappy at first sight in daylight, but the magic comes at night when the lights transform the place into a wonderland.  I particularly liked the vehicle tricked up to look like a tent with lights on the outside, which I think may have belonged to rangers.   Watching it glide through the grounds in the darkness inevitably made me smile.  The lights also transformed many of the art objects and installations including the SS Bacon into sparkling oases of enchantment, with fire spinners further adding to the luminosity of the event.

If you are intrigued by Burning Man but not sure if you can handle the environment or the sheer sensory overload, I would highly recommend attending Lakes of Fire or another one of these regional events as a way of testing the waters.  I learned from this experience that my delicate constitution probably precludes my attending Burning Man unless I can afford an Airstream but when all was said and done I did not feel the aversion you would expect from someone who spent at least half of her time there trying not to hurl or pass out.  Instead, I found myself strategizing for next year, plotting workarounds that would enable me to participate more fully without unweaving into a basket case.  I’ve also found myself exploring some of the history and culture of Burning Man  and salivating over the stunning array of theme camps available on the playa this year.   Sometimes I’m not quite sure if I’ve liked something or not (like a first kiss) until I get some distance from it, and in this case the clear answer was a resounding yes indeedy.  Besides, where else am I going to wear my shiny silver pants?

Nothing is perfect, least of all a first attempt at anything as incredibly complex and labor-intensive as this event.  I did hear at one point that not quite as many tickets had been sold for Lakes of Fire as had been hoped, but in fact my only concern for the event is that I don’t think this space would accommodate a lot more people without feeling overbooked and cramped.   I could see the organizers did as much as they could to separate the family area from the camps playing the loudest music, but as I lay awake and felt the persistent bass thump vibrating in my absurdly skinny sleeping bag Friday night I couldn’t help wishing Hushville had been, more, well, hushed.  Folks have also suggested both more showers and a shuttle or a few to the Lake to cool down, both of which I think are fine ideas.  So, for that matter, would have been a Slip ‘n’ Slide or sprinkler system, but for that we would need running water.

I did not slink home from Lakes of Fire like a scurvy dog of failure who fled to a chain motel with her tail between her legs.  Once I’d showered, slept, and decompressed, I felt so energized I came home and did 90% of the unpacking before I even sat down.   I’ve been writing, thinking, dreaming, jotting notes on projects I may or may not ever get around to doing, all of which is as it should be.  Things may not always go smoothly when I stretch myself beyond my comfort zone, in fact they rarely do.  But like my literary totem animal Mole from Wind in the Willows, I am compelled to occasionally leave the comforts of my home to seek adventure in the company of other breeds.

Back in the safety of my lair, I feel stronger for having tested my limits.   Sure enough I bumped right up against them, but I’d rather barf in a tent than give up seeking new experiences and I’d rather brave a group hug in Tick Town with a wonky gut than be a poor sport.   The nausea passed long ago, but I’ll be chuckling about that hug for as long as I live.  Kudos to the organizers of Lakes of Fire, as your work and planning obviously didn’t go to waste.  I’m quite sure I’m not the only attendee who came home inspired and energized, and I look forward to seeing how all this collective energy manifests next year.  I may be a camping wussy, but I know a good thing when I see it.  I may not have been in any shape to contribute much to the community in real time, but perhaps my best contribution is to share these few thoughts and impressions.  Burning Man events are not for everyone, but these communities are about as close as we can get to Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zone.  If you have a dream of being, doing, making, or just living in the moment with no golden arches in sight, here is your golden ticket to come and fly your freak flag high.



5 Comments so far
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I am thrilled that you’ll be making it back next year! I do hope we’ll be able to spend some time around the fire or chill in the shade togetehr next time. you’ll be there for a bit longer.

I’m really pleased by your idea of the Burning Man community as an aid in secular parenting. I’ve been wondering how and where Ryan and I are going to find that bond and energy that many families find in a church environment, and you’ve turned on a lightbulb above my head. Community, sharing, nurturing the earth, individuality, self-reliance, all these are valuable things to instill. Although I suppose that it’s likely that in bringing Amelia to Burning Man events, she’ll occasionally be exposed to things that may be difficult to explain (but hopefully not eyeball searing!), I’m hoping that she’ll come out stronger and more well-rounded for it.

Comment by Suzy Kinnen

Cool. My attitude towards nudity is that it should be reserved for fighting or f*cking, so I’m sure an event like this would expand the horizons.

Comment by Joe

I don’t care to go naked in public, but I’ll be damned if I need the government to tell me that. In fact, I’d do it just to prove my point. Fashion is fun, though, and I’d just as soon not stick to things.

Comment by denalynn2001

Well said about the community & culture. I was estatic that the event was kid friendly. I dont like to be excluded and G doesnt either.

Comment by Amy:-)

I find this fascinating: “how to nurture positive humanistic values in the absence of a church.” I didn’t grow up in church, though got swept away by Fundamentalism for a couple years in my early teens. These days, I think of nurturing humanistic values in my child as REQUIRING the absence of church! It takes all my energy to keep Veggie Tales and various “entry-level” forms of homophobia, nationalism/imperialism, and sexism out of our house. My parenting will “pass or fail” based on creating the structures that give lessons in what I MYSELF choose for my son to learn — and to avoid the trap of parenting either exactly like my parents OR IN OPPOSITION TO it.

Comment by Mars

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