Shilo Finds Her Way Home: Burning Man 2009
I have traveled around the world before, but last week I traveled to another world.
What I experienced out there in the desert of Black Rock City has transformed me as a person and changed the course of my life. How, I don’t know yet. But I do know that my heart was touched in so many different ways by so many people in so many situations, it became impossible for me to remain as I was. I am suffering an acute case of reverse culture shock, which is what happens when you have been traveling for a while and then return home to your life and realize that although nothing there has changed, you have, and now you must figure out how to proceed. One step at a time is always the answer.
Burning Man is not a party, and it certainly isn’t just another party in the desert. The time, effort, and energy that dozens of thousands of people devote to create an arts-based culture rooted in creative self-expression in an epically hostile environment is mind-blowing on a 24/7 basis. I simply could not believe what was unfolding in front of my very eyes, as it was unfolding in front of my very eyes. I am still not too sure that I didn’t dream the whole thing up.
Thanks to the concerns and care of many outstanding human beings, I arrived at the Playa decently prepared and outfitted for the journey. My friend Tricia had typed up a four-page “Shilo’s Virgin Burner Guide” with excellent tips like bringing extra garbage bags and duct tape to cover the net windows in my tent during sandstorms, and my friend Skandar had loaned me some wicked gear from goggles to gas masks. I had read all the information on the Burning Man website as well as multiple other guides for first-timer noobs like me. I had twenty gallons of water, a cooler full of Tecate, comfy walking shoes and two mullet wigs. I was set.
I was advised to bring multiple bandannas, and found the first use for mine when I arrived at the entrance of Burning Man eleven hours after leaving LA, for I burst into tears. I had the overwhelming feeling of returning to a place I had been before, made even more profound once I got out of my car and was greeted by naked men as well as a naked woman wearing a naked man suit who told me, “Welcome Home!” And within five minutes of arriving to the Playa, I was naked myself and rolling around in the Playa dust. It was nothing less than a baptism by dirt.
Driving onto the Playa I started to realize what an insanely huge and massive metropolis I was about to dive into. I could write a thousand pages describing the size of Burning Man, and when you go, you would still be absolutely blown away by its scale. I could post a million pictures and you would still not get an inkling of what goes down on the Playa. It is absolute nonstop madness, from the people roaming the desert dressed as polar bears to the bikes decked out with everything from LED flower strands to Mackie speakers strapped to the frame. Art cars lumber around, golf cart-size to double-decker busses blasting funky house from their second-story balcony bar. I doubt my own recollections even- did this really happen, or was it all one big hallucination? Did I really ride on a hot air balloon art car? Did I chase a Ferris wheel vehicle down in the dust past a paddleboat, aided by a silver and red fish-person and a girl dressed as a kazoo?
I was planning to pitch my tent with some friends from Seattle and was looking for their camp, which was to be anchored with a school bus. I parked my car on the edge of the Playa near their supposed address, was handed a Midori and Jack snow cone and began walking. I couldn’t find them (turns out the school bus had broken down and been left on the side of the road in Portland), and the computer system set up at Center Camp to locate lost parties was down. So I walked. And walked. After wondering around for hours and hours for miles and miles with mouth agape, looking for WA license plates and REI tents, I finally realized there was only one way I was ever going to find my friends: go where the good music is. Sooner or later, they will come. Of course!
So I headed over to NeXus where the bass love was flowing freely, and within a few minutes of being at the stage I hear, “SHILO?!?!?” It was my good friend Dylan the Metaphysician! He led me to my camp (which we later christened Whomp Camp) and reunited me with my Seattle tribe. I was ecstatic! Our campsite was sweet and right on 930F: not only did we have booming sound, but my best friend and favorite DJ in the world, Pressha, was camping beside me and spinning the freshest tracks EVER the whole week. A large wooden deck abutted a rental truck with room for three couches as well as a crow’s nest, from which you could look out over the Playa and get a total, complete mindfuck. We had a few domes, a carport, a kitchen, an awesome hammock and many tents. In the dark I popped a tent next to my car, so happy to have found my campsite! After walking around for about seven hours and for many miles looking for my people, I had found them! We raged all night! I swear I must have walked thirty miles that day.
It was on my camp’s crow’s nest where I sat two nights later watching the sun set into the mountains beyond, a rainbow dream of an ancient city from the future, a found planet within my very own culture. With every inch the sun sank in the sky, the Playa became a few degrees cooler, and the energy level lifted a notch. By the time the Playa fell into the deep purple of night, a wild circus was rolling all around me. I came down from that crow’s nest a different person.
What else can I tell you about? I feel like I could write forever. The elaborately carved wooden Temple where you say goodbye to friends who have passed to the other side? The insanely huge conflagration as the Man burned on Saturday night to fifty thousand raised voices and a million beats? The water-spraying trucks that troll by a few times a day to keep down the dust and provide Playa showers for naked asses? The giant plumes of pyrotechnics erupting all night long into the sky? The ethos of the gift culture, which permeates every encounter and experience? How people and camps outdo themselves to see what they can best give the world and add to the crazy, trippy, psychedelic experience? Of the days soaked in ritual, set in such stark contrast to mainstream society where prudish graduation ceremonies make do as our rites of passage?
Humans lived for most of our existence as they do on the Playa, and the switch to isolated, modern life has been very quick. Not that I don’t like hot showers, but we have lost a hell of a lot in the transition from a tribe-based culture to our modern world of Twitter and mass consumerism. Burning Man is an attempt to reclaim some of the lost meaning.
I feel as though I only experienced maybe 1% of what the Playa had to offer, very similar to the feeling I had when I first returned from Europe. I had dozens and dozens of friends on the Playa I never ran into. I have no pictures save those that my friends took, as my camera quit working the minute I arrived, leaving me only with words to give you. Some of these photos you see are from my Playa Mother Booyah, who had been harassing me for months and months to go to Burning Man, as had many others. Strangers were emailing me and telling me to get another job so I could go to Burning Man and have this experience. At the time it kind of annoyed me, but now all I can say is: thank you. From the bottom of my heart to the soles of my Playa-stained feet, thank you.
Even before I left, I was excited for next year. Like foreign travel, going to Burning Man is just something that you have to do for the first time to even get an idea of what it is or what you need or how it goes down. I was prepared for the party, but not for what I experienced, which was no less than a transformative.
I finally get it. I understand why Burners spend all freaking year planning for and jabbering about and getting excited over Burning Man. I get the hostile environment and why it was chosen for the Burn. Growing up in Texas where the weather tops 100 degrees every day in the summer, I figured the heat and sun would not be a problem and indeed I probably fared better than those from a more pleasant climate, but truly the desert humbled me. It humbled me into taking care of myself. My usual MO is to go balls to the wall as much as possible, knowing I can recuperate the following few days. But on the Playa you cannot do this, or you will die. It would be impossible for any one person to survive out there for a week; we all need each other not just for hugs and companionship, but also to survive the brutal elements. Playa culture is distinct, with its own unique dress, hairstyles, food and behavior. So THAT’s why so many people wear hiking boots, bandannas and dreads to the city clubs- because their heads and hearts are on the Playa. An anthropologist would have a field day with this crazy culture, and this one is. I seriously can’t believe that this shit goes on in the desert every year. Mind = Blown.
This complete dependency on other human beings stands in giant contrast to contemporary life today, where it would be possible to go through years and maybe even your whole life without ever talking to anyone. Some human beings no doubt go through life without any profound relationships with others, and this is NOT the way we have lived for the vast majority of their existence. For hundreds of thousands of years, we lived in tribes and communal groups where being an asshole meant being ostracized from your group, and most likely dying in the wilderness. Today humans are free to be assholes, and many of them are.
Burning Man made me realize how very dependent I am on other people, in particular stronger people who can build big shade structures that I could never accomplish on my own. I have realized how very weird it is, in terms of human existence, for a young single female to be living on her own. Not that it is bad, and in fact it represents a big step forward for women out of the property-status that they existed in for much of history, but it is no doubt different. Much of the pain suffered in our society today is due to this breakdown of the human community. I am not talking nuclear families here either but rather communities, a group of people that you care about and who care about you. Communities were once defined by family, tradition, religion, and geographical location; today they are more likely to be defined by common interests and sadly for many Americans those common interests are not art and music but Lindsay Lohan’s hairdo and Big Macs. For many people, the only culture and community they know is the one that has been fed to them by corporations, one of mass consumerism. Burning Man is the antithesis of this. It is an antidote.
And I finally understand down in my soul what ‘conscious living’ means- it means that every action you ever take affects other human beings as well as the environment, directly or indirectly. You can ignore the fact that eating at Jack in the Box hurts your environment and your fellow human beings, or you can be conscious of it and adapt your behavior accordingly. What do you want your effect on this world to be?
I know without doubt that I am descended from people of the desert. I know that Bedouin blood runs in my veins, from my gypsy ancestors from Bohemia to those much further beyond, whose names are lost in the dust of history. I have always been a wanderer whose only true home is in her heart; I am a restless soul whose idea of hell is a house in the suburbs with a white picket fence. I have lived in 18 homes since I left my parents’ house at age 18, not counting time spent traveling abroad or couch surfing at uncles’ houses and the like. The only way I can keep myself from completely freaking out when I move into a new place is to sit down, shut my eyes, and visualize the day I will move out. I am a nomad.
I realize I sound like a complete fucking hippie here, but I have never been so overwhelmed by a sense of returning to a lost home before. Maybe it is in part due to growing up on Bible stories, spending hours and hours every week learning about the people of the Old and New Testaments- the desert people- who I was taught were my people too. Though I am an atheist now with no belief in a jealous Judeo-Christian god who tells women they should submit to their husbands, those stories contributed to my identity and are part of who I am. While you travel you sometimes get this feeling, a feeling of returning home to a place you have never been, and you should always take note. This feeling stands in direct contrast to a sensation I also frequently experience, when I am driving in CA or just chilling at home and all of a sudden, I have no idea where the hell I am. At all. I guess a more eloquent way of describing it would be as a geolocational brainfart. When this happens, I have to look at my environment and slowly start to deduce: No pine trees, so I am not up north. No snow. Yes palm trees. Am I in the tropics? No. There is asphalt. Cars. Warm, clear skies. Then after a minute or two I figure it out…okay….I am here, right now, in my home of LA. It always fucks with my head to completely not know where in the world I am, as you can imagine.
This post is less a review, and more of me sorting through my mind and trying to trap into words the sensations of the past week. I just realized I have barely mentioned the music at all! See how mindfucked I am? I swam in an ocean of music, with waves and waves of a billion varieties, from camps playing acoustic Britney Spears songs to an-ten-nae rocking the dome with perfection (my favorite performance of the week!) to the fat sounds booming from my own camp out of the skilled hands of Pressha and Mike Check. DAMN IT I love all you guys!
Now my gear is unpacked and laundered, the Playa dust is mostly gone although when I find it, it is with a warm spot in my heart. The Playa! I want to rub it on my face, and deeper into my soul! My super white skin is a liability in the sun and demands constant reapplication of sunscreen, but on the flip side the white Playa dust blends in and I don’t look so dirty as my suntanned sisters. Since I have been home I have been spending time drawing, painting, sewing, hot gluing shells to mirrors and singing. I am inspired anew, and my faith in humanity has been restored. I am so stoked to return in 2010, excited about doing things a little better and be more prepared. I will be the one harassing my friends to go next year; I felt so lucky and grateful to have been part of this unique culture and event in the desert. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.