The Burning Man Inside

I admit it… I’m a wimp. And everyone I know knows it. I’m legendary in my wimpiness.

As part of my wussydom, I hate camping. I cringe at the very concept of camping. Been there, tried that, done it – no thanks. My wife and kids have suffered for my lack of accepting that camping is a good thing for our family…but they’ve managed to roll their eyes at me, and understand. God love them.

Don’t get me wrong…I’m not a wallflower. I get out there to ski, mountain bike, hike. I’ve been jet skiing, parachuting, surfing, sailing, waterskiing, rock climbing, cross country skiing – all manner of manly things. As long as I’m in control, and the duration is what I decide it to be… I’m good.

My strong, stoic, Superman of a grandfather used to say “Anyone can go out into the wilderness and be uncomfortable”. This is a guy that used to scrub railroad cars with lye – inside the cars. Once he fell into a railroad car filled with lye, only to survive being eaten alive by a last second grip of a co-worker. If this man of men didn’t like camping…something MUST be wrong with it. My 6’2 “Nonu” was always chided for bringing “everything but the kitchen sink” when he went camping and hunting with family and friends. They made fun of him… but he was always comfortable and overly prepared. Screw the critics…this guy believed in being comfortable at all costs. And I have his DNA deep in my blood.

As another example of my wimpiness/wussydom – I don’t haul. The thought of losing a trailer while sailing down the highway at 65mph makes me want to bungee cord the trailer to the car and duct tape the ball hitch to the hood. OK… I know they’re safe, and I know they work. But that doesn’t stop me from sweating the entire time I’m hauling anything down the road. I imagine the trailer sailing into the back of my cranium when we slam on the brakes. All that weight headed directly for my shallow Italian head.

My idea of “roughing it” is a Hilton without a bar. I am a self-acknowledged pussy. And there’s not a damn thing I can do about it.

But this year, I discovered one major exception – Burning Man.

I’ve always dreamed from afar…the virtual freedom, the self expression, and most importantly…the legendary art that blooms in the desert just a couple of hours from my comfortable home in Reno. People come from all over the world, and yet, I won’t drive 120 miles to see or experience it. Why? Well… it’s camping, of course. And it ain’t easy camping, either.

But this past year, against all odds, I was inspired by my brother-in-law – Tom. Tom the Enchanter was headed to the Playa. Master of camping. Man of the wilderness – with a family who has expounded the virtues of fresh coffee in the morning, and waking to the smell of the woods for years. I’d grunt everytime they spoke of it…and used my grandfather’s position as superior and just above any possible grounded experience with nature.

My disdain for camping is only psychologically outmatched by my love for art. And I mean love of art in every form. I love bad art…good art…offensive art… overly safe art. You name it…I dig it to the bone. I have strong feelings about it…but I also have great respect for anyone’s art – no matter what I personally think of the art, or the artist. Art is subjective. And if you can’t be subjective… what’s to judge?

As any shrink will contest, for nearly every man, there is a “mid-life crisis” at some point. A bad excuse for not accepting reality, and becoming comfortable in your aging skin.

Some buy cars…others get hair implants. Some just freak out, run amuck, divorce their wives, marry someone half their age, and try to recapture what must only fade anyway. Well… I love my wife way too much for that…and I seriously doubt anyone half my age would have the slightest bit of interest in me anyway.

SO…what to do? Buy a Porsche? Go skydiving? Ride a Harley? None of them seemed to really fit the bill personally.

Then it came to me, like some inspiration while you’re looking at a blank canvas.

Burning Man. The freedom of expression. The beauty of art. All in a freak festival just north of town. Hell…sounded like pretty good option to being REALLY stupid.

One obvious problem…you have to camp there. Well…not really just camp. You have to SURVIVE beyond camping in a place not set for anything like what camping is supposed to offer. So I could justify it that way. Being comfortable camping in the great outdoors is one thing…survival in the middle of the Black Rock desert playa is another. And hell…the art is supposedly unbelievable out there, right? I’m not one to get naked in public, but I don’t have a problem with people who do…and I’ve known many great people who kept saying “you’ve GOT to go”…year after year. And this was the year.

Tom the Enchanter, and Lawrence of Arugula set their virgin plans. Weeks of plans, not knowing what to expect, but thankfully having the support of Tom’s workmates that had been there many times before in years past. Seasoned Burners they are…and they were our security blanket – although I really didn’t know any of them. We read the online accounts of what to bring, how to prepare, and what to expect. But nothing really prepared us other than the real basics.

At first we counted the weeks. Then the days…then the hours. Just like Christmas morning when we were 7. And like Christmas morning…it finally came. We set off in a caravan of new friends to the unknown – hoping we were prepared.

Nothing could ever prepare us. Thank God. It’s the discovery of what your virgin experience that makes it all work. If you knew what to expect…going wouldn’t be worth trying. And I hear it just gets better year after year…. hopefully…like getting older itself. There’s the analogy… you have to let go of your expectations, and live. Live today, and with all the love and wonder you can muster. Buying a new car, or plugging up your bald spots won’t fix the emptiness – but learning to experience life and art like a child again does.

Needless to say… we not only survived (and boy, do we have stories)…we thrived. Our camp mates were the anchor to our sail boats. And thank God we had them…they taught us so much, and were so generous – as were everyone we encountered.

I’ll post stories here in the weeks ahead of some of the incredible encounters with strangers, friends and art. Each a vivid, and lasting memory in every way.

On the way out of the encampment, there were a series of “Burma Shave” like signs. Poetic in their style and content, one I remember said in its series “What happens in Vegas”….”Stays in Vegas”….”What happens in Burning Man”…”Stays In You”.

The best wrap-up I’ve ever had to one of the most intensely satisfying, uncomfortable, expanding, enriching experience of my life.

I’m counting the days until the 2007 tickets go on sale…and find myself plotting what I will bring to the Playa to share…and to present. So thanks to my camp mates (you know who you are)…for your guidance, your generosity…and for putting up with a bonafide crappy camper.

Next year… having lost our “virginity”… we’ll be ready in a new way.

One Response to “The Burning Man Inside”

  1. Burning Man: Counter Culture or Social Utopia? « smartbrandblog Says:

    […] amazed to think that this will be my 6th consecutive year at Burning Man.  I can recall very specific memories of my first year attending […]

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