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Lakes! Of! Fire

Eight years ago I went to Burning Man and had a terrible time.

Now, as I've been careful to point out in recent years, it wasn't entirely Burning Man's fault. I was in a crappy place in my life (leading to my leaving the country a year later for far shores & and of indeterminate length), the preceding months and the trip itself were filled with an oppressive and appalling amount of interpersonal drama, and I'd already been growing frustrated with the amounts of hippie culture I was experiencing and exposed to at the time. Let me tell you: If you're at all conflicted or frustrated with hippie culture, going to a week-long event like Burning Man will fucking cure you of any remaining interest.

As to the event itself? There's a hell of a lot of spectacle to be seen: Massive art installations, fire & lighting displays during the night, dancers, fire spinners, and so much more. And for the first few days that spectacle was exciting! But after that I became bored, and then frustrated, and wanted to leave. Which, having road-tripped there with several others, I could not. So I had to spend the rest of the week in the desert wanting desperately to go home, and not being able to. (To make matters worse, we'd planned a meandering route back - lasting another week or two - going through the Badlands, Yellowstone, etc. In other circumstances that would have been great, but as I then was I couldn't really appreciate the experience.)

Needless to say, I never went back to Burning Man (certainly not with an estimated price tag of ~$1000 for the trip!), I stopped hanging out on the fringes of hippie culture, and I never looked back. I never even went to another Full Moon Fire Jam on the shores of Lake Michigan. I left it all behind.

Zach went to Burning Man at least a couple of times after that, but cited increasing frustrations as well. (When he & I went, it was 40,000 people. Apparently now it's up to about 70k.) Instead, he and his have in recent years instead opted to go to the regional Burning events - such as Lakes of Fire, up in Michigan. As he would describe, it's all the best parts of Burning Man without the worst excesses. And so for the last few years, every time Lakes of Fire has been on the horizon, he's asked if I had any interest in joining them. To which I'd always responded NO THANKS.

...until last year when, after giving my instinctive, gut-level response, I suddenly ... stopped. And considered. As mentioned, I was self-aware enough to realize that a lot of my rancor had nothing to do with the event itself, but rather where I'd been in my life at the time. And not only are my circumstances today vastly different than they were in 2006 - but so too am I. And I found myself thinking about the few elements that I did enjoy from that Burn, and thinking about how at the very least it's a radically different context for one's life than one is normally used to ... and I began to reevaluate. Reassess. And wonder.

So earlier this year, when Zach said that he & Maggie were going to Lakes of Fire again, and they had an extra ticket if I were interested ... I told him Yes! I would take that ticket.

I had no idea what the experience would be like this time around, but I was interested in finding out.



Granted, at the end of April certain events in my life gave me a bit of a wobble, and I wondered if it would still be a good idea to go ... or if I should just pawn off that ticket instead. Eventually I decided I would still attend, and see what Life - and the experience - handed me. If I determined that I still hated all that hippie bullshit...? Well, unlike Burning Man, Lakes of Fire is only a long weekend (Thursday - Sunday), as opposed to a full week or more. If I just felt like taking it as a few days to myself, and avoided all personal interactions as much as possible, that's certainly a route I could take. And by Sunday I would be on my way back home. Not too unbearable.

My mind was further made up when I went to the "Newbie Night" presentation being hosted at Catalyst Collective - an impressive loft space located around North & Western. Gina (whom I know from Living Canvas) was one of the people who lives in the space, and she showed me around and introduced me to a few others as well. Most useful and inspiring, however, was during the presentation when they went over the Ten Principles of Burning Man. There were ideas with which I was already familiar, like the very important Leave No Trace. But other principles which really resonated with me were Radical Self-Reliance - ultimately, you are responsible for yourself - and perhaps its polar twin, Gifting. Everything at these Burn events runs on a "gift economy", where people bring items, services, offerings ... and just give them to each other. There's no money changing hands, and there's not even a need for barter. It's people providing for their own living needs... and beyond that? Just being generous to each other.

There have been a couple of times in my life when I've been called generous, and the declaration has surprised me a bit. But then there have been other times when I've recalled that, and have realized that such ideas and intentions felt entirely alien to me, and unenacted. Generosity is something I try to aspire to, but often fall short of - and thus something I appreciate being reminded of, as often as possible.

And the other principle that really called out to me was that of Immediacy. Living In The Moment is something I excelled at while living in London. I mean, I had to! I moved over there only knowing (barely) two people, not having any plan as to where I would live beyond the first few weeks, what I would do, who I would meet, how long I would stay, or how the experience would go. And yet I was moving to another country in 2007 largely because I'd been unable to break out of my year-long depression, and needed radically altered circumstances in which to start over. All in all, I found - once I'd resolved the mental/emotional hurdles I'd been struggling with - that I was able to live out my life in that other city, in that other country, with a joyful relishing of whatever goddamn thing happened across my path. ("I take things as they come," to quote the good Ian Chesterton.)

That said, one regret I've certainly had over the past seven years is how hard it's been to retain that intention since I've been back in the States. With a full-time job of ~50 hours a week (coincidentally, twice what I was logging while in London), always short on resources, and in a management role with employees in constant need of direction ... it's a hell of a lot harder to keep such an easygoing attitude as an instinctive way of living one's life. Especially when trying to find enough spare time to do all the other things one wants to accomplish! (Theatre, writing, socializing, down time, etc.) So on the one hand, I'm constantly needing to be forceful about using my very limited time to the best of my ability ... but on the other, I really do miss being able to just let it all go, and simply be thankful for being where I am, and having what I have in front of me. It's yet another balance I struggle with, and I come down on the side of easygoing immediacy far less often than I'd like.

So, I determined that I very much wanted to go, to try to embrace these ideals, and hopefully have a good time - whatever kind of time my experience ended up being.

Still, I first had to figure out how to even get there! Zach told me that he & Maggie would have their tents in Open Camping (as opposed to being part of a planned "theme camp"), and I was welcome to camp with them - as would several others - but that I would need to find my own ride there. And for the next several weeks, I really worried as to whether I'd be able to attend after all! I had deactivated my Facebook account at the end of April, but with the need for easy communication that Fbook offers I reluctantly reactivated it so I could message all the people I knew who were going, and thus see if anyone had any spare seats in their vehicle (and could use another person with whom to split the expenses of travel). Frustratingly, no one did. And so, upon recommendation, I posted and scouted out the Lakes of Fire Rideshare page on Facebook, hoping to come across someone driving and looking for passengers. To my relief, such a thing finally came together in the last couple of days before the event, and Thursday morning thus found me with a packed duffel bag & hiking backpack, getting up significantly earlier than usual, and jumping into a stranger's car. After picking up a third passenger in the Loop, we were off!



So, after all the wondering, and varied expectations: How was the experience?

In a nutshell: It was pretty goddamn great.

Now, that's not to say it was ideal, at least for the first couple of days. After getting in on Thursday afternoon, I quickly found Zach & Maggie's campsite, and the midday heat was enough that I peeled off my shirt while setting up my tent in the baking sun. Zach had a spare air mattress to loan me, which was far more comfortable than sleeping on the ground would have been (even with the mattress's tendency to largely deflate each night) ... but which hardly fit in my teeny-tiny tent at all. I really do need to replace that budget-rate item with an at-least-slightly-more sizable one at some point; fortunately, Zach also had the mystifyingly awesome foresight to have brought an extra tent. (!) So I broke down the one I'd already built, stowed that away again, and erected the larger one. By then it was nearly night, so I took my first round of the camp's environs, checked out a few of the sights and attractions, and - considering the day's early start, the typical torpors of travel, and the draining effect of a good summer's heat - went to bed on the early side.

The next day, regrettably, was not nearly as blessed with good weather. The rain began at morning, and frustratingly lasted till the early evening. I tried to make the best of it and put on a persevering attitude, but I was disappointed, and unable to hide that from myself. I don't recall if I'd brought an umbrella, though I did at least remember my rain poncho & waterproof pants - but after a while of walking around the lake, and through the camps, a certain amount of unpleasant chill & damp was unavoidable. Dammit!, I thought. I'd so wanted this to be a good experience!

Fortunately, by day's end the rain had let up, and I took advantage of my pent-up energy to explore. Close to our own camp was a massive construction deemed the Touchy Duchess (Youtube link), a medieval-looking tower which would shoot a jet of fire from its flaming demonic face when a series of buttons was pressed in a particular order or timing. Also of note was Tick Town, which featured both an explicitly interactive bar (when requesting a drink from the bartender, you had to spin the wheel of fortune and then follow the instructions the ticker landed upon) as well as a number of well-built challenge games testing aim, balance, etc. Another camp had not just an ever-burning fire pit but also a seemingly neverending supply of ingredients for the making & roasting of S'Mores. And FreakEasy, known (and feared) for their massive sound system and all-night dance parties, had a couple of large lit-up domes for dancing and scheduled performances.

Plus, one camp was giving away Bacon Bloody Marys. Seriously: they had a jug of vodka with a HUGE chunk of bacon just infusing within. I'm a fan of both bacon AND the Bloody Mary, so this sounded like heaven. They also had bacon fudge, of two varieties - bacon maple fudge, and bacon peanut butter chocolate fudge. I absolutely partook of both the latter and a Bacon Bloody Mary. And the next day came back for the same again!

I'd actually had a fair bit of drink while wandering around from camp to camp - since so many sites have bars, or otherwise have boozes to offer, you're invited to bring a cup as you stroll around the place - and so it was while in a pleasantly sloshed headspace that I first ran into someone I knew. While admiring the pyrotechnic majesty of the Touchy Duchess, I was surprised to see my friend Barrett, whom I knew through a couple of the shows I'd run for Vaudezilla. She & her fiancee had been living in Florida for the past year as she finished her Master's Degree, so it was quite a treat running into her! Like Zach, she's someone who has been attending LoF for a few years now, and so gladly made the trip back up for it.

While talking to Barrett, I also had my first pleasantly arresting experience of the weekend in which someone complimented me on what I was wearing. This was a bit of a surprise, to be honest. While packing for the trip, I'd completely forgotten how much burners enjoy costuming, and thus entirely failed at bringing any of the couple of fairly ridiculous shirts and other accoutrements I might own. That night - after changing out of my wet clothes from the day - I'd simply donned a black t-shirt, with my black-and-grey-striped long-sleeve shirt button up draped over it, more to give my arms a bit of protection against the night's chill than to make a statement. It's possibly my hair might have still been slicked back a bit from the rain. So despite having felt a bit chagrined at having left some of my more colorful outfits at home, I nonetheless was tickled and a bit bemused to have my "creative look" so commented upon. ("But", I thought, "this is just what I normally wear!") The round Lennon-style sunglasses I'd snagged off eBay the prior week also drew an unexpected number of great remarks over the weekend!

Fortunately, as if to make up for the prior day's largely shitty weather, Saturday was if not baking hot then at least warm and sunny. I had once more leafed through the LoF pamphlet of scheduled events (any performances or workshops or timed anything else that a camp might be putting on was listed within), but nothing really caught my fancy - so after accepting one of several bacon sandwiches that campmate Ken was making and offering up for breakfast, I set off around the lake. All the camps were arranged in a U-shape around Lucky Lake (PDF map), and it took me about 20 minutes at a leisurely pace to make an entire circuit. So at several times that weekend I got into the habit of setting off for another circuit 'round the lake if I had nothing to do. I would usually come across something new that would draw my attention, or run into someone I knew.

Which, I realized, was a large part of what was making this new experience so much more satisfying! In addition to having travelled up with two people I'd just met (Eli & John), and Zach & Maggie's campsite with 7 or 8 other friends (some of whom I was just meeting), I'd been surprised when looking at the Facebook event page to see just how many people I knew who were going. In addition to Barrett, I knew Gina (from Canvas) and ran into both Meg Wolfe & Taylor a couple of times. Michael Sherwin, who I've worked with on both Canvas (Nocturne) and the three years of the David Bowie Christmas Special, was part of Camp Valhalla - about a 20 second walk from our own site! And I was pleasantly surprised to see Matt & Nicole, also from Vaudezilla, who had decided to come to the LoF just a couple of days earlier! At any given time I was striking out on my own, I was almost guaranteed for my wanderings to cross paths with someone I knew, and then change or join plans from there. John had introduced me to his roommate Jeremy, and that was one more person I kept running into! Because that's the kind of thing you can do when the attendance is capped at about 1700 people. You can't really have that same experience when exploring an ad hoc desert city of 40-70,000+!

I also made sure to wholly embrace the proper intention and mindset as much as possible. I turned off my phone when I arrived on Thursday, and left it in my tent the entire time. I didn't check texts, and I didn't check voice mail. I did not bring my computer, and did no work. No matter how silly or hopelessly idealistic some people might seem, I was determined to approach this weekend with an utter lack of judgmental attitude; all things considered, I wanted to leave behind my eye-rolling gut reaction of UGH - hippies! that I'd had since 2006. (And I'm pleased to report that intention was a success.) At one point in my wanderings I didn't actually come across anyone I knew, and instead just lay out at the pier on the far side of the lake for a half hour. Just relaxed and soaking up the sun.

Saturday night - the final night - was the big burn, when most everyone gathered at the lakeside "temple effigy". The event kicked off with an impressive series of fireworks setting off from the structure, followed by a half hour or so of fire spinners, fire dancers, fire swallowers, etc. Only after that was the effigy itself set alight. The approximatey 20'-high wooden structure was a pyramidal skeleton base constructed around a hefty polyhedron (Zach referred to it as a "bucky ball" - a term I'd never heard before). I can only assume that the entire structure must have been treated with some sort of fireproofing, because although it quickly and successfully was set alight, it seemed to take an hour or more to actually burn down into a proper, massive, and fully razed blaze. In the interest of embracing the principle of immediacy I had left my camera in my tent the entire weekend, but that burn is the one time I truly wish I'd had it with me - for when the dodecahedron became superheated enough we could see, through the wood of its facing side, a burning heart-shape of flames shining through. I have no idea how they engineered that, but it sent a thrill through my own.

And then it was just a massive, massive fire, around which people warmed themselves, circled in a moving chain of linked hands, and eventually danced around. At one point I came across Zach & Maggie, who were excited to introduce me to a friend of theirs they had apparently wanted me to meet. For the life of me, I cannot remember this person's name and never found out why it was awesome that the two of us were meeting. This was also the second night in a row I found myself in a state of inebriation intense enough that I eventually became sick - but even in the midst of that, I was not having a bad time! It's just that at a certain point my physical state needed to take some time to recover and recalibrate, before I found myself collapsing with a smile on the pillow.

And the next day I woke, made myself a wonderful breakfast wrap of chorizo, halloumi & eggs in a sun-dried tomato tortilla, tore down the tent, packed up my gear, and set off to meet my travel mates (Jeremy joining us for the return trip). I got home about 5pm and was pleased to find I didn't actually have quite as many emails and quite so much work to catch up on from the past half-week as I'd feared.

A day or two later, Zach dropped by the apartment briefly, and asked how the experience had gone. I was really, really happy to tell him what a wonderful time I'd had (and to thank him for continuing to urge me to go, and everything he'd done to help make it such a great experience). What I found even more pleasing was that my estimation of the experience actually continued to improve after my return! Knowing how epically shitty my experience with Burning Man had been, I think there was still a tiny nub of worry in the back of my mind that something might go wrong over the weekend, and so even in my determination to have a great and relaxing weekend there remained perhaps a bit of potential stress. Once I was back, and realized nothing had gone wrong, and I'd had a truly, truly GREAT time ... I found myself able to accept that wholly and absolutely, and think back on the experiences I'd had - and just smile. As the weekend had gone on, I increasingly found myself wondering if I might in fact come back the following year. By the time I was home? I was sure of it.



Eight years ago I went to Burning Man and had a terrible time.

This April, I spent a long weekend with a bunch of hippies and utterly loved it.

Who could have seen that coming?

Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
sarahkucera
Aug. 29th, 2014 10:08 pm (UTC)
I wanted to go to Burning Man back in the late 90's and never made it. Now I guess it's just sorta terrifying and intimidating. :-(. This Lake Of Fire thing sounds great.
obfuscate
Aug. 29th, 2014 11:19 pm (UTC)
It's lovely to hear you had such a wonderful time - it sounds like it came at just the right time for you, too.

I can't even begin to imagine how miserable I'd be at Burning Man... I kind of want to be that type of person, and almost think I should be, but man... it's just not right for me. But I totally get why some people love it.
lcohen
Aug. 30th, 2014 02:49 am (UTC)
glad to hear it!

it seems to me like the sort of thing where it would be enormously helpful to know a few people there already--otherwise i might just hide in my tent the entire time.
skywind8
Aug. 30th, 2014 09:36 pm (UTC)
Yay!!
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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