Personal Transformation by Jen Smith
Black Rock Awakening
After driving eleven hours straight through the night, waiting six hours in a virtual parking lot to enter the site, I finally arrived at my new "home" to find a group of strangers, who would be my campmates for the coming days, and a plot of barren scorching hot earth. Rest and relaxation at this moment were not a possibility, so I immediately got to work unloading the truck full of our building materials, carrying 4x4s and heavy steel brackets, attaching shade panels to provide relief from the sun as it beat down on us and drinking all the water in my camelback three times while still feeling completely dehydrated.
The first time I went to Burning Man I was unprepared for how difficult the experience would prove to be. I went because my boyfriend was a die-hard “burner” (one of those wacky people who subject their bodies and minds to over a week in the wasteland in order to revel in a place that for a moment creates overflowing acceptance and creativity) approaching his tenth burn, and I was curious – as many are – after seeing even just one dusty, sun drenched photo from Black Rock City: the temporary city in the desert that’s home to Burning Man. The images are utterly unique, often beyond understanding for those who’ve never been to the event. My curiosity got the best of me, so I took the plunge.
Upon arriving, I quickly realized that looking at a photo from Burning Man, even if it’s a photo of a literal dust storm, can’t convey how it actually feels to be covered in playa dust, blinded by it, lost in it, and then to eventually just give in to it. Thankfully, playa dust is fine like baby powder and is salt rather than dirt, so in a place with essentially zero humidity you rarely feel truly dirty. Still, it gets into every single nook and cranny, and by the middle of my first week of my first Burning Man I vowed to never return. I made the same vow during my second burn, and I was adamant about not returning after my third, extremely dusty burn. I arrived to my third burn in a full blown white out, dust so thick I couldn’t even see my hand in front of my face. The tone was set for a week of dusty days and freezing cold evenings - neither of which I had experienced my first two years. Sadly, I was one of the few burners without an adult animal onesie to keep me warm out on the playa at night. In a world of lions, tigers, bears and sharks, I was a beggar, taking whatever warm layers I could manage to secure from my campmates, from random pants - a camp nearby that was covered in pants available to the masses, or a large box out in the middle of the playa that was left there to comfort weary travelers. It was a harrowing year, and heading into this past February I was firm. I AM NOT GOING. Then I looked at my photos from 2015, and sure enough, I knew I had to return.
I just returned from my fourth Burning Man, and I have to admit, I think I’m a lifer.
That said, it’s obviously been a constant challenge for me. My boyfriend is the leader of our camp; he’s a mad scientist, a “maker” oozing so much creativity it can be daunting for some. It certainly has been for me. For Burning Man he designed unique steel brackets as the building blocks of our camp, designed all the lighting for the structure, built every single piece of furniture in our camp including chairs, DJ tables and a dining table with fire in the center of it, he was the architect of multiple towers built for the camp and challenges himself to improve and push for progress on our shared shade structure every year. His affinity for Burning Man is understandable; it makes perfect sense. Nowhere else in the world are you given the opportunity to build whatever you want without permits or permission, to make something simply for your own and others enjoyment. That drives him and fulfills him in a very real way. However, his skill set and motivation are different from mine. While I consider myself a creative person, I’ve struggled to find my own niche in the scheme.
My first two years I spent the bulk of my time at the event in camp helping him build, create, tweak and bring to life his vision of our camp. It was satisfying, but somehow it didn’t feel like I was maximizing my own personal experience. It didn’t feel authentic to ME. Without really understanding what was happening, I came to resent nearly everything about Burning Man: the way it consumed my boyfriend in the months leading up to the event as he designed the structure, secured and prepared building materials, held meetings with our group, built anything new that was needed and refined his vision of the structure and the experience over and over again, the way I left the playa each year feeling like I was missing the unique opportunity before me because I was spending all my time at camp, as well as the basic realities of cost, discomfort from the dust and heat (and sometimes cold), and the demanding manual labor.
People I’d talk to would say they felt more themselves, more accepted, more at home at Burning Man than they did in the “default world,” and for the life of me I just didn’t get it. It was uncomfortable and confronting. There were many there who seemed open and at ease, and that threw me. In the midst of a community of people who gave random hugs to strangers, struck up genuine conversations with whomever was standing next to them, offered gifts after experiencing any connection small or large, I felt even more disconnected than ever. I like order and control, to be clean and comfortable. I like everything soundly in its place. Burning Man was hard for me – I didn’t really know why I was there since I seemed to be coming up short in the experiencing of all it had to offer.
Last year, after reaching maximum frustration with too much time in our camp and too little time on the playa experiencing all of the large art installations, exploring all of the interactive pieces, seeing the art cars and the people dressed to their Burning Man nines, absorbing the energy of Black Rock City, I had a revelation. Maybe I could get on my bike and go out to the playa by myself. Maybe my boyfriend’s Burning Man experience was just always going to be different than mine. And maybe that was ok. I grabbed my camera, my camelback full of water, and my bike and took off on my first solo Black Rock City adventure. The sun was setting, the heat of the day was fading, and as the sky was turning the most fantastic shades of pink and purple, I finally got it. I found my thing, a kind of euphoria I now get every dusk on the playa. It was just me, my camera and my bike devouring all the beauty and creativity on display. Going wherever we want, stopping and admiring anything and everything. Riding and riding and riding as the sky changed from gold to soft pink to magenta. That first solo ride changed the whole experience for me. A year later the photos from that ride are what compelled me to return.
Burning Man means different things to everyone who chooses to make that trek to the wasteland. You can dance all day (and all night) or hop from a grilled cheese camp to a body painting camp to a camp that will floss your teeth, you can immerse yourself in the art or volunteer to be a Temple Guardian, a Lamplighter or a Black Rock Ranger and continue the rituals and ceremony that are such a meaningful part of the experience. It’s the ultimate potpourri, and it’s beautiful. But the first thing I always say to anyone who asks me about it is still “Burning Man is hard.”
I’m an introvert. I’m guarded. I’m hard on myself. I have those moments when I compare myself to others and come up woefully short in my own mind. When confronted with the sort of unguarded openness I’ve experienced at Burning Man, I can be really cynical about the whole thing. As if because I’m not as open, not as outgoing, not always comfortable acting in that way or capable of understanding it, it must somehow be false. I work on that on a daily basis, knowing rationally it is possible, even probable, for others to be entirely authentic but for me to still not connect with them.
Going into 2016, I had made a choice to focus on my photography – to do what felt authentic to me. Previous years had been dedicated to crazy outfits and costumes, to sewing over 100 pillows for our camp shade structure, painting all of the wood that was used to build our structure and the furniture within it. In 2016 I planned to “own” my experience in a way I hadn’t before. I got on my bike and shot photo after photo after photo. My first dusk ride reinforced the feeling I’d had from the year before. The art is inspiring. I love documenting it and showcasing my particular take on it. I always leave full of ideas and excitement. I had some pretty special exchanges with other photographers over the course of my days on the playa this year, they treated me like I belonged, and it was in those exchanges I finally felt some peace with whatever Burning Man is and will be to me. Aside from being the dustiest week of my life each year, that is.
Photography by Jen Smith