During a lazy afternoon in Cartagena, I had busied myself by impulsively buying a round-trip flight to San Francisco and a Burning Man ticket. I was embarrassed by the decision; in a time of new experiences, a sixth trip to the playa was off script. But I love it there, and I couldn’t resist the chance to surprise my friends. Yes, Taking a pause from my year of travel to go to Burning Man was crazy, but so was taking a year off to travel. More is more, right?
So, three weeks after buying my ticket, I quietly touched down in San Francisco, exhilarated by anticipation and secrecy. I had a day in the city to pack and celebrate my dad’s birthday with my sister and bedridden brother-in-law, before hopping on the eight hour bus to Black Rock City. When I finally made it to the playa, a Burning Man greeting was more fitting than ever; welcome home.
Two years ago we christened The Dusty Pineapple, a rickety skeleton of a tiki bar, built on a garden cart and pulled by four bikes. With small speakers, dim lights, and scarce alcohol, we avoided the competition by heading to the darkest corner of the playa. People trickled in slowly, but when they arrived, they stayed. It didn’t take long before our little bar was rocking with 50 singing, dancing and smiling people. I’ve rarely felt more satisfied than the first time I walked 30 yards from the Dusty Pineapple in full swing, and looked back at it shaking energetically in the blackness.
These days, the Dusty Pineapple is what draws me to Burning Man. It has forged many friendships, and seen several of the best nights of my life. Naturally, I wanted to execute my surprise with my friends saddled up to the bar. I arrived Monday evening, but had to wait until Tuesday for them to take it out, leaving me 24 hours set up camp and explore the city alone. Knowing I’d want to be stationed with my friends, and that I wouldn’t want to relocate, I pulled a bandana over my face, stretched my goggles over my head, shouldered my gear through town, and discreetly pitched my tent almost next door to camp DP.
The next day, I enjoyed wandering solo, but was distracted by thoughts of the night to come. When the sun finally set, I headed back to camp. Disappointingly, a pleasant day turned into a gusty night, and I began to hear familiar voices suggest they leave the bar behind. Wind not only makes it hard to pull, but prevents would-be customers from undertaking the long ride to find us. I was disappointed, but had flown 4,000 miles to be with my friends and wasn’t about to wait another day. I donned my disguise, and walked across the street…
The sun had long set and the moon had yet to rise. The only light on the corner of Kook and 3:30 came from several strands of christmas lights hanging from the Dusty Pineapple, which was anxiously parked in camp. As I approached, completely covered and in near total darkness, Kellen, my freshman roommate, took one look at my suspicious silhouette and knew it was me. “No, fuckin’ way,” was all he said.
For a second, I was the one who was surprised. Wylie froze, clearly thinking what Kellen knew but unable to believe his own suspicions. After a beat, I pulled down my mask, and lifted my goggles. Suddenly I was on the ground. There was kissing, hugging, laughing and screaming. I was literally shaking with excitement. Wylie said he cried. Markus was more animated than I’ve ever seen him, and trust me, that’s saying a lot. It was an hour before we had our wits about us. But eventually, the dust settled - literally and figuratively - and we realized the wind had died. Deep playa was calling.
At Burning Man, handshakes are replaced by hugs, and “playa names” are used where applicable. These pseudonyms are are given, not chosen, and anything goes. Ostensibly, they’re permanent. This year I met Cotton Candy, Tramp Stamp, and Panda, among many others. Markus is called Moop, after an acronym for trash on the playa, Matter Out Of Place. After 6 years at Burning Man, I was still “Brad.”
It was around midnight when we finally opened for business. An hour or so later I started my first shift behind the bar - sitting on a small cooler with my feet buried in an eclectic collection of booze and mixers. Markus started telling people how stressful it had been trying to fill my shoes as the pesky father figure who’s always worried about the trash blowing away, or that someone left the container of baby wipes open. With genuine affection and a hint of sarcasm, he said, “I’m so happy dad’s here.” His enthusiasm for my arrival struck a chord. Someone mentioned I didn’t have a playa name, and suddenly I was surrounded by 15 people, all chanting “DAD! DAD! DAD! DAD!…”
The next morning we read through the guestbook and rehashed the night before. It had been a great night - i’ll remember the surprise and the christening of my playa name for the rest of my life - but the wind had kicked up again and the bar never quite got humming. Still, there were some happy customers: “It was late,” wrote one, “we went in search. A bad turn, and we were surrounded by lights, people, noise, noise, more noise. We steered our playa vessels to the darkness, and found the light. We found your smiles, and our sanity, tears, and happiness at The Dusty Pineapple. Thank You.”
Unmasked, and reunited with my people, it was time to settle into life on the Playa. Burning Man is widely misunderstood, at least in part because it’s so difficult to describe. Indeed, it is cliché to wonder how could I possibly explain this to the default world. First of all, to debunk the most common myths, hippies are in the minority, nothing is traded, and drugs are unnecessary. The founding principles of Burning Man call for inclusion, gifting, decommodification, self-reliance, self-expression, communal effort, and participation. It is a recipe for uninhibited conversation, boundless creativity, and unprovoked generosity. On the playa, I feel relaxed, confident, introspective, melancholic, and celebratory. It can be a bit like going to a museum, a psychiatrist, a funeral, and a riotous wedding, all in the same day. Just a few of the highlights this year were Camp Unnecessarily High Five with their Unnecessarily Low Bar, the ICU with hospital beds and cocktail-filled syringes and IV bags (camelbacks), a boxed wine tasting accompanied by a whipping, a Shabbat service with dinner for 400 people, and learning to introduce myself as Dad.
But the wind that hampered the Dusty Pineapple on it’s first night was only the beginning of the bad weather. All week, the dust storms were unrelenting, and a deep chill gripped the nights. On Saturday, with the city at peak population, the temperature dropped into the low 30’s, and we couldn’t find a soul in deep playa. In years past, the Dusty Pineapple has been a welcome escape from the density of art cars surrounding the man, each playing music louder than the other as he burns. But the cold drove nearly all of our customers, and most of our staff, into their tents and sleeping bags. Twice we pulled the bar closer to the city, and the struggles continued. It wasn’t easy to stay warm while sitting in the bar, but we eventually found just enough activity to keep Moop and I trading shifts until sunrise.
Despite flashes of brilliance, the night was disappointing. And somewhere along the way my backpack disappeared, along with some cash and my driver’s license. Thursday hadn’t been much better, which meant Tuesday, theoretically the warm-up, had been the bar’s most successful night. Between preparation and recovery, I’d dedicated significant chunks of six days to the Dusty Pineapple. For the first time, the juice wasn’t worth the squeeze, a realization that brought on a stubborn pessimism. Suddenly it was Sunday morning, and I couldn’t help but look back at the week as a collection of slightly underwhelming nights and dusty days. In that haze, I had to help pack up camp.
After the man burns, the city is a depressing place. It’s watching something you love get torn apart. There is a constant stream of cars heading for the exit, and even though thousands of people remain, most camps have closed their doors. I was exhausted and ready to leave with my friends, all of whom were departing that afternoon, but my bus was scheduled for noon the next day. So, I said my goodbyes and set out to make the most of one last afternoon and night.
First, I stopped by Planet Earth, an impressively proper bar with an actual dance floor, and a sign out front asking for booze donations. Taking note of at least one place that would still be open, I found someone to send to our camp, where Markus and a few others were stuffing the last of our gear into rented trucks, and wondering what to do with our leftover alcohol. Then I made a fruitless stop at lost and found, and set off to explore what was left of the city.
A tasty drink. A wonderful conversation. Followed by another. A serendipitous encounter with a Panamanian with travel tips. A martini. A peaceful walk to the Temple, Burning Man’s cathartic core. A powerfully silent gathering of 30,000 people watching it burn. Hugs. More conversations. A magician. A warm thank you from Planet Earth, followed by hours of dancing, unable to wipe the smile off my face.
Suddenly everything looked different. What I’d loved about the week was now top of mind, and everything else was just part of the journey. But the highs and lows were difficult to process. I left the playa the next day relaxed and satisfied, but without a clue what to say about it. A few days later, I was still digesting the experience, and preparing to write this entry, when I got a message from my friend Kevin, who is subletting my house in LA, “It's yo lucky day son. Some people just dropped off your bag with ID and money!”
The more time passes, the more I appreciate that I made the journey this year. Here’s another Burning Man cliché: “You don’t get the burn you want, you get the burn you need.” It’s a joke, practically, but it resonates. Sometimes you have to lose a backpack, suffer through a frigid night with your oldest friend, or have a perfect evening after everyone you know has left. Perspective comes slow, but this year it hit hard: The best things in life aren’t always the best things.