You know those rare events in life where you walk out of them knowing, feeling, that your life has changed? It may not be from anything you can pinpoint or specify, but the feeling of being a changed person is unmistakable.
I didn’t know what a Burn was until just a few weeks ago when I was introduced to the idea of Orfunner, a Burning Man event that takes place here, close to Austin, in Dripping Springs. The idea of any burn event was intimidating to me. Hoards of radically self-expressive people, artists…and a LOT of drugs. And while I covet the idea of the first two (not particularly interested in lots of drugs, but hey, to each his own) I never considered myself to be quite at the level that would allow me to run with burners.
But, after talking to a few friends who had participated before, and hearing about the culture of acceptance, the gifting economy and the spirit of mutual respect and love, it started to sound more and more like something that was, in fact, right up my alley.
We gathered a group of people, our camping gear, and headed out to Dripping Springs. I arrived in a group of three: Dru, his friend Jane and I, but there were other mutual friends there that we already knew. Even so, it didn’t matter who we knew already, because as soon as we drove through the gates of the campgrounds we had come ‘home’ to a new family.
We followed a caravan of other cars to the entrance where we could see people leaning into car windows and talking jovially. As we finally got to the front of the line, a little sprite of a girl wearing fishnet from head to toe and wearing a fox tail poked her head into my window and demanded we get out of the car. I got a little nervous, like for sure we’d already done something wrong, but before I even got both feet on the ground she had me in her embrace and exclaimed “Welcome home!”
After a quick rundown of the campground rules we were admitted and found a place to put the car until we could locate our other friend. All around us were colorful lights, loud music, talking, singing, and laughing. We’d entered an entirely different world, and consequently had no idea where to even begin, where to set up camp or how to find a familiar face.
We stood close to the car, alternating between helping a lost friend find her way to the grounds and discussing what the heck we were supposed to do. I think our confusion and frustration may have been apparent to a fellow camper nearby, because a man wearing a sarong emerged from a clearing near our car asking if we needed a place to set up camp.
He led us into the clearing where he, his friends, and another group had already set up tents. It was perfect, shaded, and little bit out of the way of all the goings on in the center of the campground. “You’re welcome to join us,” he said. “There’s more than enough room.” We graciously took him up on his offer and began work on our camp. It was immediately clear, however, that we were newbies at this. Among a number of elaborate camps with electricity, banners, artwork and more we set up everything we had which equated to a couple of small tents and a cooler filled with snacks.
“Is this your first burn?” people would ask. I never knew exactly what about us tipped them off: the lack of preparation, the awestruck looks on our faces, or possibly the extremely modest clothing among a sea of costumes and nudity. It didn’t matter, as soon as we uttered the words “Yep, first time,” we were suddenly some sort of special guest wherever we were. Without hesitation people offered us whatever they had: food and drink, cigarettes and drugs, or just a comfortable seat and good company. The gift economy at work. It didn’t even matter to them that we’d showed up wildly unprepared and with nothing to offer in return…in their eyes, if we were treated right at our first burn then as we became more experienced we were sure to return the favor at our future burns, make others feel just as welcome and facilitate the loving and giving environment that everyone there cherishes so much.
After settling in and acquainting ourselves with our camp and the people in it, Jane and I set out to explore while Dru stayed behind to work on a leather loin cloth he planned to wear for around for the weekend (remember what I said about costumes and nudity? Yep, loin cloth…perfectly acceptable to wear in public here.). While exploring we managed to find a campsite with a large sign advertising free pancakes in the morning, a camp that had set up an entire night club complete with DJ and dance floor, and another that was in the midst of setting up a community kitchen with food, appliances, and sinks for doing dishes. Others looked like they were completing equally impressive setups but as it was already dark and the night was still young the large field (called the playa) where the largest camps were setting up was still in various forms of construction.
We finally crossed paths with a group of friends and spent the remainder of the evening exploring, making friends with strangers and just enjoying seeing all that each camp had to offer, until finally the sky started lightening around us and we returned to camp to live out the sunrise with the camp next door and crawled into our tent to sleep away the early morning.
For the first time in years, it wasn’t an alarm clock but sun rays and the warmth of early afternoon that woke me. Jane was already gone and Dru was still asleep, so I crawled out from the quickly warming tent to seek out the site of free pancakes that we’d come across the night before. Everyone else I knew was already there with plates of half eaten pancakes. I hopped into line and received my own pancakes from the camp owner, still baffled by the idea that an ordinary guy, asking for nothing in return, was not only willing but happy to stand over a grill in the hot sun to turn out pancakes to as many strangers as he could feed. Also…they were DELICIOUS.
The weekend proceeded as it had started, filled with friendly strangers and a never-ending string of new sights, sounds and experiences. We became extremely close with the camp next door which included Adam, the man in the sarong who’d originally led us into their camp area, Mandy, Lauren, and in a brilliant display of the ‘small world’ concept, one of our real-world friends Ryan. They’d set up a hammock under a large shade and rigged a mister over it so it was the ideal place to spend the afternoon. We’d step away every so often to see how the camps on the playa were evolving, or going to cool off in or by the pool, but mostly waited out the day in the cover of shade and helped them to prepare for a curry dinner that they’d planned to offer to any hungry passers-by in the evening.
The night is when the campground comes alive. As the sun goes down, the camp lights up with lanterns, lights and bulk loads of glow sticks which are handed out freely to anyone who can put them to good use. At one point I wore a belt of linked glow bracelets and wore even more on my arms…a colorful human lantern.
By the evening everyone was fully set-up and everything was in full swing. We walked endlessly, dipping in and out of completed camps. A hookah lounge. A community trampoline, which by the way was not meant to hold 8 people at once, but managed to without death or injury (though I ended up falling off it backwards the next day). A camp that consisted of seating and one very large pole for pole dancing. A volleyball court that had become a stage for fire performers. The night club camp from the night before and a camp next door that was offering a full bar worth of alcohol for anyone who arrived with their own cup. All free, and all, as much as I hate to admit, enhanced by us and everyone else being in various forms of inebriation. It’s just a part of the entire experience, the culture, part of facilitating the mind-opening whole of the event.
As time went on I found that it was all contagious. I grew more and more comfortable in my own skin, literally and figuratively, and was able to express the creativity and eccentricity that I’d quelled in public for so long in order to ‘fit in’ or ‘be normal.’ The body that I’m usually so uncomfortable with all of its flaws was suddenly something beautiful, not only to me but to everyone around me. I adorned my head with a mohawk of white feathers, wore bold clothing and bore more skin than I’ve ever been comfortable with in public. Dru walked beside me in a leather loin cloth and a headdress of ram horns and synthetic deadlocks. And rather than the looks of scorn, confusion or fear that we may have received anywhere else, we were revered, complimented and praised. At one point I was pulled aside by a complete stranger who had seen me and could not allow me to walk away without telling me how beautiful I was, but not just physically. She explained that she was in awe of my inner beauty, the beauty of my soul, something that you don’t hear very often these days, because not many people look inside people anymore. The world is about facades and appearances, and people have forgotten the true brilliance of inner beauty, but not here.
The three days past far too quickly. As things started winding down I had begun to feel like I’d finally started to get the hang of things and was already getting excited preparing for the next event. After discovering that Mandy, Lauren, Jane and myself were all Aquarians we begun preliminary plans to gather again in January for “Freezer Burn” and create an Aquarian themed camp and all talked wistfully about camping together at Flipside, one of the larger burn events, down the road.
We woke early the next day to share breakfast together and with the two camps around us, a feast of all the food that we had leftover and didn’t feel like carrying home. We packed our things, helped to clean around our site, abiding by the ‘leave no trace’ rule, and finally said our goodbyes.
I left the camp and headed back to the real world completely exhausted, and yet more completely alive than I’d ever felt before. My eyes had been permanently opening to a facets of life that I’d lost hope in or never known about at all. The spirit of trust, respect, love and charity were still alive somewhere. A place where creativity and eccentricity are appreciated and not feared. And people who still bother to look past your exterior and see the soul underneath. And, from what I hear, Orfunner doesn’t even touch how incredible the bigger burn events are, as far as art, creativity and scale. I’m counting the days until I get to go ‘home’ again.