Monday, September 12, 2011

Welcome Home

My two friends and I were waiting in the hotel registration line at the Grand Sierra Resort in Reno, waiting to get our room key. It's a long drive, specially for my one friend who had driven his truck and camper up from southern California to pick  me up on our way to Burning Man. We had decided to stay over one night in Reno, then get up before dawn and head out to the playa, after a last night of a good dinner, drinks, and a real shower. As we waited in the shiny, loud, blinky, mirrored casino-slash-hotel lobby, we would have looked out of place except for the Burners who surrounded us. I had on a midriff-revealing tank top and desert pants, and the multiple bracelets, necklaces, and medallions that signify my Burner persona, and one of my companions had a shock of bright pink hair. As we waited, a young-looking, scruffy man with a long, unkempt beard walked by and said "Welcome Home."

"Welcome Home" has become a catchphrase for Burners. When you drive into the gates of Black Rock City, the greeters insist on you getting out of the car so they can hug you, say "Welcome Home", and make sure you know to keep hydrated and not to put baby wipes in the porta-potties. In the first days of Burning Man, people often say "Welcome Home" as a greeting where people in the "default world" say "How are you?"I've often considered why this is. In the beginning I even bridled a little bit at the phrase. "I'm not home," I'd think to myself, "This is an alien place."

But at my fourth Burning Man, I finally got it, and finally felt it. This was home. Not the flat, dusty moonscape with the surreal art sprouting from it like Dali-esque flowers, but the community of creative, inspired, lunatic people who spend months, if not the entire preceding year, getting ready for what is, in essence,  a pilgrimage.  A pilgrimage to the place where we
can fully be ourselves, from the professional men who gather flamboyant outfits to wear in the dust, parading like wonderful peacocks, finally comfortable in their own skin, to the women in the short-shorts and tall dusty boots who can finally give up worrying about makeup and body hair, or who can go all out with makeup, body paint, and jewelry in a way that would label them freaks in the real world. Burning Man is a place to let go of all expectations, all plans, all judgment, a place to be inspired, to experiment, to stay up all night marveling at the show that spreads out before us on 5 square miles of alkali plain. It's a place to create art, to have deep conversations with strangers as the stars, lasers, and LED-lit mile-long strings of balloons wheel and dance above us in the black sky. A place to dance, to wonder, to travel deep into the psyche or to fly high above it, in whatever fashion you choose to do so. It's the only place like it in the world. And because Burning Man is about coming back to oneself, it's home.

I've always noticed the phenomenon of the trip to the playa. As I get ready to leave, I start the process of shedding my "default" persona - the one that allows me to hold a job and to walk down a street without anyone looking at me askance. The one who is polite and professional. The one who cleans the house and worries about the mortgage. The day I leave, I put on the bracelets and necklaces that represent my pilgrimage. The clothes I wear on the trip to the playa are not my Burning Man clothes, but they approach those outfits. I anticipate the heat of the desert, and dress accordingly. As I and my companion drive northeast, the closer we get to Reno, the more Burners we see. People honk and wave on the freeway as we play "Spot the Burner" with each passing car. In Reno, every large store and hotel parking lot has sprouted RV's, campers, vans, and cars piled high with PVC pipe, tarps, bicycles, hula hoops, and other odds and ends. People with braids, dreadlocks, feathers in their hair, facepaint, bindis, and long, colorful outfits wander the aisles of Costco and WalMart, staring and shocked in the fluorescent lights, as the regular denizens of Reno watch with amusement.

Then we travel deep into the desert, joining a long line of cars, and the deeper we go the more of our "default" persona we shed, as someone who sees the ocean for the first time runs towards it, shedding clothes as he goes, longing to dive deeply in. Waiting in line, sometimes for hours, the dust coats us as we play, dance, and talk to the people around us. By the time we've entered the city, we're anointed with dust, baptized in it. Nothing will be truly clean or organized again until we've had time to do our laundry and clean up in a 7-10 days. Then we're in it, and the days rush by, with no alarm bells, no jobs to go to, no bills we can pay. We're in a land of surreality that becomes our reality, so deeply felt that when we leave, it can sometimes takes a couple of weeks to mentally come back to the world everyone else sees. Afterwards, the phrase "Welcome Home" takes on a new poignancy. We miss that parched desert place where we can truly bloom. Things in the "default world" don't shine as brightly, and just simply aren't as interesting. And no, it's not the drugs, since I didn't even drink that much on the playa. It's the spirit of what we, all of us, create there, that we miss when we leave it. And why the Burner community is so close-knit even off-playa. It's not the desert that's home, it's the people.

Welcome Home, fellow Burners, let's meet again soon.

1 comment:

Pavel Somov said...


Mystery wonderfully solved: "And because Burning Man is about coming back to oneself, it's home."

The phrase I've been using ever since I came to the States is "home is where you are" (as I typically point to my head with an index finger).

Welcome home wherever you are.