Strangers in the White Tent
Or, how Burning Man totally flipped my wig
From Conscious Choice Magazine – December Issue, 2006
By Dan Simborg
I walked across the freezing desert under the full moon, dressed in black from head to toe. I had just hooked up with Potter, one of my college buddies from California, after a whirlwind 30+ hour cross-country trip with a total stranger I met online, a seasoned veteran of Burning Man who replied to my classified ad. As I was entering the realm of the Black Rock desert, I felt like I was an anthropologist entering some unknown culture of art, neo-tribalism and mysticism.
We snuck towards the flashing neon blasts of fire expanding over the distant horizon, our anticipation cresting and ebbing as this mythical place called Burning Man was getting bigger and louder with each step. Entering illegally with just a pack on our backs, we were completely disoriented and exhausted as we wandered in shock and awe. It was the middle of the night in the middle of the desert, and we roamed from fire pit to fire pit looking for shelter from the dusty and freezing winds. Ahead of us, a glowing, empty white tent surrounded by RVs suddenly appeared out of the dust clouds.
Without regard for the owners, we dove in and curled up closely together for warmth, and fell into deep sleep—it had been two days without rest, and we were exhausted.
In the morning, we awoke in our sleeping bags drenched with sweat. With the desert sun cooking us like a couple of empanadas, we were roused by a gang of children, breakfast in hand, and given two shiny amulets for the psychedelic ice cream truck. We were prepared to defend ourselves or apologize to the owners of the tent we commandeered, but instead the parents of these giddy little ones warmly welcomed us and invited us to stay for the rest of the week. In the distance weird calliope music began to waft towards us as this brilliantly decorated vehicle magically appeared, thumping with a heavy electronic beat. We dropped our breakfasts and stumbled with glee towards it, where we exchanged the amulets we were given by the children for a multi-colored swirl of unrecognizable goo that tasted perfect in that moment. As we drifted back towards our impromptu squatters camp, Potter and I stopped in at the porta-potties nearby, where we miraculously ran into one of our good friends in line next to us, and ended our search for a home.
This was my first eight hours at Burning Man, and the next eight years could be described within this context as one serendipitous moment after the next.
My impression of Burning Man is the virtual kaleidoscope of chance meetings and experiences I have had out there on the Playa. Looking to heal a broken heart, find a new direction in life, and adjust to my post-collegiate nomadic confusion, when I went for the first time in 1999, I was not aware that the spirit of Burning Man had already taken hold of me before I left Chicago in my Honda Civic. But the brief evolution and conclusion of that impromptu relationship reflects many of the ways in which the Burning Man experience has changed my life and values. Every year, via this same serendipitous path, one or two people become part of my personal tribal family.
Burning Man has become an antidote to the ways in which this world, particularly American society, is destroying itself. To me, Burning Man is the human Internet. You can surf from one experience to the next, and with a click of your thoughts enter further in, or float on to the next scene. It’s a non-denominational exodus to another planet where the distractions and toxicity of our “civilized” world are less apparent. Even more relevant than the escapism is the important ritual of placing objects of intention into the fire and making proclamations, openly or privately, to grow and move on from things past. The burning of the Man symbolizes the change in oneself, the burning away of the old self and the charred emergence of the new. Each year, I enter the camp with a vague idea of what transformation I may be facing, prepared for the emotional and physical discomfort of the whole process, and the elation and humor that is typical of a profoundly spiritual odyssey.
I entered Burning Man as an inexperienced boy and now find myself an elder of sorts, helping guide a “village” of more than 400 people. In turn, I have shared these experiences and values far and wide and have successfully inspired the attendance of virtually all my closest friends and immediate family. And, you see, this is how it is done, changing the world one body, one mind, and one spirit at a time. This activation has spread like an unstoppable virus allowing conscious people to transform themselves into the people they aspire to be. After all the time and energy spent on one timeless week each year, I am able to continue to pass along the lessons I have learned to almost anyone I may encounter. For I have learned that it is how you greet the stranger sleeping in your tent that gauges the type of human being you are.
Dan Simborg is the founder of the Chicago art collective Transamoeba and an ‘elder’ of Entheon Village.