The Long Road to Black Rock City

Not to imply that my story has any particular value, but it is mine and I'm happy to share it.

The midday sun set the tone for the day, near unbearable that is. I waited outside, bags stacked behind with Burning Man Information Radio (BMIR) playing through the speakers on my phone.  The city was busy rubbing dust out of its collective eyes after a major storm and someone in the radio studio had just agreed to be shaved by a passing stranger. Wait time at the gate was 2.5 hours. Burning Man 2015, The Carnival of Mirrors, was underway. Unlike most just tuning in to BMIR, I wasn't passing through Gerlach or Empire, two tiny western hamlets strung between Reno and the Black Rock Desert. I was still at Bagram Airfield in Northern Afghanistan and there were many miles yet to travel.

It was twelve-thousand two hundred and thirty kilometers from Dubai to Atlanta alone. Eighteen hours airborne if memory serves. Once, I dreaded the flight, but now I see it as a necessary bridge from one world to another, an intermission of sorts. Dubai is this surreal, dusty, cartoon version of the west whose excess screams so loud as to mute the senses. At least, it can seem that way after coming from Afghanistan where a thousand shades of doleful brown dominate the days. The long flight allows one to ease back into the 'real' world. It's not just flying from city A to city B, it's the feeling of returning to your hometown, only scaled up as a return to your people, to your culture. Mileage aside, my journey to Black Rock City began years prior, from a world as decidedly distant spiritually as it was geographically.

 Bagram Airfield: The first of several flights.

Bagram Airfield: The first of several flights.

It was in 2009, in Iraq when I first saw an online gallery of photos from Burning Man. I knew nothing of the event nor did anyone I knew. There was an immediate draw to the burn and its otherworldly delight on display. It was foreign enough, exotic enough, not just in its visual splendor, but the smiles were genuine, the freedom apparent and intoxicating even from afar.  If unfamiliar with the burn, as I was, I'd recommend starting with a read on the Ten Principles or one of these videos. Of course there is much more to it than dusty art and dustier burners. Truth is, I don't have the words to describe it even now, as every person who attends may well have a completely different experience. It's a social experiment, an exercise in wilderness survival. It's a dusty canvas adorned with the best of humanity, a depthless sea of goodwill made more precious by its impermanence. I've had years to learn what one can of the community and witness from afar, more of what inspired that initial wonderment.

If asked to describe the typical soldier, then asked to describe the typical burner, what would come to mind? Would the two share many, any, similarities? I wouldn't ask any reader to wade too deeply in the generalizations that come to mind, however, you'll likely agree that your average twenty something year old with dust form two war zones settled deep in his lungs and the free spirit spiraling across the Black Rock Desert are unlikely to have much in common.

My mind latched onto the idea of Burning Man at the same time I was shedding much of what had defined who I was up to that point. There was a goal, never really defined, somewhere out there in the dust. I no longer wanted to judge the motives and integrity of others at every step. I didn't want to be constantly on guard myself. I wanted to move away from a world where talk of suicide attacks and kill/capture missions was the norm, away from a world where the worst depths of human depravity were so often on display. In the years since I'd first learned of Burning Man, I'd been deployed, broke, or too busy working to avoid being broke each year. Returning to work in the Stan meant that I could finally afford the burn, it was just a matter of finding time off and ticket to go with it.

 Ticket(s) in hand.

Ticket(s) in hand.

As 2015 tickets were released, I failed on both counts. I had no luck in the online sales and my vacation dates wouldn't align with the burn. It seemed it was time to bury the wish for another year. Then some sixty days before the burn, a coworker needed someone to switch his leave dates, dates that would fit with the burn. So began the scramble to find a ticket. Nets were cast into cyberspace, messages fired to the far corners of my social network. I began googling 'how to spot fraud Burning Man tickets.'

In the middle of this search I was pointed to a thread on reddit where one Burning Man ticket and vehicle pass were to be given away. The gifter, anonymous. The criteria, a series of questions and the instruction to provide an image of a baby animal to go with the submission. Done and done. If desperation were measured in sound, the number of times I refreshed the thread would sing a symphony no doubt. Eventually, one of those page refreshes with met with the notification that my username had been mentioned, I had been chosen.

So I was going to Burning Man. Finally going, and I owed it all to the kindness and generosity of a stranger. For all my planning, hoping and flailing, it was a gift that would finally bring me home. I owe one of the best experiences of my life to the generosity of another. How appropriate, how humbling, how wonderful! What an enduring reminder to be grateful, to strive to be deserving of such kindness, and indeed, to offer the same when I can.

In a way the trip to Black Rock City was much longer than 1200km, it was a journey begun some seven years ago when I decided the military wasn't the life I wanted. A bridge now connects two alien worlds that have helped define who I am. And I'm not the only one. I found fellow veterans at Camp Hell n' Back, who, through sheer force of will had cobbled together art from veterans around the states and erected a poignant memorial to the estimated twenty-two veteran suicides which occur daily. In another powerful display, an unknown burner hung his fatigues inside the temple to be burned, the note "I am no longer a product of war" hanging across his uniform. Even though I write this from Afghanistan, I can find joy in that sentiment. It took awhile to make it to Black Rock City, I've taken an unusual path, but I am happy to have finally made it home.

The images below document the physical distances traversed to reach the Black Rock Desert. Bagram to Kandahar, Kandahar to Dubai, Dubai to Atlanta, to Salt Lake City, to Reno, its ignominious slot machines and a bus where tickets may or may not have been available. They were. One of the first 'the playa provides' moments I came to appreciate in the following week.