People who burn, burn, burn: Lessons learned on the Playa

Two years ago today at around 4AM I got down and rolled in Nevada desert dust. It's the initiation ritual all Burning Man virgins go through. Lying on my back under the stars in the biggest sky I'd ever seen I felt both foolish and tearful. Over the next ten days I got used to this feeling.

I went to Burning Man to change my life. I had been sober for six years (five months, seven days and 32 minutes and counting) and was tired of being trapped in my own skull. In all that time my relationships with women hadn't gone beyond a kind of emasculating platonic friendship. It had got to the point where, at 52, I'd regressed to pre-adolescence.

At Burning Man, I figured, I could take a holiday from my head and maybe relose my virginity.

I also had an idea to write about Burning Man. I wangled myself a press pass which, as it said, entitled me to nothing at all. Two years later, I'm still unable to write anything more than a series of snapshots about my experience in the desert.

The Bees

When I was invited to camp with The Bees I had no idea how much of a big deal it was. Who you camp with makes an enormous difference to how you experience the Burn. The Bees are a fine mix of people mainly from the Bay Area whose desire to take things as far as they can go is grounded in the great American 'Fuck yeah!' can do mantra. Cut loose from their default world lives they're a dayglo version of the Walton Family.

Men wearing ballet tutus slam tent pegs into the ground with sledgehammers. Women congregate in the kitchen to make a vast breakfast, politely ignoring the girl who stumbles in naked from the waist down, buttocks pink and dusty.

Burning Man champions radical self-reliance but life with the Bees was radical kindness.

Coming home

The first morning I walked out onto the Playa - the area of desert around which the camps are arranged in semi-circles - a boy wearing nothing but goggles and shiny purple hotpants said 'Welcome home, brother'.

Against all odds, I did feel right at home. What I was looking at was a dusty, pumped-up technopunk carny version of all the hippy fairs I'd been to as a kid growing up in rural England in the 1970s. Bizarrely, given that we were in the desert and everything I'd read warned me about the ferocious temperatures, it had rained in the night, turning the Playa into a quagmire and the air was cool. This made me feel even more at home.

I'd come back to something in my life I had no idea I was missing.


The healing camp was painted witchy purple and offered everything from tantric massage to free therapy. My therapist was a strawberry-blonde woman with a deep freckly cleavage named, of all things, Quiggles. I explained to Quiggles that I was a flop with chicks and had been that way since I was 46.

Quiggles asked me how I defined myself. We agreed I was a poet. She suggested that the next time I saw a woman I liked I should announce myself as a poet, ask if I could take her for my muse, write her a poem, read it to her and request a kiss.

It was a fantastic, nicely absurd idea. I didn't do it but, bless her, Quiggles made me feel there was hope for me.

A magic bicycle ride

I was high on light. Every so often I'd feel a whooshing rush of colour so intense I thought I'd fall over. My head was empty but I knew exactly who, what and where I was.

I lay on my back in the dust for what seemed like hours looking up at a light sculpture made blinking white cubes, tuned in to the thump of the music, deafening whenever an illuminated art car came close. When I was ready I cycled back to camp, drained but refilled.

Mankind circle

We sat in a circle in the shade of an RV. We were old, young, gay, familiar with the Mankind Project or, in my case, not. Hearing other men talk about the crap, and good stuff, they were going through on the Playa was a revelation. These were men who'd had experiences every bit as bad, and good, as mine who were willing to share them and make us all feel better about ourselves.

At first, I struggled with the idea that the guy leading the group had a Native American name (deciding on the spot mine would be Baffled Bear). The bellowed 'HO's' that went with every one of our intimate revelations took a bit of getting used to. But at Burning Man it made as much sense as anything else.

I had nothing to lose but my stiff upper lip.


The soundtrack to Burning Man is pretty much EDM all the way. Like the ashy-white dust, the music gets into you for good. You wake up and fall asleep to it and there can be Diplo knows how many sound systems playing at once.  When I was asked to DJ for the Bees I was worried that they might hate my music, which is old school soul, funk, disco, hiphop and reggae.

I'm grinning as I write this, listening to a playlist called Sounds for Sunrises, remembering all those dusty bodies barely dressed in all every possible combination of black and yellow dancing to 'Can You Feel It' by The Jacksons. At 52, in my black DJ gloves with yellow fur trim, I felt hipper than I'd ever been.

Polymorphous perversity

Although I saw plenty of dusty nudity, my Burn was chaste. As a single man of a certain age I assumed I wouldn't be particularly welcome at the Fisting or Eat Pussy Like a Champ workshops. Camped next to us was a group who were into tying people up, hanging them upside down, putting clamps on their dangling bits and, you get the picture. I couldn't imagine wandering in by myself and, in any case, being transgressive seems to mean having no sense of humour.

By accident, I did go to a talk given by a Dutch transvestite. (S)he looked like an anorexic, middle-aged secretary and told his/her stories of perversion in a monotone. 'Yes, and I was on the sofa with the wine bottle up my ass, my friend was pouring hot wax on my nipples and the puppy was licking my balls. It was naice.'

When (s)he told us how she nearly died when she got the bag (s)he was sniffing glue from stuck on her head, I burst out laughing and had to crawl out of the tent on my hands and knees through a crowd of people taking notes.

No sex for me, though. In among all the nudity and promiscuity I felt further away from it than I ever had.

Andrew's wedding

Andrew is a Scotsman who lives in San Francisco. He's also the guy who designs the Man and ovesees its building. A friend of the Bees, as they say, I think he makes honey in his backyard. Andrew married his American significant other on the Playa, out by the Man. He wore a kilt and played the bagpipes.

The happy couple were married by the Reverend Billy Talen, a social activist who's adopted a cartoon fire and brimstone Billy Graham persona to spread the word.

When Andrew's bride to be arrived - she was, of course, late - our collective eyes moistened with joy and a little relief. I'll never forget hearing the heart stirring skirl of the pipes as the sun set on the Playa and the shadow of the Man grew longer by the minute.

Amerika is good

Amerika was va-va-voom and wore a fur coat over a clinging shiny turquoise pantsuit. Her hair was long and dirty blonde, her voice shot and husky. It was perhaps 2AM and we stood in the front of the Apis, the Bees art car. This is shaped like a giant bee and fires flame from either side of its nose.

It felt like we were sailing the plains on a psychedelic pioneer wagon. I babbled on about how wonderful I thought Burning Man was, how it showed the best of America, how we were all Ginsberg's children. 'America is good,' I said.

'I America,' she said.

'Wow,' I said, stroking her hair and her fur coat while she stroked mine. She did look like a wobbly, sexy Statue of Liberty. 'You are America. What's your name.'

'I am Erika,' she said.

Temple burning

The Temple, an ornate place of worship for a religion still being born, is made of wood. It goes up in flames on the last Sunday of every Burn, before the camps and art structures are taken down and Burners head back to the default world.

A crowd of tens of thousands watched the Temple catch fire and collapse in silence. When a soundsystem drifted over and didn't turn off its music in time - a particularly horrible hillbilly EDM hybrid - there was a wave of righteous anger. The soundsystem itself came close to going up in flames.

Watching the Temple burn, my soul was agape. The Temple honoured pure human potential and burning it to the dust acknowledged our courage, our capacity to begin again over and over. Like everything to do with Burning Man, it was a ritual both profound and preposterous.

The aftermath

While I accept that I may never be able to shape my Burning Man experience into a coherent story, I know exactly what my time in the desert did for me.

I discovered I could get safely out of my head any time I needed. Which, of course, has meant that I haven't since. When, on New Year's Eve 2014 at a party in Budapest I plucked up the courage to talk to another Erika, this time a beautiful sparkling Hungarian, I was following Quiggles advice. Our first conversation was about writing and I told her I was a writer. Coming up for two years later, we grow more and more in love every day, and she constantly inspires and challenges me to write and live better, further, deeper.

And Burning Man? Reading the emails the Bees sent to each other in the days leading up to setting off for the desert this time - the military precision with which they planned an excursion into profound frivolity - made me smile and remember my own excitement. But I didn't feel I was missing out and, if I never go again, I'll have no regrets. Because the truth is that one Burning Man did enough for me to last me a lifetime.

I'll still be processing those ten days in the desert for years to come and, as my California friends say, that's awesome!