Black Rock City 2013: This is the best day of my life, already
The sun rose a couple of hours ago and I’m staring at it in awe. My body is numb but my brain is firing on all cylinders. The ground trembles with one of Robot Heart’s haunting bass-lines and, despite the time, the crowd is hungry for more. Welcome to the deep playa, on the outskirts of Black Rock City. I’m not sure what rumors or writings you may have heard or read about Burning Man, but I can assure you that none do justice to the experience itself.
It all started with a rather Gonzo-esque journalism assignment into the Nevada desert, where I would live for eight days far from sober, amongst some of the finest human beings this planet has to offer. I had a ring in my camera bag, but my best friend Sam had convinced me that proposing to Mila at a "festival," whilst under the influence was indeed cheesy and reserved for lesser-romantics.
We arrived on Sunday night, knackered from the enormous queue and rather nervous after being stopped twice by Nevada state troopers intent on searching our vehicles. We entered the gates and, after a quick roll in the dust, made our way to the campground. Everyone helped each other to build the yurts, tipis, and tents that were to house us for the week. I was itching to see more, so I snuck off for a bike ride onto the playa. As I got closer to the inner circle of the horseshoe-shaped city I could not believe my eyes. Although it was 3 a.m. on the festival’s first night, the whole desert, as far as I could see, was alive with neon lights and fire-breathing vehicles. There were also thousands of people on bicycles lit up with LEDs and glow sticks. I was buzzing and laughed to myself as I rode back to camp, ecstatic that I had eight days to explore this carnival of madness.
There is no end to the variety of entertainment in BRC. Everything from orgy tents to tennis courts, vast massage and healing areas and so many dance floors. Sixty-eight thousand people attend the festival, a large percentage of whom bring some form of activity or experience for other humans to enjoy and/or learn about. BRC even has its own airport!
On the first day I cycled off in search of the airport where I was due to pick up Mila at midday. Everyone is so helpful that even without a map I found it with no difficulty. Upon my arrival there were a group of volunteers who had gathered outside the small terminal. After a head count, they were one person short. "Excuse me, sir," a topless, middle-aged woman asked me. "Are you here to volunteer? We need a customs agent.”
“Sorry," I replied. “I’m here to pick someone up.” I was laughing on the inside at the thought of me playing customs agent. Mila arrived and hopped onto the back of my bike and off to our K9 camp we went, stopping only for a cucumber sandwich and a gin and tonic from an English camp en route.
Our first few days in the desert, we were up early and exploring. That was before we found Robot Heart. The front right speaker of this rave on wheels became the meeting point for any of our crew, between midnight and midday. At 2 a.m. every morning the bus would venture out into the deep playa with the crowd following on bikes. Once there, two consecutive DJ sets would ensue ending at midday. The sunrise set from 5 a.m. was the most popular and visually stunning. DJs such as Seth Troxler, Jamie Jones and Lee Burridge created intelligent soundtracks to aid the crowd’s euphoria. Several hundred dreamy house and techno junkies surrounded the bus as the sun rose on Wednesday. We listened to Seth Troxler and Shaun Reeves distort and mix the most unbelievably beautiful tracks alongside a visual spectacular, as the largest star in the sky peeked over the mountains to greet the cold ravers with its warmth and light. Before long it was hot, and then it was really hot. Quite unlike any rave attitude I’ve ever seen, people went into Mother Theresa mode, especially Mila. She passed water to those who looked worse for wear and rubbed sunscreen on the shoulders of some of the oblivious and pale (most likely British) dance troop, who began to burn in the desert sun. The change in climate, however, had not changed anyone’s priorities — we continued to stomp our feet through dust storms and, at times, near heat exhaustion. The scene was far too visually stunning and mind blowing to miss a beat. This was still the best day of my life.
On returning to our camp a day later at 5 p.m., having graced a few after-parties, I was amazed at how much energy I still had. In any other binge scenario, I believe I would have passed out long ago. New York has a strong energy about it, some say due to the hematite in the rock below its foundations. However it does not compare to the strength of what I felt in the desert. I tried to nap but became restless, and hearing others in the camp start to replenish on food and booze in anticipation for the next evening’s entertainment, I felt compelled to join them and get back on the horse we had ridden so well the night before.
In no time, we were back at Robot Heart and it felt as though we had never left. Each night, however, was a totally unique experience due to the DJ and the weather creating a new soundscape and visual effect. Lee Burridge indulged us in what can be described no less than a blissful, heaven-like, grey (due to the clouds), epiphany. Mila had bailed out of this one to get some rest and when the sun rose and all the couples embraced, as the crowd collectively sat down, I felt as though part of me were missing. We had grown extremely close on this adventure. Minutes later, as if by manifestation, there she was coming through the crowd towards me, with a rested glow and beautiful aura about her. My heart skipped a beat as she embraced me, kissed me and fed me a banana and some well needed electrolytes. This was going to be another great day.
It wasn’t all rave though. We spent a lot of time meeting great people and sharing stories and trading philosophies. People were communicating exceptionally well considering the vast cocktail of narcotics being consumed. I couldn’t help thinking of BM as not only a hallucinogenic theme park, but also a great platform for networking and enlightenment. One such philosophy that became clear to me during a conversation with Seyi ‘Shay All Day’ Omalabi, was that of ego; it seems that the social and economic systems in place in our societies condition our egos and therefore lead to us act in certain ways toward each other. We all carry an invisible force field around us. These force fields mean that we rarely let those people that are different to us enter our personal space. This, in my opinion, is detrimental to the social welfare of our race. At BM you are stripped of your ego. No longer was I Jamie Burke from London, living in New York, interested in music, photography and literature, wearer of skinny jeans and dark-colored clothing. I became Jamie from the playa, dressed as wild and wonderful as I liked and open both mentally and physically to all the other individuals there also. I was able to communicate far easier and far more eloquently with people who in reality were completely different to me. This was an extremely liberating feeling.
On Saturday night, the famous effigy of the man was scheduled to burn. This year the man stood on top of a huge flying saucer structure that people could climb up and into and explore on the days leading up to its incineration. That evening we all rushed to get ready, knowing that it was going to happen soon and that being part of a big crew, not one of us wearing a watch, there was a strong chance we would be late. In the back of my mind, though, I knew we would not miss it. Due to the collective consciousness in the air, I felt as though the city itself would know when every last one of its inhabitants had arrived to watch it burn. So far that week, we had ended up in the right place at the right time consistently. So why would it be different tonight?
As predicted, we made it to the outskirts of the crowd and got settled before the first firework went off. It was the biggest fire I’ve ever seen and am ever likely to see. Flames rose hundreds of feet into the air and although we were relatively far back, the heat was intense. As the whole city concentrated on the same thing, the collective consciousness grew. It was overwhelming and many people were crying. Like a scene from Tron or the Matrix Reloaded, a science fiction gathering to worship at this altar of fire. Mila held me tight and feelings of strength, unity and love coursed through our veins. When we had seen enough we disappeared into the night with one thing on our minds.
When we woke on the penultimate day, rangers informed us of an approaching storm that would mean no-one could leave for a few days. With food and water running low, we made the executive decision to pack up and start on our next adventure. It was a sad moment but a relief as well. After seven days and seven nights, we were all over tired and ready to go home. I will never forget my first time at Burning Man. No one could prepare me for the feeling it gave me. A feeling of hope and excitement for life. It gave me faith in the human race, faith that there is a higher power within us all, suppressed by the institutions that govern our lands, but accessible if we choose to access it. It was a hell of a party too!
Four days later, whilst decompressing in Big Sur, I asked Mila to marry me. Our experience in the desert had confirmed what I already knew, that she was perfect for me. Nevertheless, I was happy to be reassured.
Photos By: Jamie Burke
Special thanks: Tyler Mcleod, Sean Combs, Tristan Bayer, Bammy and Sellie, Seyi Omalabi, Mehmet Bayoglu, Gemma Cocker, Lee Anna Mariglia