Out of the Blue: Creative mini-utopia rejuvenates the spirit

The weekend before it began my van was packed so full of gear I had to buy a roof rack to accommodate more. Plus there were the four bikes hitched to the back.

I was headed to Burning Man for the fourth time, that annual pilgrimage in the parched Black Rock desert northeast of Reno known for its public nudity, radical exhibitionism and all-night drug- and sex-filled parties. It's all of that, of course, but much more.

Even with the past experiences, it never seems to get easier. In fact, with the added knowledge comes the desire to build a more elaborate camp. The first year you take an RV, protected from the elements, with a kitchen, AC and shower. But then you see how the real Burners do it, with spacious tents, shade structures, chill areas, solar showers, viewing platforms, and perhaps a custom decorated dance club, bar or healing center.

You, too, want to join the fun and be more authentic and creative, and that means forgoing the gas guzzler in favor of radical self reliance, one of Burning Man's core tenets.

My tribe of 12 this year comprised a few professional craftsmen, including Lagunans Chris Prelitz and Nicholas Hernandez. That made for a crew with the skills to actually build something. We departed early Sunday morning on the 10-hour drive to Reno, where we would stay overnight, enjoy our last plumbing for a week, and then embark in the early a.m. in an effort to bypass the usual lines to get in to Black Rock City.

As one of the senior Burners, I led the caravan of three. We departed at 4 a.m. on the I-80 east for the 2.5 hour drive. I punched in my coordinates and knew what exit I was looking for. Only it never came.

Because it was dark and I had a van with precarious cargo lashed to the roof, I didn't look at Google Maps — until I was 60 miles past the exit. Not an auspicious start. We turned around, lost two hours, but eventually joined the line of cars that swelled the single lane road to Burning Man.

I had ample time to beat myself up over the precious hours lost. This, of course, is part of the Burner experience, the test of will and ability to surrender to any and all adversity.

We reached our camp in the afternoon, and spent the rest of Monday building our own camp-within-a-camp, with a shaded lounge, evaporative shower stall, kitchen and separate living quarters. Plus we had to decorate our bikes with LED lights and L-wire so we could be seen at night.

Luckily the theme camp we stayed in had additional infrastructure, and a meal plan so we didn't have to cook the first night. We met the 80 or so others from our Theme Camp, formed a circle, and each of us expressed a single word that formed our intention for a week. I jokingly said "sleep," but my real intention was "renewal."

But this is a very different type of renewal than what you get at a spa resort. You don't return physically rested. But you do return profoundly re-invigorated. For this is a renewal of the soul, where you witness and experience everything that is exalted about the human condition. For Burning Man is a celebration of human potential.

It began for me early Tuesday morning when I biked into the deep playa to see the multitude of elaborate sculptures and art installations. It looks like a beautiful, alternative civilization, which of course it is. These phenomenal structures take years to realize, yet stand only for a week. Why would anyone go through the trouble? For you, of course. It's their gift.

There's the 80-foot sculpture of a female in an exalted state, created by an artist as a paean of self-empowerment for women who have been abused. There's the giant block of letters that form the word BELIEVE. The hanging monkeys, the movie house, the Victorian church perched on its side, the kinetic sculptures and fire-breathing dragons, the interactive games — like bumper cars, roller skating, and the Thunder Dome.

And there's Center Camp, filled with hoopers, fire dancers, jugglers, acrobats, healers, drummers, musicians, spoken-word artists, comedians. And the art cars known as Mutant Vehicles, elaborately sculpted chassis that lurch along the playa blasting music and filled with dancers. All created for a week, and all for you.

As you ride into the neighborhoods, you encounter more creativity. Camps that serve food, booze or refreshments. All for free. Yoga camps, sex camps, dance camps, gay camps, Big Lebowski camps, and camps that conduct workshops all day long on the future of civilization.

It's impossible to keep track of it all, but one thing becomes abundantly clear: Burning Man comprises big-brain people who commit a huge amount of talent and resources for this exhausting week in this inhospitable landscape. It's a civilization that is built on creativity, art and self-expression first. Not commerce. And that does wonders for the soul.

Perhaps the most radical idea of all is the notion of a gift economy. What if we lived in a world free of commercialism, commerce and capitalism? Where people gifted you everything you needed, with absolutely no expectation of anything in return?

It's not sustainable, of course, but it is the most uplifting, joyous, extraordinary feeling. It makes you love everything and everybody. It strips us of our reptilian impulse to outwit, dominate and survive. Because it reminds you that we're all in this thing called life together. And that if we don't come together as a species, we won't survive.

Except for the Burners. Because not only are they acquiring the life skills to survive in the harshest of environments, they are also acquiring the heart skills to see humanity as creative, love filled, tolerant, expressive beings who will hug and gift perfect strangers for just a smile in return. And that is worth the planning, transporting, building, hardship, and general exhaustion you will experience by the end of it.

Just the right mix of renewal to return to our daily lives — known to Burners as the "default world" — in the best of spirits.

BILLY FRIED is the chief paddling officer of La Vida Laguna and member of the board of Transition Laguna. He can be reached at billy@lavidalaguna.com.

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