After a mind-blowing week in the desert, people who attend Burning Man often experience difficulty readjusting to the “real world.” “Decompression” events, usually held within a month after The Man burns, help to ease their re-entry, offering them the opportunity to gather and recapture some of the magic. Ah for the days when it was only a week in the desert!
I spend almost three months out there. I head up in July to begin production, work through August and then, once the event is over and the city has all but disappeared, am part of the Playa Restoration crew, making sure Burning Man is the Leave No Trace event it promises to be. I return to that “real world” in early October. And man, re-entry is a bitch. For so many reasons.
The most obvious adjustment, and probably the toughest for non-burners to grasp, is having to carry money. On the playa, cocktails are complimentary. People are passing out free food, draping you with jewelry, pinning buttons onto your fake fur. Those one-week “participants” find commerce odd enough upon their return. Imagine not needing to reach into your wallet for weeks on end. Delicious meals. A bar where no cash changes hands. New T-shirts. Yup, room and board and…more! All of your needs taken care of. In fact, catered to by a crew of “fluffers.” Want your water bottle re-filled? Need a salty snack? Vodka drink or ice cold beer? Suddenly, jarringly, things cost money. Ack!
For three months I live in an 8-by-20-foot box. Outside that box? Hundreds of square miles of wide open space. A cavernous sky brimming with stars. A moon that casts shadows. I can drive my car with my eyes closed. Fast. Or sit in a hot spring and listen to the wind rustling in the leaves. Back home, my apartment feels strangely spacious. But beyond my walls the world is extremely…close.
Three months of work, three meals a day, spent with familiar faces — some of whom have become more familiar over a number of years — culminates with our final two weeks, during which we never see a stranger. Finding myself in a city is understandably overwhelming. Everyone is a stranger. Gerlach provides a comfort level that feels wonderfully insular, like a warm, snuggly blanket. And now I’m shivering.
My feet have been in flip-flops pretty much since June so putting on shoes feels confining as hell. Not to mention painful. And clothes? I got lazy, running around in, essentially, my underwear. All I had to do was, maybe, match my polka dots. Aside from having to wear something more than wacky, scanty costumes, there’s the shift in seasons. I left in the heat of summer for 100 degree-plus days in the desert; back in “Reality Camp” it’s the cool damp of San Francisco followed by the humid autumn of Manhattan. In addition to the seasonal shift there’s suddenly needing to dress, well, like a normal person. After all that time in either bra and panties or a DPW hoodie, I’ve found myself positively boggled, trying to decide what to wear to semi-formal charity functions where I’ll be sitting with millionaires. What fits? What’s fashionable? And how realistic is it to try to look like a normal person anyway? Yup, I wound up with rhinestones glued to my face…
Even if I’d been losing my mind out there in Nevada, I probably wouldn’t have noticed since I was shit-faced drunk most of the time. Daily drinking is almost a must; there isn’t much else to do. During clean-up it’s practically enforced alcoholism. So sobriety, even for just 48 hours, feels…foreign. Falling asleep is a chore, since passing out drunk is…easier. I have yet to spot any pink elephants but they certainly wouldn’t surprise me.
When I experienced a rare moment of clarity, I considered doubting my sanity. Fortunately there was always another drink not too far in the future. Now, as I sit here in an extended state of sobriety, I can actually “hear” what’s going on in my head. Which means bigger worries than where my next beer’s coming from. Holy crap! What am I doing with my life? And if that isn’t horrifying enough, there are the little things…like keys. Leaving the car keys in the ignition, not locking anything, means you don’t have to carry them. You don’t have to carry anything, really, except for your water bottle. Within my first week “back,” I left my wallet and phone in a shopping cart and lost my keys multiple times. I felt like I was losing my mind.
Which leads me to, all in all, re-entry IS like losing your mind. Being out on the playa, whether for the week of Burning Man or the extended luxury of assisting in its production, is a certain sort of temporary insanity. Or intense uber-sanity, depending upon how you look at it. You experience the highest of highs, even without mind-altering substances, and the lowest of lows. You push yourself to the brink — physically, mentally, emotionally, professionally — and return to that hard-packed alkali with a THUMP! only to realize you’re a bigger, better more badass version of yourself. It is the closest to living the fuck out of life that most of us get to experience. Some are successful, to varying degrees, in carrying over that creative magic into “Reality Camp.” But regardless of those levels of success there is always the cruelty of cash. The terror of traffic. Smells and sounds and all sorts of shit that clogs up the works between What Can Be and What Fucking Is. And that jumbled up string of senseless sentences just about sums up why re-entry is so fucking hard. Burning Man is over. The Man Burns in 312 Days. Thank fucking god.