High & Dry surveys the legacy of human enterprise in the California desert. Together, writer/historian Christopher Langley and photographer Osceola Refetoff document human activity, past and present, in the context of future development.
This weekend, flocks of creatives are migrating to Burning Man. When these pilgrims, or Burners, return home September 7, they will be changed. Many have reported a "culture shock" of leaving the playa behind. Post-Burn depression is not unusual. Returning home from Burning Man can be tough. You just spent a week at Burning Man on a playa in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. You even loved the dust, but now you're done with the dust. You loved the desert, but you're done with the heat. You loved not-showering as much as you would at home, but you're tired of your sweat smell. You loved going without sleep but now your body is bone tired.
Most of all, you loved the sense of freedom, love, community and ecstatic self-expression, but now you're... well, actually you are not done with that. You want more. The transformative power of all the positive human values you were immersed in is exactly what you do want to bring back with you to the "default world" (Burner-speak for where you spend most of your time). "Welcome Home" is the standard greeting at Burning Man.
Leaving the playa, at first you're exhilarated, but now a sense of fullness is being balanced by a sense of loss. You're headed back to the real world.
Having served as "Spiritual Advisor" in the Snow Koan Solar camp, Bishop resident Jon Peterson is also traveling back from his pilgrimage home. His advice is to bring the "10 Principles of Burning Man," written by co-founder Larry Harvey, back with you. Peterson loves Burning Man because he sees the young people "taking on community responsibilities and working hard."
Having been on the playa for at least a week, many people take time to re-enter the world, or decompress. It was at the Saline Valley Hot Springs that Peterson first started meeting Burners. He was forced out of being a National Park Ranger in Death Valley because he contracted a sarcoma cancer, which he has battled for the last 10 years. "I have to balance my every three-week treatments and being at top physical condition with Burning Man. My doctors cooperate with that and two of them keep threatening to come."
The journey south on the 395 from Burning Man goes by the hot springs at Travertine just outside Bridgeport, and the Keough's Hot Springs Resort and Keough's Hot Ditch, both just south of Bishop. They are great places to wash off the dust. They also take care of the aches, pains and stress of the road, and are great places to nap and dream.
As Peterson talks about traveling home and re-entering the default world, I think back to when I served two years in the Peace Corps in Khash, Iran. The first year I resisted living like the "host country nationals," certain our western culture was the way life is "meant" to be. Then the second year, I realized cultures as a way of life are basically artificially constructed. I began living the way the Iranian people did. When it came time to return to the U.S., I faced severe culture shock leaving my adopted culture behind to return to the one I was raised in. In a parallel way, Burners experience a transformative experience in the desert through acceptance, love and support. They learn the default culture they are returning to is equally constructed and can be changed to be more like what they are leaving.
I have never been to Burning Man, but I know the area these pilgrims are traveling through on Highway 395. I have come to admire the ideals of the Burning Man principles that include: radical inclusion; radical self-reliance; radical self-expression; communal effort and civic responsibility. If these can be brought back and, more importantly, implemented as a way of life, then a societal transformation will begin.
You're pretty dehydrated when you leave, so water is good, all the better to splash and play in. The lakes outside Bishop (North, South and Sabrina) provide pleasantly cold, refreshing water. They can be reached by driving a half hour out of Bishop on West Line Street. Parcher's Resort is an option, and there are many camping areas on the way to the lakes. There are also Whitney Portal Falls and campsites, at about 8,300 feet out of Lone Pine, and for the more adventuresome, Darwin Falls, out by Darwin, about 40 miles east on Highway 190. Klondike near Big Pine and Diaz Lake just south of Lone Pine offer both camping, swimming, birding and fishing (Diaz only).
For those struggling with re-entry, they might follow some of Hannah "Meow" Masius's suggestions in "How to Work through Feeling Weird After Burning Man." These can be found on the Burning Man blog. She suggests: 1) Let yourself feel; 2) Write it out; 3) Go outside; 4) Do something wonderfully absurd; 5) Spend time with friends and loved ones; and 6) Give yourself some love.
Desert highways have their own secret lives, at once isolated, slowly arching and curving through the stark landscape, then going on straight to the horizon of unknown possibilities. High & Dry has explored these in an essay entitled "Dark Desert Highway." After being settled on the Black Rock Playa for a week, driving down the desert highways can be freeing, even tranquilizing; the solace on being in a small metal container is a beautiful thing at 70 miles an hour with beams of light illuminating your way forward. As you travel, you can enter a kind of altered state, but with full alert consciousness that allows you to process all the intense experiences you have just had.
Timothy McTaggart emails, "For me the three days on the road getting home wasn't a bad transition back to the default world... A year later I'm still trying to figure out what to make of the trip and what I'm going to do with my life from this point forward. I'm hanging in there well enough for now. I do some intermittent strange and wonderful things now with art and music."
Many returning Burners report also having an unusually intense and active period of dreams. Many scientists and lay practitioners believe this is a natural way that the brain processes and orders experience. Dream yoga takes rigorous practice, but promises rewards. Keeping a dream journal by the bedside and recording dreams upon awakening is a good idea. The strategy keeps the dreams from slipping back into the unconscious. Writing the dreams down in a dream journal also brings out meanings you were not immediately aware of upon awakening.
Friend, Debbi Anne, will be at Burning Man again this year. She is one of the Black Rock Rangers who tend to the needs of the Burners on the playa: physical, mental and answering just about every question ever asked by a Burner. She advises, "Simply find places that nurture your soul on the way home." There can be many. For instance, you may want protein, so find a good fresh food restaurant along the way. Your skin is very, very dry, so moisturize, moisturize, moisturize. Vaseline in your poor nostrils and vinegar for your feet is always good.
Shaya emails in response to Masius' blog, "My personality and the core of who I am have changed dramatically (for the better and the stronger) since I entered the Burner community and began my annual pilgrimages to the Playa. If you have the blessed luxury of being able to take time off from work, take a few extra days off after the Burn. Instead of driving all day and all night to get home, stop along the way somewhere... Find a safe place to sleep outside under the stars. Stay there for a night or two if you can. Do 'nothing' except prepare the food you need to eat. Contemplate the stars each night -- the vastness of the Milky Way overhead. I have found that this truly helps me deal with re-entry. So much so that I make it a priority as part of my Burning Man experience."
The Owens Valley is rich with campgrounds that are great in early September. I like the many camping areas up by the lakes outside of Bishop. The creeks, placid lakes and wind soughing through the pines are soothing. I also like the Whitney Portal campgrounds, and the Lone Pine campground, literally in the shadow of Mt. Whitney. The Grandview Campground out of Big Pine on the way to the ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest is a place of humbling relaxation. These last areas are about 45 minutes from Highway 395.
The Fossil Falls area has 13 "unimproved campsites" located in a stark, meditative desert landscape that encourages decompression in the willing. They are just off the highway. You will see Red Hill, a volcanic structure after leaving Olancha and driving into the ancient caldera. Just after passing Red Hill, is Cinder Road. There have been major active volcanic periods here 400,000, 100,000 and 10,000 years ago. They place the length of our lives and our place on earth in perspective. There is good interpretive material here and an interesting BLM hike through the lava fields.
Peterson mentioned the art as being one of his favorite parts of Burning Man, especially the focus of one of the 10 Principles on radical self-expression. He is an artist and for the last five years has brought art projects to the Burn. He laughs all through our interview. It must be part of why he has been so long a cancer survivor. Burning Man art has a built-in appreciative and non-judgmental audience. He comes back home with new inspiration and energy.
Some places with art for Burners to see on the way home are the murals and galleries of Bishop and Lone Pine. The provocative social media mural by Vin Leal on the Bonanza Mexican Restaurant in Lone Pine is worth seeing, followed by a meal inside.
On the way south of Olancha, artist Jael Hoffmann has a sculpture garden with many wonderful metal figures. She loves company and will welcome Burners who stop by. Her place and studio are dominated by a towering female hitchhiker representing a woman's journey through life.
Hoffmann writes her directions to stop by her garden: "What a cool idea... Would be wonderful to have Burners show up at the garden; I could provide them with some free Kombucha."
"Although you can turn into the sculpture garden from the highway, the two lane road makes it somewhat unsafe. Another option is to take the dirt road south of the Mobil gas station, then make a left on the second dirt road, and another right on the following dirt road, leading all the way to the sculpture garden."
"Or turn into Walker Creek Road (pass the sculpture garden), then take the first dirt road north (after about 10 feet) towards sculpture garden."
I admire what I have learned about Burning Man, Burners and the transformational experiences to be had there. I am so impressed that I can imagine actually spending a week next year as a "virgin" Burner. Well, time will tell.