April Dembosky and her husband at Burning Man, 2015.  Courtesy of April Dembosky
April Dembosky and her husband at Burning Man, 2015.  (Courtesy of April Dembosky)

Dear Burning Man, It's Not You, It's Me

Dear Burning Man, It's Not You, It's Me

As I sit down to write this, my husband is hunched over a huge swatch of white fur, wielding a razor blade. The end goal: a knee-length white fur coat that he can wear while riding our friend’s polar-bear art car.

The rest of our apartment is besieged by Burning Man preparations. Dusty bins full of batteries, baby wipes and silver jumpsuits are scattered everywhere. Somehow we will cram them all into a four-door sedan and make the seven-hour journey to the desert.

If I don’t sound excited, it’s because I’m not. This will be my 15th year at Burning Man, and to be honest, I’m over it.

So many things about the event that used to fill me with delight have just become part of the backdrop. The mini mobile cupcake cars, the fire-breathing octopus? Seen 'em. The women’s topless bike ride? Done it. Playing Beethoven with a full symphony orchestra and 200 kazoos? Do I really need to do that twice?

What was once wild and crazy isn’t wild and crazy anymore. It’s normal.

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There’s something terribly sad and embarrassingly bougie about this. My sense of adventure has become inflated. I’ve built up a tolerance to the extraordinary. And no matter how bizarre or weird it gets out there, it’s impossible to impress me.

But then I think, there’s something pretty amazing about crazy becoming normal. I was talking to a friend about this, and she said, “Isn’t that the point?” Isn’t Burning Man about experimenting with radical self-expression, then finding ways to incorporate that into your everyday life?

I was 23 when I first went to Burning Man and I would describe my experience as nothing less than life-changing. Black Rock City was the opposite of the conservative suburban town I grew up in. Fit in and “be conventional” was basically the town motto. At Black Rock City, it’s more like “be a radical nonconformist.”

My first year there, I experienced acceptance, and lack of judgment, in a way I never had before. And that made me confront the judgments I was holding onto. The event shattered so many preconceived notions I had about people and beauty and relationships.

I discovered a whole new way of looking at the world. At myself. At my relationships. At my creative path. It’s impossible for me to parse out every Burning Man revelation I’ve had over the last 15 years from who I’ve become today. But I can say, the friends I spend time with, the guy I married, the career I’ve chosen -- it all has roots in this social experiment in the desert. I’ve woven the wild and crazy into my life.

Dancers at 1998's Burning Man festival create patterns with fireworks.
Dancers at 1998's Burning Man festival create patterns with fireworks. (MIKE NELSON/AFP/Getty Images)

But now, when I look at that white fur and the bins scattered around my apartment, I’m filled with dread. It’s so much work to go to Burning Man, and this year I’m just not feeling the impending payoff.

And this is how I know that I need to take a break from Burning Man. I need to revive my sense of wonder at this place. Because I don’t want to lose it completely.

This advice comes from, among many others, my friend Jack Thorpe.

“There’s the very first time that a burner jumps on their bike or an art car, at night, and they ride out to darkness of playa. And there’s lasers and distant thumping of dance domes,” he says. “That first time you do it, is like seeing New York for the first time. It’s like going to the Grand Canyon. You’re never going to see it again.

“The second time – it’s still incredible.

"For me, the third time, I remember riding out into the darkness and looking back at the skyline of Black Rock City and sort of having that feeling like, ‘Eeeeeeh, you know, I've seen this before,'" he says. “That emotional jolt -- of this is something I’ve never seen before and is blowing me away -- is gone.”

After taking a year off, he came back with a new approach. Some of our friends shifted to become more involved in the event, becoming rangers or going early to help build art sculptures. What Jack did was refocus his attention back to our camp and our friends. We have a tight crew of about 30 people that camp together every year. For many of us, Burning Man has become a family reunion more than anything else.

It’s a time to see friends I see only once a year, or a time to see friends who live 10 miles away, but we find a depth and intimacy in the desert that’s hard to access in the nonstop pace of the city. But is that still enough after 15 years?

Jack says: “I think the conundrum is -- and you could apply this to anything in your life -- how do you maintain a freshness and a sense of innocence and discovery for something when you’re doing it over and over and over again?

This immediately makes me think of another institution that can sometimes use a revived sense of freshness.

“That sounds like marriage,” I say to Jack.

“Ohhh yes,” he laughs, nervously. “Yes. ... And ...”

I didn’t mean to go there. But now I can’t help asking.

“Do you, do you feel like you’ve applied that, or tried to apply that, or found a way to apply that?" I ask.

“To my marriage?” Jack sighs. “Dangerous question. I, you know, I ...”

OK, he’s not saying take a break from your marriage to keep it fresh. But he is saying this idea of shaking things up and reinvesting yourself in Burning Man to keep it meaningful has a lot in common with the way you keep relationships vibrant.

“There’s that argument that the love goes a little deeper, the love goes a little bit underground. And you get connected on a level which isn’t so much about infatuation and the sexiness of it,” he says. “And it’s about these long-term relationships you’re building, with the event and with the people in the camp. And it’s more about feeling satisfied on what is really an emotionally deeper level than just that, ‘Oh my God, it blew me away!'"

The UFO at Burning Man 2013 goes up in flames.
The UFO at Burning Man 2013 goes up in flames. (Courtesy Eric Evans)

A lot of people have been writing in recent years about how Burning Man has jumped the shark, lost its meaning. With nearly 70,000 attending, longtime attendees complain that it’s gotten too big, and the people who come now are too mainstream, too entitled. Whatever parts of this may be true, I don’t think it’s had an impact on the core values of the event. Burning Man is still Burning Man. I’ve seen plenty of people go for the first time in the last year or two, and they had an equally intense and paradigm-shifting experience as anyone else had 15 years ago.

People who say Burning Man has lost its way, I contend, have lost their own way. It’s on each one of us to find new meaning year to year. And when it’s not there, the responsibility is on us to find it again, or take a step back.

My husband and I have been together for 15 years -- as long as we’ve been going to Burning Man. It’s a very special place for us. But, after this year, we’re in agreement, it’s time to take a break.

“And if we stop, we’re going to take the spirit of Burning Man with us,” my husband, Alex, says. “I don’t think we would do this, but not let that mean we’re just going to stay home and watch TV. We're going to go off and do some different adventure that also instills us with a sense of awe and wonder and excitement.”

“In a way, you could think of Burning Man as almost school,” Jack says. “To learn how to be that way in the world. And then you take that learning, and at a certain point, you don't need to go to Burning Man anymore."

For now, I decided to buy a white fur coat, to match Alex’s. We’ll ride the polar-bear car together and cruise the Black Rock City skyline, possibly one last time.