Be forewarned – this is my obligatory Burning Man blog post. It will be followed by the obligatory Burning Man Facebook post and semi-obligatory Burning Man tweet. Cross here if ye dare.

Also, let it be clear that Burning Man is not easily described. It might actually be impossible, so I’m actually not really going to try. Here’s a cliffnote version for those who want that sort of thing – Burning Man is really really cool, don’t go if you have problems with dust, drugs, dicks, or cuddling. They will all be coming for you.

you better run

Instead, I’m going to write about a phenomenon that I call ambience. It is closely tied to my experience in the playa. Ready? OK go.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever gone backpacking or traveling somewhere interesting. Now keep your hand raised if, on that journey, you met some person or people who were really magical, if you fell in love, made a friend for life, or if you made some immortal memory that still makes you laugh/smile/cry/dance.

Really? All of you?

Ambience is the aura that surrounds you when a few things come together:

  • No unfulfilling work
  • No serious responsibility
  • Natural beauty
  • Barriers to entry

Essentially, ambience is created when people have taken a harrowing journey at great personal cost to find themselves somewhere gorgeous and without cares or worries, and then they suddenly realize how beautiful and perfect and breathtaking the world can be. It’s a state of wonder, and it strips away the self-consciousness and self-protection that normally confines us to our friend-cliques and ordinary ho-hum lifestyles. It lifts our heads up from our touchscreens and generates electric eye contact.

When you live inside the ambience, you’re finally free. This is why people travel, and why people fall in love with Burning Man (and fall in love at Burning Man, too).

that’s basically what I looked like

In a sense, the process is self-selecting. Only adventurous, open-hearted, spontaneous, courageous people take the risk of travel (this is not to say that those who choose not to travel don’t possess those qualities, but rather that those who do choose to travel must possess them). So, the people you meet have already cleared one hurdle of awesomeness.

Then, because these people have left their support structures behind, they’re always in the same boat as you – eager to meet new people, to connect, to talk. The sullen silence of the MUNI bus or work elevator doesn’t exist where there is ambience. Not only are these people more interesting and adventures than the average, they’re also particularly interested in connecting with you. So, the experience has a kind of “magical social snowball” effect – each connection generates more energy than the one before it.

This is what happens when you google “magical social snowball”. Exactly. Nailed it.

In this light, one can view Burning Man as a construct designed to maximize ambience. Not only is there significant natural beauty, but art and music are packed into every dusty crevice. This would be plenty awe-inspiring even while sober, but drugs elevate the ambience even higher*. The “gifting” economy is designed to facilitate human interactions and sharing. The lack of cell service and technology further removes obstacles to the development of community. So, while I’ve been in many ambient environments in my life (from summer camp as a kid to backpacking trips as a student), Burning Man is by far the most ambient experience in my life.

*Sidebar: Don’t be an idiot with drugs. Test the stuff, find some expert guidance, err on the side of caution. While I think drugs should generally be legal, it’s because of dumb idiots doing stupid things with drugs that they’re not. So don’t be one.

I am sure that, in time, the dusty magic of the playa will regress and I’ll submit to the slow, relentless creep of normal life. Starlit evenings and wonderstruck neon bike rides will turn into ordinary dinners and car rides to downtown bars. Even the magic of our ambient personal relationships may slowly decay as circumstance and responsibility pull us apart.

It’s hard to say when (or even if) this sensation of love, connectedness, freedom, whatever the opposite of insecurity is (security?), will pass. Maybe it won’t. But even if it does fade, the memories themselves won’t decay. And we made some really, really, really good memories.

But, I’m actually not totally sure this sensation will rust and fall apart. Many of my friends spend the whole year with their friends, old and new, enjoying what ambience they’ve retained on their journey, waiting to go back. Maybe the relationships built under this insane starry desert awning are strong enough to fight back against normalcy, loneliness, and boredom. I suppose that time will tell.

Now, though, I’ve had the taste of the highest high, a better ambience than any other, and I can’t stop thinking about it.  Who knows where life will take me this year, but it’s hard to imagine not going back. There’s some addictive quality to this experience (no, not the drugs) that I can’t imagine not tasting again.

What a crazy fucking week. I feel like I haven’t touched on half of it. But, that’s enough for one night.

Thanks to everyone at Camp Epic, 17 Virgins, and the Planetarium Aquarium for making the experience so amazing, as well as all the random strangers (including Hua who served me dim sum most nights) who make a popup city of 96,000 people and then take it down without a trace. You guys are all pretty cool.



One thought on “Ambience

  1. Well written. Read it during my layover about to fly back home… I wish “home” was the playa.. Because it feels like it is.

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