A Keeper of the Flame: How I Lost My Religion & Found My Soul at Burning Man

Black Rock City, NV

Words & Photos by Andrew Wyatt

The first time I was born again, I was no more than a 12-year-old tadpole of a kid wriggling his way through chilly baptismal waters of my father’s tiny, rural Southern Baptist church. The first time I was born into the narrow confines of evangelical religion. The second time I was born again, I was a gangly young man born into the big, wide, roiling sea of the infinite universe. And it all happened on a pirate ship and a wacky dance club at Burning Man.

In 2002, I was a self-doubting preacher unsure whether to continue a fledgling career calling, when a voluptuous mountain guide neighbor asked if I would join her on a week-long experience at Burning Man.

“After the week is over, and you still want to preach. Then great. If not, then you’re welcome!” she piped up. Hesitantly I agreed.

“Burning Man,” wrote journalist Daniel Pinchbeck in his book, Breaking Open the Head, “is more decadent than Andy Warhol’s Factory, more glamorous than Berlin in the 1920s, more ludicrous than the most lavish Busby musical, more of a lovefest than Pepperland, more anarchic than Groucho Marx’s Freedonia, and more implausible than any mirage.”

For one week in late August every year, a corner of the barren northern Nevada desert transforms into the brightly lit Black Rock City, playing host to the crucible of festival-like gatherings in America. It’s sprawling metropolis ornamented with towering, ornate, interactive art structures, populated with, now, 80,000 ridiculously costumed crazies that ride around in ridiculously decorated party barges, called art cars, some of which would put Rose Bowl parade floats to shame. Like Jonah’s whale, Burning Man can swallow a person whole, only to spit them out in a sweaty, flopping heap of disorientation and exhaustion. The festival, with its teeming population, swells to become Nevada’s fourth-largest city, and pushes its participants to plunge headfirst into a dry valley floor, that at one ancient time, was covered in deep seawater.

To many, the Black Rock Desert is the place where the remnants of long-lost mining operations, rusted gold digger tools, and the petroglyphs of once-thriving Native tribes mark the boundaries where human contact ends. Much like the ancient floodwaters, receded long ago, the northern Nevada desert seems only to reveal the watermarks of forgotten civilizations. But for those who attend Burning Man, those mountainside watermarks reveal the rising tide of creativity, idealism, and hope. And it was there I was offered the chance to be born again.

It was the second night aboard a crudely built plywood pirate ship perched on top of a bread truck called the U.S.S. Nevada. The moment began innocently enough as I stood along the bow of the ship mesmerized by a pastel purple sunset dressed in my only costume, a Jesus robe with a red sash. One campmate moved next to me and offered two hits of LSD.

“But I’ve never had acid before,” I stammered.

“Good,” he said, “Jesus, this’ll make you feel like stone has rolled away from your grave on the third day and you’re rising to heaven.”

The Black Rock Desert was about to explode with brute hallucinatory force. The boat swayed and pitched as it slowly pushed through the howling gale of a sudden sandstorm. The setting sun was no longer visible but magenta light pulsed through swirling sand. I wobbled with seasick legs, and glanced down towards the ground in hopes that I would steady myself. And that’s when I saw them. Two golf cart-powered art cars were scaffolded with the metal frames of dolphins. One was lit with blue neon and the second was pink. The dolphin lights flashed in sequence to give the appearance that the dolphins were diving in and out of the desert floor. I gripped the deck handrail as the ship’s sound system began blasting a dub-reggae version of Pink Floyd’s classic rock album Dark Side of the Moon.

“Breathe, breathe in the air…” the opening song exhorted while electric dolphins swam along the bow of the Nevada. Meanwhile the electric fingers of the LSD began prying the seams of my skull apart till the contents of my head splattered like a single egg yolk in a frying pan. Though wind gusts topped 30 miles per hour, I could see individual sand particles bathed in purple light orbit in slow motion around me. The crouching forms of my shipmates slowly dissolved into sand particles. And I too dissolved. I lifted my hands to my nose and only saw purple crystals dancing like molecules around each other. I could hear the heaving sound of my labored breath even as I felt my body was morphing into becoming air.

First time users of LSD often report of falling into a dream-like state with feelings of transcendence, unity, even rebirth. I couldn’t help but laugh when a friend of mine recently excitedly reported to me in a phone message during his first acid trip that he was lying in his bed, “making love to the universe.” I understood and shared a similar sense of connection to the world around me, and that world was radiant. Suddenly the narrow ideological scaffolding of my Southern Baptist upbringing collapsed like an aging Vegas casino detonated on live TV into a dust heap on the desert floor. The universe was suddenly a much larger place than I ever realized, and I would never be able to go back to being the same person I was before. Humpty Dumpty thought he had a big fall; I ruefully mused the next day. All my previously held notions of who I was and the world around me lay egg spattered in the alkaline dust of the Black Rock Desert and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men wouldn’t have much luck putting me back together either.

After stumbling off the pirate ship, I entered the most amazing dance club which included a crawlspace maze entrance with mirrors and false doors, which eventually led to a preschool-like plastic ball pit. One last portal next to the ball pit led participants to a final tunnel with a slide that sent revelers downward to land inside a four-hundred-person night club with multiple stages, DJs, and laser lights. When I turned to the wall from which I had just slid through, there was a large sculpture of a woman’s legs spread wide open. She even had paper mâché pubic hair. As a “born again” Christian I had to chuckle at the symbolism. Woo Hoo! Now I was born again again! Time to celebrate! All the drinks at the bars were free. Time to shake my booty! I even was offered a cigar to commemorate the auspicious occasion. Even looking back in the cracked rearview mirror of mind, I can’t help but crack a lopsided grin. The second time I was born again, it saved more than my soul. It saved my life.

And I share these musings now because as I prepare to return to Burning Man this year, I have that gnawing sensation in my gut that it will be my last visit. This year will be my 18th year at Burning Man. I practically grew up there. I started as a self-doubting preacher and grew to find a hidden artistic talent through photography. I proposed to my wife and was legally married there with full art car entourage. How magical is that?! And now I do think it's time for me to retire from the Big Burn as it is called. Or at least semi-retire. There’s the financial and physical toll. There’s the mounting pressure and strain on our careers in education taking the necessary time off at the beginning of the school year. School administrators are pushing harder against our trip each year due to the event’s proximity to the beginning of the school year. There’s a well-worn axiom among educators that no time during the school year is a good time to take time off, but the beginning of the year is the worst. So, we get it. Everything about us going is growing more difficult.

This year’s journey will be special, if perhaps bittersweet. It has been an amazing run. And I am grateful. As Hunter Thompson put it, I paid for the ticket, and I took the ride. Burning Man has been so much a part of my adult existence, it is difficult to conceive of Burning Man without me in it. And since my wife began participating in 2014, it’s just as difficult for her to conceive of the Big Burn without her in it. Burning Man is the oxygen coursing through our veins. I know I will always be a Burner. Through the years, I’ve given Burning Man my all, and it has given back, 10-fold. I found my life, my family, and my tribe, my art, and most importantly, my love. And I will continue to be an ambassador of the event’s goodwill and humanity. Still, I’m realizing it may be time for different adventures in different places, and dare I say, be born again to the power of three. Or perhaps just breathe, breathe in the air.


This article was originally published on GalaxyTenants.com


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