09/08/2011 02:15 pm ET | Updated Nov 08, 2011

Why We Burn: Reflections on 25 Years of Burning Man and 13 of Personal Participatory Culture

I drove out of Black Rock City at 11 p.m. last night, during a dazzling, dancing fireworks display that was the best I'd ever seen in my life. As I left this physical place, which is a manifestation of shared dreaming, I watched each burst of color, and a sustained white trail that banked and curved like a roller coaster. The fact that I was there, in that painfully dry and dusty air, watching a spectacle of incredible magnitude is in fact part of what Burning Man is about. Common peak experiences create community. But Burning Man can be summed up by no one grand moment (and the moments there are GRAND -- pyrotechnics, machinery, artwork especially).

I've been to Burning Man 7 times in the past 13 years. My friend Suzanne Stefanac, a visionary who has taught me much of what I know about technology and the humans who use it, invited me a dozen years ago to join a small group of friends on her second foray to the playa (which, along with Black Rock City, is used to describe the physical location of Burning Man.)

Things were pretty basic. A lot of beef jerky, other things from a bag or a can, and all the water you could drink were our basic foodstuffs. We tent camped and kept things minimal. We roamed and explored and had a raging good time.

Over the years, our camp has grown. We're still one of the smaller theme camps in number. This year I think a total of 30 came, though not all at once. But what we lack in size we make up for in ambition. Our group staged an entire village; nightly cooked gourmet meals for 14-30 people; set up a gorgeous camp overlooking the esplanade (the main drag/window on the world of Burning Man), and members built and ran two art cars.

My peak Burning Man experiences this year included:
  • Helping build our camp, which this year included two art cars (Maria and the Rajaphant -- a royal elephant), a vast array of couches, shade, and wifi; and a metal spiral slide that entranced children of all ages. A little kid nicknamed Bubu went down about 10 times in a row, making sure that not only his dad but I too were watching and cheering him on. ("You weren't looking!" he said to me when I turned away for a second.) A group of color-coordinated revelers carrying candy-striped lighted canes walked over chanting "Slide Slide Slide Slide" and went down in a coordinated row, the way I imagine the Coneheads would have enjoyed the slide. And a woman in playa finery -- an elaborate feather headdress plus beautiful but skimpy clothes -- came by the slide, got a look of wonder on her face, tiptoed up, came down, and just stood looking at it, her inner six year old cheering.
  • Cooking a meal on our second day in the desert that someone described as "one of the three best meals I've ever had." It was barbecued cajun-marinade salmon made on a grill with wood briquets, plus an assortment of nommery that mixed a middle eastern meezze with antipasto.
  • Sous-chefing my friend Vik's meal, where he pulled into camp and within two hours had turned out a dazzling array of korean steak, tandoori chicken, vegetarian curry, and enough sides to fill a plate on their own. That day my work was to chop, stir, and serve. He cooks so fast I could barely keep up. Cooking this kind of meal for 30 people in a temporary kitchen is insanity, but he does it.
  • Vik is also one of three people in our camp who spin fire. Really, really well. And our next door neighbor did so too: I felt like I had front row seats at cirque de soleil.
  • Seeing in action the tech recruiting scene at Burning Man. There are a whole set of people who go to Burning Man to find engineering talent, and watching them work the "room" without seeming to work the room deserves a whole post of its own.
  • Our friends-of list includes some amazing people who come by for dinner or just to help our or hang out. I had discussions on the playa about urban development and gentrification; the future of streaming media; U.S./Mexico policy; and the realities of career women child-rearing. I feel like I'm in a big think tank filled with yummy food and blinky lights, and that works for me.
  • And yes, those fireworks. Truly breathtaking. Those pyrotechnicians took what is (to me) too often a pro-forma display and finding the magic and mystery in it.
But really, why I keep coming back is the community. These are my people. The Liminals have become family to me. We have our annual reunion -- a wild one, to be sure, but I believe that what most of us look forward to at this stage is... us. This big gorgeous world of mystery exists, and we go explore, but we end up in this beautiful temporary home of ours to catch up on peoples' parents, jobs, children, plus whisper to each other about our Big Crazy Dreams.

The beautiful thing is, with a little help, Big Crazy Dreams can often become Big Crazy Realities. Take Maria Del Camino, an art car I had the honor of working on in its early stages. Creator Bruce Tomb (pictured below with the car) taught me how to drill through the metal of the hood with specific sized bits that created the face of Maria, the metal goddess/temptress from the classic film Metropolis. I helped move an engine block -- HUGE. A little scary. Amazingly fun.

The car can ride at 14 foot elevation, drive tilted forward or back, turn on a time, and go into full totem mode, where it stands as a sculpture, a goddess of mobility and ambition. (A scary goddess, to be sure.)

This is the kind of magic I have grown to love having in my life -- the making, the inventing, the testing, the sharing. Life writ larger than life. That's why I'm still Burning after all these years. Cheers, Burning Man -- Happy 25th!

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