The Burn

I’ve wanted to go to Burning Man since I was in 7th grade, in the spring of 1998. I remember how I first heard about it: this article about tracking strange pay phones, in the dearly-missed Circuits section of the New York Times. It made passing mention of a guy named Godfrey Daniels who had discovered a lone phone booth in the middle of the Mojave Desert on his way to some place called Burning Man.

Photo of the Mojave phone booth, courtesy

I read through the longform story of Daniels’ discovery of the phone booth with gusto. To this Brooklyn boy, the idea that such a place existed seemed impossible to conceptualize. The tale was a tantalizing mystery: who installed this pay phone? When? Why? Did anyone actually use it? It unraveled slowly over the course of months, in realtime, as I constantly refreshed the site for more news. I scrawled the phone booth’s number (1-760-733-9969, now revived as a party line) on a sticky note next to my computer and called at random hours, listening to infinite dial tones – until one day another intrepid explorer picked up. (“Is this… a payphone in the middle of the desert?” “Yeah, dude!” “Oh cool. Okay… bye, I guess!”)

Burning Man lingered in the background. The gathering place of a bunch of merry pranksters? Who were these people camping out in the desert next to a phone booth and a bust of Richard Wagner? How did they find each other? How could I find them?

After not too long, the original phone booth was disconnected and dismantled as a result of vandalism (a very early meme consequence), so I never got to make my pilgrimage. The phone booth did inspire a life of weird desert voyages just as soon as I had grown up enough to fly out of Brooklyn, to places like the Mojave, and Joshua Tree, and the Salton Sea, and ghost towns like Rhyolite, Nevada, and the Noah Purifoy Foundation (which I once wrote about here), and… just about every place other than Burning Man.

I wound up with some unexpected time on my hands this summer, though, so I decided to finally correct this error. After hemming and hawing for a few weeks, I bought a last-minute ticket, loaded up my trusty old Prius with a few pillows and some peanut butter, and headed west.

It’d been about fifteen years since the last time I’d taken a completely cross-country road trip, though in the intervening years I’ve driven up and down the Eastern seaboard plenty, for family time in Florida and Alabama and infinite day trips in between. I just love a goddamned road trip, lord help my carbon footprint. Maybe it’s a trauma response. There’s something about the open road that actively repels my anxiety. Nobody expects anything from me, other than to not steer a 2-ton vehicle into them. The rules are purely tactical, never strategic: stay in between the lines, try to keep an eye on the gas tank, etc. Leisure is approved, in the guise of safety: don’t rush! You’ll get there when you get there!

And so I did. I swung north through Chicago, met up with my friend Jenny and went kayaking at midnight on the Chicago River. I popped through Minneapolis and went to the Minnesota State Fair with my friend Emilia. I drove through the expanse of North Dakota (the 47th state on my path to visiting all 50). It was disturbingly empty and smelled wonderful – moonlight and sweet grass. My cousin recommended the best jerky in Bozeman, which I noshed all the way back to Brooklyn some weeks later.

And then, the burn. What a surreal experience, arriving in the desert one night and having a perfectly chaotic, perfectly coordinated town of 50,000 emerge before you out of nowhere. Nothing but thumping bass in the distance, infinite glow sticks, and people cycling around through the dust on their way to nowhere.

Burning Man is huge and intimate. Driving is forbidden on the playa, which spans more than 2 miles in dameter. In between are concentric circles with streets lettered from A to K. Each one filled with dusty cars, bikes, camper vans and lots of transient, site-specific desert art and happenings. Is it filled with tech bros and glittery Coachella partiers and weekend warriors? Yeah, sure. But mostly it’s people who come together in the middle of nowhere each year just to exist, share, experience, be. Imagine that.

I won’t do any of it justice, so I’m not going to describe Black Rock City in depth. I didn’t even stay long enough to fully immerse myself in the experience: I was too inexperienced and fearful and I peeled out before this year’s heavy rains set in. Next year I’ll be better-prepared and more thoughtful. But I’m glad to have at least dipped my toes into this strange place, this ephemeral desert mirage that exists for one week only before miraculously evaporating.

On the slow drive back, I picked my brother up from a 10-day silent retreat in Idaho. We watched squirrels sploot with our cousin in Colorado, drove through Nebraska and Iowa (states 48 and 49!), endured hordes of mayflies in the LDS town of Nauvoo, Illinois, and visited the jail in Carthage where Joseph Smith was murdered.

And then we were back in Brooklyn, until next time the desert comes calling. Incidentally, guess what arrived in my Brooklyn mailbox this week, in the year of our lord 2023? An honest-to-god yellow pages. Let your fingers do the walking!