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I was in the bathroom at a D.C. dinner party in 2012 when I saw one of the most interesting images I had ever seen. Two women were jumping jubilantly in sheer, silk coverings while flying thick, heavy black fabric overlays on kites. It was liberating, slightly political, stark but joyful. I spent all of my free time at art museums or reading about art and this was a type of creative expression that could not be framed on a wall in a museum.

The host had been to Burning Man many times and recommended it to me. Encouraged by an unlikely run-in with a grad school classmate, propelled by a recent breakup, reeling from the unreality of completing my master’s degree/anti-dowry and its accompanying Monopolymoneyesque $60,000 in debt, I bought a ticket in the lottery. Fuck it, I thought at the time. I love art and this is where some of the most creative happenings in the world are taking place. I don’t want to miss it.

Burning Man

Step 1

Joining a camp. I met a man named Darrell Duane (who I would describe as an incredibly compassionate, next-level human) through Facebook and interviewed to join his camp. I wasn’t interested in doing drugs or raving. He is the leader of an international wellness camp called Camp Contact, named after “contact improv dance”. WTF is that, I thought.

I grew up in the woods of New Hampshire and rarely partied. I participated in student government in college, engaged in community activism and had never really danced to electronic music. I had stood in line for a rave one time and quickly retreated based on what I observed as my relative body size difference and the prevailing female rave attire. My party scene in D.C. was defined by long conversations about health care policy, economics, environmental justice and economic philosophy with fellow nerds. I could do yoga and think romantic thoughts about art. Minimum qualifications I thought.

Step 2

A packing Mindfuck. You have to bring everything you need to survive and gifts for other burners. It gets really hot, really cold and dust storms happen suddenly. As a Burner, you are responsible for your own survival – that means eye, nose, mouth, feet and hands protection from dust and covering yourself from the heat or cold from the range of temperature fluctuations. I packed a tent, sleeping bag, some yoga stuff, snacks, shoes, a hoodies and more snacks to share.

Someone named “Spinmeister” picked me up from the airport and we became quickly affiliated. He is a serious professional and a burner on the side. I learned that many of the D.C. burners led seemingly double lives — straddling their personal interests in Burning Man and public careers in highly-skilled professions.

Step 3

Welcome to the playa. One of the first things you notice is the joy in people’s bodies at Burning Man. People are really fucking happy to be there. They rub themselves in the dust when they arrive and greet other burners with warm, long hugs and a “Welcome home.” You would think it would be strange, but it feels happy and contagious. It reminded me of studies I had read on happiness indicators. People are generally bothered by large inequalities and are happier when others are also happy. We are social animals. Since Burning Man is the largest pop-up city in the world – it is a little like a micro experiment for these studies. Cool, I thought.

The other inescapably beautiful phenomenon is the light the in the sky filtering through dust. You don’t understand the colors of lavender, rose, endless deep blue, soft white and scorched earth until you see this landscape transform over the span of 24 hours through these seemingly unrelatable colors. Magical does not begin to describe it, especially as each of these colors is paired with fire. Omg.

Lastly, the principles of radical inclusion encourage nearly all manners of expression. Witnessing this is hard to describe since, generally speaking in our daily lives, we follow strict social norms, somewhat mindlessly obeying rules we are both unconscious of and have not necessarily agreed to. Taking part in a safe space for creative expression is a post-structuralist dream come true. With the freedom to forgo social norms, the spectrum of strange, creative, otherworldly and mildly offensive emerges from the private subconscious to the public space – so cool. I had never experienced such a safe space – and honestly did not know what to do aside from marvel at it.

Camps are your home base at Burning Man. Although some people camp on their own, joining a camp is an intimate community of burners who share a common culture. I noticed that everyone at Camp Contact moved differently. Gracefully. Many of them were dancers. They would greet each other like old friends, locked in hugs for minutes at a time. They made eye contact for extended periods. I often beamed at them in admiration of their whimsical movements and deep knowledge of things I had no idea about – authentic relating, tantric breathing, and acro yoga. After having conversations beyond the basics of passing the natural shampoo in our group shower (each camp is different when it comes to showers), I learned that many of them were academics – some studying neuroscience and altruism, others on the boards of foundations, engaged in global relief work, and leading divestment campaigns. Awesome.

Step 4

Gifting. You can only buy coffee and ice at Burning Man. Nothing else. Gifting is not to be confused with bartering. Based on the principles of radical self-reliance, you need to bring everything you need to survive and gifts for other burners. The principles of “de-commodification,” “radical self-expression,” and “gifting” create an environment where the “economy” thrives on creativity and generosity, and is rewarded through gratitude and shared happiness.

The “gift economy” is one of the most intriguing immersive experiments in anti-capitalism (others write about this well – and it is fascinating). Money dominates our daily lives. While at Burning Man, you are immersed in a seven day social experiment without the daily burden of money. Revealing this form of unconscious adherence to economic status feels like a form of antigravity. When biking around Burning Man there are very few signifiers of money status – in fact if you do see really fancy stuff, it is often overshadowed by people who are the most generous or interesting. The artists are heroes in this temporary zone of zero capitalism. There is a general perception of relative equality where the cool shit you do has way more social value than all of the expensive stuff you own.

Step 5

Serendipitous joy. Encounters with art, unexpected spaces, freedom of expression and remarkable human beauty. I roamed all over the deep playa exploring spaces that people had built by hand, fundraised for, dreamed about and shared with burners. Fucking magical. My birthday happens during Burning Man. Since I knew so few people I didn’t tell anyone and went out for an adventure. I was lounging on a giant work of art made of 170,000 zipties and took a photo for a couple. They found out that it was my birthday and quickly mobilized a group of burners on their bicycles to stop and celebrate me. I cried as they gave me gifts and sang to me. I also opened mail over the course of the week that I had solicited on Facebook. People from random parts of my life had taken time to send me mail at Burning Man. WTF beautiful!

Step 6

Volunteer. Participation is a major part of Burning Man. Everyone helps do something. Camps need to be built, cleaned, burned, fixed, and packed. The largest pop-up city in the world concludes without a trace. It is incredibly important to always help and to always pick up. Engineers are extremely valuable at Burning Man. Lacking many practical skills, I volunteered considerable time in the kitchen. I made friends for life washing dishes, chopping vegetables and dancing in the Camp Contact kitchen.

Step 7

Hit a Burning Man low and a crazy, abrupt high after that. Like a total burner virgin dumbass I lost my bike at a big sound camp. Bikes are everywhere, it’s dark, the temperature drops very quickly and the easy going day of sunny, carefree art exploration turns into a freezing cold, lonely dystopia. Trying to get back to my camp and forgetting where it was, I was lost on an art car roaming the desert. I was sardined with two Russians and some sketchy drug guy. I was cold, then scared, then lonely. We all snuggled wordlessly for about 4 hours until sunrise. I felt disoriented and cold and dumb and uncertain about this place.

Sunrise feels like pure magic at Burning Man. It was my first encounter with sunrise dance parties (now formalized around the world in this spirit through Daybreaker parties). As the sun started coming back up and warmth returned to my body and we parked next to a big ugly unicorn art car pumping the Labyrinth soundtrack. DJ Pumpkin was playing Zee Avi and Florence and the Machine remixes – I was elated. Like many things in life, enduring the hard parts are usually followed by swings the other way. Sometimes you wait it out with the Russians.

Step 8

Mourning. The temple is a truly special place unlike anything in the “default world.” The temple is the most sacred of spaces at Burning Man. It is an intricately designed, quiet space juxtaposed with an environment filled with chaos, randomness, otherwise defined by serendipity and lighthearted YOLO joy. The temple is a dedicated space for public mourning. Over the course of the week people bring artifacts and memorials to loved ones they lost over the past year. You can read what others write and see images of people who they loved.

I spent several hours there thinking about people who other burners loved and lost. I cried over the losses of other people and missed them. It’s hard to describe how easy it is to empathize with other people in this space. After a few days at Burning Man, you can feel your heart open up a little bit more. In 2016, I built a lantern memorial to the murdered environmental justice activist Berta Cáceres, inscribed with the names of all of the environmental activists who had been killed around the world, and left it at the temple to burn.

Step 9

Fall in love-ish. Beautiful people are everywhere at Burning Man. Not like TV with the makeup and stuff- internally radiant, kind, curious, brilliant people. In fact, the more you look at every person, the more expansive your definition of human beauty becomes. Contemplating this at Burning Man can be emotional. Playa dates are a joy to experience. I met this beautiful man, discussed Stravinsky, music and neuroscience. He took me to a Shabbat dinner where we shared food and gratitude with hundreds of others while piled on to a geodesic dome.

Step 10

The man burns. Life is short and the countdown to the man burn puts life at Burning Man into perspective. You have 7 days – how are you going to spend it? Most people at Burning Man party outrageously hard that night. It is the eponymous celebration of the event – it is the time when every art car at Burning Man is hosting roving parties around the desert. I tend to feel lonely on this night and think it is more like a “mini death” as D.C.-based artist Marion Colomer has described and illustrated in her beautiful paintings. To put things in perspective, considering our own mortality is both scary and amazing. What does it mean to lead an incredible life?

Step 11

The Temple burns. After pouring heartfelt artifacts into the temple and enshrining this temporary space with the emotional value of human empathy, love and loss, 70,000 people watch it burn in near silence. It is the quietest time at Burning Man. My first temple burn was one of the most memorable moments of my life.

Why do I go back? I went to Burning Man in 2012 for the art. I have been back four times since to experience the spectrum of human beauty, creativity and expression that I have only experienced at Burning Man. Some part of my heart is there all of the time. It is a place where I fell in love with an idea and knew that spaces like this are possible — to hold freedom of expression through creativity, joy and connection. If you were to imagine the opposite of the fear, isolation, shame and intolerance that weigh down so much of our daily lives, Burning Man feels like an antigravity chamber of possibilities.