The diesel engine of the pick-up truck gurgles slowly down the single lane road into the Black Rock desert of Nevada. I'm heading into the fading sunlight downwind 10 years from the first time I ever stumbled through the dust-covered entrance of the annual Burning Man festival. Peering through the cracked rearview mirror of my mind‚ I relived the moment my brain first eggshell-cracked and splattered over all my previously held beliefs about the universe onto the alkali desert floor.
The year was 2002. I had recently earned a Masters of Theology and tried my hand at becoming a Southern Baptist preacher for a few years. I also was grappling with a failed romance (there would be a few more of those to come!). I decided it was time for me to check out this crazy festival called Burning Man that I had once read about in Time. Twin losses (spiritual and romantic) propelled me into this orbit. The gravity of those misfortunes weighed me down as much as the 20 gallons of water‚ suitcases‚ costumes‚ pyramids of canned chili and cases of cheap beer I stuffed into an equally cheap duct-taped car.
After the passage of those few rocky years I was called to the forbidding desert the way a preacher is called to the ministry by God.
"What are you thinking about?" asked my traveling companion known by his Burning Man friends as Admiral Steve. The diesel truck stilled chugged through the rust colored rockscape.
"Broken egg shells‚" I said.
"Huh?" he grunted‚ "We're about to head into the craziest festival in the world‚ and that's what's bangin' around that head of yours?"
This year marked the 25th anniversary of the annual gathering‚ and this year was my 10th consecutive year of participating in the festival. Added to that was that Burning Man organizers named the festival "Rites of Passage." So I was in a self-reflective mood entering the desert.
"I was just thinking about the Burning Man moment that changed everything for me. And it's partly your fault!" I grinned.
The moment began innocently enough when I dressed as Jesus and ate psychedelic mushrooms. I had been invited by Steve onto the deck of the pirate ship art car. The USS Nevada‚ as it was dubbed‚ is a wood framed pirate ship mounted on a bread truck‚ complete with a crow's nest and multiple strands of Christmas lights that lead from bow to stern to the top of a 30 foot mast.
I was tripping hard‚ dressed as Jesus‚ standing on the deck of the pirate ship when it happened--my head cracked open. It was dusk. A magenta sunset hue glowed through the swirling sand blizzard‚ and I glanced over the deck of the ship and saw two dolphins diving and swimming along the bow. At first I thought I was just hallucinating. "Jesus‚ you be trippin'!" I exclaimed. I blinked and looked again. Actually they were two smaller art cars made from golf carts. Metal frames were welded to the carts in the shape of dolphins‚ and neon strands of E1 wire flashed in sequence to give the appearance that the dolphins were diving in and out of the desert floor. Gripping the deck railing suddenly the ship's sound system began blasting the opening strains of a dub reggae version of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. "Breathe‚ Breathe in the air…" the song exhorted while a pink and electric blue dolphin dived from the sandstorm. It was a small moment; revelatory. I could feel blood pumping through my veins with oxygen. For the first time I felt alive.
That was my first night on the playa (the "playa" is the burner's expression for the desert floor). Suddenly my world and my universe became a lot larger than I ever realized. That brief moment‚ lasting not much longer than a lightning flash struck me‚ and I could not go back to being the person I was before.
It's no mistake that a dusty carpenter Jesus encountered revelatory visions in the desert. Deserts give rise to spectacle‚ and in this country no desert has annually given rise to such a visionary spectacle as Burning Man's Black Rock Desert. That year's festival was my rite of passage. My encounter with the Other--the Unknown‚ forcing me to become myself; forcing me to be present. "Eggshells and lightning strikes‚" I muttered. I was the egg and Burning Man was the lightning strike. Humpty Dumpty thought he had a big fall!
* * *

"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." And this year Burning Man stood at its grandest level since its inception. The population reached near 50‚000. The fest sold out early for the first time‚ sending some of its most ardent fans and brand name performers scrambling. Acts like EOTO and Sphongle were reportedly caught without tickets (EOTO apparently did perform there).
The art structures jutting from the desert floor impressed as well. The Temple of Transition loomed 120 feet high with one large spire surrounded by several smaller ones. Subtly‚ the beautiful wood edifice blended Hindu‚ Chinese‚ Moslem‚ Latin American‚ and European influences. Another impressive landmark was the Trojan Horse‚ a replica of Western mythology. It reached about 50 feet in the air. Scores of toga dressed volunteers wheeled the wooded horse to an open space in the desert where it was detonated at midnight. Other art structures incorporated flying bicycles‚ balloon rides‚ zip lines‚ high strung trapeze acts. By day‚ Black Rock City may appear to be a refugee tent city in the sand‚ but at night it's the Las Vegas Strip times ten.