Donald Trump Licked My Flesh, Part 4

The Case for the 40-Minute Game

Rembert Browne/Grantland Rembert Browne/Grantland

Rembert Explains America: Burning Man Forever

Surviving the blazing, dust-choked, bike-infested, Internet-devoid oasis in the Nevada desert

Remember, you are not a spectator. You are a citizen of Black Rock City.”

Those words, spoken by a greeter, the last line of defense before you entered Burning Man, rattled around in my head as I drove at a steady five miles per hour looking for my campsite.

How would I write about these next eight days? Although I embrace immersion, the complete dismissal of spectatorship would make this difficult to chronicle. My mind-set at the beginning of the week was to take as many notes and pictures as possible, and then put it all together once I’d come out on the other side. But this greeter had messed up my process. I was thoroughly confused.

Adding to that confusion, I couldn’t find my campsite, which was apparently located at the intersection of “3:00 and F.” I couldn’t figure out what that meant. Eventually, I reached a point where the numbers descended from 6 and the letters from H. So despite my murky grasp of the street layout, I knew I couldn’t be far. Slowing to a stop at “3:30 and G,” I paused as a naked couple held hands and biked across the intersection, followed by a dragon on wheels the size of a tractor-trailer. Farther along, a group of older women swiftly constructed the outer skeleton of a geodesic dome. And across from that sight, a man with a megaphone dressed in a pink tutu held a little girl wearing an identical outfit while shouting, “Welcome home!” He hugged anyone who passed by.

I knew what I had to do. Instead of taking 20 pictures of what I had just seen and jotting down notes, I turned off my phone. I was feeling a sensory overload before I’d even reached my alleged camp. I knew this week would be a blur. But I knew it had to be a blur I would welcome with open arms.

Journal Entry 1 — Tuesday Morning, “It’s Light Outside, But Not Hot Yet”

My home for the next seven days would be a campground called the Skinny Kitty Teahouse. It’s a massive camp, with more than 100 people claiming the space for their tents, yurts, or RVs. One of the fun things about the camps at Burning Man is that many have a particular purpose. The purpose of this camp was spelled out in the name. If you came through the teahouse, people would serve you a variety of teas all day and all night. As for the “Skinny Kitty” part, I still don’t completely understand the history behind this, but adorning the bar are the skeletons of dead kittens.

So there was that. But the tea was incredible.

Within the camp were smaller sub-camps, and that’s where my little crew played. So far there were 10 of us, three of whom I knew. More were en route.

I didn’t see any of my friends as I approached the camp by car. I got nervous, did a drive-by, and kept going. As I looked for somewhere to park so I could take out my bike and search for my people, I wound up on the outskirts of town, at 4:00 and K.

(Early on I started calling it “town” or “city” instead of “festival” or “Burning Man.” Because that’s what it was. But more on that later.)

I arrived at 4:00 and K and pulled up next to an isolated RV with a very fit older man outside. This was Jay. I don’t know how, but Jay knew instantly that this was my first time. Maybe it was the way I was coughing from the dust in the air. Maybe it was my bashfulness, the way I spun around a full 360 degrees before changing my clothes publicly. Either way, it was clear he wanted to give me some helpful hints. After about five or six minutes of conversation, he invited me inside for a beer to tell me stories of his first Burning Man (his drunk friend almost ruined the whole week) and what keeps him coming back (it’s his favorite break from the world).

An hour later, I left Jay to find my friends. The first person I saw was Sam, the younger brother of my friend Jon, the person who’d convinced me to come in the first place. I was elated. We exchanged a monstrous hug, fueled by my desperation to see a familiar face. He seemed shocked that I had actually shown up.

He was serving tea alongside his girlfriend, Lauren. They both said that once they were finished we should go take a tour of the Playa. I knew of this word, and vaguely understood it. But I had yet to see it.

After Sam found someone to take his tea shift, we grabbed our bikes and made our way out. Finally, the geography of Black Rock City began to make sense.

The city was oriented like a clock and, if treating the structure known as the Temple like 12:00, our camp sat at 3:00. We were six streets out from the center, hence we were on F. The areas represented by times and letters were all campgrounds. The middle, the Playa, was an open area of desert, filled with pedestrians, bikers, art cars,1 installations, and dust.

All the dust.

In the center was the Man, who stood atop a spaceship. Apparently, he was going to burn on Saturday, at what would be 12:00, the Temple. I wasn’t sure what that was, but it, too, was supposed to burn, on Sunday. And past the Temple was the Deep Playa, an area where a lot of nothing happens, until next thing you know you stumble on an amazing work of art.

Black Rock City.

And it was just that: a city. In a few days, once the population would swell to a staggering 68,000, it would become one of the largest cities in Nevada.

Journal Entry 2 — Tuesday Evening, “It Just Got Hot”

Once the sun set, Sam, Lauren, and I biked around the Playa, enjoyed a stunning fireworks display, and watched fire shooting in the distance. In the sea of lights and air horns and bass drops that extended along the landscape, one collection of flames stood out from the rest. Because it was coming from a giant octopus.

It was one of the most prominent art cars on the Playa, and we couldn’t help but bike toward the creature shooting fireballs from its eight tentacles. As we got closer, however, the octopus became increasingly less important. Because right beside it was another art car, blasting soul music. It was the Soul Train.

The vehicle was spot-on; even the nose of the car danced back and forth, like the logo in the opening sequence of the show.

Within five minutes, the three of us — urged on by two older black ladies who easily could have been regulars on the show 40 years ago — helped start a 30-person soul train to the sounds of McFadden & Whitehead in the middle of the desert, next to a flame-shooting octopus on wheels.

What was this place?

Journal Entry 3 — Tuesday Night, “The Sun Is Going Down and I Need to Find a Hoodie Immediately”

I’m writing this from a couch in a camp that is not my own. But it’s cool, because in the past hour I’ve been made to feel welcome by a group of longtime Burners.2

It all started with my revelation to them that this was my first time. I’d noticed that if you’re chill and appear to be present for the right reasons, people love first-timers. This collection of grizzled men was no different. They were like the three dirty old men sitting in front of the red wall in Do the Right Thing, but instead of a “Sweet Dick Willie,” they had a guy named “Purple Jesus.”

That wasn’t his birth name, of course. It was his Playa name.3 And when he took off his hat and let his purple hair down, it was clear why.

Every other person who walked by seemed to know them, almost as if they’d been in this neighborhood for years. Maybe they had. It wouldn’t have surprised me. With the older ladies, they’d successfully flirt, and with anyone who had a sliver of authority, they’d heckle, knowing there would be no repercussions.

They were above the law. And they knew it. Because they’d earned it.

Journal Entry 4 — Wednesday Morning, “It’s So Hot Outside I Had to Leave My Tent, So It’s Probably About to Be Afternoon”

Tuesday was a great first full day at the Burn. Already, I was beginning to develop routines. I wore my jorteralls for a second straight day, a trend that I planned to continue for the duration of the trip. And I already had my early-morning “coffee shop,” the camp across the street that gave away lemonade all day, which had become my first stop.

Not all routines are good, however.

Exhibit A: The unfortunate, embarrassing, difficult search for Wi-Fi.

To be clear, I was glad it was hard, because that meant everyone went completely off the grid. But on a few occasions, there were e-mails that I knew I had to send, and the process of getting them out couldn’t have been a bigger buzzkill.

Because there was no Wi-Fi in Black Rock City, the only real hope was finding a camp that had a hotspot. So, on Monday, Tuesday, and probably today, a significant chunk of my morning was spent wandering around with my phone, looking for a signal like a man using a metal detector to find golden nuggets buried in a beach.

Although I was quite discreet in pulling out my iPhone to look for said signals, if you had a set of eyes, you knew exactly what I was doing as I sketchily paced back and forth past an RV that clearly wasn’t mine. It sucked and I really hoped I was almost at the point where I could retire my phone until Monday.

But back to more good news: Our camp was growing as more people came to town, which meant more fun at camp and larger bike gangs when it was time to explore.

And to think, I almost didn’t bring a bike. If anything could have ruined this inaugural Burn, not bringing a bike would have been it. Moving cars are frowned upon once they’ve been parked, and sometimes walking just takes too long, so bike is the ideal mode of transportation.

Sometimes it could be a treacherous way to travel, between piles of dirt that wheels can’t overcome and dust-storm whiteouts that made any transportation difficult and dangerous. But the feeling of riding into the unknown in something resembling a “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” formation was unbeatable.

We were becoming a little family. And I knew that was only going to intensify as the days went on.

Speaking of family, as I split up from the bike gang to go explore on my own, I randomly ran into a friend from grade school who I then proceeded to dance with for two hours. After that, I spoke with a father who gave us his philosophy on bringing his kids to Black Rock City. In less than 10 minutes, he convinced me that this place, often characterized as a dust-soaked den of sex and drugs, was a wonderful space for kids. Between the programming and activities and the exposure to a judgment-free environment so early on, there was no better place for youth. While he was telling me this, his son was passing out peanut M&Ms to passersby and waving a stick of incense. I think Pops was right.

Oh yes. And I saw Jay again.

But this time, it was a very different Jay. At heart he was the same, but on the exterior, very different.

As I was walking home, I heard someone shout “Rem!” from across the way. I knew it was Jay. The tone of his voice was still very familiar. I turned around and saw a man in black tights and a red tutu staggering down the dust road, walking his bike.

“It’s Tutu Tuesday, what did you expect?” he said. We hugged and he assured me that he doesn’t usually dress like this in the default world.4 He makes exceptions when he comes to Burning Man.

Since we lived in the same general direction, I told him I’d get off my bike and walk him home. He had to go slow, something he repeatedly scolded me for forgetting, because he had “mushroom legs” and needed to take his time.

I loved Jay. He told me stories about his past Burning Man adventures that don’t make for typical conversation fodder between a sixtysomething and a twentysomething.

It was on this walk that I also realized something about myself was changing. Or, better yet, had returned.

All summer, in rural area after rural area, often alone and quite clearly not from said parts, the stares from locals increasingly began to take their toll. As the months progressed, I gradually devolved from someone who made eye contact with every stranger to someone who preemptively hung his head as someone — anyone — approached. It was completely out of character, but this had become my new state of being.

I came into Burning Man with that same closed-off mentality. And, although I quickly embraced the culture, I still walked around with my head down.

This walk with Jay, as he told me stories, was the first time in a long time I had walked with my head held high, brashly making eye contact with everyone, from the gigantic whip-wielding guy to the beautiful topless woman smoking a cigarette and ashing in a Bud Light bottle.

I missed you, eye contact and words. It’s nice to be back.

Journal Entry 5 — Wednesday Afternoon, “I Think It’s 15,323 Degrees”

Shout-out to the inventor of jorteralls. These things were amazing. I brought a good amount of weather-appropriate clothes, but my days didn’t really start until I threw on the jorteralls. It was like wearing a venti latte.

Anyway, there was a lot happening that I had become accustomed to. I was beginning to forget that these things weren’t normal.

I had become completely desensitized to naked people. Not everyone was without clothes, but many were. When I saw my 500th pair of breasts of the weekend, it was a milestone I once thought I’d never hit in my entire life. The number of men walking around bottomless wasn’t terribly far behind. The great thing, however, was that the double-take was a thing of the past. This made everyone feel more comfortable behaving in the manner that made them happiest, which was often walking naked from neighborhood to neighborhood.

As the week progressed and many people continued to live a life without showering, the population became increasingly dust-kissed. And everyone looked beautiful. It wasn’t quite “final-scene-in-Volcano-when-little-boy-makes-racial-commentary-about-everyone-looking-the-same” yet. But I found what Playa dust5 did to everyone’s skin and hair quite becoming.

As for me, I had multiple people comment on how old I looked, which I didn’t understand until someone handed me a mirror, revealing a beard, mustache, eyelashes, and hair that had turned completely gray.

It was like seeing the 60-year-old version of myself. And I loved it.

Speaking of dust, the dust storms at Burning Man were intense. But they were so common that I was beginning to forget that they weren’t part of most people’s day-to-day lives. You would walk and suddenly not be able to see five feet in every direction.

And then, just like that, the dust would be gone and there would be an art car hurtling toward you like a ghost pirate ship just 15 feet away.

Sometimes, it was “like” a ghost pirate ship. A few times, however, it actually was a ghost pirate ship.

Another completely absurd thing: watching people parachute into Burning Man.

There was a rumor that if you safely parachuted in, you didn’t have to pay for a ticket. I also heard that not only was that not true, once they land there’s a mad dash to take off the parachute and run away before getting caught. Regardless, once a day, typically in the afternoon, you would see a bunch of people looking at the sky and realize there’s someone parachuting in.

And then you would rub your eyes a bit and see there were actually about 12 parachuters coming in at once, scattered throughout the sky.

Journal Entry 6 — Thursday Morning, “It’s Still Wednesday Night in Spirit But the Sun Hasn’t Come Up”

So Diplo was in town.

I heard rumors that he was going to play a show, but didn’t want to be that new guy who seemed more interested in a famous DJ doing a set than the spirit of Burning Man. So I relayed the message to just a few people.

But, secretly, I wanted to see it so bad.

Earlier in the night, the Skinny Kitty art car, the Crystal Ship, had left from our home base to do some rounds in the neighborhood. My crew didn’t really know where it was going, but we hopped on anyway. It was almost as if we were on a parade float once it got in motion. The first destination: a giant party at a place called Camp Question Mark.

Sam, Lauren, and I hopped off and within three minutes someone over the speaker system said, “Next, we’d like to introduce our special guest. Everybody give it up for Diplo!”

I was right. I won.

There’s really no way to describe what I, and perhaps I alone, did when he played “New Slaves” in the middle of the northwest Nevada desert at Burning Man. A confusion swept over the crowd, but I couldn’t have been more thrilled. I’m positive it was the loudest the song has ever been played.

Within 20 minutes, the Crystal Ship departed and Sam and Lauren were both off frolicking elsewhere. I couldn’t leave, though. I could tell this was “off-brand” for Burning Man, perhaps a sign that this yearly event was beginning to turn a little mainstream, but I didn’t care.

And that wasn’t even the clear highlight of the day.

There was the day party we threw at Skinny Kitty that included a two-hour session by a pair of aerialists, peaking with an acrobatic kid who quickly became one of the biggest rock stars at Burning Man. Also, he missed his first day of high school to come to Black Rock. So he’s a legend.

There was the beautiful wedding that took place in Deep Playa, with a bride and groom dressed like Lady Gaga and her Johnny Appleseed–inspired backup dancer, exchanging vows in the presence of their closest friends and a dust storm.

There was also the art car trip to the DMV. Yes, further proving this is a city, there’s an actual DMV. The sight of 20 giant, illuminated art cars, running the gamut of beastly, mythical, and nature-inspired, sitting in line waiting to get approved for a permit so they could legally terrorize the Playa with oontz oontz and camper twerk until the sun rose was truly organized chaos.

Journal Entry 7 — Friday Morning, “The Sun Is About to Rise But I Don’t Think I’m Gonna Make It”

I felt like I was on an awesome season of Real World. Like Las Vegas or Back to New York, but without all of the drama.

Journal Entry 8 — Friday Morning, “The Sun Has Risen, I Can’t Believe I Slept Through the Sunrise Only to Wake Up 25 Minutes Later”

So like I was saying, our camp within a camp had this amazing Real World feel. Although not all of us were strangers, some were. During the days, we explored together in smaller groups or out on our own. And we all worked together at the tea house. DO YOU SEE THE PARALLELS?

But, even in this real world where time lost meaning, there was a point in every day when we all seemed to return to camp to regroup and rejoice.

Our common space: the Dome, a structure with lights and chairs and food. During the day, there were maybe two or three people there at a time, but for a two-hour period, once the sun started to set, the cue to return home and change into warmer clothes, there were at least eight people present.

This night was especially big for the Dome, because on the other side of the campsite we were about to have a party. From 8 p.m. to 8 a.m.

As I walked out into the sea of people, I was surrounded by friends new and old. Across the room, I spotted Kirk, whom I had met only days before (though it felt like weeks) when we drove to Burning Man from San Francisco. I hadn’t seen him since I dropped him off at his campsite, in a different neighborhood, and by our embrace you’d think one of us had just gotten back from war.

Later in the evening, a collection of friends from college came through, floored by the production. There was music and people were doing acrobatics and martial arts with fire, not to mention the aerial stunts and, of course, tea. My friends were impressed, and even though I had little (i.e., absolutely nothing) to do with the logistics of the party, it felt nice to have people in my front yard enjoying themselves.

The crowd began to thin at one point, but the party raged on. A few of us ventured into our camping area, pulled out lawn chairs, and stared up at the star-filled sky for an hour. To be more accurate, it was like “stars featuring sky” due to the sheer amount of gaseous balls visible in the sky.

This place felt right. And it was beginning to feel real. Not like I could necessarily live there forever, but aspects of this experience were beginning to permeate. I knew I wouldn’t be able to let them go once I’d left.

I hadn’t been this calm in years. Actually, I don’t know if I’ve ever been this calm. It’s amazing to think a place with fire-breathing octopi, lung-threatening dust storms, and zero showers could be a relaxing place. But it was happening.


For the first time all week, the extremes of living in Black Rock City began to take their toll. I could feel the dust from the many whiteouts begin to lodge permanently in the back of my throat, making an appearance in every sip of water and bite of nonperishable food. The allure of sleeping in a tent was beginning to wear off, less on my psyche and more on the alignment of my back. My big toe, randomly, might have been broken the previous night. And, more than anything, I was tired. So very tired. Happy — in incredible spirits — but dead tired.

Still, it was Friday night. And even though time and days didn’t mean much, a Friday night still carried the connotation of a Friday night.

I spent the day relaxing in an attempt to save up energy for the night. I found a few friends camping across town and we went to an installation in the Deep Playa that had a fully carpeted floor. Above it hung streamers that would brush against your body as the breeze came through, causing many a participant, myself included, to temporarily fall asleep.

Also, we went to go get some ice. This was notable because we had to use cash. See, there’s no money in Black Rock City. The only economy is the gift economy — not barter, gifting. That is, except for ice.

It wasn’t surprising that ice would be the one example of capitalism to sneak into Black Rock City, because it was by far the most precious, sought-after commodity.


I swear if there had been a hut giving away free laptops next to a hut giving away free ice, the ice line would have been 10 times as long.

Because at the end of the day you can’t keep pounds of bacon cool with a laptop. And you certainly can’t put crushed laptop in your CamelBak to keep your water cold.

At Arctica, where the ice was sold, more reminders of the outside world slapped us in the face. In addition to the $3 price, there was a line. A long line. And then to top it all off, presumably because the people working there knew how much we depended on them, they couldn’t have been more rude.

Getting ice was my first pinch of reality in days. It was a sign that Burning Man was not forever. It was Friday, and in only a few days, we’d all be back to spending money, waiting in lines, and dealing with power-hungry people slinging ice-equivalents that we couldn’t live without.

With that said, that first sip of ice water almost brought me to my knees.

After the refreshment, we bounced around the Playa for a few hours, participating in any and all of the absurdities it had to offer.

The evening was quickly approaching, however, so I went back to the Dome at the time of day that we all went back to the Dome. Almost everyone was there, most preparing to leave soon. For once, there was an activity with a scheduled time. Jon was giving a talk at 8 p.m. and interviewing the guy who designed the portals6 that he’d become so infatuated with over the years.

Looking for my gas station Sherpa parka, I walked into my tent at about 7:45 p.m.

When I woke up it was 1:15 a.m.

Normally, if this were to happen in my apartment in New York, I’d panic, text everyone I know, and race out in an attempt to salvage the final hours of my Friday night. But when I exited the tent to see a lightless dome, no one in sight, and that five-plus hours had gone by, I simply laughed. It was clear this was my body saving my life.

And it also further stressed that this wasn’t a festival. Burning Man wasn’t Coachella. This wasn’t something where you had to hit every activity on your schedule or else it was a waste of money.

This was simply a relaxed Friday night in the city.

Wired but not up to the idea of venturing out into the fray, I walked to the Teahouse. There stood a small collection of people and, behind the bar, Eugene. He was part of our small Skinny Kitty crew, but up until this point we hadn’t spent too much time together. Comforted that someone else had not gone out, I joined him behind the bar and began a four-hour shift, again somehow making it to the point where the sky gives you the one-hour sunrise warning.

There was something beautiful about serving tea to people in the middle of the night. Some were simply looking for conversation, others feverishly attempting to come down off the high that had overtaken their bodies for the past eight hours. Some were just big lovers of tea.

The Teahouse served a purpose in our community and it felt nice to work, especially when there was no one telling you to do so. Eugene and I were having the time of our lives, just slangin’ tea, making small talk, hearing about everyone’s nights, and quickly becoming boys with strangers.

I finally went to sleep around 5:45 a.m. I felt as if I were finally a part of the fabric of my camp. I’d gained the respect of the longtime campers. Even in this semi-utopian city, earning respect still mattered.

Journal Entry 10 — Saturday Afternoon, “T-Minus Two Hours Until the Man Burns”

I don’t miss the Internet as much as I thought I would. It took a few days, but I finally got to that point. An embarrassing thing that I was doing that first day of cold turkey: thinking about tweets that I wanted to send. But instead of laughing aloud, I’d write them down. For future use, I guess?

That’s got to be the lamest thing I’ve ever done. So glad I stopped that. Jesus. Purple Jesus even.

Journal Entry 11 — Sunday Morning, “It’s Very, Very Early in the Morning”

“I’m not ready to go back out there.”

I’m pretty sure those words, uttered by my campmate Ben, will stick with me more than any other sentence heard at Burning Man. He said it as we sat in the Dome early in the morning. It was Sunday and we both knew we were nearing the end of the road.

While I had become an active participant in all that Black Rock City had to offer, Ben was more than that. He was a performer. A fire performer. And every night he seemed to have a gig. He compared himself to prisoners who don’t know what they’d do in the real world after being behind bars for so long. He said it, walked over, gave me a soft pound, and then walked out of the Dome.

I knew he wasn’t alone in feeling that. That probably was the sentiment of most people who return, year after year, for this week of refuge.

I went back to my tent. That interaction was short, but heavy.

I needed to go back to sleep.

Journal Entry 12 — Sunday Morning, “I Smell Bacon, So I Guess It’s Bacon o’Clock, Which Is a Real Time of Day in Black Rock City”

I love my friend David. I’ve known him since I was in sixth grade, but there was no way to predict that, some 15 years later, he’d be my savior. Because he kept making bacon. The man couldn’t stop making bacon. One morning, he even had the nerve to make some grits. The nerve, David.

I haven’t gone to sleep yet. The man burned last night, and then 150 other things happened, but I’m not ready to talk about that. So I’mma just eat this bacon.

Journal Entry 13 — Sunday Afternoon, “That Bacon Knocked Me Out and Then I Woke Up Because I Think I Need to Leave”

I’m not sure last night was real. The great thing about taking pictures with disposable cameras is the next morning, there’s still no evidence of what happened. You’ve got to go to Rite-Aid to find out.

I’m still in shock.

Following the most impressive fireworks display I’ve ever seen was the climax of Burning Man, the burning of the large man.


As someone who’s scared of everything, I’ll never really be able to explain what it was that kept me glued to my seat as a tornado made out of fire headed my way.

The moment initially felt like a cult ritual, with the fire and the screams and the raised hands as the man burned to the ground, but once it was over the series of exchanged hugs and “Happy New Year” made it all seem innocent and celebratory.

“Happy New Year.” I’d never thought of it like that. But it made sense.

And while the burning was unforgettable, it was just the beginning of the night.

There was the establishment of a buddy system as my crew traveled through the darkness, and a series of dust storms, in hopes of finding the portal in the middle of the Deep Playa. There were dance parties, most of which made me feel like I was Eric Nies on The Grind. The highlight of the final party was an extended, extremely loud version of LCD Soundsystem’s “Someone Great” that nearly brought me to tears, seeing as it’s a perfect song. There was the roller rink we stumbled on, organized in such a way that there were hundreds of roller skates, but you had to go around in the dark and hope that there were two in your size. There was the guy singing dirty honky-tonk and playing the banjo to a crowd of four.

There was simply sitting and soaking it all in. The lights. And the sounds. And the dust. And the sunrise.

Also, the friendship. We all knew this was the last real night. So we lived it up.

Journal Entry 14 — Monday Morning, “I Know Exactly What Time It Is Because I’m Sitting in a Car in Traffic and It Says 2:15 a.m.”

Monday morning got super real, super quick. There was no transition into “Well, this is the beginning of the end.” After being awake for just a few hours, word got out that a bad storm was coming to Black Rock City. And even though there was still a full day left, with the unofficial end of Burning Man — the burning of the Temple — set to take place at sundown, that storm was the cue to pack up for many people.

I wanted to stay, but knew I needed to be in that exodus from Black Rock City.

Before I began packing up, I had one final thing to do.

Drop something off at the temple.

I took four trips to the Temple during the week, all moments of self-reflection. Not knowing exactly what it was before I made my first trip, I was taken aback by the display inside.

It was filled with tributes to lost loved ones. In stark contrast to the rest of the city, the Temple was eerily quiet, with the space dominated by hugs, tears, and onlookers taking it all in.

It’s impossible not to feel something while inside.

After the first trip, I knew I had something to leave. The father of one of my best friends passed away earlier this summer and the program for the service was still in my backpack.

I was holding on to it because I wanted to keep it. I don’t know why, but it felt right. Upon entering the temple, seeing the contents, and then learning it would ceremonially burn at the end of the week, I knew it was the right way to part with the memento.

I took my final bike ride out to the Playa on Sunday morning and wrote a note on the front of the program. I took one last look before I handed it off. As I prepared to ride away, I turned to the right. Standing next to me: Purple Jesus.

We hugged. It was great to see an old friend.

I knew I wouldn’t be there to see the Temple burn, but that wasn’t what mattered. I could leave Black Rock City now. Packing up and saying my good-byes was a bummer, but it wasn’t sad. Because I knew this was the beginning of something beautiful. I’d be back next year and so would they. Unlike most events, where so much of the joy comes from the newness of it all, I knew Burning Man would only get better with each visit.

As I drove away, I couldn’t believe how much this place affected me. It’s not that I had drastically changed over the eight-day stretch, but I was surely in a better place.

Thinking about this while sitting in traffic as the sun began to set, I looked in the rearview. The temple was burning.

A short stream of tears fell from my eyes.

Maybe I had changed. I guess we’ll find out.

Filed Under: Rembert Explains, Series

Rembert Browne is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ rembert