As I hopped off Interstate 80 to make the final exhausting home stretch Sunday evening toward Lake Tahoe, I saw a cyclist cruising down Highway 267 toward the Martis Valley.
A normal sight for our region, no doubt. But, while bits of dust fluttered off my SUV’s windshield as I passed him, I found myself thinking, “what in the world is wrong with this guy?”
“Why are you not wearing a ridiculous outfit, and why is your bike not lit up with El Wire and decorated with some wacky stuffed animal or multi-colored parasol,” I mused to myself, my thoughts still scrambled from a lack of sleep and a lack of, I guess we’ll call it, “real-world clarity.”
The scene became more surreal as I floated along Highway 28 through Kings Beach. Pedestrians were everywhere, converging on the town’s restaurants and businesses, some still dripping wet from a day on the lake, others donning casual shorts and T-shirts.
They were doing, well, “normal” things.
Rolling the windows down, I found my ears searching for the growing sounds of electronic music wafting from DJ sets.
But there was no Opulent Temple or Robot Heart here — all I heard was the regular chatter that comes with locals and visitors enjoying a jam-packed holiday weekend at Lake Tahoe.
Besides what was caked inside and all over my car, the only “dust” I could see was from the small remnants of gravel and dirt left over from the week’s Kings Beach Core highway project work.
It was at that very moment I knew I had begun my official return to what I’ve learned is referred to as the “Default World.”
Roughly six hours earlier, I began my journey home after attending my first-ever Burning Man arts, culture, music — and everything-else-you-could-ever-imagine-in-the-world festival.
It was endless hours of costumes and art cars and funky music, set against a backdrop of the Sierra Nevada lit aglow by the most colorful lights you can imagine.
It was a diverse world of carefree people lost in the desert, surviving the heat and alkaline-laden playa by doing nothing more than being nice and giving to one another.
It was camps upon camps of tents, RVs, yurts and shade structures, full of joyful and charismatic characters staying up all night to party and celebrate as massive structures burned safely around them.
It was a city divided among streets, where you give directions by only telling a friend — who maybe goes by a playa name like “Soft Cheeks” or “Pickles” — to arrive at a time and letter.
Honestly, I could sit and write for days about what went on all last week at Black Rock City (which morphs into Nevada’s third-largest city during Burning Man) where my address was simply known as, “4:45 and H.”
But for those who’ve never been, my stories and descriptions wouldn’t make much sense. And for those who have, well, there’s just no way I can put together the perfect string of adjectives and adverbs to even remotely do it justice.
I talked to a friend of mine for awhile Monday night about the experience we had in our camp — a group of 60 or so people amid the 65,922 who reportedly attended this year’s festival — and after trying to explain things, all she could muster was, “it’s like going to a different planet.”
It’s true. It’s a planet I’ve wanted to visit the past few years, and after finally doing so, the only thing I can say is that if you’ve never been, I suggest you make plans to land there soon.
Clichés be damned — it is an experience like no other, and one you will never forget.
Burning Man defines “Default World” as “the rest of the world that is not the playa during the Burning Man event.”
I suppose that’s one way of saying that, “while you are doing your thing, we are doing ours” — and I can’t possibly come up with enough differences between the two.
To put it in another, more humorous way, when we were asked to share the most “ridiculous story of the week,” one of my camp-mates shared his: “Me blotting a nosebleed with a grilled cheese sandwich while dancing on a spaceship at sunrise.”
I suppose that’s pretty much all you need to know when it comes to summing up our stay in the desert.
It’s funny. As I finished this column Tuesday afternoon, an employee for one of our local government districts emailed me, asking for our newspaper’s logo to run with a promotional flier on an upcoming event we’re excited to sponsor.
The employee — knowing from talking with me before I left that I was spending my vacation on the playa — started her email like this: “Hey Burner … welcome home.”
I had to shake my head and laugh. And I guarantee anyone, whether a first-timer or long-timer, who’s ever been to Burning Man and is reading this right now is doing the same thing.
Burners know: The only time you’re truly welcomed home is the moment you’re greeted each year at the entrance of the dust and delight of the desert.
Everything else is, well, just default.
— Kevin MacMillan is managing editor of the Sierra Sun and North Lake Tahoe Bonanza, and he does not yet have a playa name. Reach him for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.