On Burning Man & The Appalachian Trail
If you are unwilling to risk the unusual, you will have to settle for the ordinary ~ Jim Rohn
First a little background, I am currently off the trail and rehabbing my knee but I have been walking the Appalachian Trail since March 7, 2015 in celebration of my 50th birthday. So far I’ve covered about 700 miles of trail and my knee willing I will continue to add to that total for the rest of the summer.
I have also attended Burning Man seven times in the last ten years, with my first burn occurring in celebration of my 40th birthday in 2004.
While on the trail I am constantly seeing parallels between the Burning Man and Appalachian Trail (AT) communities. This is particularly powerful in the way thru-hikers view the trail and their fellow thru-hikers and the way that burners view Burning Man and their fellow burners on the Playa. So tonight I thought I would expand on a few of these overlaps.
Trail magic is one form of magic on the AT, this is when people show up out of the goodness of their hearts, with no thought of payment or return, save gratitude, and provide food, drinks, rides and all kinds of kindness. But this is not the magic I want to talk about. On the trail you often hear the phrase, “the trail provides.” My best example of this was my friend Backtrack breaking a trekking pole on a hike. He was of course upset, poles are expensive and more importantly invaluable in helping you navigate the trail safely. When he arrived at the shelter he expressed his frustration to a fellow hiker who simply said, “well then, you should take that one.” In the back corner of the shelter was a solitary trekking pole. A coincidence, sure, but when you see and hear about these type of coincidences happening over and over you start to believe.
I became a believer in my first hour on the trail. I’m a writer so I of course carry several pens on the trail. As I started my first day I got to thinking about the fact I wanted to write in the shelter journals. I was also a little skeeved out by the idea of all the people who would have handled those shelter pens. In that moment I was silently berating myself about not keeping one of the pens I was carrying easily accessible when I looked down and saw a brand new pen laying on the trail. The trail provides.
The really amazing parallel with Burning Man is the very often heard phrase, “the Playa provides.” I have seen dozens of instances of this, needed car parts, costuming items, kitchen utensils, I once told a Burning Man virgin that I truly believed you could stand up in center camp, shout out a need for anything and it would arrive minutes later. Of course I told this to a complete wise-ass, so he stood up on a bench and yelled I want a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie. As he stepped down a woman behind him said, “here you go.” I almost passed out, she was standing there with two friends and they had racks of cookies they’d just brought over from their camp to gift to people.
For me, my greatest example is related to my singular food passion, pizza. There isn’t much in this world I enjoy more than a half-pepperoni and mushroom pizza. For several years on the Playa there was a camp called random pizza. They brought out pizza ovens and each night would make pizzas and then go out and randomly give them to people on the Playa. I believe it was my third year and I was walking down the Esplanade with two friends and I starting ranting about how utterly ridiculous it was that given my love for pizza that I had never received a random pizza. Less than a minute later a guy tapped me on the shoulder and said, “I believe this is for you.” A pepperoni and mushroom pizza. Sure not half cheese like I normally get, but wow, I was a believer. The Playa provides.
How, as a scientist do I explain this, is it just coincidence, perhaps. However, I think even as a scientist we need to leave room in this world for the unexplainable and the truly magical.
While on the Playa, (it doesn’t always hold up when they are off), burners are some of the finest and most amazing individuals I’ve ever met. On the trail, (it doesn’t always hold up when they are off), thru-hikers and AT hikers in general, are some of the finest and most amazing individuals I have ever met. The funny thing, is that there is little overlap between these two communities, likely due to the AT having an East Coast focus and Burning Man happening on the West Coast.
The commonality here though is easy to define, burners and hikers are risk takers, adventurers, and samplers of life. These are folks who are willing to turn their lives upside down for a chance to experience something new, unusual or magnificent. Basically we’re weird, we don’t think like folks in the default world, for the most part both of these communities believe the standard script of American life – high school, college, job, car, marriage, kids, retirement and death – is not what defines how their lives will proceed.
Another thing about these two communities that I love. There is a fierce loyalty and protectionism that exists in these communities. Both the AT and the Burning Man festival have shockingly low instances of serious crime. We watch out for each other, take care of each other, love each other. People are often shocked that people start a thru-hike alone, particular that single women start alone. They are shocked because they don’t understand our community, we are family on the trail, you don’t always like everyone in your family, but you’ll be damned if anyone is going to do them harm. The Burning Man community has much the same feel to it.
One of the most basic similarities between the AT and Burning Man our how we refer to ourselves. Burners have Playa names, hikers have trail names. The great thing about these names are they provide an opportunity for people to reinvent themselves, to be present, be social and yet be masked behind this new identity. Are you someone who is always been shy, well on the trail or the Playa your name might be Social Butterfly. You can be a completely new person in both places and I think this is incredibly freeing for many folks. Of course you can also get named by the community in either place but this also serves and a badge of inclusion into the community, an opportunity to always have a conversation starter about how you got your name. The list of names at both events is as varied as you can possibly imagine and probably a bit more varied than that.
So that this piece doesn’t get massively long I’ll stop here, but there are lots of other similarities, the isolation and wild nature of the environment for both, costuming – a burner on his/her way to Burning Man is just as easy to spot as a thru-hiker in town for resupply. Spontaneous group formation whether it’s the People United for Nothing (PUN) at Burning Man, or the AARP group on the trial. Both groups are viewed as a bit nuts by the public, the media is a bit fascinated with both groups, both thru-hiking and Burning Man are massively misunderstood by the public. Both populations are groups of massively happy people, that alone makes them special and why participating in both has provided me with many happy days my friends ~ Rev Kane
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