Burning Man: The Ultimate Collaboration

“Welcome Home.”

That’s what everyone at Burning Man said to me when they found out I was a first-time “burner”.  By the end of the week I truly understood what they meant.  And I hope you are a little closer to understanding it (or as close as one can be without actually being there) by the end of this essay.

Just your standard middle-of-the-desert pirate ship

But first, let’s get a few things straight about what Burning Man is and is not.  Burning Man is not a music festival.  There is music, but it is by no means the focus, nor is it the prime factor motivating most attendees.  Burning Man is also not some ‘hippie paradise,’ where everyone is happy and frolicking around with flowers in their hair.  You could very well see some shit that outright disturbs you, like a man with a bit in his mouth, chained up in black leather being led around by his whip-bearing dominatrix wife.  But Burning Man is, if nothing else, a community, founded on the premise of radical self expression and inclusion.  That’s why, despite the fact that I think some of the bondage I saw is a little weird, I think it’s amazing that there’s a place where people feel comfortable doing this stuff.

A heart spray-painted on the back of the Bank of UnAmerica

One of the first aspects of Burning Man that comes to mind is the way in which it reminds me of French existential philosophy.  In existentialism there exists an idea of “une acte libre,” or an act of freedom.  Such an act has no intrinsic value and is committed for neither reason nor purpose, but occurs simply because it can.  Traditionally une acte libre has held a bad connotation; an example would be punching someone in the face.  The act of punching someone in the face totally unprovoked is a way of affirming my freedom, my right to exist; I did it because I could, and for no reason beyond that.  Burning Man is like one giant collective “acte libre,” only everyone benefits and no one (intentionally) gets hurt.

One can’t talk about ridiculous things at Burning Man without first mentioning the art cars.  There are ‘cars’ out on the Playa (Playa means beach in Spanish, and Burning Man has its roots on the beaches of San Francisco) that put any party bus you’ve ever seen to shame.  I’m talking about 55-foot long stretch buses with a platform shaped like a pirate ship on the roof that hold more than 100 people and a DJ.  The biggest party bus you’ve ever seen.  Or there are smaller art cars like a Stegosaurus, which, despite its relative size, was the most visible car by far.  Or an Octopus art car that shoots flames out of its tentacles.  No big deal.  Or the Death Star art car.

El Pulpo Mecanico

And then there’s the actual art.  Personally my favorite installation was the E-G-O installation.  Made entirely out of wood, E-G-O was among the few installations that people were expressly forbidden from climbing on.  It was gold, probably 20 feet high, and covered in faces, babies, horses, money signs.  But most profound, adorning the underside of each letter were trophies.  I thought this was some beautiful symbolism.  It embodied a poignant insight about the human ego: that once you reach a certain level of success (and are “looking up” to see what’s next) the only external validation of the ego is more trophies, more public accolades.  At some point there is a limit to the amount of ego validation you can absorb and you just have to believe that what you’re doing is right.

E-G-O burn

As a way of giving back to the community, many camps will host some sort of event during Burning Man.  There’s the Skinny Kitty Teahouse which serves tea everyday and has a large party on Thursday night.  Or there’s Nectar Village where one can stand in line to receive a steam bath (a welcome respite from the dusty environment).  But Camp Let It Go, where I stayed, was on the smaller side, so we hosted a lower key and more therapeutic event.  For four hours Thursday afternoon we offered acupressure massages, traditional Swedish massages, and facials.  At first I was dreading this event, the idea of giving multiple hours of massages not only seemed exhausting but I (selfishly) wanted to go and do my own thing.  It was my first Burn after all, and there was ever so much to do.

If you’ve met me then you know that when I give massages I get really into it.  This time was no exception.  But this time I didn’t tire.  I gave massages constantly for about three hours.  I could see how much every single person I massaged appreciated my gift, and this served as inspiration.  They sat up feeling refreshed, relaxed, and thankful.  That’s why the ‘gift economy’ of Burning Man is so amazing.  Since there isn’t money attached to the gifts, people make little attempt to translate what they’ve received into terms of a concrete value system (like money).  And if your doing the giving it feels great knowing that you’re small act of selflessness really improved someone’s day.  Dan Ariely, a prominent behavioral economist, has a great talk on how money distorts gift giving that he gave at Burning Man last year.  You can watch it here.

Wall Street burns

Perhaps the most emotionally charged place at Burning Man is the Temple.  The Temple is an intensely personal place; it absorbs the collective cathartic energy of Burning Man, every year.

Throughout the week people come by the Temple to drop off mementoes to their loved ones.  One could find posters dedicated to burners who’d died in the past year, or see posters from parents commemorating their three year old who’d died last year, or letters from boyfriends to lost girlfriends about the anguish they felt.  You have to be prepared to see some disturbingly real stuff when you go by the Temple.

The Temple

Saturday morning I went by the Temple, and the emotional energy was so thick you could cut it with a knife.  Left and right one heard sobs, sniffles.  A woman lay on the ground, performing an Indian chant.  People were seated inside, each taking a turn to stand and share their thoughts, much like a Quaker meeting for worship.  I must admit I cried that day.

No, I’ve not lost anyone truly close in the past year, and I’m lucky for that.  It all lay out in the open, the raw emotion, unadorned and without pretense, the sheer nudity of human feeling and compassion represented in the signs, letters, and pictures strewn about the Temple.  It would’ve been inhuman to not react with tears.

Sunrise, from atop a castle structure, looking out over the camps

I can see already the ways that Burning Man has affected my behavior.  Burning Man is a leave no trace event.  All the trash you bring in you must pack out.  There are no trashcans, so you have to carry it all yourself.  People are encouraged to pick up MOOP (matter out of place, the Burning Man neologism for litter) if they see it lying about.

Several days ago I was walking down the street smoking a cigarette.  I’m not a litterer but, especially in cities, I will throw my cigarette butts on the ground.  I went to throw a butt out a few days ago and paused: “If I could carry around cigarette butts in an Altoids can for a week in the middle of the desert in Nevada, what makes it OK for me to litter them here, in San Francisco.”  I promptly folded the butt into an extra gum wrapper in my pocket and moved along.

Burning Man is a truly special experience.  It’s the closest thing to a living ideal of human interaction, expression, and community that I’ve ever participated in.  I’m definitely “returning home,” at the end of next August.  I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

Social Dining? Count Me In

So Grubwithus is a pretty sweet service.  Last week I attended a meal organized by Geoff M, Grubwithus’s Director of Sales.  The theme of the dinner was “Sales, Strategy and Startups, what they don’t teach you at B-School.”

I read the Grubwithus etiquette page before arriving, and took heed of the advice to arrive early.  I was the first person seated, and while one might think this awkward it has its advantages.  You get to choose your seat, and as the first person there you have the opportunity to meet everyone and hear (at least the beginning) of their stories before they sit down.  Being early isn’t a bad thing.

There were 12 people in total at the Grubwithus meal I attended.  Surprisingly, I was one of three people who had not previously used the service.  I guess this makes sense since Grubwithus is a Venice Beach company, and this meal was in its backyard.  It still seemed cool that a bunch of people were really open to this idea of social dining, so much so that they had done it before and come back for more.

Grubwithus’s motto as communicated on their website and by Geoff, the Director of Sales and host of this meal, is to “take your online social networks back offline.” To that end they have a few ground rules to ensure a fun and open eating environment.

First off, Grubbers are asked to turn their phones off at the beginning of the meal.  Any tweets, foursquare check-ins, or other social media-ing of the meal is discouraged once the food is served.  I personally played by these rules, but there were definitely other Grubbers who Instagrammed photos of the food.  I don’t blame them, it was delicious. Check out the menu below:

starters were salads, main course was pizza

Food is served and enjoyed family style, and this definitely adds some entertainment to the meal.  In the middle of conversations with people you’ve just met (Where are you from? What do you do? Wait—do we really have that person as a mutual friend?) there’s the acrobatics of sharing six salads, eight plates of pizza, and four cutting boards of chevre and sliced bread among a group of twelve.  This makes for some shared laughs and entertainment, good social glue for creating bonds between strangers.

And though we were strangers, we definitely had a lot to talk about.  This could be somewhat of a selection bias, in that most of the attendees were either directly involved in their own startups, or peripherally involved in the tech scene.  There was Brian, CTO of a video-dating startup.  And there was Steve, CEO and Co-founder of Prodhub, a startup that makes a platform for producing, managing, and distributing video content online.

But don’t worry, you needn’t be a technophile to enjoy Grubwithus.  There were many non-tech folks at this dinner, too.  There was Yung, a novelist and writer who’d grubbed several times.  And there was Ani, who works at an LA marketing agency.

The conversation was all over the place, but touched on favorite books, career paths, hobbies and other interests.  One thing we kept coming back to (this was somewhat at my urging) was the role of Klout in the future of social media.  Klout is a service that ranks your online influence on a scale of 0-100.  Klout requires that you opt-in and willingly give your information to the service.  The algorithm Klout uses, from what I understand, creates a weighted sum of your influence by measuring how much the content you post is broadcast across your various social networks (read this for a more in-depth explanation).  Now this could just be because I was the youngest Grubber in attendance and because I use Klout with some frequency, but I think that Klout is here to stay as a player in the social space.  Klout answers a very important question:  do other people care about the stuff I’m posting?  It also does a good job of rewarding influencers with perks; however some users and tech observers find this practice controversial.

But many of the other Grubbers weren’t believers in Klout.  The cited the fact that, until recently, Justin Bieber had a higher Klout scores than Barack Obama, clearly not reflective of real-world influence.

Another topic of discussion was Collaborative Consumption.  People were interested in the journey I’m on, and were really curious to know what my experiences were like.  What about the possibility getting stuck with an axe murder as a CouchSurfing host?  How do you know that you’ll get matched with the right person?  I get that it worked for you, but is it safe for single female travelers?

I explained that there are three features common to Airbnb, CouchSurfing, Ridejoy and Zimride that allow each company to successfully create trust between strangers.  They are: multi-source identity verification, review systems, and messaging services.  In particular, most fellow Grubbers seemed to agree that integration with Facebook–which automatically updates work and education history on user’s profiles and displays mutual friends between travelers and hosts–served as an important bridge to creating trust.

Grubwithus is a cool service.  At the end of the meal, Henry, a fellow Grubber, took me several miles out of his way to drop me at my CouchSurfing host’s house.  I exchanged contact information with several other Grubbers, and we still have a running thread for comments and information exchange on the Grubwithus website.  For $30 a meal with good eats, good company, and a welcome change of pace, Grubwithus is a winner in my book.  To any SF readers, I’ll probably be organizing a meal (or a few) in the coming months, so be on the lookout.


We woke early, 4:47 to be precise.  James woke easily (this was a pleasant surprise) and Amos was on top of his game.  We set out to the rim of the Grand Canyon to watch the sunrise.  Bats flew around, birds began to chirp, and the faint yellow glow of the day to come washed across the eastern horizon.

First light

To fuel the day, Amos put some hot water on his portable stove.  I hate bad coffee, especially the instant kind, and Folgers is among the worst perpetrators of this disservice to the coffee bean.  But there is something about being in the wilderness, the sensation of the hot bitter liquid touching your lips, warming your insides and priming you for the day that makes drinking hot coffee in the outdoors sublime.

Rather than sit and observe from the Lipan Point observatory area, we scrambled down the incline above the rim until we reached a precipice and a better viewing area.  I wanted to bring myself to look out over the edge, to look straight down thousands of feet of sheer rock or craggy slope, but I was feeling unsteady this morning so kept my distance.

Silhouette (Amos)

Before setting its rays across the canyon walls, the first light painted pink the underbelly of the clouds.  Slowly, but surely, the light settled on the walls of the canyon, making them glow red and exposing the natural stripes in the rock The sky was beginning to change  from  the deep blue of dawn, settling, temporarily, for a pale green.

The western walls of the canyon

The time was 5:40, just 15 minutes past sunrise. To the West, the sun’s rays inched down another level, exposing the plateau thousands of feet below.   The light crept southward still and into the depths of the canyon, twinkling off the muddy waters of the Colorado River.

Day sets in

Now 6:30, the sun had fully risen and the summer heat set in.  Our cold weather clothes were no longer appropriate, so we returned to camp for breakfast and to begin our 28 hour adventure.

The Essentials For An Awesome Rideshare

Thus far this trip I’ve shared four rides: Atlanta-New Orleans, New Orleans-Austin, Austin-San Diego, and San Diego-Los Angeles.   I’ve discovered that there are four essential items that, if you bring them, are guaranteed to improve your rideshare.

Micro USB charger with extra USB port and Apple USB cord

1+2.  A Micro USB car charger with an extra USB port and an Apple USB cord.   These will allow for easy device charging for a myriad of mobile devices from blackberrys to android devices to iPhones to iPads.  This is particularly convenient when you need to use the mapping function on your phone or tablet for navigation but also need to conserve battery power.  It’s also easy to ingratiate yourself with your host if you happen to have a car charger.

Auxiliary cord and iPod

3+4. Auxiliary cord and iPod (or other music playing device).  There’s two reasons that having your own musical capability is a good idea.  First off, public radio in much of the United States is just not that good, usually filled with ads and the a constant rotation of top 40s pop songs.  Second, music is a natural conversation starter.  Even if you and your driver don’t share musical tastes, swapping stories about concerts you’ve been to or general musical interests is a good jumping off point for early-in-the-ride conversation and helps to minimize potentially awkward spans of silence.

I’m currently in Los Angeles but previously was CouchSurfing in San Diego for the past three days.  I”ll be CouchSurfing in Santa Monica for the next three nights, and have signed up to eat a meal put on by Grubwithus’ Director of Sales titled: Sales, Strategy, and Startups: What They Don’t Teach You in B-School.  In the coming days I’ll be writing more about my experience CouchSurfing, and a longer post detailing my adventures with Amos and James in the Southwest.  Stay tuned…

…to be continued

A Sign That Said West

It’s good to know that people still hitchhike.   James and I were walking up to Mather Point, THE quintessential view of the Grand Canyon.  Crowds stood elbow to elbow at the railing, each group trying to snap the obligatory ‘I was here’ photo.  The ear picked up more languages than you’d hear walking down a street in New York City.

And that’s when we saw him.  A backpacker wearing a Camelback on his front, a dusty well-worn backpack on his back, and a cardboard sign that said one word around his neck: WEST.

After a short team meeting, James and I approached him.

“We’re headed to San Diego.  That’s West.  Where are you going?”

That’s how we met Amos.

Amos had been hitchhiking across the United States for the past month.  His travel story is quite the opposite of mine.  He has a phone (though not a smartphone) that he uses only occasionally.  He’s finding rides the old-fashioned way, by sticking his thumb out or soliciting truck drivers at rest stops.  He has a tent on his back and has been sleeping anywhere.  And I do mean anywhere, including public parks and other secluded urban hideouts that he can find a place to rest his head.  He’s taking no pictures, but instead relying on notes jotted in a Moleskin notebook to capture his journey.  But we did have one thing in common: an insatiable desire for adventure and a need to travel, to explore, so see some of the “out there” before settling down.

James (left) Amos (center) and me (right) at Mather Point

You see, Amos is in a transition period in his life, too.  He’s 27 and just finished his Bachelor’s Degree in sociology.  He’s from New Brunswick, Canada, and was raised in a very religious family.  He was a pastor for several years before becoming disillusioned with organized religion.  He got married at 21, lived happily for five years, but is currently estranged from his wife.  After quitting his job as a pastor he went to work in a funeral home, believing that his experience with religion would help him in consoling the bereaved.

That seemed strange.  Why would someone so young choose work that serves as a constant reminder of human mortality?  It turns out working at a funeral home is just like working anywhere else.  Funeral home employees form human connections, they create inside jokes to pass the time.  In fact, you’re in danger of hurting yourself if you take death too seriously.

Amos told us about a former colleague of his, Randy, and how he would pretend to weep, pretend to sob, pretend to cry, while standing over the casket of a stranger’s loved one.  This would make the funeral team laugh, but if a family member came in, Randy would immediately straighten his appearance and act the stand-up funeral service professional.

Sounds horrible, right?   No one wants to think about death, much less the death of a loved one, as the butt end of a joke.  But isn’t it worse to take death too seriously?  Isn’t it still worse to let thoughts of consequences less serious than death–failure, rejection, or wilder still, guilt-free happiness–paralyze our actions, creep into our consciousness and stop us from doing what makes sense deep down, from doing what we love?

Isn’t the only thing we really can do when faced with the reality of death is just say “Fuck you, I’m going to live the deliberate and purposeful life that I choose”?

I’ve been uncomfortably close to death before, so I know this firsthand.  My freshman year in college I was a passenger in a serious car accident from which I (incredibly) walked away unscathed.  This changed my life.  From that day on I decided to pursue only activities that either satisfied my sense of purpose or made me truly happy.  But enough about me, let’s get back to the story.


After welcoming Amos to the team, the three of us set out on a short hike below the rim of the Grand Canyon intent on finding a picturesque vista from which to view the sunset.

We weren’t disappointed.


Sitting atop a rock looking out over the Grand Canyon one can’t help but be amazed at the awesome power of nature.  The cavernous depths, the red cliffs, the brown river zig-zagging through the canyon like a boa constrictor, all set on the stage of the declining light of another passing day.  I’m not a religious person, but it’s hard to not entertain the idea of something higher, something greater, gazing across the Grand Canyon.

A City in the Clouds (Rush Hour Begins at Five)

The road and ever changing sky driving through New Mexico

It all felt a bit forced.  On the one hand, I get it, selling handmade pots, textiles and jewelry is the only income the Acoma tribe members still living in Sky City, NM, garner from tour groups.  But still, was it really necessary for us to stop every 300 feet and have our guide suggest “and you can take a few minutes to look at the Acoma pottery, or jewelry, or weavings before moving on”?

It was hard, because I wanted to learn about the history of the Acoma, to appreciate the grandeur of a tribe that was once the ruler of the American Southwest.

Looking out over the Mesa

But it all seemed like some woefully modern contradiction.  Only thirty five people continuously inhabit Sky City.  In Sky City there is no running water or electricity.  Every time I went to snap a photo of the epic New Mexican mesas, with the pastel adobe of the houses in the foreground, I had to negotiate the photo around Port-a-Pottys, gas grills, and other modern phenomena.  With neither running water nor electricity and people having to eat and go to the bathroom, that’s what stuck out to the visitor’s eye.

Note the blue Port-A-Potty in the back right

And I don’t know if our guide was telling the truth about the total number of inhabitants (though Wikipedia seems to think he was close).  In total I probably saw about 30 people in Sky City.  Most of them were older women; some of them were younger.  And there were some children.  But at 5 PM, just like anywhere else in the country, rush hour happened.  Four times our guide asked the tour to move out of the path so that a vehicle could pass.  The people who made the wares, it turns out, didn’t live on the Mesa but commuted from Albuquerque, back to modern homes and comforts to lay their heads.

It all seemed unfortunate.  That these people commuted back to the Mesa, tried to commute back in time to capture a since-been grandeur, but got stuck with Port-A-Potties and automobiles, and caricatures of ancestral selves.

Clouds at sunset in Holbrook, AZ where James and I camped for the evening

Now don’t get me wrong, I still learned a lot about the history of the Acoma tribe on this tour.  Like how the east-facing kilns, brought over with the Spanish missionaries, are originally a Moroccan tradition from the time when Andalusia was under Islamic control.  Or that the Ponderosa pine wood to build the San Estevan Del Ray Mission Church was carried on the backs of men from 40 miles away, and that if it touched the ground en route it couldn’t be used.

San Estevan Del Ray Mission Church

If you’re in the Southwest, the tour is worth it, if only for the views.  But prepare to be at least a little surprised, and perhaps a bit sad, when you get to the end.

The Freedom of the Road

I love the road.  There’s something about travel, something about the ability to direct and set your course wherever you so choose, a feeling that simmers up through every fiber of your body and imbues  your thoughts with ideas so spontaneous, so fanciful, that you can’t help but muse at their sheer ridiculousness.  There’s nothing like being in transit to make you think that the impossible is attainable.

Post, Texas

James, the British guy I’m traveling  with whom I met through the rideshare section on Craigslist, shares this feeling of spontaneity.  He’s 27, and a childcare specialist.  He originally came to the States to attend a friend’s wedding in Chicago a month or so ago.  Much like me, James realized that, at this point in his life, he wasn’t particularly tied to either place or person.  It seemed like the right time to do some exploring, so he’s checking out the Southwest, though he’s already stopped in New York City and loved the Big Apple so much that he plans to move there once finances allow.

We met up two nights ago at a bar to discuss our potential route, the distance we wanted to drive the following day (yesterday), and get to know one another a little bit.  Our original plan was to just drive the Southwest corridor on the I-10, stopping mostly in the Desert parks along the way.  After a few drinks and several consultations with Google, we realized that we’d be doing ourselves a dis-service to not see the most epic parts of the Southwest, like Zion National Park, the Grand Canyon…America’s true national wonders.  So we set off yesterday with the ambitious goal of driving straight through to Zion.  That’s a 20 hour drive and about 1400 miles, but like I said the road changes how you think.

Littlefield, Texas: the closest thing to a ghost town I’ve ever seen

Around 8 PM we arrived in Littlefield, Texas, population 6,463.  Not gonna lie, this place gave me the creeps.  It was just so empty, so still.  One of those places where the silence is truly deafening.  About this time James and I regained our rationality (or perhaps the five-hour energy just wore off) and realized that driving another 13 hours was neither safe nor appealing.  Time to find a place to sleep.

In addition to the humans, there are some extra-terrestrials in Littlefield

This is where I have to hand it to Airbnb.  Their mobile app is awesome.  Within an hour James and I found and booked Danielle’s listing in Albuquerque.  $50 total for two travelers?  That seemed like a steal, especially given that we both had our own queen sized bed.  And Danielle was gracious and willing to accommodate us even though we’d be arriving at 1:00 am.  I could tell from the instant we booked that Danielle was a pro Airbnb host.  She has more than 40 reviews and has been hosting for the past two and a half years, since well before Airbnb’s global growth shot up.  Danielle made us both huevos rancheros for breakfast (this was advertised in the amenities section, though is by no means required of hosts) at no extra charge.  I even got to hang out with her three year old son Markus (it made me miss the days when it was appropriate to throw food and eat with my fingers).  She even recommended that we check out the Acoma Pueblo Dwellings, and James and I are probably going to do that today.  This is part of what I think is really neat about Airbnb.   It brings people together who would otherwise have no reason to cross paths.  Neither James nor I are particularly close to Danielle in age, interests, or much at all, however we had the opportunity to share space, stories, and company with each other, if only briefly.  I’ll take that over a Motel6 any day.

In theory our next destination is Zion, but James and I are really just making up this trip as we go along.  I’m going to try to post again in two days, however I’m keen to not let my desire to stay connected to the internets prevent me from appreciating the great outdoors.  So we’ll see what happens.  Either way I’ll be in San Diego on Wednesday (possibly Tuesday night) with many updates and some great pictures.  So stay tuned for more…

“Every man ought to be inquisitive through every hour of his great adventure down to the day when he shall no longer cast a shadow in the sun. For if he dies without a question in his heart, what excuse is there for his continuance?” -Frank Moore Colby


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