I am going to go out on a limb by stating this:
Everyone, every man, every woman, should attend one camping festival before his or her death. Everyone.
The first real festival I ever plunked myself into was Burning Man. Yes, Burning Man. The one stretching seven long days across the barren and blistering desert of Black Rock City. The one where the attendee cannot buy food or souvenirs -- where money in its entirely is obsolete. The one with bikes, dust storms, costumes fit for freak shows, the latest nights ever spent, and blinking, winking, lit up art like you've never seen.
Burning Man is not for everyone. The heat alone can swear off any brave soul. Me, in all my Burning Man naivety, showed up sans bike*, funky clothing, or any lights to distinguish me from the darkness of night. I was stupid unprepared. Additionally, this desert, the Playa, is rough. It isn't all smiles, hugs, and rapid moments of back to back bliss. No person shows up without her own baggage. The Playa simply unpacks it, putting it on display for you to see, truly.
Me? I showed up with bags packed full of eating disorder crazy. I spent days frantically comparing myself to other half naked women, worrying about the food I ate, and debating the pros and cons of throwing up in the porta-potties (don't worry, one attempt put me off of that real quick!). The Playa showed me how I judged, how I withheld, how I tried to be anyone other than myself. The Playa challenged me and, ultimately, brought a drop of life back into my life.
One night, high on acid and a sense of boundlessness, I stumbled upon a sound camp marked by strange noises and a single cardboard cutout of a question mark. I'd unknowingly found Camp Question Mark, what was to be the breeding grounds for a personal revolution. Shadows mingled with screen projected colors of blue and green, these images of the sea, the sky, the grass. Creepy-crawly, down right dirty dub step oozed out the speakers. The sound hit my body full force. My limbs moved as if untethered, as if freed. I looked around to see if anyone noticed. No one did. I kept dancing, moving in and out of self-consciousness.
I kept running from the dirt dance floor to my friends enjoying art a few feet away, shouting, "Come join me! Come dance! You're missing out!"
After a few rounds of this my friend, bless her heart, turned away from her boyfriend and said to me matter-of-factly, "Stop saying we're missing out! We're not missing anything." She jumped on her bike and starting backing away. "We're going to explore. We'll see you later."
And, you know what? They weren't missing out. On anything. They were experiencing an entirely separate experience. Neither of our experiences were better than the other. They were each exactly as they needed to be. She was falling in love. I was falling into self understanding.
I took her advice and shoved off. Despite my insecurities, despite my worries, despite my self -- I spent the night dancing, alone, and wandering around the desert with wide eyed freedom. That night sparked the beginning of a healing journey. In my rediscovery of dance, I reconnected with my body. The endlessly vast space of the desert allowed me to move freely and think freely. I felt as if I belonged in my body again and as if my body belonged to me.
What became of the remainder of the week? A lot of laughing. Of bonding. Of meeting what was to become my future boyfriend. Of learning more about my body and how it moved. Of seeing hula hoops and sensing a connection, one that blossomed two years later. Burning Man brought me out of the hollow shell of who I thought I was and closer to the person I am today. Because of Burning Man, I found what I needed to eventually heal myself from my disorders.
Festivals devoid of cell phones, of internet, of television and emails, ask of you one thing and one thing only: be here, now. For, what do you do when faced with no distraction? What can you do? You learn to surrender to the moment, comfortably or uncomfortably. Either way, the moment will be there, waiting to be had.
Festivals like Burning Man teach you the glory of being you -- of how to rely on yourself completely. They show you what works for you and what may not work for you. Those days, moving without a single thing to do, really show you how to rest in sweet nothingness, how to savor planning and doing absolutely nothing. Like I mentioned, there exists a freedom at these festivals, one we can learn to treasure and then apply in the “real world” when we return back to it.
I'm not suggesting you run off willy-nilly into the desert with a bunch of drugs and a bunch of strangers. Especially if that sounds like the last place you'd ever go. I'm suggesting finding the festival that is right for you. The one that always sounded appealing but perhaps rested just out of reach. I challenge you to step into that unknown, to camp out for three or four days and see what happens. The results may surprise you. Regardless of the festival you choose, the lessons will pour out of the woodworks. You will leave transformed, in some way, and without regrets. Just a pile of silly stories and an experience unmatched by any other.
*But really, don't show up with out a bike.
San Francisco native Zoe Jones is a writer, yoga instructor, hoop dancer, and life lover. She calls San Francisco home and spends her days contemplating the contemplative bits of life, hooping in her living room, unraveling on her mat, and singing much, much too loudly.
Fire Show Flaming Trails image courtesy of Shutterstock