This One Time at Burning Man, by Justin Brown

“I acknowledge and fully understand that as a participant, I will be engaging in activities that involve risk of serious injury, including permanent disability and death, property loss and severe social and economic losses.”

My first year attending Burningman was 2001. I hadn’t heard a lot about the event at the time, other than it was a big art festival with fire. Being an avid survival camper most of my life it was easy for my then girlfriend to convince me to go. Art? I like art… Fire? I really like fire… I know how to camp in the desert, let’s go! So we set off with two of our friends, not knowing really what we had gotten into. (The whole trip was a whirlwind adventure, way too much to get into here.)

Fast forward to waiting in the gate line. As soon as we got through the gate, we stopped at the first spot we saw to make camp (around 7 & I) not knowing how much space the event covered or how incredible everything was. After setting up camp, we made friends with our neighbors, a nice group of British kids (also on their first year) who brought their entire living room including the telephone and London phone book. This kept us at camp all day, and at sunset we decided to go out and explore. As we got deeper into the city, the sensory overload began to set in.

With so many amazing things going on at once it was hard to process it all without feeling dazed and amped up on adrenaline at the same time. This feeling stayed with me all week, slowly building as the days went on.

One day around three or four, I was wandering through the playa at night when I saw in the distance what I call “The Flaming Tetherball.” This mechanical contraption has a tetherball, on fire, that automatically wraps itself around a pole, and then unwraps itself to do the whole sequence all over again. By this late in the week, I had been stumbling around with childlike wonderment, fascinated by everything I came across.

Not thinking, I made a bee-line to the swinging fireball, determined to figure out how it works. As it was dark, I couldn’t make out the mechanics of the contraption and how it winds itself around the pole. So I get really close to get a better look. Just as I start to make out the armature I hear a click. My approach was in time with the start of another wind up cycle and here comes a flaming tetherball towards me, right at head level. I remember thinking, “This is why they mentioned possible death” as the tetherball closed the distance to my face.

Thankfully I have decent amateur ninja skills to rely on and avoided, at the very least, burning my right eyebrow off. My acrobatics thoroughly impressed my friends and my girlfriend, who all thought I was going to catch myself on fire and require some sort of medical attention. I have seen that piece on the playa many of the other years I have attended, and I appreciate the lesson it taught me about not letting my excitement level outweigh my level of caution.