Burn Unit: Alchemy

Burning Man is a Big Deal™ that gets held every year in the middle of the Nevada desert. What makes it such a big deal are the Ten Principles practiced by its participants: radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leave no trace, participation and immediacy.

That, and the giant burning man. Yeah, this is a hippy thing.

The popularity of Burning Man has led to the creation of similar, smaller burns throughout the country. About a year ago, a group of friends invited me to go to the Georgia burn, Alchemy. I'd only ever been camping once in my life (with the same friends, coincidentally) so suffice it to say, this was a brand new experience.

A lot of people talk about how this burn kicked my ass or this burn made me realize who I truly am. I was excited to have those same experiences! I wanted to get out and try new things! Embrace the ten principles, pretend to be someone else for a weekend! I drove up with a friend on Thursday night, the last of our camp to arrive. I took a picture of the gate and the cars in front of it, posted it to Facebook with a note that I'd be offline and turned my phone off. This was it.

The first thing I had to do was get my tent set up. Instinctually, I knew that I didn't want anything to get wet so I had to get everything inside before the dew could accumulate. With the help of a few more experienced camp mates, I got my tent set up and moved in. Home sweet home for the next few days. There wasn't any time to dawdle thought, the rest of my camp wanted to get out and wander. I threw on some slightly warmer clothes and popped out to see what everyone was up to.

Quick sidebar: As soon as I stepped out, one of my best friends grabbed me into a deep bearhug, pulling me close. I figured he was just horsing around until he quietly asked me "are you ready boy?" I can't explain why this had such a profound effect on me, but this was the safest, most welcomed I'd ever felt anywhere in my life. Not a sexual thing, not a friend thing, just an emotional thing.

Our party set out to wander around the farm and see what there was to see. Holy crap there was a lot. From the cozy bar our neighboring camp had set up to the EDM club in one of the deepest parts of the forest all the way to the camp that was nothing but... well, think Cirque du Soleil except with a lot more fire. On top of this, the forested paths are surrounded by the wildest, most creative art you've never seen. Alchemy volunteers are darting back and forth on golf carts screaming "HAPPY BURN!" at us, spinners practicing their elaborate routines, illuminated by LEDs in some cases and flames in others. A camp across the path from ours has a lit up weather balloon tethered to the ground. Thuddy EDM in the background is punctuated every few minutes by the WHOOSH of another propane flame cannon firing, lighting up the haze with a dull orange glow.

The weekend went pretty much like that. I either spent my time hanging around camp or wandering around, trying to take everything in or climbing around on the effigy.

Alchemy's 2013 effigy was a sort of pyramid made out a bunch of four foot by four foot plywood boxes nailed and screwed together. I spent a good amount of time wandering around, looking out at the rest of the burn camps and trying to work up the courage to talk to people. I had hoped this would be easier, but I think a combination of the weather and this being such a drastically new experience made that harder. I don't work well in cold weather and it definitely showed in my demeanor.

On Saturday night the effigy burned.

My friend did the math and came up with 350 sheets of plywood and 500 2x4s, plus accelerant. A lot of accelerant. You know it's a good fire when you have to break out the mylar space blanket for fear of getting burned even though you're 50 feet away.

The group managed to reconvene after the spectacular light show and we set off to wander again. By this point, I was frustrated. The cold was tiresome, my seeming inability to engage even a single stranger in conversation was pushing me to my limit and I'd just generally been depressed as hell for the last few months.

I split off from the group and set out to visit the temple. A burn is a chaotic, happy, vibrant experience. The temple is the exact opposite of that, lit softly by a single candle in a lantern hanging from the center, casting shadows that dance with the wind through the intricately carved wooden frames. Almost everyone has been here it seems, some writing long, intricate notes and drawings, others scrawling the name of a scorned love or a dead relative. This is the cemetery, where people can lay down their burdens and let them be carried away on the flames when the temple is burned.

I knew what I wanted to leave here. It was a spur of the moment thing, a lightbulb going off in my head. I managed to find a spot on one of the edges of the frame. I wrote what I wanted to leave, capped the pen and smiled at the two ladies that had been watching me curiously before I turned around and headed out.

The temple, like the effigy, went up in flames later that night. This burn is a quiet one though. Respect for the memories we're leaving in the ashes of this place. I'm not a very spiritual person, but taking the time to put something in the temple helped me overcome one of my darkest periods since high school.


Sunday, camp woke up refreshed (if a little hungover) and ready to pack out. It always seems daunting, but damned if we don't have the tents broken down and everything loaded up 90 minutes after we commit to it. My friend wants to sleep some more so I get stuck driving. Out the gate, down the road, around the mountain and we're back on the highway to Atlanta.

Alchemy is over. The burn didn't break me, didn't show me who I really was, honestly I feel like it didn't really change anything about me in any tangible way. More importantly, I had fun. I had an opportunity to step outside my comfort zone in the best environment possible, even if all I did was the equivalent of sticking my toe in the water. The months following Alchemy seemed to go a lot better as well, another fact that hasn't been overlooked.