The setting sun reflects off the haze of alkaline dust lingering in the desert air. It coats my skin, sticks to my shoes, wedges into the corners of my eyes before I have a chance to put my goggles on.
I’ve arrived in Black Rock City aka the playa aka Burning Man.
Gifted a ticket as part of a writing scholarship program 10 years ago this month, I made the six-hour trip north from my home in Las Vegas on my own. Up until just a week before the journey, I debated whether to go. Ten years ago, there was no wifi on the playa. No influencers, nothing called “festival wear,” minimal corporate sponsorship and presence.
Even though everyone seems to know what Burning Man is today, I barely knew anything about it a decade ago. But I was at a cross-roads in my life — trying to step out on my own while still being tethered to a toxic job and company.
Here’s what I knew: I needed to be self-sufficient for a week. I had to bring everything with me, and pack everything out, including garbage and gray water. I needed to feed myself (yikes!). I needed costumes and a bike. I vaguely knew who I was meeting up with at Burning Man, but I didn’t actually know anyone — or how to find them — when I arrived.
Over the years, I’ve started every story about my time at Burning Man with this line: “I pitched my tent in a dust storm, wishing I’d never come. And I tore it down in a dust storm, because I was strong enough to do anything.”
And it’s true: I reached Black Rock City at dusk. A brilliant sunset stirred up in the flying dust. I found a place to pitch my tent, dug out my goggles and dust mask, and started driving rebar into the parched desert ground. I pinned two layers of thick cloth around the outside of the tent to prevent dust from seeping in (a big, fat fail). Then I set out to explore the neon-lit, otherworldly city in the desert.
Over the course of the next week, I encountered several moments that had a profound and lasting affect on my life:
- Learning and experiencing the reality of serendipity. I had a camp stove; my neighbors had food. I lost people in the middle of the night and found them in the dark.
- I met several people my age who had set out on their own and were wildly successful. Though I don’t agree with everything they stand for today, at the time, they were an example of what I could be: untethered, free, creative, unconstrained. They showed me what was possible when I needed it most.
- One night I asked “why?” A newfound friend advised instead that I ask “why not?” I’ve never forgotten his words.
In the most cliche of ways, for one week, I escaped who and what I was. Without any expectations of what I’d find at Burning Man, I went not knowing who I would meet, what I would learn, who I would become.
I encountered the temple when I needed to shed my current skin. I asked hard questions, learned lessons I didn’t know I needed to learn, found personal strength I didn’t know I needed or had.
Within a week of returning home, I decided to quit my corporate America job for good. I haven’t looked back.
That single week, 10 years ago, changed the course of my life.
Ten years ago.
Yesterday morning while having brunch with a friend, I realized this weekend also marked another significant milestone in my life.
A decade before attending Burning Man — a whole 20 years ago — I graduated from high school. Last night was the 20th reunion I did not attend.
Academically, high school was tolerable. Socially, I struggled — but, don’t we all, to some extent?
I’ll spare you the grisly details of high school angst. Suffice to say that, while I left on a high note as one of the valedictorians of my class, I couldn’t wait to leave.
Unsurprisingly, graduating from high school was a turning point in my life. Not for any particularly meaningful reason except that it meant I finally got to make my own rules. I could live on my own, choose my own classes, follow my own interests. Finally, I could seek out challenges and carve out my JoAnna-shaped niche in life.
So, 20 years ago, I finally got the piece of paper I needed to become the adult I wanted to be.
Ten years later, I learned valuable life lessons at Burning Man that kicked me onto a new path.
Earlier today, I found myself wondering if I failed to discover another milestone. Am I due to shake up my life drastically once a decade?
Admittedly, I am very much stuck in some aspects of my professional life. I got a bit cocky, a little bit lazy. I took things for granted and burned a few bridges along the way. I’m trying very hard to bounce back in an updated, more meaningful, and smarter way.
But if a stranger flipped through the last 10 years of my life in quick succession, I think they’d be impressed: Speaking gigs and big bylines, sure. But also an international family built of exchange students and special friends. A massive lifestyle change when we moved halfway around the world and became expats. I became a yoga instructor. We fostered more than 50 kittens.
It’s kind of awesome to have a moment I can point to and say “that right there, that’s when my life changed.” But it doesn’t have to be a particular moment. And it doesn’t have to happen every 10 years.
The truth is, my life is an evolution of day-to-day awesomeness. I don’t know what the next 10 years will bring. But if the last 10 years — and the decade before that — are any indication, there is absolutely no way to predict how it will unfold.