A Change of Heart: A Tale of Burning Man

by Brenna Holeman

Burning Man Burn

Right now, thousands of people are making their way to Black Rock Desert, Nevada, USA. What brings them there? The infamous festival called Burning Man, an annual event defined by community, art, self-reliance, and radical inclusion. “Anyone can be a part of Burning Man.” This was written as part of the event’s 10 principles. “We welcome and respect the stranger.” This year, 68,000 people will attend the week-long event.


I went to Burning Man in 2011, and stayed the full eight days. I camped in the desert under the big clear sky, my days spent riding the playa on my bicycle, making friends, cooking grilled cheese sandwiches, my nights a hazy blur of stilt-walkers, fire-breathers, mutant cars shaped like scorpions and jellyfish. I wore outfits I threw together from a garbage bag of costumes in the trunk of the car; I wore saris and glitter, fake fur and angel wings, tutus and sometimes nothing at all. When I reached the gates on that very first day, a girl wearing pink fishnets made me roll around in the playa, coating my hair in the greyish dust. “Welcome home,” she told me, and hugged me. I was instantly in love with this alternate universe, this utopian dream of creativity and art and acceptance.

Burning Man 2011

I was fresh off of a huge adventure around Asia that began with two years living in Japan and ended with eight months backpacking through Thailand, India, Australia, and beyond. I was still high off of the lifestyle, the sense that people from all over the world could come together as one over nothing but a few beers and a mutual curiosity of the unknown. I hadn’t felt disapproval or exclusivity in years; such is life on the road, when we are all starry-eyed and green, open to making new friends every day. I read the principles of Burning Man and I liked them, I agreed with them.

Burning Man Playa

Yet when I reached our camp, it was very clear that I was the stranger. It was very clear that I didn’t belong. I arrived on the arm of a man who had been my travel partner and romantic partner for four months, someone I had spent continuous weeks getting to know as we made our way through Cambodia, Malaysia, and Indonesia. We had fallen for each other when our backyard was the Pacific Ocean, when our playground was filled with motorbikes and rice paddies. We hadn’t yet learned how to be with each other outside of that bubble.


The bubble burst right there on the playa, suddenly surrounded by his friends, his native countrymen, his exgirlfriend. It was doomed from the start for me, the outsider, the unwanted. Everything was different, from the way he looked at me to the way he said my name. Early on in the week, in the sacred temple, I wrote him a message on the wall, a message about our future. “Travel the world with me,” I scribbled in black marker. We sat and listened to the bells and the prayers, but he said nothing. I watched as he changed, watched as, in that city of love and light, he grew distant and dark.

Burning Man Temple

Burning Man Temple 3

Nobody was ever outright mean to me; in fact, many of the people in our camp were incredibly kind and welcoming, despite me being some new girl suddenly thrown in the mix. There was hushed gossip and the occasional passive-aggressive remark, but I never expected to be invited with the other girls as they ran off together, giggling and holding hands on their way to the Port-A-Pottys. I completely and wholeheartedly understood why I was not always included, and I did not, and do not, begrudge anyone for it. Sometimes, even in a society that celebrates community and acceptance, there is someone that doesn’t quite fit in, and that’s natural.


During the week I spent a lot of time away from the group, either with my boyfriend or on my own. In those times I met dozens of other Burners, people who opened up their arms and took me in, who fed me and laughed with me and told me bizarre stories as we shared whiskey out of a canteen. I slept in a bouncy castle and danced around fires, hitching a ride back to my side of the playa on a double-decker bus covered in pink fur. They were happy times, times I felt that I was on another planet, a planet where moon beams and playa dust gave sense to the night.

Burning Man 2011 3

On the last evening, only my boyfriend and I remained of our group. We watched solemnly as the temple was lit on fire and burned to the ground, a tradition and a salute to those no longer with us. The heat, though the fire burned hundreds of metres away, was unbearable, and I had to cover my face. I watched through my fingers as the temple crumpled and collapsed; with it, messages to my loved ones, and that message to my boyfriend. I cried then, not only for my family and friends, but because it was all over. Our adventure had come to an end, our future no more than ashes blowing across the desert. He wanted the life inside our little camp; I, the life outside of it. He wanted the familiar, I wanted the foreign.

Burning Man Temple Burn

We left Black Rock City the next morning, and even after three showers I was still dusty, my feet cracked, my skin stained with body paint and glitter. I spent the next two months in a car with him, wondering if it would ever go back to how it was when we drank rum with Malaysian pilots and flew kites with Indonesian kids. Some days I hoped it would, but most days I hoped it wouldn’t. By the time our road trip was over and I was back in Canada, the inevitable happened, and we went separate ways. I continued to travel; he stayed home. All was how it was supposed to be, and again, I do not begrudge him for any of it. It was what the temple foretold, and I had known it back then on the playa. But just because my time at Burning Man wasn’t the week I had wanted it to be, it doesn’t mean that it wasn’t magical, that it wasn’t eye-opening and inspiring and, above all else, that it wasn’t fun.


“You’ve been to Burning Man?” Someone asked me at a party last night. “What was it like?” I responded instinctually with that same answer, the one I give whenever anyone asks me about nearly anything I’ve ever done, because how can I sum up working in Japan or travelling around South America or simply living a good and fulfilling life in only a few words?


“It was amazing.” And, in a moment of pure honesty: “I can’t wait to go back.”


Burning Man Art

You may also like


Lauren August 27, 2013 - 1:41 am

loved this!! your writing is always some of my favorite. 🙂

Brenna August 28, 2013 - 11:26 pm

Thank you so much.

Naomi August 27, 2013 - 3:13 am

Your writing is brilliant! It takes such courage to share this side of your experience. I’ve had Burning Man on the brain a lot lately – especially this past year, meeting so many people who have gone – and this is just more fuel to the fire. Even despite the not-so-inclusive camp dynamics, this adventure is seriously inspiring!!

Brenna August 28, 2013 - 11:27 pm

You would LOVE it Naomi, I just know it. We should go together one day!

Anne August 27, 2013 - 3:45 am

Can I just say that you’re my idol? 🙂

Your writing is absolutely amazing, and you’ve lived the kind of life I dream of living now and into my 20s. You are incredibly inspiring and brave to write about this part of your life, and I admire you so much for it. I’ve loved following your blog the past couple years, I wish I had gotten here earlier though.

When you said that you answered that typical question of “So what was it like?/How was it?” with “It was amazing.” I laughed!! I also give that same answer every single time. Because I also don’t know how to otherwise sum up a whole semester of college, or a summer living in Morocco, or a road trip across the US. “It was amazing” is always the simple answer to give to the people that ask 🙂

Brenna August 28, 2013 - 11:29 pm

Thank you so much, Anne! I really appreciate your comment and I wish you all the best for your future travels. Thank you for always supporting my blog, I hope you’ll keep reading.

And yes, summing up a trip or an experience is always so difficult. I never know what to say!

Helen August 27, 2013 - 2:41 pm

Such a beautiful post. It’s sad when things inevitably come to and end, but I love how you’ve taken so much positivity out of it too.

Shame that some of the people were with were not so welcoming. I would have gone to the loo with you! 🙂

And burning man looks amazing. Glitter, fairy wings, temples, starry skies, grilled cheese sandwiches… think this needs to be part of a future trip for me.

Brenna August 28, 2013 - 11:31 pm

Thank you, Helen! Burning Man truly was fantastic, I hope I get to experience it again one day.

Caroline Eubanks August 29, 2013 - 5:27 pm

I agree with what everyone has said. You are one of those few travel bloggers who is also a truly gifted and talented writer. I can look at photos in posts and read the bullshit top ten lists and not feel anything, but reading your posts are like cozying up to a good book and a cup of tea.

Brenna August 29, 2013 - 11:51 pm

Caroline, this really means so much coming from you. I am so thankful to have met you and I look forward to seeing you again someday soon…hopefully someday very soon!

Claire August 30, 2013 - 4:51 pm

This is such a beautifully written article! I can’t say that I’ve really been interested in Burning Man until recently – but you’re definitely changing my mind! The way you wrote about your travel-world intersecting with his “real” world was just beautiful.

Brenna September 3, 2013 - 12:11 am

Thank you very much! I hope you get to visit Burning Man one day.

Travel Writing Round Up [September 2013] - Caroline in the City Travel Blog September 3, 2013 - 2:04 pm

[…] A Change of Heart: A Tale of Burning Man, This Battered Suitcase– Brenna is a truly gifted writer and shares her experience going with a boyfriend to Burning Man and what she left behind on the playa. […]

Flora @ Flora the Explorer September 3, 2013 - 4:01 pm

What a beautiful and personal perspective of such a potentially life changing event! This is a gorgeous article, Brenna 🙂 I’m getting vague thoughts of heading to Burning Man next year, when I’ll have been in South America for around 18 months… Your writing makes me more sure that it’s a good idea. I hope to meet you someday if our travel paths ever collide 🙂

Brenna September 3, 2013 - 5:35 pm

Thank you so much, Flora! I love your writing so this is a very nice compliment to receive. I’m sure you would have a great time at Burning Man, and I’d be happy to give you any tips if you need anything.

I’m calling London home for the next two years (at least) so if you’re ever this way, please let me know! It would be absolutely fantastic to meet you.

Anna Frisk September 6, 2013 - 9:41 am

Like everyone else, I’m smitten with your writing! You’ve crafted such an enlightening and thoughtful piece of love, traveling and the unique fusion of Burning Man. I haven’t been, but since meeting friends from Nevada it’s been high on my MUST list. P.S. You provided the perfect dose of inspiration and positivity that I needed to start today. 🙂

Brenna September 6, 2013 - 2:13 pm

Oh, thank you so much, Anna! That’s very kind of you to say. Burning Man is fantastic, I do hope you get to go one day.

Angela September 9, 2013 - 5:51 pm

I wanted the story to last a little bit longer. You have a really great way of writing and pulling people in.

Brenna September 11, 2013 - 4:25 pm

Thank you so much, Angela. I’m glad you liked it.

Christine September 9, 2013 - 9:18 pm

Thank you Brenna for always sharing your amazing stories!

Brenna September 11, 2013 - 4:24 pm

Thanks, Christine!

Cara-Mia September 12, 2013 - 9:46 pm

Just commenting with not much to say except that I absolutely love your writing. 🙂

Brenna September 12, 2013 - 10:10 pm

Aw, thank you Cara-Mia.

Anja September 19, 2013 - 9:58 am

Hi Brenna, What an interesting article to read! In the first place because you indeed write very well. Secondly because of your honesty.

Usually we hear only raving stories about Burning Man. And yes, it looks amazing! I am sure that I would love it in many aspects: the creativity, the visuals, the environment, the arty, the quirkiness, the imaginative. That all is totally up my alley.

Still I will most likely never go there. Because I am not a camper and not a real group person.

I am quite shy, in a way, and I know from experience that being in a group can go either way for me. Maybe I will fit in and feel fine, but it’s as well possible that I don’t and feel akward and lonely amidst of all those people. I have felt that more then enough, so I will not look for that.

Bravo for your courage and positive, adventurous personality!

How to Save Money to Travel the World - This Battered Suitcase November 15, 2013 - 2:52 am

[…] trip to Australia. I finished the year with a road trip through America and Canada (which included Burning Man). I then started working as a server/bartender in […]

Alex February 7, 2014 - 12:17 am

Awesome! Will have to make the “trip” one day 😉

Brenna Holeman February 7, 2014 - 2:13 am

I hope you get to go, there’s no trip like it…

Jessica Wray February 7, 2014 - 10:55 am

Such a beautiful article and a beautiful story! I yearn to be able to put an experience into words like this. It’s truly a talent! 🙂

Brenna Holeman February 7, 2014 - 12:02 pm

Thank you so much, Jessica!

Becki September 1, 2014 - 7:00 pm

Beautiful post about the friction of emotion. A shame to feel unaccepted yet strong of you to see the goodness and want to return. I think we have a girl trip on the cards…

Brenna Holeman September 2, 2014 - 1:48 am

Aw, thank you so much, Becki. I would love to go on a trip with you, it would be amazing! For now, I’ll look forward to shenanigans in Greece 😉 x

Tom @ Waegook Tom September 1, 2014 - 8:07 pm

Honestly, Burning Man doesn’t really interest me very much, but your writing, as always, has drawn me in. Beautiful post, Brenna x

Brenna Holeman September 2, 2014 - 1:47 am

Thank you, Tom. I always appreciate your comments so much! x

Zalie September 3, 2014 - 11:07 pm

I still think you and I should go back one year…before we both get too old haha!!

Brenna Holeman September 4, 2014 - 5:02 am

Any time you want… I don’t care how old we are!

Cate Brubaker September 5, 2016 - 6:40 pm

Beautifully written and I think this sums up everything Burning Man is supposed to be. Also, I know the people who own that furry bus!

Brenna Holeman September 5, 2016 - 8:47 pm

Oh wow, that’s so cool! Thank you for your comment, Cate, I’m glad you enjoyed the post.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.