Burning Man: The Simpsons at sunrise. / by chris miele

When you depart for Burning Man you know that there will be experiences that will potentially change you.  It's one of the reasons why we continually return.  Wednesday morning at sunrise was the lesson I needed from this year's burn.  It was an experience that truly shook me and warranted it's own story.

Morning rituals. 

Early Wednesday morning we committed to seeing our first sunrise of the burn.  Sunrise is arguably the most magical time on the playa, but I like to pace things and have traditionally reserved sunrises for later in the week.  Once you crack your first sunrise, the rest of the time becomes a calculated marathon.  With our core crew saddled up, we headed for the 2:00 side of the playa to catch some sexy morning tunes from our dude Goldrush.  We arrived early and he hadn't begun yet, so Erin and I headed off into the playa on foot to soak in the approaching sunrise.  This was a morning where I intentionally left the camera at camp.  I wanted to experience this morning as a spectator and just enjoy it, but early on I realized the sky was going to do the dance.  As we lounged on the cracked playa, the sky started to unfold it's wonderful orange, pink, and yellow gradients.  The more the colors appeared the more I struggled with not having my camera and shooting.  This morning had become a real test in accepting a choice and enjoying the moment.

Sunday morning, coming in hot. 

Sunrise was going at full tilt when we witnessed something odd.  Roughly 50 yards in-front of us two girls had setup a blanket and opened their MacBook...facing away from the sunset.  Erin quickly remarked, "Is that an Apple logo, facing me, at sunrise???"  It took a minute to register, but it was in fact a laptop, staring us down in the middle of the open playa.  Several moments passed before we couldn't stand the Apple logo beaming at us any longer.  We needed to not only move, but had to see what in the hell someone could be doing on their laptop, facing away from sunrise.  As we passed we stole a glimpse...it was the Simpsons that was stealing the show.  That's right, two girls had decided to watch The Simpsons at sunrise, IN THE MIDDLE OF THE PLAYA. 

First stricken by confusion and intrigue, I then became uncomfortable.  The feeling intensified with each step,  I became more and more nauseous.  I couldn't walk far enough away.  With a mass of emotions swelling I looked at Erin and said "I have to say something."  This was a moment where I wanted to offer the most polite and composed sentiment about how amazing the sunrise was.  I had to stop, take several breaths, and compose myself so that I was not delivering a judgment, just a statement.  As I walked closer the girls must have sensed I was coming.  They turned around when I was no closer than 10 ft away and with my voice trembling, I said "Hey, I just wanna let you know that sunrise is really awesome right now."  Without hesitation they remarked "Well The Simpsons are really awesome."  In an instant my brain flashed a dozen thoughts on how they were right.  Yes they are awesome, they're the longest running, most celebrated animated series ever.  They were topical, satirical, and spanned generations.  Yes the Simpsons are awesome.  My mind thought "maybe they are aspiring writers and wish to be the next Matt Groening."  As all of these thoughts flashed before me I responded with a simple "fair enough."

Burning Man is a place where everyone is welcome and everyone can (practically) do what they wish and spend their time as the wish.  Seeing these two girls spend their sunrise behind a laptop shattered me, but they weren't wrong, and I knew it before I walked up.  I was not there to tell them how they should spend their sunrise, but I did feel obligated, based on my passions, to at least make them aware of what was transpiring.

I spent the next 20 minutes spiraling into a legitimate and very vulnerable emotional collapse.  I couldn't understand how in a place so beautiful and magical that someone couldn't disconnect.  In a place described as so bizarre and strange, witnessing someone on a laptop had become the most surreal experience to date.  At first I was immensely sad.  Sad that they chose their screen over the sky.  Then I was sad at witnessing first hand a very real and big generational gap.  A generation that is truly as disconnected as society has warned.  Then I was sad because I wasn't shooting.  This was the real reason why I was nearly on the ground crying.  I was sad that I didn't have any images from the experience to help tell the story, the very reason I'm a photographer.  Missing this sunrise (photographically) had spiraled me into a state that had me questioning my passion and drive.  It showed me that I clearly loved watching the sunrise, but was complacent in documenting it.  Watching someone's decision to ignore that sunrise revealed to me how I needed alter my patterns and adjust my focus.

My girlfriend and I walked further and further into the deep playa, picking up moop and thinking of new projects and stories to tell.  The sadness wore off and acceptance set in.  It was the most poignant moment, morning, and experience I've maybe ever had on the playa.  It reminded me of how to honor others' choices and how to follow mine. 

I didn't miss a sunrise after that day.

Lingering smoke from Saturday's burning of The Man really added some fuel to Sunday's sunrise fire.