Water In The Desert: 5 Life Lessons I Learned From EDC

by Luke Miller [Guest Post]

I suppose I didn’t really have any solid expectations when I began my journey to Las Vegas in 2015. I knew this was a massive festival—I’d seen commercials and trailers and clips from previous years—but it still didn’t hit me until I actually got there. It started to sink in when my plane landed and the entire cabin burst into applause and a minutes-long chant of “E-D-C! E-D-C! E-D-C!” It kept sinking in when I was walking through the airport and signs everywhere said “Las Vegas welcomes Electric Daisy Carnival.” And it really started to sink in when I noticed about ¾ of the people I saw at the airport wearing the admission wristband, basically your ticket into the Carnival itself. This was going to be huge on a scale I never would have fathomed.

If you looked at me on a normal day, you wouldn’t typically see a partier. I just got a Master’s degree in English, so my days are spent reading and teaching other people how to read and write well, and my nights are filled with browsing the internet, cooking healthy meals, and chatting with friends. All in all, pretty low-key. Even on the rare occasions, I do go out to bars, I stand on the sidelines, drinking water, not dancing at all, generally keeping to myself. There’s a shyness that tends to come out of me when I’m surrounded by strangers, as though I do what I can to ensconce myself in the familiarity of isolation, the known aspect of self, rather than flinging myself out into the void of strangers. But I knew, as I was waiting in line to check into my hotel and I saw people decked out in neon clothes or EDC shirts or body paint, that my usual routine was something I’d have to put to the side this weekend. I was going to have to either put on a confident and outgoing persona or take off the insecure and quiet persona I usually had on. I wasn’t sure which would be more accurate at the beginning, and I’m even less sure now that I look back in retrospect which actually happened.

I’m not going to bore you with the details of checking into my hotel room, or trying to decide what to wear. I’m not even going to talk about the shuttles to the festival and the people I met on the bus, or the secret military base we had to drive through to get to the venue, or even the stringent security protocols that put a solid hour between getting off the bus and getting into the Carnival. This is going to be about lessons learned within, and solely within, the Carnival. Under the electric sky, as my fellow ravers put it. The lessons are:

1. Have a piece of candy every now and again.

2. Rally under your flag.

3. Embrace vulnerability.

4. Don’t hesitate to refill.

5. Seek and ye shall find.

These may seem strange and vague, but the meaning behind each of these phrases is a profound lesson that was brought into sharp relief by the light of the Electric Daisy Carnival and the people within it. Let’s begin:

1. Have a piece of candy every now and again.

Usually, I am pretty strict about my nutrition. I have goals regarding my physique and I do what I can to take steps every day to bring those goals to fruition. Vegetables, lean proteins, only drinking water. I don’t particularly enjoy super-sweet foods anymore, and even when I do break on the strictness usually I feel so guilty that I’m immediately back on it by the next meal. But EDC taught me to let go every now and again, in a number of different ways.

For starters, in perhaps the most obvious method—I didn’t care about what I ate in Vegas. I at one point almost ate a complete 16” pizza in a single meal. The concept of nutrients or macro breakdowns didn’t exist. I didn’t worry about if I was getting enough protein, I just ate. And it was glorious to have that part of myself turned off for a few days. Am I going to keep that up? No, but I needed a mental vacation.

Point the second, shyness does not and in many ways cannot exist at Electric Daisy Carnival. That’s a massive difference from other festivals I’ve been to, like Warped Tour—the crowd energy is much different. I remarked upon this several times that Warped has this sense of tenuous community, and the atmosphere is one of happiness and celebration but simmering underneath that is a brooding and nearly-predatory survival instinct, a defiance of social norms with bared teeth and a come-and-get-it glare. There isn’t a whole lot of speaking done, people are focused on getting to their sets and their stages. Not so at EDC. I have never been given so many high fives, hugs, compliments, or asked genuine questions by complete strangers in my entire life. 135,000 people every night attended this festival and I saw only one upset person the entire weekend. People are dead-set on having a great time, extending positive vibes to everyone else. Sharing parts of themselves, whether that’s through just talking or giving something away that they created, like kandi.

Yes, kandi. Of the people reading this who attended EDC or are otherwise into the EDM culture, you’ll know what I’m talking about (and you’ll get the pun!). I personally had no idea what it was when I got to Vegas, or even really when I’d made it to the festival, but by the end of the weekend, my wrist was absolutely covered in elastic wristbands with plastic beads strung over them. These bracelets are called, collectively, “kandi,” and each individual bracelet is called a “piece.” People show up to EDC with both arms from wrist to shoulder absolutely covered in their own kandi, and they give pieces away to people they find interesting or cool. Whether you’ve just been talking for a couple of minutes, you’ve danced really well, or you just find yourself wanting this person to remember you for some reason, you give them a piece of kandi using a handshake that revolves around the four tenets of EDM culture: Peace, Love, Unity, and Respect. Shortened to PLUR by most enthusiasts, these four ideologies of existence come to incredible and visceral fruition in those who engage in the culture.

It was my first EDC, so that was reason enough for people to give me kandi. It was my first rave at all, so that was an added reason for people to give me kandi. I did what I could to reciprocate when I had the ability, but I was blown away by the time and effort that went into these little pieces of non-valued socio-cultural capital. It isn’t as though the more kandi you have, the cooler you are, but it’s still apropos to have at least a few of those brightly colored bracelets on your wrist, if only to signal to others that you’re into sharing, giving back, and connecting with everyone.

This entire vacation became a piece of candy for me, an oasis of hedonism in a life marked by regimentation and routine. I found comfort in the chaos, I found a connection in strangers, and I couldn’t have done this without that strong EDM community keeping it all glued firmly together. The helpfulness and genuine care that other people give you is something I’m going to keep trying to emulate in my everyday experience. I’m generally bound to my ambition and my pride, but EDC taught me that letting loose every now and again isn’t going to kill me—in fact, it’s probably better for me if I do.

2. Rally under your flag.

Coming into EDC on the first night, I knew one other person and he was not physically with me. I was entirely alone with nobody and nothing to really allow myself the connection that I saw manifesting among other people. Luckily, I ran into two teenagers from Switzerland who’d flown out for the festival who, when I explained to them my predicament, immediately said “You’re with us now, let’s go party,” and took me with them to several different DJs’ sets. I’d never heard of these DJ’s before, and frankly, they were good, but I was stunned that these two guys in a completely different country would adopt a loner and a newbie, without a second’s hesitation, into their own fold. It didn’t matter that I was unaware of most of the artists playing, or that I didn’t know how festivals of this size worked, or even that it was my first rave. They saw a guy that was stressing out and they wanted me to have a good time, so they took it upon themselves to show me one.

That’s a pattern I thought could never continue, and yet it inexplicably did. Until my buddy got to the festival that night, I was “adopted” by a group after group after group, and they all were immediately accepting of a new person within their ranks. Nobody gave me the stink eye for being the odd man out, nobody asked any probing questions about why I was alone. They all expressed the sentiment of “You’re here, we’re here, we’re gonna have a good time,” and just lived that out every second. When Kevin finally showed up, they adopted him too. Just about every single person I met there welcomed everyone else with open arms, open minds, and open hearts.

And that is despite the varied and multiple backgrounds that everyone brought to the table. I met bankers, lawyers, PhD students in physics, engineers, college kids, and high school dropouts alike—all gathered together at the Carnival to celebrate their lives. People from all over the world, speaking different languages and liking different music, still, put aside their differences to come together. I met people from Australia, Switzerland, China, Canada, California, Georgia, Seattle, Albuquerque. All of them were there for the same reasons and wanted the same things. Everyone wanted to give and receive PLUR.

But it’s hard to maintain a group of any size without something common to rally around. To that effect, groups counteracted this general lost-ness with “totems,” or images on sticks that groups would decide upon collectively and hold up high to see over a crowd. These totems could be signs (MY MOM THINKS I’M AT SUMMER CAMP), they could be faces of completely random people (one guy had his face as a totem, another girl had Tom Skerritt as hers), but most inspiringly, they could be flags. Watching those flags wave, dotted in the insanely large crowds in front of massive stages and laser light shows, was really something to behold. Whether it was a state flag, a country flag, a pride flag or a college flag, it really brought something home for me.

Usually, people in this world want to help you. Even though it’s easy to be cynical, most people are out to make sure everyone else wins. Maybe that’s really not the case and I’m being naïve, but whether it is or not—there still will be a few people whom you’ll find a closer bond with, people you want to keep around. There’s something that ties you together, whether it’s where you went to school, what movies you like, the place you live or the families you have. That becomes something to look for over the furor of everyday activity, something to regroup and refocus around. In the night you see it, waving high, lit up and magnified by its importance to you. Come together under your totem. Rally around your flag, and find yourself again. A comfort amidst the frenetic unknown.

3. Embrace vulnerability.

It takes a certain kind of person to be completely genuine 100% of the time. Few people have the ability, hardened by the cruelty of the world or their circumstances or whatever they want to blame for an overall disillusionment. In order to embrace who you are and be nothing less, it means that at times you have to throw caution to the wind. Dance like nobody is watching. Live your life unapologetically except for when you truly are at fault.

For three nights in a row, dusk until dawn, I only heard “I’m sorry” when someone ran into me—and in an enclosed space with 135,000 people that is bound to happen. For the vast majority of the time, though, people were genuine. They were who they were, and they refused to apologize for it. When I danced, I knew it was horrible: I’ve never been a dancer before in my life, and usually, when I try it involves a lot of framing my face. But nobody really seemed to care, and when I tried to self-deprecate (“I can’t dance to save my life”) they would immediately defuse any worry I had (“Don’t worry about it, you’re having fun!”). People would be honest about what made them happy, sad, scared, joyous. If you asked someone if they were okay, they would tell you honestly “Yes” or “No” and why or why not. Most people erred towards the side of happy.

Two things I won’t forget from leaving the festival on night two. First of all, as one leaves the Carnival they walk past several police cars and private security stations that re-check all the patrons to make sure they’re not taking anything illegal back to their hotels or houses or whatnot. All the security guys are still giving you high fives and hugs, and the policemen are just sitting on the hood of their cars, with flowers in their hair and apathy in their expression. At the end of night two I told them that we really appreciated them being there and that we thanked them for doing what they do. I have never seen such gratitude or joy on a policeman’s face as I saw on those two at 4:00 in the morning. Absolute genuine appreciation shone on both of them, and suddenly the flowers didn’t seem so out of place.

Immediately after, I ran into a guy who was shirtless, sweating, and jittery. It was abundantly clear that he was on something, and I didn’t want to freak him out, so I asked him if he was okay. He said that he was trying to get back to his shuttle and he was scared he’d pick the wrong bus, and he needed someone to talk to. I kept my voice low and soothing, intermittently peppering him with questions about what bands he liked, if this was his first EDC, what his family was like, where he was from. The walk to the buses wasn’t nearly as long, and he thanked me profusely when he got to his shuttle line. It felt good to give something back, even as a newbie, and it never would have happened if he hadn’t been honest with me about how he was feeling.

Everyone who’s at EDC is putting themselves on the chopping block, for the most part. They’re dressing in crazy costumes, or giving away their kandi that they’ve spent hours making, or dancing, or just walking around trying to spread positivity. But giving of yourself, no matter what, takes a piece of you that needs to be replenished. And that replenishment usually comes in the form of reaction. I would be lying if I told you I came away from this festival the same person; I came back greater, with other people’s experiences and enthusiasm buoying my spirit after I was vulnerable enough to be an unapologetic version of myself. It reminds me that my playing small does not serve the world, and I do nobody any favors when I act as a shrinking violet. Living out the PLUR lifestyle demands a lack of apologetics. Sometimes we just need to dance with no mind for the eyes on us. Sometimes we need to be boisterous. Sometimes living life leaves no other option, and that’s exactly as it should be.

4. Don’t hesitate to refill.

To say that we got reminders to drink water is perhaps the biggest understatement of the year since “Rachel Dolezal is a little confused” or “The movie Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 is slightly below average.” Insomniac Events, to their immense credit, gave reminders about every five minutes to stay hydrated. And to even further that credit, they had free water refill stations peppered through the Carnival grounds, which was essential. I was lucky enough to have a Camelbak (courtesy of my sister and the single greatest Christmas gift ever, besides that bike I got from my parents when I was younger) and they would gladly stick their water jets into the pouch and refill it at no cost to me. The theme of the festival, besides “From Dusk Til Dawn,” seemed to have been “drink water.”

It was hot in Vegas in June, which I knew would happen, but saying it and experiencing it are two completely different animals altogether. The heat didn’t simply exist as it does in Texas—this heat permeated every aspect of being. It weighed on your skin like a down comforter made out of fire. Breathing became more difficult, moving was bright and segmented. Couple that with the body heat of over 100,000 people and the exertion from dancing your ass off (and perhaps being on drugs), and water becomes an utter necessity. I would not be surprised whatsoever if the death at EDC this year was due to heat exhaustion or dehydration. Sometimes people don’t listen, and if that’s the case here the fault cannot be placed on the event’s shoulders.

“Refill” doesn’t necessarily just mean a liquid refilling a receptacle though. The reception at the venue was understandably awful and because of that phone batteries died quickly. To counteract this, Insomniac also included stations of outlets around the grounds of the carnival for people to plug in their phone chargers, and included “universal” phone chargers in their lockers (I say “universal” in that they were universal for every phone except an iPhone, which—surprise—most attendees had). Those charging stations became rallying points, where people who wanted to take a break from dancing could just stand around and socialize. It’s where I met people from different countries, engaged them in conversations about who they were and what they did, and managed to keep in touch with people/tell them I wasn’t dead.

It’s important to have contingency plans if you need them, and even if you don’t. Again, people are usually willing to work with you and help you through, but sometimes it revolves more around opportunity and knowledge instead of sheer dumb luck. I knew exactly where those water stations and charging stations were; I never stumbled into one by accident. I usually wandered aimlessly around the grounds when I wasn’t with a group, but if I ever needed to refill I made a beeline directly for wherever I needed to go. Even when I was in a group I could let them know that’s where I’d be. Getting everything in order comes at the cost of leaving people behind sometimes, but always with the promise of reunification. Sometimes you need to be alone to prioritize the things that need to be taken care of—the necessities, for yourself or others, that must be completed to keep things smooth.

**5. Seek and ye shall find.**

Underneath the colored lights and the darkness of the evening, people tend to blur together. Even with the fireworks and the big stages and the lasers and the carnival rides, the people are who you tend to notice—but after a time they all seem to look the same, speak the same, dance the same, be the same. I suppose that’s why this last rule is so powerful to me.

Rashaan was a 19-year-old kid from Albuquerque with a knack for dressing well, the word “yas,” and dancing for far longer and with far more energy than any carbon-based organism besides a hamster with an addiction to crack cocaine. We ran into each other on the first night at a charging station, and inexplicably, after expecting never to see him again—lost in the hubbub and murmur of the crowds—we found each other again in line for the restroom. I never sought him out, but I found him nevertheless. He was a bright star, a solidly grounded spirit in a sea of ephemerality. When his group got separated, worry would briefly cross his usually-smiling face, which naturally brought everyone in his group down. Of these five New Mexicans, Rashaan was given the role of unspoken leader—where he went, others followed. And we followed, without knowing why. Perhaps his magnetism gave him a power we were searching for; there were moments where it seemed as though he wanted to lose himself as a follower rather than keeping everyone accountable and accounted for. Greatness is often thrust upon the initially unwilling, to large or small extents, and Rashaan was no exception.

When we became separated from two members of his group, he only allowed himself to be mildly upset, shaking the worry off with platitudes for everyone else and himself. “Don’t worry,” “We’ll be fine,” “It’ll work out.” He said all of this, though, as we headed collectively to a meeting-place that had been agreed upon by everyone at the start of the Carnival. We didn’t meet them there that night, but when Kevin and I wanted to hang out with their group on the third night of the festival, we knew exactly where to go. We sought out Rashaan and his friends, and we found them, dancing the remainder of the night and most of the morning away with this group of people we’d never met before—but this group of people none of us would hesitate to call “family” at that point.

To seek someone out is always a difficult thing to do, especially in the maelstrom of humanity and sound that EDC unabashedly is. Harder still is it to find someone without a rallying point—to simply exist in the same space as someone else and recognize them for who they are without any definite thing drawing you to them. Rashaan only had his positivity and charisma for us to orbit around, but it was enough for me to find him, and keep finding him time and time again.

Everyone who came to EDC was seeking something. An escape, a different part of themselves, a reason to forget the pressures and stresses of life, a place to see and be seen, a new artist to listen to, an unorthodox and cobbled-together “family.” Whatever they were looking for, the Carnival welcomed them with open arms and gave them places to find it. If you wanted to escape, you were given a hiding place in the mountains, a pocket in the desert night where responsibility and rigidity could never possibly touch you. If you sought a different part of yourself, the Carnival gave you a place to become more of yourself, or yourself enhanced to an insane degree: raver girls with gas masks, drummers with neon vests, skinny boys with angel wings and rainbow-mohawked Native Americans all gathered under the electric sky.

If you came to find new music, the Carnival was a place where different subgenres of EDM came together in an effulgent explosion of light and sound amidst the general gaiety of the rides and the people. If you came to find a family, you could meet people underneath the shadow of the Daisy and discover commonalities—or even hang around some people with whom you had nearly nothing in common but with whom you shared that desire to connect. It was impossible to come to EDC without being renewed, without finding someone new or something new to latch onto. We came to the desert to find water, and I’ll be damned if we didn’t find it in buckets.

I mentioned earlier that I didn’t know what to expect when I came to Vegas for EDC. I didn’t know what I was looking for, or what I wanted from it. I left still not knowing what I’d been looking for, but also knowing that I’d found it. I think we gravitate towards people that enhance us—whether they improve on qualities we already have or expand our sense of self in new or unexpected ways, those who we become closest to reaffirm to us that our humanity is a constantly-evolving process, that we all desire peace and love and unity and respect. People from the Carnival and the atmosphere of EDC itself reaffirmed that theory, one that had been fomenting unspoken for years to fulminate over the course of three adrenaline and joy-soaked nights.

The crackle of electricity now hums under my feet with every step I take; the spark in my eyes has been reignited through the Carnival. I have become a liaison of the Electric, an ambassador of PLUR and goodwill to all. EDC is an enclosed microcosm where good times and magnanimity exist in spades—but it does not have to remain enclosed. I choose to expand the attitudes I’ve found and the lessons I’ve learned. I don’t want the party to only last three nights; I want it to last the rest of my life. But that starts within. I thank the Daisy for planting the seed.

Now I need to let it grow.

Luke is 26 years old, and an upcoming first year law student at the University of Houston. Born and raised in Texas, and wrote a masters thesis on Blink-182.

Thanks Luke for sharing your story with us!

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