by Mark Hinkley
Looking back on 2002, my fourth and best Burning Man, I realize my most memorable moments were not encounters with exciting or dangerous art, adventures with campmates or chance connections with strangers. The thing that seemed to unfold as the main theme of my Burn was relationships, and particularly relationships with people I only met through Burning Man. Through the compilation of experiences we have shared through successive Burns, good playa companions have become good friends, and camaraderie has flowered to real trust and intimacy.
The following is actually an exchange of post-playa e-mails concerning one of these experiences. Everyone involved gave me permission to share the story with you.
Ollie is a fellow San Diego Burner who had to sit this one out. The “Val” referred to is Valerie of “Valerie and the Vibetribe,” another San Diego Burner. Words would not do her justice. She’s an amazing DJ, razor-sharp and dead sexy, and the Executive Director of GET-M, a non-profit outreach program working with kids in the community through music, video, etc. She is lightning in a bottle, plain and simple, and a universally-admired powerhouse in the So-Cal Burning community.
Sandy is my best friend, my soul-mate, and my wife. Twenty-two years and counting, three boys and counting no higher. After all she has done and sacrificed for my Burning Man career over the years, this was her first Burn B and a pretty darn good one, I’d say. She took to the Playa like a duck to water and everyone just showered her with love and appreciation. I design and direct Xara, a Burning Man theme camp. The rest will appear as you read along…
And now, “The Robe”
This was my letter to Ollie:
—Mark Hinkley wrote:
Mr. Ollie, I have a tale to share with you and hope you will feel about it as I do.
You know, I think, how deeply touched and flattered I was by your gift to me of the tiger stripe robe. It became the Mantle of my Office and my constant companion at last year’s Burn. I told anyone who would listen, and some who only pretended to, how you caught me admiring your blacklight blazing robe in ’00, how you never said a thing, and how you gave it to me on our opening night in ’01 as the Coronation Robe of The Lord of the Wood. I wore it at the New Year’s Eve party, Soulstice, and every other similar event through the year. Working from home, I practically lived in it this year. Needless to say, it was packed with special care and honor for Burning Man 2002. It is one of the most special gifts I have ever received and one of my most prized possessions.
Sandy came to her first Burn this year; can you believe it? It was unbelievable in every way. Actually, this entire Burn was so magical that if I could never come to another, I could only feel lucky to have had just enough. Anyway, one of those magical things this year was a conversation on Thursday night in the new Ninka [a cozy, hidden realm in Xara Bed] between Sandy and me and Val and her sweetie, Steve. This was also Steve’s first Burn and we were meeting him for the first time. Val was asking questions – including some really personal questions about our marriage and our life together, picking our brains for the lessons of 22 years of marriage. Being mortal and all, Val just wows me, and Steve’s an easy guy to love. For some reason, Val seems fond of me, and though Sandy had met Val a few times at parties, this was the first real conversation they had. They had some kind of invisible, unspoken, wisdom goddess mind meld thing happen, and the four of us felt a new bond as individuals and as couples. There was a whole new level of trust and intimacy among us, and we just kind of basked in the feeling until it was time for Val to spin for her part of our performance piece. When I saw her after her set, she announced that she and Steve just became engaged. Wowzers. As we talked and congratulated them and expressed our astonishment, Val thanked us for the inspiration and example. (Gads, responsibility!)
At some point, the first chilly breeze blew through, and everyone sorta shuddered. Val was characteristically undressed and started shuffling the stuff in her hands to get at her coat. You know the coat I’m talking about? Val’s long Playa Coat she made herself of patches of fluorescent fur? Gallant me, I took the coat and held it out for her to slip into. But she took it out of my hands with playful impatience, pushed me a step sidewise next to Sandy, and wrapped her coat around both our shoulders. I was puzzled, but as she stepped back and beamed, I realized she was giving it to us.
I was just stunned, and flattered beyond belief. This was Val’s Playa Coat, the one she made, and the one she invested with her personal magic just by wearing it through successive Burns. I – yes, I – was struck speechless and Val was delighted to see that I understood the value of what she had given. With a happy smile she turned, took the handle of her red wagon full of records, and was about to head back to her camp.
I stammered out something like, “Well geez Val, it’s kinda cold, can I send you off with a robe or something?” Just then, we saw that I had set the Coronation Robe you gave me on her little wagon after using it during the performance. “Wow, look at that, did you know this was my wagon?” “No I didn’t, but… it was obviously destiny.” “But I know this is very special, I know it was a gift to you and…” Sandy, who knows how dearly I love that robe said, “He’d be honored if you wore it.” “Oh, but I’ll return it, I know what it means to you.” “Val,” I said, taking her hands and turning so the light from the projection screen was on my face, “look at me. Look into my eyes, all the way into that secret place where I am afraid of you. From the bottom of my heart, I want you to have this, for all the reasons I treasure it, I want you to have it.” She knew what this meant just as I knew what it meant when she gave me hers. She took Steve’s hand, flashed a Val smile, and went off into the dark, wrapped in stripes flashing with her walk.
She was back the next night for her main Vibetribe set and tore the place apart. I thanked her afterward for the show, and again for the coat. I said I felt it was the most intimate and personal gift I could imagine. She said yes, that we had exchanged our Power Cloaks and made a new bond. She said people couldn’t believe it when she said she gave me her coat, but she told them it was what she wanted to do. I said, “You know, it won’t fit me and Sandy is wearing it.” “Yes! Yes, I want her to! Fuck her on it, let your kids wear it, it’s yours.” That’s our Val.
Sandy was absolutely blown away, honored and touched. The first time everyone saw her wearing it, they all said, “Isn’t that Val’s coat?” and she got to tell the story again. She wears it more proudly than Lucy’s mink, and as events unfolded during the week, it seemed a little Val magic passed into Sandy. On the other side, I saw Tawny after the exchange and she said, “Gee, I don’t even recognize you without your robe.” I smiled without explanation.
So I share this story with you for a couple of reasons. The first is to let you know that you were there with me for the most touching moments of my Burn. The other is to let you know that the gift you gave me has passed out of my hands. But most of all, I wanted you to understand the spirit in which I let it go. It was not that I loved your gift to me any less, but rather that I loved it so much that some of my spirit went into it, just as Val’s coat was full with hers. I hope you understand and hope you approve; your love and kindness are as much a part of the tenderness and sweetness of this story as the feeling among the four of us that inspired the gifts. Thank you again Ollie, for the honor of the gift in the first place, and for your part in what the gift became.