by Phoebe McAfee
I had already decided to go to Burning Man when my mother died in January 2004 of Alzheimer’s. I longed to go. I wanted something to remember in my 60th year. I dreamed of floating on the playa in swirling robes of white cotton, each day becoming covered with more stars; I would have giant pockets with magic markers and would hang out at the mythical Temple of Stars and invite all burners to draw a star on my robe. I would be silent. I would meditate. I would eat dried fruits and nuts and drink tea and draw stars, all week. I would take my camera and Remember, Remember. I would embrace the Desert. I would remember my mom, a Texas girl of the chaparral and the arroyos. It would be very spiritual.
It didn’t turn out that way. A Bee crept in, flew in to these plans, and started buzzing. By June, there were six of us, devoted bees, building an art car and her hive. She was a VW neo-bug, bright yellow. She sprouted wings. She grew plush fur in wavy stripes of black. Antennae appeared. Blue lights mysteriously emitted from below. She was beautiful. And her hive: 150 feet of yellow light rope, outlining a hive parachuted in stretchy yellow nylon atop a trailer painted in blackboard paint (for the spelling bees) and playing music of the BeeGees, the B52′s, Bee-thoven, and the Flight of the Bumblebee, among many. All eight tires of the vehicles sported yellow and black spirals that amazed the eye as we moved. And of course we had costumes, several each. It took all summer. It was great, seeing everything with “Bee” eyes. Yellow clothes appealed for the first time. I found the HoneyBee Web ring. I drew hives and honeycomb and Googled “bees” and printed out clip art. I sewed. I hung out at the www.burningman.com website and learned what to bring and how to survive. We worked hard. I took dozens of pictures of the progress.
Then, August 7, my father drowned. I rushed back to Texas and joined my siblings in a new round of grief and efficiency. I couldn’t think or feel for a week. When I returned to San Francisco, my Bees surrounded me. There was still a lot of work to do before Playa time. We sewed, we glued, we stenciled bees on everything. We tested the lights. We tested “Vitamin Bee,” our cocktail de playa. We tested the trailer hitch and the sound system. We planned menus and got our bikes tuned up. I froze a gallon of green tea and cleaned out the cooler. I put everything in ziplock bags.
And then, at 3 AM on the appointed night, we set out. Although I was with an experienced burner, it was the unknown.
My first look at the playa was in a huge dust storm. We set up camp in high wind. Our camp Bees who had preceded us had the camp blow down, and were trying to right it when we arrived. The poor little beemobile was already dusty.
Things improved after that initial travail, and that night was a magic sunset.
After that, everything was magic. I woke up each morning before dawn, applied my Dr. Bronner’s to my feet, put on my turban and my goggles, put my camera and my bottle of green tea in my fanny pack, and set out on the playa, taking pictures all the way. Each day I reached the fence in early sunlight, and did a round of Tai Chi way out on the playa. Each day I watched people build the Temple of Stars, and photographed the Man in slanting light, and walked until my tea was gone before returning to camp, at 444 Uranus. By then my fellow Bees were awake, and we made breakfast.
My idea of eating fruits and nuts sparingly just didn’t happen. The first breakfast was bacon and eggs with toast fried in the bacon grease (O My Gawd!) along with lattes avec steamed milk. The second day we had cherry chocolate pancakes. Every meal was a feast. Friday night we had a Tequila Tasting. A Finnish couple camping with us introduced us to the national drink of Finland (vodka and licorice candy). The Bees gifted all burners with honey sticks and squirts in the mouth from those plastic honey bears.
One night was cold, and the Vitamin Bee warmed us up. My Queen Bee Costume was too warm for most days, but that night it was welcome.
The night of the burn we donned our best Bee costumes and set out with our entire camp aboard. People hopped on as we crossed the playa to get a good spot. The music got us all dancing. I was moved to gasps and giggles and screams.
The hive was jumping! In my perch atop the VW Bee bug, I was The Queen!
The Man burned. I shed tears of awe and delight. I wept openly for the first time since my parents died: no holding back, screaming and crying all the way. My fellow Bees wanted to party the night away, but by midnight I was exhausted, and walked home by myself, stopping often to watch amazing flaming things, never feeling the least bit afraid of the dark or my wonderful magical mad fellow burners. It was a night of dreams. I was changed, completely.
The next morning before dawn, I set out for the Temple of Stars. I got there when the shadows were still long, and listened to Tibetan Bowl Bells. I walked up on the platform, and read many memorials. I chose where to put my parents’ pictures. I took a lot more photographs. I stayed there quite a while. Then I fixed my mom and dad’s images to the Temple, and walked away.
Then I stood on the spot where the Man had burned the night before, and watched two children pick up still warm remnants of twisted metal.
And then I walked back to camp, and we tore the camp down. We couldn’t stay for the Temple burn. People had to get back to work. We arrived in San Francisco at 2 AM. I can still smell the playa dust at odd times. I will be back.
Thanks to my Bee team: Lucky, Luzita, Ralph, Cork, and Meaux.
Phoebe McAfee (Phoebeeeeee)