by Green Druid
[This was a speech I gave as best man at my friend's wedding in California last year. The events described happened on the Playa in 2004 and last year we returned after their wedding for the Man in 2005. This year none of us can make it. It's a long way from rainy old England you know. But I've been missing the Playa tonight so I thought this might be a way I could contribute this year.
Peace and love to all on the Playa.
Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. For those of you I haven’t met, I’m Dan, I’ve been nominated ‘best man’. Best at making short speeches, I’m sure you’re hoping? I’ll try. This runs to about fifteen minutes so you shouldn’t need to fetch a sleeping bag or a strong cup of coffee.span>
I’ll begin by explaining that I’ve known Ken for around ten years, but we only became really close over the last two. Two years ago we both had the misfortune to find ourselves single after our respective partners broke up with us within about a month of each other and moving out of the places we’d shared with them. We ended up living close to one another in the city of Brighton and Hove on the south coast of England.
Being recently single men we decided to hang out and drown our sorrows with a fellow loser. We shared a few interests: martial arts, we’d go running together, spend weekends camping or just pop out for a drink to the local pub where we’d bond over our romantic misfortunes. And on occasion we would go out to a club where all the women would try to dance with Ken and he’d fail to notice.
For a few years the two of us, along with a group of friends, had a yearning to travel to the Burning Man Festival in Nevada, which is held every year at the end of August. For those of you who don’t know what this is I’ll try to explain. The festival is held in the Black Rock Desert, which is a dry lakebed or playa, encircled by a mountain range. To get there you have to drive a hundred miles north of Reno and out beyond the last outposts of humanity. Essentially it’s a large flat desert in the middle of nowhere.
This is not entertainment created for you. You participate and make your own entertainment. The aim of the festival is for all the participants to put their effort into the creation of spectacle, but with an awareness of the temporary nature of that spectacle. On the last two days much of the art that’s been created, including the Man who stands at the city’s centre and The Temple lying on the city’s eastern edge, are burnt to demonstrate this impermanence. Then next year it can all be built again.
Basically it’s 35,000 Californian hippies getting half naked and crazy in the middle of the desert. And we’re from England. We have tea, polite conversation, a Queen, and she wouldn’t approve.
So the two of us flew from the UK to San Francisco, where we met up with G, an old friend. The three of us spent a couple of nights in town gathering equipment and supplies before driving to Reno, where we stayed one night and met up with the rest of our crew, who’d travelled up from Las Vegas. More than a few adventures were had along the way but sadly there isn’t time to go into them here and there are children present. Ask me afterwards and I’ll tell you the tale of Shooter’s Bar in Reno. It’s a sordid story involving a night of invincible pool playing, strong liquor, a street fighting Nazi, a house of ill repute, some pole dancers and a Navaho barmaid called Misty.
The next morning, in convoy with our friends we headed north into the unknown on the wrong side of the road. All of us were awed by the huge flat empty spaces that surrounded us. We’d been in convoy with other people journeying to the playa since leaving the interstate a couple of hours previously, and as we drove into Black Rock City, the dusk began to fall. We passed slowly through the gateway into the city, finally arriving at a spot to park up and start assembling our camp. Over the next two days we would rise late and wander through this strange land to which we had journeyed, meeting the other participants who had travelled there from around the globe to build art, create camps, give away food and services, build roller coasters, perform music, dance, have fun and express themselves in a thousand different ways. In other words we had a great time.
On the Wednesday evening a few of us decided that we would stay up all night, with the plan of walking out to the eastern edge of the city to watch the sun rise over the mountains. Ken and I had stuck together all night, and as the early hours drew on it seemed we were the only two still up. Our companions had one by one gone to bed or wandered away to find their own adventures. I almost crashed out myself, and then around half four I started to see the first hints of tomorrow in the sky to the east and resolved to stay on. So picture the scene. We’re dancing at a club in the middle of the desert with an array of weirdly costumed half-naked folk dancing and smiling around us at four-thirty on a Thursday morning. And then I notice this girl.
She’s dancing near to us and I wonder why. And then I realise that she’s quite clearly dancing with Ken, who as I may have mentioned is oblivious to female attention in this kind of situation. I needed to go to the toilet so I leaned across and said, “Hey Fella, that girl’s dancing with you. She clearly likes you. Why don’t I go to the loo, and when I get back you can have invited her to come out with us to watch the sun rise?” “Sure,” replies Ken, dancing away, so off I go. Sure enough when I get back and ask if we’re all set, Ken beckons to his new friend and she joins us, picking up our coats and bags of water. I’m introduced to her and she mounts this weird looking three-wheel trike and cycles alongside us off towards the east.
She and Ken have started a conversation about science fiction and in particular the novel he’s writing, so as we near the Temple to the east of the city, I mutter some excuse about wanting to walk right out to the boundary fence and slowly move further and further away. Subtly done I thought. So off I go and watch the sun rise and return to my bed feeling like I’ve had a night well spent.
I don’t see Ken for the next three days. Apparently, some of my camp mates tell me, he has returned to pick up a few of his things once, but the tent he’s sleeping in remains suspiciously empty. On Saturday afternoon he returns with this young lady and tells us that he’ll be travelling back to San Francisco with her on Sunday afternoon. So having packed up the rest of his kit, which is loaded into our car, they head out to watch the Man burn.
On the Sunday morning, it’s time to leave so we pack up our things, giving away much of our remaining food and water. Three of the guys take the RV back to Vegas, where they’re flying out from the next day, and I drive the others back to San Francisco. We return our hire car and enjoy our first running water for a week. What a relief, let me tell you. That playa dust gets everywhere.
But by Monday evening I’m starting to worry. We’ve heard nothing of Ken, and we’re flying out the next morning. My main concern is Lin, Ken’s mother, who can at times be a formidable lady and to whom I’m clearly going to have to explain that I lost her little boy somewhere in the desert. I mean he’s never left Europe before. What am I going to say? “Where’s my son Dan?” “I left him in the desert with some strange American girl we’d never met before and he didn’t come back. Sorry.”
Then I get a call on my cell phone, and a female voice says, “Hi, it’s Rachel”. And my first thought is, who’s Rachel? But then she reminds me that we had actually been introduced in the early hours of the morning five days previously and goes on to explain that Ken won’t be coming back with me the next morning, partly because he wants to spend a few more days in town with her, and partly because he’s lost his passport in the desert.
So an hour or so later Ken turns up at our hostel to collect his things and before he can get a word out, G and I switch on the video camera we’ve been recording our travels with and point it at him. “Man where have you been, what’ve you been up to?” we demand. Now I really wish you could watch the video of this moment because it says it all, but I’ll try to re-enact it as best I can. Ken looks straight at the camera with this curious grin on his face and says, “It’s been a long strange journey. A year ago I had my heart broken, but I’ve travelled to another continent where it’s been mended. I’ve met an amazing girl called Rachel and I’m going to marry her.”
Now here on the video the picture kinda dips, because I’m holding the camera to my cheek and my face is doing this :-o. I pan around to G and he looks like this :-o. We made a few jokes, like “Great. Next year when we come to Burning Man we’ll have somewhere in San Francisco to store our things”. But after they left that evening, having collected Ken’s things, to be honest what we were really thinking was: Ken’s been in the desert for a week, it’s a pretty crazy kinda place, lot of exciting things to do, not a lot of sleep, he’s had a few beers, little too much sun, kinda dehydrated. You know, he’s met this nice girl who he likes but it’s clearly a holiday romance, it’s not going to last. He’ll get over it.
And to be honest, I carried on thinking that way for a few weeks after we got back. Until Rachel came to England. Now I’ve seen Ken around his flat for the last two years and I know him pretty well. He’s a guy who can be very protective of his own space. He needs space to live, and I thought that Rachel would come over and be in that space and he wouldn’t like it.
But then I saw that she wasn’t in his space, she was part of his space. And the more I got to know her the more I realised that he was part of her space too and they’re both genuinely committed to maintaining that.
The story I just told you, over the last year, I’ve related to all kinds of people. Mainly ‘cos it’s a great story and one that I’ve thought about a lot. It still seems to me a fairly crazy tale when I say it out loud. And people react to it in all kinds of ways. Some laugh, some scoff and dismiss it, some smile and find joy. But actually, now I realise that for me it’s a tale of hope.
I think about my two friends and their good fortune in finding one another, and the joy and happiness that they look forward to bringing one another, and their children, I’ve no doubt, for the rest of their lives. And it gives me hope. I hope that one day I’ll be in the desert, or maybe at a party, or in the street, or queuing in a shop, and I’ll meet a girl, and I’ll just know.
So there’s that.
So here’s to the desert, and here’s to hope, and here’s to Ken and Rachel.