Tales From The Playa are dreams and memories of events that took place at Burning Man, as told by its participants.
by Chad Deal
That was Doctor Johnson, who had failed fantastically in concealing his momentary disbelief.
That was me; loincloth slumped around my ankles, the Doctor slowly backing away.
The stagnant heat inside the unventilated mobile medical trailer was evoking sweat and poor temperament; lent the situation a certain illusionary quality not unlike that of a mirage in the middle of the desert. And, indeed, that’s exactly where we were.
One-hundred and twenty miles north of Reno, somewhere atop the thousand square-miles of the flattest terrain on the planet, we were in a desert with no endemic life larger than a microbe, in the midst of 40,000 merry-making people from all over the world. We were in Black Rock City, home to Burning Man, on the playa of the brutal Black Rock Desert of Nevada. A dry lake bed, at its peak-depth during the last Ice Age, the Black Rock Desert is now submerged in a mere six-inches of water during the winter months. Daytime temperatures regularly exceed a hundred degrees while nights can reach freezing, with 20-30 mile-per-hour winds blowing columns of dust haphazardly over the Martian scenery. For eight days of the year, this barren desert is a bellowing Party City, attracting everybody from the burnt-out husks of Los Angeles ravers to other-wise mundane housewives of rural Iowa to multi-millionaire CEO’s of Silicon Valley software corporations.
If a person were fortunate enough to wake up from a decade-long coma in this decadent science fiction Mecca, they would in all probability think they’d awoken on another planet; and ay, verily, a better planet! A look in any direction yields outlandish scenes of “mutant vehicles” rocking from side-to-side, pumping dance music for it’s ever-changing amoebic outfit of riders who embody a fashion savvy that is three parts Mad Max smell of ass-sweat on leather, shaken with two parts psychedelic oo-koo-hé residue of day-glo Merry Prankster acid dreams. The central attraction for this motley throng is a 70+ foot tall man wrought of wood, which is burned to the ground in a porno-for-pyro’s bah mitzvah of fireworks and flame on the seventh night of the festival.
“I’ve…never seen anything like it before,” the Doctor finally let on, glancing quickly to that-which-my-loincloth-had-once-obscured.
“Yeah…me neither,” I confessed, not at all assured by our newfound agreeability. My girlfriend Jillian squeezed a death-grip on my hand and looked nervous. Doctor Johnson paced the peeling linoleum floor in silence, wetting his palette intermittently with a plastic cup of water while also, I hoped, whetting the finer dials of his memory for some sort of clinical precedent to this Unusual Case. Some pill, new on the market, for just this sort of thing; a quick-fix of cream and bandage, perhaps, all better in no time.
“Well,” he spoke suddenly, “you can take a bus to the hospital in Reno. They’ll probably know what to do there.”
“Take a bus to Reno!” I protested, “And miss the burning of the man tonight and the rest of the festival? Out of the question.”
Jillian shot me a look that begged reconsideration, but none of it. It was our first year at Burning Man, and there was no way we were leaving without the full-blown, dust-caked, man-burning-down experience. Making it out there in the first place had been a series of happy coincidences; we weren’t leaving now.
“It’s like this,” the Doctor continued, “The infected area requires internal antibiotics. All I can give you is a topical gel and band-aids. Now, in the not-too-unlikely case that the infection is Cellulites, and the infection spreads, there’s no more turning back.”
Jillian gasped out loud. I looked from her, down to my lap, to the Doc, who read my eyes and, nodding, spoke my grimmest suspicion: “Amputation.”
I recoiled awkwardly, demonstrating a primal sort of reflex that was foreign to me.
“If I were you, I’d get to Reno as soon as possible.” He glanced sympathetically from my eyes to my lap and back, “After all, it is your most valuable possession.”
Clearly, the Good Doctor had done all he could for me. My most valuable possession was now in the hands of Mother Fate, and I’d be a liar to say those hands weren’t just a bit cold and unsettling. I left the medical trailer in a daze, then, wandering aimlessly in the Strange Dream that was unfolding before me.
How could this happen? I wondered to myself, passing exotic playa goddesses clad in pasties and pink panties, What sort of Pure Evil is behind all this, anyways?
I recalled, then, how the Fateful Abrasion came to be. It was Monday, our first night in the desert. We were running from one spectacle to the next, starry-eyed children. We’d found it; the dream, the reality, the there, home! It was all there and we couldn’t have dug it more if we tried. So Jillian pulled me into a multi-colored dome of inflatable kiddie-pools filled with pillows where we made sweet, sweet, cosmic love in the name of all things just and decent in the world and all worlds for that matter ‘cuz, hey, someone’s got to make it for all them that ain’t makin’ it for themselves, and it’s a tiresome task, yes sir, possibly even thankless, but the Makers don’t take thanks from the Wankers anyhow; not needed, not at all, not even one bit.
Well, somehow in the throes of all this, I’d sustained the slightest abrasion from what I’m assuming was an instance of Pantyhose Friction, a prime hazard when opting for the clandestine tear-in-the-undergarments approach. It was small, nothing to speak of. Just a modest wink of a cut that healed over in no time and demanded no further worry or trepidation. Until Saturday morning, anyways, when upon inspection my modest wink was exuding a sickly green pus that told of grave mistreatment.
There was no solace to be found in the apocalyptic hullabaloo of the playa. I stumbled around with the erratic gait of a mad-man, towing Jillian loosely behind like a love already lost. “Amputation.” The word grinded on the tender parts of my cognitive gumball, deflected inside the skull with the workaday nonchalance of a loose buzz-saw. Of course, within a few weeks of the Operation her sympathies would begin to give way to natural Feminine Longings. We would dabble in the available alternatives, sure. Elaborate toys that twist and hum, thrust and flash, whistle your favorite song through tinny speakers powered on a handful of double-A’s. She would pretend it was the same, at first. As good as the Real Thing. But after it was all over and the damned thing was still tweeting “Whole Lotta Love” in cheesy digital monotone, our eyes would have to meet and without a word we’d be forced to acknowledge the Vibrating Lie mass produced in Taiwan that would henceforth be filling a space that once only I could.
It was more than a man should have to bear.
As we wandered the Illusory Circus that was Burning Man, my mind, too, wandered; off into the not-so-distant future. With my girlfriend gone and the drive behind a good deal of my daily goings-on’s gone just as suddenly, I would be left with more free time than I could possibly know what to do with.
I’d be on the road, naturally. Drifting from town-to-town like so many others with a gruesome secret beneath their belt. Walking distant alleyways in a shawl with lowered-eyes; some may mistake me for a Buddha, a Learn-ed One, a Sage. Obligingly, I would shave my head and brow in a rage one dark-mooned night after, despite my truest intent, a girl met by chance in Somewheresville USA seduced me with liquor and small-talk in a smokey bar-room and proceeded to cop a feel of my Manhood in a dark corner behind the shuffle-boards. The sound of her shrieking at my Vague Nubbin of a thing would haunt me for years and I probably wouldn’t be able to stomach Maker’s Mark for the rest of my hapless existence.
I would bitterly take up Cribbage or moth collecting. I would surround myself with Old Men as often as possible. The Unspoken Impotence all around would likely bring a cheap sort of comfort, an assumed camaraderie. But, alas, I would break down one day after Howard loses my rare Emperor Moth to his failing memory and I would be defeated by the impervious knowledge that at least Howard and the rest of the Boys had One!
I would disappear into the desert, a literal embodiment of Zen: a man, but not a Man. It would all make sense then, cooking canned beans and muskrat over a stick-fire, whistling old hits from Boy George and the Culture Club. This whole blunder was all part of the plan…the Big Plan! It was karmically inevitable. How much time wasted fiddling that second lowest of chakras? How much precious, precious time shot to hell waving one to the wind at the bar? By God, I had been given the greatest gift possible. After all, shamans of most cultures require strict celibacy of themselves so as to facilitate higher energies. How much harder it must be with the facilities intact!
The Fates have surely smiled upon me! I would think as I crawled into my sleeping bag beneath an immaculate star-filled night. It had to be this way…why, it couldn’t have happened any other way! I would curl up and let out a deep sigh for my loving Angels, wherever they were. Tomorrow would be a New Day, and I would be grateful. Lost, alone, and at peace in my gentle Genderless Wilderness.
I came-to in front of a dome labeled “Putting for Pabst.” The agreement, it appeared, was a hole-in-one, two, five, or thirty-nine on the makeshift golf course merited icy cans of lovely PBR for the rest of the long, hot day.
Aha! Old Comfort; something to get the mind away from these unhappy prospects.
We putted a few and made our way into the dome to cash in. Inside, familiar faces from home engaged us with easy grins. Amber reclined on a dusty, red velvet-pillowed sofa, snacking on a large, likely warm dill pickle from the Future Pickle camp, which served whole dills and Pickletinis twenty-four hours a day. A beautiful girl prone to gingery bouts of one-line sass, wearing an incredibly tedious hair-do of multicolored braids that must have taken a couple of hours and several elfin-helpers to actualize, adorning a face highlighted with soft Idaho freckles; Amber appeared both charming and sinister in her high-boots and netted lingerie, like Perry Farrell’s girlfriend.
Puck stood next to her drinking a Pabst in a flowing, colorful skirt, shirtless, wearing multiple exotic-looking bangles on each arm. His dark eyes were rimmed in thick, black liner, lending the appearance of an Egyptian censer-boy spliced with a futuristic proto-shaman gone raving for the weekend. Puck and I embraced while Jillian and Amber made talk of the week and the past summer.
Puck and I, however, were hard-up for words. Formalities were unnecessary, though we hadn’t seen each other in half-a-year, at least. There seemed to be a subtle kinship between us, a change in the air that hadn’t been there before. Our eyes reciprocated a new severity, an unuttered understanding. I broke the silence by confiding in him the awkward conundrum I had awoken to. He nodded empathetically, spoke slowly. He too, had fallen under similar circumstance. And just as recently.
It was an ordinary episode of coitus, he explained, star-crossed eyes smoldering with the embers of primal passions, pulse and breath syncopating the shared rhythms of intrigue. The magick was everywhere and the universe was an over-ripe jellybean on the brink of implosion when, without warning, It broke! It broke! Blood everywhere. And she was still going, oblivious.
His story put me off, brought me to question the essential integrity of the world we were living in. What kind of moon were we under, anyways? Such a wrathful side of sweet Aphrodite I had never known. It just broke! Nothing could be taken for granted. Gravity itself was liable to invert itself at any moment, weak atomic forces apt to take leave for a week without portent.
Puck schlupped into a sooty fold-out chair and continued.
“You’ve got to close your eyes and focus,” he said as he rested his open palms over his skirted jock, framing-off the object of our strangely shared affliction.
He was coping well. Clearly, Puck, too, had come to terms with his Genderless Wilderness. His demeanor was pleasant and unassuming.
“Send all your love down there, man,” he spoke angelically, “After all, it is your most valuable possession.”
Alas, Eternal Wisdom travels quickly in Synchronicity City.
Send your love where now?”
That was Amber, whose left eye winked ever so slightly as she took an emphatic chomp from her Future Pickle. Funny for her, sure. But Puck and I were sparse on humor; we had no Future Pickle.
“Oh, cheer up!” she laughed, giving us each a face-full of pixie dust from a cloth satchel on her hip.
That night the Man burned. The crowd that surrounded the towering effigy was nearly three-times the population of my hometown of Arcata. A somber silence hung over the mass of on-lookers in the moments before the Man ignited. This was the culmination of a whole week of excess and exploration. This was It. The Man meant something different to everybody: ego crud, a former self, The Man of Authority, the guy that stole your girlfriend, a malevolent entity, anthropomorphism as a universal nemesis, anything.
As for me, my very Manhood was up there on that wooden pedestal, loaded with a couple tons of high-velocity explosives and doused in white gas. When He finally went down in a glorious inferno I was almost relieved. I had made it, I didn’t turn back at the last minute, I didn’t flee to Reno. I had embraced my Genderless Wilderness, and I sensed that if there was any justice in the Universe, that ought to have damn well counted for something.
A week later I had healed up completely. It didn’t turn black and fall off. It didn’t wither and implode. It demonstrated admirable resilience and now had a mean-looking scar to prove it. Of course it got better! I’d made peace with the Worst Possible Scenario, called its bluff and scared it away, sobbing and confused. Besides, would I really have written this story in the first place if things had gone any other way? You wouldn’t either.
Sometimes, on a cold winter night, lying in bed with Jillian and her cats, I think back to that fateful week at Burning Man, the trials and tribulations, the madness and the glee, and I wonder…what if? What if the damned thing just fell off? Where would I be now? But I get over it, and quick. No use wallowing in the What If’s of the world. Besides, Mother Fate had given me one last chance to truly appreciate my most valuable possession, and appreciate it I shall.