Tales From The Playa are dreams and memories of events that took place at Burning Man, as told by its participants.
Oh, man. I so wasn’t ever gonna go to Burning Man. Puh-leeze. Endless shitty thumping music. Hippies. Ravers. Worse yet: goddamned hippie ravers. Hell, I don’t even camp. Why on God’s green Earth would I go camping in the freaking desert? I don’t even like the heat. Plus, techno sucks and glitter is for strippers. And gay boys. Gayboy strippers. Whatever. Not a chance.
Even after moving in with a girlfriend that had just started getting acquainted with this enormous group of ‘Burners,’ I still thought the whole concept was ridiculous. I mean, WTF? Radical self-reliance is braving grocery shopping in the ‘burbs on a Sunday afternoon with an instant hangover from an all-day brunch, not packing your sparkliest panties onto the friggin’ moon and hoping you make it out alive.
My newly-minted best friend, roommate and partner-in-crime had other plans. Oh, we went to endless shows. DJs upon DJs. We went to openings and parades, performances and dome-raisings, parties and afterparties. She invariably drove while I sucked down the bourbon. Occasionally, I’d get drunk enough to dance while the speakers went wobblewobblethumpthumpbzzzzt. Hating the music wasn’t gonna cramp my style, although it certainly added fuel to my anti-BRC fire. Man, I gotta get how knackered to put up with this shit for a few hours? A few days would have sent me right over the edge. I’d have cut off my poor ears just to appease my jazz-loving brainhole.
But! And here’s the big but: I have 150 new friends. All these fabulous artists. Merry-makers and stilt-walkers. Drinking bands with marching problems. Painters and seamstresses. Welders. Writers. Hula hoopers, rock stars, fire dancers. An actual goddamned literal busload of freaks. Most of them don’t really care that I don’t care about The Man. They ask me occasionally if I’ve ever been or will ever go and the answer is always ‘no.’ Nope. Nein. Negatory. Not me; not for me. I’ll work the door at your events, spend an afternoon assembling massive custom-built rolling stages to bolt to your 40-foot party bus/art car and learn to love PBR, but I’m gonna wave y’all goodbye come the end of August and send you crazy kids on your kooky path.
Then it all changed, of course, like it had to for the benefit of our story. Someone finally asked me to go. Someone that I was convinced didn’t like me at all. To tell the truth, I know good and goddamned well she didn’t. Weird. She had invited me to camp with the mighty Mobile Groove Bomb and I was stunned. Well, I couldn’t possibly! I don’t even own a sleeping bag. I’m just helping out. The bus is awesome but I’m no Burner. Surely I’d croak. Or worse, make a fool of myself. End up in the med tent. Blown out to the trash fence. I’d never be able to pack the right outfits. I don’t own furry platform boots! I don’t belong here. Or there. I’m just along for the ride.
We had a month to figure it out. We needed tickets, and fast. Deals were arranged, providence provided. Raffles produced miracles and our fate was set. Friends and family had their camping stashes raided. Even the last-second addition of a whole ‘nuther body was crammed into our car and plan. Just when I thought there wasn’t a single iota of room left in my consciousness for this all-consuming madness, another friend blew up two trailer tires on the way down and could we please buy and bring replacements from Portland to the Nevada desert? Cooler heads than mine prevailed and we just lashed ‘em to the top of the enormous pile on top of the car and off we went.
Alas, complications ensued. A late-night directional miscalculation had us headed toward Reno at 3am. Oh, shit. The sunrise event we had driven all through the night to get to in time was gonna go on without us. No pre-dawn glorious default-world clothes shedding and re-spangling last-second Hail Mary hey where’s the White Procession? arrival for us. Time for a new plan. How about just setting up camp?
Naps and whiskey ensued. A brief exploration. Tents wrangled. Hellos and open-mouthed stares. Disbelief. “No fucking way. NO FUCKING WAY!” And none of that in that order.
I’ll admit that I played it awfully safe. Stayed real close to camp, drank tons of water, wore mostly cotton. The night The Man burned, I damn-near missed it. My sweetheart had the BRC radio jabbering in his ear and when he heard that the arms on the neon-clad figure were raised [which meant it was about time to torch the bastard], he grabbed my hand and we raced across the playa, just in time to join the madness. Tens of thousands of people hollered as fireworks burst forth and it started to burn.”Ho-ly shit…” I’m heard to mutter on the video he took as the Man fell.
Holy shit, indeed.
Last night on the playa is the Temple Burn. Sunday night. A gifted set of mostly-Portland folks designed and built this spectacular structure of absolutely staggering funky beauty. If I have a regret from my virgin Burn, it isn’t being more nekkid, getting more drunk or anything of the sort. It is simply not paying a proper visit to Basura Sagrada before it was roped off to perish. Countless mementos adorn the photographs friends took inside, honoring the dead, the forgotten, the forgiven. A gigantic temporary church, a holy place, made from garbage. The big processional we missed Thursday morning was headed out to that very structure, but by the time I pedaled past the remains of The Man, beyond him to the Temple on Sunday morning, it was already closed off forever. For whatever reason, I was not to go inside.
That night the bus was loaded, costumes were donned and we thumped our way across the Esplanade. Milling about as things began to get underway, I wandered closer to the caution tape, and was suddenly and completely overwhelmed. Grief. Sadness. Regret. Despair. Startled, I walked away. Took some pictures with and of friends. Smiled real big and drank some whiskey. Hours later, when it all went up, I wept uncontrollably. I had to leave it there. The doubt, the fear, the bullshit. I sent it all up with the smoke while telephone poles burned into the night.
The next day, as I pulled the car off the lakebed and onto the highway to Gerlach with emptied coolers and dusty everything, I found tears in my eyes. I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t quite know what had happened but I wasn’t done yet. A more experienced hand patted my shoulder from the back seat and said: “Welcome home.”