Tales From The Playa are dreams and memories of events that took place at Burning Man, as told by its participants.
1999. Black Rock City, somewhere in the desert, Nevada. Two young lovers were hand in hand, strolling through the sites of Burning Man oblivious to what was around them. They had eyes only for each other. Everything else seemed surreal. She was dressed in a long white sundress covered in green Buddhas, wrapped overall in an orange silk shawl to protect against the ferocious sun. He was wearing his usual Burning Man apparel; green raver pants that you could fit three of him in each leg, bare-chested so his brown Cuban skin could so soak up the sun, and a camelback to carry their water. They were on a mission.
Though much the same size and build, they were very different- he so dark and quiet and peaceful, she energetic, overzealous, blonde and fair skinned. The two no doubt made a curious couple as they moved through the throngs of hippies, nudists, ravers and freaks. There was an energy about them that was unmistakable. They had a purpose. They had a vision. They moved slowly out into the desert proper and away from camp, which was populated by 30,000 of their closest friends. Only a Burner could understand. In the middle of camp, surrounded by a great horseshoe throng of attendees, the Man sat silent, guiding their way. Back then, in ‘99, he was still the tallest thing on the Burning Man Skyline. His arms were down, his head upwards to the blue Nevada sky. Around them, the stark Blue Mountains rose. Soon enough his arms would raise and the dark of the desert would fall- and fire would pervade the night. They had time. Step by step they traced their way out into open desert. They knew what they were doing.
Far out beyond camp, they sat down to talk. So many things were said- so many dreams- so many worries and reservations and wants and needs. They were all addressed, or as best as they could be. The two lovers did try. And when vows were finally said, each hoped for the best. There was an underlying love that drove them despite their misgivings. And then, when all had been said, they walked in to see the Man burn down. They felt the throng press close around them and thought: I have never known such unity of being.
So we were married. That is the story of our wedding.
It was never an easy road for my husband and I. From the very beginning there were doubts. Burning Man is very serious and totally ridiculous all at once, and that applies to our marriage, too. But always there was love- overarching, deep, unrelenting love that carried us through things any ordinary couple would have been destroyed by. We made it ten years. I still know, to this day, that there is no better person in the world than my now ex husband. I always knew it. If things had been different; if I had been more stable; if he had been more apt to settle; if I could have borne a child; there are so many ifs and should haves and maybes. But that’s a grey world to live in. It is what it is. And we were what we were; two orphans clinging together trying desperately to make it work because we knew- nobody loved us the way we loved each other. Was it co-dependent? Was it painful? Hell yes. But who defines what real love is? I still to this day would die for him in an instant. I know he feels the same. We grew apart, and we no longer connect. But still, we understand each other and trust each other. He is, forever, my best of friends.
All of this is so disjointed because you see, tonight we divorced. It was never about legality for us. It wasn’t legal in the desert. We made it legal when we got back from Burning Man. And we didn’t wait for legality this time. We ended it the same way we began it, by ourselves… on our terms. We didn’t need a church or a priest or the government. This was about us. We’ve always understood each other on that score.
Every year, we’ve always celebrated our marriage on the day the Man burns at Burning Man, in Black Rock City Nevada. We tell people that the date of our anniversary is the fourth of September, but that’s really just a guideline. Our anniversary is the day the fire roars into the sky in the Black Rock Desert and tens of thousands of people rush the embers screaming at the top of their lungs, celebrating a new beginning. You who haven’t been there, to Burning Man, you’ll never understand.
Imagine walking out of your RV, water on your back, lip balm in your pocket, glow sticks strung around you to make sure you don’t get run over by bicycles in the dark. Imagine the fire dancers weaving their tantalizing webs whenever you stop to watch them. The throb of a drum and bass camp pulls you in with the promise of free warm chai on a cold night. The huge vampire on moon boot stilts pulls you into his embrace to cop a feel just because he liked your pink stripper skirt. Stop to watch your hot best friend hurtle herself into the air on a trampoline, only duct tape covering her nipples, while dozens of onlookers scream in response. Or maybe just sit down to watch Dance Dance Immolation, the Burning Man rendition of the popular video game, except instead of being disqualified when you miss a step, they hit you with flame throwers. No joke, this is Burning Man. You will never see fire the same way. And this is where we decided that saying our vows to each other was most appropriate.
We were both rebels. So it felt fitting to end it the same way. Tonight, August 30th, the Man is burning and celebrants are rushing that cleansing fire in hopes of a clean slate. They will later roam the city in what can only be described as the most enlightening night of their lives. Artwork that will move them- people that will befriend them- music that will enlighten them; it’s all there. We couldn’t be. But we used the night to say goodbye in our own way.
The craft store is a wonderful place- full of all kinds of tricksie silly things, and many of them are pure joy to an experienced Burner. Anything glittery, shiny, silly, or glow in the dark- these things are all our friends. My husband and I found what we needed in little time, and then later that afternoon, we built our own Burning Men. Two of them. It was so ironic that at the end, we couldn’t even agree on who could build a better Man. We decided to burn them both. This was the night. We knew it. It was time to say goodbye.
We went out on the back porch with our glowsticks and our sparklers- as close as we could get to the insanity and colorful spectacle of Burning Man nights. At BM, when you get ready to go out for the night, first you light up your living space. That means hanging glowsticks everywhere. Otherwise you can’t see. There’s no electricity and the desert night is pitch black. Then you paint your face with glow in the dark colors, tie glowsticks on to every part of you, strap on the multicolored flashing choker you bought on that cheapy website, put on your furry boots and your craziest blue furry jacket, clip on the glow in the dark earrings, fill your backpack full of water, and THEN you go.
Tonight we did not have so far to go. We lit our meager fire on the back porch. As the flames flickered into the sky we added our little effigies one by one. They burnt all too quick. I remember waiting for hours for the Man to burn. I remember thinking dammit, they built him too sturdy. He will NEVER fall! I remember hearing the howl rise from those tens of thousands around me as he started to waver in his flames, ready to crash, and when he did, I would grab onto my husband’s hand and scream like a banshee with the rest; I was safe, amid the chaos. I could celebrate being a wild being. Because he was there. I always had him to fall back on. We were always there for each other.
Tonight, the fire consumed our little Burning Men so quickly, I didn’t have time to reach for his hand. A wind rose, and soon burning embers were flying through the air in all directions. I almost panicked, but in his steady way, my husband said “Relax, this is wet South Florida. There won’t be a fire.
Our sparklers went out. Our last attempt at reconnection was over. I started to cry and reached out my arms and he held me. Everything about him, everything familiar and wonderful and loving; it all took me back to that moment in the desert when we sat on the hard playa and said our vows. I was there again. I knew him- I felt him and saw him as I hadn’t in years. It’s so sad. The reason it didn’t work was not for any lack of love. I can’t repeat the whispered consolations we said to each other. Those will always remain between us. Go get your own tragic love story if you want to know what they are. They are easy enough to find in this day and age. Someone across the waterway was playing sad Cuban music and we swayed to it, dancing in our strange way, watching the embers slowly go out of our Burning Man pyre.
And now? We’ve cried. We’ve mourned. It’s time to move on. The wood has burnt. It’s a new beginning. I don’t know where life is taking me. But I do know, love never dies. It merely changes. All those impetuous hopeful daredevil promises! We did not fail each other, Monk. We may have made things very difficult, but when you really look back at it, when you look at those vows we took sitting on the hard baked playa looking back at the Mirage that was Burning Man, we stayed true to them, in the end. We promised always to push each other to achieve the best of ourselves. No matter what. And always to love each other. I love you still Monkey. I always will. And it’s just come to pass that who we really need to be, what we really need to achieve, is without each other. I will always be here for you in your journey as your best friend. Safe passage to you.
And out on the playa? Fire… fire…. always the cleansing fire. It’s a new year at Burning Man. I wish all of you a happy and prosperous one.