This year at Burning Man, I figured out what I want to be when I grow up.
My dream job was just there waiting for me. No one was doing it, so I did it. I climbed up into the 12:21 Turquoise Portal, and I became the Portal Keeper.
A man named Harlan Emil Gruber brings portals to Burning Man and other such evolutionary gatherings of people. Each year’s portal is placed at an auspicious location on Black Rock City’s clock face. It’s given a color and gemstone, and it’s shaped with sacred geometry. The whole portal resonates at the super-low frequency emitted by the Quasar Wave Transducer built into the heart of it.
The portals are designed to bring our minds and bodies in tune with the planet we’re on and the galaxy we’re in. When you climb into the portal and harmonize with the waves, you can feel it working on every nerve in your body.
I sought out the portal this year after my first couple of days at Burning Man played eerily out of tune. I didn’t realize when I left camp that I was walking toward the rest of my life.
Wednesday night, Burning Man 2012
12:21 Turquoise Portal, 12:21 and 5,800′
This Burn has involved some personal awfulness, which has been written awfully in another book. Tonight, I have decided to do something radical for myself. I have walked to the Turquoise Portal, from which the city is but a low, twinkling hum, and I have it in my mind to stay here all night.
I sat silently for a few minutes, and then I chanted slowly along with the Quasar Wave Transducer, whose frequency was my baseline that night. As soon as I stopped chanting, my first visitor passed, a big guy with a well-lit bike.
“Hello,” he called to me.
My eyes were closed, and I was not lit up, but I replied, “Hi.”
“Wow, that’s crazy,” he remarked to himself.
“Want to come up?” I asked.
“No, thanks man. I’m just traveling along, trying to see how far I can go.”
“Thanks, man. You, too!”
The encounter moved me to write my first journal entry. My decision to sit in the portal had led to a story. But the story took a weird turn after what felt like much too short a time — the Quasar Wave Transducer shut off.
I waited and waited, but the purring machine stayed silent. I felt colder. I wanted that vibration to carry me through the night, and it was gone.
I decided I would go for a long walk and return to the portal at the end. If, by some miracle, the Wave was back, I would be able to stay and carry out my mission.
As I returned to the portal, I was sure that the resonator would still be offline. Instead, I found two nice travelers inside, and the vibrations were back. As we sat and talked, a parade of great folks came through, and a man played guitar for us. He played “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” and we sang along quietly.
After some time, the vibrations stopped again, and my new friends left. But it wasn’t long before a new group joined, and they knew the portal was supposed to be purring and wasn’t. I assured them it would come back.
Then I put my hand on the floor, and I felt it. It was low, but it was coming back. They were skeptical, but then, with a great roar, the Portal burst back into song.
As the night rolled on, I was joined by many more travelers for a long spiral of conversations. People arrived as others left, so the threads of talk were continuous.
There was Yankee, the futurist, who provided a delightful challenge to my resentful ideas about bringing Web technology to Burning Man. Every time I cried out that smart devices would destroy the precious immediacy of our encounters and relationships there, he showed how technology might help in ways we’d have to try out to understand.
And then there were Dana and Mike. It was Mike’s first Burn, and Dana had brought him out to deep playa to see where the quiet types, the real, wandering desert prophet people, like to hang out at night. These two stayed with me through sunrise.
These were my kind of people. We aren’t Opulent Temple faux-fur lose-ourselves dancers. We’re about finding ourselves — and each other — out there where it’s dark and quiet and easy to think. That’s where the portal is, so it’s people like us who find it.
But damn, does it get cold out there at night.
At the darkest, coldest, bleakest nadir of the night, someone approached and started fiddling with the outside of the portal.
“Want to come up?” I asked.
“Yes, I just have to turn the internal lights on and check the battery level, and maybe adjust the sound.”
“Are you Harlan Gruber?” I nearly gasped.
“Please come up,” I implored him. “We have so many questions for you.”
Soft, purple triangles of light switched on in a ring around the portal’s floor, and the Quasar Wave Transducer growled with new intensity. Then the Portal Maker climbed in with us.
He entertained us with answers to the many questions that arose for us throughout the night, and he loved hearing our portal tales.
For one thing, Harlan explained that this year, the Quasar Wave Transducer shuts down 12 times a day for 21 minutes at a time. It wasn’t broken, it was emphasizing the time cycle around which the 12:21 Turquoise Portal was designed.
He explained that the sacred geometry gives form to this idea of the portal, but the music we play with it is the point, and it speaks for itself. He compared himself to Les Paul, eponymous inventor of that iconic electric guitar. “No one cared about the Les Paul until Jimmy Page got a hold of one,” Harlan said.
Saturday night, Burn Night, Burning Man 2012
12:21 Turquoise Portal, 12:21 and 5,800′
After the Man burned, I walked out to the portal with my brother. We wanted a good vantage point from which to look upon the chaos of the city. I realized that, from the Turquoise Portal’s perch near the top of the city, 5,800 feet away, the view was like looking down on the planet of Black Rock City from orbit.
So we sat at the portal for a while, talking to a variety of passers through. Then we left it in the capable hands of a man named Daniel, who seemed to dig the portal the same way we did, and we descended back into the madness. Eventually, my brother and I parted ways.
After a loud, long night of post-Burn anarchy, I felt the need to go back into orbit. My friend Sarah wanted to wander the deep playa by herself, and I offered to walk out to the portal with her. She could wander wherever she pleased, and I’d be there in the portal if she needed a friend again.
I was perfectly content to sit and keep the portal again. I had a lot of reflecting to do. I had begun to realize that I felt at home in the portal.
Keeping a portal felt like an occupation that could fulfill me like none other I’ve tried. While it was empty, I could meditate, read, write, and sing along with its vibrations. When someone arrived, I could talk to them, tune in with them, and send them on their way. That would be enough for me.
I made a log entry on my voice recorder that I’ll keep around as long as I’ve got the technology to listen to it. It’s kind of strange and sensitive, but I’ll share it anyway.
Then I sang. I sang loudly to the song of the portal. I was the Portal Keeper, so I sang the Portal Song.
First I hummed the main note that I heard, loudly, using my whole head. Then I began to explore other intervals, fourths and fifths, staying conscious of the portal’s perfect 2012 geometry. As my breath ran out, I tore off the last note like a bite of salty food, savoring for desert survival. Then I began to throat-sing, whistling out higher overtones, just like the Quasar Wave Transducer does.
Someone climbed up as I was singing. It was my brother. He seemed as surprised as I was. I told him what I was doing, and I began to cry. He urged me not to stop.
Not long after, others came. I told them about the singing. I described throat singing, which most of them hadn’t heard of before, and then I sang for them. I was self-conscious, but I didn’t need to be. I kept the song short, and some of them joined in.
One of them said this was his last Burn. “Havin’ a kid, movin’ on,” he said. When I asked him how many times he’d been to Burning Man, he said, “Many times.” Eventually, he revealed that he’d been 17 times. “I come here to settle shit,” he said, “and I finally settled it.”
As sunrise approached, Harlan came back and brought a friend. After the long night, I was happy to let the Maker keep the portal for us. It was chilly in the portal, but we all kept each other warm until the sun rose, and we walked to the Temple for a light breakfast.
The lesson of my second night as Portal Keeper was that we all need a portal. We all need a place to huddle together, charge up and tune ourselves. A Portal Keeper talks to travelers, puts them at ease, shares stories and bids them farewell. It’s an important job, and I want to do it.
Burning Man is a portal. It’s a passageway from one side of our lives to the other. And it’s one hell of a place to share stories of where we’ve come from and where we’re going.
Photos courtesy of Harlan Emil Gruber
I’ll tell you my portal story, but I want to start at the end: There’s a drift-wood-I-love-you-rock sitting on a shelf in Mike’s room right next to framed pictures of his family and encouraging quotes from his mom. I’ve never really heard Mike say that he’s wanted anything before… not my love, not a bigger paycheck, not a nicer house, or a dog, or a vacation, or a car… but he wants the drift-wood-I-love-you-rock. Thank you.
So, to be honest, I don’t know how we got to the portal. As much as I love Burning Man, sometimes it can overwhelm you. I think Mike and I were in a mutually overwhelmed state, and we started drifting away from… everything. When we got to the portal, I just wanted a place to sit down for a minute. We were deep playa wanderers, and we needed a short rest. Where we were sitting, we could see Black Rock City doing its crazy thing with the lasers and the lights and the fires. But the portal was dark inside. There were three outlines of people in there, but I couldn’t see any details. I remember you as your unexpected humor, your compassion, your thoughtful observations, and your dedication to sitting the whole night in a vibrating semirhombic triacontahedron… I love you, but I have no idea what you look like.
The first thing I noticed about the portal was that it was full of energy. A minute before, I was overwhelmed by the booming of the crazy raver party music, but inside the portal, it all sounded pretty nice. I guess everyone just has to find the right seat in the theater before they can enjoy the show. I heard the music from both sides of the playa mixing together into a lovely, vibrating tune. I closed my eyes, and I noticed the vibrations. And then all the dark portal-people noticed the vibrations:
“Is it happening?”
“I think it’s happening.”
“I’m pretty sure it’s happening.”
And, well, it was happening. The vibrations made the air feel thick and seemed to connect all of us in a pool of musical humming. It’s almost like our thoughts and feelings couldn’t help but meld together, even though everyone was in their own corner of the portal. For most of the night, I didn’t say a single thing, but I still felt deeply involved in the conversation. So many people stopped by, and they all had such interesting ways of interacting with the portal. Some just stayed outside, some peeked in, some scurried around inside exclaiming “SO YOU’RE THE NEW GENERATION! WELCOME!” and the scuttled off, some sat down for a while, one of them even tuned the vibrations and explained the whole mystery of how the thing works :-) Even now, his words still vibrate through my mind: We were creating a different type of consciousness in which all of us could interact by harmonizing with ourselves and with our environment.
My favorite visitor was a very lost and confused man… Apparently, he was trying to get home.
“Well, where do you live?”
“Are you sure, or are you just making up numbers?”
“I think I’m just making things up.”
“Well, where do you want to go?”
“Can you just tell me how to get to Burning Man?”
I hope he found what he was looking for.
When the sun came up, we were still there. All three of us. I had almost forgotten that the night would have to end. To be honest, despite a numb butt and cramped legs, I didn’t really feel like leaving. There was good energy, soothing vibrations, and a pretty pink sunrise. But, right… it was sunrise. Black Rock City emptied itself into the deep playa for sunrise, and we met our final visitors for the night. After a long night of vibrating and meditating in the portal, I was in a mood where I could learn a very important lesson: Those last visitors were definitely not wandering desert prophet people, but I still managed to love them. Every part of my rational mind told me that I should hate those people for ruining my serene moment, but in my heart I felt love for the fact that they were so ridiculous. It’s Burning Man: It’s their home as much as it is mine. They’re my family, and I love them.
So, Jon… I’m really glad you were part of our night in the portal. It’s crazy how a vibrating cavity can connect people like that. I definitely understand your love for that place. I mean, I felt it.
You’re a great Portal Keeper.
Randall’s portal story
I directed or lead at least a dozen people to this thing over the course of the week. Those who I went with found it immediately loveable, even more so than I expected.
Every time I visit one of these I’m left wondering whether we should have more ambient sound sculptures in public spaces. The prospect of trying to provide music in public places which is both interesting and widely accessible is a terrifyingly difficult prospect, but the low-level noise generated by the portals is so delightfully soft it would be a stretch to accuse it of polluting and my experiences thus far indicate its noises tend to delight and comfort.
Next step: quasar wave transducers in bus hutches.
I was the 1:11 Saphire Portal Keeper for two nights in 2008. Totally changed my life.
HEG’s Portals capture the essence of BM: letting random desert wanderers you meet in the middle of the night influence your life.
Dani’s portal story
Thank you for blogging about all of this. The “two nice travelers” you mention (wednesday night) are myself and my friend. That night, that moment even, was the most incredible for me at Burning Man this year. Thank you for sharing the space and your stories. I remember talking about courage and capabilities, belief in ourselves. As our incredible guitarist played we let music take over the conversation and I let my tears take over me. Tears of joy and sorrow and acceptance and fear and hope and courage and capabilities. It only takes a few moments to make a lifetime of difference. Thanks for those moments.
Flow’s portal story
Your story parallels my experience in 2011 in the Amethyst Portal by the same artist (a stellated dodecahedron).
I took off into the deep playa after my girlfriend broke up with me for the second time at BM – 2 years in a row! I was feeling done and needed some quiet time to reflect. I passed the Temple which was crowded and kept going. I started getting tired biking in the hot sun, when I saw this purple star way out there. I would rest there. When I got there it was packed with about 10 burners sitting along the edge, so I went to the center, sat down and closed my eyes – meditating for 10 minutes or so. It had gotten quiet in there, so I opened my eyes. I couldn’t believe it! All ten of them were in a circle facing one another’s backs and massaging the shoulders of the person in front of them. It was so beautiful! They seemed to like my vibe and we all talked for a while. Then they invited me to go climb ‘truth & beauty’, but before I could reply they saw the bliss on my face and realized that I was where I needed to be.
After that, I had the most beautiful quiet time alone in the Portal sitting with that amazing sound/vibration alternating between meditation and watching the sink toward the horizon – making peace with being single again. Various people stopped and shared their thoughts and feelings. I had a deeply blissful experience with the Portal. I returned several times before the burn was over, each time time it was amazing in its own way.
Thank you Harlan Emil Gruber!!!