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August 31st, 2002  |  Filed under Tales From The Playa

Burning Man and the World I’ve Returned To

Tales From The Playa are dreams and memories of events that took place at Burning Man, as told by its participants.

by Shady Backflash

Imagine for a moment stepping into Fantasia and spending an afternoon with flying pink elephants, mice practicing sorcery, flying broomsticks, and all manner of mind altering weirdness. Then imagine leaving that environment and returning to the present, to the Strip Malls On The Waste Land Theme Park that is Anytown, USA. Each moment that you are away from the imaginative realm of Fantasia, you hunger to return, to reconnect and revitalize and re-experience the sense of bliss and wonder. When you return, everything is as you remember it, only more so.

But you begin to notice that one major shift has occurred: you are no longer surprised by the sight of flying elephants. Rodent sorcerers and flying broomsticks have almost begun to seem, well, if not exactly commonplace, at least familiar scenery and quite shy of their miraculous first impression.

This description is not unlike what a return visit to Black Rock City, home of the Burning Man Festival, feels like.

Burning Man 2001 was my third experience of the festival. It came at the close of a summer of vending at different music festivals, including the Berkshire Mountain Music Festival, where I met James, the individual that I traveled and camped with at this year’s event. James and I met up at the So Many Roads festival at the Red Rocks Amphitheater in Denver and rolled into Black Rock City on Tuesday, August 28th, the second day of the festival.

Events leading up to Burning Man had already put me in a reflective state of mind. A good friend of mine from high school, whom I was still in close contact with, had died shortly before I hit the road for the festival. My friend, Dean Hoekel, died when a cigarette he’d been smoking in bed caught his mattress on fire and he foolishly tried to throw the mattress out of the building rather than escape with his life intact. While I was away, I had thought Dean burned to death, but my father recently informed me that he heard that Dean died from the smoke inhalation rather than the fire itself. Whatever the case, Dean was a close friend and news of his death shook me hard.

When I arrived at Black Rock City I went looking for friends from previous visits, including a friend from college and also a friend that I’d met by proximity of our camp sites my first year at the burn. I met my friend from college first and James and I decided to put our tents up in the camp that she and her friends (all either from the Bay Area or Chicago transplants to the Bay) had set up. The Camp was at 8:30 and Enlightenment.

Then I set out to find other folks I’d met at previous burns. Interestingly enough, I ran right into the primary character that I was looking for and he was camped at 8:15 and Soldier, less than half a “block” from 8:30 and Enlightenment. He expressed that he was pleased to see me but admitted that his attention was divided because he was on his way to a “Get Married To Yourself” ceremony. Rather than part company, I decided to join him.

The Get Married To Yourself ceremony was officiated by a gentleman with long grey frizzy hair, youthful facial features, and radiant charisma. He asked the crowd that’d gathered to hold their own hand and make a few solemn pledges, including, “I will not forsake you” and “I will always be true to you,” and “I will never put a hex on myself.” He then asked us to make up some pledges of our own and passed along the following phrase, which he suggested we tell ourselves on a regular basis: “I am a fucking genius!”

Suggestions were made that we arrange a honeymoon with ourselves and, when asked about consummating this new marriage, that we should reclaim the phrase “go fuck yourself” and tell people that that is what we intend to do on our honeymoon.

After adopting a fuzzy purple and yellow plastic wedding ring (which I lost to the playa the night of the burn) I walked away quite pleased by this bit of inner alchemy, though a bit uncomfortable with the fact that I hadn’t written out a prenuptial before the wedding, to keep my inner masculine from taking my inner feminine for all that it was worth… or vice versa.

The frizzy haired character announced that he would be doing a Chaos Meditation later in the week and I decided that it was an event that I should not miss. Unfortunately, I missed it.

I didn’t spend much time on Black Rock City seeking out events or information or event art. This time on Black Rock City, I spent a great deal of my time deepening my connection to the people I was camped with. I also spent a good deal of time grieving the recent loss of my good friend. It was intense and incredible to be at such an incredible party and also realize just how ritualized the space at Black Rock City is. The people and the art there just exude vibrant playful creativity. Whether beholding a beautiful twenty foot high blue goddess sculpture or dancing at the uberrave camp Illuminaughty, Black Rock City is filled with magic and mystery.

Not long after the wedding to myself, I ran into two friends of mine from the pagan festival circuit, an escape artist and a stage magician, both of them performers at Caesar’s Palace in Vegas. They told me that they were recently married, so I offered them a wedding Tarot reading and was invited to their camp for dinner and the reading later in the week. I brought a bottle of homebrewed honey meade made by mutual friends of ours, and was glad to be a part of such a special time in their lives. The reading was also quite enjoyable.

After the reading, Magnus, the stage magician, suggested I check out a Living Tarot performance that was happening at a nearby camp, so I left to attend that while he went to a drum ritual with Fantuzi, a character from the Rainbow Family circuit.

The Living Tarot workshop began by introducing Rob Breszny, an astrologer who does the Free Will Astrology (formerly Real Astrology) column in many alternative weeklies across the country. I’d heard of Brezsny’s column because my sister is totally devoted to the wit and wisdom contained in it and later learned that Brezsny had a Santa Cruz band, Tao Chemical, that my other friends in the Tie-Dye Mafia, Mikio and Phil, used to go out to hear. Well, as fortune would have it, the character that’d been introduced as Rob Brezsny was none other than the minister who’d married me to myself! That amused me to no end! Here was a guy who impressed me just by being his wacky interesting self who I later learn is a guy whose writing and music have inspired a lot of other people that I know. It made me all the more bummed that I missed his Chaos Meditation, but also made me realize that the next time I get to playa, I will have to make a point to keep an ear out for anything he is offering. The Living Tarot was interesting but didn’t seem to open any new worlds for me in terms of my understanding of the Tarot, which I’ve worked with for eleven years now.

August 31st, 2002  |  Filed under Tales From The Playa

My Black Rock Wedding

Tales From The Playa are dreams and memories of events that took place at Burning Man, as told by its participants.

by Steph

How Did I Get Here?

When I leaned over to whisper in Andrew’s ear while squished in an IHOP booth in Reno Nevada, I had no idea whether I wanted to really do what I was about to propose; since that’s basically what I was about to do. At that moment, memories of the past month flashed through my head, all the long nights of talking and lusting, confidences, tears, and bliss, all these came flooding over me. I also recalled holding the five-year-old I nannied in my lap, and how when I leant over to give Andrew a quick kiss she looked up at me and asked, ‘Are you going to marry him?’ and without thinking I had replied, ‘Sure, why not.’

Now you may be asking yourself, “How can someone propose and not know if they want to be married?” Quite easily, if you’re not taking it seriously. I have always loved a good party and weddings are usually great parties. I even enjoy ritual when it’s not cloaked in heavy amounts of dogma and remains fresh, vital, and relevant to those involved. These preferences partly explain how I came to find myself in an IHOP booth contemplating a haphazard proposal to my boyfriend. You see, we were on our way to Burning Man. A festival of intense, experimental, artistic anarchy that comes in the form of a temporary city, built in one of the harshest climates on the earth for only a week.

Having attended Burning Man two other years, I generally knew what to expect. Lots of heat, dust and incredible opportunities to create, destroy and explore various realms of myself and my boundaries. And was I ever excited to be going back. For Andrew, this was his first time. We had prepared food, costumes and articles for trading (nothing is for sale, only for barter on the desert floor, affectionately known as the playa), but we were never quite prepared for the intensity of our feelings for each other and our sudden need to be fully committed and devoted.

Now back to the IHOP, where I leant over and asked, ‘So are we going to do it?’ His reply, ‘Sure, why not.’

It’s very easy to get married in the state of Nevada, almost too easy. For the low price of $50 and the display of two driver’s licenses, anyone can walk into the city hall between eight a.m. and midnight and walk out with a wedding license. During the weeks before heading South, I had jokingly mentioned that we should get hitched. My reasons, I had never done it and it would be fun. For years I had prepared my family for disappointment, I would never do the big church wedding, heck I didn’t even believe that marriages could actually work, and the notion that one person would be able to put up with me ‘forever’ seemed ridiculous. Yet somehow, there I was, early morning Reno Nevada, August 27 2001, clutching a wedding license and beating a path to our rented SUV.

Black Rock City, Nevada

We didn’t mention our plans to any of the friends we were camped with or saw on our journeys around the city. Instead we had made plans to ‘marry’our friends in a mock ceremony at some point during the week. At Burning Man you can find almost every service you would find in the ‘normal’ world, but twisted into something very strange. You need Boy Scouts, there’s a troupe of them. Join up and try to get demerit badges in activities such as lap dancing or being a bitchy neighbour and triumph in their slogan of ‘Be Impaired’. The same goes with churches and wedding chapels. Every year, more and more denominations spring up offering their services.

Early our first morning on the playa, Andrew and I came across the Black Rock Wedding Chapel, complete with it’s own 7 foot Elvis head and a spin-a-vow wheel that resembled the one on Wheel of Fortune. This was the place. We knew it the moment we saw it. Only question was, did they have real ministers that could perform a legally binding service? As our luck would have it, three out of the four people that built the chapel were ministers with the Church of Universal Love, registered in the State of Nevada, and willing to perform a ceremony for us.

At this point I began to contemplate what I was doing. We had already decided that we would keep the marriage a secret from our friends and family for the next year, and just tell them on our anniversary. This satisfied three goals, one) that we not be questioned, since we had only been together just over a month, two) if it didn’t work out then no harm or embarrassment done, and three) it seemed a rather trickster thing to do. With the date set for Friday August 31st at sunset we began to make the rest of the wedding plans which gave us some distraction from really engaging with the real life possibilities of what we were about to do.

As the days moved on I realized that I did want to be married for real. I wanted to commit myself fully to Andrew who was the most incredible person I had ever encountered. I started wanting to build a life with someone and create a bond that went beyond what trust could describe. I felt I was in a minor quandary, here I was feeling a yearning for established notions of commitment and monogamy, but I didn’t want to express myself in a traditional way during our wedding. Neither did Andrew.

We were lucky enough to find bachelor and bachelorette parties going on Wednesday night for another couple that we could just join in with. We also managed to procure Black Rock’s only magical taxi to shuttle us to Friday’s service. Everything just seemed to fall into place including our intention to make this a real marriage. In my mind, this decision was cemented when Andrew looked me deep in the eyes one night and told me that he did want to commit and could not be with anyone else.

Waking up Friday morning in our tie-dyed dome I began to get excited. We had chosen our wedding outfits from costumes we brought with us. As we made amulets from sand dollars, crystals, stones and hand blown marbles that were playa gifts, the reality of our wedding began to set in. That day Andrew asked the next door neighbour who he had bonded with to be the best man. At this point we had given up the decision to keep our nuptials a secret and told a select few, the rest would be told at the service or when we got back home. I was lucky enough to have three of my close friends attending Burning Man, so I felt happy that our community would bless our love. I would also have three of the most interesting and diverse looking bridesmaids I’ve ever seen.

The Wedding

After downing a shot of tequila each Andrew and I climbed into the taxi and were off to the chapel. When we arrived there was a fluster of activity, friends arriving and gathering, the ministers making last minute checks with us, and many shocked faces as we told them we were getting legally married. As the dust settled and the sun began it’s decent, Andrew and I stood surrounded by friends and the ministers in front of the large Elvis head.

Dressed in my ‘Princess Leia’ outfit and clutching a mismatched bouquet of blinking roses and dusty blooms given to me by friends and neighbours, I felt in awe of my sexy partner in his homemade fractal pants and pink cowboy hat. We had managed to put together a wedding that felt fun and special to us in four days, without much stress and with no disagreements. Many of our friends still in shock at our announcement observed our happiness with yells of encouragement and smiles as wide as canyons.

Much to the consternation of our ministers, we had chosen to recite the Elvis vows they kept for mock ceremonies. With silly promises of not stepping on his ‘blue suede shoes’, or treating him like a ‘hound dog’, I vowed that he would always be ‘my teddy bear’. Andrew promised to ‘love me tender’ and never leave me at the ‘heartbreak hotel’ and to always be my ‘hunk-a hunk-a burnin love’. These vows delivered in full Elvis style elicited laughs and grins from us and the crowd that had gathered during the ceremony. While posing for pictures with our friends I realized that this was the wedding I had always dreamed of, despite that realistically with all of the luck and randomness, our wedding could have never been planned exactly this way. Feeling the craziness of being at Burning Man for the week, combined with the intensity of our connection and the joy of our simple ceremony, I was overwhelmed with a sense of euphoria that is always better when shared with those you love.

We certainly didn’t have a ‘traditional’ wedding, but we created a meaningful ritual that worked for us on many levels. We’ve been told repeatedly by different people that ours was the best wedding they have ever attended. Our friend Kodiak who photographed the wedding wrote that our ceremony was ‘full of life and love’. It was also full of a lot of our personalities. We managed to keep the parts that worked for us within the traditional marriage ceremony; a gathering of friends, a legally binding ceremony, a bouquet of flowers to toss, vows, an exchange of love tokens and of course the kissing of the bride. But we also managed to make it an expression of ourselves by creating our own amulets, wearing what made us feel special and comfortable, and keeping the ceremony full of life and fun as well as short.

After the wedding we co-opted the Black Rock Boy Scout’s Mamboree and turned it into a wedding reception. To end off our streak of ‘planning’luck, the Boy Scouts had a cake, which we ceremoniously borrowed as our wedding cake and fed each other pieces in the traditional way. Like most things and events on the playa our wedding was magical, strange and once in a lifetime experience, afterall, not everyone gets a free wedding cake that says ‘ASS’.