Dear Burner tell me now before the memories fade into the dust from whence we came, among the wing-tipped goggles and frilly pink tutus and rhinestone anklets, the suntan lotion stratified on bare chests and the chewy nozzles protruding hydration from camping daypacks, the multicolor bandanas and the feathered hats, broad-brimmed, wear-worn, now while the sun still rays into the truck-beat byways of a cropless clockface and cycles, bi- tri- uni- and poly-, of wheels and love alike revolve along the playa valley, vast and leached, pulsating like quicksilver now against these blasted lands, sandblasted lands whose scorching sands spawn dervish whirls of dust and pangs of utter depravation, now at this crucial juncture where our planet's fortieth northern parallel lances Longinus-like through its one-hundred-nineteenth western rib whose soul shall slake the desert, yours?
Injustice: I do Burning Man injustice by attempting to describe it—as do all writers with all topics, after all. Inherent in language is inadequacy; doomed to reality envy, it can never become what gives it form, hence, "The history of writing is a history of failure." By this metric, however, none can succeed save God, and so if bullseye remains elusive forever we sate ourselves with degrees of accuracy in a compromise as fair as any other. Even so, to render an orange—its heft, its tang, the feel of running your finger down its leathery, semiporous rind—in words is a task by leaps and bounds more simple than to boil a psychedelic voyage down (barred as they are by a privacy altogether noumenal) or, for that matter, to capture Burning Man, an event whose narrative density is so sheer that the common—because appropriate, and oh-so—reply to inquiring outsiders is, "You just gotta go and see for yourself."
Consider childhood. How would you express not merely its periodicity but the very sensation of it, the very flavor of living and being that eternal moment? Tough, but let's give it a go: wonder lurking round each nook and cranny, stage aglow with the warm promise of endless discovery, significance teeming from every object, every person, every action, immensely formative. Now to what lengths would you go to feel it all over again? If you could? Allegorically, it's where we're headed, you and I, to an answer—from the loom room where the threads of fate have yet to spin their tapestry of tales and where each story must begin; and thus I take up the pen again, trace back these yarns from wooden wheel through woolen clew to the dextrous hand that strung them.
It begins with a girl (as so many of these do), one who had the clemency to grant this one his first semblance of (a long starved-for) intimacy, a boy, my friend, who spent much effort outside of work fostering a local discourse community (where I met her) before retiring early to festival-hop (among other things), a blog, which indoctrinated me seven years ago and without which said community could not exist, and if we really wish to be thorough with our little history here, a bang (a Big one). Not normally a survivalist or festive spirit by any stretch of those terms (Coachella, Tomorrowland, Bumbershoot, you name it: never been, much less the Mecca), I'd viewed—from a distance I had no intention whatsoever of reducing by a single step—Burning Man as the exemplar of a special sort of excessive hedonia, which while not on the whole inaccurate was, as an idea, wholly unappetizing (needless to say, I owe my past self much explanation; and this, too, is why I write—as atonement). Nor was I one for conferences, counting myself neither among professionals, having left that course to pursue what then I thought was purpose, nor academics, whose gatherings a happenstance circle of my internet acquaintances (the lot annoyingly embroiled in notions of precocity) traipse networking around, nor even gamers, of whom I'd been an avid enough specimen to attend a couple PAXes (now three years past at minimum). I suppose you could say saying no was my specialty: no to amusement, no to connection, no, indeed, to life.
But the girl—she valued being part of things, revolving with the world. And almost by the dictates of natural law, I, a cold-blooded naysayer, thirsted for a hit of heat. She wanted to go to Burning Man, and she wanted to go with. I liked being around her. I made it my mission.
Truly, were action space to be conceived as branches on a great Decision Tree, then we would see in stunning arborescence what we'd need to reach the fruit behind the leaves, and if each terminus were graspable by any timber crooked meek or bold (as thus I was impelled along a straight and stringent xylem), all choices told, what horror, shock, and joyous glee we'd find in countenancing Yggdrasil, its gnarled roots, its cambium, its seeds...
The crux is this. Any account of Burning Man, notorious for deflecting portrayal to the point of open defiance, which does not disclose the terms of its own genesis cannot hope to be sufficient in its aim or execution. Like life, the Burn is both macroscopically general and irreducibly personal, and there is no nowhere-view, no Burn without a Burner. To modify the Rifleman's Creed: "This is my Burn. There are many like it but this one is mine." And as I flip through the photos I took, resavoring the moods that inspired them, deeper grows my appreciation for all the necessary contingencies that had to fall in place just so to pave my path to
Sally, let's call her, sallied from the Stars and Stripes for the summer for a series of escapades recreational and educational from which she was to return triumphant for the crown, Burning Man. During that time I was tasked with securing our transportation, and preceding that, tickets (luck would lay me near the lead of the online lottery line). It became, in addition, clear that I lacked the vital gear—enough that ticket price would end up but a third of total cost.
"Investment" is the term Burners use to rationalize their spendthrift, "Think of it as an investment," they suggest. Too presumptuous; I refused. Though I could see how having the hardware subconsciously facilitated the pursuit of every activity requiring it, being honest with myself I'd had no plans for any of that junk beyond the Burn. What I could borrow, I did: a 60-liter rucksack, a backpack, a bike rack, a bike lock, a sleeping bag. What I could not, I bought: a tent, sleeping pad, goggles, carabiners, wet wipes, double As, dust masks, string lights, trash bags, lag screws from the nearby
WHEREIN the cashier gave me like an 80% factory discount much love
WHEREIN the cashier gave me like an 80% factory discount much love
...a flashlight, headlamp, sunscreen, hand oil, first aid kit—on it trails ad nauseam.
Then came attire (because there weird was normal and normal weird), so I scoured through Seattle thrift stores like Macklemore to find: a cobalt handkerchief, a $13 pair of Dr. Martens AirWair boots in just my size (I wore them all of two hours), a $10 pair of sandals (wore them everywhere), a cowhide fisherman's hat tanned tangerine. Apropos of nothing, a non-Burner friend living in the group house I haunt weekly extracted, from a pirate chest in her room, a ragtag bag of unworn miscellany to exhibit at dinner: seven patterned hair ties, a pumpkin-orange bowtie glued on a hair band, a blue hand-woven headband with flower button, and a black driver's cap of wool, plastic, polyester—the lot of which I promptly asked to borrow; she acceded. From my closet came brown cargo shorts, a beige short-sleeved shirt printed floral with indigo, chino shorts and sports cardigan, purple, and standard desert chinos. A black tee with graphic orchids: H&M, on sale, $6, lastly.
From a materialist standpoint, all it takes to Burn is a bunch of stuff, a means of transport, and a bit (ok, an ovenful) of dough. From my internal subjectivity, I found their acquisition an enormous drag and envied the seemingly sweatless ease with which every other Burner managed to amass their goodie stash; and by the time I'd procured the above, there was one week left to go.
A demifortnight. T-minus seven spins. Sally came back. We went kayaking. Got a few meals. Something was off. Was it the smog? Last REI supply run; she bought some stakes and wipes and I a bowl and spork. The store was closing. And between us... not much to say, I guess. Too much? Silence the product either way, our conversations perfunctory where they used to be penetrating. Yes, that summer staged a separation, but we'd share bits and pieces of our lovely little lives in rapt anticipation, and whatever schisms distance'd fixed, Burning Man would surely nix—because propinquity breeds affection, and hardship bonds. Right?
Departure day arrived. Four of us—me, her, two friends Blake and Adam (pseudonyms for confidence)—stuffed our luggage in a faded blue sedan and booked it to Reno. The drive saw flatlands and mountain passes, farms, factories, gas-pumping pit stops, skinny straights and curvy roads. For the first time I witnessed the full moon transcend dimensions as it, a dot, cast its lengthy shimmering shadow on black lake liquid, no lie:
Next we rolled into our airy prefab McAirBnB at Klamath Falls and ate from well-rated Crazy R Pizza what each then proclaimed the worst of its life before sleeping, waking, showering knowing it was to be the week's last yet still failing to cherish it (our perspective artificial), driving down to Reno, parking at its airport. "Are you guys going to Burning Man?" asked the gent adjacent just leaving, a Nevada native. "You're in for a treat. The weather hasn't been this nice all summer," he winked.
It was a calm, dry mid-80s that canicular Reno morn, and the sun was limelight for the vaulting mishmash of brick, wood, and glass that is the Tahoe terminal. Below fell heavy my feet on sandals and concrete, weighed down like pack mule hooves by half my mass backbreakingly borne and half that still hand-toted. Plodding and aching thus for twelve or so hourlike minutes had us in queue for the bus that was to bus us to the Burn. Here were live, bona fide Burners, hundreds of them—clothed fancily, rattily, scantily—chattering under shade of a massive stucco awning on through to its vanishing point ahead. Forth we shuffled to be handed, by the third of four sets of staff to verify our documents before permitting us to board, a welcome pack with map, recycling bag, and guidebook. Past their table, round the corner, idling in all its chartered glory, was the Burner Express.
I sat with Adam. His heartfelt efforts to enlighten me on logical inductors and type theory paradigms were about as parsable as Parseltongue. Also my sight was snared by snaking roads and scaly crags of shrubbery-studded beige, the low-lying, fault-folded bedrock hissing menace from afar. Near halfway, a fog crept in. We passed pop-up wardrobes selling last-call costumes. An Instagram-type from New York with a top knot and tank top exchanged Facebooks with the baseball-capped athletic chap behind him, said he was building a startup so he could find His People. Air outside opacified as squalls obscured our outlook whipping scores of course of dusty spores from latency and slumber, and as the bus chugged against that Sunday gale I spied a row of cars aligned along the border begging TICKETS PLEASE on giant cardboard signs, the desperate, mad, and foolish souls who'd held out hope to the very last day, to the very last mile, Hail Mary, for Lady Fortune's boon—the faithful ones, the brave. Too sensible in retrospect; after a taste of nectar (playa dust) who wouldn't want to storm the gates of Paradise? But sans knowledge, I couldn't then reconcile this ravenous, snowless blizzard with the cheery mood within and saintly conviction without, its sole match in ferocity the cognitive dissonance concurrently whistling a warpath through my thoughtscape.
Traffic at a bend, bumper to bumper, where smaller cars were turning back because? we'd learn, of sentry's orders, for this was a whiteout: visibility too low to let folks in. At the news, a hoyden Millennial leapt off—"What about your luggage?" "I'll figure it out"—spunkily into the blitz (I couldn't believe the driver let her), only to be towed back on a Ranger buggy duly shamed:
Then mister topknot announced he'd be snappin' a pic for the 'gram, so if everyone could please do him a solid and wave and shout on three thanks much very. As predictably, I cringed—if these were standard-issue Burners, they were certainly not My People. Another bummer was the fact that I'd fled the stifling Seattle smog, AQI 180+, only to deal with more of the same but now with a sandstorm on top. Just deserts, I guess.
But with a roger that, our bus was cleared and we were through, to final ticket scan, then claps and cheers; plus the wind had died down a bit by the time we got to the station so we could see more than two feet in front. There Adam, a ritualist and second-timer, insisted we three newbies initiate ourselves in orthodox freshman fashion, viz. Birgins (first-timers) fresh off the bus are expected to (1) ring the nearby bell:
(2) flop down to do a snow angel, and (3) declare their dusty consummation. I recoiled at this nigh-compulsory hazing but swang and rang withal, though without—as each according to its kind—condescending to besoil myself like swine. Alas, a gulf was forming, I could tell, between me and the others, cracking wider and wider with each step I would not follow, a laughing chasm soon and soon a continent apart; "Make the leap! Make the leap!" it jeered, no, I didn't belong here, didn't deserve—oh whatever did I do—to be swallowed by the fires of Gehenna...
Not yet at least, for there was still a week remaining and I'd redeem myself some other way some other day, or so I thought. Status recuperation consternation notwithstanding, our next and final stop was Dead Hand Path, the camp we'd signed up to stay with in advance of the odyssey recounted. As it was placed just shy of the station, we hoisted our bags and trudged.
"Welcome home," I was hugged, shortly after shrugging the Atlas load of crap I was to survive the week off off my back and gazing aground in despair. A nice sentiment. But as if this could ever be home? This frail pile of poles shivering loudly in the smog? This meager plot of dirt cutely cordoned in some desert nowhere? Insanity. I blinked, dumbly; blinked again, expecting something—anything—to happen; nothing did. All the energy regret would've sapped was being siphoned into disbelief, that the culmination of my past self's every action was, somehow, my standing here. Then I thought, if there was any silver lining, Dead Hand Path was five merciful minutes from the bus sta—no, the first ones out were Friday. I really would be here a week—here Here HERE. So that was the first thing I'd burned, my way back. Then I looked over and saw the reason I came. Maybe she could comfort me and help me settle in. Then... doubt. Were Sally and I on good terms? In any case and every sense, I hated that I had to ask.
The brain, in gauging uncertainty, acts like a rock climber feeling for footholds, haptically seeking out sturdy slabs of evidence, with reaching terra firma akin to confirming a hypothesis; my ascent went as follows. For the negative, upon arriving at Adam's (from where our descent—to Reno, I mean—began), she scarfed a pot-infused chocolate (which has historically rendered her incommunicado), misread the atmosphere by insisting on party music, and talked me down to him (who was then but an acquaintance to us both). Positively, she'd asked to borrow a floss pick from me at the AirBnB. Negatively, she didn't want to fetch the pizza with us, or to cuddle later. More negatively, she snapped at me when I asked to play a song on the next day's drive, my having done nothing (in my view) to merit the tone, and some (navigating, playing her own requests) to merit the tune. Still more negatively, she instantly scouted out and staked her tent in the best spot without offering advice (I had no idea what to look for), checking if I needed help getting my shit together (yes, catatonic psychological wrecks often do), or so much as glancing in my direction; don your O2 first, sure, but don't leave your kid (pardon, if you will, this disparity at least in part by our temperaments: I a city dweller who'd camped but once before—and for, believe it or not, an unsuccessful half a night at that—and she a hardy nymph who'd thrived in mountains, forests, deserts, flooded plains) to die.
Sally and I were not on good terms. Sally, for whom I'd nabbed a ticket, passage there, even bike transport (and indirectly, a bike), and I were not on good terms. Sally, who'd ask me to read her Bible stories asleep, Sally, who'd taught me to dance waltz and love Smetana (and who'd get baked to munch on mochis), Sally, whom I'd cooked for, cooked with, consoled in dire straits, even delivered impromptu once from certain anaphylaxis... and I were not on good terms. Speculation maddened me; though by no means was I a perfect partner—her mirror to my many faults and vices—I could not fathom such a mind to drop close friends like deadweight, and never, by a spite born of her seemingly abrupt change of heart (and of my own nearsighted naivete, whence the seemingly), did I feel affection so much a sickening fiction as when my collapsible water jug plonked facefirst into the mud beneath the filling station, spilling all its contents (and hell why not my soul), where Sally saw my struggle and I saw her two eyes see it, in them a pitiless contempt (or was it indifference? which worse?) while the guy in charge shook his bearded mug at me palm over face.
But "Fuck yer Burn," as the saying goes, and as I thousand-yard stared into the tents, paralyzed like a hundred-eyed deer sphered surround by headlights, it occurred to me that perhaps there was some other basis on which I could found my Burn, and a fleeting half-second later, that perhaps I ought to find it. No, stronger; it was imperative that I did. Reader, recognize revenge and rage for what they are, anima, motive forces, but let them not consume you; sublimate. I saw within that evening's blistering winds that everyone was moving—pitching tents, hammering bolts, prepping dinner, lighting bikes—everyone but me, but then, regurgitating force-fed fantasies stone by stone, I too began to move, and it was then that I resolved to experience the event on its own terms, then that I became a Burner.
Camping, broadly speaking, is the mechanism by which one replaces the limestone backbone of Maslow's pyramid with shabby adobe to "get closer" to (some reified notion of) "Nature." Dismissively denigrating "degenerate" divisions of the hobby with slang like "glamping" and "plug-and-play," devotees—a.k.a. the purity police—defend their definition with all the windbag bluster of anachronized elites amidst a dying civilization. Let it burn, I say, for if it's in its nature to—let it burn, let it burn, let it burn. Our neighbors, painting BURN BABY BURN on their cream-colored trailer, had the right idea, and a college friend, who camped separately, drove up from SF in an RV. This proved an ordeal I was glad I had no hand in: leaky faucets, jammed doors, chassis mods (to fit five bikes), broken fridge, water rations, dustproofing, generator malfunction, rental contracts, inspections, permits and licensing, parking snafus. What a man will do for a shower.
Camping with a camp, contrariwise, entails benefits like a lounge, a shade structure, and one or two daily meals. It also provides camaraderie, i.e. a smorgasbord of talking meats with whom one might wish to break bread. I mean, um... walking the Dead Hand Path was an eclectic collision of particles, including AI researchers at Microsoft, AI researchers at DeepMind, Effective Altruism figureheads, MIT neuroscientists, a handful with a company trying to put dating on the blockchain (which for the record—social consequences be damned—I consider a profoundly insipid idea), ex-Marine "Putin" (a legend who somehow solved the playa in three short years), statisticians, indie game devs, scenius bloggers, and silly old me, a classic case of "Just some dude trying to live some kind of life" if ever there one was. But insofar as prefatory prelims and preludes presuppose the history the rest is, not much more needs dusting off except the stuff itself:
There is absolutely no Burning Man without playa dust, as there is no music without sound (Cage can shove it) or literature without language, so I devote this section to dissecting it. Which by the way is composed of:
- 8% alkaloids
- 7% pixie spores
- 14% fairy wings
- 42% forgotten dreams
- 3% dino carcass
- 4% human cremata cast off cliffs
- 21% silicates
- 100% you
In sum, the transubstantiated élan vital of the Burner Spirit. I first sensed it on the bus as a faint rusty rosin smell, proof positive we'd entered the Burn as color is in Сталкер's Zone. Sorry one sec, gotta pat myself on the back for that comparison. Now as I was saying, it can pass undeterred through matter, which is how it infiltrated a solid bus with metal frame and closed windows (and this was before that chick hopped off). A smart perfumer could distill its aromatics more precisely and sell them as pheromone to Burners, who for all their armpit-sniffing workshops simply cannot resist their madeleine and siren scent, playa dust.
Furthermore, the desert's anger level varies hourly (you wouldn't feel good being trampled on by hordes of hippies and tech bros either, I'm guessing) and when it boils to "ballistic," expect to eat whorls of dust, waves of dust, walls and colonnades of dust. This is how the playa coughs, and if you listen closely to the rustling at your feet, you can hear the soft sibilance of the sands. The second day of my Burn, a baby dust devil quasi-magnetically slammed into me as I was pedaling, coating my clothes, flesh, and soul with a fine, floury, and effectively permanent layer of friction. You may recall that squeamish me avoided getting down and dirty at the Birgin bell, so I regard this episode as both formal proof of karma and as my informal inauguration, doubly confirmed by my new pal Greg who witnessed the whole thing.
Burners often feel a sense of time dilation. This they wrongly pin on adapting to a challenging habitat, being constantly flooded with stimuli, or any number of auxiliary factors that elide the true cause, which in my view is obvious, that the dust is a mind-altering drug (and at that one whose effects are notably understudied—otherwise the feds would ban it like they ban every other good thing). Imagine how cartoonish you'd sound breathing helium instead of oxygen, now imagine doing that nonstop for an entire week, except with playa dust and all your friends and future friends snuffing it right along with you. Yup.
Finally, only a willful ignoramus could ignore the impact each particulate has on the probability fields (or puppet strings, your preference: math or metaphor) always yanking us in more-or-less fatal directions; inhaling 6.469 grams instead of 0.039 might mean living to 76 instead of 79, but more importantly a lone speck not breathed may trigger, in the Schrödingerian sense, your internal monologue to output "it" instead of "the," which then causes, unbeknownst to you, you to divorce your wife down the line. Paramount then it is to duly consider your respirator purchase decision, as buying from Honeywell versus 3M—or filter strength N95 vs. P100—could make or break your life in more ways than one. Choose wisely.
"Civic Responsibility"; "Radical Self-Reliance"; "Participation"; "Immediacy": These and six other core pillars support a surprisingly stable society of self-reinforcing behavior (perhaps a mutual recognition of having crossed so many barriers to entry acts as social superglue; Burners self-select and skeptics stay away). For pre-Burn me, "Gifting" was the culture's most dubious dimension; how could any exchange occur without explicit or implicit notions of value? But that was just it: instead of exchange, a groundswell of goodwill. Two quotes tell the story:
Barter economy: "I give you this, you give me that."
Burner economy: "Today you, tomorrow me."
My first night, I suffered the worst nosebleed of my life after blowing a big booger out my right nostril whilst chillaxing in a lounge. Bloodflood was more like it: no mere dripping but a sanguineous stream saturating sofas. Blake and Adam had nothing to stop it with; neither did I. This was not a good start, and the worst thoughts came over me. Those aside: "I knew I should've brought nasal spray. I knew I should've brought tissues." Then a stranger handed me a pocket pack of Kleenex. "Thank the Lord," is what a Christian would think; a Burner thinks: "The playa provides," same metaphysical import; I said thanks. Tore it open, rammed one up: palm pressure, ten minutes; still pouring. Round 2: off to a medical station—whoops it's closed! But the second tissue stopped both it and my preexistent gut- and headaches (don't think about it too much). Twice more that week the dam would break—but weakly, stanched posthaste with handy brakes:
To nip a point in the bud, yes, just like the local order of earthly life exists to maximize universal entropy, the Burn's localized ethic of caritas is quite demonstrably predicated on global superstructures of brutality and exploitation. Neither fact of which, as you know, has any bearing on the relish of inhabiting said zones. And though we may never forget the bottomless abysms of blood and bile that buoyed us here today, an attitude of gratitude is sure to keep those hungry ghosts at bay. Anyway, pointing the playa's pandemic of paradox out to a Burner is tantamount to telling them that bears crap in woods—odd not because it's true but since antinomy's apparency as animating axiom's assumed. I suppose the word's negative-valence variant would be contradiction, but heed Hamlet here: 'tis nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so; and were we to cleanse the cosmos of contrast (which baby reality would happily oblige), there wouldn't be anything left now would there. At least the Burn's honest.
Friday night, I found a supersized polar bear erected on its hind legs and that it hypostatized at fewest three polar pairs:
- Capital and decommodification
- Waste and conservation
- In the barren desert, life
Funded on that midwife of commodities, Kickstarter, the project has no existence claim outside the world of commerce, and if its point were pathetic appeal—arctic creature toasting in the desert, global warming something something—the carbon cost of manufacturing the parts and schlepping them out is darkly ironic; truth be told, "Leave no trace" is the ideology of the kid who sweeps his mess into the closet so his parents see a spotless room. Thirdly, the (here figurative) juxtaposition of mammal on inhospitable wasteland is one embodied by the Burn at large—literally; and in the vein of Vegas, the playa is playground for the powerful, the privileged, the poor and paltry all. Of life it is mirror and microcosm.
Gwern makes a strong case that language evolves to suit the salient factors in a given discourse community's social environment, so if the terms here strike you as idiosyncratic, you're where I was before the playa showed me their brilliance of compression. Believe me, I couldn't do better if I tried.
Sparkle Pony - special snowflake who radically relies on others for all its survival needs; yes, this means people whose sole possession is a ticket in; a.k.a. Burning on hard mode
Darktard - dangerously dim dunce; the dark desert nights call for lights (else you're a walking public safety hazard), so an insult was devised: quick enough to launch while biking, cutting enough to shame
Moonwalker - loopy lunatic who mistakes the desert for the moon and the moon for Swiss cheese; can oft be seen biting the dust, not in the falling-off-bike sense but the munching-moon-cheese sense
MOOP - "matter out of place": trash, waste, dreck, and rubbish strewn about the playa; includes those ruining the experience for other Burners, such as thieves and Instaqueens
Playa - dry flat hot dusty saltpan lakebed, the background of the Burn; supernatural sister of Janus and Jekyll, either guardian angel or wrathful revenant depending on lunar phase
Default World - life outside the Burn with its attendant codes of conduct, less vibrant by almost every measure; exists (inverting Jean B) to normalize the Burn
Contra pop mythos, Burning Man is not a total chaos but—as aptly reflected in its very cartography—a finely tuned timepiece with many moving parts. Responsible for everything from firefighting to septic containment, battalions of volunteers and seasonal workers orchestrate a resilient infrastructure of incredible logistical complexity all so yours truly can get his bum appraised at the Best Butt Booth. And with PDT the backend runtime, it's easy enough to pass the Tushing Test at HAL & 5:45 9:00PM Wednesday where Captain Pump's Raiders want to know: "Are You a Robot?" I know I'm not, so I didn't go, but the succession of sessions which I did grace may be found below.
As for the range of what's on tap: workshops, discussions, pageants, performances, cookouts, dance parties, social experiments—whatever you desire, the playa provides. If you want to get beat off, plenty of hands at the Orgy Dome, if you want to get beat up, plenty of fists at the Thunderdome. Dead Hand Path, embracing paradox to the max, held roundtables on machine learning state-of-the-art in tandem with tarot readings.
Tip-in-cheek: One strategy (which would only hit me later in the week) is to optimize your schedule based on dollar cost of class in Default World. Another strategy, mine, is to not have one (which turned out just fine).
Seeing this image:
galvanized me like a teen sipping her first cup of goth, and without reading one word further I knew Solarpunk was the world for me. That was two years ago. As with all utopian visions, I assumed "Here today, gone tomorrow"—except at the hyperspeed of the hyperreal, fifteen minutes longer now than fifteen years were then. But there it was, printed on the schedule at Anahasana Village: "Tuesday 8/28, 1 PM to 2 PM - Solarpunk Economics." Who were these quixotic moderns trying to immanentize Laputa?
Robed in rosy chintz, a tall, blond, shaven American expat with his hair back, the sort to live in a co-op or maybe lead one (had he the charisma for it), and his Sancho Panza: a shaggy sheepdog of a man cowled in a mossy, messy mass of mocha-colored hair wearing tatters in the fern-green form of a tee, the avatar of homelessness (yet no tattoos on either). Hailing from the lush ozone hole of an apocalypse bunker better known as New Zealand, the doe-eyed dyad was coding a decentralized, nodal cyberspace gossip network to usurp the ad-infested, data-laundering tyranny of our favorite vampire-squid-on-steroids social platform. If this sounds like a half-hatched cuckoo sci-fi plotline, well, it goes to show some take them more as instruction manuals than escapist candy.
Which, specifically, were Solarpunk was topical apparently. An environmental campaigner from South America suggested Stephenson's Seveneves to nods while a lass in Steampunk cogs and togs said Huxley's Brave New World. "Walkaway by Doctorow," Sancho countered, beaming that distinctively copacetic pride of cultivation found also in mayonnaise contest jurors. The electric fans bricked into the venue's domed blue ceiling had about as much to contribute as me, namely nothing. I laid down to nap and watch the motes they lifted drifting giving photons shape and texture. I heard unmitigated praise of Open Source, shared resource pools, illegibility as Solarpunk ideals. I heard my backpack being knocked over. The culprits, three latecomers, left minutes after the deed—and with as much impunity.
"Why can't Techne and Gaia be friends?" asks the Solarpunk, "Why not, alongside faith, hope, and charity, peace, love, and harmony?" But the incident, somehow, answered both. There was no point in my staying.
Fundamentals of Energy Sex
Yeah, so to come clean... the Solarpunk session was just my cover for this one. I saw it strolling around Camp Contact, had jack to do in the hour before it began, and hopped in the least uninteresting sesh going on at the time to kill it (time, I mean). Understand this. I am not the sort of gent to screw with chakras and mystical energies, but I'm even more remiss to miss the it-ness of a scene, especially when I'm smack in the middle (how otherwise would I bring you these gems), so buckle up—it's Burning Man.
Crawling through an overtly suggestive slit of a door into the warm red womb of Amrita Dome (named after the Sanskrit word for ambrosia) where a crowd of Tantra tyros had clumped for their induction, I, who de-sandaled to enter like everyone else, scanned the space for a seat. When my rump found its pillow, I observed next to me a white blanket billowing inwards (presumably because some bozo had installed a fan facing the wrong way) and patted it repeatedly (just because). In front sat our guru: a silver-haired sorceress whose cherubic, rouge-tinged cheeks glowed such as to convince me she did not so much imbibe as chug elixir of youth, like actors Gatorade in those commercials, and whose first display of authority was to designate the lucky last entrant as gatekeep.
"This," she started, "is my first time teaching to a large group, so please bear with us (her co-instructor husband, whom she met in a similar session, emanated 'used car salesman finds Nirvana'). Who here has practiced Tantra before? Very good, very good. Now I'd like us all to close our eyes and take a deep breath right into our Root chakra, which can be found at our anus. HNNNNNNPH," she sniffed at length. "AHHHHHHH. Activate those vocal cords! Again. HNNNNNPH," she insufflated lengthily, and like so she was class metronome. This, I thought, is ridiculous, but I played along after some hesitation and got the hang of it; the trick is to focus intently on how a given body part (say, your pinky) feels, pretend as if the air is suffused with mana, and, as you inhale, visualize it concentrating in the locus like static.
Happy with our progress, the Tantrika continued, "Think about the word 'remember.' Re-member. Remembering means taking the detached members of your self to make it whole again (a false but artful etymology). We lose so much chakra by being busy all the time so it's important to re-member once in a while. For the next portion, we'll be doing partner work, so if you came by yourself, could I ask you to partner up with someone else who's single—in fact stand up if you're single and willing to partner." Oh god, awkward alert; I knew this was coming (though I'd hoped it wouldn't) and had half a mind to dart (as several just did), but whatever. I stood up. So did my neighbor, a bald, tan, smooth-skinned Filipino bodhisattva in paisley ceremonial garb, no older than 33 or taller than 5'7, whose mahogany chestnut irides I'd spend the better part of the following hour tasseographing like a crackpot ophthalmologist all because he, in his votive bravado, ventured to volunteer his velveteen self as partner to this your cherished correspondent.
Cross-legged, face-to-face sat we, arms out, hands touching: left palm-to-palm, right back-to-back. "Imagine energy circulating around and through one another. Breathe." Yes, this was flesh alright, protective largest organ of the body—firm, dewy summer flesh mine was kissing, quivering hovering flesh. "Now, slooowly open your eyes and stare into your partner's. Same position; keep breathing." Zap poured soul clues through portals pupillary, highest info-per-inch of any tassel of tissues, these light holes were, and—his palms are sweaty—I couldn't stop—knees weak, arms are heavy—these lyrics—nervous but on the surface—from worming—he looks calm and ready—their way in as I breathed (for that's what it means, inspiration) and heaved with this moulded brown clay, this Play-Doh man, and by that point I'd gathered enough chakra to suppress a monstrous urge to snort and giggle (as one gets at these things), transmuting it instead into a twitch at my lip's edge. Whether our energies interpenetrated then is not for me to judge, but given that our mojo maven kept us on our toes—"Stand up! Stay in place and slow dance with your palms"—adding more balls to juggle—"Now start moving around, but maintain contact, eyes and hands"—until the tempo—"Faster! Unless you're dizzy and bumping into each other, you're not going fast enough"—was palpably discordant, it's unlikely they did ever after. The room, I believe, felt the same, growing more spacious as more people quit.
To her credit, our bibulous Baba Yaga periodically sampled her stew of students—of whom two were noteworthy—for feedback. Numero uno was a svelte vest-on-chest hombre ringed zany with wrist beads and neck bands, and this dowdy dandy, who also arrived alone, at each interstice insisted, like the paragon of heteronormative masculinity he was, that while he enjoyed the routines, he did not apperceive an atom of amatory affect for his single, male, partner stranger. The second, a German man no doubt habituated to perspicacity, anxiously soliloquized every tiny tingle that tickled his tendons looking no doubt for a validation he could in principle never receive.
These and those who stuck it through were rewarded with the last and sultriest exercise thus far: "Have one partner sit on the other's lap: legs crossed behind them, arms around their neck. Lean your faces close. If you're on the ground, place your right hand on your partner's sacrum and your left on their upper back, and as we do this, slowly wiggle back and forth, back and forth..." Able to resist the arrows of Eros no longer, several couples—what amateurs!—began smooching. Curious if I so engaged with my ruddy putty buddy Budai? The answer is no. We did, however, have a parting heart-to-heart: knees touching, left hands lapped, right palms flat on the other's sternum, with rhythmic breathing, unbroken eye contact throughout.
Sunset Holy Eucharist
Having read the Bible, I figured it was about time to attend my first religious ceremony, an act as alien to my normality as the workshop described above. But again—it's Burning Man.
In this image we find an Episcopalian minister (from camp "Religious As Fuck," a name which while not especially clever was at least endearingly sincere—as one ought prefer such assimilation attempts to be) quarantining a roughly semicircular disc of desert as negative space by instructing a veritably but perhaps unnecessarily demographically diverse selection of sapient simians arbitrarily arranged to stand in such and such a way, then enouncing oracular as other orifices opened to opine on orders divine and their place in them through vibrations varying in volume and timbre but groupwise comprehensible, meaning multiplying at multiple levels, memeplexes somatic and semantic summoned forth from serifs, squiggles, sounds and symbols, multiple levels. Intently observing this rather inscrutable social procedure cued my mimetic subsequence to execute whereby too began the stirrings of songforms in my stomach, calculated to camouflage but also so to speak to surf the wave, to be with (righteous, man!), and soon a slightly sour pillow of pita dipped by my finger function in fermented crushed grape fluid touched my taste receptors, signaling the masticatory reflex bite the bytes, and and for a moment it w-was a l m o s t r e a | and soon a sign to sing a salutation.
Determinism Why Not
Noon Wednesday, a white man with graying hair in a navy tee held a small chat under a shaded tarp next to his RV three minutes from Dead Hand by foot, a double convenience since the migraine I'd developed (poor sleep) diminished my willingness to travel. This was four-time Burner and self-identified Determinist Stefan. Stefan had had a hard lot growing up, he said, and just recently began cutting out toxic family members, canning his chemicals research career, and reintegrating with old friends, all due, he said, to a big little idea called Determinism. And because nobody he knew in Default World could make heads or tails of his revelation, he came to the Burn to find his tribe.
It's what we all want, isn't it? Feel understood, be known.
The "tribe" that showed up was two of my campmates and Arthur from Germany, a bony (but not moreso than me) philosophy doctorate student draped with a toga and a cardboard sign reading "Philosophy advice: $0." Unfortunately none of these had much for Stefan, who was most assuredly not looking to be poked full of holes (as so-called wisdom lovers are wont to do), all by "fellow" determinists no less (less a coherent collective than he might've hoped). Frustrated at their inability to spot and work with Stefan's aims, I too joined the fray, quibbling over—quantum mechanics; nihilism; jurisprudence; whether morality can inhere (I persuaded a participant of the
postmodernist perspectivist perspective which posits the necessity of assuming an evaluative framework in assessing any claim—no matter how blaringly evil it seems prima facie—before reassuring him we shared probably 95% the same values); physical and metaphysical conceptions of causality; the notion of responsibility and Nietzsche's fourth Great Error—all the taradiddle that's been rubbed out a thousand times over the centuries...
What I'd wanted the group to focus on wasn't why Stefan's worldview was shoddily cobbled but that he'd discovered a cluster of ideas which broke him free of longtime mental fortresses, and that therein lay value, real value. Stefan wasn't trying to evangelize, nor was he in the least dogmatic. Most importantly he was willing to listen. To me, that is, who obviously has All The Answers and who, as per pedantic usual, waxed didactic to this fellow who'd likely seen more shit than my spoiled ass will ever have the right to bitch about about how the Christianity that'd left a horrible taste in his mouth early on wasn't the Christianity from which myriads derived deep purpose, that there were as many Buddhisms as Buddhists (I know the counters) in the same way he'd seen firsthand how a Determinist is not a determinist is not... ad inf., and that action is a better proxy of character than identity; but listening to myself, I reckoned how my insistence on working from established bases of understanding could be its own kind of pretension (though one I still can't quite shake off).
Stefan bid us each farewell with a neat trinket he'd 3D-printed:
Pranice Movement Meditation
A spray bottle spritz of water is a common gift to offer on the streets of Burning Man, where cyclists overheated well above 98.6°F welcome such dousings like Christ's Second Coming; in fact a battery-powered spray fan really will get people singing Kumbaya. I once accepted a "blow job" from a guy blasting vaporized liquid nitrogen from a fire extinguisher thing on his back. Burners like to one-up each other.
But no one one-ups the playa.
Thursday morning, I woke to the sound of air battering the polyester fly of my tent cover and knew more sleep was not in the cards. Unzipping the front mesh and poking my head out earned me a needling. Condition Alpha, I catastrophized, having read about the worst storm in Burn history, the one where vets say "Back in '02" with the same gravity as "Back in 'Nam." Of course it was nothing of the sort—but still a misting fine and constant to the face and all its crevices. What spurred me not to spend the day sulking around camp, ultimately, was the Seattleite maxim, "If you won't go out in the rain, then you probably don't belong." Besides, Greg was up and chilling in his chair. I leafed through the handbook, found a New Agey meditation class, asked him to join, and he was in. So I reassembled my aegis in an order of operations which by then I had down pat—mask over mouth, bandana over mask, sunglasses over eyes, goggles over shades—and we rode over.
Our instructor was a serene young woman in a dark green sleeveless blouse patterned with circles dotted in circles around even larger circles. Pranas, I learned, are not the same as chakras—five of them instead of seven least of all:
We were to channel the sacred auras of the Vedic seers to the four-count box breath of the Navy SEALs, each side of the square respectively harnessing, charging, circulating, and purifying prana according to its motion. "Inhale-1..2..3..4..; Hold-1..2..3..4..; Exhale-1..2..3..4..; Hold-1..2..3..4..," she demonstrated to acquaint us before the practicum. First was the apana prana, for which we visualized gathering fire and lightning in our intestines and excreting them earthwards in a detoxifying gesture. A few rounds of this led to the samana prana, and here we harvested the planets' and galaxies' energies in our bellies to nutrify our bodies. I was pleased no chanting was involved. Vyana prana followed; this had us raising our arms to the sky in a Y with each inhalation and me opening my eyes so mine wouldn't bump into others('). For the penultimate, "ascending" udana prana, we breathed with our mouths into our throats, picturing there a photosynthesizing lotus and... sounding OM on the exhale. Nevermind about the chanting. (One lady gave no hoots and OMMMMM'd well into our next intake.) Finally the prana prana, brain breath. I don't recall much from that one besides personally invoking the expanding brain meme.
"The winds of grace are always blowing / but you have to raise the sail," reads the Ramakrishna quote on the last page of the notes we were supplied when the class drew to a close. They also detail advanced techniques like narishodana, or alternate nostril breathing, which I dare you to try right now. Can you do it? Because I can't, and for some reason I don't suspect the great sages jammed their noses to (getting sick might work though). Nevertheless, the breathwork felt rejuvenating, the session worthwhile, and best of all, we'd recycled so much energy in there that the tempest had dissipated.
Kava Kinection with Programming
Later that afternoon, I'd looped Greg into checking out a three-hour Japanese Rope Binding workshop—it's Burning Man, man—but the goddamn tent was packed with kinky bastards when we got there (no overflow) so we each went our merry ways: he back to base, me to chipper Kelsey who'd been a yacht stewardess before becoming a developer and who developed a passion for programming post-online coding course and who simply could not get her tech demo to work. Which was okay by me, as I only came for the kava:
Kava, a plant, supposedly, according to a campmate who'd hyped it up, calms the mind into a peaceful serenity, and the more you drink, claimed he, the greater the effect. I'd never heard of it until earlier that morning, when he returned empty-handed from his own kava quest to my kava quiz. In any case I had it in my hands now. I drank two cups: on the left, blended with sugared tea (this was tasty), and on the right, with just the powder in water; the flavor was an earthy 6/10 bitterness and the mouthfeel gritty as protein powder—not unlike drinking diluted potted plant dirt. Soon I noticed warm tingling in my tongue and slight numbness in my cheeks, both of which, like a mild shot of Novocaine, disappeared in a couple hours. My mood and mind were unaffected.
Out of a politesse I shall only describe as "general," I stayed for the coding. Unable to debug the script she ripped that had it worked would've let an Xbox Kinect turn body motions into pixel art, Kelsey proceeded into her basic programming tutorial. "An algorithm," she explained to an audience among whose ranks were a biochem postdoc and a CERN physicist, "is like a recipe, you follow the steps and out comes a dish. It comes from—" pausing—"Where does the word come from again? Do you know?" she asked, turning to the other instructor, her mentor, who didn't, "That's ok, we'll figure it out later." Next she handed each of us a tiny notepad, sat the kava kettle and a cup in front of her, and pretended to be a robot. "Write a set of instructions to have me pour the kava in the cup as if I were a robot. Try to be precise as possible." That we did. Next she brought out these adorable cardboard cutouts of if-then loops (which of course I began imagining her diligently cutting and labeling for her sesh and not of course being bound oh my by some other golly gee kind of cough loops cough heavens no) and challenged us to drive a toy car to the end of an obstacle maze with them and a few other commands, and that we did and that was it. Yay!
A pair of colossal, crane-suspended Hispanic marionettes—one Burner to a limb—isolated gawking cyclists for compliments belted from hidden head-mounted soundsystems. An illuminated moon balloon puzzled playa passersby. A Pac-Man ghost packed pixel-perfect with LEDs zoomed across the darkness changing colors. From the makeshift and mobile to the stalwart and sessile, the touching and tactile to the faineant and facile, the solemn and tempered to the irreverently promiscuous, no book of adjectives can describe the thousands of art pieces, happenings, and attempts flourishing when- and wherever your eyes so much as saccade on the playa, which on the fashion facet alone dissertations may be written. More actively, I clambered up a dimly lit refurbished aeroplane fuselage to a lounge-repurposed cockpit. I jammed to techno beats on the poop deck of a replica galleon. Adam brought pens and paper squares to draw strangers' "soul portraits" after querying them with such nonsense as "What does ink sound like?"
In a word? "Spectacle," to be universal but unabashedly unoriginal; cram it with all the connotations you can conjure. Still, of one thing I am convinced: Burning Man art works. My best crack at why is that it's made to share and not to sell; employs the breadth of modernity's technology with none of its commercial incentives. Around 9:40PM on Tuesday, 600 drones floated from a metal dome and glittered to minimalist piano music, a nimbus of purple fireflies. So we can use our tools to make beauty, or... to slay en masse
2 STACC SUM CARZ, YO
Recipe: Take Mad Max, Borderlands, and Fallout, mash 'em up, mash 'em up some more, cook the concoction on a car-tire campfire and voilà, Burning Man. Capisce?
Never underestimate "Because we can" as a prime driver of human activity; the idea of "flexing," or exercise of capacity, finds its roots in the mind of a hemlock connoisseur who notably had a correct opinion once, which is more than most of us will ever, once when he remarked, "It is a shame for a man to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable" (or a bunch of Greek like it). So of course someone would impale a slew of junkyard jalopies to make a climbable car kebab complete with crow's nest, of course my friend Olaf, a professional caver and descendant of the Vikings, would insist on summitting it with me (having done so two days before and wishing naturally to share his joy), and of course God, knowing how poorly I follow that Socratic dictum, would have someone crack their bones on a nasty fall and kiss Burning Man bye-bye through an ambulance window (after which the Rangers began denying would-be mountaineers access) all to prevent clumsy little me from tumbling Humpty-like off some dilapidated VW and birthing soupy Athena onto the playa.
Destiny Lounge 3D
Disappointed in our vehicular scaling quest, Olaf and I biked to the Esplanade, the innermost circle of Black Rock City's horological dial where the most elaborate and exorbitantly expensive camps show off their annual productions to Burners come-one-come-all, and commenced wandering. Also, it hits me now that the Debordian dérive elegantly links the etymologically distinct "wander" and "wonder" to encase the leitmotif of childhood in concrete action; is a mode of apprehension practicable—physically, mentally—virtually anywhere.
Lured by a shack limned neon with splattered dots à la Pollock, we entered the line to enter the shack. It wasn't long—five minutes maybe—before a grizzly, charming boniface of 40 (by my count) decked in royal swami robes introduced himself as the first "God" of the Talk To God booth (another art piece) after having five of us previously queued huddle so he could explain his Creation. Before I do, it bears mention how I immediately sensed that this was a man who'd been around the block numerous times, and resolved to become more like him in future reincarnations; the sleight of speech with which he put a drunken heckler back in line (in both senses) amazed me, but not more than the vertigo I was about to undergo under a pair of paper 3D-glasses, of the clear-lens variety, donned and marched through a funhouse tunnel whose tubular wall (that is, everything not its walkway and handrails) barraged our proprioception with animated wraparound pop-out video rotating (or so it felt) clockwise, and I could hear my cochlear snail squealing with brio as it freed itself of normal function, flabbergasting its bodily vessel here whisked along the gentle eddies of an underwater current.
The stream ejected us into the eponymous Destiny Lounge, a mini-museum (of which there were many) within a museum (for what is Burning Man but) within a museum (if one should view life that way), 3D through-and-through, where hologram figments of dangling kelp and schools of fish radiating thick, voluminous phosphorescence from various shades of blacklit dye blacklit impeccably worked their stereoscopic magic on my cone cells to massage tingly ASMR from my vagus nerve. I started a staring contest with a motorized swirly containing concentric crescents of contrasting color, winning till Olaf's body language clued me he'd had his fill for the night. More than satisfied with our aquatic trip simulator, we hugged God before heading back.
The Playa proper, peppered with standstill structures and roving art cars (on which famous DJs sometimes play sets incognito), is the conical section of the desert spanning from the Temple (where Burners make peace with memorabilia) to the outermost edges of the Black Rock clock. Depending on time of day and the state of your psyche, it can manifest as Aboriginal dreamtime, Borgesian labyrinth, Carrollian wonderland, or Daliesque netherworld, A-B-C-D; mix them up at risk of Moonwalking, but jibe with the tide and you might discover yourself illumined in a surreal oasis:
Tall, thin poles of light, equidistantly anchored: a walkable hexagon of suitable density. Connected to a comblike grid of power panels, each could animate its LEDs in sync with all the others—now a midnight sunshower, now the infernal rain of Vesuvius. I laid down and looked up and watched them pierce the heavens. Slow-ooze tie-dye. The Red, White, and Blue. Bamboo. A starship gallery mid-FTL acceleration. 80BPM, new purple per pulse, dimming radially. Dark repose; return to fluorescence. Meandering through the pincushion, I focused now on the other Burners, mesmerized at how very like a hall of mirrors this was and wondering if they felt the same.
Mental Health Treasure Shop
Video game alias types span from logins to gamertags to usernames; at Burning Man, if you're lucky, you get a sobriquet called a playa name. You can also pick your own, but then it wouldn't be honorary (and that's no fun). "Putin" earned his by being bossy—dictatorial even—while constructing camp his second year. "Sitter" had a penchant for nursing the narcotized, no matter the substance. "The Human Electrolyte" dropped by for tarot, and she was every bit as energizing as her epithet evinced. Adam, plain Adam his Birgin year, matured into "Caribou" on eventide one evening.
While I was Richard as usual.
Maybe self-dubbing wasn't so bad. A few I'd met at a Seattle Burner orientation playa-named themselves, after all, and it's not like I could tell the difference when they said hi. But what could I call myself, in this crowd of clowns?
At one past midnight Friday morning, the gaggle of Europeans I was touring the Playa with chanced upon three old buzzards and a sylvan sylph dispensing late-night nuggets of wisdom in a converted RV TV-station:
Two dozen stood there tuned in. "Questions, anyone? Ask us anything, anything at all." A top hat on a light-up faux fur delivered his deadpan: "Does a frog's ass hold water?" Some property to do with amphibian anality; I forget exactly what. I forget their answer too, since it wasn't as memorable. That's a tautology. I'm sorry. I zone out when I get excited. I got excited because a question sprang to mind and no one had stepped up. It was no feeble question but a question that stepped me up. The mic was mine.
"What's your name and where do you hail from."
"I'm Richard sir and I hail from Seattle sir, this is my first Burning Man and I'm glad to be here tonight sir."
"Nice to meet you Richard, how are you liking it? And hey, my cousin's from Bellingham! You ever been up there?"
"The boondocks, you mean? No, m'afraid not. Playa's been treating me well though, thank you for asking."
"Well you know the drill, fire away! Ask us about anything, aaanything you want."
"Hwhell, sir, I was wondering, sir... Playa names. What is a playa name? And is it better to choose your playa name or have one given to you?"
"Oh that's a good one. You ever read the Superman comics? It's like he's Clark Kent by day, but then he's also Superman? A playa name is similar. Many feel constrained by the roles they're cast into in the real world. But here, you can be whoever, or whatever, you want to be. And even though it's been tradition to be given one, I think how you get it isn't so important. What really matters is how you feel deep down. Does this resonate, is this who I am. You don't have to pick one, and if you don't like it, you certainly don't have to take what people give you either. Now with all of that in mind, what is it you would like to be called?"
I could feel the weight of all those eyes and ears on me, but nothing came to mind except: "That... That is the question. And while I greatly appreciate the opportunity, I think my given name shall suffice for now." Applause rolled in—"So it be!"—and we out.
Mutual Confession Booth
With its terms emblazoned right on the placard:
My what? My ins and outs, my secrets, sins? Inside the world's red, red light district red, amniotic sac red, caught red handed red; no hiding here. But put yourself in the priest's position, most of it's not so unforgivable, the demons we carry just looking for names, the personal plagues and peccavis—all banished by the talking cure. Yet who would grant me absolution? No one on the other side. A volley of follies into the wind. I couldn't bear the brunt of that blow.
"HEAR YE, hear ye, radical self-reliance entails radical self-forgiveness, see? No waiting for a holy man to exorcise your Legions; DIY, get with the program! God, y'know, whether someone's at the window or not, you're really just talking to—"
Effective Altruism has a marketing problem, it wants utilitarian calculus to gut people with all the adrenal knives of a son or daughter screaming agony in earshot—once you crunch the digits donating should be reflexive, if it were to have its way—but no more can numbers punch than words leap off the page, it's a sheer limitation of form. But say the logos suades you (by means perhaps of guilt and not of altruistic ardor) enough that you want to pitch in. What's it involve? Why, clicks and keystrokes and precomposed gratitudes! Not quite like ladling a liter of lentils in Velma's bowl at the soup kitchen and watching her underfed head bob thank you, is it... plus you can't ever know if you've saved your money's share of lives, can't be sure. So what'll it be? Impact direct and tangible—or faith masquerading as reason?
"In spite of that, don't you agree certain charities are more effective pound-for-£?" Yes, of course. "Doesn't it follow, then, that some would be the best?" Generally. "Then shouldn't we just be giving to those?" Perpend methodology, friend; you can't expect folks to hand their hard-earned funds to a bunch of nerds who think HAL 9000's worthier of stopping than hunger. "Well if they don't, pretty soon the world's gonna look like—
Nah, the sky won't be that blue.
I'll say it flatly: I had a good time at Burning Man. The formula's so simple one wonders why more don't apply it to life writ large: Expect nothing (and by nothing I mean little and by little I mean a miserable portion of anything remotely desirable with a huge helping of everything remotely not). No showers. So be it. No bed. So be it. No fun. So be it. Not only had I taken the most cynical possible view of how playa life would unfold before ever stepping foot there, I'd determined that Burning would be nothing less severe than asceticism (immolation topping the list, or so I've heard, of the most painful ways to die).
Foodwise, having resigned myself to the idea of choking down military rations for a week, I was most delightfully disillusioned by the actual slate of fares; Burning Man queers the sustenance-cuisine dichotomy (as it does every binary it brushes) and is in point of fact a culinary cornucopia. Don't just take my word for it, digest this parade of aliments and elements which here and there splashed into my gastric pools: granola, salted peanuts, cubes of sweet potato, puck-your-lips-sour sundried tomatoes, a jumbo homemade Rice Krispie marshmallow thing, "fire fries" with chili sauce and pickled peppers, small corn chicken quesadillas from a station called "Dillaz," wine from goons from Goon Squad paired with cheese from boards from Goon Squad, apricot cider from a stranger's Minnesota orchard spiked with Laphroaig 12-year (camp property), chilled kombucha for bitching to Bitch 'N Tea how the smog and dust would tag-team my lungs to shave off QALYs, crème brûlée
(which, I'll have you know, I earned by limboing under a bar, and the stuff was good, man, I'm not kidding: egg-sugar balance on point, custard a light pudding consistency, crust, which I watched them torch right there, of ideal thickness and which didn't stick to my teeth; they even supplied metal spoons, clean ones, hefty enough to crack the caramel), raisins, peanut butter chocolate chip energy bars, EPIC beef and bison bars (gross), organic apple paste (which I'm pretty sure was baby food) squeezed from a kryptonite-green pouch, playa dust, oatmeal, more oatmeal, more soul-crushing, life-denying oatmeal, more, a MealSquare, a Nuun electrolyte tab dropped in a cup of C2O coconut water (a mix of my own making), dihydrogen monoxide, sausage, vegan sausage, culos fresh off the portas (jk—you really thought), the blood and flesh of Jesus Christ, daal and spinach in plastic bags warmed atop petrol-powered Bunsen burners, and
The first was wheat, butter, and Swiss. It paired well with the teriyaki beef jerky I'd snagged from a standalone snack stall. The second was necessary. Hot off a tray outside Hotel California on Tuesday after the drone show went before midnight down the proverbial hatch and into my belly one sandwich of crispy seeded rye whose special brand of pungency complemented the cheese inside in stride.
I missed a Purple Party (for which I'd incidentally worn the right regalia) September eve to eat a delectable gourmet buffet courtesy of camp Bioilluminati: lamb skewers, tender chicken on a spindly stick, oven-baked pita bread, hand-crushed chickpea hummus, dolmas, grilled veggies, and a mug of red. There someone raved to me about Midnight Poutine a block or so by—"The best food I've eaten here hands down"—and can you imagine how monumental my regret then was, for precommitting to more delicate matters when that Friday was to be their last night serving? "Now what the Sam Hill could possibly justify—and for you of all people—skipping mayhaps the finest gravy-drenched, cheese-curded fried potatoes on both sides of the Atlantic when you know they may never ever come back to cook those glories again," you rightfully demand. Why...
On the sixth night of Burning Man, the playa gave to me: Olaf, Travis, Mark, and Camille, whom Adam and I had agreed to tripsit along with two others, Bingo and Dustin, who although also would intoxicate themselves with entheogens are just minor characters in this particular tale, and so get to dodge my sketchpad while the other cats don't:
Olaf - a psychometrician who plied his trade buying, selling, and tuning personality testing websites; a savvy spelunker and Soylent vacuum
Travis - a quick-witted conversationalist honed in the unforgiving frost of the Alaskan wilds; a satellite internet technician bringing civilization to the frontier regions of mankind
Mark - a gentle giant of a blockchain economist and Magic: The Gathering whiz; coupled with Camille; designed a card game which he trialed on me and Travis that afternoon (the premise—promise it's important—was that each of two players would be assigned three cards—a profession card, a habitus card, and a belief-probability card—before a prediction card is revealed. Having all the information, both then take turns updating their belief-probability out loud—thereby introducing new info to the fold—until they agree. In our beta, I was to emulate a tree-hugging, animal rights activist economics professor with a 50% probability that the market would crash in 5 years, and Travis an economics blog enthusiast computer programmer with a 32% probability of the same. It took us four rounds to concur at 47%.)
Camille - a curvaceous bombshell of a law student who under no circumstances would ever allow herself to speak over anyone, anyone at all, not from a position of weakness mind you but as conversational judo; not having internalized BGE 146, still enthralled by reveries of intrasystemic reform
By the time I'd rearrived at Dead Hand post-buffet, the sun had set and the four had dropped their acid, one tab per, and the two their 4-AcO (how I dunno). A gang of eight we were, wannabe Hells Angels on fixed-gear beach cruisers and neveragain MTBs (playa dust realtime sprocket arthritis) avalanching past avenues Johnny 5, Iron Giant, HAL, Gort, and Fribo—sci-fi AIs homaged for this year's theme, "I, Robot"—past Elektro and Dewey, too, and Center Camp, its mural wall, its big-top circus tent, a popcorn booth (goodbye to gluttony) and a pineapple stripper cage (so long to lust) barred crown-to-foot with polychrome diodes, past Cylon and Bender, generic ol' Algorithm (which should've been Astro Boy, c'mon y'all), through the Esplanade and onto the Playa, where we disembarked and hitched our bikes to a lamppost near the Man that was to Burn.
Travis, who chirped out updates by the minute on his mental state throughout this leg, was finally feeling it. "Colors are brighter," he said staring back at Black Rock City, "Enjoyably so." Though the last of them visibly affected, he was also the most vocally introspective, set on tabulating phenomenal differences with a clinician's precision and eager to play data point for "Anyone with questions for someone high on acid." Adam, ever the sly contrarian, kept him occupied by poking at the limits of his beloved formal rationality. Adam I could trust. He'd undergone "psychedelic harm reduction" training at the playa's drug safety center, Zendo, which by my estimate made him a certified tripsitter (whereas I was a cocky rookie about to have his ass handed to him glute by braying glute). Adam advised letting our wards dowse unimpeded; this was their night, he said, and we were there to orbit mainly, ensure a smooth ride through. Sound enough: a program with no discrepancy in essence from my previous nighttime walkabouts. Fun? We'd have that. Art? We'd see that.
In fact, looming ahead was the polar bear for which I couldn't care, but Mark and Camille would take to it as tender as a teddy, hugging its car-hood calves while striking poses looking cute. "Do you guys want a photo?" I asked; they did, "Yes please, good idea, we should've taken more photos." So I took a photo. On Mark's phone. An effectual ruse; it tore them from the bear back to the Android. Next we tried hailing a range of mutant vehicles, most of which had no capacity for eight stragglers until a Flying Dutchman of the desert by the moniker Monaco reefed its ghostly sheets for us to climb aboard, but on deck its very corporeal crew crowded us immobile as molecules in a solid. Still, I danced—if you count my organs jiggling to bass injected directly into my back by a venomous subwoofer. Three stops and twelve minutes later, we jumped ship for a hands-on sculpture; up high above our heads were elevated metal bars from whose antipodes hung ropes to grab and pump—the whole thing a bit industrial—not oil but a body up and down, up and down, seesaw-style but upside down: dozens of these people-pulleys and as many counterweights (our cadre now among them) creaking in chorus the structure's old fulcra. Then pain, lifelong companion, bit my patella one art piece over where at four hopeless feet a morose iron lyra spurned my amorous advances and me with them four unrequited feet above, and brutal as, the ground of fact; one could say I fell pell-mell under her spell at the swing carousel, only to be—expelled.
Then bystanders, Mark and Travis checked in on their crumpled pile of Richard. "Are you okay?" is one way to measure a life; the more you have to be asked, the less you probably are, though I don't know the base rates and wouldn't want to, lest I have to be asked again. Also, wasn't I supposed to be doing the sitting? A mild ACL sprain didn't prevent me from it, so I righted myself to see Camille had replaced me on the hoop, Olaf gripping a scarlet aerial silk, Bingo and Dustin relaxed on a hanging bench in brotherly philia; them and others spinning around, propelled by momentum, like plastic birds on a baby's crib toy, rather aptly I might add, as its first sight on rousing, this carousel. From below shone an eerie ring of incandescent globes, a halo of halogens inscribed in earth as portals for alien monoliths partitioned so to test our race like rats in a park, Burners but an experimental condition and the playa what else but a lacustrine lab. I asked a debenched Dustin how the foray co. was working him, and his response, if I quote correctly, was, "Slight giddiness, a wider sense of self."
Diminishing returns on dopamine per cycle shift the group's MO from exploit to explore for another bout of perambulation. Before long it espies a hut atop which perched a weathervane lemniscate backlit yellow was, where in a rotunda reminiscent of antique shops and gypsy caravans artist Matt Elson had confected a number of bulb-lined, multiplayer "Infinity Boxes," Kusama-like but more kaleidoscopic and less infinite. For one of them, three faces have to frame themselves for full effect, and for my favorite, I register a three-faced Dustin, whose chiseled Adonis complexion sprouts two facsimiles mirrored in profile like a Hindu deity. We make funny faces. He goes on refracting while I collapse on a beanbag and the ceiling appears, vellum-seeming. Bingo then leaves with Adam, who collects us.
But it was the last we were to see of them that side of the dial, for a fire-breathing dragonmobile would drag Bingo and Dustin along in a minute, and Adam, loathe to strand altered minds (and with my being hamstrung), ran off to catch the lizard by its tail. The aforementioned four and I stood by as he homunculized—dwarf-sized, gnome-sized, fae-sized, memory-sized—and we were as any princess, soldier's mum or sailor's wife at ports of stone, of air and sea, all there to see off flippant knights—their flippant knights—of errancy. And by and by, we mobilized, stamping once again against the basin footprints invisible save for string light strobes. Passing a wood construct, Mark requested I keep the talkative Travis separate from him and Camille, who wanted to walk alone, and I agreed—as long as they remained in view. So, they led off while Olaf tailed with us behind, my attention split between tracking the couple and the conversation Travis was stoking, of the parasitic kind where one party sustains the other out not of interest per se but vigor begrudged for fear of what would happen (on his part and mine thereof) were the donations, irrespective of cause, to ever cease.
Midway upon the journey of our night, I found myself within a desert dark, for this was the Deep Playa, the desolate expanse beyond the Temple north, the sparse and forsaken outskirts of the Burn where Moonwalkers lapped by the tendrils of delerium roam like zombies glitched undead from aborted metempsychoses and where by a gravedigger motley I was asked, as if in search of Avernus, "Have you seen the end of the world?" I hadn't; further inquiry informed they were looking for a signpost of sorts, and not to spook me. A second puzzle was why our pair had brought us in this dim, artless direction, but the answer came soon enough: Burning Man is bordered by what Burners call the Trash Fence, a nine-mile net of last defense against MOOP blowing downwind to the greater desert, and our intrepid duo—after another "Would you mind if we could be by ourselves for a bit?"—pulled their selves over this official perimeter (only tall as a postbox) and began having at it like rabbits. Romance, of course! Or that's what it seemed anyway, as I was snickering at the cheapness of their symbolism and asking my pals for opinions on this performance piece. Travis was nonplussed; Olaf wistful, if anything, and not a little dazed, as a moon ablaze with werewolf-worthy pallor dusted our contours with metallic sheen, indelible mark of all territory properly its; but soon I too would be consumed, if not by duties managerial, then—
Consider the anglerfish. Consider its prey. No; be the prey. While away the hours sieving detritus through those preterite gills, bottom dweller, your world is sediment, plankton, blackness, nothing more. But as you scavenge the usual sea floor steppes for rotting snow and suchlike pabula, a hazy splotch of pale reprieve interrupts your minor eternity with the gravid glim of something more. Yoked by bulimy; an animal magnetism; your birthright yen you inch to make it brighter, brighter... Can you help it? It can help you. But where is it now, oh, oh, where is it? Supplanted by an excess of absence. You swim, frantic for light, you crawl, neither feeling like it used to but you can't ask why, that won't evolve for epochs. And it's blacker now than what you knew. The black of the... Where are you? of the tar pit, of the inkpot... Are you? Devoured thus did I stare outside the Burn, its boundary mine, impelled—impaled—onto the final reckoning of an ill logic: this bleak, blank null nada nero, nadir of the night, visage of the void.
Mirage or mushin, it was, for Travis, a travesty. "I'm bored," he yaps, catchphrase by now, "Bored, bored, bored." A People Person, Travis thrived on titillating talk, boredom his antithesis and staring at things? Pointless. He yearns to go. "Why should we let them decide what we do?" To this I say let's give em thirty, set a timer, say let's do some exercise, Travis help me out, stand right here, good, now hold my arm like this and stretch it back, slowly, which he does. "Whoa, you just went 2D," chimes Olaf. What do you mean 2D, I poke, "2D," he pecks, "like a vertical line," ouch (I know I'm skinny, but man are you serious?). Travis stop, stop I say, other arm's turn. Am I still 2D, I ask, "No, you have to stand like this," Olaf choreographs. Two mini moons suddenly exist and it is the pickup truck of a Black Rock Ranger on night patrol, he passes us and catches our couple mid-coitus—but moreover over the fence—and rebukes back the two-backed beast. The half-hour's over, too, but M and C stay put. They suggest we leave them be and go off on our own, but, restating my (self-imposed) foremost Tenet of Tripsitting—to have everyone in sight always—I decline. Also, I rationalize, what joke of a tripsitter would abandon custody of his blitzed-out wards by virtue of their blissed-out words? Together, they reply, "We only want to speak with Olaf."
Olaf, their confidant of years, is wearing a thawb and gingham shemagh. Either neither chip is leverage adequate to budge the two or he lacks negotiating prowess, making him a pseudo-Saudi anyhowdy. Travis, meanwhile, is a kettle steaming urgent falsetto; he needs to pee and says so—a stratagem? A test of mettle: Just go on the ground, I flunk, nobody's around and the Ranger's gone. The little angel balks, chiding "It's against the rules," which it is. The little devil then intones, "I never agreed to have a tripsitter," which is true, "and if I peaced out right now, there's nothing you can do to stop me," which is also, I concur, but if anyone at camp asks what happened I'll have to tell them you just ran off, "This is blackmail. You're blackmailing me," which I'm not but can't riposte with circuits fried as these, hamster drained, etc., just please gimme fifteen minutes and I'll go talk to them, fifteen is all I ask. He stays; they pass; but Olaf retakes the helm, citing he has the best shot.
It's not good enough. He's not good enough; or so to us he fesses, insecure about his smarts and social status, and what I wish I'd voiced was how deeply I respected his candor—or even a bromide, heck—but there at the brink of us all, I stood as a stick: stiff, silent, insufficient... "If only Bingo was here," he adds, downcast, "Bingo's high status, he'd know what to do." Yeah, I agree. Then I see he's shaking. Ask how he feels, what's happening. "There's bugs crawling over my skin." Where? How many? "All over," he stutters, "They're small but I can see them, and I'm a little nauseous." He's bugging out, I think. Bad. But I start getting mad, which is good. Okay look Travis, I tell Travis, Olaf's having a bad trip, you need the bathroom, and I'm fed up to here with their antics, so in five minutes we're heading over and making them get up, sound good? He loves it. An Olaf in distress does not, says in reference to his state, "No it's not that bad." You're in no place to judge, I snap, And it's my call.
A thick, cracked flat. Veil of night. There is no wind but the clouds are hiding. Backs to a fence, two figures sit, knees bent; three tower. So begins the prosecution's petulant tirade...
ME: Marcameal I-I this is not working for us Travis needs portas Olafs bad and trip and—
OLAF: No, no I'm OK—
ME: That is NOT what I heard I'm sober and I can't thi-have this be falling into pieces more thanitalready is guys...
CAMILLE: Richard, we realize you're in a tough position right now. But we're doing fine, promise!
ME: Look, c-can't we just, uh... walk for a bit, just fifteen minutes, towards the Temple maybe?
MARK: Mmm... We'll consider it.
OLAF: Mark. Camille. As a personal favor to me, would you please walk with us to the Temple for fifteen minutes.
MARK: OK. As a personal favor to you, we will walk towards the Temple for... fifteen minutes. Camille, does that work for you?
CAMILLE: That works.
Tick-tock. I had fifteen minutes to lube into a slippery slope straight to the Temple, where I could recruit critical backup, and I succeeded (bon voyage to vanity) because, I think, my subterfuge was so pitifully limpid that Mark couldn't help but give me the Mulligan. In ten we spot its lambent funnel scaffolding; in thirty we're inside.
Countless timber beams twist skywards, interweaving tighter and tighter as they ascend to a circular vent, below which fat white lanterns hang strung in a column like teardrops in spatiotemporal suspension. These, in turn, are received by the chimney of a grounded miniature, still humans in height, which doubles as altar. It is here where Camille will place the note she is now huddled beneath a truss penning and where, two days henceforth, it will combust into carbon dioxide, water vapor, and catharsis. Olaf sits by in seiza, wide-eyed, unblinking. Mark walks, chin up, and gazes at the bulbs on the beams as if they were stars in a galaxy. Travis in tow, I ask itinerants help find a
Guardian - volunteer overseer in charge of protecting the Temple, its visitors, their oblations
Here's one; his papyrus-beige linen tunic, decorated ebony quarterstaff, and polished Nubian pate offer warmth in soothing tides and augur succor for my plight. Articulating, I gesticulate I think wildly enough to attract a bright and bulky red down jacket and (godspeed to greed) its gratuitous Australian Burner, who listen of their own accord. The Guardian assents to guard Olaf as long as Olaf's in the Temple. The Ozzie, on the other hand (and he is standing to my left), is (or so he says) himself a practiced tripsitter, and recommends releasing the couple from care if I deem them sensibly ordered. Which they have been, more than me (if anything the only thing precluding them from functioning); I thank him for the therapy and concomitant clearance to cargo cult a court psychiatrist, judge and jury preconvinced of his defendants' innocence and sanity but as per script must still prescribe a spot of bureaucratic theater; Mark I convene to Camille for their "exam," consisting of interrogation, oral testimony on their cerebration, aberrations in felt sensations—flying colors of course but now another stranger squats with us, "What's going on here?" and I reunravel the spool to his mangy shlock of dirty red hair, his burnished bronze brows, his thundercloud irides, his sallow, high-set cheekbones, his thin, waferesque lips, his bristly tumbleweed excuse of a five o'clock shadow, his reaper-grim countenance, his chinny chin chin chinning its chinny parabola (intact with vertex but no ostensible moral), his jowls, jaundiced by rejected spectra, his inlaid topaz daggers, slightly bared, at attention, say doesn't our snooping vagabond look an awful lot like wait—wait—PRESTO, it is—it's Blake! But that it took me half a spiel until I recognized the bloke... But on hearing it, he rapidly absolves me from emceeing M&C by assuming the mantle and cloak. Does the playa provide or what?
Travis consents to escort Olaf back to camp with me; we hit the latrines next door and head out. Meanwhile Blake, finding no cause to retain my ex-charges against their very composed desires, will estimate our likeliest trajectory, jog along it, be correct, and relieve us of Olaf all before we've reached the Man. Unshackled from his penultimate impediment, my chatterbox sidekick will liven considerably as we gallivant about the Playa; shoulders adjacent we antmill around these giant pink block letters spelling Y'ALL, which but for the bog of dust splayed there in aleatory moats by the foot of each would not have irked me so, so disproportionately—sandals wheezing smoky puffs with every dusty scoop of a step in this morass, the tactile equivalent of chalkboard fingernails... I wonder why we don't stop, do something else; there's exhibits aplenty. Then Travis says he savored no small schadenfreude seeing me squirm under stress, as if forgetting he'd been its proximate impetus, and with an electric twinge here comes the ghoulish epiphany: I've been his art piece. Possessed by a retaliatory cacoethes, I bite back by switching which side of him I'm walking on and boring aporias in his ontology. It is cruel of me, I know, and as unbecoming, to inflict such vigilante talion upon—in this our specular and fleeting realm the acme of whose virtue is to sound Yes And instead of No But and I-Thou in lieu of Ich-Es—my spitting eidolon, but can we invalids strapped to the gurney of immanence ever avert the estival scars of our vernal errata while still it deigns to squeak its chloroform aria zephyring down the hospital hall through which it hurtles, as then it did and will, someday, again? There's always next time.
I relent (best wishes to wrath), but not before (at my behest) we beeline to the Neon Forest, which Travis has yet to encounter and will find marvelous. The role befits me: concierge tours to the Playa's greatest hits! or is that what I'd want in a tripsitter... can't speak for Travis, but he seems to like my picks well enough. These weren't, by the way, blind nods to personal whimsy, no, these I selected based on what, were I as high as he (curation empathy's domain), I'd try to see, for instance—and above them all—that Lounge of Destiny. We find our bikes, unlock them, zigzag there, where it is 3AM and I am tired dead, as a dormouse maybe, and where a coherent and energetic as ever Travis will hug his life to me in a swear—that he'll return to camp afterwards—while there he stands in its still-extant line and I, who cannot then summon the stamina to say sayonara to sloth, will say it, to Travis, instead. I sit on the saddle and pedal away. But before even thirty rubbery revolutions have churned their dust will anxiety liquidate my weariness like a coupon clipper at the Sandman's soporific closeout, as my [conscience/superego/shoulder angel]—what Skinner called the "vicars of society" and what I call the "Big Other's Adrenocorticoid Sundae" (cos it constricts ya)—starts lecturing me, "So you leave your pal unchaperoned in a trompe l'oeil madhouse in the witching hours of a carnivalesque megalopolis while his brain's all topsy-turvy, just because you want some beauty rest?" My stomach lurches 180; spokes ditto; me third, in time to see his Feynman hairline enter and exit the tunnel, but out, among dozens, he blips like a boson... behind the barnacles? No. Stealthed in the kelp? No. Perhaps he's sofa-seated? tunnel-trapped? still, somehow, in line? To no, no, no avail do I linger half an hour longer looking, after which, distraught, I slunk my tires home.
And can you imagine how monumental my relief then was, to see, there on a couch, Travis Travising? by lamplight, with a campmate and... Sally, who sounded like she'd taken acid also, but as she hadn't spoken with or invited me out all week, I decided not to jump, hop, pipe, pop, slide, drop, scoot, plop, barge, or wiggle in. But the single, phatic "Travis!" I did offer from afar would startle him to say, "Oh hey!" and wave me au revoir:
NB: I'm no Ken Kesey or Hunter Thompson, but sometimes in a man's life he asks himself the question—
"What would be the most Burning Man thing to do at Burning Man?"
- 18:08 9/1/18 -
- 18:08 9/1/18 -
Today Helios paints the same pastel watercolor gradient Icarus witnessed as his father's feathers' wax deliquesced above the Aegean in illo tempore, the same mellow marigold palette Sky King Richard "Beebo" Russell beheld as he flew his first, final, fatal joyride of freedom above the Pacific coastline current year anno Domini (Olympics silhouetted in salute as he plunged Byronic), and today sixty minutes before sundown I let a serrated square of paper melt pure Lucy—one full hundred mics of her (the ferryman's fare)—onto my tongue's underbelly so the universe would once again connectome. I also sought to maximize surprise, and peaking serotonergic during the Man Burn while at Burning Man would mean, by my measure, stacking superstimulus on top of superstimulus on top of superstimulus. About right, in other words.
Eighteen months had passed since my first and last tumble down the rabbit hole, ample time to recalibrate my pituitary gland, flags and gizmos after the disaster it was. The present decision, made three or four days prior, there cemented, tempted not by lessons learned, crowd concern, or my fellow tripper to-be. Thirty minutes post-ingestion (for lysergic leeway), spinach, quinoa, chili sprinkles, ground-up sausage cured my hunger craving, and modulo Dead Hand having torn down its shade ahead of schedule (to my vexation) baking thus the rolled-up sleeping pad my tab was stashed in, few qualms disturbed the calm my mind was cached in, the setting the setting sun and the set, well, I've always said that what you bring is what you get, and I'd brought a headache with me, a nagging, irascible infant of one, the kind parents, duped by genes and culture both, end up regretting making, the kind better off (if only it would bother!) going to sleep and never waking. On the flipside, my Hydro Flask, which I thought I'd lost, had turned up at camp. Miracle, this. Experienceable, too, and highly ranked on my catalog of the possible, higher than copulation or friendship or Jesus, verily, for the geyser of jollities I spouted at my canister's return outmatched mere yurodivy raving. "This is gonna be a GREAT trip," I pumped with a grin, but Adam's nervous expression served as warning and reminder: Steer not circumstance. Value judgments were off limits, as were expectations; good or wrong, bad or right, 'twas simply going to Be.
A few Dead Hands, bless their hearts, had set out hours ago to camp at the Man so we could have front-row seats, with Mark, Camille, Travis, Blake, Adam, and myself on the rendezvous. We embarked around seven with no effects on my end. And if there wouldn't be, big deal, the weather was too nice for dismay. No smog, no wind, no dust; the snowglobe had settled for the ceremony and the yurts stood empty as seashells whose hermit crabs had heard and heeded Cthulu's call on cue. I pinged the crew if I seemed any different. "Oh yeah," nodded Travis, "It's definitely working." Took his word for it; but not until we reached the Playa did I become a believer. The sands were shifting. Gravity lessened to lunar levels as limbs lengthened. Limbic, liminal lies? Vivid, veridical vibes. Try on the sky for size: lemon drop honeydew musical bars on a boundless sheet of cerulean, encircled by sierra jutting like waveforms from the precipice of an absolute horizon, the chords and hymns of autumnal orison. I needed to pee. Northeast arose a row of tombstones, no—porta-potties, teal #008081, at which I gestured the others to wait. My chamber: no stink inside, just sanitized, but prison all the same, glyphs etched into the polyurethane sealing me in as muffled whispers snuck through the cracks like a gas, inducing claustrophobia so severe my hands shook as they tried unzipping my fly, which proved too much; panicked by the solitary confinement and (by magnitudes worse) the prospect of its perpetuity, this mummy slammed the door on his way out the sarcophagus—pee he did not—only to find himself awash on sugary Sargasso, slipping further and further away from his friends as milky whitecaps swept them out to sea.
He gunned a mad hippie dash back to ring buoys Blake and Travis. He linked arms with them to stay afloat. He felt safe. And once they spotted camp ashore, he reverted to I, who sat and saw: a translucent hyperloop, at least a mile in circumference, accelerating protons at unbelievable velocity through a series of LED gates winking RGB as each sped past; a runed wizard's staff—deceptively wooden, deceptively heavy—slowly rotating in my hands, bisecting my visual field—vertically first, then horizontally—and reality tunnel—when I slammed it like Gandalf—subsequently; a Czech tea aficionado pouring green from a transparent filtration device into an earthen hemisphere. Then I, prickled by a primal pining, pleaded him for some he handed me the clay and sippity sip it dribbity dripped hot liquid down my... esophagus, nourishing, in did indeed the teacup suck me yes stadium sloshing scum submerged yes chlorophyll from tufts of grass and ancient algae yes capillary microfractures dulse-tinted in the celadon or alabaster yes all good arguments to loose my bladder so an unceasing stream of feel-good glazed the trrremendous orb of pure quartz crystal now pushing up beneath my tailbone, warming it, while a lattice of ley lines coiled down my spine extruding like gossamers over my celestial seat, terraforming it—all thanks to the tea I think—and spiraling my frontal view into a luminous neon vortex (a species of wormhole, if I may) replete with network: fractal shapes and cross-hatched curves. As above, so below: the rarefied heights of contemplative theoria became the infantile joys of sensory praxis—and vice versa—in a total psychosomatic synaesthesia of objective and subjective, cognition and perception, the mental and material, empirical, Empyrean. Always fluxing, flexing: alive, so good to be.
"Hey, can you guys not sit on my scarf?"—Dead Hand Polina shattering my trance with a high-pitched surge of guilt (not that I'd like it if someone sat on mine, if I had one, which I didn't), so I did a dip as did my lads for her to snatch our quilt. Noticing my shorts were dry as the ground, and how nobody was freaking out, I concluded that I hadn't, in fact, peed. And yet the urge was gone. Funny. Hilarious, even. Thus I exclaimed, pointer finger wagging in the air, "Martin Fuckin' Heidegger," as if I'd grokked the cosmicomic punchline—"BEEEEIIINNNGGG"—without ever having read a page of his, and catching Blake off guard non sequitur. He dipped his own pointer in the dust and scribbled my name. "Richard, you're a great guy, but sometimes, you can be kind of a..." No; I wouldn't hear it; but you know how it goes with elephants you're told not to think of—dust morphing into phallic calligraphics. Blake then cupped his palm, chopped it next to the "d," and began tilling his handiwork like monks sand mandalas. I couldn't let him have all the fun, so I pushed in from the left, with my right hand, from the "R." Bad move. You see, I'd invested those letters, God knows why, with the entire narrative substrate of my ego, and their erasure consequently amounted to a grievous narcissistic injury, agonizing as a heart-clenching voodoo hex, pins lodged in effigy.
I shut my eyes, inhaled, box breath—"As we'd practiced," spoke a voice—but the square transmogrified and warped, stacking forward quadrilaterals to vanishing infinity as tessellating nebulae choked the passage from sides I didn't know I had—Travis yammering; "Silence," I hushed—then OMMMMMMMMM I chanted, eyes still closed, rippling groovy hues of rainbow coloration from my central nexus of imagination, tuning in to melodic house and pulsing to the tempo, each thump a cascade of patterns matching like Simon Says its forefather as an art car torpedoed the air with its arsonous arsenal loudly—the arseholes—inking black into the blend (now a pain-pleasure potpourri) as I grabbed a bundle of string Christmas lights—Adam's, I'd later learn—green and blue, a quondam entanglement metaphor-phosizing now the Crown of Thorns as rivulets of pain Niled up my forearm—I'd clasped a ball of pointed bulbs you see, soon curling them around my feet while welkin stagehands lowered their august curtains, crushing the dead red rim remaining under oodles of nocturnal noir, an oppressive impasto from the overhang, a mountain for a monkey king, a furnace-fated monkey king whose cranium will sutras squeeze a golden band disciplining... Does his head hurt? You bet!
An arm; a hand; its fingertips: a matchstick rips across a corrugated tinder grate to animate a candelabra wick by wick; it lifts—what's this?—unarmed, as if ballooned, and singes by us—cinnabar scent announcing séance—scintillating pious bias. Pierced with tusks and horns and rings, witch doctors now and shamans, medicine men pigmented white and striped as the devil, scrumptious succubi tossing poi, lithe Liliths hula hooping live and staves, handaxes, fans and tambourines with zills aflare entrancing poltergeists like flute-charmed snakes, asway in pyric tarantella till an hulking oni brandishes his blazing club and rends the night with an arc-shaped wound from which bleeds smoke and fire, and
MARIACHI MADNESS MARCHES PAST LAMBASTS MY EARS WITH TUBA BLASTS AND RAZZMATAZZ VIBRATOS ON THIS DIA DE LOS MUERTOS AS THOSE IGNIS FATUI PRANCE AROUND HARBINGING FLAK INFERNOS
"Do you want some chocolate?" said a standing stranger, and I did; said it was Theo chocolate, Seattle chocolate—surely that can't be coincidence—dark chocolate, capsaicinnamon notes now echoing inside my skull with all the din and clamor therewithal: my headache's periodic pounding and omnipresent tinnitus tone. Theo chocolate, I remembered, from theobroma, food of the gods. Wouldn't that make me—
ROCKET GUPPIES JET AND SPARKLE AS WE DO THE WAVE; THE MAN'S ARMS RISE TO PRAISE AND MUSTER USTULATION; EFFERVESCENT IMITATION CONSTELLATIONS POP AND BANG CONGRATULATIONS: "YOU DID IT!" SCREAMS THE VICTORY SCREEN, "KUDOS!"—with PAPARAZZI CAMERA CLAPS and TINTINNABULATION
.....mouth agape agog mechanically mashing melted cacao to the beat of the bombs now bursting, and what could I think but it's the coolest thing ever
....my earplugs, "Thanks Travis," my respirator, "Thanks Blake," as I'd instructed them to hand me in a hedge against lost composure (and boy did I ever love the smell of that portable pocket of ocean)
...caffeinated female voices effusing about camp Decentral, blockchain, blahblah, "We love you Dead Hand Path!" words drilling through my dammed canals into my brain directly; even palms-over-ears they jabbered on with crisp fidelity; must be coming from inside, these, must be meant to hear them, and a thought—
..if you had all the time, money, and energy in the world, what sort of thing would you make with it all? "Something like... something like this," came from my core my COEUR the answer; and if you were to send yourself a message from the future isn't this
WHAT IF THIS IS ALL REAL ASKS OLIVIA STEELE, ELECTROLYMPH FIZZSIZZLING FROM REFULGENT TUBES, BLOOD PRESSURE FALLING LIGHT CONES SPURTING SPUMING LEAKING DIMMING TO BLANK STARES AND TUNES ON PAUSE, OUTAGE CONTAGIOUS, CHUM'S NO LONGER NEON BUT WHO CARES, SHIT'S OUTRAGEOUS, SOMBER SOBER SODS IN SLEEVES WITH DREAD ANNOUNCE GAME OVER
and then a fire flickered
TIME AGAIN TO SCAPE THE GOAT SO ONE ARM DROPS; DOWN FALLS THE OTHER, COMMANDING AND DEMANDING DANCING RAINBOW TONGUES OF FLAME LICK CLEAN ITS ROBOT BONES AS FUMES ON HIGH SIGH SATISFIED; INCENSE MY NOSTRILS, ROASTED ASHES' ACRID FRAGRANCE, DRY MY MEMBRANES, PARCH THEM BACK TO SILT AND SOOTY SILENCE, YE MOLTEN CLOUDS OF CINDER, ATMOSPHERE ADUST AND BELCHING WHEN—A FLASH—A BOOM EXPLODES THE EARTH, FUNGAL BLOOMS OF MUSHROOM MAGMA PLUME TOWARDS THE SKY TO SUFFOCATE THE STARS IN CRIMSON DOOM
And in that moment I understood—
Understood why Life, the Carsean Infinite Game, was so goddamn worth protecting—because, after everything, you did enjoy the whole shebang: being here, seeing it, sharing it, wanting...
Understood why existential risk researchers flocked to their vocation—value being tied to beings, any sacrifice, really, to keep beings being...
Understood why we'd tried so hard to PREVENT AI FROM GOING FOOM—so the party wouldn't have to stop, but it was too late for that of course...
GRIMACE AND SCOWL AS PYROCLASTIC PAROXYSMS MOW DOWN THE MAN TO EIGHTY THOUSAND LUPINE HOWLS, THE DYING CRY OF A LONELY GOD WHOSE SOUL SHALL SLAKE THE DESERT NOW, AND NOW, AND NOW THE MAGIC CIRCLE'S POWERED DOWN SO LEAP INTO THE PYRE LET US ALL AS IN THIS MOMENT ONE AND END THIS ITERATION IN INCINERATION, REFRAIN BIG BANG: THE ECSTASY OF CREATION; WALK THE EMPEDOCLEAN PATH WHILE STILL IS YOURS THE CHANCE
A choice. Arrayed before my mind's third eye were Everett's brachiating futures, each equally present, and there I was, to envision each scenario, turn it round and feel it out. But they all led to the same place: in there. An inevitability. So why hesitate? Why delay? No—I needed more time. "Give me a moment," I told Mark, who stood beside me—but when? When had Blake and Travis left? And why? And now Mark was reaching for what I imagined to be an emergency phone, making me think he perceived me to be in a medical crisis. But I couldn't let him push the button to medivac me out—that bill would slay me. Besides, I was fine. I put my hand over his to stop him from pushing it—"No, please, I'm good"—and he did. OK. Close your eyes, kid, think. There's your mind, buzzing thoughts like bees. Camille put her fur coat on me, which warmed me up and felt essential. Then she too stood up and left. But why? But oh... to go into the fire, of course. As they had. I see. I lacked resolve—and my friends went in to show me I could too. At this, a darkling quale of horror humor: yes, of course, how clever, fine. Unlike my first typhoon of a trip, this time I knew the end—and I could give myself as much time as I needed to fortify my spirits before heading in. How kind of me. Still, I needed a moment, and—
VOLCANIC WHOLES ARE MADLY RUSHING, ANNULUS ANNULLED, TO FEEL EMOTION'S EBBING EMBERS AFORE AEONS OF BITING CHILL AND BITTER IRON COALS, TIME ENOUGH FOR—
Wait, doesn't the Temple burn tomorrow? The force of the fact assuaged me, prodding, "You still have to see the Temple burn, don't you?" So I did. Which meant there was another option, I wouldn't have to go in, I could listen to the little lowland voice, who was it—Renton, Renton from Trainspotting, what he told me all those years ago and was telling me now again: "Choose life." So I did.
And in that moment I understood—
Understood why mountain climbers embraced harsh years of training to mount Everest. (Nozick didn't exactly say this, but real insight—which rigid ratiocination rarely reveals—feels like a slap to the face, and though I'd been aware surmounting difficulty yielded psychological benefits, not until then had I—and I mean this non-metaphorically—been that climber, my peak experience parallel to all others.)
Understood why zen monks cast their pasts away to pass away in meditative silence the remainder of their terrestrial time. (Picture this. One day you stumble upon a dazzling jewel whose radiance washes incomprehensible elation over you, and you can't wait to tell everyone you know so they can feel it too. But then you realize, in the same moment, that in fact to see it they'd have to have walked the same steps, and that perforce this would be impossible, and this makes you sad. But then you realize, with relief, that they'd had it all along, and thus the at-once redundancy and superfluity of speech. So you sit down and shut up.)
Understood the Trip, the Process, the Dao, understood it and the importance of going with the Flow to make the Burn (our time on Earth) a good one, understood it viscerally. (Close your hand. Stick out your tongue. Blink. "Flow" is in the same sense an act as these, hence advice against "taking control of the trip," its opposite, which supposes—correctly—that there is something it is like to take, or attempt, control. Babies are always with the Dao—not because their brains resemble trippers' (a red herring) but because, as manifestations of pure instinct, they cannot help but Flow. Think Csikszentmihalyi's formulation—which this isn't—but applied to being itself as the active ground, rather than tennis or Tetris.)
Understanding, though, is a pale tune crooned to crones about to croak by kerosene lamps on deathbed nightstands, the defeathered lament of wings clipped mid-flight from sometime eagles, a miasma, coughed from derelict lungs, beclouding pliable sophomore minds still wondering where the world is. Alack an illusionist's parlor trick; and no solution to the pickle I was in. To go on after the cataclysm, surviving unto the unknown—had I the strength? I couldn't know unless I were to try, which I did, after all, decide to.
The flames were fading. Mark was still with me—and still only Mark. I allowed myself a pinch of relief, then disappointment, at how catastrophically I'd misconstrued the situation, ensued. At least my backpack was here, and snug in its crinkled Ziploc, my old iPhone 6, with 6% battery and apps intact to boot. Gave myself my gift to others throughout: the time: 10:17: four minutelike hours: about right. Along with my ID, insurance and credit cards, these few constants remarrowed my bones enough that I stood up, and—lo and behold, I'd pissed and soiled myself for real. Shame; disgust; gritted teeth; whatever; at least I wasn't dying. Maroon sweatpants from a hand—Mark's—right, the ones I'd asked for help carrying before we left, and he'd had room... "Maybe if you take the lights off? Yup, now your backpack," Mark a stepwise pull-your-pants-up guide, "Yup, now your right leg through the hole," what a sorry sight I was, "Yup." Half of me, starved for info, hated moving, wanted to stay and think; the other half Mark saw jerking and halting in situ like a toy robot about to run out of juice.
Pants on—10:23. "So wherrre... d'youwanna go?" Mark again; "Back to camp I think," my reply. "OK." Walking now, yeah, back to camp, step by step, yeah, wait, oh god, we weren't—"Can we not go this way?" me again, terrified witless (take a guess); "But camp is this way," gestured Mark... into the conflagration, no way Jose was I—was this the same Mark? Could I even trust him? Not like I had better options than: "I'd prefer (pointing diagonally, to the Esplanade) going that way, please let's walk over there if we can," careful not to betray my fears or plant ideas in his head. "It's faster this way, but OK." Ugh, right, all roads to Rome; we were going to burn and he was just humoring me now, so why was I being such a chickenshit? Still, I needed a—"Give me a moment." Give me a moment... How many times that night did I repeat it? or check my phone for the hour, tap its apps, contemplate for scant reassurance its colossus supporting infrastructure, think it was all, all to burn....
To invoke Bayesian Brain lingo, it felt like the acid ate through my prior priors such that System 2 had to bump its way, as if through a blind maze, back to the unconscious spring of System 1 assumptions (about everything from my personhood to the world at large); like high-level feedback loops were being ripped apart and Mobiused to others they had no business linking with outside of dreams. Each falsification of narrative slapped my reality like a house of cards, each devastating as the ex-cultist's awakening moment; even after reaching the Esplanade (thus quelling much my pyrophobia), paranoia pervaded my sensorium because I distrusted the most foundational aspects of my meaning-making apparatus and caused thereby its new belief structures to seem each flimsier than the last; and perhaps eventually, having failed a time too many to believe a stable something, the brain gives up the ghost and enters psychosis, or as the Christians called it, Hell.
They also had a solve, I think. If I may paraphrase, for the world to behave as expected (a blessing, relatively—and really), one's expectations must align with its vicissitudes, which entails continuously acting, in the broadest sense, to obtain evidentiary bases from which further acts are (in)formed; acts which progressively perfect, through iterated feedback, a given world model. However, because they're always performed against the dual prongs of (from within) imperfect information and (from without) environs ever-changing, certainty of outcome is ipso facto unattainable, and so we must, to invoke theological lingo, walk by faith, behave as if the world, at each infinitesimal moment of decision, shall conform to our forecasted aftermath, tango, as it were, in lockstep with our will. For my part, this involved retreating to basic capacities: breathing, seeing, walking, and thinking, too; fear's chokehold loosened as I relearned, through repeated use, to take them for granted, and by the time we'd rounded the Esplanade to Center Camp, flames fully out of sight, I no longer needed Mark's shoulder. But one anomaly there rankled me—its Eye of Sauron robot's pupil beam clipped in a sudden from white to red, shooting a jolt, wriggling horrendously, up spine. I'd never seen it change colors, so that this cosmos was novel felt more probable, pulling another few blocks from my belief Jenga (but note: no longer stacks of jacks and jokers). Nevertheless, were this the case, I'd have to live with it, so I sucked it up and kept ambling, pestering Mark with inane prompts all the while. I'd also glommed onto the idea that an AI was simulating reality. Was it friendly? I had to know. But how?
What I did know was that doubting my senses felt bad—as did mulling paranoiac theories—but using them freely, seeing familiar landmarks—anything, in short, that reconfirmed components of pre-trip reality—felt good, so fundamentally good, that I decided our custodian could not be malevolent, to let me, for one, have them back so graciously; and right when I began toddling, so to speak, out of my head, a neon-studded stud biked by to say, "Now he's getting it," thawing me as if from millennia of cryostasis. And it was as if—if you'll excuse the expression—for the first time in my existence, I had awoken to my true nature. Thereafter, things—people, thoughts, objects—started "falling in place," as if I were somehow supposed to find them, think them, feel them exactly when I did, how I did, and as I did. And as I began to behave as I had before the blast, trusting the world would respond in kind—which it did, every time—I grew ever more confident that the AI was, indeed, good, until, eventually, all doubt dissolved, the question moot.
But I get ahead of myself. No Buddha thaws in a second; ice time flows slow as the floes, and thoughts froze clocks while motion beckoned, i.e. the more I was locked in my noggin, the more clepsydrae clogged with molasses, and the more I swam ramstam, the quicker sand cleared hourglasses, i.e. the passage of subjective time contracted as I "acted" (and clunked the more I "thunk")—a post-Man modulus which declined in effect as Lucy left me. Regarding the thoughts themselves, they were about... themselves, how each was a cycle spent, branch pruned, window closed, how they occurred in a time I couldn't pause and how it felt so... axiomatic, time, as one of a class of laws necessary to ground our existence, which necessity itself proved, disappointingly, no fertile ground for further thoughts, and so I'd have to make do with self-evidence, as I've always. But if, just for kicks, I were to identify with the universal computer I'd posited... I figured whatever cycles weren't being allocated to simulating this personal consciousness—but one of my subroutines in the grander scheme—must be dedicated to computing everything besides. This felt satisfactory.
By then we were nearing base; Mark asked to stop by the toilets three blocks away, and I him his probability of AGI being good. He was unsure, but acknowledged my update (in favor of the position) before shutting himself in a stall. Mark... Mark... Right, so that's what it was! Mark had made his card game to spur the telos of existence, obviously to attain an Aumannian convergence on some Universal Prior, with the quickest path being through a petri dish of unique lived experiences (don't ask me why, I just record the thoughts as they came), and by teaching people how to agree (as with his card game) he could accelerate the cooperation necessary to get us there. Midthought, two brown-haired Burnettes pulled up and opened a porta-door, giddy now: "Oh, you have to see this"; pasted from wall to wall and top to bottom were postcards, Polaroids, and handwritten letters commemorating the band KISS. As I waited for Mark, I debated going in, but, still mummy-traumatized, I didn't.
What I did do, back at camp, was fish out my pee bottle, an erstwhile kombucha glass, and use it to that end. Deed done and itching to know its color, I found my flashlight, flipped the switch, and couldn't believe what I saw. "ENLIGHTENED," read the label bottom, "For Everyone, Everywhere." Combined with the kairos, the conflux of metaphors floored me flat as a flapjack. Honestly, I'm at a loss for how to describe this—appropriate all the more as a jar chock-full of piss. As to the tint: light yellow, low alpha, same as the tea it might as well have been. Medi-ochre, one might say; a few shades below par. Capping the bottle and chucking it in its Safeway bag, I slung off the string bulbs, dug each arm from Camille's fur, unbuttoned my cardigan, pulled my tee (both hands, from the nape), off each sock (more dust than), down my joggers; boxers—they were dry? No way. I took a good whiff, nose in the cotton. Ah... detergent, and nothing therewith. So yet again, I'd neither urinated nor defecated at the Man—only hallucinated. And God the trickster whispers, "Maya maya pants on fire!"
This is the part where I describe what goes on in a Burner's tent. My secondhand model, entitled Big Agnes, did a farcical job living up to its namesake, for it was the puniest runt of a shelter any Dead Hand had the guts to camp in. One unfurled sleeping pad hogged near the whole canopy length, leaving space, at the very foot, for backpack alone while my clothes sat scrunched outside, laundered with a fresh carpet of playa dust at the whim of the wind (whenever it tore their Ziplocs open); sitting upright was only possible under the apex. By contrast, Bingo's palatial abode threatened to poke holes in the shade tarp it was so tall, sneering over its fiefdom with a pomp fit for tsars (I have been to Versailles and let me tell you, Bingo's bunk bed and shelved storage were more impressive than Le Brun's aseptic frescoes). But teeth afflict all; king or peasant-born it matters not. They are little snots who demand pampering worthy of nobles twice daily—at minimum—else decreeing—and make no mistake their court is kangaroo—abscesses, aches, maths, plaques, sores, yeasts; a torturer's thesaurus of maladies upon their forgivably neglectful subjects, and that night a vicious halitosis had burrowed deep as sin within the isthmus of my fauces, festering moisture into a fimetic foulness fit for feces. It wouldn't do. I took my final floss pick and sliced each gummy gap (n|n|n|n), discarding it with the grime into my thankfully empty mug and swishing some nozzle water to rinse. Next up, the toothbrush. Fingers wrapping gently round its ridged purple handle, I dipped the bristles in a stubby glass cylinder to scoop spearmint-spiced, supposedly remineralizing but undeniably astringent chunks of emulsified bentonite clay to smear and slather on and over jagged cliffs of white pearlescence stingingly (if you in your masochism should ever dream of having fire ants chew your mouth out, thy paste be Uncle Harry's), and spat a spittle speckled with flecks, decaying now, of once-pinched gunk flushed out from molar narrows; it smacked the mug all gooey and viscous. Palate: pristine but phonasthenic, throat hoarse from what I cannot say.
Ad interim, the dearth of stimuli in Agnes' cell raised a countervailing suite of auditory phantoms (many admittedly quite lecherous) wailing and failing to curtail disequilibrum; these I ousted as with all my spooks, with the written word—prana pamphlet now pellucid, powerful stuff—and words written (on this occasion in my Notes app), like "Expectations are accounted for and collapsed moment by moment into actuality" (by what I'd later coin the desiring function). "My name is Richard Wu" was another of these many memoranda, silly sure but I (well aware identity's at base a social func-and-fiction) defend it thus: (1) as a guidepost for my internal subagents to rebind their ego attachments while I slept and (2) as a note to my future self—or whoever would wake up as it, because I've never been so uncertain of whether I'd keep on keeping on, so to speak, were I to, ahem, go to sleep. Reconciling oneself with death is best accomplished on its imagined verge, I tell ya that: exhilarating and exnihilating (wait, no, damnit). Now I had to pee again. Squatting low and hunched, I released a rill of salts into my ad hoc chamber pot according to the whishes of Navier and Stokes, mixing in effect an effluvia cocktail: a splash of salivary slop, a few ropy hocks of mucus syrup, floss pick for citrus and a dash of bacterial benthos to finish... fermenting revolt with the rest of the muck in the mug; the popping sound and droplets dribbling down the side told me they did not take kindly to capping. "Not unlike the way life started on Earth billions of years ago," I mused, meme in mind; could this be poiesis? Anyhow, not about to sleep with a grenade, I plopped it as far outside as my arm could stretch (a gift for stray gods) before zipping myself back in and thumbing more bogus at the touchscreen.
Around 3:50AM, insomnia flaring like an -itis, I hear Sally lilting in her mother tongue with another boy; no bother. Around 4:15 a truck engine starts revving ever louder, a trilled crescendo furioso: forti-(vrrvrRRRR) ssissi-(oh god it's gonna ram me) ssissi-(must not've liked my present) SSIMO-(my head is splitting open); then *CLICK* aaand... shut off. Dodged a (gargantuan) bullet there, charmed life o'mine or what. Around 4:50, preposterously, I have to pee. Again. Had some filthy casual activated a cheat code on me? Sure felt that way: not infinite ammo, or money, but... The option I had was one to which I'd hoped (out of prissiness, in the last analysis) it wouldn't have had to come, but as the ambient music receded to a quietude which left my bulging bladder's ballad no alternatives, I, the glassless, mugless can't-be-chooser, bit the silver bullet—because when you have to go, you have to go, and so, praying it wouldn't flow forever, I turned on my side and angled the rim at a workable tilt, watched diluvial proportions of prick-precipitate popple a pale, perhaps poculent pool of piss in steel still stainless, there trickle-twinkle-tinkling like it were time, time itself, away alone alas a loved along the
8AM sky, turquoise blue and cloudless as my mind, headache exhausted out of commission by three dreamless slumber hours; nineteen before awake. My eyes panned across the sands like the camera in a Malick flick—schizophrenic tracking shots, Dutch-angled wides and knee-height handhelds—with the caveat of a reverence untainted by the saccharine and the sentimental, or even—wait for it—the sacramental. As I breathed, the earth breathed with me, Whitman's wind—I THINK I HAVE BLOWN WITH YOU YOU WINDS—Vayu's wind, gray sprites awhirling—YOU WATERS I HAVE FINGER'D EVERY SHORE WITH YOU—and swirling to my alveolar cadence, and then there was no need for me to speak at all when my mano morta—there Adam, there Mark, now Camille, and Travis, too—comrades crawled from their caves—none, as I'd surmised, having perished in the pit—because they knew what I knew and I knew they knew in a great, harmonious epistemic circle that encompassed everyone at camp; at the Burn; in the world; even you. Walking to the lounge, I planted myself atop a couch with a puff of dust and gazed around in satiation, proper order restored.
While that there, in the technical sense, would make for a nice denouement (and you're free to take it as such), a full trip report it wouldn't, in the aesthetic, either: the former as it's synonymous with autobiography, the latter and more relevant because perceived effects persisted onwards. Though I'd spend half the day on recon patching yesterday's holes with partial accounts whose falsity could well detonate years later, through the afternoon an afterglow of cosmic bounciness (from which we shall conclude) enhanced more than just my attitude. I started, how else to put this, noticing things. To kick us off, a logo syzygy:
Burning Man | Hydro Flask
Burning Man | Hydro Flask
Surely that can't be coincidence... Could it be apophenia? But noise... is order yet, knew Saramago, undeciphered, intersubjective as its resolution; microdose mathematicians and soon they'll all be metaphysicians, like Adam for instance, prophetic rascal he. As for our "psychedelic renaissance," no wonder Capital's slavering to market the stuff, less depression more productivity; and what's intelligence but esemplasticity? I say first come the studies, articles, and books; then down the laws and up the slogans; then the cries to pump it in our water mains, this time for real—just wait and you will see. For now, some standout Sunday synchronicities:
Still couch-rooted, I eavesdropped on the convo a few nomads had struck up with my campmates, whom they began complimenting apropos of what, their DEMEANOURS DEBONAIR? Iunno, but my ears prick up when one leads, "But you know who I really like?"—who could it be?—"The quiet guy up there," pointing to me. I tipped my cap at him.
A collection of tulpas by the moniker Conifer (who, like a total trooper, dashed through the desert sans bike the whole Burn) asked for aid lugging suitcases to the bus stop; I stepped up. Bastille's "Safe and Sound" wafted from the station as we neared, and when they asked me to watch their stuff after a guard told them to toss their trash over there, I said to them, "Yeah, no prob! I'll be sure to keep it... safe and sound." They laughed and then they left. Then, on my way back to camp, entered the thought: Experience is what we co-infer. Bargain bin insight, frankly, but in a minute it hit me. Co-infer. Co-in-fer. Co-ni-fer. And then I understood Revelation which then I had to con(i)firm with Adam, who almost got the anagram before I revealed it him.
I pulled out and examined Stefan's token, now amazed by missed entendres. It was a memento mori—a reminder of finitude—not only in form but also in phrase: "MY FUTURE SELF / WAS I RELEVANT?" Which I'd misread as "MY FUTURE SELF / WAS IRRELEVANT?" Then I biked to Blake at Zendo (where he was on shift) and asked him to mad lib a letter to the bottom, hoping he'd do what I did and pick R, but he came up with "MY FUTURE SELF / WAS IT RELEVANT?" which I hadn't thought of at all: T.
As I delivered my thesis to Dead Hand Evelyn (your typical, run-of-the-mill MPDG) regarding the Nature Of Burning Man (NOBM), she began rattling about Douglas Adams' Improbability Drive (DAID) for five very impressive minutes, which proceedingly bopped me with a second connection—the Burner booklet being basically our HGTG: Hitchhiker's Guide to the
Originally, Blake had planned to stay for less than the week due to work, but I needed to get my money's worth—Burning positively sacrificial—and to my mind missing the Temple Burn would've been as criminal as not eating the last truffle in a chocolate box. Sally, I think, thought the same, and Adam, himself a Guardian, couldn't skip it. And thus, no cocoa cacodoxy would prevail over Democracy.
But I didn't know what I'd signed up for (like with everything, I guess) and wanted to keep it that way till I got there. All I had to go on was Adam saying I should leave something inside. He said it unprompted, without much context, before the place opened Wednesday, and as a vector, certain of precision, to reach whichever rhetorical target in me he had at that moment needed those words to strike and set aflame, with possibility. A challenge, it was. What to leave? How to answer what to leave? What did other people leave? I would enter Friday with the four, as you know, in the late hours, but first alone, in the wee hours, a finer time to mull an alm, come to terms with—but sometimes to define really is to defile, and one oughtn't put the cart before the horse...
"Grieve." So demanded, can you? "Love me." If only. Emotions lie downstream of actions taken, events incurred; and should we seek to induce one such, the best we can do is arrange the circumstances and hope, like a bowerbird, she deems our roost agreeable. For want of preconditions, I find myself unable here to concretize amorphous sacreds; but I will apologize for earlier, when against my better restraint I advised, "Expect nothing." As if one could just—"Be happy."
Think, could a non-Birgin sincerely hold my pre-Burn prospects about the thing? No, they'd contradict her experience. From the other direction, we don't expect people to, say, bench 300 pounds without building up to it, and similarly, that I could in this case "expect nothing" going in was the product of groundwork laid over many moons of (mis)modeling myself and my world; no more can one lift what one is not prepared to than can one believe what one is not prepared to (swap the operative verb, try feel). But to make predicate logic sprout alate and flutter will take a greater Daedalus, so out instead I'll trot the readymade Pegasus: In order for Y to obtain, what X must first?
Eight years ago, in a freshman dorm and a lifetime no longer mine, I made the friend who was to teach me how to ride a bicycle. His name was Sam. Integrity, humility, devotion, valor, virtue, and nobility—of souls, Sam's the sort who inspires the need for such terms to come into being. He spent the nine months before he graduated training for his coming of age; the ambition to bike from Ann Arbor to Atlanta, where his father was living, and reconnect with the man, estranged since the Sam who'd cross the country with aught but a map and set of panniers had barely learned to walk. And what a marvel he managed, four years back now. I started work in Redmond, nearby where Sam, perchance, had the relatives with whom he'd move in post-pilgrimage—delicious news. We could hang out on the reg. We did.
In time, Sam would take up the boxcutter, slash, stack, and ship his student loans by the carton at his newfound Amazon warehouse gig. No glamor, glitz, or glory in that, but Sam gets what he wants, and soon he'd slough it off to be a warden in a psych unit, so his stories got better as his debt grew lighter—last February marked his final payment on a principal of nearly fifty grand. Cheers. But was that good enough for Sam? No; thus he shoulders his mom's debt, too—it ain't nothing—and whittles it in his ward. Then he tells me he wants to join the Peace Corps; and you know what he gets, of course.
Even if it meant recapitulating, as a valedictory hurrah, his road trip with a shut-in who'd never ridden. I acquiesced, and so began the lessons: afternoons carving memory into muscle, minutes of handlebar dignity derailed by asphalt catcalls, traffic scares, neuroticism, self-directed blame; but on August 25, 2017, under the willowed alcove of Seward Park's peninsular trail, as insouciant summer sunlight tickled glimmers from Lake Washington beside, I sat astride on gliding gears, became, as Sam, a biker, bronco tamed. Fast forward to May, the bikeshares are in bloom and I've collected a bouquet of apps to futz around with (yellow: awful, orange: sin, lime green: for the win), but to ride with Sam I'd need my own two wheels and say, if he could fetch 'em for me? that'd be great! With generosity supreme, he cops off OfferUp a mountain bike for thirty bucks, a rusty Rocinante—Walmart model—mottled black and gray; and since we'd camp, for that and twenty more Big Agnes with it the same day. In June, I practice turning, looking back and braking, riding standing up, one-handed, shifting gears, and mounting; Sam approves, then certifies: I have the requisite legerdepied.
By late July, we've planned our route—the Olympic Discovery Trail, a four-day trip and trifle as demanding as Sam's graduation expedition but still out a couple kilos from my confine of comfort—and within the week, we pack our panniers, drive to dock of ferry, ferry there, where it is very, very seaport town, idyllic, port of angels in translation. Lunch transitions into launch and we're as any Armstrong, Lance, or Neil on rocketships or axle grease a go-go, passing rows of lush and foliated pine to aromatic kisses—saline seltzer, notes of brine—breezeblown along the sunbaked path of earth which swells upon the rushing hills and dwindles into dells, to be reborn, anon, through verdant sheets of pasture flat as Abbott squared and as romantic, cradle to cabals of cows in bovine clumps conspiring now and then to blanket us in moos and methane clouds, on through to vacant highways, meadowlands and underpasses where a river runs aglistening over twigs today and fallen leaves, a ballroom for gavotting reeds and pebbles waiting patiently with salmon roe for shirako, their turn to come alive and swim to sea. I stop to take stock of the scene. A thrumming and humming ravine. Darwinian carnage, Shub Niggurath incarnate; per Herzog, it's rather obscene! yet oddly erotic, melodic, methodical, lenitive, internecine...
Ahead is Sequim, lavender county, home to honeybees. They are tens and hundreds of pollinating thousands (not yet, here, extinct), furry black and yellow on the purple clusters Sam and I now stand amongst to bend and smell; to listen to their drumming of the air; and by the bittersweet and melancholic price of future memories precipitated presently—what the Japanese call mono no aware—do I know this Elysium of Rimsky-K must be the zenith of our sojourn, and it will. Just for us, the lone visitors, a gazebo painted fairytale dreamcatches windborne bokeh circles and disperses them inside, where Sam sits—a lavender rocking chair—reflecting green off his jersey, greener even under shade than the aisles and aisles of shrubbery, ultragreen, Sam who will hear my screams a few streets down and watch me rip incarnadine chunks of dermis from my elbow, to be lacerated at some 30MPH, ground against the ground, because I'll try to mount a curb at too low an angle of incidence; who will hear my shrieks when a cranefly zoots into my tent, by ghastly flashlight in the later dark, as I try to zip it back up why? because our plastic bags will rustle us from somnolence into investigation, my granola will be bitten through the bottom and we will not sleep we will hear it again and Sam's sack of cherries will be gone, no we will not sleep we will burn two nights' firewood chatting through the dawn, will pack our camp and bike it to the bus (propitiously in service), ride it back to angels' port and ferry to beyond...
August again. Sam says goodbye; Sally hello—Bingo lends us rack space down to Reno—and off to Burning Man we go. For the most part, you know what happens next, but as you now know, it happens as it does because of Sam, in a big way: the tent I pitch and bike I ride. Big Agnes is still with me. But Rosy... Come Saturday, a bike repair crew drops by camp and I ask if she's OK, so one of them straddles her, wheelies, leaps up and down, slags off thereby encrusted dust, which cracks on contact with its mother. Yes, says his associate, for playa roaming but no for Default World, as leftover dust will cake in and harden her joints with the days; one catch of the chain is all a crash, with its manifold sufficient conditions, needs, one stuck-lever second or cranky cassette, one rebel rotor, just one. I won't have Bingo bring her back, I think. I'll take her to the Ranger station to be recycled, I'll...
I'll take her to the Temple.
A Sunday sort of acid-abetted decision
A fitting way to go
Because she was a burner bike
And a Burner bike
And what are (b/B)urner bikes supposed to do?
Burn, baby, burn...
Except that's not what happened. Visitation hours ended Saturday for the demo team to feed the fuse; my idea came too late, I couldn't just park inside and walk away (not that I would've, as unbound bikes are freebies for thievies). Reason two, the real one, was that the demo team refused—but I did try, three times. In sequence:
Hearing Guardians could still enter on behalf of last-minute offerings, I rode past the Man's ashes to see a bunch of Burners—there unmistakably to make the same peace with different objects—by the Temple's freshly hammered front fence. I can't cope with crowds, so I circumambulated to the back, where in place of a fence was fending Guardian "Loverboy" off me-like weasels. Asked him if he was taking things in—no, I'd have to go to the front. Rats. Asked him were there things they couldn't take in—harsh chemicals, electronics... oh, and human ashes, yeah you'd be surprised! but hey what was I going for? My bicycle. Told him the story of Sam. He told me a tale of his own. He cracked me up regaling raunchy hijinks from his week. Asked me what else I might tithe. To which I bestowed, upon his redgold bandleader waistcoat, aviators, foxgray forage cap and its winged-star insignia my Theory of Meaning (précis: catharsis is cathexis discharged). Realized my old earplugs could do. Decided against. Bid him bye.
Pegged a Guardian half a radian from the crowd. She went and brought a demoman to make the call; and this demoman, even before he'd decline, was the only individual who felt out of place to me the whole event. His dust was not that of the playa, no, it was darker, mine-dark, as if he'd survived a landmine or mine-shaft explosion whose terrible impact had tattooed soot into skin. The likelier explanation was sweat. If it's not wiped off every so often, it coagulates accreted dust as mud well into the follicles and pores of oil secretion, cracking fissures visible from cells to surface; and if nature may be described as a battle of attrition in which each its elements strives to remake all others in its own image, then it is safe to say the playa was winning this demoman over. And by the haggard, brimstone glower with which he'll matter-of-factly quash my hope, "We can't. Not flammable" (b-but there's a lot in there that isn't) "Doesn't matter. Not gonna happen"; the look of all men—and men they are—who've toiled perhaps their lives without a shred of due respect, who know, bone-knowledge, better than to expect it ever one has to ask of them, or of oneself in their position, is the playa so bad to become?
Time three will not be the charm, but I think my tale, which I didn't tell the demoman, might be the key, and so up at the front and once I'll beseech with it two more than sympathetic Guardians, who grapevine the gist up the verbatim chain of command, which takes a good ten minutes; and when Rosy's lot (live on!) thunders down ex cathedra the one says, natch, "If it were up to me, I would a hundred percent have let her in. A hundred percent."
But his face, pink by sun and white with dust not quite so atavistic, told me he meant it. He was a lanky stickbug holding a parasol I'd thought was part-and-parcel of the cart he was Guarding. It was a wooden cart with a slot on top. Sitting by were several Burners, writing on clipboards and in notebooks the messages they would deposit inside this slot, whose wooden cart would be towed into the Temple to be burned, inside the Temple. Now at Tuesday's Eucharist, I was given a ribbon: a ribbon white as the fur on a ragdoll kitten's belly after a solid scrubbing in the kitchen sink maybe, a ribbon soft as a ragdoll grimalkin's sunset mew at the tail end of her ninth life maybe, a ribbon to be riven with the written (had I listened to the chaplain, which I mercifully didn't), and a ribbon to be burned baby burned—definitely—but it did not go in the slot because I'd give it to the stick, who'd be happy to place it in the Temple for me if I could just hold his parasol, which I could, and he was as any—oh, not this again. Stickbugs are also known as phasmids, FYI: phantasms, phantoms, phantasies &c., and see this one's pallescent playa-white pullover just élanguesce as he walks smallersmaller neath the midday sun, like he's my ribbon's middenheap synecdoche or something eh? as I twirl his mortal coil in mine own hands, like a Fate...
I wonder what's taking him so long. I wonder if he's making me wait to impress a sense of having deliberated, or if I've been trolled. I wonder where, among the cards, the birthday cards and playing cards, the many cards and words and wooden carvings and guitars, the chalkboard sketches, cork bar coasters, photographs collaged from every country, state, and state of life, Oh, the Places You'll Go!, the ukeleles, strummed their last, now necked with flower crowns and wreaths of holly, the personal failings an older man now sits beside me scrawling an inventory of, the wedding dresses, record albums strung from truss to truss, red good luck pockets, pendants, portrait frames and lockets, masks facedown and smothered in the dust, t-shirts and faded sweaters, ballet shoes and dollar bills, enfolded, inked in different colors, the cardboard-sharpied, all caps Kerouac quote THE ONLY ONES FOR ME ARE THE MAD ONES, THE ONES MAD TO LIVE, MAD TO TALK, MAD TO BE SAVED edseddera with MARLEE WAS ONE OF THESE ballpointed at the bottom in much smaller caps, caps, batteried candles on the shelves of a whitewashed cabinet-shrine lined with lilacs and sandalwood incense, map, watercolored by a campmate's ex, of milestones in their onetime relationship, origami cranes, fragments, obits cut from local papers, plushies, potted plants, porcelain plates with cookies all know not to touch, some high school yearbooks signed a million times, frisbees, satchels, doggy collars, poems with fewer rhymes than this paragraph (but more reason maybe), another, duller ostinato, cowboy hats and service medals, corduroy and buttons, oh, the buttons, droves of buttons, some jade as a jade or the water at dusk on the deep sea maybe, some deep sepia, some maroon as the flametips in the firenado our howls will summon as Galaxia collapses, some blue as the mouth of the musician immortalized in media res on the album cover overhead or the riffs in its songs he might even have played on the fallow acoustic here once, once when its strings were still taut and in tune... deltablue, and others of other colors, origins but not ends, where among said etceteras will my strip of cloth be charred.
But it's inconsequential, the phasmid's rematerialization is imminent, and this saga's just about sealed (or buttoned, your preference: consonance or pun) up. I'll hand him back his parasol and mosey back to camp, where Camille'll offer to adopt a bike no digit's surprised to see. Later on, I'd snap a few still frames. Have another, before we leave:
What is Burning Man?
Crystal childhood, in the same way crystal meth is crystal meth: a brief burst of bliss prismatically preserved. With withdrawal symptoms, naturally, and addicts, correspondingly, their next hit always 51 weeks away (the regionals hold them over). When I asked quadruple-Burner Joel why he kept coming back: "So I can turn off my phone." Think about that.
An acid trip. Like a psychedelic, being on the playa wipes out the ambient assumptions undergirding habitual behavior and sets quotidian life in relief through a prolonged, almost enforced dérive—the best way about them being with, not against, and through, not back, Default World analogous to the comedown and reintegration (or "decompression," as it's called) an integral component of both. However, I propose no fundamental difference between tripping state and wakeful normalcy—or Burning Man and Default World—though certain amplitudes are dialed up (and others dampened) during each; it is as possible to manifest the Burner ethic outside the playa as it is to Flow sober.
A vivarium for humans, as is a greenhouse for plants. Germans say things like "Become who you are" or "You must change your life," and, uh, if those float your boat, the playa's the place to set sail. Whatever aspect of experience you wish to taste—and perhaps some you don't but need to—can be found there. It puts the spectrum of affect to music and cranks the gain to eleven; impossible not to feel something. As for the dust... after it's all settled, I'm going to go with fertilizer; whether camping out or tripping out, mediating disputes or meditating pranas, I'm confident flogging, just this once, that abysmal buzzword personal growth as having been a result of my trial by fire—not least because through it (and after many halfhearted forays over the years) I finally discovered my spirit animal. The jellyfish.
A serendipity engine, most probably. We regard as fortunate the unintended, haphazard positivities that coincide their way into our lives, and in no place but Burning Man do plans gone awry lead to even better incidents with such frequency. To relate a few such:
Post Atomic Playground, Greg and I stopped by what was possibly the most uninspired work of art at this year's Burn: unvarnished wooden boards jerry-rigged to resemble the skeleton of a tree; several of these shrimpy snags made for a sham of a stand. I started ranting about what a dud this was when a man straight out of Time Bandits swaggered up to us and improvised a sales pitch: "You have in front of you the most dee-li-cious pine on the playa, lick it quick before it's gone!" Show me how, I replied, skeptical, whereupon he pressed his tongue over the unsanded corner edge (splinters??) of a plank at head height and slimed it sensuously, as might a slug if it, too, were pink, there, and moving. Saliva browning the surface, he smiles, thumbs up, says, "Awwh yeah. So fresh." Now this—both risky and risqué—this was a performance piece par excellence.
Had the barbecue the booklet duped me into attending not been fake and listed to prank camp Camp Question Mark rather, in my view, maliciously, I may not have been the one to crash his bike through a stack of bowling pins on the road back (to fanfare from the camp that set it up), or eaten the cold cube of watermelon I was offered by a gramps from a different camp minutes later. Still feel bad about broadcasting the 'cue at Dead Hand and having Adam and Travis show up to zilch, though I shouldn't.
On the way to a sister camp of ours, Conifer and I got lost. We stopped to ask directions from a relatively nondescript milquetoast middl'aged vanillawhite pedestrian, who apologized because he didn't know. This, however, said to my felicity that he was reading poetry to anyone who'd listen, namely me. So he whips out a large, musty, rectangular hardback of Whitman's Leaves of Grass and proceeds from the last stanzas of Salut au Monde! (as strong a case for pantheism as any) before slicing the page with a pocket knife and handing me the shard:
Monday night, frustrated that I still hadn't strung my bike lights and so unable to head out with any group that cycled from camp (every), I decided to walk the Playa by myself. Right as I reached the center, I saw fireworks. Heard crackling behind me; turned around: more. Then I realized, not only was I in the middle of a giant ring of them, I'd also found the best spot to view. And I spun round and round and round and round and saw that it was Good.
I could go on, but instead... the determinist thesis simply scrambled: history mystery properly is no but enframed a conclusion foregone. Ergo, "Everything happens for a reason"—but to see the story and to know the reasons, know what led to what is like soaking in a bubble bath of meaning, like standing in the calm eye of the causal cyclone wherein the cords of ineluctable destiny reveal themselves as harp strings upon which may a beautiful melody be wrought.
An arts and music festival in the Nevada desert, founded by Larry Harvey in 1986 and currently produced by Black Rock City LLC (we're also just featherless bipeds).
The Godhead's wirehead.
Whatever you want it to be, really.
My bike is chained to Camille's rack and it feels less mine by the second. She hands me a bag of candied mangoes. They suck. That's right, folks, it's Monday! September third, and the Man has Burned; Temple toppled, too. The weather? Cotton candy cumulus and hunger pangs, of deprivation (else I'd have seen just cotton): kitchen closed shop last night with an unholy bowl of Nutella risotto, a communal bowl, with everyone stabbing their spoons and sporks in the same batch of sludge—everyone but me, but even I might've compromised that famelicose moon-day morn and munched it like Buzz Aldrin cuz I had to, to survive. Luckily, the bus out was here Here HERE! Adam, Blake, and I would pack our tents, sweep for MOOP, and slake the dust with snakes—sidewinding into byway mud from the jugs we wielded walking backwards—of surplus water before departing; and slated though she was to saunter Home with us, Sally's stuff was sadly stolen so she stayed to search.
Aboard the bus, the air's a butcher's fridge of brittle, speechless ice. As if talking's taboo, nobody makes a peep except the AC, which, after we clear the dusty playa, clicks on like a gag—mannequins don't need cooling—or a gaffe, inappropriate: the clime less hot than funereal, and this less a bus than a hearse. Meanwhile, in a sky increasingly sapphiric, a sun indiscriminate in purview and absolute in puissance begins powerwashing the last evidence of shadow from boulders and cactus spines alike, and I feel dread, the selfsame dread that followed me into the desert and out of the flames, the dread of Dvorak, for which he penned, against the eve of a world new and irrevocable, a symphony to conquer. It passes like too everything shall, in the parallax—now whizzing lullaby de facto. I'll doze to that. To Reno; to 4G signal, Adam's car, and just another week in the life...
For lunch I commit infanticide, on a Chimichanga. It was not bad, which, given my appetite of "Tantalusian," meant it was. But get this. The menus were bare naked, hole-punched, ring-linked A12, all font—12-point Calibri, bold for the dishes—and laying on a slab of polished gray granite by the plexiglas door. Said slab was long. Behind it stood a shelf on which were wines: the same bottle, many times. To its east, a colony of tables erupted from black Xs on the floor, up single, sable cylindrical stalks culminating in skin-beige laminate squircle tops. A second slab sat to the north, as bar counter. Said slab was very long. Behind it stood the greeter, waiter, cook, bus boy, and bartend, minute against his cavern of plaster, tile, glass, wood, and steel. The outfit had five stars on Yelp—good on him—but why were we the only clients? If lunch hour cash flow was this low, and the place this huge, this clean, with a clipart-caliber logo printed on poster paper pinned outside above the entrance on coarse ersatz bricks not laid so much as jammed, as in a jigsaw... I had to bat down swarms of theories before I hit a home run. You see, this postmodern farrago was none other than a money laundering front of a vampire rehab center posing as a Mexican restaurant in a Reno strip mall. The nail in the coffin? It was vegan.
Curvy roads and skinny straights, factories, farms, mountain passes and flatlands: these the drive back saw, but no gas-pumping pit stops, nosirree. And that is because Oregon, being one of those irredeemable states where gas must be pumped by attendants, also has—to its gross economic impairment—no law mandating they sleep at their stations. From these items you might extrapolate that we burned the not-just-proverbial midnight oil bumbling from small town to small town praying for some of the same. Only one station store we passed was open; but the WE BUY GOLD guy at the counter inside, instead of being a brother, would tell us to phone a taxi. He flipped a page in his gazette before the two-tone door alarm chimed us out. Plan B it was.
Fuel gauge read scarce a mile as we parked at a church in bum-diddly-dum to go trick-or-treating. The first house we tried had its porch lights on, but nobody was home. Next we saw a TV down the street emitting Cerenkov cool as its medium, but our boulevard promenade would prove fruitless when Blake and I watched first seed Adam step up to denial guised as a gruff, shirtless grump replete with horseshoe stache and sagging breasts, king of a molehill no hood rats would ever get the better of. "Alright," said Adam, "now one of you has to go." I took his baton, prepared to give it the old college toss; but just as we Three Magi began our trek uphill appeared a Bethlehem star in the form of a car, headlamps beaming hope into the driveway of—well whaddaya know—the first house. "Let's see if the serendipity master can pull this off," dared a Blake no doubt excited by the plot potential.
Out stepped a bespectacled brunette, early forties, five seven. Hairwise, hers was straight and parted, shoulder-length. She wore jeans to my sweatpants, sneakers to my sandals. Like me, she was wiry. Like you, she was alive. And although the altogether bubonic clouds overhead did not, having gobbled already their nightly lunar allocation, bode well for begging, so aligned were my chakras then—and so divine my magnanimity—that I had no trouble soliciting the services of this Mary Magdalene who would so kindly give us her all, her all of two gallons of gasoline that is, which the car at 35 miles per was enough to get us to our lodge.
Us, plumbing for a stuck spout mid-pour
Us, plumbing for a stuck spout mid-pour
The playa provides, friends, the playa provides. In such abundance that the Burner feels almost compelled (though by no official writ) to reciprocate, perhaps at first in a small way, but he may come in the course of time to realize no oblation can ever do justice to the bargain he's received, and yet he will—because by now he must—consecrate every fiber and hour he has left, as it were, to burn, to returning the favor...
Adam demurred when Blake proposed we hand Mary his wallet's sole Jackson, "No, she's not gonna take that. We have to gift her something—something that reflects the true spirit of the playa." I so happened to have an unopened bag of Skinny Dipped Dark Chocolate Raspberry Almonds, purchased but an hour ago at the first Grocery Outlet I'd ever visited (if Grocery Outlet didn't exist, we'd have to invent it). Of this A&B enthusiastically approved, saying I should give it her as I'd been the solicitor. So up the steps and on the porch beneath the gable did my finger extinguish briefly the dull orange light in the doorbell button, Blake behind with empty can in hand and Adam at his side. When our savior showed, I said to her, "You saved us. We are so grateful for the gas, and we'd like to thank you with this bag of Skinny Dipped"—pointing to each word as I spoke it—"Dark Chocolate, Raspberry Almonds." She accepted with delight and wished us well.
The following day, we'd drive up the picturesque Oregon Coast and visit the sea lion caves. Highly recommend. Two days hence, I'd commence writing these words which you now read. But as we were walking to the car that night for what was to be its swansong voyage (with us, at least, as Adam's lease would cease upon return), an idea struck me.
"Serendipity Master," I asked, "Can that be my playa name?"
"Yes—YES—YOU EARNED IT," christened Adam.