September 22, 2007
To burn I yearn
so to the Burn must I turn
Sunday, August 26, 2007:
I’m cruising America in a “ginormous” Cruise America 1-800-RV4-RENT recreational vehicle, about five hours away from our initial destination of Fernley, Nevada, to spend the night at the Lazy Inn on the way to Black Rock City. I’m hitching a ride with four guys I just met who were kind enough to offer me a spot in their already crowded ride. Friend “Sparky” sent an email broadcast to his network looking for a ride for me to Burning Man (”she’s fun and fabulous!”), where I will meet up with my Portland playa posse. Kelly, the only one to respond, had flown to LA yesterday to pick up the only affordable available RV and drive it back to SF. That is dedication to the Burn.
I’m also traveling with Jack. Don’t I always? As the 50th anniversary of the publication of On the Road approaches (9/5/07) it would be rude, disrespectful not to bring him along on this timely road trip.
“WE’RE IN THE PROCESS
of actually starting to go!” says Dan, the designated driver of the hour, once our stuff has been stowed. There are Dan and his beau, Chris, members of an improv comedy troupe, and Kelly and his beau, Beau, a soft-spoken Mark Harmon look-alike, once a successful artist, who now works and lives (in a hut) on a Russian River retreat.
Lovely and then not-so-lovely Oakland invites me to leave it. In no time we’re on the 80 and zoomin’ through Berkeley, which I’m always happy to leave behind. Nothing against Berkeley; it has its charms, but it was there that I spent six years in the most thankless job on earth, that of a Bay Area landlord under rent control. My tenants were fine; it was “the System” that broke my back. Now it makes me feel like I’m choking, as Rusty James says of being alone in “Rumblefish”—“like I’m choking.” Small towns, even big as Berkeley, make me feel suffocated and hoping to pass through them as quickly as possible. They remind me of the small oppressive world of my family.
Heading now towards Sacramento, Martinez, Fairfield. House after uniform house, with tree-studded beige hillsides behind them. I feel like I’m choking. “Finger” mountains. Strip malls. Vacaville. Call it Vacantville. I know, I’m a city snob. Sue me.
I take a bunch of pictures of Beau sleeping. He has a sedative effect on me, and I mean that in the best way. He is calm, centered, relaxing to be around.
WE PULL OFF THE HIGHWAY
for the obligatory road trip fast food pitstop. “Now that’s a man who knows his turning radius!” Chris, riding shotgun, says of Dan’s smooth impressive U-turn in a driveway. I in turn impress myself by ordering the Mandarin Chicken Salad instead of the aromatic grease patty. Remnants of animal parts held together by grease—the classic American hamburger. How shabby a cuisine that would identify this as its signature dish!
While we’re at Wendy’s Chris goes off to Walmart to buy a tent, and comes back with a tent—and a kitchy chandelier lamp for their camp. Chris has the imposing jaw-line of a Roman Centurion. All he needs is the helmet. Next year! We abandon Wendy’s, and return to the world of RV dealerships, car dealerships, boat dealerships. Commerce as you cruise. Gas stations, liquor stores, truck stops, overpasses, underpasses. God, bless America—please. Time’s running out.
WHAT WOULD JACK THINK
of this road? He wrote On the Road in 1951. The US Highway System ruled the road at that time. The Lincoln Highway from NY to SF and Route 66, Chicago to Santa Monica/LA, were dominant. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 started off The Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, which we know today as the Interstate, now offering more than 46,000 miles of road. (In his message to Congress of 1955, Eisenhower stated as one of his rationales for the Act, “In case of an atomic attack on our key cities, the road net must permit quick evacuation of target areas, mobilization of defense forces and maintenance of every essential economic function” because the system then current would be “the breeder of deadly congestion within hours of an attack.” Too bad all we needed to create that congestion was a hell of a lot more people and their cars.)
OTR was finally published 1957. The interstate system was not substantially “officially” completed until 1991. By then the billboards and corporate outposts along the way offering gas, food and lodging, were part of the scenery. I wish I could have seen Jack’s road.
I would love to introduce him to our century. He’d most likely drink himself to death a second time. It probably wouldn’t be that hard to transition from the nuclear threat of the 50’s to today’s unpredictable threat of terrorism. In both cases a deadly pall hangs over the head and soul of man.
And what would the man who produced a yards-long paragraph think of word processing on a computer? It’s the ultimate nonstop writing experience. Jack once referred to himself as a “typewriter,” no doubt to the amusement of Truman Capote. He needed a hyphen there.
IBM introduced the Magnetic Tape Selectric Typewriter in 1964, with limited storage capacities for retaining text. Jack died in ’69. It was not until ’77 that floppy disks made it possible to separate the hardware from the software, mutating comparatively primitive “dedicated word processors” into personal computers with downloadable word processing programs and increased storage space. I can’t imagine a writer who wouldn’t be grateful for cut and paste.
OK, THE RULES OF THE ROAD
have been laid down by Chris, now driving:
GAS GRASS OR ASS–NOBODY RIDES FOR FREE
This biker’s motto keeps me laughing over dinner that night at Mary and Moe’s Wigwam Restaurant and Casino (“[they’ve] got it all!”). Luckily I have gas and grass to offer. The other they wouldn’t be interested in. The improvs fly fast and furious between Dan and Chris and I can’t keep up with them. Dan spends much of his time seated at the kitchenette table working on his laptop in a t-shirt reading “guster.” Though I felt lost without my laptop in Mexico, I am looking forward to a merciful week without computer screens, email, phone, bills in my mailbox.
“ART SAVES LIVES,”
claims a bumper sticker on a Toyota Matrix, which car I hope never ironically kills anyone. I certainly hope art saves mine. This RV has the stability of a rocking, lurching train. I stumble about rearranging my earthly goods, which have slid down the aisle with a pleasing shushing sound. My ears pop as we climb into the trees towards Donner Pass.
I have used the ancient brown-paged All-in-One Composition Book (balancing the scales between Quality and Quantity) I’ve been saving for something special and anoint it, in shaky RV handwriting,
BURNING MAN BOOK OF POEMS
commenced on the road
Aug 26 ’07
I80 East Nevada
I swear that I will never burn these poems.
WE REACH FERNLEY
and from my mattress pad and sleeping bag on the surprisingly comfy floor of the Lazy Inn, where the boys had reserved a Sunday night sleep-in so we can arrive and set up camp in the daytime, I listen to them coloring and buzz-cutting each other’s hair into their playa ‘dos. Kelly, appropriately, chooses a Kelly green Mohawk. Beau gets an adorable earth-tone animal print playing off his natural color, on the shaved sides of his head. Chris, I think, had a pink Mohawk, and Dan stayed neutral, with his Van Dyke facial hair. I stare into the blue carpet sprinkled with colored specks, that I’ve seen, in my travels through architectural office libraries, dozens of samples of in every “colorway.” It’s specified for bad motels and school libraries. It is here on this undistinguished carpet on the floor of the Lazy Inn, Fernley, that I pen what I imagine to be the first of a cavalcade of poetry and prose rising out of the dust like heat waves. Wrong!
I will remain singularly uninspired all week, barely writing or reading a word the entire duration of the trip.
WE START OUT DAY 1 OF THE BURN
with a hearty how-do-you-handle-a-hungry-man breakfast, great plates of potatoes and eggs smothered with a whole chub of cheddar. I impress myself by ordering cottage cheese and fresh fruit. I already know yogurt, my standard breakfast, is too exotic for this rural outpost. Doris, our matronly waitress, wants to know what color Kelly’s Mohawk is so she can “call Miss Clairol” and order it. Kelly has added a touch of blue to the green and replies nonchalantly, “just regular turquoise.”
We return to the road, and as we approach the “ginormous” circle of small societies we will inhabit, the Burma Shave-like signs lining the approach to the entry gates greet us:
To the vacant heart
Of the wild west
Beau rings the Burning Man Virgin bell at the greeter’s gate. The crew sets up shop in Avalon Village at Desert and 7:30. My crowd of Portland friends was supposed to have been nearby between 6:30 and 7:00, but it takes me and a beleaguered Dan, who is gentlemanly enough to offer to search for them with me and refuses to abandon me though his irritation mounts, close to two hours without our water bottles to figure out they ended up at Arctic and 6:45, only steps away from Center Camp. Even with an alphabetical street system and clock time coordinates making sense of the set-up, plop me down on the desert and I am completely without orientation. It just looks like a field of cars and RVs to me. Gradually I get the hang of it, though riding around I still have to stop and take stock, concentrating, “Center Camp is at 6:00. If I’m coming from this way…I turn right, no left, no right, now wait, start over…where am I”
I do meet up with my camp after finding their message on the computerized sign-up system in the Playa Information Booth, and dimple-cheeked, good-natured Reid comes in a van to pick up my stuff. I spend much of the day acclimating to the desert. I can tolerate this dry heat far better than the humidity I left behind in Philly but I definitely have to get used to it. San Francisco does not see the like.
The crew used to camp with Avalon as well, but they have set up with Olivia’s Guardian this year, informally calling themselves Camp Crossover, I guess because of the transition. This is a camp of Burning Man diehards dating back nine Burns, with cookstove, sink, furniture, a sturdy shade structure of pipe fittings and sunscreen of sewn-together clothes that passersby all think is cool!, a propane-heated shower, costumes galore, gear and supplies they keep in storage during the year, you name it.
Regulars include the older brother I never had, Reid, director of marketing at a popular outdoor market; his hunky sweet-faced partner Dustin, graphic designer; Catie Jo, interior designer, a Sigourney Weaver look-alike who radiates presence and strength; Mark, who went from selling shoes to furniture design, with the body and brown-skinned hairless look of a fashion model, striking a naturally stylish pose wherever he sits or stands; boyish Leaf, formerly of the Vietnamese Iced Coffee Camp; and a host of other faces new to me.
THERE IS ALEX
a wonderful German restauranteuse living in New Zealand I take time to get to know—I start making the mental preparations to visit her there; Jens, a frenetic caterer and bearded Dylan McDermott look-alike, who continually darts between each task or diversion, and Tristan, a 19-year-old first-time Burner trying to figure out his life, to name a few. He spends most of the Burn shirtless in a checked pair of long vintage pants he has great affection for. I tell Reid that the never-forget sight I will see this year might well be Jens hula-hooping on the desert in his cowboy hat. He is of a type, Reid grants, and I tell Mark that he is ideally suited to be one of those robot sex workers in the movie AI, so perfect a type is he. There is not a sweeter, funnier group of people, but I can be intimidated by them because they are takin’ care of business types, and I may be a great American writer, but I’m a total flub when it comes to logistical, physical real-life things.
Usually borrowing my camping supplies from a friend’s son, I have finally taken the plunge and picked up a $41 dome tent at Kaplan’s and set myself up on the flatland of Black Rock City, admitting I will be doing this again. Catie Jo will occasionally thoughtfully monitor my water and protein intake, and she is right; after my waterless odyssey, that night I am indeed dehydrated and feel too dizzy to go out and party. It is with genuine joy that I unearth the mini gentle-on-the-stomach Mott’s applesauce I forgot I’d brought because I sometimes eat Gerber’s peach babyfood when hungover, and the soothing pablum-like comfort food is the only thing that will hit my queasy spot.
THIS DAY IN HISTORY–August 28, 2007
I’m still up late Monday night/Tuesday morning, monitoring from my tent the progress of the total lunar eclipse that renders the moon a bloody poached egg, when I hear the cry: “The Man is burning, the Man is burning!” Indeed he is, and fully engaged no less. I run over to scope it out, and stand by as falling arcs of water try valiantly to put the arson-induced flame out. Though he does not fall, the Man is reduced to a charcoal skeleton of his former self, but another effigy is to be built in time for the official Burn. While the hooting and hysteria continue on, I take turns oohing over the flames and aahing over the moon, a hazy orange eye bearing witness to the conflagration and congregation. Two extraordinary spectacles in one night, man-made and natural, I take as a good omen. There’s a vortex of energy forming in this desert and I am going to ride it.
I set about to transfer all my survival needs—basic On the Playa kit: water, sunglasses, water, goggles, water, sunblock, water, kerchief, and goofy sunglasses to give away on my travels—into my book bag, a Niagara Falls “Maid of the Mist” blue mini backpack, only to discover it is missing from my tent. The bag contains three blank journals, half-a-dozen select books, none of which I will open, and my much-read 39-year-old copy of On the Road (same 1968 edition Steve Allen held up from his piano when introducing Jack to read from the book), along for the ride. This will also have been the second time I lose Kerouac’s haiku while traveling, first time on the train leaving Niagara Falls headed for Buffalo. I am glad someone will find it.
is the item I post on the community bulletin board, but the bag turns up at the camp of the horse I rode in on, Kelly’s RV. I knew it could have been there, but Chris had come by our camp and not mentioned any mystery items being found, so I think for a bit that I’d left it, sorry and alone, somewhere on the playa, absent-minded as I am, and wander around the camp in search of…I don’t know what. “What are you looking for?” asks Reid. “To tell you the truth, I feel kind of lost without my books.” And I do. Without the option of visiting Jack or my journal, I feel strangely barren, with the days stretching ahead of me. Later Reid offers me a hardback entitled This is Burning Man, saying “It’s not your books, but it is a book.” I am touched, and not by the sun.
I walk to Center Camp with Tristan, where we plop on a couch and set a spell. I ask him if he thinks the dancers in front of the stage are in genuine ecstatic trances or just bustin’ moves. Hard to say. I take off and Tristan stays on. Later on, he appears back at camp, his neck riddled with hickies. He has had the first Burn fortune of falling into a genuine playa romance with a charming young woman and I ask him if he’s in an ecstatic trance. He sure seems to be while rolling around with her on the napping mattress set up behind the couch.
YOU AND ME BABY AIN’T NOTHIN’ BUT MAMMALS
so let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel. That was the boom box hit of Burning Man 2002. Since I didn’t play the documentarian this year, I’ll pass on some gems from my first Burn.
“This is Victoria’s Secret? She should have kept it a secret.”
“It is just me, or is everybody else cracked out?”
“Where did I leave my whiskers?” …
“I can’t find my nipple rings”… “I can’t find my handcuffs” … etc.
“Christ, these kill!” – Reid of his punishing patent leather lady’s platforms. “Feet = pain.”
“Those breasts could feed a party of ten! In India she’d be a restaurant!”
“I look ten years older as a woman. I look like a Beverly Hills realtor.”
“Eeny, meeny, minie, mo—who’s a great big fuckin’ ho?!”
“Your twat is broken and no one’s going to play with your broken pussy.”
“We didn’t get lost enough. We’ll try harder next time.”
“Liquor in the front, poker in the rear.”
“Honey, I can’t get out of this harness.”
“You. Hold it right there.” “Wait, let me swallow first.”
“My last supper’s going to be cock!”
“His mouth was available.”
“I want every orifice stuffed.”
“I’ve got sticky stuff all over my leg.” ”Everyone here says that in the morning.”
“It was bad the first time!” (reaction to “We are the World Kareoke camp)
“You have something stuck in every crack (of your teeth).”
“As fresh as the playa!”
“You want sex with that?”
“Master of his own disaster.”
“It was drug and alcohol free (it was all free).”
“Rock on with your cock on! And jam on with your clam on!”
“Now’s a good time to light my butt up.”
“Faster! Bigger hole! Faster! Bigger hole!”
“I can’t wear the Camelback with my wings.”
“Move on over Sizzlean, I’ve got some real meat for ya.”
“Grandma nude and dead puppies.” (cure for getting turned on)
“Keep it clean with vaseline.”
“Is there anything left of your crotch?”
And so on…
OUT ON THE PLAYA
I set off for Kelly’s RV to check for my pack—phew!—and have some coffee with Beau. They have created a most inviting, clean, welcoming camp made of a wrought metal shade structure with gauzy curtains blowing in the heavenly breeze, area rugs, cozy decorations and cots for sleeping. Dan is asleep on one of them. Drats. I’d come partly to prove to him that I could find his camp and return to my own without his assistance! The camp is so welcoming that at one point while they are all out, a total stranger comes in and collapses on a cot. They just let him sleep. I love that.
Back on the playa I get invited to the camp of two firefighting brothers, Mike and Chuck, who are offering three types of cocktails and three types of neck kisses. The forest firefighter brother Mike is making the cocktails so I give him the martini glass-shaped sunglasses in my pack. I choose refreshing over creamy and go for a vodka and coke. As for the kisses, there is the nape of the neck, the left side from behind, or the left side from the front. I opt for the left from the back but I inform him, not to be outdone by Tristan, that he has to leave a hickie. He is certainly practiced in how to do so, and does so. Where did that come from? someone wonders, but as Reid puts it, “What happens on the playa stays on the playa.” There’s another camp in which a man has been authorized by his wife to demonstrate his talent at cunnilingus to all comers, pardon the expression, but he is only to give, not receive. I pass on that one.
I RIDE FOR HOURS
taking in the sights. I am drawn to the Mister Mister installation, a clever misting invention by one Mr. Cool, who invites me to join them. Both Chris and Reid show up simultaneously and it turns out they know each other. Big desert, small world. It is here that an angel caretaker wipes off my feet and reinforces my flailing bandaids with adhesive tape. I look upon her like a playa Florence Nightingale. I offer up some pot but hardly anyone is smoking this year. I have brought a large medicine bottle of enough weed to sustain 20 people for a week, but there are more exotic drugs to be coveted out there, I guess.
Indeed, back at the camp, one of the guys turns me on to some Special K (keratine, a cat tranquilizer with a psychedelic effect—which my shrink later looks displeased with and makes a note of; I neglect to mention the nitrous oxide I am instructed in inhaling from a bladder). I snort the granular white powder off his finger and giggle for a vivid hour or so, during which I write another poem:
I RECITE THE POEM
to the gang and ask if it is sufficient to be the poem of the day I have assigned myself to write; they laugh about it and say yes, then someone tells me to put it in the playa journal, or add it to the table. The camp has a circular table on which people preserve comments from years of Burns. I add mine on with a purple marker.
And I am intrigued. What journal? Where? It’s a blank book someone had started in 2005 to be let “loose on the playa,” that somehow came to our camp. I read the introduction:
The maker had installed an envelope with postage for return to him by the last entry-maker, thence to be scanned and published on www.fgault.com/playajournal. I flip over to see the first entry—but there is none. Huh? How can this be? I am intrigued. Where did this come from? Whose is this? What’s the story? It seems crucial to me.
NO ONE KNOWS,
it just appeared. You mean that out of all the 45,000 people and their camps on the playa it comes to our camp first? And out of that massive throng of people it falls to me to write the first entry? And why is it two years old? Leaf, sporting green hair this year, speaks up—he can at least tell me how it got here. He brought it.
The book first came to his camp in 2005—he doesn’t remember who gave it to him, and he put it on the table for people to write in. And there it sat. No one did. As they were breaking camp at the end of the Burn, they were clearing the table, and there it was. No one had written in it and no one had passed it on. Leaf felt guilty, and decided he would take the book home with him and send it back to the guy. He packed it up with his Burning Man clothes, put it in storage, and there it sat. He didn’t go to the 2006 Burn. In 2007 he discovered the book again among his clothes, and once more placed it on the table. And there it sat. Though I am fascinated by this tale, the only one other than me to write in it is a shaman/healer who passes through our camp during a dust storm.
WOW, WHAT SHOULD I WRITE?
I ponder, as if it has momentous significance. After a lot of thought, I start out with “Three Days, Three Poems” and record the first three poems I wrote on the trip. Then I squeeze in a section of prologue from “The Canterbury Tales”:
Try to remember Middle English spellings in 100° heat. Na ga ha, as the first George Bush used to say, not gonna happen. (How could the world have produced two—count ‘em—two George Bushes? Hey, that was such a great mistake I made, said God—I think I’ll make it again! Or was it the American people—or the Supreme Court—who said that?)
BACK TO THE TABLE
the journal went. And there it sat, that day and the next day. I asked Leaf if he considered it his personal mission to pass the book on, and he said he just wanted to be rid of the damn thing already. So I took it to Center Camp to give it a chance to circulate, and surveyed the crowd. Into my field of vision entered a woman looking both intelligent and trustworthy, certainly not in any ecstatic trance, and I held the book out saying, “I’m passing this on to you” and moved on. Perhaps that happenstance had special meaning for her as well. Or not.
On my afternoon ride I see a guy in a hat wearing the martini sunglasses I gave out and screech to a halt. “Hey Mike,” I say,” how you doin’?
“Mike?” he says. “It’s Mark.”
“Mark? Not Mike?”
It wasn’t Mike, but I wouldn’t believe him.
“Then where did you get those glasses?”
“That guy over there gave them to me.”
Mike and Mark look alike and a hat covers his hair. He starts flirting with me and asks for a kiss. I’m not doing anything at the time and go for it, still thinking it might be Mike thinking himself entitled to a kiss since he’d already given me one. “I haven’t had a kiss like that all week,” says Mark/Mike, pressing against me. I’ve had enough then and whip his hat off. “You’re not Mike!” I accuse.
“Your brother is Chuck. “
“My brother is John.”
“Well…all right then. Nice kissing you for a while, see you around.” Later Alex will ask me with a subtle motherly disapproval if I used my tongue.
I have a cocktail at another camp at which a guy tells me he signaled to me because he could tell as I rode by that I am Polish. Someone else had once told me he could see it through three doorways. This guy had lived in Poland for two years with the Peace Corps, and he’d even been to Kaunas, Lithuania, my mother’s hometown. How ’bout that?
ONE OF THE FUNNIEST MOMENTS
comes when Catie Jo is cutting up some fur to trim her boots with, and another camper, Denise, stuffs the remnant pieces into her bikini bottom to stick out on her stomach and legs. She stood out on Arctic Street and waved to passers-by asking (I can’t remember the name) “Do you know where the Hair Down There Trim Camp is?” People hesitated to look directly at the obvious before she came out with the question, then dropped their eyes and laughed. “You need a weed whacker, girl!” and such like. I thought she had tremendous nerve.
I do not ride my bike topless because at age 52 I don’t need to give gravity any assistance. My breasts have already fallen down on the job and I don’t need to give them unemployment insurance. I had planned to sunbathe nude at my camp, but to my astonishment, Dave X arrives with his wife L. I had heard someone mentioning the arrival of a Dave X, but think it can’t possibly be the one I worked with 25 years ago at an environmental consulting firm in Portland. That he and this group of people would have anything to do with each other seems completely unlikely. Weird when two parts of your life cross paths. My working relationship with Dave did not include going to his office and stripping, so I don’t plan to do that here. He still looks at my breasts when he talks to me.
He has created a clever wooden structure with George Bush’s face pasted on it, and a crank where his dick would be that, when you turn it, makes George wave at you. He and his wife are pretty conservative, but they love the Burn. Lee has sewn glow-tubes to their jackets and they look dramatic that night as they leave to walk the playa. I certainly didn’t go to that much effort. No question he is smart and inventive, an architect, but I’m in a state of shock that finally subsides when they leave a couple of days later.
THE DAYS BLUR TOGETHER
when I don’t take notes. My recollection becomes hazy like the storm conditions, and I am dry of inspiration. It seems I am content to simply be. I surprise myself by remaining mostly on my own, moving at my own pace. Not only that, I scan the 86-page What Where When program book of classes, workshops, performances, camps, etc. and toss it aside, declining to investigate in detail, because I don’t want to know what time it is. I don’t want to have any appointments, I don’t want to be anywhere by a certain time, I don’t want to know what day of the week it is. I want it only to be “early morning in the universe,” as Jack once put it, to move and think free of the grid, to encounter what comes my way and to have no expectations as to what that might be.
Offerings include such things as:
BACKDOOR FOR BEGINNERS
A workshop “designed for those seeking information about this most taboo pleasure zone.” Others include Flagellation Arts Playshop; Sexy Bitches Like It Raw; Throat Singing Workshop at the God Box; Refoliation of the Mangrove; Fluffernutter Treats; First-Timers Sex Orgy; Flaming Blue Phuck at the Seven Sins Lounge; Queer, Plain Crackpots and Fallen Women Meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous; Real Time Playa Crawl from the Edge of the Known Universe; Spank Me – Spin Me (“we spank harder than your Dad”); Burning Chafing Itching; and of course, Knit Your Own Dildo Cozy.
AN ASTONISHING ITEM OF INFORMATION
I read in an exhibit caption at the National Railroad Museum in Sacramento, run by the Park Service (worth a trip to Sac to see) was that America was not introduced to “clock time” as we know it today, until the railroads took hold:
You betcha! That freakin’ system now rules the world.
WOULD I KNOW WHAT TIME IT IS,
if I didn’t know what time it is? As Satchel Paige asked, “How old would you be if you didn’t know your age?” I’d just be adrift in the space/time continuum feeling the transitions from morning to afternoon to dusk to night to dawn. I’m adrift there even as I write, riding a blue wave of pure being.
OK, CUT THE CRAP
Although clean of page, my new journal, which I won’t write in, has already acquired its playa patina. Dust has penetrated the caramel buckskin cover, and the recesses of my mind. Forgive my lapse into psychedelic sentimentality. This year, apart from sending up prayers and blessings for loved ones living and dead, at Sunday’s Temple burn, at the main Man event Saturday night, I will burn an envelope containing documentation from virtually every period of my life, every address, every lover, every job, every milestone—report cards, paycheck stubs, love letters, closing statements on houses bought and sold, veterinarian receipts, anything that’s done and gone.
THE RAISON D’ÊTRE
for me of the Burn is cleansing of psyche and soul through communal release fire ritual. I don’t go there for the drugs, dancing, sex, parties, art or freedom, though partake of those I will if I want to. I go there for the fire. I need the penetrating heat of the desert to concentrate my demons and spew them into an orange wall of flames. I am here to burn away the excesses of my life like I’m melting fat on my body (fourteen pounds and counting). Those excesses are catching up with me now and big time.
INVENTORY OF INJURY OR DEATH
“YOU VOLUNTARILY ASSUME THE RISK OF SERIOUS INJURY OR DEATH BY ATTENDING AND RELEASE BURNING MAN FROM ANY CLAIM ARISING FROM THIS RISK. You must bring enough food, water, shelter and first aid to survive one week in a harsh desert environment.” So, right up front, the “admit one earthling” ticket for The Green Man 2007 edition of Burning Man informs you. Amid the census questions as to what you expect of the event, things like “for my friends to take advantage of my generosity,” “a spiritual revolution,” or what have you, the only one I checked was “Risk of serious injury or death.”
Injury: My heels, cracked unto bleeding, look like a recent eruption on a volcanic landscape. A black smudge on the sole of my right foot, marks a puncture wound from my stepping on a red vinyl spiked dog collar on the way out of my tent. My callouses harden into hide. The ladder that falls from its RV shelf and conks me on the forehead, leaves a doorknob-sized welt only marginally purple beneath my over-the-top tan, which has aged my skin ten years in seven days. My hands look like the parched Nevada desert.
Death: Not mine. There have been four deaths at Black Rock—this year a suicide by hanging at, ironically, a healing camp called Comfort and Joy.
Lost in the shuffle: My water bottle, the first day out, the back-up pair of blue mirrored sunglasses I got in case I lost my sunglasses, my brand new yellow shower scrunchie.
Broken: The $5 glass holders I picked up so I wouldn’t lose my sunglasses, my traveling alarm clock—stepped on it. Didn’t need it anyway. Adrift in the universe, you know.
Heat stroke: A half-dozen plums I’d inadvertently left out, literally bake in the sun. Two wine bottles in my tent are under so much pressure they pop their own corks. My black toenail polish thickens into a gooey consistency reminiscent of sewage sludge. (I know in a consumer-wooing capitalist economy, if there is a need for any good or service, someone will come long to provide it, but why would anyone choose to of all jobs suck sewage sludge out of porta-potties? Because it’s gotta be done and, for money, if most people won’t do it, someone will capitalize on being the only one willing to do it.)
Left behind: My beloved Williams-Sonoma apple corer-slicer.
It will take me two weeks to clear my entry foyer of the dusty baggage I deposit there upon my return, blocking the front door and creating a veritable sniff-a-thon obstacle course for the cats. It will take me two weeks to finish this column. I think hard about it, weighing whether to leave fate to its course, but decide to send an email to the maker of the journal, asking “Are you the fgault.com who started a playa journal at Burning Man 2005?” The /playajournal link on the site has disappeared, and I assume he must have given up on seeing it again. Thinking it might not make it back to him once more, I figure it would be just as surprising to get an out-of-the-blue email inquiring about it. He indeed is that man, and he is “flaming with curiosity” about what happened to the book. I tell him all will be revealed in my column, making him wait while I pull it together. Perhaps I went there just to write in that journal, for all I know.
AN EXPERIMENT IN TEMPORARY COMMUNITY
So Burning Man calls itself on its website. And that is one thing I am not good at. Being a member of a group. I’m a writer. I’m a hermit. I live alone, and have for so long that I’m not used to syncing with other people around eating, being ready to go somewhere, the things I want to do. I am content to bronze my shoulders riding my bike for hours in the dust, conduct dérives and walkabouts in the punishing sun, schmooze with other burners and hang at my camp, and, when the crew has left for their evening revelries, swing alone in the hammock in the balmy desert night, the drums and bass of surrounding camps’ music blasting all night. I can give no reason for not joining my friends other than “I like where I am; I don’t need anything else.” Relaxing with one leg hanging off the hammock, thinking my thoughts under the uncountable stars, is right where I want to be.
BURN ‘TIL YOU LEARN
Lose, lose, lose ‘til you win, said Ralph Nader. My experience this year was one more instance of burn, burn, burn ‘til I learn. I was coming out of a severe depression my first Burn, on a new regimen of drugs, and it seemed like a good idea to station myself in a desert with a bunch of people I’d just met—yeah right. I’d actually flown to Portland to meet up with my friends Bill and Dave and drive right back down south with them and their party crew. Although I had some rough times that year, I’ve conveniently forgotten about them, because there’s always something transformative about Burning Man.
I’d never seen the likes anywhere else of the tornadoes of smoke pouring out of the Temple burn, nor felt the oppressive heat of a massive raging fire on my skin. It brought me closer to the elements—fire, earth (the playa), air (its quality and breathability) and water (vital to survive here). Even water boiled by the sun is a tonic when you need it. This year the burning of an Oil Derrick installation produced the biggest mushroom cloud fireball I’ve ever seen at this event. It spread across the sky as if to fill it.
THE BURNING MAN CENSUS
form has a snooty undertone to it, as if paying your $280 (in my case $560 as I lost my first ticket) and being there for your own reasons is not sufficient to make you a “citizen of Black Rock.” You have to be an active participant, with a theme camp, or volunteering, or offering goods or services to one and all, or you don’t “get it,” the spirit of give and take that makes the Burning Man community. What I get is that I need this environment to step away from my life and clear my head. Perhaps that’s why I neither read nor write. It’s a personal journey I must take on my own. Not that it can’t include others, but everyone makes the Burn their own in their own way. Whether I had a spiritual revolution or ecstatic trance or not, it served its purpose of taking out the trash in my mind. Next time, though, I plan to bring a writing desk for an “Emergency Writing Supplies” depot with chair and sunshade, blank books, books to read, writing implements, paper, erasers, white out, etc., and spend more time enjoying the camaraderie of friends I rarely see. I’m inching towards it, letting go more and joining in more, with each Burn. Lessons about oneself don’t come easy.
The last night of the Burn the guys want to pick me up at 3:45 a.m. and get on the road early. A nasty traffic attendant tells us it will take 3 hours to get out no matter how damn early you leave. It takes an hour, which I sleep through. So I break camp and by midnight am sitting on a couch in the open air of the desert, sky chock full of stars, scaring passersby by saying hello out of the night. And I continue to sit there for the next 4 hours, till the RV rolls in at 4:00, just thinking and grooving on the moment. It is early morning in the universe. I am not able to say goodbye to several people, so instead I’ll tell them hello, here.
IN THE MEANTIME
amid my contemplations and meditations, what had happened to the poetry of my soul? I ask myself this as I linger over coffee at Center Camp, scouting around in my Haiku word-magnets for some inspiration—little pieces of white vinyl with a magnetic backing, with which you can arrange haiku poetry on your refrigerator. Where are the poems I thought I’d be writing?
How will you find…How to find…Where are…the suffocated poems…hiding—no, buried—no, buried alive—the suffocating poems buried alive in the limitless… vast… burning… desert of your heart? was as far as I got, when the haiku magnet box fell off the arm of my chair and I had to unearth the tiny pieces from handfuls of sand. Then the second line came to me. See for yourself.
The kind of Burning Man juxtapositions the author thrives on.
What of the suffocating poems
Are you feelin' the Burn?
copyright Alexandra Jones 2007