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Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Cargo Cult

Its time I wrote about my burning man experience. This will be a long read. 

It was wonderful and terrible, luxurious and uncomfortable, profound and gauche, and welcoming. And fucking life-changing. 

The moment that sticks in the forefront of my mind is a the first Ranger I came across: a man with a white beard who just said "welcome home" as we crossed paths, with a smile and a nod. He said it like he meant it, like he thought of this city that exists for a week out of the year as /his/ home, and that he was glad I was with him in it. I'm astonished by how powerfully moved I am even now, thinking about it. 

The context is important. Rachael and I had just driven to Black Rock City Nevada from Seattle. Its a long drive. We drove through the night, pumped full of caffeine, with the idea that we'd get there just as the gates opened, have a short wait at the entrance, set up our tent in the dark and get a few good quality hours of sleep before we started engaging with the festival. It seems the gate-opening-time was moved ahead five hours, so we found ourselves spending five hours waiting in line, in our car, after having driven thirteen hours. We picked a middle-ish lane, which turned out to be a fateful decision because the port-a-potties are at regular intervals along the outer lane, and we couldn't see them in the dark. This, combined with a bout of food poisoning we evidently got from some Wendy's chicken fingers of all goddamn places, made for a really shitty combination. Imagine intense intestinal distress, combined with sleep deprivation, caffeine overdose, slowly moving over the course of a mile in a car for hours, repeated reminders over the radio that leaving your car is a risky proposition because there's fucking tons of them that all look more or less alike and the chance of finding your camp once you're inside the city if you haven't planned for it is nill, and you've got a stressful situation. Plus we failed to bring ANY music, aside from a random and not very good selection on my phone, Black Rock Radio was pissing us off after a few hours, and an internet connection wasn't even a remote possibility. We got in the line around two or three in the morning, suffered the discomfort described above, and the sun rose as we passed the gate. It was a bad start.

At the edge of the city there was a group of greeters handing out books of the week's events and welcoming people. The welcome consists of everyone getting naked (the greeters are already naked), giving each other hugs, rolling in the playa dust, and making a dust-angel. Its a pretty amazing way to welcome someone to a new place. Unfortunately both Rachael and I were in intense pain, and hugging anyone (especially naked) would have been a terrible idea for more than one reason. I explained this to the guy greeting us, and he explained (with gestures) that he was deaf and couldn't understand what I was trying to tell him. We shook hands. I was disappointed to have missed the entrance ritual.  

We picked a camp based on proximity to porta-potties: close enough to be close enough, far enough to not smell them. It was on the first short walk to or from them that I ran across my Ranger, looking like Santa in khaki and giving gifts of genuine greetings. That was the first good thing that happened. 

The next /bad/ thing that happened is that sleep was impossible. I had redbull coursing through my veins, our tent was unshaded at that point, and nobody was really interested in being quiet at 9am on the first day. Or on any day, really. I tried to rest for maybe a half hour, gave it up as a lost cause, decided to just be awake for forty-eight hours, and went out to find our friends. We had a good idea where they were because they're veterans and came with a well-established camp, so they were right at the center at the Esplanade on the same spoke-street where we camped. They we sleeping like reasonable people, so we wrote a message in the dust on their car and wandered around blinking in the brightness as the city assembled itself around us. 

Kim and Ben woke up and found us shortly after, we built shade, and the sequence of events for the rest of the week is mostly lost to my memory. So now its time for fragments. We rode around for a bit, made friends with a neighbor I named "Doom" because of a tattoo of the Doom space marine he had on his calf. He also had "Smoke Rocks" across his collar bones in fancy cursive; his explanation was "I figured I would regret any tattoo I got, eventually, so I decided to get one I would regret immediately."  He and his campmate brought a hundred-ish gallon tank of water and an olympic trampoline to the playa, and beer. Not the oddest person I met, by any stretch of the imagination. We had lunch with them, I got naked, it fazed nobody. 

The next thing that sticks in my mind is Costume Cult, two or three days later. This camp had brought in three or four full sized shipping containers full of thrift-store clothes and pieces of costumes and set up a fashion runway, and they had an MC saying things like "Costume Cult. Transform your self with Costume Cult. Come inside and find the look that will change your life." and stuff like that. The part that stuck in my mind, and what made me stand in the line to get in, was the giant sign over the runway that said just: "THOU SHALT". That was the thing that transformed my life; the bold validation of a thing that I've believed for a long time. That I, and you, should do what we want. That the purpose of our lives is attaining happiness. That they can keep their "thou shall not"s and we can decide for ourselves. 

They let people in one at a time, and a woman who in retrospect looked a lot like my mom gave each person a warm kiss on the lips as we came in. I can't remember what she said with the kiss, but it had the same impact on me as the "welcome home" from the Ranger, something that implied that we were all safe and welcome and loved. Inside, I rummaged around to find some stuff to match what I was already wearing, which was a shoulder holster and a sheer thong. I picked out a french maid outfit that didn't fit at all, a lacy crotch-apron, and a merkin. Look it up if you don't know the word. I got my arms through the maid outfit and let the rest drape over my back, stuffed the black wig into the apron, went out onto the runway, threw my water bottle, did a cartwheel, did the worm, did the coffee grinder, and gave the MC a hug. Costume Cult.

Some time before this, actually on our first bike ride out onto the playa, we went and saw the Coyote. It was a two-and-a-half story tall sculpture, made from welded quarter-inch sheets of steel, in the shape of a howling coyote. And like everything in Black Rock city that doesn't say otherwise, people were welcomed to climb all over it. I stripped off my toga and climbed to the top in my combat boots and black bikini-briefs, where there was a sort of drum circle going on. It involved neither drums or circles, being on the top of a coyote scuplture, but rather ten or so people banging rythmically on the scuplture itself with mallets, palms and knuckles while in constant danger of loosing their precarious perch and falling, quite possibly to thier death. Thinking back, this remindes me of something from Murmur, which was itself sortof a little burner-ish-enclave: after a noise show we put on with some touring musicians, we spent maybe an hour banging on everything in that empty warehouse. 50-gallon oil drums, the floor, the I-beams, some actual drums, a fucked up piano, anything that could be used to make a sound. If you've never done this, you might be surprised at how long you and your friends can keep yourself amused if you're willing to overlook how silly you're being and how unlike music the result is. 

Speaking of tall and awesome scupltures, there was the Lady. I have no idea what she was actually called, but she was a three-story sculpture of a woman in a graceful dance pose, her arms over her head and her back arched. Her skin was a metal mesh, and her structure was latticed tube work. She wasn't one that people climbed on. She was beautiful in the day, just as a metal scuplture, but at night you see that her whole body is wired with addressable LEDs at maybe decimeter intervals. Patterns of rainbow light would wash over and through her in a wide variety of beautiful and mesmerizing ways. The simplest pattern by far, and the only one I can remember well enough to describe, is where all the lights except for the ones in her chest are off, and there's a soft red heartbeat pulsing from her breast. Thats another memory that brings tears to my eyes. 

The sheer amount of creative expression, and the resources that go into these things, fairly boggles the mind. The playa is an enormous place, and its packed with these things that a person or a group of people cared enough about to spend their time and money (often a very large amount of both, I get the sense), designing, building, and transporting them to the desert for thier fellow burners' benefit. And all of the wooden things burn. I hear a lot of the metal scupltures later find homes elsewhere in the world, but everything made from wood, and there's a lot of beatiful things made from wood, is burned by the end of the week. Why? I think it has to do with letting go, recognizing transience, appreciating the beauty thats in this moment of your life, and understanding that it will not last. That everything you love will be destroyed in time, and if you're not celebrating it now, you may never. 

The most upsetting example of that is the Temple. I didn't go into it, and I should have. I still haven't really processed the suicide of my highschool friend, Greg, and the temple is about remembering people you've lost. I wanted to go, but I didn't. The temple is also full of books. The temple is made of wood. The temple burns, and just like the people you've lost, the personal stories that vanish from the world with their deaths, the books are lost as well. But it gets worse. All of the books in the temple are hand-written, by people from across the world, transcribed on paper with pens in the same way it had been done throughout history until Gutenberg. And they all burn. People spend days, months, years, copying their favorite books, bring them to the temple as a tribute to the loved ones they've lost, and they watch them burn at the end of the week. I love literature and books, and I cannot think of a more deeply personal and real way to face the reality of mortality and death. I think next time I go, I'll transcribe a copy of A Clockwork Orange, for Greg, and leave it in temple library for him. I think maybe I'm glad I didn't go into it without a gift to leave.