Saturday, September 24, 2011

a moment in the desert

Inspection wasn’t as long as I had anticipated. I’ve heard stories of people trapped in line for hours on end waiting to get in. Eric and I only waited about forty-five minutes. It wasn’t so bad- we were able to pass the time watching the desert dust pile on the windows, reading the various warning signs and poems on posts and listening to children on the Burning Man radio station discuss their memories of growing up on the Playa year after year. It was my first time, so I wasn’t sure whether to envy the children for being exposed to the lifestyle at such a young age or to fear for their futures.

At the end of inspection revealed pillars that were quickly determined to be the entrance to the Playa. The dust was rather aggressive from all of the cars in motion, but as we approached the pillars I noticed about twenty or so naked people dancing around and greeting every passing car. Our friends were in a couple of cars ahead of us and had already gone through. We were ushered to a halt by one striking man in a top hat and sneakers. He was bulbous in every sense of the word; in top physical form for someone his age and no doubt an expert Burner. He forcefully instructed us to roll down our windows and we coquettishly mustered a “Hey.” I’ve got to be frank here – I was not expecting him to sound like Mickey Mouse after inhaling a dozen helium balloons, but in hindsight it sort of made sense – I was at Burning Man - expect the unexpected.

“Welcome to Burning Man is this your first time?!” he squeaked. If it’s your first time at Burning Man, you are instructed to get out of your car,

ring what is known as the “Virgin Bell” while screaming, “I am not a virgin anymore!”

and baptize yourself by rolling in the "Playa" dust.

Having completed this task, I proceeded to immediately pat my pants and shirt in an effort to remove the dust from my clothing.

“Son, are you seriously trying to dust sand off your pants in the middle of the desert?” he asked. Muscle Mouse was right. Clearly I was not as adjusted to the scenario as I had hoped for. We got back in the car after a sheepish embrace and received our guides and maps. Just before parting, he handed me a small gift - a plastic egg containing a toy dragonfly and a bracelet, presumably because he could tell I was the most frazzled member of our party.

Upon entering our neighborhood, I felt like I was at a well-organized refugee camp for the Earth’s most adventurous. With my stomach still in knots, I slowly started greeting the rest of our camp mates who would be my family for the next week. Some have been my San Francisco family for years, others I would meet for the very first time.

We were referred to as the Mudskippers and our camp was the Urban Decay Café.

Being that Burning Man prides itself on community and generosity, each camp and individual is encouraged to contribute in some way to the rest of the attendees. In our large lounge at the front of our campsite from 2ish to 4ish, we provided music, dancing and root beer floats.

This was information that I knew before driving into the desert – what I failed to know was how and where I would sleep.

Our carport was the last to be configured for that day, but after eight hours of melatonin induced slumber I wasn’t particularly full of energy.

The dust was picking up and the change in climate was a bit of a shock to my senses, so the longer I worked to set everything up, the worse my eyes would sting. The rest of the camp was already at another location enjoying complimentary drinks when we finally finished setting up our tents, so the only logical thing to do was unpack some luggage -

only to discover that my toiletries were all ruined. My soaps and shampoos had all melted, covering my toothbrush, eye drops, contact lens case, floss and deodorant in a sticky and now dusty paste. My eyes were burning from the sunlight and dust, my body was exhausted from setting up camp (and from taking one too many melatonin capsules) and my head had in no way adjusted to how I would be living in this desert.

My campmates soon returned and ushered me into their yurt to reassure me that this was an expected adjustment, however every other first timer at the camp seemed to be adjusting quite nicely. I was on the edge of a meltdown and my eyes were literally on fire from putting in contact lenses with dirty, soapy fingers onto already aggravated eyes. I may very well have started a panic attack had they not offered hugs, positive feedback and beers.

“Let’s get him out of the camp.” “Let’s take him to the Man.” “No No - let’s take him to the TEMPLE!” “Yessss! The Temple!”

I had no idea what they were talking about. I had always heard of the Man, the event was named after Him, but never the Temple. I wasn’t quite sure I was ready to get over the rough transition, but my campmates were making an attempt to help me and I was in no position to argue. Everyone rallied to their bicycles, gathered their book bags and with my protective goggles and mask secured; we made our way to the Playa.

Everything confused me. I was asking myself the same question over and over again as we passed the various epic structures,

scantily clad Burners,

jaw dropping Art Cars

and raucous sound systems – “What the fuck is happening, Michael?”

I asked this question nonstop. I asked it when I saw the dragon pass by.

I asked it when my friends told me to pose next to an oil soaked pelican sculpture.

I asked it when the sole dust storm of the trip picked up as we approached the Man himself.

I finally told myself to shut up when we arrived at the Temple. First of all, it was massive.

The structure was so large that it was hard to take it in at once. It was as if the Taj Mahal spawned with the most elegant tree house and birthed this structure in the middle of nowhere.

Inside, bodies were laid about as bells, chimes and drums rang in a peaceful yet instructive tone that told us all to pay attention to the moment.

My fellow campers were already there and when I came up to them it looked like they had irritated eyes too. They had been crying. I was walking around in such a daze at the Temple from everything that transpired over the past few hours that I barely noticed that everyone around me was either in some meditative state, writing on the walls, or crying in a huddle. What was going on here that I was missing? I finally took a breather and leaned on a railing on the second level, overlooking the passing dust storm and Burners.

I looked down at the railing to see what someone had written as I hadn’t really given a glance to any of the other inscriptions. There, in the middle of a desert somewhere in Arizona, someone had written, “You have a beautiful life.” I felt tingly. I started looking at other inscriptions and noticed that mostly everything written were messages for lost family members, pets, friends, lovers.

It was a place to come and honor the loves you’ve lost, celebrate the life you’ve been living and to appreciate the journey up ahead.

You could write out your personal insecurities, your fears and your doubts without any judgment from others because chances are we’ve all been there too.

I took another look at my friends who were together in a huddle and my eyes were suddenly filled with water, only this time it wasn’t from irritation. Here I was in a desert, in an Yves Sait Laurent vest adorned with feathers, a headband with a crest and even larger feather and a pair of cut off denim shorts, losing control of my body and crying harder than I’ve cried in a long time. Surrounded by the most touching messages I’ve ever seen, I was embraced by friends and strangers assuring me that they were right there with me and understood. I thought of everything and everyone I had ever known and just cried. It was incredibly unexpected. I turned away from everyone, thanking them and assuring them that I was okay and went to look back out to the Playa. Being the frazzled mess that I was, I failed to notice that I was kicking my bag over the ledge, and it plummeted down to the desert floor, interrupting the chimes, the soft whispering and possibly several people in a deep state of meditation.

Of course.

My emotions quickly turned from a state of euphoria to embarrassment and anxiety. "Back to reality," I thought. The man who stood with my bag down below greeted me with a smile.

“Thanks for watching my bag, I kinda lost it up there.”

“No problem,” he replied.

“You see, it’s my first time at the Temple and I only got here a few hours ago and I guess it really got to me how important this all is. “ I was stuttering and still recovering from the emotional impact of the top level.

“Well, it sounds like you get it to me,” he concluded. With a smile and a pat on the shoulder, he declared, “Welcome to Burning Man.” It was pretty much a continuous stream of perfection from that moment on.