She said she’d stepped out of the RV because her camp-mates were having a big argument on their way into Black Rock City. She’d just intended to give them a little space … but then they’d driven away without her.
They didn’t have a pre-planned camp spot. They could be anywhere. They had her food and water and clothes. It was her first Burning Man. She didn’t know anybody else. She came to our camp (well, my friends’ camp) because it was a radio station, and wondered if we could put out a call asking for someone to help.
But that’s not why we started calling her “Lost Girl.”
We put her on the air and she started crying when she explained what happened to her, and at that moment she was an honorary member of our camp. (Well, technically “their” camp since I just hang around here because the couches are really comfortable.) Everything changed on a dime. Everyone was resting, it was the middle of the afternoon, I was flirting with Charlotte and getting somewhere for the first time – and the moment her tears hit the ground everybody had something to do. Get her a beer; get her blankets; find her a sleeping bag; put aside some food; give her a hug; tell her that no matter what it’s going to be all right. I’d never seen the ranks close so quickly.
She replaced me as the camp charity case, that’s for sure. Without even a shot fired. But I bowed out gracefully. I mean, come on now, she had it rough. Especially when her people didn’t come for her. We helped her do all the things you do: leave a message at Playa Info, talk to the Rangers, put PSAs out over the air … but they never came looking.
“Where do you live in the real world?” I asked her the next day when I stopped by the station for a gin and tonic.
“Orange County,” she said.
I almost laughed. “Well, this is easy then. You’ll camp here, you’ll have no problem catching a ride back, and then you can yell at your ‘friends’ as much as you like and get your stuff back. Meanwhile, trust me, you’ve come up in the world. These guys …” I waved my hand around the station. “They’re the best. This is exactly where you want to be. These people will change your life. Truly change your life. And next year, you’re going to have a hell of a ‘my first Burning Man’ story. It’ll be awesome. Best thing that ever happened to you. You’ll be a legend.”
I raised my glass up, and clinked it with her can of Tecate, but she lowered her eyes. “I kinda need to find them here if I’m going to get my stuff back,” she said
I waited. Silence is a powerful thing.
“I don’t really have a home,” she said, slowly. “I was living in a half-way house, and as a condition of my parole I had to stay there for a few more weeks. I’m supposed to have a drinking problem.” She grinned like it was a joke. “But then this spot opened up on the RV, and I could go to Burning Man, and I thought ‘fuck yeah,’ so I went out here, and as soon as I go back I’m going to have to go through the system again for a little while.”
I blinked. “So …” I said, in that voice you use when you’re stacking facts on top of one another to see how high they go, “… you’re homeless, you’re in court-ordered treatment, and because you skipped out, when you get back from Burning Man you’re going to jail?”
“Yeah.” She grinned again. “Probably for a few weeks.”
“Huh.” I tried to put this in perspective. “And … how long have you been homeless?”
She wasn’t hesitating anymore. “I ran away when I was 14. I go up and down California, but mostly Orange County. It’s where I grew up.”
“So maybe 16 years.”
“That’s a long time.”
I nodded, trying to think of what to say. “Well, you’re still going to have a great story. From treatment to Burning Man to jail is pretty epic.”
“Really? That’d be cool.”
That’s when we started calling her “Lost Girl.”
I’m told she went out wandering, but she was always there when I came by A few days later the rangers tipped her off and she found her camp, but she mostly still stayed with us … them … them. (I need to remember it was with them: my tent was three streets away.) Something about making that choice, of having the option to go with her original plans but choosing to stay with us made her happy. Made her glow.
On Thursday night I was supposed to meet a bunch of my friends at the station and drink together before we went out to explore. I had it all planned out – but none of them came. None of them. Not even Charlotte, who goddamit I’d been making out with yesterday after we went to get ice. I should have … I should have seen that coming, you know? We’re all such flakes around here, and a kiss is just a kiss.
I saw Lost Girl wander into the station and grab a coat. “Hey,” I said, because there was nothing else to do. “Do you want to go exploring? Tonight only I’ve got an art car.”
She hadn’t been to the French Quarter yet, so I took her there and we drove between the burlesque house and the brass band. At 8 and A there’s a saloon where hillbillies play on an elevated stage and the bar has pairs of dice sitting on it. You roll the dice when you want a drink, and the number that comes up determines what you have to do to get it.
Lost Girl rolled a 7 – that meant she had to carry someone all around the bar. They found her a short man … she can’t be more than 5’2 … and she heaved him up on her back and walked around twice before collapsing back where she’d started, short of breath.
I rolled a 4. “Tell me something I don’t know,” the British bartender said, crossing his arms.
I leaned forward so he could hear me. “In 4th century Mahayanna Buddhism there was a school of thought called “CittaMattra,” which roughly translates as ‘mind only.’ They believed that all of reality was a product of the mind. They thought this, in part, because matter is illogical: it doesn’t make any sense. For matter to work it has to be composed of a bunch of smallest particles stacked together to make objects. But you can never reach a ‘smallest particle,’ because particles are always further sub-dividable. They have tops and bottoms, left sides and right sides. So you keep dividing, and you keep dividing, and the only way you ever reach a smallest particle is if you reach a particle so small that it has no top or bottom, no left side or right side. A particle that is infinitely small. But when you’ve got that, you can’t build anything with it: because infinitely small particles will never add up to an object, no matter how many you stack on each other. So matter doesn’t work, and the only alternative is that the universe is a mental object.”
I have no idea what I decided to say that.
“That’s good,” the bartender said. “That’s good. But … if the universe is all in the mind, then why do we all see and hear the same things? Why don’t we all see and hear different things?”
“Because,” I said, delighted by the question, “what causes the shape of the mental illusion is karma. We see what we see because of our karma. Those of us who see and hear the world we are all in now …” I gestured around at the bar “… do so because we have the same karma. We all carry the same burden, and have to go through the same things to shake it off.”
“All right!” he said, and I could see that for some reason this had made his night. “All right! That’s good. What’re you two having?”
I ordered a mojito, which came out fast and delicious, but Lost Girl just said “Beer me,” and the bartender’s face twisted.
“I’m … I’m afraid that’s the one thing we don’t have. Sorry. We’re liquor only, tonight.”
She shook her head. “I can’t do liquor”
“Is there anything …”
“No,” she said, and I think I actually saw her shudder. “I can’t do liquor. I can’t. It’ll start something bad.”
He was at a loss. “Then … what … do you want a Coke?”
She deflated a little. “Yeah, okay.”
We walked back to my mutant vehicle, drinks in hand. “I can’t BELIEVE it!” she said as we got in the front. “I can’t BELIEVE I carried somebody all around that bar just for a Coke. And it’s WARM!”
“Well,” I said, trying to come up with something profound … and never finished the thought. I had nothing.
“You know,” she said, “I think this is the first bad thing that’s happened to me here.”
I stared. “Really? Because … it seems like something worse happened.”
She waved that away. “I love the station. They’re the best people I’ve ever met.”
“Hey, my other camp is right nearby. Want to go there? We have this thing called the Wheel of Fate. You can try spinning it. See what happens. Want to? Plus, I can get my other blanket before I go back to the station.”
I put the key in the ignition and followed her directions over one block and up four. But camp, when we got there, was pitch black.
“Shit,” she said, and hopped out of the car. “Well, I’ll just be a minute.”
I turned the ignition off, turned my flashlight on, and went over to the big cardboard wheel, using my light to read the things it could land on. A lot of them involved doing something dirty with “Rhonda.”
“Who’s Rhonda?” I called out.
“She’s our blow-up doll,” she called back. Ah-hah. Fate, then, was mostly an exercise in humiliation.
A few moments later she was back, and had put a blanket and a few beers in the art car. “Ready to go?” she asked.
“No spinning fate?” I said.
She looked at me like I was crazy. “No,” she said, “of course not. There’s nobody else here. You don’t tempt fate alone. You face it with people.”
“Right,” I said, thinking that when all this was over I’d be going back to an empty apartment and she’d be going to a cell. “Right.” You face it with people – how had she figured that out and I hadn’t?
“I can’t wait to come back next year,” she said as I drove her back to the station.
Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com
“Lost Thoughts” is a fictionalized account of real events. No given detail is necessarily accurate.