Well, it’s 7 am in the morning here in LA and it’s been two days since I’ve come home from my first Burning Man experience. It’s taken me that long to catch up on my sleep and to brush out the tangle-knot (the size of a coconut) from the back of my hair. No one bothered to tell me to braid it and by the second day on the Playa, it was hopeless.
I will never forget the feeling I had driving into LA on the trip back, exhaustion sighing from every fiber, every pore. Every hippie I’d befriended at Burning Man piled leg over ass in the RV. Sleeping in humps, snuggled head-first like wooly mammoths on some bitter, prehistoric night. Snorting. Coffee-less. Spent and blissfully unaware. As if the long Pleistocene winter were fading fast, and the hard, hot summer of their Paleolithic extinction would be soon upon them. The lights of the city rising up like a circus tent in the distance. I was giddy on Pepsi and gossip from Rachael, one of my new friends.
Though I’d been in Black Rock City for a mere ten days, I felt like I’d been gone a year.
It’s difficult to articulate what I experienced during those terrible and glorious days on the godless, dust-filled Playa. Especially in light of what happened while I was gone. Everything that seemed to matter then, everything that seemed so important, every salient insight, everything that seemed to have so much weight and significance as I hurried my way home through Reno then Sacramento and on into the flat, dumb-eyed steer country of central California, everything I rehearsed in my head that I might write or talk about, everything I felt then, seems now to pale in comparison to the horror of one of the greatest cities in the world having been wiped clean from the planet by wind and rain, lack of city planning and federal dollars.
New Orleans. Fuck me. Gone.
Well, shit. So am I.
The desert is a hard and terrible place, an unforgiving mecca for the weird and displaced. The Playa at Black Rock, even more so. The wind blows at 40 mph on a good day. On a bad day, the dust blows so fiercely that you can’t even see your hand in front of your face. A total white-out. For a 35-year-old, out of shape, white girl like myself, the Playa was, at best, an adversarial environment. At worst, a premature grave. A place to make jerky-Jay. A last stand. An Alamo. A Fallujah-fuck.
It was bad.
But when it wasn’t indescribably bad, it was awesome. It was incredible. It was Herculean. While I was in Black Rock City, there were three perfect days (before I got locked out the RV for 20 hours). The wind died. The dust stalled. And the sky opened up. For the first time in my life, I saw the Milky Way. The Great Milky Way. Uncurling like a stripper’s finger. Hip-sway. C’mon. Why don’t you? Oh, c’mon. You know you want to. Wow. And the Pleiades. All clustered together like school girls giggling into their hands. The red tint of Mars. I never knew Mars was actually red. Like, you can see that from earth, all that way. Oh, the cool blue of Venus. Or was it Jupiter? I had never seen so many stars in my whole life. Ever. I felt insignificant. On the lip of the abyss. Speechless. If there had been a sliver of grass to grab hold of out there, I would have held on for dear life. I was terrified I might float away. Disappear into infinity. I have never seen such a sky. If that was all that I had experienced and nothing else, the trip and the hardship would have been worth it.
But it wasn’t. I met this couple who are devout Catholics. They don’t believe in pre-marital sex, but, at the same time, they’re nudists. So, the man dipped his pecker in day-glo blue and the girl painted smiley-faces on her nipples and they cruised around Black Rock all day, day after day, on their scooter. I met a gypsy girl from San Francisco. Well, sort of from San Francisco. She’s not really from anywhere. But then, that’s kind of the point of being a gypsy, yes? She took pity on a poor, Playa virgin like myself out there in the midst of the Mardi Gras atmosphere and lent me some costumes to wear. She was wonderful. By the time she’d finished with me, I looked like Tank Girl. I was outfitted for anything, even the worst dust storm the Playa could throw at me.
All the folks I met out there, new friends, have been calling me. And I’ve been calling them. I had a few of them over for dinner last night. It’s like, we don’t really want to see each other, but we don’t really know how to let go of the pace of life at Burning Man. We need to spend time together and talk to decompress. But at the same time, I hate them. I hate them in the way one hates their best friend after having driven cross country with them. I hate their stink. I hate the way they eat a burrito. I hate the way they cross their legs. But I love them, too. In the way that one loves their best friend with whom having driven cross country.
It’s like family. You know you can change nothing about them, all their little irritating quirks. You’ve seen them naked. Happy. Sad. Depressed. Scared. Enraged. Heart-broken. High. Drunk. Hung-over. Sick. Unhinged. Ecstatic.
I went to Burning Man expecting an experience. Like going to Europe. Or college. I came away from it a reluctant member of a new family. In ten days, I lived a lifetime with those people. I will never again be the person I was when I left LA. It’s true, I will never again look at a can of Beanie Weenies in the same way, either. But it wasn’t the canned goods that changed me, or the insufferable dust or the hardship.
See, after the third day, the booze stopped working. I thought I could get through the unbelievable heat and wind and dust and all the other unpleasantries I knew were waiting before me by drinking. What did I know? Booze had never let me down before. But when my piss turned the color of Coke, I knew I had to cleanse. So I started drinking water. Gallons of it. By the fifth day, I’d stopped eating. The heat just simply takes your appetite away. There’s no other way to explain it. It’s just too damn hot to chew. Or digest. Anything more than a morsel or two makes you nauseated. I’d open a can of Beanie Weenies at noon and I’d have to force myself to finish it by sundown. I lost 15 pounds in 9 days.
Despite the conventional wisdom that anticipated some magical psychological transformation, my Burning Man experience didn’t consist of a spiritual cleansing. It was a physical one. My body was simply unprepared for the harshness of that climate. Once I was no longer able to eat, I deteriorated quite rapidly. My feet, my hands, my lungs, my vision. I don’t know. Maybe it was spiritual in spite of that, or even as a direct result. Careening into day 8, 3 days without food and still trying desperately to keep myself hydrated, I must have looked like some desert mystic, hollow-eyed and savage hair. Babbling about my former life’s miseries as if they were a novel I’d read by Toni Morrison. Rambling on to anyone who’d listen about how silly I’d been to fret and worry over love and heartache and the impenetrable loneliness of being alive and knowing your life has a “best if used by” stamp on it. How silly. How silly. You’re alive now and that’s all that matters. Cough, cough. Spoon up another bite of cold Spaghetti-Ohs, just enough fuel to get you out on the Playa to see the life-size Mousetrap game or the merry-go-round made out of boulders and rope. The tribal drum circle. The fire dancers. The pirate ship called The Contessa, built to sail on sand.
When I got back, I walked into my apartment expecting a sense of homecoming. There’s my cat. There’s my toilet. There’s my shower and faucet and running water kicks ass, oh yeah! But instead, I found a place that seemed abandoned. My home. I really did feel like I’d been gone for years. My bed seemed new to me. My phone. My television. It was weird. Like I’d walked in on someone else’s life. Like I’d interrupted someone else in the midst of carrying on their daily activities. There were dishes in my sink. I must have left them there. But I didn’t recognize them.
Burning Man changed me, yes. But not in any way that I would have been able to anticipate. The experience of Burning Man itself defies generalization. There were some folks who went out there to get naked for a week. That was their experience. There were others who went out there to get drunk and dance to techno-trance for a week. That was their experience. There were others, there were 50,000 others, who went out there to do whatever it was their hearts and minds compelled them to do. And that was their experience. We camped next to a guy who had brought an entire rollerskating rink with him. In pieces he’d trucked it in. For 10 days, 24 hours a day, he played Old School music like Prince and MC Hammer and all that 80’s shit. Like some messianic DJ, he held court for anyone and everyone who dared to put on a pair of his skates. I myself, I must confess, took a turn or two.
Burning Man. I know now why they call it that. It’s not because it’s so fucking hot out there it takes your breath away. It’s not because the people there are incandescent with something genuine and inarticulate. It’s not because you stay up all night and dance to the light of diesel-fueled break-beats. It’s not because the Playa dust sets your tender pink lungs on fire like lava. It’s not all the art the size of small buildings doomed to the match. And it’s not because, on the last day, they burn the Wicker Man. It’s not any of that. It’s called Burning Man because, when you commit, when you really and truly commit to the Playa and to the people there, you throw yourself on the pyre.
All your preconceived notions, all the baggage you’ve shouldered along unknowingly, all that shit-stinking, sub-cutaneous, toxic, Twinkie-filled you. When you throw yourself on the pyre, when you really and truly do that, when you are emptied of everything except water, when you haven’t shit for a week (and you begin to realize, “Oh. THAT’S why they don’t have more Port-O-Lets.”), when you’ve had your freak-out because someone took your Baby Wipes and didn’t bring them back, when you’ve had your second freak-out and your third because there’s no more ice and it’s not your turn, goddammit, to walk the 5 blocks into camp and you’ve already done it like, 7 times, and you’re hungry and tired and more empty than you’ve ever been in your life and you’re sick to death of trying to talk logistics to your campmates because they’re all fucked up and you stink, you really and truly stink, and you know it because you can smell yourself and everything you own is covered in that white Playa dust that clings like clay and you’ve stood in line for hours to eat a good, hot meal because your friend said this camp has a good spread but by the time you get up there all they have left is hummus and saltines and you haven’t slept more than 3 hours a night for days and days and the guy spitting fire on the Mutant Vehicle just a few feet away looks like the devil himself and all your deep buried, so deep you thought they were fossils buried, prejudices about other people come surging to the surface all of the sudden and now you’re absolutely convinced that everything black and horrible you’ve always suspected in the dark of night about your fellow man is true and you’re sure, you’re absolutely sure, that you cannot take another minute of it… just then… something truly magical happens.
You see it. Like an open-handed smack in the face. Like something that happens on daytime television, but it’s happening to you. You feel it. That shock. The hot sting. The smart, undeniable burn that rises on your own cheek. You realize all of the sudden that this is you. You’ve done this. You’ve made this happen. It’s been you. All along. And nobody but you. There’s nobody else to blame. And you turn then to see your limp body already blistering on somebody else’s Zen fire. Nothing means nothing. You see your own vacant eyes staring back at you. Your slack jaw. And somebody is chanting for you. Somebody is beating a drum to you. Somebody is dancing barefoot in the bitter black of the Playa night. For you. Just for you.
And you realize, oh my. I brought a body here. I did. Not knowing it. I did. I really did. A body I’ve carried for too long. That weighs more than anyone can shoulder. A body so heavy it sends my back into spasms from the burden. A body that won’t stay buried. A body that must, that absolutely must, be burned. To set the fucker free. To set the goddamn, withering bag of monkey-piss and shit and guts and worms and halleljah cunt-puss free.
And, like the Phoenix, to be allowed to rise again. Clean and pure and free. Singing it’s glorious song.
It was breathtaking, that moment. My heart skipped on up to the Pleiades. I wouldn’t go back and turn down my Burning Man invite for all the oil in Saudi Arabia. The hungry writer stumbling in the desert holding hands with her new-found friends. The accidental mystic. The fool. The blubbering fool. The heat on her face from somebody’s ridiculous fire. Knowing she dragged her slumbering and reluctant self there by the heels. And somehow managed to leave that sad bitch there. That sad, all-knowing, ugly fucking bitch. Knowing she didn’t have to laugh when she realized it. Knowing she shouldn’t. Knowing no one would fault her for it. But laughing anyway. Laughing because she knows that she doesn’t have to. Laughing. From deep down. Until it hurts laughing. Laughing. Silly, stupid laughing. Knowing she could cry, but laughing anyway. Goddamn it. She was laughing.
I went to Burning Man hoping to escape all the feeble insecurities that I had allowed into my life, all the doubts and questions about my talent and trajectory that I’d opened the door for in the last year. Hell, I’d cooked dinner for them. I’d opened a bottle of wine and settled in for a good, long conversation about all the reasons why I shouldn’t, why I couldn’t. Why my white-trash background precludes my ability. Why it doesn’t make any difference how much I want it, or how much talent I have. All that matters is that nobody in my family has ever done shit except rut and squeeze out litters of kids and keep Wal-Mart in business. Why the family I’d grown up with knew me best. Why I, of all people, don’t deserve to make it. Why I, of all people, shouldn’t make it. All those voices of childhood. All those years of either fuck-you or indifference.
I went to Burning Man hoping to forget that girl for awhile, just a little while, that snickering, sure voice. (We camped on Amnesia, ironically). I never dreamed I wouldn’t have to go back to her eventually. I never in a million years dreamed I might actually be able to leave her there, sad and spent, a charred husk, a vacant mockery. Her ugly buck-teeth glistening in the moonlight, her limbs curled up like a blackened shrimp on the grill. But something more happened. Beyond my control. I burned that girl. I did. Like a fucking rag. Like incense. When it came time to hurl her in, she was, unbelievably, light as air. I picked her up and threw her on the pyre and I watched her go up in smoke to the sound of drumbeats, like 50,000 vital hearts pulsing in defiance of the cold, bitter night. I listened and watched as she writhed and screamed and begged for her life. I watched her curl up like a tuft of hair and blow away. I showed no mercy. I didn’t even blink.
Afterwards, I ventured into the still hot embers, poking at them with a long stick. Just to be sure. There were other voices there, unknown to me. Despondent voices. Angry ones. Lonely and bitter ones. But among the din, I heard my girl, my sad, sub-cutaneous girl. She whimpered. Defeated. Weak. Feeble and undone. And she said to me finally, “You win.” She said, “You are strong, you bitch. You are.”
And then, on a gust of hot Playa wind, she was gone.
“Good riddance,” I said, looking up at the god-almighty stars that night, my breath catching on the great, collective song just beginning to take shape. One of my new friends called out to me in the dark. “Good fucking riddance,” I said, as he led me away.
You sad, inbred trailer-fuck. You cheap breeder. You black, inconsolable reptile that gulps down hope with dead eyes and teeth like a smile. You mouth. You eating machine. You unapologetic gullet. You insatiable thirst. You monstrous liar. You scraper. You sniveling nibbler. Burn, you motherfucker. Burn.
by Jaylynn Bailey