The night was an entire universe modeled in scale; the Orphean journey into the underworld; the truth that every man walks through in these dimensions of allegory. The music reflected the climax in the drama of a Burning Man all-nighter; characters introduced, plot thickened, and now, resolution demanded. The bass thumped through the carpeted interior of the chamber in which we had sequestered ourselves. Drew and I lay crumpled and intertwined in this small, dark, lonely hole we had stumbled into in the Root Society dance dome. Bodily exhaustion contended with spiritual hunger (how does one sleep when the Universe is begging you to watch its immolation?). But the hole was lovely and black, soft and warm. I would not be surprised if it was some actual fairy grotto that cast a spell of sleep on interlopers and transformed them into captives eternal, enchanted and possessed. We flirted with surrender, and nodded for a while.
We had started the day with the determination that we would explore the Playa together after two days of not connecting. We helped each other put costumes together, set out on bikes, laughed and fought. At some point earlier in the evening we had bumped into some of our friends, but, being in a very different place, quietly excused ourselves, folding easily into the chaos and madness that is found on every corner of Black Rock City. Deep out in the playa our bikes finally succumbed to five days of battle with playa dust, the chains creaking and dry. They had been valiant but they would not, could not take us any further. We locked them up to (hopefully) fend off any mischief that the gremlins of the playa (who are always up to no good) might devise for the bikes, and set off on foot.
Off in the distance, lopsided, looking almost like it had crashed into the soft bed of gypsum dust, was a space shuttle. We climbed through an opening at its tail, and found a bar populated by aliens, super heroes, renegades and spooks. A lovely wood nymph tended drinks, and set us up with freshly opened coconuts, and the milk fed our stomachs, but also our minds and our hearts. We lingered, grateful for shelter and sustenance, enjoying the motley company. The bar shuddered, the patrons grabbed for handhold, and the shuttle drove away. Drew and I looked at each other, excited to be carried away. When it all lurched to a halt, we rolled out of the opening and found ourselves on the Esplanade at about 9pm (geographic 9pm, not chronographic).
Looming in front of us were two thumping, bouncing domes. Revelers spilled in and out, clutching each other, stumbling, parading, striding. Perhaps wanting to ease into this new frontier, we went into the smaller dome first. Cups were in short supply, but we put aside our squeamishness and accepted some spirits in glasses that may have met many lips that night. We danced; bouncing at times with the crowd, and at other times just the two of us. Layers came off one by one, and soon I was down to a pair of briefs that betrayed my true identity as a comic book hero. We shook, we gyrated, we kicked, and I’m ashamed to say, I probably also clapped (I consider clapping on the dance floor to be a faux pas). The night had the weapon of exhaustion, and the only shield we had against it was dancing. In this dark hour the night was winning, and we fled to the bigger dome, with the night right behind us. This was when the hole found and seduced us.
I have slept my whole life, wakefulness a dream. In Black Rock City, we are all refugees seeking some existential diplomatic immunity. Every morning I was there, I had to fight with an urge to flee back to the somnolent comfort of my decades long nap. I felt overcome by my own lameness, drowning in my own mediocrity. But the night is an avid hunter, and it wanted us to stay. Drew’s head was on my shoulder, and I had lost him. The music pressed down like a blanket, and told us that this was all there is, or ever would be.
I squinted out into the dome to see if there was any salvation from this hole consuming us, and there it was, the Deus Ex Machina. Golden fingers caressed my eyelids, glowing bolts of orange and pink flying from a cosmic bow, turning corners, searching and penetrating. The day had heard our distress, and was coming to our rescue. The music shifted, subtly at first, then fully proclaiming an aria of hope and succor. There was a resolution to this plot that seemed hopeless. I squeezed Drew’s shoulder, and told him “Look…the sun is coming up!”. We shook off our doldrums and knew we had to leave. We escaped the Dance Dome with our souls intact.
But some part of me knew that we were not yet done. In another direction, just as far away, was the temple. La Sagrada Basura (“The Sacred Trash”) I had not been there yet, and the time remaining in Black Rock City was short. I had already missed visiting the Man, putting it off and then finding out it was too late because he is cordoned off in the day before the burn. I said to Drew “I don’t know what you need to do, but I am going to the temple if you would like to come with me.” We set off into the deep playa, not entirely sure of the way, trying to navigate the always twisting path from the Dark and the Profane to the Sacred and the Profound. (Usually they are not as far away from each other as you might think.)
Once we had our bearings, we walked together yet separate. A woman danced her welcome to the sunrise, accompanied by sonnet and symphony that we could not hear. Dust devils arced and leapt, illuminated by these first rays. Revelers began to pour from their cathedrals of excess and debauchery. We could not be seduced, we would not be distracted.
Several clicks out from the temple and intentionally placed, I am certain, to be in our path, was an ante-temple. It was small and white, symmetrical and beautiful. I pulled over and waited for Drew.
The word “temple” carries heavy baggage for me. In the religion of my formative years, the temple is a sacred place that access is restricted to. Esoteric mysteries are completed, boundaries and beliefs are challenged, allegory and metaphor are invoked as more real than the solidities of what we presume to be reality. I am now estranged from this, and the names they now call me are Expatriate and Outcast. The bolder among them would dub me Apostate. The temple is not approached casually, and I plumbed myself for the intention and courage to go on, to find my own Sacred, to rise to the occasion and dare to annunciate my own ritual and mystery.
Ancient wisdom collaborated with my own experience, and this ante-temple was designated to prepare for the visit to the temple. I set down my back pack. Drew was still out behind me. I took off my clothes, and put them in the bag. From the pack I retrieved a small bottle of hand sanitizer, with which I anointed the crown of my head at the third eye, and the throat, the heart, the spine at the small of my back, and the pelvis slightly below the navel. Drew arrived, and somehow knew that this was an occasion of silence, and I was grateful to not need to ask for it. I began anointing him in the same places. In a whisper, I told him “Before you enter the temple, one must cleanse himself.” I turned and set off, naked except for my shoes and socks and pack.
In the temple of my religion, a garment is given to cover your nakedness. I have often wondered whether the sin is nakedness, as is commonly assumed, or was it being ashamed of our nakedness; of the body and its various functions and sensualities. I walked to the temple naked to experience humility, vulnerability. To stand in the vision of all and challenge the shame and embarrassment that I knew would come, to defy the judgment that was most likely my own and only my own.
At La Sagrada Basura, as with every temple at Burning Man, people write on the temple wishes, intentions, prayers, meditations, and dreams. They pin up pictures of lost loves, lost children, people they have hurt, pets, and other detritus of the default world. It is a place of catharsis and hope. It is beauty in harsh angles and reclaimed garbage. Above one door of the temple there was a painted placard that boldly insisted “LOVE IS REAL”.
I walked through the temple and read what people had written, touching the things that penetrated my heart. I looked at the pictures. I watched a wedding party. I observed and honored fellow penitents in meditation that was sometimes anguished. I cried for the lost. When I was done, I found some inner chamber of the temple and took off my back pack, from which I retrieved my clothes. I put them on and asked someone to take my picture, reborn and whole, unashamed.
Then I found a pen and wrote on an empty space of some balustrade of the temple. I will not tell you what I wrote, because it is sacred, and you will never know because it is now all ashes and air.
by Jack Watson