You know what? I fucked up. I told her, “Don’t worry about your bike.” I honestly thought we’d be able to keep our eye on it. But come on, brother. It was the middle of nowhere out there, and I know better.
Still, seriously, what the fuck, right? Don’t take the material advice of some dust-wizard in the dark of night.
Hold up. Let me begin at the beginning.
I’d say we made it out to the burn in an unusually orderly fashion. It was early yet, but dark, and we were already sitting in the big ring, blinking our LEDs with new neighbors. The parked art car cavalry thumped and bumped merrily behind us. That Man was huge, and we had plenty of time to watch people blast their lasers all over his massive inertia while we waited for the candle to light. I slugged vanilla vodka with a glowing pink Czech woman and chased it with her Cherry Coke, which was unlike me.
The arms went up, the bombs went off, and he started to fall apart. He wouldn’t quite fall down, though. Not for a while. The natives got restless. Some wanted to leave, and the rest of us laughed heartily at their pallid faces when they turned around and saw how impossible it was to get out. Grumbles and shuffles and discomfort.
My brother — Bootleg, we’re calling him now — had a great idea. Why don’t we count down? “Count down from what?” I asked him. “37,” he replied with certitude. So Bootleg and I began to count: “37! 36! 35! 34!…” By 33, seven or so people around us had joined in. By 19, there were dozens. “4!! 3!!! 2!!!! 1!!!!!” and I threw back my head and screamed, “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARGGHHHH!!!” and up went the loudest yell a hundred people could muster.
The Man did not fall down.
Everyone around us congratulated us anyway, having achieved a brief collective consciousness, which is, of course, the most valuable Burner merit badge. But the waves dissipated, and we all went back to watching the Man’s flaming torso failing to fall. Every so often, a little popcorn countdown would start. One person in the vicinity would holler out “37!”, someone else nearby took “36!”, and so on all the way down. The countdown took on the inevitable accent of the Dirty South homeland from which Bootleg and I hail:
When we got to “WUHNNN!”, the Man did not fall down. The porta-potty urge began to stir within me.
By the time the skeleton finally crumbled, I was distracted. My bladder was chanting urgently. There was a plan, I reminded myself. Regroup at the Flag Seat at 1-o’clock-ish in Middle Playa. From there, survey the chaos and determine a course. I feared that losing group cohesion this early would scatter us forever, but I had more immediate concerns. Get out of the achy madness of the burn circle, squeeze past the art cars, and find a fucking porta-potty post haste.
When I stood up, I knew that was a tall order. The whole scene was turning slowly around me. My crew around the Crystal Ship was wishing one another happy new year, and I hugged some people frantically while looking for an exit. Every line in sight would curve and then straighten again, then curve, flowing liquid, which I couldn’t think about. My body’s warning turned grave, and I bolted.
Broke free of the thumping, pulsing ring, out into the inner darkness in the heart of Black Rock City, and my heart sank. I saw it was at least… seventy, seventy-five miles to the nearest porta-potty, and who even knows which direction? With little hope, I tightened my heavy pack and jogged. There were three liters of water in there, because I was equipped for a whole night out. The sound of that sloshing around was not helping matters. I found a spire and beelined toward the Esplanade. I didn’t know which spire it was, didn’t care.
I exhaled halfway when I got to the edge, but wherever I was, it was just big, wide streets, dark, parked vehicles, no camps at all, no blue lights, no porta-potties. I turned in circles frantically, trying to get my bearings, only got more lost. I have to go. I have to go. I have to go now. I have to go now, now. I’m going. I’m going. Standing there in some parking lot off the Esplanade in my tzitzit in the dark, there for the first time since I was an ashamed little child, I pissed my pants.
Before my whole community, I reveal myself now. In the privacy of the city’s mind-blown distraction, on some little street that was the opposite of the party, I, a seven-year professional Burner, peed my pants this Year of Our Burn 2014, and that is how my Burn Night adventure began.
Like a Pro
Somewhere in my awareness, way off to the side, my body felt immense relief. But darkness engulfed the forefront of my mind. I felt the dread spiral. “Oh, it’s gonna be one of those nights,” I realized aloud. But I caught myself. Those are just words. Despair words. Snap out of it. You know what to do now. You can do it. Just get home. Get back to camp, clean yourself up, and get back out there. Come on. Go!
So I went. I knew this city well enough to figure out where I was on the way. I knew I was on a letter street, so I turned left. After hiking in my wet pants past a mile-long RV blockade, I figured out I was at A and 5:30. Okay. A long way home, but I’ll make it. No one could see the wet spot in the dark. I hoofed it along A all the way, a nice, wide, dark street where no one could see me. 4:30… 4:00… 3:30.
I turned right on 3:30 (I think), and soon I began to see familiar sights. The Lost Penguin. I smiled for the first time in a while, because that’s just what I was. A Lost Penguin. Before long, I waddled into camp through the back entrance, snuck to my tent, and switched on the light.
Whoa. Okay. Home. Here I am. I realized I was panting, and my heart was racing. The scene reeled before me, but I was there. I was home. I figured out where my clothes were, grabbed some fresh, clean, rainbow-colored ones. Peeled these black ones off, checked the tzitzit: unharmed. Baby wiped my whole body. Luxury! I was coming back to life. Clean, rainbow clothes. Strapped on my various necklaces and amulets, refilled my water just because, rekindled my headlamp, sandals strapped. I was back.
Boom. I hit 3:00 like a leopard. Wrapped in my red scarf. Stomping, not walking. All the music of the city was made for me. I actually growled, like out of my physical mouth, audibly. I punched the air with my fists, whooped and jumped. Now, where to? Ah, yes. The Flag Seat.
I lifted off from 2-o’clock into deep space, where I’m most comfortable. Suddenly alone, the stars and city blended above and below. I heard the desert whisper. I spoke to the desert, “Here I am.” It continued to whisper.
I saw the triangles of dim light up ahead that marked the Flag Seat. I probably wasn’t too late, either. Anticipating a joyous reunion, I picked up the pace.
That’s when a lone figure walking a bike intersected with my path. My first encounter. I had to make a call: pass by silently or interact? I’d spent enough time Out There to know what an interaction meant. I would have a traveling companion for at least a little while, for good or for ill. The decision decided itself, I think. I’d had kind of a lonely Burn. I wanted to make a friend, so I did. “Good evening,” I said.
“Good evening,” she replied.
She looked and sounded young. Pretty well prepared, it looked like. The bike was nice and rugged, her jacket and lantern slung from the back. She walked alongside me. I asked her name.
“Riley*” she said and extended a hand.
“Riley, I’m Jon,” and we shook.
I asked if she had a destination. She said, “Away… .” I knew that answer well. I was going away, too, I told her. But I had a destination in mind. Did she? No? Want to come along? Yes.
Soon enough, we arrived at the Flag Seat, and there were people huddled there. They didn’t look like my people. As we arrived, sure enough, they were… well, they weren’t my people at all. There were two long-legged males slumped down in the eponymous Seats under the Flags, and each had a long-legged female astride him swaying drunkenly, not looking up. There were empty glass bottles scattered all over the site.
“Hello,” I said with a grim smile and a wave.
They didn’t respond until I made them. They were British and drunk and didn’t give a fuck about us, probably resentful that we’d entered the space they felt was rightfully theirs. Riley lurked just outside the Flag Seat’s halo of light, no more excited to meet these strangers than they were to meet us.
I gave up and returned to Riley, feeling pretty pessimistic about waiting here with these clowns for my campmates to arrive.
“Can we go for a walk?” Riley asked. “Just right over there.”
“Of course!” I crowed. “There’s nothing I love more than a walk.”
Riley bent over her bike and began fiddling with the lock.
“Oh, don’t worry about your bike,” I said, stars twinkling in my head. “We’ll just keep an eye on it.”
What if I hadn’t said those words?
She dropped the bike where it was, and we walked a little ways away.
I swear we only walked 50 feet from the Flag Seat. Riley sat down right on the dust in the dark, and I sat next to her. We were only silhouettes to each other. I sloshed my heavy pack onto the ground, EL-wire up to dissuade bikers. She sipped water from a glass jar. She was 21, she told me. From Florida. She went to college, almost wound up on the corporate conveyor belt until she realized at the last minute that it was bad news. She wasn’t a people-pleaser. She was an introvert, straight-talking. Entrepreneurial. Now she’s just trying to figure things out.
This was her first Burn. The guy she was traveling with was camped in the mountains outside of the event, waiting for her. Didn’t have a ticket. He was the one who gave her the bike.
She was camped with some people she didn’t know so well. Didn’t like them too much. Too much alcohol. Too much drama. Very little proper food, it sounded like. I felt for her tremendously. What a way to go, for your first time. I already knew, but I was reminded how lucky I was. She asked me if it was my first time, too.
“No,” I said, with a heavy smile that made me feel old. I told her just a little about my life as a Burner, didn’t want to be the center of attention. But I told her what I like about Burning Man and why I keep coming back. She asked about my camp situation, and I told her, not without pride, how great it was and always is. I mentioned that this was my first solo Burn in a sense, since I’d been with a partner every time. My girlfriend was back in LA starting school to become a rabbi, I told Riley, and I was out on the playa again.
We stared up at the lasers and lights that groped empty-handedly for the stars. We spoke some more about this and that. “You know what?” she said to end a silence. “I’m glad you told me you had a girlfriend.” I inquired why, and she began to tell me more about how her first Burn was going.
Just… dudes. Dudes all the time. Dudes making passes, dudes using pick-up lines, dudes offering “massages” and “cocktails” and various alleged molecules, dudes touching without permission. Dudes yelling when thwarted. Dudes insisting and demanding. Dudes not listening.
Fucking dudes. Dudes all over Black Rock City. I was ashamed to hear Riley’s stories of dude after dude. I was ashamed of Black Rock City. I was ashamed of a culture in which I had felt safe, which I had called my own. But I knew full well that Riley’s reasons weren’t unique. Burning Man had been like this for women as long as I’d been going. And if you don’t camp in a camp like ours, where our dudes will absolutely trounce anyone who messes with you, you get messed with. A lot.
Of course, this is what life is like for women, but the whole point of Burning Man is to be different from the rest of life. It absolutely, positively, shouldn’t be like this, but it absolutely, positively is. Dudes of Burning Man culture are just like all dudes.
And so here I was, listening, being trusted, and now I’m responsible. Now I’m the ambassador, and I have to be safe and trustworthy and make sure Riley has one good night at Burning Man if she stays with me. But it was already too late for that. I had already fucked up.
I looked toward the Flag Seat and couldn’t see the lantern on her bike anymore. “Do you want to get moving?” I asked her “I have an idea for a destination. Let’s go get your bike.” But the feeling had already sunk into my stomach. I knew it wasn’t there. The bike was gone, the jacket was gone, the lantern was gone. She was so matter of fact about it. “It’s okay,” she said more than once. “Aw, it’s okay.” But she was cold, far from camp, and she owed her traveling companion a bike. And it was my fault.
Now, let’s be rational about this for a second. It could be argued that it is patronizing — even sexist — to believe that Riley listening to me, not locking her bike, and not keeping an eye on it is my fault. What, because I gave the Male Command for her to do something irresponsible, now I’ve taken away all her agency? Riley is an adult, and her belongings are her own responsibility. An obviously insane person wearing rainbow religious clothes telling her to do something stupid in the dark is her problem.
But that’s not good enough, and you know it. That’s not how sexism works. I used power on her, and then this happened. It is my power’s fault. It is my power’s fault that she believed my voice. It is my power’s fault that she believed that one could ignore this community’s safety warnings to lock one’s bike, because sometimes I ignore them, because I have power.
It’s not a stretch to think about how this power benefits the men of Burning Man in other ways. Yes, there are guidelines, but you’re safe to bend them, dude. Yes, there is a line somewhere, but dude, the women and men you meet out there are safe to cross it, too. Just like you. Anything goes, bro. Fuck your bike. I don’t need a bike lock, dude. I don’t need a Bureau of Erotic Discourse. I know what I’m doing, man. I’m in control.
So that’s the kind of stuff that was swirling around in my head as I went into emergency recovery mode. When the words “I’m sorry” no longer felt like enough, the first thing I did was give her my gray fleece jacket to replace the one on her bike. I had another fleece back at camp and plenty of layers on for the rest of the night, so I unrolled my spare jacket and gave it to her, no questions asked. That part was easy. The next part wasn’t, but I heard myself saying it anyway. I had newly refurbished bike back at camp, and she could have it as a replacement. She was saying, “Okay, okay, yeah yeah,” but it honestly didn’t seem that important to her. She was saying “whatever” to all of Burning Man.
We just carried on wandering and talking. I thought setting a destination of the Observatory would be a good way to lift the spirits, but I honestly couldn’t find it. I was so disoriented, man. Not in tip-top playa form, let’s put it that way. Instead we wandered into the Library of Babel, and that’s where we saw each other’s faces for the first time. “Hi,” I said smiling. “Hi,” she smiled back, and we flipped through the books of the library together. Beard Stories was our favorite volume.
Back outside, I realized how much more often I was peeing than she was. “Are you drinking enough water?” I asked in an unavoidably big-brother-y way. She lifted her glass jar and shook it. It was basically empty except for the tea leaves clumped at the bottom. She didn’t leave her main water bottle on the bike, I discerned. This glass was all she’d brought with her. So I knelt above my finicky camel-back lid, unscrewed it and poured water into her tiny glass. Now I was positively worried about her.
“Riley, do you want to go back to your camp, or do you want to come back with me? My people are probably all there, and I need to rendezvous with them before sunrise. You can fill up on water again there, and I’ll make you a grilled cheese. How does that sound?”
It sounded great to her. On the way back, she told me about how health conscious she was, and how this tea in her jar was medicinal.
I lifted the dome flap and walked into a roar. I honestly couldn’t tell if they were happy or angry to see me. They looked everywhere, they said. They went to the meeting spot, they said. Where the fuck was I?, they asked. I told them I was at the Flag Seat, and it gradually became clear that they had gone back to camp and had a leisurely feast before setting out again and visiting every distraction along the way. But they still wanted it to be my fault, it felt like. Regardless, the dome banter was as high-level as ever, and we were all cracking up as I fumbled for cheese, bread, and a pan.
“Anyway, this is Riley,” I said with a gesture, and everyone looked over at once, noticing her. “She’s…”
“A stray?” someone asked knowingly
“Exactly,” I said. And I’m here to make some grilled cheese. Anybody else want one?
“I mean, if you’re just handing out grilled cheese, I would gladly receive one,” Devon said. Everyone laughs. Now I’m suddenly a line cook. I used my own cheese for the first one. It was a hard, kosher cheese that doesn’t melt very well. The bread ended up pretty toasty, though, and I handed it to Riley when I didn’t think I could do any better. She bit into it and uttered her first full-fledged sentence since entering the dome. “This grilled cheese sucks,” she said with a chortle, and everyone cracked up except me. She inhaled it anyway.
Devon’s cheese was that shredded grocery store cheddar, so it grilled up nicely. I served a few more grilled cheeses while everyone made fun of me, and then I handed Riley an absolutely perfect specimen, which she also ate in two bites. I wondered whether she had eaten hot food this week, then banished the thought.
After the dome party subsided, it was time to start loading up the Crystal Ship for the sunrise run. I took Riley outside to show her the bike, which by then I had come to regret putting up as the price of my stupidity. First of all, my bike is a pink women’s beach cruiser, and I didn’t think her traveling buddy was going to appreciate it in exchange for a mountain bike. But I showed it off to her anyway, and though I told her about how special it was to me and how my girlfriend made me this orangutan flag on the back with a bird on it as a symbol of her in her absence, I said she could have the bike (sans flag) if she wanted it, and I actually meant it. “What do you think?” I said.
Riley looked at the bike, looked at me, and said, voice flowing with mercy, “I think it’s your bike, and you should keep it. It’s fine. Mine was just some cheap bike he got for me on the way in, and it’s the last day anyway, so… keep it.”
I said “Thank you, Riley,” I hugged her, and I accepted her gift.
Wisdom Has Costs
She hung with our camp until well after sunrise. By then, I was feeling insane, having spent my Burn Night in such a way, and kind of regretting it. Not that I regretted meeting Riley, not in the least. Just regretting that I hadn’t had the kind of Burn I planned to have. You’d think I’d have stopped planning things like that after seven years, but nope. Still naïve.
She was pretty content dancing by herself, though I kept swinging back by to check on her. But in the meantime, I was debriefing with my friends one on one. All of them found the story profoundly funny, especially the bike-stealing part, but the funniest part of that was how I offered her my bike in exchange and then took it back. They all cracked up about that, and I felt like a doofus. Like a terrible Burner, which is not something I’ve felt in a long time.
But then they’d try to cheer me up. Look, man. She’d had a terrible Burn, and you kinda saved her ass. She had one weird, story-worthy night at the end of a dumb, unremarkable Burn. That’s a gift, man! And you gave it to her. In one of the wisest things I’ve ever been taught, Dave said the whole thing should be worth it to her because there was true wisdom in it. Wisdom about trust. Wisdom about men, for ill and for good. “And hey,” Dave said with a wry smile. “Wisdom has costs.”
Meanwhile, Bootleg is out in front of the art car cooking twenty pounds of bacon himself, just handing it out to everyone in Black Rock City who was awake. I saw Riley swoop through three or four times.
When it first felt hot out, Riley came up and told me she was going to walk to the Temple. “Okay,” I said full of sorrow and relief. She put her small amount of remaining stuff down and started rummaging through it. “You can have your jacket back,” she said, and handed it to me.
“No, Riley, you can have it,” I said, wanting her to at least accept something from me. “Seriously.”
“It’s okay, I’ve got another jacket at camp. I don’t need it. It’s too big on me, anyway,” she said with a small smile and handed me the gray jacket.
“Yes.” She produced a pen and paper. “Write your contact info on this. I want to keep in touch.” She was — just a little bit — starting to cry.
I was floored. She had a good time, I guess. She felt good about it. About me. She wanted to stay connected. So I took the pen and pad, and I did something reflexive. I wrote down my website. My fucking website. Sure, baby. Glad you’re a fan. Hey, go check out my website.
“Oh, you have a website?” she said, not giving a fuck about my website, nor should she have.
“Yeah…” I said, burning alive in a tank of my own stupid dude idiot self. “You can find my email or Facebook or whatever you want on there.”
“Okay. Bye, Jon.” And she held out her arms and hugged me, still crying. I hugged her back, just LOATHING myself. I prayed for 14 seconds of do-over for my entire life. I would have used seven seconds for “Don’t worry about your bike,” and seven seconds for check out my website.
Then she turned around and walked to the Temple, and I threw my jacket on the car and sat down.
* Name changed to protect the innocent.↩
Photos by the inestimable Scott London and Sam “Bootleg” Mitchell