It was right about the time that I pulled out a lens cloth from my back pocket and the cash I had stashed there came out with it and went blowing down the playa that the thought began to take shape: This might not have been the most auspicious beginning of the playa season.
It wasn’t just me, though. There was Marnee racing off into the deep playa after her hat that just wouldn’t stop rolling. Beer cans were flying in the wind. Someone lost a shoe, ferchrissakes. How is the wind so strong that it steals your shoe?
In the years that we’ve attended the Spike ceremony, when the members of the various Burning Man tribes take turns smacking an iron stake into the ground to mark the place where the Man will be built, the weather has been … let’s just say a little more welcoming. It might have been hot in years past, sure, but the wind has rarely been howling so fiercely and there weren’t pebble-sized pieces of playa hitting you in the face.
“There’s rocks in my beer,” my traveling companion noted as we sat and listened and laughed – and maybe got a little misty – as people stood in the middle of a small circle and talked about how long they’d been coming to do this thing in the desert. Some told why they started doing it in the first place, and others said how grateful they were to the people who had gathered here, because they had become so important in their lives. “Y’all were there for me when I needed it most,” one young woman said, casting meaningful glances around the circle. “And I don’t know if I would have made it without you.”
There might have been a few tears, but then again, the watery eyes might just have been because of the communal dermabrasion that was going on.
Still, the Spike ceremony tends to bring out a lot of emotions. For one thing, you’re just so damn glad to be out in the wide open space again, Razorback over there shrouded in clouds, the Calicos at the far end with the pinkish glow, and the ominousness taking shape back near Gerlach, threatening even more havoc.
And then you start seeing all the people that you haven’t seen enough of since last year’s summer camp, dirt rave, company picnic, whatever you want to call it. But there they all are again, or at least a whole lot of them, and they’re drinking beer and Champagne, and there’s Will Roger and Coyote lighting up celebratory cigars, and there’s Genie and Paul and their little Merritt, striking a blow for the Rangers, and there’s the sign crew, the motor shop, the survey crew, taking turns in the circle …
The gang’s all here.
And then all of a sudden you’re simply happy to be among them, grateful for the chance to be a part of this again.
Hey look: We understand that everything about Burning Man has changed. We know it was better last year. We read all the blogs and all the comments, and we read all the newspaper stories that, when you think about, reveal nothing if not how stupidly difficult it is to keep pulling this off every year. And we’ve been looking at the archival stuff that the org has been posting, and we’ve stayed up crazy late watching the 20-year-old videos that Danger Ranger has been unearthing.
So maybe more than anything we kind of can’t believe that all this is still happening. Through all the contentiousness, all the battles, in the unlikeliest of settings, there are still people coming who have been coming since the beginning, and there are still people coming who’ve been coming for 15 years, or 5 years, and there are still people coming who have never been here before.
And yah yah yah, we know Burning Man is on the tech bras bucket list now, and it’s Mecca for the sparkle ponies, and almost in spite of itself it’s still one of the best places to dance all night, dance all night, dance all night till you feel alright, which of course annoys the hell out of some people, but honestly I’m not one of them.
We don’t much care about any of the distractions, because even after all this time we still can’t pretend to know what’s at the heart of the thing. The best we can come up with is that there are many hearts, and they are all encouraged to beat here, and that’s the most important thing. Dare to be you, dare to be more, dare to be great. Work like hell to make something beautiful. Gift people, and learn how to accept a gift. Don’t buy anything, don’t sell anything. Include people.
It’s not very complicated, and we don’t want it to be.
It’s a temporary autonomous zone. It’s an experiment in creativity and empowerment. It’s never been perfect, and it’s never going to be. Not all of the people are wonderful, and you won’t suddenly become the most interesting man or woman in the world for having gone. You are simply experimenting with ideas. And the thing is, you don’t get to do that very often, much less do it while be surrounded by people who are doing the same thing.
Duchess summed it up perfectly. She was handed the sledge and took her turn in the circle. You could barely hear anyone anymore, because somehow the wind was blowing even harder and you could feel granules of dust in your eyeballs and the effects of the drive and the elevation and the moment were all becoming just too much.
But she said that she was back because this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity … that happens every year.
Yes, a once-in-a-lifetime thing that happens every year. Until, for any one of a thousand reasons, it doesn’t happen anymore. But until then, give me a headlamp and a pair of goggles and I’ll meet you out there.
And now, what you really want to know: How’s the playa?
From the point we left the highway till we got to the spike, there wasn’t a single serpent. Not a one. The surface was hard and flat and smooth. The dust was blowing like crazy, and it looked like a storm cell could roll in at any time. But the first impressions were pretty damn good.
More to come.