Playa visions

Garlington's "Totem" appearing in the distance.He is having trouble putting one foot in front of the other. The wind whips at the back of his head, and he can’t even see what it’s pushing him towards.

He has left a camp where they said he was always welcome, to walk into the desert. Into a dust storm. There have been heavy dust storms for days, but this is a prolonged white out punctuated by moments of sudden clarity. He cannot see the Man. He cannot see the other side of the city he is trying to reach.

At sundown, a procession will leave the other side of the city to go to the temple and bury a friend.  He thought he had enough time to get there. He’s walked through dust storms before. He has cut through the open desert on foot many times.

He cannot see the temple. But for a moment there is a break in to the dust, and he can see a strange and intricate wooden structure. It is full of people. Someone on the second floor says something, and they begin to cheer. Then the wind picks up again, and they’re gone. Even the sound of them lost.

He isn’t sure that he’s walking towards the meeting place. He’s not certain that this is even the right direction. For a strange moment, he’s not clear that there even is another side of the city waiting for him across all this dust. The trip is taking longer than he remembered. He turns around. The wind stings his eyes. The place he came from has vanished. The people who said he was always welcome are gone.

He pivots back towards what he thinks – what he imagines – is his goal.

Another break in the wind, and a giant metal dragon appears in the distance. Another break in the wind, and a series of twisted wooden bridges appears. People are climbing them. Laughing. He could join them, but of course he doesn’t. He’s going to bury a friend. There are some things you have to do, even if you must defy nature.

A strange metal sculpture of mythic figures is revealed among the dust.

A moment later they all vanish.

He thought he knew this landscape well, he’s been coming back for years, but it has never seemed this uncanny. He’s stood at the trash fence and watched the whole city and all its art be swallowed up by a giant cloud – but when it was there it was there and when it was gone it was gone. Now it is flickering in and out of existence, offering him clues, but never committing to exist the next moment.

He wonders if he shouldn’t have tried.  If he should have stayed where it’s comfortable, and there are solid walls everywhere.

He knows he’s not going in a circle. That’s something. It is harder and harder to put one foot in front of the other, but at least he’s walking in a line.

For a moment the world is clear and the other side of the city appears. It is so much farther away than he thought: as if it’s growing more distant when he can’t see it.

He’s not going to make it in time.

The city vanishes. He is alone.

A violin plays in the storm, and then is gone. Bicyclists suddenly appear out of the dust and pass him without a word. If he were to collapse here, no one would notice unless they ran him over.

A break in the dust, and he sees a strange building off in the distance – a building of heartbreaking beauty. He doesn’t know what it is. He wants to desperately. It is surrounded by people. There are art cars. Something is happening.

He could go there. It would be so easy. He’s already late, and if he tells his friends “I was caught in the storm,” they’ll understand. No one will blame him. No one will know.  He wants to do that.  He wants to be the kind of person who would do that.

The wind pushes him towards the strange building. But he turns his back on its beauty. There is a lump in his throat as it disappears.

He puts one foot in front of the other. If you ask him why, he couldn’t tell you anymore.

Surely if there really were another side to the city, in the distance, he would see it by now? Hear it? There should be music. There should be buildings. He wasn’t prepared for this. However many times he’d warned people that the desert can kill them, he’d forgotten the lesson in his heart.

The city appears and is gone. Appears and is gone. Appears again just as he begins hacking up the dust in his lungs. His eyes scrunch shut as his body wracks with coughs.  When he opens his eyes again, everything is gray.

He can’t help but think that if he’d managed to keep his eyes open, the city would still be there.  He knows better, but he can’t help it.

The road appears suddenly, and he is not so far off. He’d navigated by the moments of sudden vision well. But he is already late. He turns and walks towards the meeting point anyway. If they have left without him, he will have nothing: he will have lost his chance to say goodbye to the dead and turned his back on sudden beauty appearing in the distance.

But a small crowd is still there. He is not the last one to arrive. Someone calls out his name, and he waves and stumbles over to take his place among the mourners. A woman in a heavy coat walks over to him and sudden he is in her embrace. He’s desperate for that hug, that contact, but doesn’t remember this woman or their relationship.

“It’s okay,” she says, as if reading the tears running down his face. “You don’t know me. I’m just giving you a hug. That’s all.” He relaxes into it, grateful.

Soon the rest of the mourners arrive.  The sun begins to set.  Together they walk back out into the wall of dust. They cannot see the city, or the art. After a moment, they can barely see each other. But they press forward, compelled by their faith that there is a temple out there, and that they are walking towards it.

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

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