Coyote Nose: Stories of the wild ’90s and the formation of DPW from Burning Man’s first storytelling fellowship recipient, Tony “Coyote” Perez-Banuet, Superintendent of Black Rock City.
“An early taste of death is not necessarily a bad thing.”
— Charles Bukowski
We were all accustomed to being fooled by the sorcery of the Black Rock Desert with its shimmer and slant, but a small raining cloud hovering overhead like a balloon on a string was spooky. The rest of the sky was vast and clear making this little cloud all the more peculiar. But there it was — about the size of a small grey pond, and even moving with us as we worked.
It was a typical blazing day on an August desert playa with temperatures around 110° where there was no wind and nowhere to hide from the sun. When it got this hot we kept a cooler packed with iced bandanas on the truck. Newbies in the Department of Public Works of Black Rock City would take this ice for granted, but the others who have been around long enough new better. In the early years, resources were as scarce as shade trees. The nearest water was out at Fly Ranch, and the nearest ice machine at a gas station about thirty-five miles away, both in opposite directions. It was a catastrophe if a cooler fell off a truck and spilled — a mistake that a crew would only make once. That’s why when this weird little cloud came over us, any suspicions quickly gave way to simple acceptance. After all, it was bringing us water in the desert and misting us down with a blessed shade. We took five and tossed the sledgehammers onto the flatbed, giving our overheated muscles a moment. We refilled our water bottles and chugged deeply, happy to be out on the playa — happy to be working and sweating in the heat. I was in my fifties, now, and had been building the cities of Burning Man for twenty years, so running a crew in the desert came easy to me. We let our heads fall back to catch the cool drops on our faces as I leaned on my elbows and gazed into that cloud. The more I thought about it, the more I mused. It was just too otherworldly for coincidence. I tried to peer deeper into it, searching for meaning maybe, but was only met with a faceless riddle — not unlike the Man that we burn every year.
“A mystery is a truth partially revealed.” Cowboy Carl once said.
But the truth behind this cloud seemed shrouded. I’m sure that science could explain it away, but it wouldn’t account for the perfect timing, like the gods of the playa were throwing us a bone, a bone we accepted with pride. We had been sunbaked and beaten down plenty. The first time I got my brain cooked out there was twenty years prior. I was building the same promenade that we were just working on, except this time I was alone and had just gone through a three-day wormhole. When I went to my first Burning Man, I came in through its ass. I had been awake for three days the first time my front wheels hit the three-mile entrance of the Black Rock Desert. It was just before dawn and I had little memory of the last seventy miles of highway with only the drone of the motor and Jason’s chatter to accompany the amphetamines that were keeping my Mazda sports car between the lines. The only scenery in the last hours had been a ghost town next to a railroad track.
“Does anyone even live here?” I asked Jason.
He was my city buddy who was lanky and fierce and had the eyes of a husky. I was more docile and unsure, but ready to follow. We were both at pivotal times and had broken free from the limits and onto this bizarre pilgrimage.
“I don’t know. I’ve never really stopped here,” he said. “It’s the only town for miles. I don’t even know the name of it.”
It was 1996 and my music career had plateaued. I was a Michigan boy that had moved to San Francisco, making a living singing and playing sax and had been playing the blues in North Beach for several years. I was a blue-collar musician that showed up to work five nights a week to play music like any workingman. I knew the luster was thinning when one night I played an entire saxophone solo while thinking about my laundry. I was in creative purgatory. That’s when I met Jason. He was a dark comet, streaking the streets of SF on his skateboard, shedding his mark everywhere, emoting the hard truths of an inner city life. He was pure creative energy — a lighthouse in my fog, and impossible to keep up with. All I could hope was to grasp his comet’s tail and briefly hang on. Then we would soar through the city night and meld with the back alley culture.
We rolled on for another three or four miles when Jason said,
“This is it. Turn off here.”
Finally reaching a destination snapped me from hypnosis. We turned in and came to a stop. My headlights that had been following a dashing white line were now pointed out into nowhere, their beams fizzling into the ether. We sat stunned, our city ears ringing in the silence.
“There’s nothing out here, Jason.” I said.
“There’s a trailer out here somewhere. There should be someone camped here with the compass settings to find Burning Man.”
“Compass settings? That’s why you were so insistent about bringing the compass? We’re supposed to just drive out there until we find it?”
“Well, yeah, man. I think I see something down there to the left.”
We crept further and then I saw a reflection of light up ahead. It was the broken back window of a very small gray trailer that had the words, “Trauma Unit” painted on its side in red. We slowed to a stop and rolled down the window. The morning smell of desert sage came in. It was the first of the brambly spirits that would call. It put its hands on either side of my face breathing into my nose saying,
“My god! You’ve been asleep in the city for quite awhile, haven’t you.”
“I have.” I muttered the answer under my breath.
Jason had seen how deep a sleep that was, so I trusted him when he came to me one day and said,
“You’re coming with me to Burning Man.”
And now I was in a sports car facing the Black Rock Desert at dawn and I was thinking what most think when first seeing this desert that we call the playa — what is this place? The deepest shades of red were starting to glow behind distant mountains revealing the mass expanse before us. We were on Mars.
“Roll up on that trailer.” Jason said.
The light was getting stronger and for the first time I was looking at the marvel of the Black Rock Playa. It was a pre-historic ocean bed that had dried up and left cracked flat clay for 1,000 square miles. My city eyes were hopeless, as they had nothing that could allude to scale. My sense of perception seemed stripped of its cloths, standing naked in the blankness. We rolled a bit closer and I could see the trailer creaking on its springs. Then the door flung open and an extremely large person climbed out, barking at us.
“How does a guy that large fit into a trailer that small,” I asked.
“He’s telling us to turn off the headlights. We’re being rude.”
I shut off the lights and my eyes widened as I saw that this giant was armed with weaponry that covered most of his body.
“Jesus Chirst!” I said, “That’s more guns on one person than I have ever seen!”
“That’s how we roll out here. It’s fucking Nevada.”
This corpulent fellow dressed in black stepped menacingly to the driver’s window and leaned in on his elbow. He had a round face with black hair pulled back into a bun making him resemble a sumo wrestler. This was the ’96 version of the Gate, which is now staffed with hundreds of people and takes hours to get through.
“If you guys are looking for Burning Man, you’re too early,” he said.
I was pretty rattled by all the steel swinging just outside my window, so Jason did the talking.
“We’re camping with Will Roger, and Crimson Rose. We’re here early to help set up and shit. We also know Larry Harvey and John Law.”
He was dropping every name he had, and it worked. Speaking the secret passwords loosened our sumo wrestler’s stance a bit.
“My name’s Bogman. So, you guys are here to work? All right. Ever been to the Black Rock Desert before?”
“Yeah.” Jason said. “It’s my third year.”
He was trying to keep it cool. I, however, was feeling a rush of something new.
“You guys got water and provisions,” Mr. Bogman asked.
“Yeah.” We lied.
“You guys carrying guns?”
Figured we’d tell the truth on this one. I thought I saw a brief wash of disappointment on Mr. Bogman’s face.
“Did you bring a compass?”
Jason started digging in his pocket. He had checked that same pocket for it at every moment as we skittered about like moths trying to get out of town.
“Yup,” he said pulling it out.
“Ok. Set your odometer and go one mile due east, then turn north by north east and go about sixteen more miles and you’ll see it.”
We saluted him with our thanks, showing him and his boom sticks the proper Nevadan respect, and rolled on. We would be seeing more of Mr. Bogman in the days to come.
I nudged the gas and tip toed out onto the playa as one would step out onto thin ice, but our confidence grew as we discovered a firm surface not unlike concrete. Over the years, the playa has become soft with ruts and washouts, but back then, it was flat and firm. You could open up your motor and skim like a speedboat with nothing in your way for the next forty miles. I’ve since heard legends of locals in the past that would traverse the playa by tying off the steering wheel and setting a brick on their accelerator while they hung out in the back of the RV drinking beer. We slowly gathered speed to the one-mile mark quickly becoming emboldened by the Western spirit. Something started to happen inside of me. It was something I hadn’t felt for a long time as this open span lay ahead. It was freedom. I felt like an oil derrick was about to strike my soul. We reached one mile and turned the car north-by-north east. There was no road, no lanes or markers, no cops, no other cars, no anything! I turned to Jason and mirrored his mania. His eyes were the devil’s pinwheels. Then it snapped. Thirty years of rumbling burst into a geyser. I aimed that blast into the emptiness, and my foot buried the gas pedal. Even the sports car seemed thrilled as she finally got to open up her heart and barrel down in full stride. Our adrenaline rose with the speedometer that was quickly topping out at 120. We were a launched rocket! I heard someone screaming. It was Jason hanging out of the sunroof with arms outstretched in full surrender. We reached orbit. The car floated as it devoured the playa and stress blew off me like broken armor. Even at that speed, the mountains still looked to be standing still. There was no way to tell if something was half a mile away or twenty. The car scorched on, and it seemed we were going nowhere. The sun had gone from an orange ball to blazing yellow as we were in full daylight now. The morning shimmer was coming up, stretching the horizon, warped and glassy. My excitement started getting edgy as we headed into a freakish unknown. A million years of instincts were telling me to get away from this waterless, inhumane place and the deeper we went into the playa, the more uncomfortable I became.
“We’ve been going for awhile, now! Where the fuck is it?” I managed to bellow through the sunroof.
“Just keep driving! It’s gotta be out here!”
Further and further we went. I couldn’t tell if it had been five minutes, or twenty-five as the sixteen miles got longer. Still, there was only the shimmer mirage that looked like a distant lake, getting bigger as the sun rose higher. Then, I thought I saw something. It started as a floating speck on the horizon. I kept loosing it then finding it again as my eyes searched. As we got closer it now seemed like two smudges, one above the other and both hovering. It was morphing and growing like a cell dividing under a microscope — or a monolith in the distance. Who could tell? Then it started to take shape.
“There it is!” Jason shouted from the sunroof, wildly pointing leftward.
I slowed and adjusted the wheel a bit more north, squinting while I leaned toward the windshield, and there it was — the first visible piece of Black Rock City — a Doggie Diner Head. Why was I not surprised?
“It’s a Doggie Diner head, Jason! Where the hell are you taking me?”
I loved it already. He was taking me to a place that was starting the joke with the punch line.
“I told you you’d love it,” shouted J.
I couldn’t believe that the beacon of our three-day clamor to get out of town was the iconic Doggie Diner head that was the old sign for a bay area hot dog chain. It was a cartoonish dachshund with a brown droopy face and honking eyes. He was wearing a chef’s hat that looked like a Stay Puft marshmallow and had on a polka dot bow tie. It was ghoulish and unnerving, but it made you want a hot dog, somehow. I think it was that his nose looked like a frankfurter. It was already trippy on its own, let alone floating on the shimmer as we hurled toward it. The mirage distortion was starting to vanish, and what moments ago had appeared to be a forty-foot grinning dog was turning out to be just a six-foot painted fiberglass head.
Jason and I had made a jail break from the norm and into a new paradigm. It was a place shrouded in the dust of nowhere that did not cast judgment, stripping you of self-boundary. We dropped out of orbit and touched down. Shapes of camps formed out of the heat like the tricks of an illusionist. It was a Shangri-La – a Saharan oasis – a thriving outpost on a barren planet. It was a high sky and the morning sun was already scorching. I could see people moving about, most dressed loose and breezy. The mood was one of high endeavor. Everyone was building, their faces holding declarations of achievement as their plans were finally coming together. My car windows were flash cards of visions from all directions, nothing of the ordinary. There was a bus sized shark car being spray-painted silver. There was a Mad Max cannon machine on huge wagon wheels with a pilot flame burning at its muzzle. A truck drove by dragging a toilet with a man sitting on it reading a newspaper, and just in the distance behind him, there were two desert goddesses assembling the wings to a brilliant stainless steel hawk, each feather a wonder. There was a man welding. There was another man blowing glass. I had never been surrounded with so much creation, and I wanted to meet them all. It knocked me off of my music stage, tossing me onto the grill of imagination. I was going to have to learn a whole new language.
“We should see if we could find Will and set up camp,” said Jason. “He’s camped at Check Point Salon.”
“Ok,” I said. What ever that was.
We wove through the tents and trailers that seemed to be peppered for miles coming at last to a central camping area. There was construction happening everywhere. One of the structures looked like a cardboard cutout of an office high-rise. It stood sixty feet high and was painted bright red.
“Look at that building!” I said. “Is that someone’s camp?”
“It’s Helco. It’s a protest to corporate logos and the whole thing’s going to burn.”
The area was the size of a city block and was roped off. It was filled with painted movie set facades that had things like ‘Starfucks’ and ‘Hell’ gasoline instead of ‘Shell’, and ‘Submit’ instead of ‘Subway’. Joe Camel was there along with Colonel Sanders made out to look like the devil, and of course, the golden arches of ‘McSatan’s’. It was a hard-pressed construction site with hammering workers, trucks, heavy equipment and a lot of noise and diesel. It was all so industrial.
“This ain’t no Rainbow gathering,” I exclaimed.
“No, it is not,” was all Jason said.
We came up onto a central clearing with scaffold being erected in the middle.
“This must be center camp,” Jason said.
We pulled into the site that carried all the stress of a stage play before opening night.
“I think I see Will. He’s over there.”
Just off a ways, I saw a shirtless man in a cowboy hat. He had the build of a linebacker and was scooting along on a dirt bike with a pile of form stakes in his lap. He was stopping and dropping them at intervals. A buxom topless woman was picking them up and pacing them off into different directions. She was elegantly middle aged with long dark grey hair down her back and had the pace of a dancer.
“That’s Will’s girl, Crimson.” J said, “We’ll be camping with them.”
He leaned out the window and shouted,
“Hey, Will! It’s me, Jason. We made it! We’re here to work and I brought extra hands.”
Will putted over to us and stopped. He was hot and sweating and his skin was charred. He wore a stern frown and I could instantly feel his exasperation.
“This is my buddy, Tony,” said Jason as he introduced me, “He’s here to help set up.”
Will regarded me and only nodded his head.
“Jason. You said you were going to be here two days ago. We’re behind and I really need your help.”
“It took us a bit to get out of town, I guess.”
That was quite the understatement. It took two and a half days of tweak just to get to the bridge.
“Well, you can start helping by loading that truck with spire bases. We haven’t even started building the promenade to the Man yet!”
“We’re pretty fried,” Jason said. “We need to set up camp and rest for a minute.”
Will’s face screwed darker as he shook his head.
“Shit, Jason! Well, do what you gotta do and come help as soon as you can.”
He turned and powered the bike away.
The next hour was spent guilt creeping under the radar of work as we searched behind Check Point Salon for a good place to squat. We still had a few days till the event started and would be camped and ready. We found a suitable spot and started unloading the crumpled mess crammed in the hatch back. I had a small mountaineer’s tent that had to be entered on hands and knees and was just large enough to unroll a sleeping bag. Drained from the all the extra wattage, all I could do was crawl in and try to crash on the hot slab playa — but the desert had different plans for us.
I lay in my oven tent with three days of go fast marching through my veins. It was in direct sunlight now, and I was being dry-roasted. I might as well have been in a kiln. I had not prepared for this. I hadn’t prepared for any of this. I think back on how bad of campers we were:
Water — nope.
Food — nope.
Shade — not even!
Sunscreen — nope.
Goggles — yeah, right.
Hat — ball cap that I lost on the first day.
Jack knife, tools, canteen, utensils, anything? — Nope.
Turns out that the compass was the only thing we had that was even remotely close to camping gear.
“We can hustle the things we need when we get there,” Jason had said.
But right now all I wanted to do was see if I could sleep. I lay on one side sweating and twitching. I lay on the other side twitching and sweating. My heart raced as I wheezed on the thin air and I was starting to know real thirst. I think I did experience a parody of sleep that was more like a dizzy hum, but mostly I just lay there like a pan left on the stove — or like road kill turning into jerky on the searing blacktop. That’s when I heard Jason scratching on the tent.
“Tony, you awake? I can’t sleep for shit.”
“Yeah, I’m awake. Who could sleep in this hot box?”
I was reminded of the prison movies where punishment was getting thrown into some metal shack in the sun and left to die. I crawled out of my tent and into the microwaves.
“I sure could use a drink of water.” My voice was becoming a dry whisper.
“Yeah, we forgot that shit,” answered J. “We might as well get up and start helping. I’m sure Will’s got water.”
Then he turned to me and flashed a different kind of grin. This one had a glint. I knew that glint — it could fly. It was why he was impossible to keep up with. Jason had fashioned himself with wings. While others were crawling through their ant farms of life, he had taught himself how to soar. I wanted to soar, too, but I was just wildly flapping. He pulled his wallet from his shorts and reached in to find a small folded piece of cellophane. He fished it out and held it up pinched in his fingers. I could see the little white squares through the cellophane. It was blotter acid and had cartoons of Snoopy’s bird friend, ‘Woodstock’ on them.
“I’m gonna dose,” he said. “There’s an extra hit here if you want it.”
Well, I had followed him this far. And who’s to say that taking a hit of acid after being up for three days on amphetamines without eating or drinking any water, then driving to the driest place possible at an altitude of 4000’ to start loading heavy shit off a truck was a bad idea? How could I have known that I would shortly be on a mind fuck through the bilges of my psyche? Or that Satan would soon be drinking the life out of my wrists with flaming fangs? I gave him the sideways look of blind trust. It was the same look I had given my cousin Danny all those years ago when I was ten and he was leading me into the abandoned house at the end of our block at night. He handed me the tiny folded piece of paper and while unthinking any of it, I put it on my tongue.
I was feeling rickety and couldn’t find my hat already. My hair was hot. I did find my scratched up sunglasses and put them on as I stood up and leaned into the heat, hopping my legs would catch up. We found Will, who was still working and was now driving a bashed up flat bed that was loaded with what looked like big clunky pieces of plywood furniture.
“Awesome! You guys are up!” Will said. “Hop on and start off loading these spire bases.”
Stepping on to that flatbed was like stepping onto a breakfast griddle. Everything was hot — the metal, the air burning our lungs, my belt buckle, the melting souls of my Converse high tops, my eyelids for Christ sakes! Even my nose hairs were singeing. I hadn’t had a drink of water for so long that my tongue was a crocodile and my lips felt like dried up worms on a sidewalk. The truck jerked into motion and anything I grabbed was burning my city hands.
“ I gotta have some water. Ask someone if I could have a drink of water.” My whisper had turned into a croak.
“Hey Will,” Jason said leaning into the driver’s window, “my buddy and I need a drink of water.”
A hand came out of the window holding an old army canteen. Real thirst will drive a person and I snatched at it; never mind a please or thank you. I unscrewed the cap and chugged, barely noticing that the water in the canteen was the temperature of hot tea. That did not matter. Already the desert was stripping me down to basic needs. Most of us lounge in delusion, not knowing that we’re only one bad afternoon away from desperation. We seldom consider how quickly things deplete when supplies are cut.
We were lumbering down the Promenade schlepping giant spire bases in the heat when my body finally said fuck you, and started shutting down. And then the acid kicked in. It started with shallow panting. Then it felt like there were Ping-Pong balls bouncing in my chest as my heart raced. My vision was darkening into a shrinking tunnel as my bones began to twist. I was turning into a rubber band. I tried to move about but the acid was a salt-water taffy machine stretching me asunder. The incinerated world around me was becoming wiggly and flubbery. I looked down and gasped! I could actually see my life force draining out of my wrists in a pale cascade. Satan was coming to reap his debt. Three days of no sleep, food, or water while being crystalized from within by meth was taking it’s toll. I was dying. I tried to lift another spire base when the hot hand of gravity slapped me to the ground. I collapsed, tumbling off the flatbed and hit the playa like a broken bag of garbage. Jason spun around.
“Tony, Tony! Are you ok?”
“I think I’m dying. I think I’m dying.” was all I could gasp out.
The vivid torment of LSD was taking hold and amplifying my panic to a critical mass. All I could do was lay there with bulging eyes and gaping mouth. I was a trout in the bottom of a boat. I guess that’s what happens when you try to keep up with a soaring comet. Jason was still in his twenties and a veteran to drug use. He wasn’t bothered by any of our excessive antics. He was upbeat and happy, tossing spire bases around like beach balls. It all seemed so unfair. Will stopped the truck and got out with hands on his hips.
“We need to get him to Flash’s camp,” was all he said.
Several hands helped load me back on to the breakfast griddle. Will got back into the truck shaking his head while muttering something about how Jason was supposed to bring extra hands, not someone tripping on drugs. This only added shattered pride to my tortured emotions blazing in my brain. Jason’s face was a worried twist — like that of a child that had just broken his favorite toy. The truck made a slow turn and headed to a far corner of the budding city. It was a very long ride, as I lay there watching the life force continue to drain out of my wrists like smoke off of dry ice.
Flash’s camp loomed in the distance. As we approached, it looked to be a sultan’s oasis. It was low and lush with flowing fabrics billowing and Arabic looking cushions and carpets strewn about. Beautiful people were drifting around the camp clad in the sheerest of textiles covering just enough to make them even sexier. Even in my death rattle, I could still embrace their beauty. They all looked like gods and goddesses.
Pulling along side the camp, a grey bearded man popped out of one of the only trailers. He was wiry and animated, waving his arms and laughing in the cadence of Lucifer. I was reminded of maybe Satyr — the Greek mythical half man half goat with pointy beard and horns — made even more confounding with a gravel voice booming out in an east coast accent. This was Flash. His toothy grin quickly turned to hard concern when he saw them cradling me off the truck like broken glass.
“This one’s not doing so well,” said Will. “Maybe you can let him rest in your camp and get some shade and water.”
“What happened to him,” Flash asked
“We think he’s overdosing on acid.”
Flash snapped around and peered into my face. His eyes were the blue flames of a cutting torch. He had me locked and all I could do was stand and shiver with my folded arms clutching to what was left of my bones. He stepped in close. Clapping his hands hard on my shoulders, he cut right through my panic, simply saying,
“You’re not gonna die!”
It was the power of suggestion. Hands guided me to a lavish sofa and sat me down. A wet washcloth appeared on my forehead and a canteen filled with cool minty water was placed in my hands. It truly was an oasis. I would later come to find that Black Rock City was fueled by love like this. Meanwhile, the acid was at a vigorous boil and everything was outlined in neon, twisting away from reality. I looked down and saw that I had the hands of a chimpanzee and my wrists were still spilling. Everything was racing and weird. I turned my head and was astonished to see a goat standing there. Was it real, or was it a massive hallucination? It stared at me with its rectangle pupils while chewing on something. First I see a half man half goat step out of a trailer, and now a real goat in the camp. What the fuck was going on with these goats? Then Flash said,
“Wait right here and try to relax. I’ll be right back.”
Like I was going anywhere. A few moments later Flash returned with a magnificent looking man. He was wearing a turban and a long white Arabic robe. He had a long nose and a black mustache. His eyes were made of charcoal.
“This is Oliver,” Flash said. “He’s got something for you.”
Oliver said nothing and handed Flash two tablets.
“This is 500 milligrams of niacin.”
Asking about it later I would find out that a ‘niacin flush’ (vitamin B3) cleans out your toxins that can sometimes manifest into fiery red blotches on your skin. Inquiring further I found out that a recommended daily amount was around 35 milligrams. That afternoon, Flash gave me 500. He was my doctor and these were his orders.
“It’s gonna cook the acid out of your brain,” he said. “It’ll bring you down in about a half an hour, but it’s going to be the craziest sleigh ride through Hell that you’ve ever had! You’re gonna feel like you’re on fire, your head’s gonna turn into a pressure cooker, you’re gonna want your mommy, and then you’re gonna need to use the porta potty.”
I was desperate. I took the pills.
Flash had told the truth. The next half hour was straight down the nine levels of Hell from Dante’s Inferno and into Lucifer’s mouth — a perfect precursor to the Helco week that was about to come. I rolled into the fetal position hugging my knees and rocking as my skin started blotching out in red fiery patches. I was literally blazing! I was on a horror train heading into the mouths of zombies. Bloody gore was everywhere. My head felt like a steam engine with hot coal being shoveled into my furnace mouth. It was boiling my brain. Everything I saw seemed to have horrible meaning — the cups and glasses on the little coffee table chattering to me — the billowing fabric becoming murmuring spirits — all laughing at me. At one point I turned and saw the goddamn goat again, this time shitting poop pellets onto a half eaten plate of food sitting on the ground. WHAT THE FUCK? He drank the rest of the tea out of a teacup, and then ate the tea bag, the string, the tag, even the little staple! It all seemed so poignant and I was having revelations that were instantly gone as fast as they came. A beautiful young girl came and kneelt down in front of me. She was wearing almost nothing. She started stroking my hands while gently whispering,
“Find your center. Find your center.”
There wasn’t much center in a rocket ride up Satan’s ass, though. I just wanted her to go away. At that point, a vivacious man sat down next to me and slapped my back, saying in a thick accent,
“And who are you? I haven’t met you yet.”
He was older with a Latin look, wild dark eyes, a bushy white mustache, and eyebrows that protruded out about an inch from his forehead. I was unable to talk, so the young beauty intervened saying that I wasn’t feeling well. I would meet that man later and become part of his inferno opera. His name was Pepe Ozan. He shrugged and stepped away. The trip raged on until I was a paper bag torching in a burn barrel.
Then, as Dr. Flash had foretold, the fever broke. The mighty vice of LSD started to loosen its grip — like a bully that’s finally tired of beating you and just drops you on the floor with a last few kicks. I felt like the fur and bones that an owl shits out after eating a mouse. I wasn’t out of the woods, yet, but a plug had been pulled and the tub was draining. I lay there for a moment, washed out and weak. Then another of Flash’s predictions came true.
“Can you tell me where the porta-pottie is?”
These were the first words I had said since falling off the truck. A few people pointed in a direction, so I got up on shaky legs and made my way to the potty. I got in and sat down with the sticky tendrils of acid still in my head. I felt like I had just stepped into a hot blue lava lamp with the walls of the potty morphing and blubbing around me. Then the niacin did the rest of its flushing job and shit blasted out of me like hot wax. I finished and made my way back to the shade and to the sofa. There was nothing left of me — a cobweb in a corner.
The acid kept coming in waves like seasickness as I stayed in the oasis camp for the rest of the afternoon. The sun’s flare was starting to slant as the dry air was releasing its heat. The growing shadows on the flatness had nothing to stop them and soon stretched to the far off mountains. More campmates swished in on magic carpets, weary from the workday. Many were wondering who the broken waif on the couch was.
“Who’s the homeless kid?”
“Don’t know who he is. Mr. Klean brought him in. I guess he was over dosing on drugs.”
Who’s Mr. Klean, I thought. I would later find out that that was Will’s playa name and radio handle.
“Well, I hope he’s not staying,” I heard someone else say. “We don’t have enough food.”
Then another psychedelic nausea wave would crash in making me feel like I was going to vomit mattress stuffing. The punishment was fitting the crime. But they were getting less intense, and I was starting to pull out of the tumble. The beautiful young lady petting my hands had it right — I was finding my center.
A lot of camps had drum circles back then, and it wasn’t long before I heard the boom of an evening djembe drum. It was quickly answered and a solemn beat started to move the camp. The setting sun seemed to nod and spread her soft colors to the rhythm. The shrapnel of my world was starting to make sense. All of my fractals had been big banged into the cosmos and the gravity of rhythm was pulling them back. It was a gyroscope that was righting the capsule — the thrumming engine room that was bringing the drifting ship back on its course. I had been cradled in music my entire life and years of playing the same old stuff had smothered its voice. It took an episode like this to uncover its soul once again — to make me fall back into its marrow. There was an extra drum beckoning, and I went to it with nods of approval from welcoming eyes that seemed to know what I needed. I was at home in the saddle of percussion and joined in the beat. It was exactly what I needed. Our journey starts with a heartbeat after all. It would be the first time in my life that I would have no thoughts. They had all been incinerated. All that I was made of was a simple beat. All that anything was made of was a simple beat; the spinning electrons, the rise and fall of a breathing chest, the changing seasons, the tilted gears of the spinning planets, a swirling galaxy, all following a grand cadence, a simple truth that I could feel in the stripped wires of my nerves. Life is but a pulse.
At one point I noticed Jason standing by the camp’s edge watching me. His arms were folded and he was smiling. Our eyes met and he nodded. I was going to be all right.
Flash had come out to check on his patient one more time before we left. He was wearing a bloodstained apron, and he led me back behind his trailer where he had been grilling a pig smeared with banana sauce. Turns out that it wasn’t his camp after all. It was actually the camp of Pepe Ozan, and the campmates were to be the cast of his opera performance. Flash was the camp cook and was known as ‘Papa Satan’. He was the guy to know and took care of everybody.
“I told you you’d be all right,” he said as he rubbed more banana smear onto a suckling pig, head and all.
“The Niacin works every time. Not many people know about it.”
“Well, tell Oliver thanks. That shit saved my ass.”
“He was glad to do it. He always has it with him for such occasions. Here, try some of this pig.”
It was the combination of a few things — the timing, Flash’s grilling skills, my raw hunger, the playa itself — but, whatever the reason, that bite of pork sent me, the salty sweet flavors bringing me around. It is a fact that food tastes better at Burning Man.
Will had dropped Jason off, so we were on foot. Even in the small BRC of ’96, it was still a long walk back to camp. Nothing is close on the playa. There was some daylight left so we were treated to glimpses into the camps, people upbeat and cheery. They all seemed so together and prepared with close-nit groups and the best of friends.
We made it back to Check Point Salon with just enough light to see the outlines of our cruddy camp. It was my first day of Burning Man, and I was already doing what most burners do when they get to the event — start planning for the next year.
“Next time I stock the car with what’s needed, Bro,” I said to J.
He just gave me that sheepish smile that he always gave when he was trying to wiggle out of trouble. We hunkered down and I brought out my CD player and punched up some Spearhead. Flash had given us a care package of food, so we ate as the light faded behind the western range. The acid was still coming in small waves, but was now just a storm on the distant horizon with faint flashes of heat lightning. The thunder was gone. This time I slept in my tent like a hibernating bear. I had no dreams left to give.
“I’m ready to work,” was all I said to Will the next morning. I had woken up feeling powerful. That’s odd, I thought. I sat up in my tent with all senses sharp, like I was pulling from a new power source that I’d never before tapped. My body felt sleek and nimble like an acrobat, and my thoughts were hyper-aware. Gobs of cerebral fat had been acid washed away, leaving me with a mental and physical lucidness. Did my brain and body just shed its skin? It wasn’t my life force that had been draining from my wrists; it was the gummy fog of the city. And now I was flayed open and never more alive. I was again reminded of Dante’s Inferno, where his quest for heaven takes him through the depths of hell. Yesterday, I had gone into the bottom of darkness, and today I had woken into razor brilliance.
“Well, we can use someone to sledge in the spire bases of the Promenade,” said Will.
The Spires are wooden lampposts that flank the Promenade that leads from the center of the city to the Man. They’re demonic and spikey and look to be made of matchsticks. There are now almost four hundred of them throughout Black Rock City, but in ’96 there, were just sixteen. The bases that hold them up are anchored to the playa by four concrete form stakes that are pounded in with a sledgehammer. This was carnie work for sure.
“I can do that,” I said.
I was a bit more prepared than yesterday, but not by much. I had some sun block and a few Power bars so I jumped into the flatbed with Will. Jason had already gone off to help Crimson put up colored flags on posts that were to delineate the four cardinal points of the city, each quadrant becoming its own neighborhood.
I was not used to working alone, but this time it seemed right. It was just Will and I in the truck, so this time, I was able to avoid the breakfast griddle flat bed. Will didn’t say much. He seemed a man that would get to know you on the merits of time. How refreshing to be with a person that was comfortable with silence. I liked him already.
We rolled out onto the playa, away from the camps and the world flattened to the horizons once again. We passed the dark scene of yesterday where I fell off the truck and went onward to where the Man would soon be standing. A pyramid of hay bales was stacked there. This was ground zero. Will stopped the truck next to the last spire base that had been tossed and we got out. The day was the same as yesterday with no clouds and ineludible sun. Crimson gave me a cowboy hat that morning. With temps still over a hundred, a wide brim hat was as essential as water. Will gave a brief explanation of how the spires were to be set; thirty feet wide on either side of the Promenade to set its width, and spaced one hundred feet apart between the Man and Center Camp. I was to lay them out, get them in line, and hammer them in.
“You think you got this,” Will asked.
I was pretty well muscled from years of lifting weights, so I wasn’t a stranger to heavy hitting, but this?
“Yeah, I got it,” I said.
Will went to the back of the truck and pulled off a twelve-pound sledgehammer, a canteen of water, and a 100-foot tape measure. He laid them at my feet and said,
“I’ll check in on you later.”
I would be using that same twelve-pound sledge for seasons to come. It was the one I was swinging twenty years later when that little rain cloud showed up. Setting the spires of the Promenade would be the first of many rituals to come for me. This is a story of how a ritual is born.
I watched Will’s vanishing truck as I stood in the silence. Nothing is as quiet as a windless playa. I may as well have been alone on a planet. Guess I should wrap my head around this, I thought. I stepped to what looked like the centerline between the haystacks and the shimmer of center camp and stretched the tape measure fifteen feet to the right. I set the spire base there, picked up a form stake and started tapping it into the anchor slot on the side of the base with the sledge. It had a beautiful sound to it, like a ringing bell. I started swinging, missing a few times, but warming up quickly — the hammer feeling solid in my hands. My muscles were startled into a wonderful ache and I started sweating with new vigor. What was I feeling? I couldn’t quite put a finger on it, but it seemed like my forces were aligning — like a camera lens was focusing vitality up from a mysterious core. Could it be that the hammer was getting lighter? It was becoming a living extension of my arms in the Zen of the swing, and instead of getting tired I was getting stronger! Coming so close to death the day before was making it tremendous to be alive. I worked through the morning pounding in base after base. I was in a full sweat, now, my skin glistening in the sun. I felt like a beautiful machine. I felt energized and validated. I felt like a man. If only my father could see me now, I thought.
Then it happened. I stopped swinging for a moment with my face wide open. Beams of light were cracking through a dark cellar in my mind. It was filling me with fresh rage. I shut my mouth and ground my teeth into a set jaw. I picked up the sledge and swung on the next stake with a lifetime of regret behind it. The stake drilled deep into the playa that was now my soul, piercing through the rusty locks that I had built around the injurious memories of my childhood. My life long search for my father ended with that hammer strike — forever.
My father had abandoned us when I was a little boy still hiding behind my mother’s skirt. I only had a few memories of him, and after thirty years, the only one that prevailed was his disappointment in me. I was not the proud wolf pup he had hoped for. It poured a platform of self-doubt and guilt that I had built a lifetime of compunction on. That dark cellar carried a declaration of self-blame for driving him away from my family and I had been spending my adult life searching for him to show him what I had become. And now that I was feeling the true humility of manhood for the first time, feeling strong for my own sake, with nothing to prove to anyone for anything, I no longer needed to seek him out. That day on the Promenade, the desert cauterized that old wound for good. I sat down and wept. I cried and let the tears wash out the filth of festered lie. I let the hatred flood down my face in a cathartic rinse, only to be startled by how quickly it became tears of joy. I had finally come to terms. Frankly, it was none of his business.
Up next… Chapter 2: City of Permission
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Audio production by Accuracy Third
Music by That Damned Band