Near midnight, as we waited in line for hot chocolate at Ebb and Glow, “Terri” told me about a Gigsville tradition she’d just participated in, called “Glampaging.”
“We go to a bar just as it’s opening, and we flood it with Gigsville people, so that there’s no room for any of their regulars. And then, once it’s completely packed and there’s no more room, we put a red velvet rope outside.”
I laughed, because of course I would, but Terri wasn’t finished. “But,” she said, “this time there was a problem: we’d crashed a wedding party, only the bride and groom and the bartender were there, and we’d just blocked out all of their guests.”
“OhMyGod! How did you realize this had happened?”
“It was PRETTY obvious. She was standing there in a white wedding dress. So one of us went over there and said ‘okay, this is what this is, and this is what’s happened, and we didn’t know, so are you okay with this?’”
Terri grinned. “She cracked up. She thought it was hilarious!”
Out past the Esplanade, Burning Man is raging. But we’ve been walking the backstreets on this beautiful night, looking for quieter experiences, reveling in those moments when something beautiful and inexplicable passes by, on its way to who knows what.
There’s a group of four people in line with us, and one of them – a woman whose name I never caught – looked over at Terri and me. “It sounds like this isn’t your first Burning Man,” she said, then added “It’s mine.”
Nope, we agreed. Not our first.
“How many times have you come here?” she asked.
I hesitated before answering. There’s an implied coolness factor that comes out in these conversations that is completely undeserved. Knowing the ropes doesn’t make you any more worth knowing. “Eleven,” I finally said.
“No, no, that’s not actually all that impressive.”
Terri stepped in. “Twenty-one.”
The woman started to gush, and I let Terri handle that as it was my turn to order hot chocolate. “All right,” I said, looking at the menu. “Which do you recommend? What has to happen here?”
“Well,” said one of the servers, “the plain white chocolate one is actually really good.” She considered for a moment. “Or … if you want … you could order something off menu, an unlisted item …”
“I want that!” I said, before she could even finish explaining how it was a caramel version of the white chocolate they’d been working on in secret.
“Just like that?” she said, more as an affirmation than a question.
“Just like that,” I said, more as a philosophical manifesto than an answer.
She filled my cup, and as Terri came up to order, the first timer she’d been talking to stepped over to me.
“What if …” she said, hesitantly, “you’re at Burning Man, but you feel like you’re struggling more than you should be? Not with your camping, with your … what if you’re not …” she hesitated.
“Ah,” I said, thinking that the most useful thing I ever wrote is a piece called “It’s Okay to be Miserable at Burning Man.”
I took a deep breath. “So, I’m guaranteed at least two major existential crises for every week I’m out at Burning Man,” I told her. “It’s just what happens. And this Monday? I had probably the worst personal breakdown I’ve ever had on playa.”
“Yeah, just the worst. I was asking myself what I’m doing here, whether this is even a good place for me, and it just spiraled. And the good thing is that, after all these years, I know how to handle that pretty well. But I still had to live through it, and it was almost a whole day of it getting worse, and worse, and worse, and I came very close to saying ‘fuck it,’ and just trying to leave.”
“Wow,” she said. “That … that’s really helpful to hear, actually.”
“The best advice I’ve got,” I said, “is to be honest about it. Be open about what you’re really experiencing here. I think there are so many people who are out there,” I gestured towards the open playa, “who don’t know how to say ‘I’m lonely and afraid right now,’ and it makes everything worse. Denying it makes these episodes last longer. Whereas if you can be honest about it with people, if you can be open enough to tell them ‘I’m depressed, I’m sad, everyone looks like they’re having more fun than me, I’m …’ whatever it is you’re feeling, then at some point it suddenly turns around. The playa suddenly turns you another direction, like magic. But that only happens, eventually, if you’re honest about where you really are.”
She smiled. “Can I give you a hug?” she said. “I think I really needed to hear that.” A moment later she had dashed off to find a missing member of their group, who had disappeared while everyone else was focused on hot chocolate and advice.
Terri and I drank our hot chocolates as we walked, marveling at the way the city is constantly changing around us, pulsing with life and possibility: you simply never know what’s going to happen next. We sat down on a couch by a burn barrel outside BMIR, and a moment later someone came over, sat down on the couch opposite us, and then shouted “YOU!” at me.
He was Darren, one of a group of friends who had not yet been able to find me on the playa. Darren had things he wanted to do, but another one of them, Michelle, came over and sat with us, holding a metal detector. She explained that they had planned to burying absurd things under the playa, and then come around with the metal detector and “find” them in front of a curious crowd. “‘Look,’ we’d say, as we pulled it out of the ground ‘A pot of stew! We need dinner! The playa really does provide!'”
But Darren had made fun of the idea, so now they were pranking him instead. He’d lost a pair of very expensive sunglasses that he’d been extremely proud of, and when someone else in their camp had found the glasses, instead of telling him, Michelle had secretly buried them in the ground outside BMIR. And now they were going to find them “spontaneously” with the metal detector.
Terri took a nap on the couch. The moment she closed her eyes, a dragon rolled by.
Everything changes out here, constantly. Sometimes so quickly that you can’t keep up. Those are the very best, and very worst, moments, and all you need to do to find them is cross the street and be honest about what you find.