“It’s official, honey, we won’t be building Black Rock City this year.”
“Good,” my wife replied. “I can finally grow some tomatoes.”
Burning Man 2020 would have been her twentieth year and my twenty-fifth, so pardon us if a forced year off wasn’t the worst news to come on down the pipe, especially when the rest of the world was spinning sideways. It was true — after twenty-five years of being the City Superintendent of Black Rock City, a good portion of my brain heaved a sigh of relief. (Or it may have been that little dusted out desert carnie sitting on my shoulder.) I had set many a Gold Spike, laid out and built as many city grids, and had weathered a lion’s share of high desert dust and drama.
“Damn, you’re right!” I said. “I haven’t been in San Francisco in the summer since 1995!”
(Of course, I had forgotten that August in SF is more like “Fogust” with Arctic Ocean winds whipping my writing roof shack like I was on a crab boat in the Bering Strait! But that’s a different story.)
Now the evenings found me on a cushy sofa sipping a frosty IPA retrieved out of a full-size fridge after a long hot shower next to a flushing porcelain toilet, binge-watching Schitt’s Creek!
But Burning Man wasn’t gone from our minds. Each milestone that had been clicking our calendars for two decades was still hardwired in. They kept popping up like a disgruntled mom reminding us we haven’t called.
“Fence day is today, honey. Aren’t you glad you’re not out there pounding in posts?”
“Commissary opens tomorrow.”
“Early Man is this weekend.” And so on.
And in my heart, a dark throb beat ever closer — Burn Night. I had never missed one. My place was always right up front as the pulse of the night spun the city. Every single one launched me like so many mortars that would strobe the sky. I swore from the start that I would never miss one.
The chaos of Burning Man 1996 almost ended the event for good. BRC ‘97 was a crapshoot at best. We were running out of options. Then something remarkable happened. We proved forever this was not just a festival, it was a communal surge. Burning Man survived because the people deemed it so. And now in the face of a 2020 canceled event, history repeated itself. Again, we found a way. There are those who give in to obstacles, those to try to break them down, and those who simply just find a way around. We found a way around. We couldn’t build a city in the desert, so the people stepped up and built one in the virtual Multiverse instead.
“There’s no holding back a good story, and there’s no stopping the surge of citizens. It’s what revolutions are made of!”
My place has always been to hand-build BRC. It’s like we share a skeleton. So the notion of visiting a computer-generated city made of pixels initially bounced off my brain like mosquitos off a screen door. But, hey, why not give it a shot? It sounded pretty fascinating once thought through. I may be a borderline boomer, but I’m no Luddite. Through the channels, a couple of loaner VR goggles showed up at our door as the highly anticipated virtual Black Rock City planned its launch. Nothing could match the excitement of my twin twelve-year-old boys, Atticus and Colby, who have been hounding for VR goggles since they were embryos. Going from analog to digital was a flip of the script. It seemed natural to pass the torch and have them take the lead. Besides, they hadn’t missed an event since they were born — even during utero, actually! It was time for them to drive.
We gathered as a family and sailed into the turbulence of the cyber-process. Altspace accounts had to be made — username/password hell was successfully navigated — avatars were dreamed up and selected — then after some initial fumbling around with controls and headsets, off they went to Burning Man. My wife and I poured some wine and sat and watched from across the room.
“Where are you guys now?”
“How the hell should we know?”
“What do you see around you?”
“I dunno — stuff!”
That was about all we could get out of them. And, of course, being champions of generation “Z,” they super-heroed it within minutes. So much for having them lead us anywhere. For now, anyway. They exhausted themselves and the headset batteries then went to bed. They went to Burning Man.
That evening it was dad’s turn. For the last several days, I had been hearing quite a lot from colleagues on how mind-blowing it all was. In fact, it was reminding me of excited first-time burners who won’t shut up about it! Good to know the magic translates. The fam had all gone to bed and I was freed up to — well — go to Burning Man! I actually got a small tingle of excitement. It was something new. The house was quiet, so I got out my laptop and sat down to figure this shit out. I had fooled around with VR goggles before, so I was prepared for the disorient as I was launched into that unnerving suspension into infinity with a floating dashboard. Not knowing what else to do, I pointed and clicked on what seemed to be a start button and immediately got transported to someone’s house. What the hell? This wasn’t Burning Man. Suddenly I was out on a balcony in some sort of city. I felt trapped in a nightmare. I turned my head and got jump-scared as there was someone else standing alarmingly close! I actually let out a small yelp! He immediately swooped at me while giggling and chattering. I think he’s trying to shake my hand, I thought after moments of confusion. I didn’t know I had a hand! I looked down and was shocked to see I had a hand! There was an awkward fumbling of hands reaching as they disappeared while canceling each other out. Was that a virtual handshake? I yanked my hand back and stood there dumbfounded as this pixel dude buzzed my face like a bumblebee while rambling on about how cool everything was. I was quickly triggered into cocktail party defense mode. Except this time I had no idea what to do or say. Fifty years of finely tuned social skills poofed away like flash paper! I had nothing. Then he started asking me about my crazy name and what it meant.
“So, your name’s Psycho Sumo? That’s a crazy name. What’s the story on that? And why ‘The Milkman’? Are you from Milk Camp or something? Hahahaha!”
What the hell?! This isn’t BRC! Far from it! Where the hell am I? And who the hell is this guy? And why the hell is he calling me Psycho Sumo?
Shit! That’s my son Colby’s avatar’s name! Am I him right now? And why is this guy yammering on about milk? (I would find out the next day that Colby’s avatar had full punk rock garb with black clothing and an orange mohawk. I would also learn that pointing at people popped open a name banner over their heads. Mine read, “Psycho Sumo — The Milkman.” I never did find out the backstory on the Milkman part. He won’t tell me!) Not knowing what else to do, I stood there like an idiot. I’m just going to walk away, I thought rudely. AND THEN I COULDN’T EVEN DO THAT! I was in a sleep paralysis NIGHTMARE! I started wildly jamming on the buttons on the gun thingy I was holding and finally succeeded in transporting back to the floating dashboard suspended in that weird infinity-scape. I tilted up the goggles and was instantly back to my dark and quiet living room feeling no different than snapping awake from a crazy dream. I sat for a moment feeling like a freshman who was just laughed off the dance floor. Did I owe an explanation to the bumblebee dude for disappearing on him?
“You see, my family is asleep and I happen to be trapped in my pre-teen son’s avatar and this is the first time I’ve ever done this and and and…”
Oh well. Another Burner lost in the crowd. Psycho Sumo sure made a poor showing. Sorry, Colby. Mercifully, the batteries in my headset were about dead anyway. I went to bed and lay there feeling dejected and full of FOMO. It had been a very long time since Black Rock City made me feel this way — reminiscent of the first time I was there in 1996, moping around alone with the whole city partying around me. Once in awhile a good jab in your soft underbelly might not be such a bad thing, just to keep it real.
I returned to BRCvr the next day after eagerly setting up a separate account and creating an avatar that had a grey beard, cowboy hat, and DPW orange and black colors. This time I took the tutorial and eventually landed right in Center Camp. It was truly astounding. Attention to detail always reflects the marvel of endeavor. I quickly learned to navigate, transport, and fly and I was a kid in the coolest funhouse in the world! Black Rock City was flourishing in the face of huge obstacles once again. As Mr. $teve Ra$pa so wisely put it, “We won’t be able to put that genie back into its bottle!” The possibilities of this world were as limitless as the infinity backdrop that floated it. Now, to get our own camps as dialed in as The Black Hole! Holy crap!
And then it was Burn Night. The Multiverse was getting pretty crowded so we decided to watch the Burn on the website webinar. I felt hollow anticipation as it was time to return to our dust-free sofa and frosty drinks. It had the foreign/familiar feel of the Super Bowl as we flicked on the big screen, but that quickly vanished with the magic of the Fire Conclave as they cleverly tossed flames back and forth and around the world across split-screens. Burning Man was alive and well, it’s spirits warming the dark throb of my heart. Then came the Burn. I swelled with emotion as we sat and watched Crimson, our goddess of fire, hold our rituals sacred as she again cradled the flames toward the 35th Burning Man. I will not lie. It was bitter. It was sweet. But most importantly, it still belonged to the hearts that opened to it. The spirit of a thing shall never be contained. We were not there to feel the heat, but could still embrace the love.
Two weeks after the Burn, I got a call from Russ Leslie, a very good friend, and old-time Burner. He had brought Camp Carp to BRC for over a decade and helped build our culture.
“I built something for you,” he said over the phone. “I’m bringing it over the bridge this weekend, and we can figure out what to do with it.”
Of course, he had built a Man. We stood around the back of his pickup that weekend. It had two very obvious legs sticking out from under a tarp loaded in the back.
“You once told me something long ago,” said Russ, “you said that you would NEVER miss a Burn. Well, I’m here to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
This is as true a friend as one could have.
That evening found a small but mighty group social distancing on an Ocean Beach in the city. The Man burned. Our eyes met over our masks, the love and good cheer beaming in the flicker of the firelight. It was as good a Burn as any — maybe even better in so many respects. People wandered up to it from out of the darkness, open and friendly. The vitality of the fire was already forming its own fellowship.
“Awesome replica of the Man!” I heard someone say.
“This is no replica,” I replied, “this is as genuine a Man as it gets!”
The memories of my twenty-fifth Burn will always stand alone. It will forever hold a close and special place in 2020 with a world gone mad.
This is a repost of Coyote’s original article posted on his Weekly Reader blog.
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Print and ebook versions of Tony “Coyote” Perez’s book “Built to Burn: Tales of the Desert Carnies of Burning Man” are also now available online.