This is Chapter 1 of a six-part story that was originally published on Medium in loving memory of a Dilated Peoples campmate. It is being shared with permission from the author, in the hopes that it brings back fond dusty memories of Home during this year without Black Rock City…
“We are a bit of stellar matter gone wrong. We are physical machinery — puppets that strut and talk and laugh and die as the hand of time pulls the strings beneath.”
—Sir Arthur Eddington, 1935
Chapter 1: Recreational Vehicle
Holly stirred on the top bunk of their RV. Her left arm blindly fumbled around on the nearest dust-blanketed shelf, on autopilot, grasping for her ponsjacks that weren’t there. The wisps of yet another hyperrealistic barbecue double-bacon cheeseburger dream disappeared into the ether.
Without fully thinking through the consequences, Holly pulled the black, silk eye mask up to her forehead. She immediately winced at the harsh bolts of piercing sunlight and jerked the mask back down over her eyes.
Five days earlier, Holly and her three other roommates-for-the-week had sealed each of the windows of their rented recreational vehicle with black garbage bags and duct tape. This attempt at deterring the outside sun’s harsh, late-summer rays had been mostly adequate at the time, but — like pretty much everything else in this godforsaken spot in the middle of the northern Nevada desert — their slapdash patch job had fallen into disrepair as the week wore on.
After several deep breaths of hot, stagnant air, she mustered the willpower to fully remove the mask from her eyes, along with her bright orange thimble-shaped foam earplugs from their snug positions. The instant she uncorked her ear canals, unnecessarily loud dance music rushed in from somewhere beyond the front of the RV.
“Ugh,” Holly mumbled to herself, “Does it EVER friggin’ stop here?”
As if conjured specifically to underline her observation, another set of fainter beats suddenly revved up from the opposite direction. These dueling, discordant tracks cued a miniature jackhammer to begin tap-tap-tapping away on the inside of her skull. Holly instinctively tried to turn the volume down by brushing her fingers behind her right ear. The attempt was futile, of course, since her ponsjack had been disconnected since Sunday.
She vigorously massaged her temples, trying to convince the construction worker in there to grab his lunch pail and take a break. Now that her eyes and ears were — regrettably — coming online, Holly scanned her body to ensure everything else was intact. Nothing seemed entirely out of place, but her sleeping shirt and shorts were completely soaked through with what she hoped was merely sweat. Both of her arms were caked in dirt and remnant streaks of day-glo body paint from the previous night. Thanks to the moisture now rushing from her pores, the dirt and paint mixture was rapidly transforming into a neon pink and glittery blue layer of mud.
Holly unleashed a loud yawn and swung her legs over the side of the lumpy mattress. She glanced at the empty bottom bunk directly below her and cursed her boyfriend’s designated sleeping spot. A few months earlier — back in the real world — when she had committed to join Polanco on his annual weeklong trip out here, she hadn’t fully grasped what she was agreeing to. She knew she’d have to go a week without a hot shower. All the water and waste you brought in had to go back out with you. And stories of the relentlessly dry, punishing desert heat were legend.
All this she knew. But it wasn’t until this past Sunday — while their RV was tubing along, halfway between San Francisco and Reno — that her boyfriend had hinted at the biggest luxury sacrifice she was about to make.
“Are you ready, Hol? T-minus 20 minutes to Camp Shitstorm!” Polanco had called out excitedly. “Binge your stream while you can.”
“What do you mean ‘while I can’?” Holly had scrunched her nose and given him a puzzled look.
Now, with her ponsjacks locked up for safekeeping in the camp’s faraday box and deprived of her precious stream for nearly five days, Holly knew all too well what he meant. At the beginning of the week, it had been fun — almost exotic — to experience the world for essentially the very first time in her adult life without any sort of filter. But with each passing day, her withdrawals seemed to worsen, like a smack addict in the initial phases of detox. The pull to access her technological crutch was so strong that she had even opened the glove compartment of their RV a couple of times and just stared at the locked box containing all of Camp Shitstorm’s ponsjacks, imagining what her friends back in the real world were simulcasting.
Sitting on the bunk, unshowered and drenched in her own sweat, Holly mocked Polanco’s pleading voice from months before: ‘Come with us to the playa this year, Hol,’ he said. ‘Trust me, you’ll love it out there,’ he said. ‘It’ll change your life!’ he said.
The only obvious changes Holly had felt so far were severe ponsjack withdrawals and an increasingly intense disdain for her boyfriend. After all, she wouldn’t be stuck — hungover, filthy, sweaty, miserable — in this sweltering desert world if not for one Polanco G. Torres.
Determined to get the day going, she extended her sore-from-too-much-dancing legs toward the ground and eased herself off the bunk. A simple chest of drawers separated their beds from the rear compartment of the RV. On top of the cabinet, a few reminders of the last few days: elbow-length purple nylon gloves, two pairs of cheap white sunglasses with giant plastic rainbows hot-glued to their frames, some mostly-empty water bottles, a solitary neon green nipple pastie the size of a small salad plate, and the well-worn silver tiara that a stranger had thrust upon Holly on Monday.
“Ummm, I’m not really a princess kind of girl,” Holly had objected, initially rejecting the cheap piece of costume jewelry.
“That’s got nothing to do with it. Look, this may appear to be nothing more than a janky piece of molded plastic, but it’s actually a talisman of playa magic,” the stranger had said while wrapping Holly’s hands firmly around the present. Then, responding to her skeptical gaze, “Just trust me. Carry it with you everywhere you go, and I guarantee you will discover the perfect moment for it.”
Holly snuck a momentary smile at the absurd interaction. Part of a protein bar beckoned from the top cabinet drawer, reminding her that she hadn’t eaten in far too long. She wasn’t particularly hungry, but knew she needed fuel, so she ripped the remainder of the bar out of its wrapper and popped it in her mouth.
It was one of those super-dense bars that seemingly took an entire bottle of water to coax down. Even if you had fully functioning salivary glands, which Holly in that moment certainly did not. She worked at the semi-sweet glob of near-food, trying to muster sufficient spit to break it down into something swallowable. Realizing it wasn’t going anywhere without some assistance, she reached for the only water bottle on the shelf that had any liquid left in it. She unscrewed the lid and tossed back its clear contents, blindly hoping it was merely water. That helped some, but after a few more moments of determined chewing, she surrendered — “Blech!” — and spat it back into its original wrapper. She tossed it toward an open trash bag resting haphazardly next to the shower.
Well, it used to be a shower anyway. Like many of the RVs parked in this stretch of desert for the week, theirs lacked a functioning fresh water connection. Without water, the shower, toilet, and sink were all rendered useless, at least as far as their original manufactured purposes were concerned. Each had been assigned a new temporary role. In the shower, overstuffed black garbage bags were stacked almost to the ceiling. Three storage boxes balanced precariously atop the closed toilet lid. The hand sink had been plugged up and gradually morphed into a bin for discarded accessories and sundry personal hygiene items.
A bead of sweat accumulated at the end of Holly’s nose and dropped to the worn, dark orange carpet at her feet. A hint of nausea — no doubt magnified by the attempted protein bar — conspired with the oppressive heat and her pounding headache to convince her that she needed to escape this sweatbox-on-wheels. And fast.
From her top cabinet drawer, she grabbed a pair of navy cotton panties and pulled a stray yellow elastic hairband onto her wrist. She swapped her sleeping attire for the panties and hung the damp shirt and shorts on the corner of her mattress to dry. Holly momentarily considered exiting the RV wearing just what she had on thus far. She would’ve had plenty of topless company among the neo-hippie girls on this particular patch of desert, and it certainly would have made Polanco happy to not be the only nudist in their camp, but that immodest thought was out of her head practically before it formed.
“Not this lifetime,” Holly mumbled to herself while rummaging deeper in the drawer for the faded orange sleeve of her Brave Heart Lion baseball tee. She gave its armpit a cursory whiff and — deeming the shirt clean enough — thrust both hands through the sleeves and pulled it over her head. As she was gathering her shoulder-length, bleached-out, dirty-as-fuck mane into a quick ponytail, Holly glimpsed a flash of motion in her periphery.
She gasped and flinched, but it was just her own reflection in the mirror above the sink that had alarmed her. Like everything else within eyeshot, its previously-shiny surface was covered in a layer of dust. Except for a lazy diagonal streak that someone had recently cleared with their hand. Holly leaned toward the stripe of exposed glass to gauge her appearance, and recoiled instantly at the sight. Fortunately, she wouldn’t be posing for any pictures today, so she haphazardly smeared some SPF 50 on her face and arms, then paused briefly to reassure her slightly strung-out and very much on-edge reflection, “You got this, Holly. Just three more days of this wretched place.”
She moved with a renewed sense of urgency to retrieve her backpack and moccasins from between the front bucket seats. As she passed the cabinet, the glint of fake diamonds from the tiara caught her eye. Its former owner’s entreaty to Holly to always carry it with her echoed in her head, compelling her to scoop it up. She shoved the tiara into the pack, flung both straps over one shoulder, and hastily worked each foot into its teal plastic slip-on.
Holly glanced for a nanosecond at the glove compartment but didn’t let the phantom limb pull of her ponsjack distract from the task at hand. She pressed down on the wedge-shaped metal grip on the side door. It didn’t budge. Remembering that it took some effort to unlatch, she leaned more of her weight into it. Still nothing. She pushed even harder, growing more and more desperate for fresh air. Her sunscreen-residued hand slid clean off the stubborn handle. As it slipped, she lost her balance, and her entire weight slammed into the door with a loud thud.
Holly’s shoulder and upper arm absorbed the initial impact, followed in the next instant by her sweat-drenched face making contact with the inside of the door. As if in a cartoon, her right cheek slid down its dirty veneer in slow motion, leaving both surfaces with matching mud streaks. Her armpit caught the latch, which finally applied the necessary force to pop it free. The door swung open violently with a shrill *clack,* accompanied by the *whoosh* of stagnant air rushing out of the RV. Her backpack went flying and she tumbled into an awkward heap on the grungy desert floor below.
To be continued…
You can continue reading this tale from the playa on Medium:
In 2018, Dilated Peoples lost one of our campmates to an awful, aggressive recurrence of brain cancer. Burning Man was such a big part of Mastahnick’s life and — through short videos that he compiled to chronicle his playa adventures each year — he inspired so many folks to take the plunge and experience that crazy place for themselves. If you haven’t seen his creations, you can find them here. They’re delightful. You might even glimpse a porta-potty prank (or three).
I originally had the idea for this piece in 2016, while on my second Burn. It occurred to me that when we (and other camps) pranked people, the experience was so jarring for each prankee that it might very well fundamentally change their entire perspective of Burning Man. I also felt like there was/is a dearth of fictionalized writing about happenings on the playa, not only for outsiders who have never visited that alien world firsthand, but also for Burners who have. The art that exists out there is — by far — my favorite part of the experimental community that materializes, seemingly overnight, each (non-pandemic) year in the Nevada desert. But physical/visual/performance media have never called to me as a creator in remotely the way that the written word does. So I decided to take a stab at contributing to the art of Burning Man in my own tiny way.
I came across this line from Neil Gaiman one day in 2019, while I was struggling to maneuver Holly and Polanco out of their camp and into our prank: “You have to finish things — that’s what you learn from, you learn by finishing things.” I resolved then and there to finish this story, in part, as a way to honor and memorialize our dearly departed, always-smiling Mastahnick. He didn’t get to finish everything he wanted to finish. Nor will any of the rest of us.
Huge thanks to my dear Jon and fellow bookworms, EJ and Kris, for slogging through early, far-worse-than-mediocre drafts, and providing such constructive feedback!
Thank you, Scratch ’n’ Sniff for continuing this prank tradition. And of course, a big distanced hug to all the rest of the Dilated Peoples for helping change my life for the funner.
Cover image: “DREAM” by Laura Kimpton and Jeff Schomberg, 2015 (Photo by Mastahnick)