Image by Daniel Velez
Nick Stoner
Jan 16, 2017 · 28 min read

& Other Stories From Burning Man

Nowness

I have no story.

No linear narrative. There isn’t such a thing. Not out there, anyway. If someone tries to tell you A happened, then B and C and D until sunrise, they’re bullshitting you. Because it didn’t happen like that. That’s the first thing I’m certain of.

I have no agenda. I do not want to convince you to go, or judge those who came (or their reasons, ways, and means of coming). I’m not capable of doing either. This is not a report. I was not a voyeur. I was gonzo all the way.

All I have for you are moments. Things that happened, more or less, now. They are not chronological. They don’t need to be. They happened. Somewhere, they are still happening. That’s the second thing I’m certain of.

If you’re waiting for a third thing, don’t hold your breath.

There’s nothing else.

Burning Girl

The Man is dead.

It was a public execution. A reckless explosion. A spasm of Fourth of July madcap madness. He didn’t bellow or scream. He suffered His fiery death with the stoic absence of the faceless man He was.

When He fell, everybody cheered.

He had to die. That’s what we’ll say later, those of us who came thousands of miles and more to the middle of nowhere (Everything?) to be His mourners. Death — the burn — was necessary if we were ever going to leave. Maybe that’s why we ourselves will go, eventually. Inevitably. Maybe the Universe knows something we’re all just catching on to.

We wonder these things as a car turned trombone plays His funeral dirge, a haunting salute to the Faceless Edifice, Lord Of The Playa, Symbol of Something…

Of what? Who are we to say?

Catharsis. Revenge. Corporatism. Elitism. Ignorance. Arrogance. Hate. Love. Loss. Life. Serenity. Liberty. The death of liberty. The birth of freedom. The loss of innocence. The path to knowledge. The dissolution of the information age. The impermanence of nature. A reckoning in a year of reckoning. All of this at once. And none of it. It’s just a bullshit thing to do because explosions are cool and the night is cold. Fuck your burn.

Whatever the reason, whoever the Man was, now He burns.

We step up in turn to the raging embers of a fire hotter than any oven or furnace, a fire that might set you ablaze at the distance of a man. Archways and ornate wooden sculptures stand, eking out an existence in the palpitating heat. For the moment.

That heat grips us, sucking us away from the entropy of desert night. One of us whispers, “Imagine if this was your village.”

For many, it was.

The people are dancing. Crying. Raving. Screaming. Nude clarinet playing. Any semblance of sanity, any lingering shred of reality has finally gone up in smoke. The reduction (or evolution) from human to animal is complete.

They howl. They shed their clothes: top hats, goggles, tutus, kilts, spandex, leather, fur, LED embroideries, nipple tassels, speedos, windbreakers, boots, bandanas and shoes. They shed their playa armor and run into the fire.

They streak like loose electrons, bolting through limitless space with high knees and jangling limbs. Their bare feet crash through flaming wood, seemingly impervious to splinters, embers, or flame in general. We wince every time a stray heel sprays a shower of sparks. They all run like Hermes. None of them are gods.

I see the girl approach all this slowly.

She’s alone and doesn’t strike me as crazed or high, unless you count fear as a drug. The utter dread shakes her. It swings from wide eyes. Perhaps the force of the heat stokes her fear. Perhaps it’s fueled by the knowledge of what she’s about to do.

She steps out of her clothes like Venus from the shell. They fall to the dust forgotten, unimportant. She shivers, wraps her arms around her exposed body, and flocks to the flame like a moth who understands we are drawn to flames of our own making.

She studies the flames with a thousand yard stare. A thousand year stare. Her bare toes edge the ring of the inferno. Her arms drop to her side the way your lover does before they pull you into bed. The fear melts away as if it were nothing more than a thin layer of paper wrapped around everything she ever wanted to do. And with a step, she is doing all of it.

She’s a flickering shadow. An illuminated body. A girl baking in the leftover hell of a sacrificed god. The dust swirls. The fire burns.

A bodiless dress catches a breeze, vanishing as it dances off into the night.

Butts

Butts are all around.

They’re in the camps. From Ass Stamp Camp where a firm stamp on the rear earns you the right to a chili spiced tequila shot, to Spankys where electric saws rain sparks out of metal thongs, to Big Mike’s Spank Bank where Big Mike spanks whoever, whenever. We are in a world of butts.

But we come from a world where we sit on our butts. All day. All night. Our butts are killing us. They’re worse than smoking.

That’s why we’ve been on the playa for less than two minutes, only to be pulled over by butt bearers, and forced to show our own. They drag us out of the car for a spanking initiation, because we must punish our butts for killing us. And we must worship our butts for being the most important thing in our lives. And we must decorate our butts for prosperity.

The Man Himself may be a butt. He has a buttish face. But I’d never call Him a Butt Face. I have a feeling He wouldn’t like that. He just wants us to give.

And when you’ve got nothing else to give, you can always flash a cheek, slap a keister, show some tush. After all, everybody’s got one.

We are all equal.

Welcome Home

It’s one of the first things said to us, and when people discover it’s our first burn (something they do with a studied look), they say it again.

“Welcome home.”

They say it with affected sincerity, with the authentic tenderness of the Prodigal Son’s Father. But it must be an oxymoron. This city of dust and lights and (literally) nothing else that rises just outside outskirts of an Native American reservation is the farthest thing from home we’ve ever known.

But here we are. Guests in a stranger’s yurt. Would we like some tea, they ask. Ginger, lavender, or mint. The tea is wonderful. The people are kind. If home is a place you must discover, then perhaps we’re onto something.

Seasoned Burners have a phrases du jour that don’t make sense. More prominent than ‘welcome home’ is ‘fuck your burn.’ Friendly bicyclists roll by our camp, smiling and waving. “Fuck your burn!” they shout. We fuck them right back. “Have you seen Daft Punk?” they ask. “At the trash fence,” we say. They howl and ride on.

That’s the way it is.

It makes as much sense as a faraday birdcage, a Barbie army, or a pirate dosing off on a wheeled mushroom forest. But sense matters as much as cents here. You can’t buy anything… except ice.

See what I mean?

How To Light Your Face On Fire

Our neighbor works in a goldmine where he’s never seen a speck of gold and protocol demands a shower every three hours to keep poisonous lead dust from settling into their skin.

He wants to show us how to light your face on fire.

“It just takes a bit of snuff,” he says. “Like chewing tobacco, only it goes up your nose.”

We tell him he’s the worst salesman we’ve ever met. So he affably fucks our burn, and with a whiff, lights his face right up. Right nostril first.

“Now, I think about it, I did see some gold once. My first week, they showed us a bar. Tried to pick it up and almost threw out my fucking back. Those movies you see where they’re just tossing bricks into bags and throwing ’em over their shoulders. Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. That ain’t how it works.”

His face glows like one of those unmovable bars of gold.

We believe him.

Jelly On The Prowl

The sun drags you out of your tent.

It takes an hour or two, but by 7:30, even a well-built swamp cooler can’t overcome the intensity of the Playa sun cutting through cloudless sky 4,000ft. above sea level. For those of us in tents, the feeling is akin to the old frog in the microwave. Hung-over eyes begin to bulge. Lips, which have already shriveled up and receded into our skulls, reappear suddenly just to beg for mercy. The inside of our nostrils are pure sand paper, and we expunge sand boogies the size of a pointer finger with hacking sneezes.

I’m performing this morning ritual when I find the girl wearing a human-size piece of toast, and nothing else, climbing our camp’s rock wall while her friends look on. It’s a type of breakfast.

I casually suggest the best path for her to take, the way up that seems least cumbersome for a giant piece of toast. But it’s only a suggestion, and I join her friends in eye rolling as we watch her reach and fail and fall. She bounces up, brushes herself off, says, “It’s really too hot to be toast.” I agree. That’s why I left the tent.

It’s at this point that I realize she isn’t just toast. She’s toast with a good helping of jelly. I ask her what she’s up to on this fine morning on the Playa. She says she’s looking for peanut butter. Have I seen any?

“No,” I say.

She sighs. The way she’s sighed on a hundred other mornings that are just like and nothing like this one. It’s an understanding sigh that doesn’t hold any grudges or regrets. She just thought she’d ask, because maybe I had seen peanut butter, and wouldn’t a world where jelly finds peanut butter be the most perfect world you’ve ever heard of?

She says all that. She says it fast. And I’m just barely awake, even if that sun is doing work rebuilding lost serotonin. So I just nod and agree. I wished we lived in a peanut butter and jelly world.

“Well, I’ve been wishing for 26 years, and no luck so far.”

She yawns, flashes a nipple, and five of us begin the morning hunt for our own tequila sunrise. It only takes a minute or two.

But there’s no peanut butter in sight.

The Normality Of Being Dirty

We are dirty.

No. We’re beyond dirty. We are not muddy or covered in dirt. We don’t really smell. (It’s too dry to sweat.)

What is happening seems to be some sort of fossilization.

The Playa is a prehistoric, dried lakebed of alkali dust. It’s softer and finer than sand, which is how the wind throws it so easily. The dust storms rise miles off, sweeping toward us like collapsing prison walls. There’s nothing to do but pull up your goggles, tighten your bandana, and wait.

Some white outs last minutes. Others, full days. While they rage, front bike tires vanish. Hands become fuzzy. If the wind carves out some small window of visibility, you might notice an art car sideling up beside you. A twenty-foot duck radiating tropical house or a reclining Buddha slyly napping his way to nirvana. Buddha doesn’t wear goggles.

When the dust passes, we’ve aged. Body hair is gray. Not peppered. Not just a touch of gray. But gray. We’ve become old men. Long hair grows thicker by the day, threading itself around microscopic filaments of Pleistocene lake muck. The unseen specks settle into our skin, clogging pores, sucking our skin back through time to the days of scales.

Let’s not talk about our nails. They’re nothing but bleeding, chafing stubs. We can wash them, but in moments they revert back to their newfound desert state. They are useless at their most important tasks — namely, opening many cans of beer.

All this to say, we are dirty. And any relief we find, we cherish. Even in a 110-degree steam bath. Full of nude men and women. In fact, we’re so thrilled to have stumbled across this oasis, we don’t hesitate before stripping down and joining the line of pale dust ghosts.

They warn us that our noses might bleed. We’re about to cross the line from Playa to jungle. If we start to bleed, we should stay calm. It’s normal.

But I forget we’ll also sweat. I forgot sweating is normal. I forget all things normal. Normal is not a word here. If it is uttered, it is trampled, shot down, beat, sworn at, spit on, and left to die in the dust. “Normal’s just a concept invented by those who don’t understand,” a Burner who’s thought about burning says. “Fuck your burn,” they hear back.

I’ve forgotten we’re naked when the door to the steam bath opens. It seems normal.

Inside the bath, they chant. Ohm reverberates around the small dome where we tuck our heads, and the sun cuts through holes in the wall to draw golden lines on a tangle of nude bodies. We take turns standing on a pedestal, while a faucet with running water is handed from person to person. Together, we shed our dust.

Until we are clean. Until we have learned to sweat again. Until we have skin again. We walk out into the midday desert to find the air cold and our bodies moist. It is the greatest feeling in the world.

For a moment. Until we don dusty clothes, and become dirty once again.

The Veracity Of Rumor

We want to prove the rumors true.

This is the constant struggle — separating the fact from the fiction. People have died here: true. Daft Punk was at the trash fence last night: false. (Though, they may have been elsewhere.) There’s an orgy tent: true. A crazed doctor showers people in soap in a glass box: speculative.

So we went searching. Traversing the shifting dust eddies that reduced even beach cruisers to a pitiful slog (eventually causing the literal explosion of the gears of my happily donated, gaily decorated, furry-seated ride).

We bump along, goggles murky and drinks crusty. My cup carries a permanent residue. A hundred mixed drinks and a billion particles of prehistoric dust swirl together. I try to keep my balance, not spill, and throw the concoction down.

Somewhere in this never-ending struggle, we stop by a tent to refill our dusty brews. But before we can, we’re directed to a side door setup for a queue. We push aside a curtain and realize we’ve found what we’re looking for: Dr. Bronners Sud Extravaganza.

To us, it’s the perfect shower.

In a circus tent, dozens of people peel off their clothes and mill around pre or post sud extravaganza. Some dance to an ever-present DJ. Some carry on conversation. Most wait to enter the long glass box where dozens at a time are crammed together and blasted with thick soap from above.

It is as sexy as a shower, which is to say, not sexy at all. I discover this again and again, that nudity does not strip us of anything. It seems to build us up, to render our most authentic selves. I do not see naked people. Just people. The ones God knew in Eden.

We enter the glass box, and are squeezed together so we do not just see, but touch. We rub and feel and hold each other. Then we look up.

Cartoon skeletons dance above us, all clambering limbs hopping from left foot to right foot, shaking with a possessed madness that might bring them to pieces any moment.

These people operate Dr. Seuss machinery. Flexible tubes, extendible spigots and sprayers, whatchamacallits they must carry with both arms. They’re the demons of a plumber’s nightmare, and at the helm is the Doctor.

I spot him just before we are consumed by soapy foam. Dying hair bursting out of an ancient scalp. He stares at me with wild eyes, eyes that have stared down at a thousand me’s discovering what it means to be naked for the first time. He aims his soap cannon and fires.

Everything goes white.

We rinse and repeat.

We dry.

Am I clean, or just lost?

At The Trash Fence

At the farthest corner of the Playa, there’s a note.

It reads: “Daft Punk was here literally 15 minutes ago. Sorry.”

On Dancing

We’re dancing.

We do little else. There’s little else to do. (This is not true at all. But it is mostly true.) We dance in the morning. We dance in the afternoon. We dance all night.

At sunrise, a robot with a shimmering LED heart treks from some secret wasteland to the farthest reaches of the Deep Playa, scraping the edge of the trash fence. So we dance at sunrise.

We see a dancer wearing a round clock around their neck. The minute and hour hands are cracked, dangling limp arms in slings. The word NOW is printed boldly across the clock’s face. It’s impossible to tell what time it is.

So we dance.

A Friendly Joust

You can ride your bike for days and not see half of it.

A man plays a flaming tuba. Giant stairs to nowhere offer giant slinkies to the bottom. Nude gymnasts swing from rings like maundering apes.

A knight demands we joust, so we saddle up on our plush desert cruisers, drinks in left hands, jousting sticks on our right. The knight dons his medieval Joe Buck, introducing us like gladiators in drag.

We fight for honor and glory. We will respect our fellow rider. We will strive valiantly. We will conquer with dignity. We will be humble in defeat.

We are wearing fur vests. We’re drinking hot Tecates.

“Joust!” the knight demands.

My dusty gears squeak. We struggle with balance. I take aim with my long padded pole, hitting my friend directly in the balls.

“Victor!” the knight declares.

Those who are able, take a knee to be knighted.

The Devoted Writer

There’s a desk in the middle of nowhere with a broken typewriter and an inviting chair.

I don’t know why we are surprised to find someone writing there. Not just writing. Actually writing. Without pauses or hesitation. I’m paid to write, and I mostly just stare and chew the end of my pen. This is serious writing. Writing that cannot be disturbed. Writing that should not be disrupted. This is some Fitzgerald-lock-yourself-in-a-room-and-write-The-Great-Gatsby concentration. This is some Joyce-stream-of-conscious conscious. We shouldn’t disturb writing like this.

Obviously, we do.

The writer has headphones in, but if he’s tuning into silence, I wouldn’t be surprised. There’s little distraction out here except the wind, the rogue dust storms, and intruding cyclists hoping to participate in the strange. (Ideally, get a picture.) But I imagine the writer blasting deep space into his cranium. The sounds of the Mariana Trench. Nocturne of the grave.

I say this because I don’t hear any residual noise leaking from the headphone. There are only the quiet sniffles of a crier who’s been crying long enough to have worn out their lungs and wrung out their eyes. The writer’s tear ducts may be running on fumes, but they still leave heavy, splotchy marks on the reams of paper.

I figure the writer could use a break.

“Excuse me. Do you mind if I just get a quick picture at the desk?”

The writer doesn’t answer. The silence must be too loud. I tap the writer on the shoulder. The writer doesn’t move. The silence must be set to eleven. I tap the writer harder. The writer takes out one earpiece without looking up.

“Hey, can I get a pic for a second?”

“No.”

The writer puts the earpiece back and keeps writing. The writer’s hand never stops moving.

I realize I’ve been insanely rude, interrupting the sacred presence of the playa with ungracious memorializing for stupid likes. As a writer, I appreciate the revered flow of an uninterrupted internal monologue better than most…

It doesn’t matter. I want the picture.

We sit in the dust and wait. Other burners roll up periodically. They wave at us. They pull up beside the writer, and glance over his shoulder. The writer let’s them read what’s visible between the splotches. They leave.

A dust storm rolls through. The writer’s pen must dry out, because just like that, he simply stands up and walks away. It’s been twenty minutes.

I sit at the desk, get the picture, and am about to write on the broken machine, “Fuck your burn,” because I’m slightly peeved at the writer and caught up in the cynical spirit of the festival when I remember my thesis.

Having a thesis is a bit like having a broken heart or herpes — it can flare up at any time. I remember that no writer is a writer without a reader, and though the writer has taken their paper with them, for twenty minutes in the dust, I acted as witness to the act of writing, becoming, ipso facto, a kind of reader.

I write on the broken machine that records nothing, “We are all readers.”

I make a mental note to write about this later.

Santa At Sunrise

We managed to slap the red box wine of Sunset Blush to its end before sunrise, but Santa is waiting for us at the edge of the Esplanade, and he isn’t happy.

Maybe it’s the scraps of beet salad he scrapes with a spork off dusty Tupperware. Maybe his red pants are chafing. Maybe it’s the six-day, grimy stubble that must be Santa’s desert look. Whatever the problem is, he beckons us over like Ahab who feels the whale must be close.

“Are you having a good morning, Santa?” we all ask in our own ways.

“Jolly morning. Just jolly,” Santa reports. “Of course, the reindeer got into the acid again.”

“Not Dasher and Dancer,” I say, worried where reindeer will go in this desert. It’s nothing but dust for a hundred miles surrounded by the state with the highest concentration of nuclear missile silos in the world. We can’t have them just flying around willy-nilly.

“Yeah,” Santa says, “Prancer and Vixen too. Don’t know where any of the fuckers got off to.”

“But at least Rudolph is around somewhere, right?”

“You mean that red-nosed cunt?”

“Santa!” we all scream at once. “You can’t say things like that.”

“Fuck you. I’m Santa. You wait until I get my sleigh fixed. I’m going to find all those hairy bastards.”

“We wish you the best of luck, Santa,” we say, backing away slowly.

“You keep your eyes out! People think Reindeer are nice, but fucker’s will bite your head off!”

Santa is yelling because we’re running. The sun is behind us. Our shadows are a hundred feet long.

Hug Deli

No one works at Hug Deli except us.

We didn’t build the small wood hut out in Deep Playa. We don’t own it. But there are two aprons hanging behind the counter that we put on whenever we’re riding past. It’s the easiest job application in the world.

One hug costs two compliments. We get complimented on how dusty we are. NO, how phenomenally dusty we truly are. A set of compliments like that earns the complimenter a healthy choice between ‘Standing Snuggle,’ ‘Long n’ Awkward,’ ‘Slightly Creepy,’ and more.

Unfortunately, we missed the hugging workshop earlier in the week. We do our best to earn our keep in the hug economy, but honestly, a promotion seems pretty far off.

We’re in a routine, clocking in around midday, only to find late in the week that Hug Deli is no more. It’s been transformed into Hug Mart where a hug only costs a compliment and a half.

It seems that the long arm of capitalism has given us a reach around. The aprons are still behind the counter, though. So, we suit up and get to work. We’re making less. But we’re giving more.

The feeling is as familiar as a hug.

Hangar 4

We live somewhere.

8:45 & C. We call it Hangar 4. Look for the crashed rocket, with its upturned fins that double as fire cannons.

Image By Otto Lai

Come climb the rocket’s wall. It may only be 15 feet, but it’s a rewarding climb. A climb designed by climbers for climbers. This is our gift.

We don’t have reclining pillows or mellow teas. It’s cheap liqueur, a wall, and good company. That’s all you get here, in our home.

We sit on lumpy lawn chairs and coolers. Swamp coolers hum. When the fire marshals give the ok, the rocket roars, spewing combustible flame against the stars with the crack of a rifle. We jump every time.

When everything is gone, when no trace is left, I could take you back. Because part of me lives there.

In Hangar 4.

A Heavy Puzzle

The Magic Carpet pulls up. (Yes, that’s actually how this one starts.) And, honest-to-god, stone sober, we climb aboard.

Well, maybe we’ve had a few day beers, but at this point can the body tell? When you’re gliding down the streets to smooth beats and the gentle sway of a rolling plush carpet, the answer is no. No it can’t.

No one asks where we’re going. Nobody cares. A Spanish galleon sails by. Everybody waves. My friend isn’t wearing shoes. It’s Tuesday. I think.

We ride the magic carpet until we’re far away and lost. We don’t have our bikes. (An effect of impulsively jumping on a magic carpet.) This is our cue to disembark.

We find a puzzle. Not a metaphoric puzzle. An actual puzzle. Complete with a border and pieces scattered around, maybe 100X100 feet. I’m guessing, but I’m pretty good at sizing things up.

Each piece is about four feet wide and a few inches in depth. They’re made out of solid wood. Dozens of them are scattered about. I try to pick one up, but it doesn’t budge.

An unsolvable puzzle. Of course. It makes perfect sense. There are some puzzles we weren’t meant to solve. There are some puzzles we never will. This is what keeps life interesting. Imagine knowing every answer. Imagine seeing the whole picture at all times. There’s a horridness to the thought. That’s why when you finish a puzzle, you show one person to prove it, and then smash it immediately.

Finishing a puzzle is an awful feeling.

But I want to finish this one, so I try to pick up the piece again. I realize it didn’t move because it probably weighs around 200 pounds. I didn’t exert nearly enough force on the first try. But it’s still too heavy to carry alone.

I call over my friend and we lift together, heaving like movers, we stumble around, rotate the piece, try to visualize. We force it into a spot it doesn’t go.

Sweating and exhausted with the magic carpet nowhere in sight, we admit defeat. The puzzle isn’t impossible. But it is heavy.

We didn’t want to solve it anyway.

At The Trash Fence Part 2

At the farthest corner of the Playa, there’s a note.

It reads: “Just because you fall asleep doesn’t mean the story ends…”

God In A Telephone Booth

A woman in leggings and a pink wig is on the phone.

She’s sitting on the ground of a tight phone booth, the phone nestled under her chin, the way you used to do it when the phone was the size of your forearm and attached to a thick plastic wire you twirled aimlessly while making small talk.

“Talk to God” is printed in bold white letters on the clear glass of the booth. The woman seems to be in a deep conversation. She smiles and laughs. It’s nice to think that God has a sense of humor, or that He’s at least pleasant, or that He’s at least a better conversationalist on the phone than me.

God strikes me as the analogue type. Stone tablets are more his thing than a touch screen that gets all smudged up. Digital permeance has to be a huge problem when you’re eternal.

The woman wraps up her call and hangs up. She smiles at me as she leaves the booth. I pick up the phone, ready to talk to God. I haven’t been ready in quite a while.

“Hello,” I whisper.

But there is no answer. Only a tone-deaf beep followed by a mechanized voice.

“Beep. This line has been disconnected. Beep. This line has been disconnected. Beep. This line has been…”

I hang up.

“What did He say?” my friend asks anxiously.

“Nothing. The line is disconnected.”

“But then… who was she talking to?”

Inside The Pyramid

There are four great structures that stand out in Deep Playa: The Man, The Temple, The Towers, and The Pyramid.

There are a thousand smaller pieces, some quite astonishing. But these are the four the people flock to in dust storms and assorted states of mind.

Some have danced here. Some wander by. Some are pilgrims on nothing less than a holy trek. Mecca has never made so much sense. The desert demands spirit no other city or wilderness does. To believe something can exist here takes nothing less than spirituality.

And when in the presence of true spirituality, the fanatics and doubters follow. I’m not sure what I am when I step into the pyramid.

My astute eyeball measurements fail me. We are in an immense structure. Crafted, not cobbled, out of wood and labor. Like the Man, this too will all burn. The superheated winds it creates will swirl as fiery tornados, and they will dance around the imploding walls.

But that’s later.

Now, we walk in absolute silence through flowing silk and chiming bells. The pilgrims ring the bells with some sort of undefined purpose. They hold tiny hammers between two fingers and tap. The rest of us resonate. We are summoned. We seem on the verge of shattering.

There is a room off the main hall. The chimes welcome us in.

The room has a high roof and little to see, except a bell in each corner and a smiling man in a three-pointed hat reverberating a bowl around visitors’ heads.

The Smiling Man stands in the middle of this empty room adorned like a genie with a patterned vest and pantaloons. His bowl is engraved with inscriptions. Celtic prayers or Sanskrit secrets, it’s impossible to tell, but we line up anyway.

We don’t know why we line up. You can see the confusion on the faces. They don’t know what they’re doing or why. But we all line up. Single file, of course. We wait our turns.

The Smiling Man focuses three to five minutes of attention on each subject. He holds the bowl to the left side of their head, and he stirs his roller along the bowl until it rings with the unmistakable melody of atoms being brought into harmony with each other, a physical phenomenon experienced by the human ear.

After the left side of the head is done, the Smiling Man spins on the right side of your head until the bowl rings again. And before he is finished, he places the bowl just in front of your forehead, and finishes with a flourish, sending reverberations throughout your body, down your spine, through your core.

You don’t just hear the ring. You feel your atoms shake.

We wait half an hour for our turn. I look the Smiling Man in the eye. His arm has not weakened this whole time holding the heavy bowl. His smile has not faded. It is warm and welcoming and unlike any smile I’ve ever seen. It is… simply real. This is the Smiling Man’s greatest gift. He taps the bowl against my forehead.

Bodies melt. Hearts sublimate. Doubters die.

Shabbat

We actually plan to make it to one of the events listed in the “guidebook.” (Yes, there is a guidebook, of sorts. How else will you know when nude yoga, that TED Talk, or the hugging class begin?)

But the Pilipino dinner we were looking forward to is full by the time we manage to cross deep playa in a dense dust storm.

Gray haired, far from camp, and hoping for a bite to eat over another mucky mixed drink, we search for dinner.

Like Moses out of the Sinai, we stumble into a tent with tables set for two hundred. Maybe more. Bottles of unopened mezcal sit between every candle. The dust that slips through the tent cracks shimmers in the candlelight, casting the room in that particle dust glow that only exists in fairy tales.

As we sit, it becomes clear we’re in one.

The men and women are stunning. They are clean. Strangers to us. Aliens to the desert. They could all be actors. White linens and spotless dresses. Shampooed hair, (What a concept!) not just clean, but curled, straightened, up, down. An old man with eyes that seem to recline like dinner guests on the lines of his face officially invites us to Shabbat.

We join the tribe.

Prayers are said. The food is blessed. The Rabbi says that we are all wanderers. We are all making homes out of something that was promised — even if we find nothing more than a warm meal and good company with a fine coating of dust.

I am not Jewish. I admit it.

“But you are our guest,” our host says. “So you are something.”

The Temple

Whales have appeared in thick fog to guide lost sailors back to harbor. Dolphins teach their young to use tools. Birds speak in complex patterns.

And humans have souls. We don’t just survive. We suffer. We don’t just believe. We exalt.

Before going to the Temple, I ask a neighbor how he would describe this whole thing, this festival — Burning Man. He says, “It is humans being exceptionally human.”

Which means that Burning Man is an exceptional exhibition of the human soul. And that soul lives at The Temple.

I cannot say what I saw. I cannot articulate what I felt. This poem was nailed to a wall with a thousand other poems, a million other memories, a flood of broken and healing hearts. But it was this poem that sunk me to my knees and brought me to tears for some time. I do not know the author:

Exhaust yourself

and this is hard work

Play long, run free,

swim upstream

Make yourself a drum

and beat a hard rhythm

until you have nothing left

Spin through the streets

of a strange city

Run on the edge of harm

The lost places

where one false move

could break your soul

and reveal what it’s been hiding

all along

Sweat, replenish, repeat.

Become dry and empty.

Give yourself to the dance

to your loves

to your friends

to strangers

Be a lyric

Be a problem

Believe, be live, berate

Be flower and thorn

And this too is hard work

It requires a lot of nothing

Sitting, or tumbling

and not doing a damn thing

It is hard to not do

to not think

to float without a plan, a care, a need

vectorless, unpointed

worry free

To allow everything to be

But this labor is worth the effort

At the end of a hard day

you come home exhausted

stinking of release, and freedom

You stand like a fool

at the mouth of the temple

collapse on the ground

dripping, grinning, spent

burning with nothing

full of laugh, and step, and song

You are the hole

at the center of the wheel

the empty space in the jug

You look ahead and see a path

which does not exist

This will take you not where you want to go

but where you need to be

The horrors of the world rush in

and you realize

that you don’t mind

And only then do you understand

what it means to pray

We Wore Shoes To Infinity

It starts under your tongue.

A speck of nothing. A square crumb. You feel nothing. That is how it starts.

Then, somewhere under The Man, your face begins to melt. Waves of heaviness fill your jowls. Your head plummets through the Earth. Your brain escapes the other direction, drifting into open space, divorcing its halves.

You become aware of two you’s, the self you know and the self you are. You never realized they were independent. You never realized they could be freed. But they have been sprung, and there’s no point fearing where they may go. They’ll come back. In time. This is how it actually begins.

You meet an unimpressed tiger. You ask where you should go. To the runway, she says. Where is that, you ask? See those lights out there, she asks, casting a paw into the night.

You saddle up on your furry bike seat and begin to peddle across the open desert. Photons riding the wave. The city flickers around you, an illuminated plane, a geometric light show. Lasers cut skyward, belying inherent flatness.

While you’re considering planes, both geometric and existential, you fail to realize you’ve stopped moving. The desert has begun moving around you. You don’t move against the lights; they move against you. You have ridden into a wormhole. You’re cutting through space. The planes cease to matter. Time has ceased moving forward. You have achieved nowness. And this achievement moves both you’s to peddle faster.

The wormhole empties you onto the runway, a tunnel of undeterminable length formed by individual semi-hoops stretching into nothing. Music is synched to pulsing lights that blast down the runway with the beat, a mesmerizing river of light and sound.

You leave your bikes behind. The hoops are too narrow and chaotic to be wobbling through. So you walk cautiously forward, drawn and pushed, to an end you cannot see.

Time lumbers beside you, riding the wave of light, separate and alone. It exists only as a stranger who once asked if he could tag along, but now goes on his way with a curt nod and dousing of silence.

When there is only one ring left, you stop, certain that this is the final step. A gateway. Or a baptism. Whatever is on the other side, you aren’t ready for. You’ve come this far, but the last step is always one farther.

So you sidestep.

You walk around the last ring, until you are finally at the end of the runway, the final departure point.

If you look straight forward, you can’t see any lights. No reflections. (There’s nothing to reflect off of.) Just perfect darkness. Ultimate nothingness. Nirvana. A paradox of horror and freedom in the place where God and Hell were born, here at the edge of possible, the end of experience, death.

That is the one thing the darkness certainly represents. It always has. You have no qualms about that. Should you keep going into the pit of night, you would die. Not from some physical demise like dehydration or exhaustion. You would simply vanish, enveloped by the embodiment of nothing, wrapped in a dark blanket by the void.

You stare straight at death. You do your best not to blink. You notice, for once, your friend is wearing shoes.

“You’re wearing shoes,” you say, shocked.

“Of course. You don’t walk to infinity without shoes.”

The infinite. It strikes you that perhaps this is where you’ve been the entire time. And of the infinite, death is merely a part. Just another story to be told.

You take one last long look. Then you turn, and see Black Rock City. An old poet speaks.

To get back up to the shining world from there
My guide and I went into that hidden tunnel,

And Following its path, we took no care
To rest, but climbed: he first, then I-so far,
through a round aperture I saw appear

Some of the beautiful things that Heaven bears,
Where we came forth, and once more saw the stars.

This is you. This is me. Together, we walk through the final ring.

At The Trash Fence Part 3

At the farthest corner of the Playa, there’s a note.

It reads: “I’ll read you the rest another night.”

Nick Stoner

Written by

Do cool things everyday. Then make them great. @StonerWriter

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