A Scene in the Desert
Struggling with the values of Burning Man
We stood outside the quarter-747 that had been painstakingly deposited in the flat desert like a dead whale. Six of us were in line for the joke security check, and the man guarding the door had a shtick, which he was unleashing on us one by one. He asked Steve where he would travel if he could go anywhere, to which Steve responded, “Burning Man.” The fake security guard, who was dressed in a full pilot’s outfit with a wing pin and holding a pretend metal detection wand, grabbed Steve’s arm and cried out like an announcer,
“OK, COME HERE!”
He pulled Steve toward his sweaty underarm, latched his elbow around Steve’s neck, and gave him a noogie while scolding him,
“Burning Man? Burning Man?! I asked him anywhere he wants to go, and he says…Burning Man. Can you believe that? Have some imagination, young man. We have imagination here.” Noogie noogie.
Meanwhile, I was second-to-next in line and becoming worried. I started running through travel destinations in my head. Is New Zealand an imaginative answer? Patagonia? Did he want to hear something like, “Space”? No, that’s lame. Next, Fletcher got through unscathed with “Iceland,” a place I also wanted to go, but God help me if I was going to say the same answer.
“New Zealand,” I said, as I watched Fletcher get spanked playfully by another wand-wielding security guard on his way through the fake metal detector. Then I nervously scooted through, gratefully un-spanked, and was unleashed into the pen around the beached 747.
For a moment my nerves still rattled in my ears, and I felt a residue of anger. I couldn’t shake a thought: That guy really got it wrong about Steve’s imagination.
We walked into the 747, and I shelved my nerves for a moment and marveled. Above us was a canopy of mechanical switches, usually hidden in the ceiling of the aircraft, which control the massive vessel when it is thousands of feet in the air. We craned our necks to see it. The giant contraption was toy-looking, as if made out of K’NEX. I wondered how we have all flown and lived.
Then, staring at the ceiling, I helplessly followed my mind back to the fake security guard. I wished that I was the type of person who could always think of the perfect imaginative travel destination. I wished that I was the type of person who, even if I said a place and security guy proclaimed it unimaginative, wouldn’t care, because who’s that guy anyways. How pathetic that I would be made so uncomfortable by a wand-wielding jokester.
Then I turned on him, too: why did he and the rest of these people bring this airplane to the desert? Aren’t there better things this guy dressed as a pilot could be doing? This is ridiculous.
Then I turned on all of us:
Aren’t there better things we all could be doing?
Biking through the heat alone on the following day, I aggressively considered why I was there dressed in a see-through bra and pretending to like the possibility that a stranger might spank me with a wand. I rode by blocks and blocks of glamorous shanties made of old billboards, or bright silver aluminum, or shipping pallets, and I thought, this is such a waste. Why did we build all this? Why bring a 747 to the desert? As I rode, I punishingly collected all the scraps of shame I could find, with determined and practiced efficiency. I thought of the fifteen hundred dollars I had spent on myself to be there. I imagined all the generators sputtering exhaust into the desert. I considered times in the previous days when I had hidden my discomfort with a smile, even though I was allegedly practicing radical self expression. I cycled through this and more evidence that I was a terrible person, offering up a buffet for my disdain, which grew fat and ever greedier as I made my way back to camp.
Lying on a pile of pillows on an oriental rug under our canopy, I continued to feed my contempt. I thought: following, following. We’re all here pretending to seek ourselves but really just following. I fell asleep in the middle of the day in my green sparkly dance leotard, which I had bought for forty-five dollars at a fancy thrift store.
Night came and I was out biking again, this time following a twenty-one person caravan of bicycles, our whole camp. Each bike was wrapped in strings of LEDs, which gave the effect of a fleet of multicolored ghosts gliding through the darkness. All horizons were dense with lights, but despite seventy thousand people in the near distance, the immediate surrounds were dark and quiet.
Phil glided beside me. A hundred feet ahead in the front of our pack, I could clearly see our lit-up diamond towering twenty feet in the air. We had designed it that way so we wouldn’t lose each other like we had in other years. Fletcher had fixed the lights on the diamond every day for four days, trying to make it easier to follow. Now it appeared that one strand of lights had yet again become detached, and it dangled off the side of the diamond. Phil quietly posited that Fletcher left the strand of lights dangling on purpose, in order to better catch our eyes amid the sea of brighter lights. The idea was that maybe we’d pay just a little more attention if we thought it might all come apart.
Fletch would think of that. He had built us an eighteen-foot long dining room table that perfectly sat twenty people every night for dinner. Earlier that evening, we had sat at the table to dine on Anna’s ratatouille and Shikha’s mochi cake. Matt had made a string of golden diamond chandeliers out of spray painted dowels, which he strung lengthwise over the table. Jillesa, Debra and I had sewn gold and silver silk walls. Our ornate white canopy soared above, Will’s beautifully simple assembly of spandex, marbles and zip ties, which stretched into delicious curves against the black sky. Steve and Steph had printed the Mona Lisa, cut it in half, switched the two halves, put them in a big gold frame, spray painted silver graffiti on the boobs and hung the masterpiece at one end of the long table.
We referred to the full effect as our Fancy as Fuck dining room, and it was filled with everything we could think of to make each other smile. The first time we turned the lights on and saw it glow in the night, glittering gaudily, draped in silken rags, accented with three golden candlesticks, the white canopy stretching in graceful ovals far above us, we thought we had made a bit of magic. We made this, we kept saying to each other, we made this!
Riding next to Phil, I debated whether our lit-up diamond on a twenty-foot kaleidoscopic pole was a ridiculous thing to make. Yes, it was. But also, it kept us together.
Just after sunrise one morning, one of our bikes got stolen way out in the desert. We quickly reorganized, and Stephanie climbed up to sit next to the diamond on the bike cart that carried it, which we called the Chariot. She wore a floor-length red gown and a white fur jacket. Ross was the diamond carrier that morning, coincidentally also wearing white fur, and he began to pull Steph slowly across the desert, tugging her through the soft sand traps toward camp. From atop the cart, Stephanie lifted her dress up and put her hands over her mouth coquettishly while Dancing Queen played from the Chariot speaker. The rest of us zigged and zagged in a long tail of bikes behind her, charging ahead into the fresh blue sky of morning, laughing, shouting across to each other, singing along to the music. Our Queen was ahead and we were following, following with shrieks of joy, her red dress and white fur majestic in the desert dawn.
We told the story of the ride after dinner that night at the Long Ass Table, and it was immediately logged in the annals of our collective memory: the time when Ross valiantly carried Stephanie home, both draped in white fur.
Another night at dinner in the Fancy as Fuck dining room, Will told everyone his niece had been born that day. He leaned in to get a good view of the row of faces from where he sat at the end of the table near the demonic Mona Lisa. The people there had known each other between one week and ten years. It was Fletch’s birthday and he sat at the head next to Will with a surprise birthday cake that Debra had baked and brought to the desert. I could see Will’s eyes glisten under the light of a golden bulb above.
Some of you know that my mom passed away three years ago.
Fletcher reached out an arm and Dobrenko reached out an arm so that Will had hands on both shoulders.
My niece is named is Margaret, which was my mom’s name.
We sat for a moment, surrounded by the birthday, the birth, and the death, looking across at each other. I could hear our exhales weave together up and down the Long Ass Table under the diamond chandeliers. Surrounding us was the bright dining room that we had built together, decorated with renaissance art that had silver dicks spray-painted on it. Just outside our silk walls hung a pure black night. The lightness and darkness rang out a dissonant, substantial chord. In the distance, a strange roar of humanity rumbled in the once barren desert.
The second to last night, twenty of us followed the diamond out to the End of the Earth, the name of furthest corner that we were allowed to go. Our bike LEDs were dim from overwork, flickering out their dying words. Half the diamond lights were broken again. We sat in a clump, as close to each other as we could, with a huge expanse of empty desert stretching out behind us, and beyond that the glowing skyline of Black Rock City. Lying in each others’ laps, we laughed at an enormous pile of jokes that we had collected through the weeks and years: all our shit, Just Mountain making quesadillas, the triangle sunburn, Stephanie riding home on the Chariot in a red gown singing Dancing Queen. The stories were ridiculous. But also, they kept us together.
On the way home from the End of the Earth I saw a lone bike trailing behind the group, fading into a dim blur of lights. I couldn’t tell who it was. Then I saw another person break away and circle back to meet the lagging bike, brightening it like one candle lighting another. A third bike peeled off to join the other two, and they rode behind us in a trio.
Suddenly, I imagined all of us riding behind that tired biker. We were following, following, all twenty of us following our weary person. Then I imagined we were all blowing as hard as we could, so that tiny breezes came out of our mouths. We believed it would produce a wind at that person’s back.
We didn’t care if that sounded ridiculous or impossible.
Thanks to Phil Kaye for feedback on this piece.