Dust. The alkali dust of dried out lake bed. When you’re a virgin they make you roll around in the dust before they let you in to set up camp. Even though you’re laughing the whole time it’s sort of awful, but it’s also obvious in that moment that you’re about to enter a place unlike any other. Welcome to Burning Man, let the adventure begin.
Joe and I drove through the night from his apartment in Las Vegas to a place in the desert just outside of Reno. If we had arrived a few months earlier, or a few months later, we would have been greeted with empty space. But now, at the end of August a metropolis rose up out of that barren landscape. Black Rock City is a temporary city where community, self-expression, and self-reliance reign. The people at Burning Man, or Burners, believe in radical inclusion, or as I lovingly called it, ‘no weirdo left behind.’ Our excitement was moving at the speed of light, after talking about it for years we were finally there. But the 5mph speed limit entering the event kept our euphoria in check. As Joe’s small white pickup truck crept toward the entrance of Black Rock City we could already see signs that this place was different.
The man in the car in front of us was wearing a tutu with combat boots, and some sort of animal tail. The Burner who worked the gate looked like a Margaritaville Santa, covered beard to toe in tie-dye. He asked Joe and I if we had been to Burning Man before and when we said no, made us get out of the truck. He told us that the dried out lake bed, or the playa, we’d be living on for the next week was unforgiving terrain, and it was best to get acquainted now. He bellowed to everyone nearby that the two virgins before him would now become one with the dust, that we would make the dust our friend. Then Joe and I were face down in the dirt. We were told to turn over, and roll around in it, a command we obeyed because this week was going to be about experiencing everything we could. Once we were more dust than skin, tie-dye Santa made us ring a bell, to alert everyone that we were no longer virgins, that we were no longer clean.
Joe and I met through mutual friends while I was living in Las Vegas in 2004. In the seven years we’d been friends I had never seen Joe that dirty. He didn’t like being dirty and now he was covered in a smelly, chalky, dust. The grimace on his face as we climbed back into his truck spoke volumes. This was going to an interesting week.
The next step was picking a plot of land and setting up our camping gear. Black Rock City is set up on a circular grid. The middle of the circle was reserved for the larger art installations so no camps were set up in that space. There were hundreds of camps already established, and they wrapped around three quarters of the circle. We drove around, through a plethora of cars, trucks, tents, geodesic domes, and RVs, trying to find an empty space big enough for the truck, the tent and the enclosure Joe had planned. Every year Burning Man has a theme. The theme for 2011 was Rites of Passage. The roads were labeled with clock times around the arc and words related to the event theme running through the arc, names like Anniversary, Birth, Divorce, and Graduation. After twenty minutes of searching we had found our space. Our new home was at 6:45 and Initiation.
Joe went to work setting up our tent. He had a vision so I helped by staying out of the way. He put up the tent then built an enclosure around it out of tarps and PVC pipe. The wind in this area could gust at up to 50mph so I cut slits in the tarp to keep it from blowing away. The wind is no joke and combined with the alkali dust it could make you sick, that's the the reason people are encouraged to bring goggles and face masks, or bandanas. I blew up the air mattress and Joe set up the cot. Before long, the tent and everything in it was covered in dust. We unpacked the rest of the truck, grabbed the bikes we rented, then the two large coolers we brought, one for food and one for alcohol. We placed the coolers in opposite corners of the tent for extra stability. When setup was finished we stood back and took in our camp. It was a bit shabby but we liked it.
We rifled through the food and alcohol we at purchased at a Wal-Mart in Reno. Settling on a can of fruit cocktail, a stick of string cheese, and a beer each, we ate our light lunch and discussed our game plan. It was agreed that we would ride the bikes around to get a feel for the area then regroup before the evening festivities. We tied our bandana’s around our necks, put our goggles on our heads, filled our Camelbak backpacks with water, and set off to explore the playa.
The first thing I noticed while pedaling my bike was a semi-truck sized boom box pumping house music beats through ridiculously large speakers. The boom box was just one of many art cars that we would see during the week, we would also see an alligator, an octopus that shot fire from its tentacles, and a small yacht. We thought about stopping to dance, both Joe and I loved to dance. He’s actually one of the reasons I fell in love with dancing. When I was younger, through my teens and into my early twenties, I wasn’t comfortable with my body. I wasn’t comfortable with the way I moved. On a dance floor my insecurities were heightened because I figured everyone around me was judging me. Joe showed me that it doesn’t matter what the hell anyone thinks, especially on a dance floor, because if you’re on a dance floor with someone and they’re busy judging you then they’re not really dancing, so fuck ‘em. I loved that sentiment. Before long Joe and I had become regulars in a few nightclubs in Vegas, but out here on the playa there was a lot to explore so we kept moving.
We stopped at a small stand called the Hug Deli, where you could pick a type of hug off of a menu and get that hug from the stranger working the booth. Joe ordered a hug and when the guy turned to hug me, Joe warned him, “Don’t.” I was not the type of person who wanted to be hugged by strangers, but it warmed my heart that Joe knew me so well, so I smiled in the scared face of the volunteer as be backed away from me. Continuing on, we rode past a giant geodesic dome, atop it sat a massive metal signed that announced this was the THUNDERDOME. It was calm and quiet during the afternoon but the serenity of that space would be destroyed once night fell. Thunderdome was where Burners would strap into swings and fly at each other with foam baseball bats as spectators clung to every angle of the dome cheering them on. More pedaling brought us to a sculpture of the word LOVE. Each metal letter was about fifteen feet high. Inside the O, I saw a woman lying down on her back. She was completely naked except for a bandana around her neck and goggles atop her head. As I pedaled by her, I caught her eye and gave her a head nod in awe of her confident bravery.
Joe and I rode up to a camp called HOT-D. It was set up like a bar. They were giving away alcohol. Black Rock City is built upon a gifting economy. You can buy coffee and ice from the organizers but Burners don’t charge each other for anything. As the bartender beamed and slid our drinks across the bar we realized we may have overpacked our liquor cooler. Joe and I sat under the awnings sipping our cocktails, people watching in the cool breeze. Two men approached the bar, both covered head to toe in gold glitter paint, wearing nothing but shoes. I have no doubts that they would have gone for total naked shoe-lessness if not for the harshness of the playa dust being known to give attendees a condition known as playa foot, which is essentially a chemical burn on your feet. The two men nodded and smiled as they walked past us and back out into the fray.
After leaving HOT-D we decided to check out the Temple. The Temple is one of a dozen colossal wooden structures built in the months before campers arrive. Burning Man is a leave-no-trace-event, so by the end of the week all of the structures will have been burned to the ground. There is a also one-hundred foot man, the burning of which, gave the event its name. The Temple was a gorgeous place, absolutely breathtaking. There were five towers that loomed in the clear desert sky. Sunshine streamed through the open arches atop each tower, guiding visitors into the center of The Temple. Inside was an incredibly tranquil meditation space. I knew that the Temple would meet its end in a fiery ritual on the last night of Burning Man, and that the beauty of this place would exist only in photos, and memory. The ephemerality of it all was humbling.
The inescapable fire would cleanse the souls of the people who chose to leave a piece of themselves behind with a marker. Thousands of hand written notes adorned the wooden beams of the Temple. Every column, every handrail, every step, contained confessions. Some were humorous, some were inspiring, and some were heartbreaking. People wrote farewells to lost loved ones, people admitted their greatest fears, and other people told them it was ok, they’ve felt that way too, and it gets better. The peace inside and around the Temple was tangible. Walking the hundreds of steps, reading the words, hearing the faint sound of wind chimes, I felt weighed down, heavy.
I sat with my back against the middle column of the Temple while Joe continued to walk around. I thought about all of those people, what they’d been through, and how they were still here, still living, still experiencing. I thought about myself and my life up to that point. It felt like a blur. Time had gone by, but in no particular order, because I had no particular plan. I moved to Vegas because the school I really wanted to go to in New York had denied my admission. I moved to Chicago because I didn’t have enough money to re-sign a lease in Vegas. I made choices that weren’t really choices but near rock-bottom necessities. I allowed myself to be caught by people who never really loved me, instead of making compromises for those who did. I was so confident that I didn’t deserve love, or respect, or success, and that any chance I took would fail. I was sure that I would always be a disappointment, so instead of taking chances, I let other people’s chances take me, over and over again. I stood up and grabbed a marker. I wanted to write something so poignant that the ink would be imbued with all of my insecurities and I could be finally let go of the heartache. I ripped the cap off of the marker and leaned toward the wood. But instead of writing my mind went to Joe.
I thought about how he was always there to talk me down from the metaphorical ledges I found myself on. I thought about how fundamentally different our minds were, how differently we approached life, how he could say things in ways I’d never thought of before. Sometimes we disagreed and argued, but I always knew that when I needed to get out of my head I could turn to him. I knew that when I needed a voice to calm my mind, when I needed to hear words that could slow me down, I knew I had Joe. I knew that our friendship transcended all of my insecurities, and that whether or not I thought I deserved his love, he did love me. I breathed in the peacefulness of the Temple, and the power of my friendship with Joe filled my lungs. I put the marker tip to the wood and wrote five simple words, ‘Thank you Joe, for everything.’
As the sun dipped behind the amethyst mountains, we headed back to camp to prepare for the evening festivities. Joe made us dinner, two cans of tuna, some pickles, crackers, and two hard-boiled eggs. We cracked open beer cans and sat down to eat. Somewhere around the second beer we talked about doing some of the drugs that were in my backpack. I hadn’t traveled from Chicago to Las Vegas with eight ecstasy pills in an aspirin bottle to not do them. So we agreed we would each take a pill, well, a triple stack roll. Which is supposed to contain three times the amount of MDMA as a regular pill of ecstasy. In our Vegas days Joe and I partook in a fair amount of partying, there were the ecstasy fueled late nights turned early mornings at Drai’s, and there was a mushroom trip in the parking lot of the Thomas and Mac Center during a Phish concert that I will never forget. Normally when I did ecstasy I would take one pill. Joe, being a six foot tall, somewhat burly man would often take a little more than me. I didn’t really consider this before popping the whole triple-stack in my mouth and washing it down with a swig of beer. Joe swallowed his pill too, and we smiled at each other.
“Let’s do this,” He said as we clanked our beer cans together in a toast to the possibilities.
The moon had kicked the sun out of the sky by the time we left camp. We chose to leave the bikes behind. Not knowing where the night would take us, feet were the safer transportation choice. The small amount of light on the playa came from glowing bracelets, necklaces, and sticks as they swung from the hips of men and women in skirts. Headlights and taillights flashed as bicycles weaved through the crowds. The occasional spotlight and laser show came from dance camps close to the center of the playa. We walked past a massive wooden Trojan Horse illuminated with red light, and decided on that as our landmark, the horse that would bring us home if we needed the help. Joe also had a backup plan, he had written a message on his forearm that read ‘If lost please return to 6:45 and Initiation’.
Beyond center camp was complete darkness, the deep playa. Joe suggested we check it out, I agreed, so out into the blackness we went. I’m not sure how far we went before we turned around, could have been 50 feet, could have been a half mile, but when we did turn around we saw blips of blue, green, and red light, flickering like a candle in a breeze. We could hear beats from a dozen different DJ’s throbbing from one side of the playa to the other. It felt like we had fallen into the bottom of a well and were listening to the voices of our saviors echo around us.
Joe turned to me and said, “Can you believe this shit?”
I couldn’t speak.
He said, “Sam, can you believe this SHIT?”
I had no words.
“This is crazydiculous,” he giggled.
Finally I said, “I think I’m gonna throw up.”
The pill had hit my stomach like a ton of bricks. Joe wandered away a bit to let me vomit alone. I dry heaved, the pill felt like it was trying to climb back up my esophagus and escape my body from my mouth. Another dry heave, but the ecstasy was my prisoner. My heart pounded. My mind swirled just like the pill as it broke down in my stomach. Joe suggested we walk back into the mix, and because I no longer wanted to be standing in the void, I nodded my head in agreement. I put one foot in front of the other and followed him as we inched back to the light. Joe led us to a dance camp opposite our side of the playa. The music was not our style, too slow, too aggressive, too lame. After a few moments of Joe trying to find his groove, and me still hoping to throw up, we silently agreed, Joe with a shrug of the shoulders, and me with a scowl, that it was best to keep moving.
On the walk back toward the Trojan Horse I lit a cigarette, but when I put it to my lips it felt completely foreign to me, it felt like the cigarette didn’t exist, or maybe my lips didn’t exist. I was feeling the effects of the MDMA, my stomach no longer hurt, and I laughed at the thought that I couldn’t smoke because I had no lips. I put the cigarette out under my boot and stuffed the remainder of it into the plastic baggie I brought for butts. When I looked up, the horse was looming over me. I opened my mouth to express my awe and no words came out. It was like my brain was too busy releasing dopamine and serotonin to speak. I wanted to say something but my thoughts were broken, lost. I licked my lips and blinked my eyes a few times. Joe suggested we sit for a bit, and that sounded great to me, so we sat on the steps that made up the base of the Trojan Horse. Joe sat one step below me and leaned back toward me. He would look up at me, I would look down at him, neither of us could say anything. The silence was nerve-wracking. My brain reminded me about the stilt walkers we had seen earlier. I realized that we were in the circus, but neither of us was ready to put on a show because in that moment our realities were beyond saving.
We sat there, for five minutes, or two hours, being greeted by people, getting lost in the lights and sounds, then I saw this cute girl dressed in an orange astronaut jumpsuit. I tapped Joe on the shoulder and pointed.
“She’s cute,” he said, “go talk to her.”
I wouldn’t have talked to her in the real world, sober, my insecurities would have held me back, now, on the playa, my triple-stack held me back. So I sat there, faced with the inability to talk to the astronaut, because my mind was cloaked in failure, and my body remained a mystery, and the drugs had overwhelmed me, and the only thing I could do, is what I’ve always done, pretend it wasn’t a big deal. I couldn’t even blink, let alone speak, so I declined his suggestion with a fearful shake of my head. After another two hours, or five minutes, somewhere in the background I heard Joe suggest we relocate. I stood up, my legs like jelly, and carefully made my way down the steps, one shaky leg at a time.
Leaving the Trojan Horse we got caught in a little dust storm. We stopped, pulled on our goggles, but I forgot to pull the bandana up around my mouth. The dust in my lungs brought on a coughing fit. After the wind ceased I heard a familiar beat. House music carried us toward a camp bathed in purple light. I don’t know if it was someone’s personal camp, or a dance camp, but we walked right in and sat down. Joe on a couch, me on the floor with my back between his legs. I tried to sway to the music but every one of my senses was failing me, especially my sense of rhythm. I felt like my mind was trying to escape through my eyes so I clamped them shut. They shot open when I felt myself being lifted off the ground. Joe had pulled me onto his lap. I let my eyelids get heavy again as the bass beat through me. Completely limp, with Joe’s hands around my waist. Both of us hot and sweaty, but unable to move.
I had never thrown up so the pill was coursing its way through my system with full force. I was no longer present in my body. My mind had gone somewhere else, like I was flying, or floating, and I’d always been terrified of heights, so I was anxious. I breathed heavily, my heartbeat collided with Joe’s heartbeat, until they were indistinguishable from one another. It was as if Joe and I had become one person, which left my mind to wander to the fringe of reality. Light flickered behind my eyelids, visions of everything disguised as nothing pulled me in different directions. We felt like one person who was about to be swallowed by a very comfortable couch. We sat there like that for years, or probably just a few minutes.
Then Joe tapped my leg and said, “Time to go.”
I inhaled the deepest breath I’d ever taken and peeled myself off of him. He grabbed my hand and we started walking. We walked around the perimeter of the playa, which was still, and eerily silent. We stumbled across a camp that looked like a house party. A huge structure covered by beautiful, flowing, shiny fabric.
Reading my mind Joe said, “Let’s see about a drink.”
We went through the front entrance and the change in scenery was intense. Loud music with too much treble made it sound like an ambulance circled the party. People in top hats and leather vests, shoulder to shoulder, cackled, beer sloshed and spilled. We moved slowly toward the alcohol, and the room began to shrink around me. I looked up to see the roof caving in, and the walls collapsing. The other people didn’t seem to notice. With every step I took I ducked down further, I didn’t want to look at anyone directly so I watched the ceiling approach. I was crouched and barely moving when I felt Joe grab my hand. He pulled me out through the side exit. Then there we were, back in the silence, the emptiness. We looked at each other.
“What the fuck was that?” I rasped out, a bit scared.
Joe’s eyes went wide and he started laughing, “I do not know what that was.”
Joe’s laugh, an infectious, head thrown back belly laugh, a laugh that would always be my beacon home, bounced through me, so instead of freaking out, I laughed too and we both turned to continue walking.
My legs worked more smoothly now, so I was happy to wander. We walked back toward center camp, and we saw the cute astronaut again, walking in the opposite direction of us.
Joe said, “Hey, we know you!”
That was my chance to say something, but it was my legs that were working again, not my voice.
While I was trying to find it I heard Joe say, “Whoa.”
I turned to him and he was looking straight up into the sky.
“The stars are moving,” he said in awe. “Sam, I can see the rotation of the Earth in the stars.”
I watched Joe watch the stars for a moment and was completely content. When I looked back to the astronaut though, she was gone. Sadness rushed through me. I had missed another opportunity, why didn’t I at least try to say hello? Hello holds no consequences, no promises. Those thoughts weighed heavily on me, like it was the combined weight of everything in life that had passed me by because I was afraid. Then, another thought snapped me out of my head. I had to pee.
We made our way to the porta-potties. Joe and I went into separate stalls. I came out to see Joe’s face distorted in anguish.
He said, “My hands are disgusting, I don’t want to touch anything.”
We were both covered in it. Head to toe to fingertips, everything coated with the fine grey dust. Joe has always been a tactile individual, seeing the world through touch, understanding things by the way they feel. This is a man who earlier that day had chosen the ‘Long Uncomfortable Hug’ at the Hug Deli. I stayed on my bike and watched him hug a stranger for three minutes. Joe not wanting to touch anything was worrisome so as we walked past things that looked soft I forced him to touch them. A furry boa hanging off the side of an RV, touch it. A fuzzy hat on a mannequin at the edge of a camp, touch it. Joe being out of sorts was not something I was used to and it made me uncomfortable.
The playa at Black Rock City is said to be about seven square miles. We walked it back and forth a few times that night, from one end of our new Earth to the other, to the point we were no longer walking, but shuffling.
Then Joe asked, “Shall we head back to camp?”
My body knew that was the best thing, but my brain was still a mess, just barely comfortable in the present, the future terrified me.
Finding my voice, now extra raspy from the mix of dust and cigarettes I half smoked I said, “Yeah, but then what?”
Joe laughed, “I don’t know, love, I don’t know.”
We made it back to camp and Joe fell onto his cot. I climbed onto the air mattress. I lay there, heart beating out of my chest, suddenly afraid to fall asleep because what if I woke up and didn’t recognize myself? What if I’d done some serious damage tonight? I closed my eyes but my mind betrayed me.
If I could just relax.
Close my eyes.
Tomorrow I’ll wake up to a brand new day.
With or without my mind.
The astronaut swirled around my brain. My cowardice beat on the back of my eyelids.
There will be more chances.
Close my eyes.
I couldn't do it, I wasn’t ok.
I bolted upright. I asked Joe if I could sleep next to him. He mumbled an ok. I squeezed onto the cot, my backside shoved him into the side of the tent. I curled up and wrapped his arm around me. I was still afraid of closing my eyes, of letting go of tonight, of not waking up, of losing my mind, of everything.
“Joe,” I said.
“Yes, love?” He replied.
“Joe, I feel like I’m losing my mind. I feel like I don’t know who I am anymore.”
“Just close your eyes.”
I closed my eyes. But the inside of my mind was spinning too quickly. My heart was working overtime. The astronaut was preparing for take off.
“Joe,” I said again.
“What if I go crazy?”
Joe took a breath and calmly answered, “You might.”
“What the fuck?!?!” I shouted.
I sat up on the edge of the cot, with my head in my hands, but my eyes wide open.
Joe pulled me back down and said, “Just remember, you can’t go crazy if you’re already crazy.”
Somehow those words worked their way through my panic. Those words, so perfectly Joe, calmed my erratic mind, and told my heart everything would be ok. As the sun peaked through our tent, I closed my eyes, and drifted off, I took a chance and I let go.
When I arrived home from the trip I felt different. More open. More aware, of myself and people around me. My top priority after sleeping for ten hours was to wash everything I had packed for the trip. I had to get rid of the dust, which had a very particular smell. I washed everything twice and couldn’t get the stink to go away, so I stored everything in a large plastic bin. Joe and I have talked about going back to Burning Man, but have yet to do so. I told him that I wouldn’t be ready until I could open that bin, smell the dust, and miss the playa. In the five years since, Joe and I have developed different memories of the way things happened. He thinks the night in this story was not the first night of the trip. It is entirely possible the things I remember may not have actually happened on this night, or at all, but as Joe so eloquently stated, “There isn’t a timeline of events for that adventure, more a collage of experiences,” so I wrote it the way I remembered it, as the dawning of a new me.
Samantha Crane (she/they) is a Chicago-based writer. When not on her bicycle or reading or writing she edits this lit mag. Her work can be found online at Dream Pop Press, True Chili, Variant Lit, and HASH Journal. Follow her on twitter @dangercrane or instagram @thedangercrane