Friday, September 17, 2010

Back from the Desert

Like last year, I'm not sure how to start writing about my Burning Man experience. There's so much, and nothing I write will really encompass the actual experience. But I suppose that's true of any experience. 

Imagine starting out before dawn, and arriving, after 3-hour drive into the desert, in a swelter of dust, to the other side of the moon, populated by aliens - beings dressed in costumes, furry vests, bug-eyed goggles, hot pants, with braided hair and tied all over with string, beads, and charms. You park your camper in between an Airstream shaded by a tarp and lit by christmas lights, and an old bus painted with blue waves. The air throbs with music and it's only 11 am. Friends are there and they greet you, and then you get to work making your new home habitable. And for the next week, you're out there in the grey alkali flats, surrounded by these creatures and the music, and the dust, and the surreal sculptures that look over it all, out there from the deep playa.

Pretty intense, no?

When people have asked me about Burning Man since I've gotten back, all I could say was 'It was intense.' It's the only word that even comes close to telling the truth. The truth is that it was a difficult time. That's not something Burners like to hear - that the experience wasn't really that great. Lover and I were lost in waves of  miscommunication and misunderstandings and tension, and finally had a big fight, in the middle of the week. Meanwhile, I was feeling that old social tension and anxiety that visits me more than I like to admit - surrounded by people who were close to one another, but with whom I've never been able to figure out how to make any inroads. I felt left out, but not because anyone actually left me out. Because that's my story and has been for my entire life. The killer is that I knew it was only my imagination, and I still couldn't get past it. At the kickoff first-night party, I froze up in social and personal terror and could barely participate, and this set the tone for the whole week. I still don't know why it happened. I could only stand by the burn barrel, on the outskirts of the camp, and pretend to be friendly when all I wanted to do was go curl up in my comfy bed in the camper and be safe. I felt unsafe and afraid, and I till can't figure out why - was it just that we had only landed a few hours prior and I was still transitioning to this new world? Was it because I had been feeling such tension with my partner? Was it hormonal?

Of course I always want to add: "But there were good times, too!" Finally reconnecting with my love on Friday night, almost too late but not; bicycling out into the desert to look at the art and the great, old, wrinkled hills; moments with friends in the afternoon when people gather under the shade structures and hang out and talk; walking into the playa at night on the traditional evening walkabout, led by a man with a plastic lit-up sword; riding in the camp art car down the dusty streets to discover what we could discover, like bacon and avocado thrust at us from one camp, and a ball crawl and bad advice - and stencils!- in another. Exploring the city with my sweetie on our bikes and decorating one another with a rubberstamp that read 'tramp stamp', while drinking Snakebites; being visited unexpectedly by friends one morning at the camper, and having a relaxing morning (well, OK, it was after 11 am) drinking Heinekins and hanging out and talking.

The best time, honestly, was the last day in the desert when we decided to leave a day early - after helping break down camp, an effort that left us sprinkled with grey playa dust that seemed to age both of us by 40 years. My love had talked with the representative from the Bureau of Land Management - who had a camp across the street from us - and he had told us of a campsite and hot springs about 2 hours' drive up the playa and into the hills. So on Sunday, we left Burning Man, drove up the road a mile, and got back onto the playa, on a rutted track that went for 30 miles, skirting Black Rock City and curling into the brown hills peopled with jackrabbits and Russian thistle plants (better known as tumbleweeds.)

En route we realized we didn't have enough gas to make it to the campsite and back, and, as we pondered what to do, we rounded a curve and saw water, which literally made me gasp - water in the desert! It was a small reservoir, and we decided to camp there for the night, the way the old explorers and cowboys probably did, knowing that water was the symbol for safety and survival in the desert. It was quiet. No throbbing music, no people in costumes except for a couple of hunters in camo who drove past us on the gravel road. The wind whipped the water. We joked that this was like one of those movies where the couple is hunted by psychopaths while trying to survive in the wilderness. At night, the sky blazed with stars and, with no moon, Mars took over and was reflected in a silver path on the reservoir. We could see a faint glow in the blackness over by Black Rock City. Sweetie thought it was the Temple burning; I think it was just the lights of the city. A few coyotes yipped. But other than that, there was no sound.

In the spaceship of that camper, we heated up leftover lasagna, poured some cocktails, and talked about astronomy and astrology. We fell asleep to the wind rocking the camper like a mother rocks a cradle.

The next morning, we awoke to bright sunlight and silence - and to a flat tire. Luckily, my man did the manly thing and changed the tire while I made breakfast, and we dined on a blanket on the shore of the reservoir. After that, we emptied all of the water out of the van and camper, keeping only two Nalgene bottles full for drinking, and drove back to town, hoping we had enough gas to make it.

It's always been my contention that it's not an adventure if everything goes right. If everything goes right, it's just a trip.

We coasted back into Gerlach - whose combined population with the neighboring town of Empire is 499 - and into the town's only gas station right when the fuel gauge touched E. There was barely any line at the pumps, and then we were back on the highway, on our way home.

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