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in which i explain burning man – day 5

November 5, 2011

when we wake up the morning after the man burns, a great release has happened. you can just feel it in the air. people have already started to leave, and the city has started to come down around us. people are dismantling. when we eventually walk out onto the playa, there are half as many art cars before, and the number dwindles by the hour.

for me, it is starting to feel like it is time to leave the desert. the zipper on our tent is falling apart because of the dust, and for me, this is really stressful. i snap at shannon daily about being gentle with the zipper. looking back at it now, i realise that it is because the tent flap is the last fucking vestige of humanity and privacy that we had in that desert. to have no door to our tent might have pushed me over the edge.

my fingernails are filthy. the tips of my braids are ragged and dry. i have an odd suntan where my neck-kerchief has sat over my breasts for five days. i feel very grimy. there is no running water here, so all i’ve been using for the past five days is hand sanitizer, which does nothing to remove the layers of dirt on the hands. only sterilizes it. and even then… dubiously. we stink. we stink everywhere. people think that burning man is all about sex, but the thought of taking my underwear off – in this heat, after no showers for five days – does not fill me with a feeling that is anywhere near sexy. mainly just a fear of unleashing the beast, if you will. and shannon and i have been using wipes (3 kinds – butt wipes, “personal hygiene” wipes [translation: vagina wipes] and just normal baby wipes) like fiends. and every time we wipe the dirt off, it sticks back to us. it’s a totally futile exercise. we are only just making ourselves smell like a changing table. but it gives you the feeling of cleanliness. that’s the important part.

shannon and i decide – like naive idiots – that we want to walk to the trash fence, which is the farthest point you can walk to on the playa. we want to walk there. we make our way, muzzily, from the tent, out onto the scorched playa. literally scorched, because when we come to the place where the man had stood, there is a pile of ashes and charcoal and embers. he is still smoldering! he is not yet extinguished! we are totally amazed. and there are people walking amongst the ruinous soot, sifting around. there are already people volunteering their services for clean up, sorting through the sand and charcoal to find the things that held the man together – bolts, wires, nails. i watch as a man tries to pick up a metal screw – predictably, it is still ridiculously hot, and he drops it, grimacing. whoops.

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the man remains.

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all over the playa, bikes are scattered, lying on their sides. it is clear that people have abandoned them after last night, either walking home in a stupor, too lost to find their property and planning on picking it up the next days, or just abandoning them for good for a clean up crew to deal with. shannon is the genius in this situation, and she suggests the idea of nicking two bikes to explore the playa.

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BORROWING some bikes.

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genius! why didn’t we think of this before? why didnt we arrange for bikes to use for the week? why didnt we keep our eyes peeled for the yellow bikes, the bikes that can be used and borrowed on a sharing system? we fly over the playa, leaving funny tire tracks behind us. i try not to think about the bike seat and whose sweaty and possibly naked ass (or worse) has been on the pleather before me. i’m planning on throwing out all of my panties from this trip, anyway. we are soaring. we cover so much ground it is mind-blowing. we make it to the farthest point of the playa.

and there is silence.

for the first time in almost a week, i have found a quiet space in BRC. it may be because so many of the art installations have already been taken down, and so less people are exploring the desert on this last day. but the constant music from the loud camps is … muted. there is only the faint, dull thrum of evidence of civilization from what we left behind us. and in front of us – in front of us is nothing. our bus driver, crazy doug (literally crazy. not a euphemism) told me that the “indians don’t even want to camp on this lakebed. they won’t come down here.” everything that doug says – ever – has to be taken with a port-o-potty FULL of salt, but standing here, on the cusp of some brutal wildness that exists beyond the orange plastic fence pressing against our thighs, i can sense some sort of energy that has no name. there are no people in front of us. there are barely any people around us. as we eyeball the mountains, two elderly naked men walk by, and i nod. i only realise once they have passed that they are naked. five days in BRC and i am not seeing the division of clothes and skin anymore.

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at the edge.

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shannon and i lean against the fence, sitting and just listening to nothing. as we do, a huge art car blasting trance music toodles by. it is decorated with gigantic fluorescent orange and pink glowworms, and everybody on it is swaying, drinking cans of beer even though it is early in the morning. they wave muzzily at us, and take a picture of us, even as we take a picture of them. they look like an odd harem, sweating and loopy-eyed. it makes me laugh, and not in malice. i feel calm, for once, in this crazy city.

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shannon takes the bike onwards and upwards, and goes off on her own to explore the remainder of the playa that we have not yet seen. i take my bike back to where i found it, and head back to camp to try and pack up. we are supposed to leave at 11pm tonight and arrivals and departures always make me nervous. i’m an anxious traveller. i live for deadlines and ETAs. and they say that there is rain coming, and crazy doug tells me that if the rains come while we are still packing up, we will get mired. we will get stuck and we will not make it out of here. no no no i think. i’m going back to civilization. i try to pack up as much as i can. when shannon comes back, i tell her that i want to take down the tent. she tells me no way jose. she tells me to try and relax and not get so anxious about the packing up and the travelling. i start to feel the weight of the city bearing down on me. all of a sudden, i am so anxious that i don’t think i can breathe. i want out. i want out!!!!!!

shannon goes to conscious dreamers, the bar camp next door to our camp. i trot behind her. she tells me that maybe if i have a drink i will relax.

i am not necessarily relaxing. i am surrounded by people, and even at my best moments, i am still an introvert. i gain power and energy from being alone a lot of the time. to be surrounded by people who are in greater states of intoxication that i am, when my mind is so focused on getting out of the city with all of my shit still intact – i am very quiet. i sit on the ground and try to look like i am having fun, but i am not having fun. i drink my jungle juice and watch as everyone around me smokes and trades acid for hugs, and i feel uncomfortable because there is sand up my ass.

shannon finds two men. somehow, i am in another conversation, and when i turn to look for her, she is talking with these two, and all of a sudden i know that i want to be there.

koyote and gita are two of the most beautiful people i have ever seen. maybe there is something soothing about their energy that endears them so to me, but in the middle of this crazy exodus day storm, they are calm eyes. they are tall and covered in dust, their hair curling around their faces. koyote is lean and tanned and is wearing a top hat, a long-haired mad hatter with eyes so lucent green that i am momentarily startled. gita is tall and broad and blond, wearing a denim kilt, little animal horns seemingly fused onto his head. somehow, we put ourselves in the middle of all of the bustle, and we all sit down in four chairs.

we form a circle. four points of a compass. two yin, two yang. the energy is so good and so overwhelming that when i have to leave to pee, i feel bereft and i do an odd half-run, half-skip back to my camp chair. we talk about things, and the anxiety starts to leave me. we all hold each others’ eyes as we say things, and we are interested in each other. gita brings out a little pouch, says “there’s only two left. it’s meant to be,” and shannon and i each pull out a tiny glass pendant with the burning man insignia on it. koyote speaks polish to us, and when kira, one of the owners of conscious dreamers, comes and sits with us, he hugs her for a full minute at least. we lose our appetites. even when aaron comes and tries to push into our circle, to tell us that dinner is ready, shannon and i dreamily say “no no” and we just sit and keep on talking. this is the connection that people talk about at burning man. on the last day, in the last moments, i have finally found it. there is sexual tension, yes, and then energy between the four of us peaks and gutters with every minute, but when the talk ends, coming to a natural conclusion, gita and koyote go their separate ways from us. i do not follow them, or ask them where they will be later. in the last hours of burning man, i have found – if only just for the moment – how to let go. “everybody is temporary” says brad, our tent neighbour, and as i watch their backs disappear into the clouds of dust, i feel completely wonderful.

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the night of the temple.

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as shannon and i make our way to watch the temple burn, a golf cart stops in front of us.

“need a ride to the temple?”

YES. we do. we squeeze onto the back of the cart with a tiny floridian named chance sandwiched between us. his friend, greg, who i later learn is a contracter, offers us a beer. i say no, because i will be peeing all over the playa. shannon accepts, and with a cheer from the other people squashed into the front seat, we pull away. i feel like a kid sitting in the back of my father’s old station wagon, my schoolmate julia and myself buckled into the backwards facing rumble seat, waving the drivers behind us. i wave at the people we pass in the desert sand.

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the temple, pre burn.

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watching the temple burn is something completely different from the rest of burning man. greg and chance find the rest of their friends, but we stay with them. shannon starts to talk in earnest with chance – later learning that he has just been realised from federal prison after 20 years… uh…. yikes – and i chat with greg. he is very wonderful. we talk about our jobs and where our lives have lead us. he is at least ten years older than me, but i don’t feel that he is hitting on me in any lecherous way. instead, he gives me two gifts – a steel necklace and a steel pin, both with the burning man insignia and “2011” on them. on my last day in BRC, i have netted three things with the man on them. it’s funny how things work like that.

before the temple burns, the lights go out. all of the art cars turn their lights off. people quiet down. a girl goes around with a huge bundle of lit incense, giving us each a stick, and the tiny smoke from each of our sticks curl up into the sky. when the temple is lit on fire, the flames are so hot that i have to press both hands to my face and squint my eyes. this is nothing like the heat of the horse or the man. the flames are bright white, the hottest they can be. greg goes quiet and loops an arm around my waist. shannon and chance are standing a few paces from us, and their faces look like they are in church. all around us, there is dark and there is quiet. people are silent, staring at the temple as it flares up, its light wood burning quickly. someone in front of us starts to sob – deep, guttural belly sobs – and i cannot tell if it is a man or a woman, or where they are standing. i don’t cry, but i understand why someone might – because somewhere in that building, held in stasis in those flames, is my own message to myself, in between the pictures of jack layton and lost loved ones, old wedding dresses and poster boards and pens and bottles and ashes and dog beds and horse manes and papier mache dolls and cat collars, and my own message to myself is now made totally and completely immortal in the fire. i am fire. i have always been fire. i realise myself in what i am seeing – i am not meant for water. i am not meant for men who are water. i burn hot, and i burn bright, and my strength is beyond what i even had a glimpse of. i wear my red hair long and braided. i keep myself tall and unapologetic. i take to the sand like a fish to water. i survive. i thrive.

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temple burning.

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we make it back to camp. we walk by ourselves, in the middle of all of the remaining people. we get onto our bus. we fall onto the dirty cushions with pleasure. we curl around each other. the whole bus is much more relaxed than the trip down. people grin at each other, touch each others’ chins, use pet names that i have never heard before. the man beside me offers some advil and pomegranate juice. shannon and i indulge, and then we sleep, spooned into each other, and suddenly, when we wake up, it is foggy, and we are in san francisco.

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read about day 1 here

read about day 2 here

read about day 3 here

read about day 4 here

read about my final thoughts here

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