Burns of the Fourth Degree Part 4: Changes in Perspective

By Tuesday evening, the crazy, surreal nature of the experience began to hit. The trip was on; I was ready to embrace it. That night, I took a small dose of mushrooms and followed our camp onto the art car we’d arranged for the night — a pirate ship complete with carousel horses that moved up and down among the rigging. Later, a campmate actually injured his leg among the mechanics of the ship, a reminder that life on the Playa is not without danger — but I left long before, the pull of the mushrooms calling me into deep Playa and a night of reflection.

The message from my subconscious was a strange one: “Thanks for checking in,” it seemed to be saying, “but you realize this is kind of unnecessary, right? We did this whole tripping thing last year, and the year before that. The changes you need to make in yourself are out there, on the Playa, during the daytime, sober. Focus on your connections with the people around you. Get over your fears. That’s the journey you need to take this year.”
I spent the next few hours wandering about, wishing against all likelihood that my friends would appear around the next corner. Every group that passed by seemed to be calling out to me with their voices. I wanted to tell them about my experience, and finish my trip in their presence. But tonight, they had their own lessons to learn, their own drugs to take.

On Wednesday, the separate threads of my Burning Man experience started coming together; lessons were piling up. I kept running into friends from LA in random places, waiting in line for brunch or wandering about the Playa. The strangest was walking into a portable restroom and realizing that the person who’d just walked out was someone I had last seen in LA at one of the community houses I frequent. They invited me to stop by their camp for an open mic that night. I wished I could, but I already had commitments at my own camp: our VIP Carrot dinner was that evening, and later we’d arranged for an art car ride on a fire-breathing dragon.

Josh was in charge of mixing drinks for the dinner. We’d picked up several gallons of carrot juice in Reno, and spent the afternoon mixing various cocktails: Bunny Repellent, Carrot of the Sea, and so forth. The event was intended as a party for the highest-level donors to our Kickstarter campaign. It was the strangest, most surreal party we’d ever been a part of: a dusty dome in the middle of the desert, folks dressed up in orange and green, meat cooking on the BBQ; the carrot protest songs that we’d recorded in LA playing over the sound system.

Around sunset, the VIP guests arrived. They were offered dinner and drinks, and presented with branded tote bags and other schwag. I began to wonder about the hidden mechanics underlying the Burning Man economy. Were donations a gift if they bought you something in return? From the shower plan at the Broken Angel Bathhouse, to bartering fruits and veggies for a ride on an art car, I had encountered more transactions surrounding the Burn than I ever had before. Which ones remained within the ethos of a gift economy, and which did not?

Occasionally, this resulted in heated discussions among campmates whose principle’s clashed. Did donors on Kickstarter have too much control over the festival by deciding which projects got funded and which didn’t? Was it against principles to pay for a luxury like a shower plan, or were you simply buying in to its building costs? And by offering different rewards for different donation levels, had we created elite groups of people in a theoretically classless society?
But any misgivings were put away, or at least out of mind, as we laid eyes upon Gon Kirin, a steel, fire-breathing dragon that was ours for the night. A massive structure, with two levels of scaffolding that supported multiple couches and catwalks, there was room for all thirty of our campmates to climb aboard its frame. Our camp DJ, Lt. Disaster, had chosen the music and the destination; anyone not in our group was kindly turned away. After years of being thrown off of art cars hosting private parties and events, now we were the in-crowd. The dragon was ours.

A few of us climbed the ladder onto the couch just beneath its tail. There were more of us than could properly fit, but with four across and one lying atop, we made it work: a dusty pile decked out in costumes and glowsticks. From here, we could pull levers to swing the tail back and forth. A group of Burners holding glowing jellyfish umbrellas came into our radius. Oblivious to the danger, barely looking up, they drifted about in their own world while we attempted to impale them with one of our tail spikes. Alas, no luck; the umbrelly-fish continued on their way.

Finally, the dragon began to move. “To Opulent Temple!” declared Lt. Disaster. The sight of the glowing, pulsing playa — sky lit up deep purple and blue, beneath the swaying steel tail of the dragon — became seared into my mind. More surreal than any dream, stranger than any video game, there was nowhere else in the world I could see a sight like that.

Leave a Reply