Today marks the beginning of the Burning Man Festival in the wastelands of Nevada. Thousands of people will pour out into the desert, abandoning day jobs, relationships and social norms to dance around in one hundred degree heat wearing capes and glitter. For anyone unfamiliar with Burning Man, it's a weeklong event dedicated to self-expression, community reliance and sexual contact under the guise of spirituality. I know this because I went last year for the first and last time. I went seeking a utopian enclave of open-minded and accepting brothers and sisters, I followed rumors of a culture rising from the desert clay and supporting itself for seven days on nothing but love, understanding, and a little pharmaceutically induced introspection. Instead I found misguided, fat men in tie-died t-shirts with exposed genitals caked in dust. Suffice it to say, Burning Man let me down.
"Dude! I know it's your bike, I just need to borrow it, OK?"
I first discovered the festival a little over a year ago while accidentally dating a vegan. She explained, a little too aggressively I thought, that the tattoo on her lower back was a sigil she designed at the Burning Man Festival and not a poorly drawn target as I had suspected. I told her firmly that festivals built around ritual sacrifice were not something I condoned, and while never actually accusing her, I may have insinuated that she was a witch. The relationship didn't last long after that. Still, I grew curious about the desert party she was forever proselytizing. A week before it was set to start, I did a little research and discovered the true romance of Burning Man. It was a veritable mix tape of all my favorite things in life: art, adventure, music, sun, sex, magic, and on occasion, sex magic. I was in, full tilt.
Pictured: An apology for the first image.
I arrived late on a Tuesday night to what looked like the cultural remnants of a nuclear war. People ducked in and out of dirty tents or danced awkwardly in front of fires wearing patchwork Halloween costumes. If there was free love here, it didn't look like it was being passed out yet. A painted teenager on a tricycle skidded to a stop in front of me.
"Welcome home," he said.
"No," I told him, "my home is much nicer than this. There's a pool."
"It's what we say here. 'Welcome home.'"
"That's absurd," I argued. "Have you seen my house? It's outstanding."
He didn't seem to understand. He told me he loved me and handed me four tabs of acid before riding off into the night.
I put them in my shirt pocket and explored the grounds, strolling through drum circles and past art exhibits made of doll faces and hot glue. If art is designed to pose a question to the world, these seemed like asinine questions no one really wanted answers to. I finally stopped in front of a giant cloth-stitched vagina smeared in Vaseline. Anyone who felt inclined could walk through it, experiencing rebirth. The artist stood on hand watching heads crown and smiling proudly for his contribution to the world. I wanted to feel as strongly about anything as he did about giant vaginas.
This must have taken forever to build.
A group of 20-somethings floated by, the girls in the group wearing nothing but wings and underwear. One smiled at me and I undressed her with my eyes. It didn't take long.
"You're pretty naked," I announced.
"You're overdressed,' she said.
I looked down at my wing tips, my seersucker. It was possible in the darkness that she couldn't tell it was breathable cotton. A short, African American man pushed his way through the group and announced himself as the patriarch of the family.
"You're a family?"
"Yessir. It's all about family here. Would you like to join us?"
"Is there an initiation?"
They were on their way to an Energy Touch Session which sounded promising. As we walked, they explained that everyone in the family had to choose a nickname, most of them sounded vaguely Native American. The short leader went by Hail. I requested Storm Shadow but they argued it sounded too threatening. We compromised with Rain Man.
Definitely a good name. Definitely.
We arrived at a massive tent filled with people lying on the floor caressing one another. I sat down and immediately felt hands on my neck. Hail insisted in a whisper that I touch someone.
It wasn't what I had hoped. I suggested that if they didn't want me touching breasts and only breasts they really ought to put up some rules or something. I also learned that energy touching was just a fancy name for hard petting. At one point I worked a hand half way up the thigh of a particularly undressed woman, which, along with the heat of the tent, contributed to me sweating through my shirt entirely. I didn't remember the tabs of acid in my breast pocket until after I started to sense that my consciousness was at its purest form in my teeth. Also, I learned to control time.
I stepped outside to get some air and clear my head but after a certain point, I could no longer differentiate between what I was remembering from earlier in the night and what I was remembering from the future. I had been irresponsible with my power, I had ruined the linear order of events and broken history. I felt bad.
I read somewhere that a man suffering from severe dehydration in the desert will cry right before he dies. No one knows where the tears come from but they fall all the same. I thought of this standing outside the Energy Touch tent because I was crying and because I was pretty sure I was going to die.
The rest of the night was a violent sandstorm of memories, specifically the memory of the violent sandstorm. The wind picked up around 2:00 a.m. and I sat huddled in a Winnebago with my new family. I stared into the back of a metal spoon, trying to maintain some semblance of normalcy, and possibly even handsomeness because, while survival was my top priority, a deep corner of my mind held out hope that sleeping with one of my new sisters was still a possibility.
There is no spoon, there is no spoon.
After an hour or two the sound of sand hitting the windows was replaced by a duller, wetter sound.
"It's raining," said Hail. "It never rains." We all stopped to listen. It thudded on the top of the trailer and everyone turned to me.
"It's you. You're the Rain Man."
I felt them staring. I sensed that they wanted to me to say something profound, to teach them all a lesson they could take back with them to the normal world. They needed to know they were in good hands, that I was responsible for this and that it was for their benefit. I opened my mouth and began:
"I'm going outside to stick my hand down the pants of Mother Nature." I stood and walked out into the desert. I didn't turn to see if anyone followed. It was the last thing I remember.
I woke up around 10:00 in the morning face down in the dust. Overweight men in sunhats sat around me drinking juice while their bare testicles dangled like turkey wattles off the aluminum edges of their lawn chairs. They looked at me disapprovingly.
"Your friends are gone, they left you," one of them told me.
I dusted myself off and looked around while feeling the sunburn on my face. The Winnebago was missing. The old men continued to stare. "You know, druggies like you are the problem with Burning Man," they said. "You're ruining it for the rest of us. Now get out of our camp."
I walked toward the center of the festival. My family had left me to die in the night. There was no loyalty here, no communal ideal. Everything looked duller and dirtier in the light of day. People still wore their revealing costumes from the night before but now I could see that they were just awkward and unattractive people taking conspicuous stabs at sexuality.
You can feel the embarrassment even through the glasses.
Filthy, naked kids ran around without supervision, digging into trashcans or collecting shattered glass and holding it up to the sun. Several of the women strutted around topless but their breasts, which should have been excited by new freedom, pouted and drooped in opposite directions, refusing contact with one another like they were in a fight.
I ran into one of my sisters from the night before and she explained that they had all gone out into the rain, that Hail had wandered into the desert and was struck by a rattlesnake. He had to be driven to a hospital and it didn't look good. She explained that the family dissolved after that and everyone was, "sort of doing their own thing now." I asked her if she still wanted to be my casual sister and do casual sister things. She declined.
It took me two hours to find my car and drive back to the main road. I was headed home. I felt sorry for Hail, another young, black man in American taken before his time by rattlesnakes. But everyone else I hated.
I realized in the light of day that free love wasn't what I had hoped. It was not a communal spiritual odyssey of open minds, exploring the sensual and discovering how beautiful life can be without rules and inhibitions. Free love was a dirty, confused child with sticky hands rooting through garbage. I was shocked that this event could sustain itself for seven days, let alone one night. I was over Burning Man.
"Go on then! We don't need your kind 'round here."