launch 1. To hurl, discharge, or send off (a weapon, blow, etc.).
launch 1. To put to sea. 2. To start on some new course, career, or enterprise. 3. To throw oneself (into) with vigor; to rush; plunge.
From Webster’s New 20th Century Dictionary Unabridged Second Edition
Oh no, you’re going to say, here she goes again about the desert! But I really want to share my experience at Burning Man so I tried to come up with connections to extreme sea kayaking. At first, the only thing I could think of was that Burning Man is definitely an extreme experience, and just as with the Tsunami retreat this year, I had to push myself to pull it off. But it also ties in with Eric in that part of him went up in the Temple burn on the last night of the event. Moreover, there are a lot of similarities between the Tsunami Rangers, their Extreme Sea Gypsy Race, and the Burning Man ethos. There was a whole lotta HELL (hedonistic Epicurean libertine lifestyle, which the TR’s practice) goin’ on. Plus this experience kind of launched me into my new life. Everything up till now has been about remembering Eric. Burning Man was all about me and charting a new course. So maybe I’m not too far off topic.
So shortly after Eric died Jim was staying with me. As we sat around wondering what we were going to do without Eric, Jim said, “Hey, let’s go to Burning Man!” Within moments his face lit up and he was telling me about his first experience at the Burn last year. He waxed enthusiastic; his body language was popping. I got excited too. The first thing I thought was that now I knew what to do with the DVD’s I had of Eric’s chest from the CT scans that were taken by the hospital just before he died. It seemed sacrilegious to throw them in the trash, but I didn’t want them around because it made me sick to think of his tattered aorta. But I could burn them in the Temple on the last night of Burning Man when the Burners remember their dead. Jim said it was a very moving experience, and I wanted to be there.
Ticket sales were over, but I put the word out to friends who are Burners. Time passed. Then one day I got an email from my friend Rich Warner. One of his Burner campmates had a spare ticket, but only one. I jumped on it. I had already decided that if it was meant for Jim and me to go to Burning Man our tickets would manifest. Since I got one and Jim didn’t, I figured this was the law of the universe in effect and decided to go alone. Luckily my friend Rich offered me a place at his theme camp, Free Photography Zone. These guys have been going to Burning Man for years and their camp this year included a shower, evaporation pond, oven, stove, sink, and large shade area. About 20 of us shared the cost of the 30’ Ryder truck which brought in all of our equipment and the cost of the food, which was about as Epicurean as you get in the desert, with pulled pork, steak, lasagna, and bacon, bacon, bacon. Plus we had a full bar. The generosity of the universe is immeasurable.
Although the gates open at 6:00 pm on Sunday, I decided to leave Ashland on Tuesday in order to let the herd clear out. 60,000 people were expected to be arriving during the course of the event. I drove to Alturas through some stunningly beautiful country and was startled to find the route seemed familiar. It turned out I had passed this way before with Eric in 2009 when we took a road trip to the Southwest. We had gotten snowed out of Lava Beds National Monument and ended up at Surprise Valley Hot Springs near Cedarville. This realization upped the emotional ante of the trip. So many trips we had planned…
I spent an uneasy night in Alturas. I was apprehensive. 60,000 people! Even though I was meeting friends and I knew others would be there, I dislike crowds and it could be a crazy scene. My days of taking acid at Grateful Dead concerts were long gone and I didn’t want to go back there. I feared getting dosed. The BM handbook warns participants not to accept food or drink from strangers. I tossed and turned most of the night.
Next morning I drove from Alturas to Gerlach in Nevada. I got to Gate Road at 9:30 or so and was only in line about an hour before I made it into the City. The Greeter who met me took one look at my head covered with hat, sunglasses, and bandanna and said, “Oh, you’re not a virgin, are you?” For the uninitiated, this means I wasn’t new to Burning Man. I paused for about two beats, knowing that if I agreed I’d skip the dust bath, but I didn’t want to begin my trip to BM with a lie. I consider myself to be a very honest person, so I admitted I was, in fact, a virgin in spite of my savvy desert headgear and she made me get out, lie on my back in several inches of playa dust and make a dust angel. Then I got back in my truck and drove off to find camp.
Black Rock City is laid out logically in a grid so it’s easy to find things. I drove right to the Free Photography Zone and parked the truck. I unpacked my gear, covering the truck with a tarp arranged over the rack for sun protection. Rich introduced me to those of our camp mates who were there at the time, and then I took off for the Temple to place the packet I had assembled of the last things of Eric’s I no longer wanted. Jim had given me a packet of Misha’s things as well. Misha died back in 2006, and it seemed appropriate to send them both off together. They were two of the most aggressive Tsunami Rangers, and with a few others they had formed the core of the team.
The Temple was beautiful. I pinned my mementos to the outside wall and entered. I found a place to sit in the dust and looked around me. Light filtered through the scrollwork of the structure. The Temple looked to be made out of paper, thin and airy. Everywhere there were photographs and ribbons, mementos and writing, touching remembrances of those who have passed. All around me were people, sitting, standing, weeping, sighing. Some buried their faces in their hands or in their backpacks. Some lay on the floor staring up. Some wandered about reading the writing on the walls and looking at the memorials. Some burned sage, others danced slowly to the soft music that came from someplace. A man began beating a drum and chanting a Native American song. It was poignant yet I didn’t cry. I felt uplifted. Sharing this space with so many others I felt supported and safe and happy. Grief can be a terrible thing, but together we were creating this incredibly lovely tribute to our deceased loved ones and it purged my soul of sadness. When the Temple burned all these memorials would go up in smoke, and I could easily believe that seeing it burn would release us and assist us to let go of the past and joyously move on together.
I’m not going to chronicle my entire stay in Black Rock City but I would like to talk about my last day there. After breakfast we broke camp. About half of us took off for Reality while the rest of us stayed for the Temple burn. One of my friends, Dan Fein, and I hopped on our bikes and rode out to the playa. We played on some of the interactive art installations and then went to an oasis created by some little plastic palms which gave shade and some sofas and cushions to sit on. There were a lot of new Burners this year who hadn’t got the message about the Leave No Trace ethic espoused by BM and we noticed a big pile of garbage, mostly cans and bottles. Dan found a conveniently discarded canvas tarp and he and I went to work to clean up the place. We bagged most of the trash and wrapped it up in the tarp and tied it to the back of his bike with his cable lock.
As we rode back toward the city a woman approached us with an offer to participate in an “auspicious event” (her words). Dan and I left our bikes and walked over to a mini version of the Temple some people had created to honor a friend of theirs who had died just three weeks ago. It was about ten feet wide by eight feet tall and made out of plywood. They needed pall bearers to carry this little shrine to the site where the Man had burned the night before. They were going to burn the Temple there in the remaining fire that was kept going throughout the day. With flag bearers in front, about fifteen of us grabbed hold of the handles and cross rails and lifted. The heavy Temple felt quite light with all those helping hands. As we walked across the playa, other people stood by to relieve those who got tired and needed a break. We successfully carried the memorial to the burn site and Dan and I walked back to our bikes.
That night we burned the big Temple. I cried a bit, but I wasn’t really sad. As I sat on the dusty playa with tens of thousands of others, surrounded by brightly lit art cars, my friends at my back and laser beams lighting the night sky, I looked up through the dust and smoke to see the stars. Happiness and a deep sense of satisfaction filled my heart. I was here for Eric and Misha and Jim and for all the rest who had died or who had lost someone they loved. But most of all I was here for myself and I felt grounded and whole.
The people at my camp were curious to know what I thought about my first experience at BM. One woman said, “Is it how you thought it would be?” “Yeah,” I said, “Pretty much.” One of the guys asked me how I would describe BM and I said, “Like gay Las Vegas on acid.” Another one asked me if I would come back. That’s a harder question to answer. It’s an expensive, difficult endeavor, and August is a busy month for me. But if I do go back, and I’m thinking about it, I will go because of the people. The extraordinary kindness of everyone there touched my heart. There was a pulse of happiness, love, and freedom that pervaded the event. I was left with a deep appreciation for the power available to a group of like-minded people to connect and to heal, a profound gratitude for my community both at Burning Man and in my life Outside.
I left Black Rock City at 10:30 Sunday night after the Temple burned. It took me three hours to get to the pavement, but I felt so good I drove all the way home, arriving at about 8:30 in the morning. Ever since I returned I have felt a sense of physical and spiritual lightness. On the way back I listened to the Mind Boogie CD’s Eric had made me and I thought about my friends and my life and about endings and beginnings. The last song I listened to was Harry Nilsson’s “Remember”, the last song on the last Mind Boogie CD Eric compiled. Everything seemed so right.
So much happened that week, but the most important thing I’ll take away is how light that little Temple felt as we bore it across the playa. One person alone could never have moved it, but with all of us there the task was easy, even pleasant. In Black Rock City I could easily imagine a society where no one is a stranger. We have so many more things in common than we have to separate us. Every day of our lives we each launch into the unknown. May all our launchings be facilitated by friends so that whether or not there is water beneath them our boats can float.