Burning Man, Burning Heart
Galen R Brandt

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    Burning Man Burning Heart
    Galen R Brandt
    images by Bruce Damer


    Here is what Burning Man does to your brain. The One and I leave the playa just before dawn, driving out of the desert and up into the high pine forests of the Sierras. By nine AM, I am standing in the woman's bathroom at Landowners, an eatery in South Lake Tahoe. A sign says: "Landowners Garb. T-shirts $15.00. Sweatshirts $30.00." I think: If I put on a T-shirt, they'll give me $15.00 -- right? It takes me a full minute to realize this is not what they meant. I look around: lots of blue jeans; no naked people painted blue. Already, I miss Burning Man.

    Burning Man scrambles sense so that you are laughing out loud at every turn, stunned by the beauty of people being themselves, just because they can. Amidst the terror of the Black Rock Desert, the beating sun and whiteout sandstorms, searing explosions and crowd mayhem, it is the safest of places. My friend finds a child's bike. I grab it, ride it, half-naked, to the end of the playa and back, peddling madly about the encampment, smiles and waves from men in tutus, women in prom gowns, dancing trees. The One is riding beisde me, his Gizan jalaba hiked up over his knees. I have not ridden a bike in 25 years. It's not just that you never forget how; it's that you are so happy when you remember to do it.


    We live at Moon Circle and 7 o'clock. Our friends live at Earth and 4. For simplicity's sake, they throw their cocktail party at 4, so they can tell you: Party at 4 at 4. You wander camp to camp, and all your friends are dropping acid and eating mushrooms. These are people who pull down $150k a year in Silicon Valley. Responsible people, shaping the future. He is naked except for a tiny leopard loincloth, fastened in front with a large gold ankh. "The family jewels," he notes, stroking them. She is doing the Ganesha elephant dance, making pancakes with coconut and walnuts and berries, a gourmet oasis in gritty Paradise.

    Vadim strolls by, hands me a magic ball the size of a nickel. I look in its clear curved side and see the scene in front of me-tents, goddesses dancing on motorhomes, Jon brushing his teeth-glimmering upside down. Tesla Coil man motors past in his asbestos suit, frying Barbie Dolls ten feet in the air in a giant electric arc. The Red People parade after him, dancing and singing. Two people whiz by on a motorized couch, complete with end table and lamp. Burning Man sounds like drums and looks like the circus, smells like dust and tastes like whatever your friend is cooking you for dinner.

    My new friend Joel the laser wizard hands me the magic mirror he's made. It looks like an ordinary hand mirror, but with three quarter-sized holes bored in a row. Hold it exactly right between you and your partner and you create a new face: your eyes, his mouth; his eyes, your mouth. Two made one. Two who have always been one. Someone here is hungry, thirsty; someone offers food, water. Someone needs shelter; someone offers space in a tent. Leave enough toilet paper in the port-a-potty for the next person. Pick up after yourself. Leave no trace.


    I leave no trace on the playa, but Burning Man leaves its trace on all of us.

    Burns itself in. Eternal flame of returning to who and what we are really. I am a Venetian princess, torchbearer, ride half-naked across burning desert sands, dance all night. When the man burns and the flamethrowers erupt over my head, shooting flame 50 feet in the air and spewing unburned kerosene over my hair, my clothes, my friends, I am on my knees, screaming, a woman in the Kuwaiti desert about to die. Who are you?

    Donna says she will not come to Burning Man for fear of being crushed by crowds. I am directly in front of the Man, a crowd twenty deep and twenty-five thousand strong hemming me in. Flames are shooting over my head; there is no escape from Paradise. Only the long journey here, the treacherous heat, isolation, claustrophia, wild delirious beauty of death at any moment. What does it mean to be safe? If you are clinging to the couch, are you safe? If you are clinging to the past, are you safe? Are we ever safe except when we let go of believing that we must or can be? Perhaps one cannot survive the holding on, for in the end, and in the process, all will be burned away, including our ideas about safety. Perhaps, one can only survive the letting go....

    There are Rangers on the playa to keep us safe. As the Man burns, The One hands our camera to a Ranger, who snaps our photo while flames explode in my face.

    When I cannot stand the flamethrowers any longer, when imminent death is too present and too possible, I grab The One's hand and yank him away. We make our way back to our tent, the man burning behind us, flamethrowers shooting into the sky. A French couple takes our picture, using a new lighting technique they invented. You will find it on our website, they tell us. You'll find your picture on ours, we tell them. The One has playa dust in his new digital camera, kerosene splatters on the lens. His pictures, when we download them two days later on our computer, are of revelers in a snowstorm.

    Back in our tent, we make love in a mounting frenzy, coming together in wild spasms. Afterwards we press against each other, running fingers up and down each other's spines, pressing and clasping and kissing and shuddering. We crawl into our sleeping bag shaking with cold, drift off to sleep to the sounds of throbbing rave music, fireworks exploding over the tent. Life in wartime. Nine percent of all 25,000 Burning Man attendees made love to someone they met for the first time at Burning Man, reports the Bureau of Statistics the next day. In a sense, we are among them, meeting each other for the first time in the glare and dust, terror and celebration.


    I wake at dawn, dress silently in as many crumpled colorful layers as I can pull from underneath us, stroll out across the playa to greet the sun. I meet the Ganesha Woman and Carla, last seen riding a spitting camel. We drink tea in the Kissbah Tent, lolling on pillows lolled on in these last few days by thousands. Yesterday afternoon, The One took pictures of a young baby as it crawled on the kilm rugs that floor the tent. Last night, the baby's mother, bursting with undrunk breast milk, entreated two male friends to suck the milk from her breasts on the desert floor, under the moon.


    The car is packed and we are leaving, driving away from Burning Man, when a sandstorm whips up. In seconds, everything is blanketed in a a ghostly white blowing fog. Fires glimmer weirdly in the distance. We cannot see five feet in front of us. Cars have been in line, we are told, for four hours. We head back to our campsite. Our friends offer food, water, shelter. The night turns calm and balmy. We wander the playa, first to a Goddess temple wedding where tantric lovers entwine naked at our feet, then across the sands, threading between little burnings and explosions, to the main tent for chai, then down the esplanade lined with huge structures pumping out flavors of rave music. We choose our friend's trance rave, weave our way into his twenty foot high pyramid, lashed together with blowing strips of white fabric, dance for hours. We move onto the desert floor, under the blazing stars, and Joel the laser man sprinkles us with glowing dust so that we shine.

    We decide to try leaving again, and drift across the sands to our car. Frolic! instructs the leader of the Glitter Camp to his campmates, who have spent the week dousing all comers in bodypaint and glitter. Frolic! and twenty painted glittering bodies leap and twirl around us. The flameshooters are spitting fire fifty feet in the air again-it is the last image I see as I twist around to look behind me.


    What burns away is fear. What burns inside is hope, desire, memory of desire, memory of hope. Bobby burns his drum, then burns the need for such sacrifice. I burn my lips, scoffing at sunscreen warnings. The first night, wandering in search of port-a-potties, we find a paper lantern, blowing across the playa. We take it home, hang it over our sleeping bag. It rips fatally as I place in the car. Not meant to last. People build a two-story wooden Phoenix, resplendent and gilded, burn it while the man burns. They don't make money; they make art. Make plans here on the playa, and the sun will scorch them, dust will bury them, fire will burn them, wind will blow them away. You buy a ticket to Burning Man. BY ATTENDING, screams the not-so-fine print, YOU VOLUNTARILY ASSUME THE RISK OF SERIOUS INJURY OR DEATH. I am glad I have just now looked at my ticket, here in the cheerful sunlit morning of a Lake Tahoe summer day.

    This morning, in the Landowner, they are playing reggae music. The One, who never dances, is leaning back in his chair, moving his body in time to the beat, smiling a little. I look past him to the deep cold blue water of Lake Tahoe. Let's rent a boat and go kayaking, I say suddenly. I've never been kayaking before, and the water is only deep and cold enough to kill you. I am writing a new song in my head, and I like the sound of it. Two nights ago, I rode in Patrick's go-cart to the Temple of Ishtar, while Patrick sprayed bright green laser images out its front and into the desert night. Like riding into the future, says The One; like living in a science fiction movie. Like opening your eyes, I think, and seeing everything you'd ever hoped to see.

    When you lose home, you spend the rest of your life searching for it. Not the next lover, but the next home walks toward you, its arms outstretched. You are on vacation, and as your train rolls through the French countryside, you gaze out the window at the green fields and spot the farmhouse with the white walls and the red roof and say to yourself: there, there it is-home. Just as I'd pictured it.

    And where is home? Be it ever so humble, where charity begins, no place like which, of the brave, old Kentucky, our eternal, til the cow comes, where the buffalo roam, home again and home again, home sweet home? Home is inside you, say the children's books and the wisest friends, and you know they are right.

    Go to the opera every night in your tutu and angel's wings. Drop some acid, or don't. Drink lots of water. Lie naked in the bean bath, while its creator sprinkles you with cold, clattering pinto beans. It's a nipple thing, he tells you, and he's right. Push through the glittering tinsel streamers, glinting and winking in the noon sun, so that your whole world is color.

    Ride your bike naked on the playa, because tonight is the last night of your life.
    Or maybe, oh burning heart, it is the first.

    Galen Brandt
    Boulder Creek California, 9/9/99

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