Aspen Times Weekly: Afterburn Effect
THE NIGHT the Man burned, I lost my bicycle. It was nearing midnight, and I was standing at the heart of Black Rock City in the Nevada desert, surrounded by thousands of revelers outfitted in colorful, wacky garb topped with fur coats and bedecked with twinkling fluorescent lights. We’d gathered here to watch the spectacular bonfire for which Burning Man is named, the main event at the pop-up, experimental “city” that draws some 70,000 freaks and free-spirits annually to participate in a weeklong social experiment in what is often called “conscious community.”
The atmosphere is that of a utopian planet in a faraway galaxy: money doesn’t exist, love is abundant, art is wholly interactive (and climbable!), and space — to confront every niggling fear and feisty demon lurking in your psyche while celebrating individual uniqueness and charm — seems endless. Harsh natural elements — scorching daytime temperatures, chilly nights, scant atmospheric moisture, and frequent winds that can send the playa’s powdery, alkaline dust into swirling, disorienting whiteouts — only add to the mystique of the mind-warping adventure.
The Burn was over And suddenly I was lost, too. A psychedelic cocktail chased by assorted party favors may have played a role, however, the landmarks that once served as reference points amid the throng were actually moving. Art cars —massive, illuminated sculptures on wheels, usually blaring thumping soundtracks and with passengers dangling precariously from every scalable surface, whether a two-story-tall trailer topped with a welded-steel heart outlined in crimson light or a golf-cart-sized LED screen in the form of Blinky from Pacman — were migrating elsewhere as crowds dispersed from Center Camp. I spun around and around, as if in an art film of my own making, dazzling lights blurring into an eerie kaleidoscope.
Panic set in. Not because I was separated from my friends — I could return to camp and reunite with them before sunrise, maybe — but because at least 36 hours of festival shenanigans remained, and it would be virtually impossible to navigate Black Rock City’s seven square miles sans bike. Surely, I was doomed.
Before I could suffer a total meltdown, a stranger approached me. In sharp contrast to my tweaked-out, distraught appearance (ratty blonde hair matted into fledgling dreads; dusty face streaked with tears), Shlomi was the very picture of tranquility. Dressed in a flowy white linen shirt and matching pants that together resembled a ceremonial frock, he had a shock of wavy gray hair that lent him a windswept, mad-scientist vibe. In a vaguely foreign accent, he assured me patiently that everything would be OK.
“Everyone gets lost at some point,” Shlomi said, his Israeli accent as soothing as the homemade chai he’d pour when we arrived back at his camp. “It’s a rite of passage.” Getting lost to find yourself, he explained, is what Burning Man is all about.
I’d learned this already, but I needed it repeated. Since Monday I’d been slingshot through an emotional otherworld that was equally exhilarating and terrifying. I felt sheer, innocent bliss one moment; soul-crushing shame, regret, and inadequacy the next. To call it a rollercoaster would minimize the journey — instead of a predetermined path, this adventure was guaranteed to end at an unknown destination.
So there I was, collapsed into a lawn chair at Shlomi’s camp, located just a few “blocks” from my own temporary home. A raging fire cast just enough light for me to greet his two mates, veteran Burners with graying hair and a surplus of stories. We discussed childhood and adulthood; past lives; and obvious topics, such as how these three wise men have witnessed Burning Man mushroom in attendance and physical scope since its humble beginnings as a San Francisco beach gathering 30 years ago.
Also, I feasted: on Ritz crackers sandwiching Pepper Jack cheese washed down with ice-cold beer, and a mountain of Cajun-spiced peel-and-eat shrimp. We laughed about this; it was Saturday, so to discover pounds of protein left in the RV fridge was nothing short of miraculous. I devoured everything. I felt…restored.
At last, Shlomi dropped a bomb. “I’m leaving early tomorrow morning to go back to New York, so why don’t you take my bike,” he offered. “I was going to donate it, anyway.” He disappeared into the dark, returning a few seconds later with a Huffy cruiser wrapped with faux zebra fur, lime green lights, and a squeaky, squeezable horn. It was newer and spiffier than the basic, bent-wheel cruiser I’d been riding all week — an upgrade!
I’d like to say that I was surprised by my good fortune. Yet my encounter with Shlomi and friends reiterated a truth I’d been learning all along: I’ll always get what I need, as long as I’m able to stay open and therefore able to receive it.
A few days earlier, I sat on the seat of a lonely swing set. Instead of pumping my legs to send me high into the air, I was slumped over, paralyzed by a sudden bout of self-loathing and despair. A girl I’d never met tapped me on the shoulder.
“Do you need a hug?”
I nodded, and Skye wrapped her arms around me. I wept into her shoulder, not wanting to let go, so grateful for human contact. It was her first time here, and, like me, she was with a crew of seasoned festivalgoers, feeling slightly out of place at times, and toggling between all the feelings. She led me to her pals, who showered me with snacks: frozen grapes, watermelon, hot mocha, a peanut butter sandwich. An accomplished artist who once spent a residency at Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass — small world! — Skye fed me when I needed fuel to simply carry on.
Back at Shlomi’s camp on that fateful night, I started silently into the flames, wholly content.
Wow, I exclaimed to myself. Does it get any better than this?
At that moment, a shirtless dude strolled over from another camp across the way. “I just cooked this bacon,” he said, presenting a platter piled high with a tangle of hot, crispy pork. “Would you like a piece?”
I grinned. Yes, I replied. That’s exactly what I need.
Amanda Rae is excited to return “home” to Burning Man next year. firstname.lastname@example.org
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Last Thursday, locals marked the Thanksgiving holiday with various traditions such as running in a socially distanced race to cutting down a Christmas tree in the forest to small dinners at home with family.