“I think we’d like to make love now.” The words repeated: a murmur, a shimmer, a cat walking across covers. The woman saying these words had red hair and very pale skin. She wore sparkly eyeliner, purple. She lay next to a man beneath a brown sleeping bag. It seemed like a reasonable request. My eyes flickered open. I looked at their bare shoulders and collarbones. (Why were they saying this to me?) The night, absent of stars, wound itself around us. I lay curled near their blanket-covered legs. I closed my eyes and fell back to sleep.
I opened my eyes. The night lifted, a navy-blue scrim rising. The white man had dreads. The white woman told me that she had been a sixth-grade teacher. “I was a teacher, too,” I said. The man grinned. He reminded me of a former student who often argued with me and liked to talk. A lot. My student was tall but hunched over, always wore an olive-colored jacket, and something about him seemed oddly animal-like, but not in an unpleasant way. I paused. Then: “What am I doing in your car?”
“I dropped acid,” I said, “but the guy I was with—I made him promise that I would get home okay.” (I’m going to kill him, I thought. This is not okay.) “And I don’t have a ride out of here. I’m stuck.”
“It’s okay,” they said. “You’re fine. Burning Man is a safe place. It’s different than the outside world.” They laughed and said, “It’s a story. You’ll find a ride. But we really would like to make love now.”
I opened the door of the SUV. The cold air, the sun breaking at the horizon, long rays, long shadows. I did not want to leave the car’s nest but knew it was not cool to keep two people at Burning Man from having sex. I did not know where I was in relation to my camp. I was afraid of being lost, I was mortified things had gotten—that I had gotten—out of control. I was in the desert with no way out. “We woke up,” they said, “and there you were.”
I don’t remember much about that night except that the temperature dropped in the desert once the sun set. If I am cold, there is almost nothing I will not do to get warm again, including breaking into a strange car close to midnight. I do remember this: hundreds of points of light lit the inky darkness, glittering until the dust storm arose. The night sky stretched, yawning to show the Milky Way’s silvery ellipse, an elongated spirograph, spinning. Stars shot out here and there, crisscrossing the sky. We snapped on light sticks as bracelets, as chokers—slender bands of fluorescent yellow, green, red, blue, orange. We biked toward the art structures, blazing in the darkness: the figure of a woman arching, hands clasped in a balletic pose, the temple outlined in the bright colors of Christmas tree lights, almost winking. We rode through swirls of dust until the outlines of art structures appeared, magic, lit up against the dusty night sky. And then I was by myself. I was alone. I didn’t know where my camp was; I could not locate anything, no landmarks. I didn’t recognize myself but for the desperate attempt to vanquish the cold—my personal kryptonite. The cold makes it hard to stay within the contours of your own skin.
When I realized I had been sleeping next to strangers—on top of their blankets, curled in their bed, that I had broken into their car—I began to cry.
I climbed out of the cocoon of their car. “Don’t forget your hat,” the sparkly-lidded woman said. I stepped out into the waning nighttime sky, a violet haze, clutching my white wool hat. The blazing sun just rising in the desert, the morning sun roaring up, then clearing the horizon. I didn’t have a watch on me. It was cold out, frigid even. I blinked, trying to see with dried-out contacts, to orient myself and find my way back to my camp and tent.
Months later, when I tell this story to my friend, Magda, she says, “I bet they’ve been telling this story to their friends, too.”
Burning Man comes with its own survival guide. That should have been a clue as to what lay ahead, but it only made me more curious to see why people went, and why they kept returning. The survival guide states, “Burning Man takes place in the beautiful, remote and inhospitable Black Rock Desert of Nevada . . . you are responsible in every regard for your own survival, safety, comfort, and well-being.” The Man: an effigy burning, sharp flames flaring, engulfing, releasing the old year’s demons, smoke against the black-blue sky, then fireworks, shooting curved lines into the sky. The flames leap higher, he collapses, a shout rises, a cheer; only night and darkness to witness. I missed it, but this is what I imagine, what other people described. I had promised to work at another retreat center, and it meant leaving early, before the Man burned. The festival occurs every August, the week prior to and through Labor Day weekend. It’s not great timing for a teacher. It’s terrible. Did they plan it this way?
Burning Man comes with its own survival guide. That should have been a clue as to what lay ahead, but it only made me more curious to see why people went, and why they kept returning.
Whether or not the timing was intentional, the fact is that I was not teaching for the first time in years. I was there. In Nevada. For me, Burning Man was a week of exceptions: I ate bacon that week. (I am a vegetarian. Normally.) I dropped acid (twice, the same night) and then remembered almost nothing about it. I’d never done anything outside of alcohol and pot—nor had I had much curiosity. I came of age in the Reagan era: Just Say No. I had done just that. I was thirty-nine, a month away from my next birthday. I had lost my job, had moved back in with my family. I was lost—not just on the Playa, but in my life.
Before the morning I woke up in a stranger’s SUV, I strapped on motorcycle goggles and rode a too-small mountain bike through that nighttime dust-and-wind storm in the desert. Later, I found out it was the kind of evening that made many people decide to stay in their tents. The four people I camped with snapped on light sticks, suited up, ventured out, and took acid. I did it too, but didn’t mean to. “Just try it,” they said. They handed me their extra light sticks, not just as costume or decoration but so other riders could see me in that dusty, windy darkness. They dropped acid. I thought I would say no. They had a pack of sugar cubes and handed me two. I took them. (What was I thinking?)
We rode through this mysterious moonscape studded with lit-up large-scale art installations, each of the structures emerging from the dust only as we approached. We pointed ourselves toward one in particular: the temple, made of ornate, filigreed wood, papered inside with hand-written messages, letters, pleas, prayers, photographs, eulogies for people who had passed, wishes for forgiveness. The temple radiated power, resonance, sadness, weight.
The crowning event and spectacle of the festival is a large bonfire, in which the figure of a man is burned. I did not witness the burn. Other art is also created and then burned: ephemeral art. A city of nearly fifty thousand, Black Rock City, amasses for this week. You must bring your own water, your own food, a bike, costumes. I had never been to a festival of this size—a music festival or any kind of festival. Who were all of these people who hauled their own water and food to a festival? I couldn’t understand the appeal.
The ten principles of Burning Man are radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation, and immediacy. Radical self-reliance: “Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.” Did I rely on my inner resources? I did. Did I ask too much of my campmates? I did. I haven’t asked them; they haven’t said.
School was a system I understood. But I struggled as a teacher: four classes, endless committee work. I was good with students but felt defeated at the end. I began to hate it. Months before I would have applied for tenure, my contract was not renewed. The first big failure in my life: humiliating, public, irreversible. Though I had been thinking about leaving, the letter stunned me and shocked my friends and colleagues.
No job, some unemployment benefits. I left New York, traveled for three months in India, my own eat pray love, studying yoga, staying with friends and relatives. Then I moved home. No regular job allowed me the opportunity to travel. I planned to work on a project with a friend in Seattle, stay with my uncle in the Bay Area, and work for a month in Big Sur. In Oakland, with three days to prepare, I decided to go to Burning Man.
Burning Man runs on a gift economy. I was not prepared. The only gifts I carried with me were a bottle of gold nail polish and artisanal salted caramels wrapped in parchment paper, bought from a farmer’s market in Columbia City, Seattle. I left a small brown box of them with the Oakland couple who shared their shade structure with me. They made coffee and bacon and shared that with us, too.
The one caramel I had put in my pocket made it through the laundry without melting over everything. At the laundromat, a woman approached me and said, “Where are you going?” I managed to croak out, “I’ve been camping.” I could still barely speak, but I had spread out my clothes at the laundromat as I washed both my bags and clothes; dust and sweat coated everything. She said, “I’m reading a book about a woman who is camping”—and brought out a hardback book with a single hiking boot on the cover. Wild.
This heartened me. I’d met the writer and taught one of her essays, “The Love of My Life,” for years. It was an essay my students and I loved. It was an essay that sometimes brought me to tears, even in class. Nothing I had done seemed as brave as her journey; still, I was flattered to be put in that category of adventure, of nerve. I think this is what I had wanted all along—to strengthen my nerve.
I did not show this woman what I had carried in my backpack: the program guide for Burning Man—just as thick as one for an academic conference.
“What Where When: Fertility 2.0.” On the cover, a photo of pink synapses and what looks like coral, organic material. When I flipped through the guide, I saw some of the various offerings:
Naked Pub Crawl
Mass Unicycle Ride
Clarity and Sex: Negotiating Sex on the Playa
Geology of the Black Rock Desert
Past Life Regressing Meditation
Human Energy System Healing
3rd Annual Healthy Friction Circle Jerk
I was just trying to hitch a ride.
Here is the beginning: before we left Berkeley and drove toward the desert, Cinque said, “Do you know other people there? Because maybe you should get in touch with them, too.” Cinque had found me the ticket to Burning Man. His question should have clued me in. It did, but I still wanted to go. I was in California; I was not, for the first time in nearly a decade, preparing classes for the fall semester. I was adrift. I did know people in Black Rock City but had no way to get in touch with them without texting or phone. And we were camped in the periphery, far from Center Camp, which had a ride share center.
Cinque has skin the same color as mine, green eyes, parents of different races, a disarmingly beautiful smile, and a temper he is quick to lose. I met him at a meditation center in Massachusetts, when we both worked in the kitchen. By the time we left, I had developed a minor crush.
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On a quiet street in Berkeley, we packed and repacked the cars. The light was falling, orange and pink streaking the sky; we could hear the people across the street on their terrace or roof deck grilling, glasses clinking, laughter. They shouted to us, “Burning Man?” “Yeah,” we hollered back. “Have a great burn!” they said. They returned to their grilling and drinking.
I half-wished I was on a deck with my own friends, staying. Cinque was riding with Leah, a woman he had met on a ride share board. He had secured me a place with his friend, John, who needed someone to share gas money. Cinque told me Leah was going to leave on Saturday, before the Man burned, and I could get a ride back with her.
Leah adjusted something on her bike with bike tools. She was in her early twenties and unfriendly. Before we climbed into our cars, I asked Leah if she was leaving Saturday like Cinque said, and if I could go back to Oakland with her. Leah said, “I’m not leaving until Sunday, after the Man burns.” I can’t remember now if Cinque was in hearing distance of this conversation or if I approached him after and told him. This is where everything gets fuzzy, slow-motion. The last light disappearing, night and stars emerging, a beneficent moon rising. Cinque said nothing.
It was the moment for me to pull out, but I had dropped two hundred on a ticket and another hundred on food and supplies. I had asked my uncle’s downstairs tenant for a ride to Berkeley. I had borrowed an old boyfriend’s sleeping bag (Chris had made a special trip to drop it off at my uncle’s house). Chris said, “Don’t do any drugs.” I said, “I won’t!” and shot him an eye roll. “I’m not interested in that.”
I had bought a case of water and a sack of oranges at Costco and packages of prepared food from Trader Joe’s. I had bought the last package of baby wipes from a Walgreens in Oakland, which I stopped into with my childhood friend, Anne. She suggested the wipes, and also lent me her headlamp. She had been to Burning Man many times but was taking a break. It seemed too late to back out, to call up my uncle and go home loaded with sacks of oranges, apples, water, and a sleeping bag and headlamp I no longer needed. I decided to be hopeful and maneuvered myself into the blue Honda. Where else is there to go but forward?
I found a way out. At the end, when I was in our far-off camp, a light blue Prius crept toward us. Aviva, whom I met at a camp devoted to dance, helped me haul my two backpacks and sleeping bag over to the car. I left food, my bike, a bottle of wine, and garbage for my campmates to contend with. I was leaving Burning Man before the Man burned. (“I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know,” I said.)
I didn’t know if I should go with Nate, camping next to us, who had also decided he was going to leave before the Man burned. He created video games, seemed nice, we had even attended the same state university. But I had the sense as though he was looking for something, and I didn’t want to drive many miles and stay in a hotel room halfway to Oakland to find out what it was he was searching for.
“I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know,” I murmured, even while we pulled away from the camp. I was in the car and Aviva was driving. I decided to go with her. I didn’t know if it was the right decision. And then I was asleep for a long time, those drugs, no sleep, relief. Twice, on our way to the Bay Area, there were no bathrooms and we pulled over. I unfolded myself from the front seat, dashed to the side of the road, untied my drawstring pants and squatted. Weeks later, Aviva said she didn’t realize how out of character that was for me.
These days, when I am far from the heat and confusion and sweat and exile of Burning Man, when I am wondering when I will find my next job, a partner, a place to live, I remember driving down my street on my way to the store or to the gym and pulling over. It was WDKX, the local Black station. There was a preacher preaching (it was Sunday morning) and he said, once and again and again: Your wilderness is not permanent. Your Wilderness Is Not Permanent. There were capitals in his words. All capitals. YOUR WILDERNESS IS NOT PERMANENT.
I was leaving Burning Man before the Man burned.
I was so scared in the desert, without friends, unable to reach anyone, a phone drained of power, a spirit without charge, and so many things in those days seemed hopeless: finding my way around Black Rock City, having enough water in my water bottle, enough sunblock on my face, enough food, energy bars; a bandana against the dust storm, a program guide, being present enough that I could find my way home. I stopped worrying about the fact that I had failed. I regret not taking more pictures, but the desert demanded I stay present.
Cinque said, when I talked to him a few months later, “You manifested that situation when you worried about things. You made things difficult for yourself by worrying. I knew you would be able to get out of there okay.” I thought he might apologize for the misinformation. There was no apology.
“I had nothing but good intentions,” he said. “I knew you wanted to go,” he said, “and I did what I could do to make it happen.” That was true; he did. I almost didn’t see the beauty at Burning Man—the pageantry, the terrifying spectacle of biking in a wind and dust storm, the enormous desert night sky, the exhilaration because I was so worried.
At any particular moment, your wilderness, wild as it is, is not permanent. We danced and kissed, and rode our bikes around the desert, tripping. Cinque and me, apparently (he tells me; I have only a vague memory). I ventured beyond what I had seen or done before, not knowing enough to pay the fee to camp with a larger, organized camp with meal plan options. I wanted to see what brought people back to Burning Man again and again. I wanted to go beyond what I knew. I wanted to break some rules.
I was angry at Cinque for promising me a way home that did not exist, and I was angrier at myself for getting in the car at all when I could have eaten the price of the ticket and stayed in Berkeley. I wanted to be like the free spirits and pot dealers I’ve known; I wanted to just go. All my life, I have been biking with brakes on.
We want to be able to move. We want to be able to do what we want to do. I wanted to go to Burning Man and needed to get to Big Sur after, which I had planned my whole year around. I wanted to see the spectacle. Maybe the dust and sparkle would rub off on me, maybe I would strengthen my nerve, maybe I would learn to have some balance, to ride out my anxiety; maybe I would coast.
Instead, I forgot to take my antidepressants, drank scotch, took acid, and had no way home.
In the only pictures I have from my four days at Burning Man, I am wearing a black T-shirt with the words “Savage Beauty” written in white letters. The shirt references the title of the biography of the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay; it was part of a fundraiser for a writer’s colony in Upstate New York. No one who saw me in the desert would have known that. I had not brought anything with me that looked particularly savage. I knew I was no savage beauty. I was just brown. It started to feel like a bad joke. I left the T-shirt in California.
Now I wish I had taken it. I wanted to be both savage and beautiful—what woman doesn’t? I felt neither in the desert; the desert was both. I was both, too, but who knows that kind of thing at the time? I was more accustomed to writers sitting around in idyllic retreats than radical self-reliance. I want to say I found a fierceness in myself—but did I? I found some sort of hidden nerve to bike miles in the blazing sun to find a way to leave. I talked myself out of panicking when alone in the night and darkness.
It’s some months later, but I am still thinking about what being there meant. Was it okay to ask for such a big favor— eight hours out of her way—from someone I had just met? I did it. Was it okay to break into someone’s car? I did that, too. I was no longer living in New York. I had moved back to my sad upstate city. I had left the epicenter. I wanted to burn. I wanted to be free.
Many years ago, I spent a week in Paris. I thought I would visit the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower. I went to the Centre Pompidou and the Musée d’Orsay but not the Louvre. I did not see the Mona Lisa; I did not climb the Eiffel Tower either. I went to the desert for Burning Man and did not see the Man burn—the culmination, the catharsis, the highlight, the point. It was me burning, my old self, that I had been after all along. I wanted to shake it loose, my old ways, rules, teaching. I was a phoenix; I wanted to burn. I was a circle of stars, silver in the night sky. It was me: I was the spectacle in the desert I had traveled so far to see.
Sejal Shah is the author of the debut essay collection, This Is One Way to Dance (University of Georgia Press, 2020). She recently completed a story collection and is at work on a memoir about mental health. Sejal is on the faculty of the Rainier Writing Workshop low-residency MFA at Pacific Lutheran University and lives in Rochester, New York. Find her online at www.sejal-shah.com. Twitter & Instagram @fictionalsejal.
Excerpted from This Is One Way to Dance by Sejal Shah. Copyright © 2020. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, UGA Press. All rights reserved.
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