By now some of you have heard that I went to a little get-together. I’ve had to concede that the Rainbow Gathering is too far away and too close to Crowduck time. So instead I’ve been looking for similar things to do closer to home. I learned about the Burn from Victor, who started out as a friend of Micah’s, but now is about equal friends with me, Micah, and our refrigerator. He bought me a ticket to make sure I’d come, because I was balking at the price ($40). The Burn is known more formally as Scorched Nuts, but that’s a terrible name that I prefer not to think about. It’s a small, regional version of the countrywide Burning Man gathering that happens every year in Nevada—it’s for people who can’t get to Nevada, or who aren’t satisfied with burning just once a summer. I’ve never been to Burning Man, so I can’t tell you what that’s like, but I can tell you all about this little Burn. Well, not all.
It’s held as close to the middle of nowhere as I’ve ever been. You turn off the state highway and onto a little county highway. Then onto a smaller county highway. Then onto a long, winding road with no lane lines. Then onto a one-lane road. Lastly onto a gravel driveway about a mile long. At the end of the driveway you are in a big, grassy area enclosed by trees on all sides except the side you came from. This is where the Burn is: where no one can see it.
Victor and I filled out a weird form with lots of intentionally misspelled words, then entered this strange new zone of the world. Not much was happening yet, because we got there early and during the full heat of the day. A few people had put up tents along the edges of the clearing. I parked the car in some shade, though I knew it wouldn’t be shade in the morning when it counted, when we wanted to sleep in. Lacking anything better to do, we wandered around.
A woman was sitting on an air mattress smoking and reading a book. We said hi and then stayed and chatted. I told her I had forgotten the tarps we were going to use to make a makeshift tent of sticks. She told me she knew someone who had an extra, so we took off behind her as she showed us around, looking for this person. This worked out great, because she also introduced us to the spirit of the gathering and quite a few of the people as well. Whenever we walked by someone who was setting up a structure, we stopped to help them. That’s the way it’s done—you help everyone. We met people who looked like they were having a pretty good time, and eventually we even found the person with the tent. It was just about the most confusing tent ever, hailing from the year 1983, before anyone believed in self-explanatory design, and we had no directions. But a guy near us had one just like it, so he helped us set it up. This helping-everyone thing was starting to grow on us.
It was kind of awkward, that first day and night. I knew no one, and hadn’t gotten a handle on the spirit of the gathering. Someone was explaining to me that all the PVC pipe on the ground at one corner was going to be the Saloon, and I was so gauche as to ask if they charged for drinks. “Nah. Burnerville, man.” No money is exchanged once you get into the bubble. Don’t even try—no one will take it. Just give whatever you can give to the community. Time, food, water, liquor—that sort of thing. And it all comes together somehow.
Eventually. We woke up on Friday and found most people being lazy and lollygagging around, not building a whole lot. This may have had something to do with the night before. Thursday night there was a martini bar under a tent shelter, and that was lots of fun, and I met some interesting people, including one girl who’s walking across the United States picking up hundreds of pounds of litter a day and telling people about the problem. (I’m invited to that.) But then it got rained out by a storm that everyone later referred to as the Apocalypse. Everyone had to stop what they were doing and keep their dwellings from blowing off into the flashing sky. Nothing was left unsoaked unless it was in a vehicle. The martini bar shelter was destroyed. People defiantly streaked into the teeth of the thunder and then, once the rain subsided, went to sleep in such tents as still remained after the gales that ripped through.
So, either because of that or, as I suspect, just because it’s the way things run at a Burn, Friday morning dawned lazy. One guy was working on the effigy, a little hut sort of thing to be burned in the culminating celebration on Saturday night. He was becoming rather bemused that none of the parts lined up right. We were a day and a half into a four-day festival and it still didn’t feel like it had really started. Victor and I learned from someone that there was a pond nearby that you could walk to, and we immediately wanted to go. Some other people at a tent a few spots down from ours wanted to go too. But some of them wanted to wait until after they ate, which would be in a little while. I’d seen this happen before. This is what happens when a bunch of people kind of want to do something, but everyone wants all the people to be there when it happens, and it has to happen at the ideal time. It never happens. I was excited for the pond, but I kind of gave up hope for it around Friday morning.
Fortunately, not all the things that had to happen hinged on several people doing them at the same time. So buildings got built. A naked couple set up a collapsible yurt, and a bunch of people banded together to get the PVC saloon set up: it was shaped like a hangar, and had a back room roofed by an American flag with stars the size of your hand (suspended on a twenty-foot pole and three ten-foot poles, making it very lopsided). But it still felt like it was only luck that got each new achievement done, like if people were feeling a little lazier we might all have just ended up in tents drinking unmixed drinks right from the bottle.
I did end up going to the pond. I took some vague directions from someone, gathered up Victor and one other interested person, a girl who’s going to Korea come July, and we walked. We had been told it was a long walk, and while I didn’t really believe it, it did kind of take a while. The strange part was going past a house obviously lived in by a real person. But we put that in our pasts and found a tiny pond set unnaturally at the top of a hill, with a manmade gravel beach. The water wasn’t very refreshing because it was pretty warm, and there were lots of fish that mistakenly believed we might be a strange new food. All in all our encounter with the pond was brief, but at least we got around to doing it. We came back and no one had even realized we were doing something interesting.
It turns out night is when stuff happens at a Burn. During the day it’s too hot and the activities are too unspeakable to be done in the respectable light of the sun. Also it’s no fun to watch someone juggle balls of flame, or crack a burning whip, or dance with fire held in their palms, when it’s daytime. But let’s be truthful: a bar where the price of a drink, in the absence of any form of monetary system, is the removal of one article of clothing, cannot occur during the daytime. This bar is where I spent most of Friday night, that and just outside it watching orbs of fire swirl through the air. It was a strangely great place to talk to people, because everything was so odd and unlike anything else in our lives that we felt comfortable to talk about long-held secrets as if they were normal topics, the stuff you’d say to your neighbor if you both went to get your mail at the same time. For this reason I will not be relating what I talked about. Also because I don’t remember what it all was. But because you will not give up the topic, and I know you won’t: yes, I got naked. Can we leave it at that? The last time I wrote about being naked in the presence of other people, the time when Joe and I went to a hot spring, it was all anyone talked about for a month afterward. Come on, everyone. Find better punch lines. I have been naked around other naked people. It’s not that interesting. It’s not like I’m carrying around songbirds in my mouth. That would be weird enough to make jokes about. This naked thing? You make it a bigger deal than it is. Okay, that’s all.
I have thought various thoughts about the Burn, not many of them very fully fleshed out. For one, it’s a very special place. You can do anything there, and no one will judge you, and nothing will happen to you. I don’t know if there could be a place where it’s like that all the time, but it’s nice to know that it happens every so often, that there’s a time and place where you can act on all those weird thoughts that we must all normally keep tucked away.
But there’s something else. I started noticing this when I was at college, and I noticed it a lot at the Burn too. In both of these places, I saw people who seemed to be trying with all their strength to be children again, but going about it all wrong. There is a problem in their approach. At college people tried to become children again by drinking: drinking a lot every weekend, which let them forget all the things they were required to know during the week and become stupid, not knowing anything, as children don’t. Sometimes they would make it a bit more manifest by drinking to a children’s movie like The Little Mermaid or Fern Gully. In spring there is a party called Alice, devoted to hallucinogens and the pursuit of feeling like the totally bewildered Alice in Alice in Wonderland (which of course Lewis Carroll wrote while trashed on opium). Here at the Burn, I saw the drinking again, but I also saw the matter approached through the buying of toys, like fire fans,
and light-up martini cups, geodesic spheres, and collapsible yurts. These are fun things to have, fair enough. But I think it’s dangerous to use them to get back to your inner child, which is what I suspect people were doing here. Because the big, wonderful thing about childhood isn’t the toys or the lack of knowledge or the watching regrettable movies. It’s the sense of wonder at the world, where you’re still noticing new things every day, where the world hasn’t become boring yet. That’s what to seek out. I manage to feel like that whenever I’m out in the woods. I notice everything I can notice, and explore as far as I can explore. Whereas it’s hard to get people at the Burn to go exploring as far as a pond that’s maybe a mile away. I don’t know, maybe I’m misreading the whole situation. But I think this thing, where people try to become children but have forgotten how to do it, is happening all over the place, and probably leading to lots of unsatisfied people. Someday I’ll write a story about it, or something.
Speaking of writing stories. Well, this is a really tenuous segue, but I’ll do it anyhow. I was planning on writing a story this summer, and still am. That’s one big interesting thing. There are a bunch of other big interesting things I want to do. But the thing is, I should be working. I have some money stashed away, but it’s all from graduation gifts and such, nothing I actually earned. I’m living off others’ labors, especially since I’m still in Mom & Dad’s house. If I were out on my own, I would obviously have to be working harder, bringing in some income so I could live. Instead I’m kind of being dead weight, not doing anything. I’ve tried to find work for the summer. But there’s Crowduck in the middle, which I’m not keen to sacrifice, and which would make a full-time employer look askance. And there’s also the fact that I’ve been invited to walk along with that girl and pick up litter. And I’m also probably going to go to Little Rock to visit my friend in July. So all in all it looks like I’m kind of unemployable, that or I’ll have to give up trips that I really want to take. Or, I could do freelance work, like proofreading, but that just isn’t panning out so far, no matter how hard I try. I don’t know how to become employed, but I want to, but I also don’t want to, because my first summer back from Korea was going to be the beginning of the Year of Adventure, and because that US summer got moved from after Korea to before it, it’s like I’m already in the Year of Adventure and time’s a-wasting. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know where I could work. I’ve already tried to find a job teaching English, proofreading, and even working at the post office (no openings) or the railyard (career positions only). The problem may end up getting solved for me by the terrible job market. But I still feel like a burden.
I’ll let you know how my story-writing goes. I’ve got the idea kicking around, but I can’t seem to get it fully figured out. I’ll get it soon. I’ll start writing tomorrow. It’ll come together, like Imaginary Week did this year. I’ve just got to start writing.