Thursday, October 8, 2015


Although it was a month ago, I'm still posting about Burning Man. It was a stretch for me to go with Lyme disease, but it was one of the most fascinating trips I've ever taken.

Some of our neighbors, across G Street, who lived in tepee tents for the week

On my first excursion to see art work, with my hair and face covered with scarves and goggles to protect from dust. I'm getting water from my pack before I check out the giant squid.

It was Tuesday, my second morning at Burning Man, and due to the shock of adjusting to my surroundings, plus some exhaustion from the trip down, I hadn’t done much the first day. The second morning I woke up feeling better. I had the intention of further regaining my balance by finding somewhere quiet to read and write in my notebook out for a few hours before I worked up the energy to explore my surroundings.

My quiet house in Seattle,
where I can be a hermit
Normally, I don’t like to do anything that isn’t reading or writing before 12 noon or longer if I can get away with it, especially not anything that involves being around people, or actually talking. Mornings are rough for me. I feel slow and achy and my brain and body need to go at their own pace. Therefore, I stay in my very quiet house in my quiet neighborhood in Seattle, and I write. I am grateful to be making some sort of a career out this, because it is exactly what I need and want to be doing, pretty much every morning, every day of the year.

That Tuesday morning at Burning Man, my boyfriend wanted to go on an art tour. He’d mentioned this tour a couple times on the drive down, and on Monday. My vague idea was that I would let him go do that, and we’d find each other when the tour was over.

I didn’t expect to do any writing at Burning Man, and so I brought two books, thinking I’d read in some quiet spot in the mornings, and this would be my alone time, my sanity time.

I did not understand Burning Man at all.

Here’s the way Burning Man works:

1) There is no quiet spot.

2) You’re way too stimulated and tired at the same time from all the loud thumping music to anything like read.

3) The morning is the best time to get out and see things, because by 12 noon it’s blazing hot, the wind has picked up, and the air is full of dust blowing continually from south to north, covering everything and making it hard to breathe.

This was why my boyfriend, when I told him I didn’t think I’d go on the art tour, gave me a look like I was crazy. I’d never gotten that look from him before. He is one the most laid-back, take-things-as-they-come people I know, so when he looked at me like that, I got a clue. I changed my mind and decided to go with him.

Inside the kitchen tent, where I made coffee
while fellow campers talked about how lucky
we were to have found a quiet spot, which
blew my mind because this was the loudest
place I'd ever been. (See previous post!)
The tour was leaving in 15 minutes. I had just enough time to make coffee, which I poured into our thermoses, and pack a couple of apples. We hustled over to VW bus camp across the street, the starting point of the tour, where we joined a line to climb onto the tour vehicle: a double-decker bus built in the shape of a VW microbus. It was soon crowded with burners (or Burning Man attendees), mostly from the VW Bus Camp itself.

Thank you, Phil Berg, who took this picture of "Walter" the VW Bus Art Car.

BACK GROUND ABOUT BURNING MAN (skip this if you like)

Burning Man is a temporary city set up in a remote part of the Nevada desert. The organizers of the gathering lay out streets in a clock-shaped grid, and most burners arrive in small groups of friends, in cars or RVs, and find any empty spot on the grid to camp in. Some people organize themselves well enough to have what are called ‘theme camps,’ which offer workshops, classes, open bars, or parties throughout the week. My friend Rose was a member of Camp CuriOdyssey, which threw some big parties. My fellow dancer Cameron stayed at Camp 11:11 (‘Camp Eleven Eleven’) which has an art car and bar. There is Contra Dance camp, and Chakralicious Camp, and the Alternative Energy Zone. VW Bus camp was for people who loved their VW buses enough to drive them to Burning Man and spend the week living out of them.

Our camp at our evening dinner gathering, close to sunset
Some of the members of our camp had once been part of VW Camp, but due to a small disagreement about what’s the best way to keep clean at Burning Man while having the least environmental impact (shower vs. baby wipes), our camp split off from VW. This disagreement was very friendly, so we camped nearby. Our smaller camp of 16 included engineers, doctors, nurses, architects, and teachers, one accountant, and one writer. Quite a few people in our camp were also artists in their free time. We ranged in age from early 60s to mid-twenties and were mostly from Seattle or Portland


My boyfriend and I climbed onto the giant VW bus for what we thought would be a guided tour, with information about the art. But like many things listed in the official guidebook at Burning Man, some of the details were off.  It was an art tour without the guide part: simply a ride out to the art installations on the desert, with stops for people to get off and look for a few minutes, then get back on the bus. All the bus was blasting music and people were sharing drinks. (Blasting music and sharing drinks seeming to be the baseline for most everything at Burning Man.)

You can imagine that the VWers were not the techno crowd. The music they played was enjoyable (Bob Marley, Natalie Merchant, Talking Heads), although louder than I would have liked. I put in my earplugs, and then did some polite-but-assertive angling to find somewhere to sit. The bus designed for standing room only, with a few ledges where you could sit comfortably. It was also packed, making me self-conscious about insisting on a seat. Anyone going by outward appearances would assume that I’m healthy and have no need to sit down, but I knew that if I stood up for an hour, especially in the morning, it would kill me for the rest of the day.

On the tour, suddenly I understood why people drive from all over the country to camp out in the blowing dust and the heat. At Burning Man you see things and experience them in ways you simply won’t anywhere else.

Some of the art I saw at Burning Man. True confessions: these pictures are of things I saw Weds, because I put most of my Tuesday pictures in the previous post. (Which you should read if you haven't yet!)
This 'Church'...

...had this amazing organ inside. One of my favorite installations.

Detail of the carved skull hanging above the organ

This sculpture was really cool...

...and a nice way to take a self-portrait without using the selfie button.


I deliberately didn’t read too much about Burning Man beforehand, because I wanted things to come as a surprise. I researched just enough to know if I there would be coffee, that I wouldn’t be entirely roughing it in terms of the bathrooms, that there would be a way to bring my medicine and my own food, and what to wear. Beyond that, I wanted to experience it when I got there, without too many preconceptions.

The Temple at Burning Man. Thank you to the BF, who took this photo and most of the pictures on this post. (He chooses to remain anonymous.)

This was why when the tour came to the Temple, I had no idea what it was. The Temple is an important part of the gathering, perhaps more important than the Man itself. Built deliberately to be burned down on the very last day of the week, it’s made out of plywood. It pertains to no particular religion, or to all religions. Throughout the week, people write the names of friends and family who have died on its walls, and they bring items that are tributes to the deceased and leave them inside. All the tributes will be burned when the temple is set on fire.

My boyfriend explained this to me as we walked towards the Temple.

“Is there someone you’d like to remember?” he asked me as we came up to the entrance.

“Yes,” I said, thinking of my doctor and friend who died in 2014, Carolyn Humphreys.

He somehow produced a Sharpie and handed it to me, and then I lost him in the crowd as I walked through the silent temple, looking at all the names on the walls, wanting to find a good spot for Carolyn’s name.

Inside the Temple

I found myself crying deep, overwhelming tears, while I walked. There were so many names, names everywhere, and posters people had made with photos of their loved ones.

I saw a photo of a young woman with a cat, which reminded me of Carolyn. Next to it someone had put up another poster, for a sister, her head bald from chemo. FUCK CANCER!  the poster read. I cried for this young woman who died, but I didn’t want to write Carolyn’s name next to FUCK CANCER! That kind of anger was not like her. I walked on, reading more and more names and crying harder.

I saw a bench with two people sitting cross-legged, holding hands and meditating in the silence. This took me utterly by surprise. In the middle of all that that pain and grief they looked so calm, and there calm was also such a contrast to the drinks and blasting music on the bus I’d just been riding.

The meditators reminded me of Carolyn. Everything seemed to remind me of Carolyn.

She had been so important in my life. She was the doctor. She pulled my life out of the trash can. Although she didn’t officially diagnose me with Lyme, she essentially did, saying ‘this is what I think you have,’ and sending me to the Lyme expert who put me on antibiotics. And then with her wonderful naturopathic expertise, her caring spirit and her laughter, she got me through those first grueling years of antibiotic treatment.

It is now impossible for me to think about Carolyn without a sense of awe that she got me to where I am now.

The years since my diagnosis have not always been easy, and even now every day I am constantly preoccupied with how I feel physically, negotiating my way through little blips of brain fog and drops in my energy and blood circulation, worried that I won’t sleep at night if I don’t get the balance of exercise and medication just right. And yet I am doing so many things that for a decade of my life I wondered if I would ever be able to do again—such as walk down the street on my own two feet, live in a house that is not my parents’, write, read, and in general spend the day actually doing things instead of lying in bed.

Every time I think of Carolyn, I am filled with gratitude for this. Every time I think of her, it seemed impossible to me that I am here and she is gone. And now here I was at Burning Man—Burning Man, of all places!—going through this wave of emotions for Carolyn, one more time, in this strange place, and still feeling bewildered by my grief.

How could someone so powerful, so vibrant, die so suddenly?

I had walked the length of the Temple when my boyfriend found me. The wind was picking up and the dust was starting to blow. It was time to go back to the bus. I looked for a spot for Carolyn’s name and finally found one, and wrote some words that were far from adequate. “Thank you for getting me here. You’re with me always. I miss you,” I wrote. “Be in peace, Carolyn.”

I left the Sharpie for someone else to use, and we turned back towards the bus.