Prologue--The Burning Man Connection
As we sat at a cafe sipped tea together, my dear friend Ashley recounted her experience with Burning Man, a pop-up community in the Black Rock Desert of Northern Nevada. For one week at the end of August, this empty stretch of powder-fine dust explodes into a city of 68,000 souls, who bring their own food, water, shelter, costume, and art. Among the pieces is a huge wooden effigy, the titular "burning man" that erupts into flame by the experience's end.
What draws people to the desert is an individual matter, but my friend Ashley sought and found spiritual transformation. She felt safe to be herself, to give and receive freely, to let go of negative emotions and achieve catharsis. And as she told me about climbing on statues, dangling from hammocks high off the ground, and riding down narrow rickety "death slides," I found myself growing intrigued. I wanted to enter this magical place of survival and play.
"I wish I could have come with you," I sighed. "It sounds like such an interesting experience."
"Would you like to go to Decompression with me?"
Decompression, Ashley explained, was a one-day event associated with Burning Man, where some of the art was displayed and local "Burners" had a chance to mingle. Burning Man mini, so to speak. Ashley wanted me to come, and I was free. Why not experience this world my friend loved, why not play together like kids?
And so the date was set. Saturday, October 5th we would go.
The Setting--What Would the Metro-link Passengers Think?
A park in LA. Flat ground, mostly dirt, with some dried crab grass clawing at the two tiny mounds we call hills. Five or six adolescent trees, barely out of sapling-hood, stand on each hill; forests, to us. Glassy skyscrapers make up the borrowed scenery; a smattering of palm trees and a mission-style church look on blankly from outside the fence. Occasionally, the Metrolink runs by. I imagine passengers gazing out the window at the same scenery they see everyday. Suddenly they start. What's going on at this park? Why are there white tents and booths and stages, people dressed in costume, the steady hum of bass? They barely have time to wonder before the train shoots by and their experience of Decompression is done.
But not for me. I'm shuffling along, turning my head like an owl, while my brain desperately gropes for an analogy. The first thing that one that pops into my head is the circus--simultaneously watching it and being in it. Here are stages where scantily dressed performers twirl fire batons; there are boxes of mirrors that distort your face to fun-house effect. And yet, you can easily pick up a hoop and create your own show or join in a tea party or paint your body with art. I don't, but I could.
On second thought, though, maybe Decompression is like college. It has the same pungent, illegal odor the hallways of my dorm had, as well as art projects built of recycled bubble wrap and spontaneous light sabers duels. The play of young adults trying to recapture the innocent games of childhood has the sense of impermanence to it. The fragile world is in jeopardy and will all too soon disappear.
Costumes--The Gypsy Wood Nymph and the Kitsune Goth
I would have felt strange if I didn't dress up--like an outsider. Maybe I am one and maybe they'll know it, but a costume works as camouflage, so I raid Ashley's closet before we set off. My go-to persona is what Ashley calls "the kitsune goddess," a reference to the fox-spirits of Japanese lore who can shape shift into beautiful women. I throw on a blue yukata, attach a fox tail, and color my face.
Red and yellow kabuki-style make-up swoop my eyes like a butterfly mask. I can't decide what to do with my lips, so I paint them black. Ashley instantly likes it, saying I look goth. I've never been goth before, but I don't mind trying. I cinch a silver and black belt around my waist, put on striped arm-warmers, and stick a tall comb in my hair. I feel both regal and scary alike, like an evil queen or Lady MacBeth. Incidentally, I was always good at acting out demented roles in high school drama class. Go figure.
Ashley was already dressed when she picked me up. She has on poofy green harem pants and a mesh top that bares her arms and midriff. Scarfs and purple yarn hair wind the top of her head and tiny horns poke from her hair. She looks like a gypsy wood nymph. We are both fantastical characters.
Decompression holds a cornucopia of different characters. I see steampunk outfits, hoop skirts, huge mohawks made of feathers, orange astronaut jumpsuits, white jumpsuits with disco mirrors plastered like polka dots, red cheerleader outfits... too many to describe. My "evil" confidence slips as I revert back to being a shy girl. We walk side by side into the crowd.
Art--Fire Angel and Painting the Trailer from the Inside Out
What first appeared to be a balsa-wood Taj Mahal has a very steam punk look when I approach it. People sit and hang out in bulbous pockets of wood. Nearby, a metal statue of a woman has flames trailing around her arms like the outlines of wings. Later, real fire spurts from the base and the statue spins and spins in whirling dervish, as though trying to escape. The flames shroud the angel but cannot quite consume her.
A gallery of florescent black-light paintings become 3-D when we put on the special glasses. A box of red-lit smoke spits out perfect smoke rings, making me think of The Hobbit. A fish tank maze of blue-green bubble wrap leads to tiny sea shell shrine.
But what I like best is a small trailer where a cheerful woman in an orange sari invites us to paint our own pictures in whatever spot we can find. This is no easy task, as aliens, mermaids, and bubbles compete for space on the walls and ceiling. Ashley locates a dolphin she painted last year. This year she does tribal patterns on the edge of a shelf, while I play with the colors of an ocean sunset.
Dust--"Worse Than Burning Man"
I feel it first after the pedal car track. We've been pumping the bicycle gears of our buggies through the dirt and wood chip terrain, trying to bump each other but mostly failing. As I come out of the car, I'm out of breath and gasping--though this I attribute to my being out of shape. Then I notice my mouth feels dry and cracked. The black lipstick flakes off my mouth. I croak to Ashley that I need water.
It's dusty here. By the food trucks where I buy my water, there's no vegetation and people kick up the dirt. My sinus explode. I pop Sudefeds and cough drops in a desperate attempt to clear my head. I suspect the Santa Ana winds are blowing, contaminating the air with allergens. Ashley at first laughs at my complaints. This is nothing compared to the "white out" dust storms that hit Burning Man.
The evening wears on and the dust clogs up my chest. It's hard for me to breathe. Now Ashley's aware of the dust, too. Its almost invisible, except in the flash of my camera. Ashley admits that this year Burning Man was low on dust storms. The rain had come down before and made the dirt stick. Decompression, surprisingly, is more dusty this year.
Lights--What Do Plastic Bottles Have to Do With a Beloved Childhood Game?
The more the sun sets, the less self-conscious I feel. The scenery transforms. The skyscrapers light up. Dangling crystal objects glow, stages shine neon, Christmas lights twinkle atop stranger's hats. Excitement bubbles in my veins. I've done enough observing. Now, I want to play.
I drag Ashley to a giant Lite Brite, one of those childhood toys I used to play with. A Lite Brite is basically a board with pegs you stick in to create a mosiac which lights up when you plug it in. From a distance, I can't figure out how they made it. But on closer inspection, I see the "pegs" are actually water bottles drizzled in a coat of neon paints. The frame is wood, but most of the board is Styrofoam, with holes cut out for the peg. We arrange them for a while. I try to make a diamond. Ashley makes a heart.
People--Heart to Heart
Men from a booth offer hugs from in exchange for compliments. One is "stuck-up" by a robber holding a banana, who proceeds to chase him round and round the stand. Kids in scouting uniforms play a somber game of chess with pieces made of Barbie dolls and action figures. A dancer twirls her long sleeves to a man playing a lute. A girl in a wheelchair talks about color chakras and offers us a crystal infused with positive energy.
So many different people, so many personalities. Still, what I liked best was sitting with my friend Ashley under one of those poor almost-grown trees, eating gelato and talking heart to heart, as old friends should.