How Wookie Saved Me in Black Rock City, USA
His name was Wookie. We met around 4a.m., both of us wandering the desert landscape alone. Just as our paths were about to cross, he softly inquired, “Are you alright?” No, I wasn’t. He’d found me just in time.
The previous week I had struggled. This was not the experience I’d thought it would be—last year I’d discovered pieces of art that I stared at long enough to etch them permanently in my brain, last year I made lifelong friends in a matter of minutes, last year, last year, last year. This year felt like a poorly rehearsed play, with awkward interactions and an energy that dissipated by the end of the second act. I’d seen the set and had a successful run-through, but when it came time for the magic to happen, it fizzled.
Friends had warned me that Burning Man was like this. The first experience is a whirlwind that heightens every sense and satisfies in ways you didn’t know were possible—you crack open your heart and interact with loving strangers, mutant vehicles carry you to where you need to be (even when you don’t know where you’re going), art and music transform you. The second time around turns into a constant comparison to the first, and it can never live up to that initial perfection. This was exactly the second Burn I was having.
It’s strange to experience loneliness while surrounded by 70,000 other people. I managed perfectly fine throughout the days, adventuring throughout Black Rock City or contributing my time at camp. But the loneliness at night frightened me. As the sun crept behind the rocky, jagged mountains and painted the sky a pastel pink, I felt panic set in. For many, dusk was a time of calm before rowdy evening festivities; for me, it was a scramble to find someone—anyone—with whom to share the time with.
I am a person who travels for people. Sweeping city views, local cuisine, a peek at history—none of these fulfill me as much as a genuine interaction with another human. I relish the moments on a trip when I feel like someone has shared a little piece of themselves with me, and I with them. Nothing energizes me more than those moments when I realize that we may live different lives in different places, but we are actually all united in our humanity. I seek out intoxicating experiences like this wherever I go.
A campmate wisely told me, “Expectation is the enemy at Burning Man,” and that is, perhaps, where it all went wrong for me. I had hopes of what I might experience, and when it failed to coalesce, disappointment set in. So after the Man burned to a pile of embers and ash that last evening, I had two options: resign myself to the fact that this simply wasn’t my year and morosely crawl into my tent, or spend yet another night meandering Black Rock City alone with no guarantee of anything at all. While I’d exhausted myself of wander-filled solo adventures in the dark, I nevertheless filled up my CamelBak and donned my rhinestoned goggles to head out into the dust one final time. If this night couldn’t save my Burn, I thought, then nothing will.
Bits and pieces of that night have since blurred together into a wild and gorgeous memory. A rainbow of neon flashing lights, some so strong they illuminated the mountains surrounding the city. Bass vibrating from the tips of my toes to every hair on my head, rattling me from the inside out. Creatures coming to life, moving like ants in the distance and clanking around in all directions. A golden statue of a man running eternally in circles, always returning to his starting point. A bluegrass band that had me dancing until my feet could barely hold me anymore. Sitting in a dark corner of the city and staring at the stars until I became engulfed in dust. Even though I spent it alone, it was about as perfect of a night as I could have asked for.
And then I found Wookie —or rather, Wookie found me. We stood near one of the main streets in the middle of the city discussing our own strangely similar weeks. The last five days I had felt like a speck out there flying around in the sporadic dust storms, a single person caught up in the chaos and with no say about where I was going or where I’d end up. My eyes watered to discover that someone else felt the exact same way. “You don’t see many people wandering around out here alone,” he told me. Yet there we both were: two alone people, just not so much anymore.
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