24 Hours at the Temple of Juno
- Coming to you live
- It’s just a building
- Temple rules
- The Hummingbird
- Rock and roll is dead
- First watch
- Moving to our second spot
- The writing on the walls
- Moving to the deep side
- The purge
- My Dead Wife Can Wait
- Dusty wedding
- The dust storm
- Moving inside
- The sing-along
- Martian winter
- The night crew
- Bad news from camp
- The tea ceremony
- We can’t go too far
- An absurdity field
- We are all visionaries
- The inflection point
Title photo by Irina Alexander
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David Best built the first Temple at Burning Man, the Temple of the Mind. It was the year 2000. Just before the event began, a member of the Temple crew died in a motorcycle crash, so his comrades made the Temple a memorial to him.
It became a tradition; a Temple at the 12 o'clock position is now a recurring fixture of the temporary city of Black Rock.
The Temple remained a memorial, a sort of Wailing Wall for Burning Man. Participants write on the walls, leaving messages of joy, sadness, pleasure, and pain. They leave tokens, photos, artwork, and ashes. They sing, pray, and meditate. Some participants prepare ornate Temple offerings far in advance of the event. It all burns with the building on Sunday night, the last night.
Over the next 12 years of Burning Man, David Best built six of the Temples. In 2012, he and his team built the Temple of Juno.
The Temple of Juno was Best’s first in five years. Before 2012, we had never seen his work before.
We’ve both been to Burning Man four times. We’re drawn to the Temple as a sanctuary, a place to get out of the madness and think. Burning Man is a 60,000-person city on a dried up, prehistoric lakebed made of cars, tents and dance parties, and the Temple is the most solid structure out there in more ways than one.
Last year’s Temple of Transition was massive and obvious, a cathedral to humanity with tall towers connected by bridges. The whole thing was rigged with chimes and gongs. It was a multi-story musical instrument.
This year’s Temple of Juno was intricate, complex, and fragile. It was protected by a square wall with gates on all four sides. Small altars within the perimeter provided room for offerings and memorials. In the center stood the inner sanctum topped with a sharp spire. There was room for perhaps 40 people to assemble inside.
Every surface of the structure was curled and ornamented. It was like the lead frames of stained glass, only carved from lightweight wood, framing nothing but air, so the wind blew through it.
The Temple’s tiny ornaments left plenty of wood scraps for participants to play with, write on, leave to burn, or take home with them. We began taking pieces of the Temple with us the first time we visited. We didn’t know that the Temple would become the biggest piece of our week at Burning Man.
We realized that later, sitting in the dome at camp.
Sarah: 24 Hours At The Temple. I had the idea that day. I was sitting on the ground in the Temple with my eyes shut. It just came.
Jon: I balked at the idea at first. I had spent the night out at a distant portal already. I knew I could handle one all-night vigil, but could I handle another?
It took us the rest of the day to commit. We talked it over. Our friends seemed skeptical. That was probably what sealed the deal for us. We had to do it.
The next morning, we gathered our things and hauled them out of camp. We walked down Dandelion Street to the end of the city, where it meets the open playa. The water jugs were heavy. We stopped to rest at a dormant sound camp. A man asked us to take a spin in his hula hoop, which had a GoPro camera mounted on it. He was making a video.
Jon declined, Sarah agreed, but it wasn’t the most opportune time. We were haggard, nervous, and preoccupied. Sarah bashed the camera into several things before completing a few successful rotations. The guy may have regretted asking us.
Let’s just say we didn’t make the cut:
We could see our destination from there. We looked at each other, picked up our stuff, and trudged on toward the Temple.
And we stayed for 24 hours.
We were there as participants as well as observers. It wasn’t our job to cause a scene, to draw attention to ourselves, or to put people on the spot. We wanted a balance, a 50/50 observer/participant ratio. Roughly.
Writing this story was our thing at Burning Man, our contribution. The Temple is a place where many burners make their contributions. Some people prayed, some people cried, some people sang, we wrote a story.
We wrote down what happened, we took photos, and we brought it all back to the default world with us. We put out a call for other burners to send us Temple stories from the same timeframe. Then we put it together into this story. It goes through the whole day and night in the present tense, in our individual voices, so you can go there with us.
This story is about our temples, our cities, and our offerings, not just at Burning Man, but everywhere. It’s about now, not about here. Imagine this as a place in your city. If your Temple hasn’t been built yet, use your imagination and come huddle by the back wall of ours. We offer it to you.
Sarah and I are coming to you live at high noon from the Temple courtyard, our first position in this 24-hour mission. We’re not concerned with the precise time. Burning Man time is obvious. It’s day. Then it will be evening, then night, then sunrise, then morning, then day, and then we can leave. No problem.
We enter the Temple, setting down our stuff. Our mission hasn’t sunk in yet. When was the last time you spent 24 hours in a single location?
I’ve spent part of every day here so far, including a volunteer shift as a Temple Guardian. I thought four hours was a long time to spend here, surrounded by the intense emotions of the place. When I got back, people asked me, “How was your shift?” I told them, “Imagine spending four hours at the Temple. It was intense.”
This time, I expected to feel my usual reactions to the Temple: pain, loss, joy, hope, and every emotion in between. But I feel almost nothing. “This is the only time I’ve felt like it’s just a building,” I tell Jon.
Our first visitor is an older Lithuanian man. It’s his third Burn. First he went with his daughter, then with his wife, now his friends.
Sarah calls Burning Man “the best party in the world… among other things.”
Sarah tells me that the Temple has rules: no climbing, no bikes in the inner ring, no burning sage or incense. All of them seem to have lapsed.
Sarah wants to doze first, while it’s hot, and the sun is high. I turn my attention to the people around me.
Old guy to cute girl: “One of the things I have with me is, I have this ski mask, and you know how there’s always the creepy guy and the hot girl?”
Girl: “… Yeah?”
Old guy: “I’m the creepy guy!”
She looks afraid.
He’s creepy, all right, but he’s not a monster. He looks lonely and vulnerable, like he realizes and deeply regrets what he just said. He tries to play it off — “Not today, but…” — but it’s no use.
Thursday was my playa breakdown day where I literally sat at camp and did nothing because my body, my mind had gotten to the point of overwhelm. So Friday, I awoke before anyone and felt the urge to go to the Temple. I just followed it, dutifully dressing in all white out of respect for where I was going and the emotions it holds.
When I got here, there were few people, some still lying sleeping in the center of the room from the night before, spent but feeling safe within the walls of such a sacred place.
I was drawn to the bench on the north side of the Temple and sat close to the door, so I could see through the door on the other side and view the playa, the people coming in both weary from a long night and like me eager to start a new day. I feel like I sat there for at least two hours quietly meditating, occasionally looking around the room and feeling the grief and sorrow that each new person brought with them.
At one point, a woman sat beside me and would every so often take a picture of the inside of the Temple. All of the sudden, I hear her this click, click, click that breaks the silence and meditation. When I open my eyes to see what she is focusing on, I notice a hummingbird flying around the Temple… a hummingbird, in the middle of the desert, in this sacred place.
I am so dumbstruck by the existence of the magical bird that I look to her, questions in my eyes as if to say, “Am I really seeing that?”
She nods her head and says out loud, “Yes, it’s a hummingbird. Poor thing. How will it survive here?”
I shake my head in disbelief but can’t stop watching as it flies in and out of the Temple, hovering near the brightly colored flags and personal objects as if they’re the flowers it so desperately needs to survive. It feels like an eternity, sitting there watching it.
Eventually, it flies away, and my photographer friend moves on to her next subject. I truly believe the universe sent me that hummingbird to remind me to open my heart and let love come back in again.
I can’t sleep, so I go into the Temple to get a feel for it as Jon stays outside at the perimeter and eats a snack. The writings on the wall speak of deep emotions, and some speak directly to me. I remember wanting to write something at my first Burn, but everything I wanted to say was already accounted for on the Temple walls. This year, I have plenty I want to say. I have a lot of healing to do.
A phrase scrawled on one wall sums it up for me: “You are just a person now.” I’ve been thinking about this lately. Someone very dear to you can just disappear from your life. They’ll be in your life completely one day, and the next day not at all. They are a stranger to you now, just another person.
Before we arrived for our 24 hours, I had a feeling that I would see someone like that from my recent past. I didn’t want to see her. She had been my partner in crime, we’d shared intimate secrets, and she turned and used them against me. A Y chromosome had gotten in the way.
He was the fantastical image of the man who I wanted to love my whole life. He made me feel like rock and roll, but I was the last person on Earth to realize that rock and roll is dead. I was in love with a figment of my imagination. It made me feel foolish. And he didn’t want to be with me, anyway.
She knew the entire history. I told her about my feelings for him, those things you share only with someone you trust completely. It had taken years to build up trust like that. Then she fucked him. She had hidden things from me before, but this secret proved to be too much for her.
She told me on the phone. She said that she had been “too busy” to tell me. I got drunk. I broke bottles on the sidewalk outside my house, and my friends swept them up for me. Those friends are here with me at the Burn this year: my roommates Jon and Irina, our friend Kirk, and even my partner, who has been a rock through all this.
She’s here somewhere, too. It has been strange to be here and not want to see her. I have to move on and accept that we aren’t doing this Burn together. I know that “playa magic” will lead our dusty paths to cross if they are meant to. Our friendship has shattered. She asked for my forgiveness and said she would wait until I was ready to be friends with her again. Things will never be like they were before. She and I had planned on writing a Burning Man story together this year. I’m working with Jon instead.
After a good, long talk, Sarah’s gone inside to get in the mood. She took the small notebook, not wanting to disturb anyone with the audio recorder. I just ate my first snack of pork jerky and Ritz crackers.
It’s pretty hot and dusty out. Temple visitors are moving slowly, but it’s busy. I’m sitting by the standalone frame from which two ornate dream catchers hang next to a small black pouch with flames printed on it.
A woman on the same bench as I’m on just divorced her husband in words and photos on the Temple’s outer wall. Now she sobs. “I choose life + happy,” she writes.
Her friend comes over. “How’s it coming? You feel good or bad?”
They hug for a minute.
“Okay, movin’ on.” Sobbing chuckle. “Next!”
Sarah’s coming back out of the Temple. We decide to move to our second spot on the 3 o'clock wall. What a pain in the ass that’s going to be.
It takes two trips to move. We’ve got two 2.5 gallon water jugs, a thin Therm-a-Rest® pad, my stupid, broad-brimmed straw hat, my overstuffed paratrooper bag, Sarah’s small backpack and not-so-small tote bag, one rolled up woven wool blanket, and a red satin tablecloth caked with a year of playa dust.
And this spot’s narrow band of shade won’t last us long.
I take the plastic bowls and forks out of my bag, and Sarah busts out her two packs of Tasty Bite Indian food. “Do you want Punjab eggplant or palak paneer?” I went with the latter. I poured my oily curry into the bowl. Sarah ate hers straight out of the pouch.
There’s a guy with two sets of sunglasses on emerging from the Temple. No shirt, slightly receded hairline, singing “blackbird, fly… blackbird, fly-y-y…” over and over again. He’s embellishing the melody, riffing on it. His voice is kind of awesome, actually. He sings the line over and over as he walks out of the 3 o'clock gate, then busts out “Into the light of the dark black night.” Nails it.
“If, somehow, you could get the point,” a woman says to her photographer, referring to the Temple spire.
Sarah says this is the calmest she’s seen the place.
We’ve begun to notice the messages people have written all over the Temple. Some people add photos and full names revealed for all (until the burn), others stay anonymous.
Many themes come up repeatedly: Unrequited love, failed relationships, death of loved ones, death of pets, issues with parents, issues with children. Lots of starting over. Some thanks, some anger, some apologies, some forgiveness. Some nihilism and despair. Messages about cancer. Messages about abuse. Messages about addiction. And a handful of messages about Burning Man.
I see a message that speaks to me.
When people forget my name, I tell them to guess since they’ll probably guess right. Since Sarah’s such a common name, I’ve learned to stop responding to it in public places. But, truth is, I want this message on the Temple wall to be for me.
A couple of days before, I wrote something on the Temple that I thought of just after seeing a dusty child in her mother’s arms:
I visit my writing to find a direct response to my message:
Sometimes you write things, and people respond. Sometimes a message strikes you, but you don’t respond. And then there are those messages that no one will ever see. They’re written just because. They might be blocked by someone else’s message later. And it will all get burned up with everything else at the Temple.
What was intended for me was also for everyone. My ego was getting in the way.
Sarah comes back out. We notice a wedding party forming on the steps on the city side. A man and a woman, sexy specimens. A veteran Ranger lady in full dress uniform presides. She’s talking about God.
Periodically, a terrible art car will post up by the Temple and blast dancehall while people are crying.
Sarah interviews parents with a tiny three-year-old daughter who’s at her second burn. “Can you say ‘Happy Burning Man?’” her father asks her as they prepare to leave.
“Happy Burning Man!” she says and waves her little hands. She smiles and says it again, “Happy Burning Man!”
We’ve relocated to the deep side, right against the Temple. It’s the only shade other than inside, where, of course, there’s no room. We’ll make our way in overnight.
This part will be challenging. We’re on the ground, Sarah’s Therm-a-Rest® is flat, and we have no backrest. Sarah gets up and goes inside, and I stay seated uncomfortably.
A bald, fat, polo-shirted sheriff with a radio on walks right into the Temple. I freeze up and sort of grit my teeth. But he says, “Hi there. How ya doin?” So I reply, “I’m great. How are you?” “Good,” he says. And that’s that.
From inside the Temple, a woman screams horribly. Her second wail is weaker. A man says, “Let it out, sister.” She keeps wailing, three times more and ends with a wrecked sigh.
A minute later, another woman starts wailing. A man joins her for one quick yelp. I am sorry that anyone has this much pain to release.
She’s screaming hellishly now.
A bell rings, and the woman is released. Now she sighs, now she laughs, now we all laugh, now we applaud.
Now men outside are chanting a low drone. We’re doing the magic now. The process is underway. The dust is blowing all around us.
Beautiful panpipes of mourning as a man shrieks and cries. The woman’s purge has opened him up. I stand, leaning against the door, looking in. When he’s done, everyone swarms around him and hugs him. He’s smiling, now laughing softly. His eyes look tired.
Sarah joins me at the door. Some people are ready to leave when the chant ends. “You’ve been out the whole time,” Sarah says to me. “You should go in.”
So I enter the Temple for my first close look.
On the ceiling in one corner, an ode to Steve Jobs thanks him for what he made but mourns that the Apple of old is going away. I don’t agree with it. I feel protective. Jobs is a hero of mine. I miss him, too, but he lives on through Apple. It’s made of his DNA.
To the left of the beaming face of Jobs, one of the most tragic stories I’ve ever read. A Burning Man meeting, proposal, then wedding in three consecutive years. The day after they married, he dumped her on the playa. He ordered her not to come after him. He said he’d call “the Burning Man police” on her. Now she’s back to tell the story.
She made a large poster with photos and everything. It was impossible not to notice it. She named him for everyone to see.
Appallingly, another woman wrote on this piece that she was “sorry” for him, what with this other woman calling him out at the Temple in front of everybody, and left him her playa address.
I wonder if he ever takes the exit at the edge of town. Now, four years later, it is a rough black scar that makes a sound when we drive over it. It is where his wife died.
I saw him at the Temple being held by a woman and a man, looking small, vulnerable, and sad in their arms. He was crying, his usual smile and steadiness absent, a soft soul exposed to the sun. He looked bound to his life on the earth.
His daughters had come years before him to the Temple, and for the first time, he, a prominent figure of business in our small town, made it himself.
I see you, friend. Your wife was my mentor, my push, someone I admired and watched like a student.
Slowly I made my way to the sunny side of the Temple where they stood. And then, like a spotlight turned to the other side of the world, he stopped crying, pulled himself together and became who I know in our small town.
Quickly cleared up, polished and smiling he said, “How are you, how is your Burn, I need to get to the Tea House…”
I responded respectfully to the language and showed nod, nod, yes, yes, fine, fine, fine.
I walked on. And over my shoulder I turned and saw him resume his grief.
When I come back out, it’s a whiteout. Worst of the week, maybe. We’re well protected, but it’s still harsh out here. You can’t see a foot in front of you. The walls of the Temple perimeter disappear completely. Sometimes there is a slight break in the storm, and the Temple reveals itself, the opposite of a mirage.
Despite the storm, another wedding is gathering. This one is much bigger. They’re making a circle in the courtyard on the deep side. The wedding party sings a funny version of “Here Comes The Bride.”
The Temple traffic is constant. Incessant. Annoying, even. And everyone is chatting now. The ritual goes on quietly inside, but sitting by the doorway, I can barely tell.
My own troubles are starting to crowd my experience. All the love and weddings are making me sick. I want to be able to love and be loved and make love like everybody else can. Or they act like they can, at least.
Utterly dusty annihilation. It looks to be about 6 o'clock. There are still people gathering here, and art cars are still bumping out there, but it is really gnarly.
There’s another wedding going on. I’ve lost count. I can’t see what’s happening on the other side of the courtyard. I don’t even know where Sarah is. I presume she went inside the Temple, but she left her things here.
I go back through my notes. It’s the fourth wedding. The party is pouring champagne down the throats of the bride and groom.
I found a seat inside for the first time. Sarah suggested we have one person inside and one person outside. The dust is still raging. A fifth wedding is happening on the back steps. The art cars are still making tons of noise. The vigil inside goes on silently but in much smaller numbers.
I find myself fighting the urge to look for things written by my ex. I know her handwriting. But it would be so foolish.
The sun just emerged through the dust, and everyone said, “Wow!”
Thank you Neil Armstrong… for inspiring my young spirit of exploration. — wall writing inside the Temple
The sun’s down below the mountains. The vibe at the Temple now is like a picnic inside the bag of a vacuum cleaner. People are drinking wine, chatting, talking about human foibles on a tarp in front of us.
The wind is still blowing. It is hella fucking dusty. Sarah laughs at me for saying “Hella.” We’ve moved to the left corner of the back wall of the Temple, leaned against the outside of the sanctuary. This is the best shelter from the wind.
Sunset is ferocious. There’s a didgeridoo dude rocking out inside. Sarah’s losing her nerve. She’s got that fear of missing out. She went inside to write with an unhappy expression on her face.
I’m in it to win it at the moment. I don’t see an upside to quitting.
A man is taking a photo of me writing. I must look a sight. I hope I do. I want to be the specter haunting the Temple, scrawling down everyone’s deeds. I’m starting to fill with the urge to write here cross-legged all night long without stopping.
The extreme things I’ve done this week have all been the ones that were worth doing.
GOD, what is HAPPENING here!? What is this place? It looks weird, it sounds powerful, and it’s scaring the locals.
The wind is still whipping dust around. This could be a nasty night.
How are my people going to react to me when I come back? I bet they’ll be indifferent. I bet they think what we’re doing is weird. They didn’t say so, but I don’t trust them to say so anymore. They’ll just smile and nod politely and tune me out.
But maybe I’m starting to feel a little bit stupid.
Only people who have planned to be here or can’t leave remain at the Temple. Some might be stuck here, unable to see well enough to make it back to their camps. Then there’s Jon and me. I feel burnt out. This feels like an all or nothing situation. I’m leaning toward nothing.
I come back to our post on the east side of the Temple with the least amount of wind. I tell Jon that I am not feeling the story any more. He looks at me and says, “I can tell.”
Dusk is coming with no break in the weather. The only downside of quitting at this point would be failing to do what I set out to do. I despise doing this, letting myself down. But at this moment I don’t care. Laying low at camp seems pretty damn appealing to me. That is what just about everyone else in the city is doing.
I sit here on the dismal excuse for a Therm-a-Rest®, which leaves us with a numb ass in about 10 minutes. I want to convince myself that I am the only person that would truly care if I leave. I go back into the Temple and try and get absorbed in the environment, but it is colder inside than out. I return to the pitiful Therm-a-Rest® with Jon. “We need to blow it up again,” he says to me.
Now it’s dark. The group on the tarp grows person by person. These people have some sort of mission, and they are making it happen. The reunion starts looking more and more like something familiar: a cuddle puddle. And this glob of humans seems like something I need. I feel like I should participate. Jon can do the observation for the time being.
I cuddle up for warmth next to a guy who I barely look at. I feel like our not-soon-enough 24 hours at the Temple is worth mentioning to him. I collect heat in the bodies for a while. The cuddle puddlers are from Oakland, like we are. They want to create the world’s largest public display of affection. They give me a button that says “Cuddling is a gateway drug,” and I put it on my purple paisley jacket. I leave feeling like I should stay longer.
I am rejuvenated. I return to Jon. At this moment there is no skin. We have dust as our protective layer. We feel like warriors. Sparkle ponies couldn’t last five minutes in these conditions. They would rather have their catered meals delivered to them, yelling “SHUT THE DOOR!” as the storm pushes on outside their RV. Even our more hardcore friends are probably hunkered down at camp.
How completely Burning Man to have a cuddle puddle in the dark in a dust storm. That’s actually kind of inspiring.
It’s quite dark now. The lights are coming out. I’m suddenly in awe of everyone. To be relaxing in this courtyard in this storm of sand and grit is the exact human fuck-you we are all after out here.
Except now there’s a goddamn terrible ladies’ sing-along going on. Sarah and I are nearly at the point of heckling them. Their lack of tact is worse then their singing. Their songs are crude and inappropriate for the Temple, and they just played one of them for the second time. “Red Hot Pussy For Sale.” “Teeth In Her Pussy.”
The scene is still beautiful at night, though. It’s dusty as hell, but the full moon is up.
Sarah and I are arguing about whether the singer girls are “ruining” the moment. I’m concerned for the people who are at the Temple for serious reasons, but Sarah says “this is Burning Man at its finest” in its perverse absurdity.
We really do wish they would stop. But then, what is anyone doing at the Temple? This is their Burn, too. The Temple is a sanctuary for some and a stage for others.
I had to go to the bathroom at some point. “Sarah, before we get settled here, I need to go to the restroom.”
So she loaded me up with all of her blinking gear, which was a really good idea because, little did I know, as soon as I stepped out of that gate, I was in a vortex of black and brown noise. It only took a few steps before I couldn’t see the Temple any longer, and at that point, it was like being inside of an hourglass that had just been turned upside down. So I was falling forward through an impossible snow of dust, and I saw just the faintest purple light that clued me in to the direction of the Porta Potties.
The music was so grotesquely distorted all around me by the wind and the distance, and who even knows where the sources of these sounds were. It sounded like I was being howled at by digital monsters.
When I got to the Porta Potties, there were fucking burners standing around like it was Burning Man and nothing major was going on. There was a girl in a bra and panties just hanging out in the Martian winter like nothing was wrong. People were asking her, “Are you okay?” and she was like, “Yeah, I’m fine. I’m just trying to get to this next thing,” which made this all the more incredible.
So I made it to the Porta Potties, I did what I came to do, and I headed back. There was just nothing. The sign for the bathrooms is really bright. The Temple is completely dim, and I just had no idea whether I was going the right direction or not, but I was.
So I’m back, and we’re back in our corner behind the Temple with a bunch of other really dusty people. We’re surrounded by monsters. There are just monsters swimming around in a dust pool. You can see two stars in the sky, and the rest of it is just blowing dust everywhere. And there are still tons of people here. What the hell are they doing here? I don’t know. This is the hard core.
The night crew moved in like the day crew, but weird. They’re mostly looking around, but some are still mourning. A red tea ceremony is about to begin in honor of the victims of the Fukushima tsunami and nuclear disaster. A dude is fake-Indian chanting inside the Temple.
Usually, the nighttime provides relief from the dusty winds. It hasn’t died down much, but visibility is slightly better. We decide to lie down, rest our heads on our bags and get some shut-eye while the temperature is pleasant.
Not long after we close our eyes, I hear a man and a woman approach.
“Hrmmm. This is going to be difficult,” he mutters to her. Then he takes a flash picture over us.
I roll over quickly. “If you’re going to take pictures of us, can I ask you a favor?” I just want to ask him to email us the shot.
He reels back. His face is impossible to read. “Actually, I wasn’t taking pictures of you,” he says stonily. “I was taking pictures of my father’s ashes over there.”
Fuck. FUCK. What have I done? “Oh…” I can barely manage to speak. “Have a good night.”
“Oh, hi guys!”
The voice of our friend Devon wakes us at some point in the night. He’s with the others. “We have been looking for you two. Here, I brought you some trail mix.” It’s colder, but the wind has died down slightly. It’s nice of them to visit.
“Bad news from camp,” says Devon, trying not to smile. “Your tipi blew over in the wind.” I laugh, almost uncontrollably. The tipi was supposed to be windproof, and it held up perfectly fine last year. Last year, for the record, did have the most ridiculously perfect weather imaginable. We joked that the first timers that year didn’t understand what Burning Man really was.
I decide I am not going to set it back up again! If I have made it through the wind in the Temple thus far, then I will find a place to sleep. Devon then tells me that at least one of the bamboo tipi poles had broken completely. No way to do it even if I wanted to. Bamboo poles were lighter and easier to transport. Wood is traditionally used for the poles, and for a damn good reason.
Jon and I have an assignment, and there’s no way we are bailing now. Our friends have rejuvenated us.
We came inside after our friends left. The dust storm still rages inside the Temple. The red tea ceremony is proceeding solemnly. The artist has shaved his head. His whole body is painted white, draped in a red robe. He’s serving tea to Temple guests with hardened dignity in the midst of a grit blizzard.
We’re sitting next to Mr. Wonderful, a kind old man who likes what we’re doing here. He explains the tea ceremony to us. The artist is Hechi-Ken Hamazaki. The ceremony is to honor the victims of the Fukushima disaster. Mr. Wonderful says David Best, the Temple architect, wants to build his first permanent Temple there to heal the Earth.
We’re all stuck here now. Dust masks on, singing bowls singing, the wind whipping our calves and knees under the blanket because this Temple has no walls or ceiling.
I interrupted Sarah’s personal story to point out that a man just walked out of the Temple with a human-sized teddy bear and wandered off into the dust storm.
The DiscoFish arrives. The art car pulls up just outside the gates, rainbows pulsing over its scales and friendly beats thumping from its underbelly. We have to run out of the gates and jam for a couple minutes. That doesn’t count as leaving, right? Right.
Play that funky music, white boy.
“We’ve been outside for a while,” Jon says. “Let’s get back to it.” The DiscoFish is about ready to move on, anyway. There’s a Chicken out there crossing the playa, trying to get to the other side. Maybe the Chicken and the DiscoFish should jam out together.
I want to go, too, but we can’t go too far. That would count as leaving.
Jon goes straight back in, but I stop. The full moon looms over the Temple spire. The structure glows a dark red. Dull, warm light emanates from its intricate openings.
It reminds me of my trip to Colombia. I stayed outside one night, but I couldn’t sleep. Instead, I watched the moon drift all the way across the sky. Tonight is the second time in my life that I’ve tracked the moon’s movements all night.
Jon has to see this. I walk back in and tell him. He goes out with his disposable camera and snaps a picture.
Then he runs back, drops the camera and says, “Now I have to see it with my real eyes, and then I have to go pee.”
He walks back out and stares up at the moon for a moment, then disappears into the void. I’m really glad that I don’t have to pee right now.
I get up to walk around the courtyard. Over the wall, I see the Man bathed in floodlights. They’re preparing him to burn tomorrow. He’s got one arm in the air, practicing his dance moves. Disco Man. Tomorrow night, he’ll raise both arms, and then we’ll blow him up.
A few minutes later, Jon stumbles back, his headlamp askew. I recognize him by the glowing necklace I gave him. He’s ranting into his audio recorder:
“I have never been more radically at Burning Man than the two times that I have climbed the vertical face of the furious hellscape between here and the Porta Potties clutching my flower of life amulet for dear life.”
Back at our spot against the Temple wall, facing open playa, we huddle for warmth. We probably couldn’t make it without this piece of shit Therm-a-Rest®. I’ve spent approximately 40% of my brain cycles of this whole adventure on butt and back comfort.
From our vantage point, we’re able to see the highlights of the absurdity without losing ourselves in it. We can still maintain the observer/participant relationship with the absurdity.
Sarah wanted to run off, but then she recalled the documentary we saw about last year’s Trojan Horse. Some people do just one thing out here. It’s their offering to the community. And that’s what we’re doing. That’s why we must stay here until tomorrow.
Our friend Kirk came to keep the night watch with us! And it’s a good thing he did, because the freaks are freaking freely around here.
A violet bug-person, absolutely radiating burner absurdity, rolls up to the Temple on its art-wheelchair, and it needs help getting up the ramp. People help.
What just now hit me is the delicately layered irony of how many able-bodied people (including myself on multiple occasions) have hit their heads on the archways over the Temple entry ramp for people who can’t access it with the stairs.
As Kirk winds up for the delivery of a profound idea about real life, we become distracted by a rustling sound, like tin foil scraping together. Kirk’s sentence trails off as the mosquito man emerges in plain view, terrifyingly impossible, like a pants-sagging b-boy in microwaveable packaging. His gait is constrained by a shimmering sarong tied haphazardly around his thorax. He shuffles around the corner, and we can’t stop laughing. But when we try to talk about him, we hear his pants from inside the Temple. Crinkly Pants Guy is right behind us.
It’s goddamn weird and late, is the point.
We’re inside talking about the art of journalism. I hear yelling from the courtyard. Something serious is about to happen.
A man dressed in white runs in screaming, wobbling, falling headlong toward the center of the Temple. Every head in the room turns. White jumpsuit, white goggles on his head. His arms and legs flail like rubber. His mouth wide, his eyes bulging, he crashes into the altar in the center and falls down.
It was like he wanted to crash through the Temple, but he bounced off instead. He’s still lying there.
We’re near him. We jump up. People rush over to him, but we hang back. What’s he going to do?
The altar is badly damaged.
He screams a name, “Justin!”
Do I see Justin? There’s a guy hovering behind the crowd, annoyed, or maybe embarrassed. Is that Justin?
I want to stay objective, to notice what’s happening, but I feel so sad. I’m afraid for this man on the ground.
A Guardian calls out, “Temple Voice!” right away, calling for the lead Guardian with the radio. He runs in. They bring the man in white into the corner. He continues to yell wildly. They try to muffle his voice.
He only lets one person get next to him. Before long, he yells at her to leave him as well. “I thought you were one of us. I don’t trust you.”
He’s kicking and flailing. “Let’s give him some space,” Sarah says to all the onlookers, and we do. Only the Guardians and Temple Voices remain next to him, trying to calm him with their hands.
He looks up from the ground at the beaming face of Steve Jobs. “Steve Jobs… Steve Jobs.” His voice is clear for the first time. “We’re all visionaries.”
Sarah turns to me with huge eyes. I’m writing furiously. “Did you get that?” she whispers. “I’m getting everything,” I tell her.
He’s still looking for Justin. He’s calling for rangers. “They’re on their way,” a Guardian says. The Temple staff are all over the radios. He’s fighting. Security is with him now. He’s still calling for Justin.
The rangers are here. They want the Temple cleared. How do we negotiate this?
A ranger approaches me, tells me they are trying to clear the space for this guy. She’s willing to let me finish what I’m doing, but then I have to leave. That’s fine.
So we’re back in the courtyard now. It’s cold. The incident is not over. Many of these people were not ready to be disturbed. Some pace the scene nervously.
Sarah’s reporter instincts are absolutely pro-level. She reacted way better than I did.
I have to go back and see what happened. Only a few people have come back inside the Temple. I walk through the center. The altar has already been repaired — I’m not sure how. I walk out the front and through the Temple gate. There’s an EMS truck parked with the flashing lights on.
At least four people are holding down the visionary man, with many more surrounding him. He finally gets calmer. Now he’s strapped to a gurney. Did they tranquilize him?
He holds his head upright, and he repeats in a calmer voice, “Justin‚ Justin,” and then “Mom‚ Mom.” They wheel him into the EMS vehicle and drive off.
A man next to me is on his knees crying, praying for our fellow burner as the lights flash across our faces.
The visionary ran in at the inflection point between the overnighters and the sunrisers.
The sunrise crowd goes strong at the Temple. They show up very early, before you can see faces, and they start filtering into the best spots.
Sarah notices I made it through the night in shorts and sandals. “Jon,” she jokes in her new journalist voice, “you have to do more in-the-field work!”
I have the urge to wander. The sun is up, but it hasn’t warmed us yet. I stroll through the clusters of people and see a beautiful group cuddling in front of me. They see me and ask if I would take their picture. They are all part of Camp Contact, which is a dance group. They come from all over the world. They had been on a group journey all night, and I explain to them what Jon and I have been up to as well. We all have that glitter in our eye of pulling an all-nighter. We have a bond. I ask them why they are at the Temple at sunrise. One of them tells me:
“I always have a hard time explaining why I come here. The first Burn I did, I came into the space of the Temple and collapsed on my knees and started crying. I had no idea why.
“That was before I got 'energy work’ and 'spiritual’ and all that crap. I didn’t realize why the Temple has meant so much to me.
"In my life, I have happy figured out. I have love figured out. I have that mastered. But what I don’t have mastered is how to celebrate my sadness. I don’t feel safe to feel sad and express my sadness.” She sighs.
“That is why I go to the Temple. It is safe to feel sad. What I got last night is that the Temple is in my heart. The Temple is always with me. I don’t have to wait until Burning Man to tap into my sadness. I can be sad whenever I want, and it is okay. It’s a human right… a human emotion. For me to reconnect to my sadness has me complete. That was getting in the way of me being complete… expressing my sadness.”
I feel the same way.
Inside, a ritual is beginning. Two couples, woman and man, are walking arm in arm toward the Temple with a long spool of fabric. As a piper and a guitarist play behind them, they are wrapping a woman in the gauze. They’re winding their way around her slowly, and she’s writhing and contorting like a bug. She’s on her back on the ground. They’re binding her arms around her bent knees.
“So is this just a dance piece?”, some boyfriend asks loudly at exactly the wrong moment. The woman with him looks away.
The dancer is totally wrapped now, a complete cocoon. They’re unwrapping another bundle now. The other woman has prepared herself, and the dance begins again. Then a third woman is wrapped up. The rest of the dance is them untangling themselves. They went full butterfly.
It is light now.
The vigil grinds on inside the Temple. The altar that the visionary demolished looks restored. Everybody’s back to the morning rites, knowing today is the last day we can be here before the preparations are made to burn the Temple down.
Sunrisers and morning people are not the same.
Burner chicks in leather and feathers smudge with sage before entering the Temple gate. They do the whole ritual, step into the smoke and inhale with a smile. Then one immediately looks down and starts diddling with an iPhone in a golden case.
Morning Temple is happier than day Temple. There’s one guy playing cello in there, lifting up the mood just a little as the sun climbs.
We talk to him a bit when he’s done. An older man in some kind of hat interjects himself. He asks us about our night, and we tell him the story. “That’s a wonderful story!” he says. “Don’t worry! Your efforts won’t be for naught, because I will write about it. I’ll mention it in my book!”
We pry ourselves away from this guy’s attention when our roommate Irina arrives with perfect timing. She was trying to bike back to camp but got turned around and ended up at the Temple by accident. Oh, Irina.
It’s great to see her. We take some photos, give some hugs, and then Sarah and I leave to take another shift outside. We watch the scene for a long time.
An old lady has been sitting here with us for a while, not saying anything. She and a younger lady are bonding over the “little details” of a memorial, crying softly.
We walked straight towards the Temple in the glaring sun, through spires and dust, around the Man being prepared to burn that evening. This walk has always been important to us, and as we entered the Temple, we knew we had come at the right time. With a folder full of pictures and stories of over forty Tibetans who have self-immolated since March of 2011, we proceeded to find a place to honour them.
We have just returned from India and Nepal, spending a significant amount of time in the Himalayas and in Tibetan colonies in India. During our travels, it became important to us to share the stories of those who both take non-violence to be one of humanity’s most important values, and yet feel so powerless as to take the most violent act imaginable — extreme violence to the self.
As we carefully placed each photograph and story, we took time to read each one a final time and surround them with prayer flags. We sat for a long time with a metal bowl full of Tibetan incense and watched as others took the time to read these people’s stories. I want each individual who stopped to read even just a portion of the memorials to know — you honoured them with your moment of acknowledgement.
As we prepared to leave, a small group of Hare Krishnas were dancing in front of the Temple throwing tikka, coloured powder; I dug in the bottom of my bag to discover we, too, happened to have some left. To throw that colour was to in some way release my own feelings of helplessness. To wish for others, especially those living in Chinese occupied Tibet, a time when they, too, are no longer powerless.
— Manda Gryba
Finally, the sun has risen high in the sky, so it’s hot again. Our time at the Temple has come full circle. I suggest to Jon that we spend a little while meditating to wrap up our time here.
We go to the outer perimeter of the Temple, sit down, and close our eyes. I find it difficult to sit with my eyes shut. All my body wants is the rest it deserves. I turn to Jon and say, “I gotta lie down.”
I position myself horizontally and let the sun beat down on me, not wanting to seek shelter. After so long with a hurt back and butt in the stinging dust and cold, it is a welcome change to lie in the hot sun and let my eyelids shut.
(Jon: I see a flaming vortex behind my eyes.)
I lose track of time. I see white through my eyelids, and I find it easy to think of almost nothing.
I feel hands on my chest, near my heart. But I don’t open my eyes. I assume it is Jon.
(Jon: Two people, a man and a woman, enter the gate next to us and walk up to Sarah. The woman puts her hands on Sarah’s chest. They must be healers, I figure.)
I open my eyes. It’s her. It’s the friend I didn’t want to see. She’s covered in a grey alkaline layer looking down on me.
“I knew I would find you here,” I say to her as tears come to my eyes. I put my hand on top of hers.
“Do you want me to leave?” she asks.
As much at it hurts to see her, I am ready for this. I have become unhinged from all that has happened in the past 24 hours. It doesn’t seem real, but it is fitting that this is happening now. My heart beats faster, and I am sure she notices. Her hands remain on my chest.
I take in my periphery beyond her, and I see him. I never wanted to see him again. I told him that the last time I spoke to him. And here he is, all cozy with my old friend.
“You,” I say. I point. “I don’t want to see.”
He gets up and moves away as my former friend begins to cry. I feel dizzy from lack of sleep. I don’t need to deal with this mind-fuck right now. They are on the same team, and I feel like they are winning.
I get up and walk towards the Temple gate.
Now it is just the stranger formerly known as my friend and me. I wish she could have been stronger and come by herself. She says, “I want you to know that you made me find my purpose in life. I couldn’t have done it without you.”
Shocked and confused, I ask her what her purpose is.
“To save humanity,” she tells me.
Who the hell is this person?
(Jon: They weren’t healers. Shit. I let them touch her.)
I ask her if they are together, well knowing the answer already.
My heart racing, I brush past Figment Man. He is standing there, with his hands folded in front of him. He looks like he’s acting in a low-budget movie.
He robotically says that he cares about me. It seems like programming has taught him well. Completely disingenuous. I feel ill. I walk away.
He moves to follow. Jon steps in front of him, puts out his hand, gesturing stop. “You picked a really bad time,” Jon says. No response.
I run out of the Temple yelling “Fuck them both,” and fall to the playa in a pitiful heap. Now Jon is with me, and soon after, the man who is programmed to feel and my friend I no longer know join us in the dust. Jon is talking to them. He’s trying to reason with them. But all I can hear is, ouch, ouch, ouch.
“I will love you till the end of the universe,” my former friend tells me.
What an empty thing to say. She thinks she did it all out of love. Maybe hurting me was worth it for her. I believe that female friendship is sacred. Women need to stick together in this world. I guess not everyone feels the same way.
Meanwhile, he’s just loving this. He thrives off of it. Asshole.
Now they’re telling me their love story. Their words assault my dazed mind and fragile heart. I am in observer-only mode at this point. My old flame and my old friend have finally found true love for the first time in their lives.
The stars have aligned to put them at the center of this cosmic-whatever story, and they just have to tell it. They don’t care that I want them to shut their mouths and leave.
She hears far off music with an unknown source, and her only choice is to follow it. The music is tempting her. I think of the Sirens in The Odyssey, believing it will end badly, but I know she doesn’t care. She is blind to his danger, as I once had been before. That had been part of his appeal, after all. I know he isn’t right for me, and now neither is she.
Jon looks at me. “It’s done,” he says.
I smile at him. “You’re right. That’s the end of the article.”
(Jon: We were so concerned at first about when to leave. We were measuring the height of the sun with our fingers. Now we know. This is over. We have to go home.)
I want to disappear from their lives and not exist to them anymore. I want to just move on, but I am stuck.
“Sarah, we need your blessing,” the Y chromosome says.
(Jon: Really? REALLY?? Wow. Really.)
Oh, as if I want any part in your delusions. This is the worst joke of all time.
I have so much to say to them, but I can’t speak. I can’t think, receive more information, or process this situation any longer. I want to be left alone. They’re a plague on my well-being. My final words to them are “give me time,” as I storm away back to my camp. I leave them both sitting in the dust.
My words would have fallen on deaf ears, anyway.
The Temple had given me a personal, unpredictable twist at the end. Of course it had. That was meant to happen. It will be the last time in a good while I’m going to see them again, and I’m glad. I’m glad that’s the end. This is the story I was meant to write.
Sometimes letting go seems impossible. Sometimes all we can do is move on‚ for now. — My entry on the Temple wall accompanied with my old, stained 6th grade jacket. Now it, too, will burn.
I’m humping the rest of the water back across the playa. It’s bright and hot. Sarah’s ahead of me, dragging the Therm-a-Rest® on the ground. We’re done. We’re definitely done.
Jon Mitchell was publisher at Burning Man Project from 2014–2019. His playa name is Argus. He’s been a Burner since 2008. He’s loved writing stories much longer than that, but it was Burning Man that taught him how to do it properly. He lives in Los Angeles, California.
Here are some of his other Burning Man stories that you might enjoy:
(photo by the incomparable Scott London)
Sarah Russo is an aspiring journalist, story collector, and herbalist. She got her journalism legs working for Project CBD, which is a educational news service reporting on cannabidiol’s (CBD) reemergence in the grassroots cannabis supply. She graduated from the Evergreen State College with a focus in Social Justice. Sarah is native to Missoula, MT. She is now an Oakland transplant. She adores the Bay Area, but will never truly be a Californian.