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Absolution in Ash Gray
A Homo-Romantic LSD/6-APB Trip Report from Burning Man '22
As an avid collector of strange experiences, Burning Man had long been on my radar. A troupe of “Burners” at my college regularly enchanted the quad with fire dancing shows. I took them to be sirens. Later, the “Burners” were just about only friend circle I found sufferable while “living” in DC. They seemed genuine, but I did not fully integrate with their subculture. The requisite pilgrimage to the Burn sounded like too much time and energy to be spent suffering in the desert.
Three weeks prior to the Burn, a friend from college — another terminally online student of memetics — offered me a ticket and a spot at one of Black Rock City’s Post Office camps. The absurdity of delivering mail in such chaotic desolation finally motivated me to pack up my bags. I set out to try a new life as a mailman on the dry lake bed known as the Playa. I told my friend Hexa that I would meet her in Reno.
By Friday, I had already seen some of the art, and gotten my bearings on the city.
My primary objective had been to scout out which camp to join next year.
My cover as a mailman was perfect for peaking into the inner cloisters; to observe the great variety in each camp. Some were close knit friends reuniting; others were sprawling productions that were planning their performances. Some seemed to be scripted, in others it seemed like no one had a grasp on the plot.
I had fallen into hanging with the ‘Future Turtles’, a gay camp within walking distance of the Post Office, but figured I should at least check out the other gay camps. The Burning Man schedule (a FOMO generating device filled with the hundreds of events one inevitably missed) indicated that the 'Glamcocks' would be serving brunch at 10AM. Participation seemed like an appropriate chance to use the 'Femboy Hooters' outfit I had brought in hopes of giving it a life post-Halloween.
The ‘brunch’ turned out to be iced coffee and Bloody Mary's. I savored the pickle and olive's life force, realizing I should have expected no carbs from a camp as fabulous as the Glamcocks. I chatted politely but did not feel much resonance. I found myself eager to finally make it to the Future Turtle's 11AM high intensity interval class.
The yoga mats were covered in dust, but the venue was shaded and the temperatures were not yet melting. After the class I tried to saunter back to the Post Office, but was waylaid by offers of margaritas at a camp called Booty Hunters.
After slaking my thirst, I finally made it back to the Post Office camp. I worked the window, telling people “Yes, you can actually mail things here. Yes, we have plenty of post cards. No, I can’t just give you a stamp.” We did have some stamps, of course, but bribes were heavily encouraged by the management.
Mostly, though, I conserved energy in the hottest part of the day; avoiding the mistake of fighting with the Sun as I had the days prior.
The headlining music performance of Above & Beyond was scheduled for midnight, and I had responsibly waited to trip for it. I was mentally and emotionally ‘all in’.
I borrowed Hexa’s bike for the evening, and made off to the Turtles camp around 9PM. The camp was smart enough to usually keep one of their two daily drink offerings non-alcoholic for those partaking in other substances. I dosed myself with 6-APB, an 'empathogen' that is similar to 'MDMA' (Ecstasy) but with less speediness and subsequent grogginess.
I started chatting with the Instructor that had led the HiiT class earlier that day, and found out he had taken a tab of acid. I proposed that we both 'candy flip' - to combine an empathogen and a psychedelic.
While the LSD might exaggerate the good and the bad, and help with abstract thinking, the 6-APB might expand openness to social and emotional currents.
We both agreed it would be good to have someone else at a similar ‘level’. He took one of my 6-APB pills, and I broke off a tab of acid.
The first sandstorm of the week started up around then; just as the sun went down. I tried to be social as I felt my intestinal neurons melt into a soup. The stormy conditions outside started to match how I felt. For a couple minutes, the urge to puke rose, but the shame of desecrating the Playa — where any debris was taboo — sufficiently motivated me to keep it together.
Although the Lieutenant in charge of of the Turtle's night time expeditions had told people to be ready at 10, it took a good deal longer thanks to a phenomenon that I instantly understood, but had not yet had a name for: 'faffing'. Getting a gaggle of gays anywhere in a hurry is hard in the best of conditions, but when they need to find appropriate LED lights and goggles and water, in addition to looking fabulous, it can stretch on indefinitely. Eventually the Instructor moved to the bike parking outside the tent, his gas and ski masks protecting him from the sandstorm, guiding the group OUT like a traffic conductor. We were both ready TO GO.
Our journey to the performance required us to travel across the Playa. The Lieutenant had affixed the camp’s neon rainbow totem to his bike, making it possible to keep sight of him. Around a dozen Turtles followed. One noted that it took only 37 minutes of faffing past the 10pm deadline; which was spot on for securing a spot at the midnight performance.
Finally on bike, it was hard to not slow down to appreciate the visual splendor. It was as if the dry lakebed had become alive once more; bioluminescent creatures as bikes swam in the underwater streets. The sides of tents flowed like seaweed in the wind. The sandstorm added volume to the glow.
The Turtles weaved through oncoming traffic: stop signs were not a part of Black Rock City’s infrastructure. Still, we stopped frequently to regroup. The Lieutenant would call out "Future!" and the others would respond with "Turtles!". Navigation by landmarks was practically impossible in the low visibility settings. We eventually reached a patch of sand so thick that we all dismounted, prompting someone to shout out "Proceed on foot - side arms only!" as if on a military expedition. As we continued through the sand storm, the “Future?” became more of a question, and the “Turtles…” responses grew pathetically less confident.
Eventually we made it through the hazy center of the city, finding ourselves on the Esplanade where we could at least check street signs for our bearings.
Hordes of lit up bikes were parked along the roadway, and we found a patch to park our own before heading into the 'Opulent Temple' camp that put on the largest music performances.
The Turtles merged with the Glamcocks; neon rainbow totem meeting glowing cock in the ashen dust storm. Together, they formed a rainbow gay cluster in the heart of the venue. Pyrotechnics blasted to reiterate the intensity of the situation. Finally, the 'burner' aesthetic of goggles and flowy scarves made sense: they were immensely practical in these harsh conditions which were entirely worth the effort in getting and being there.
I had arrived; peaking on both substances. Everything felt a little bit extra. Attention to a single thing could not be maintained. As enjoyable as the music was, reaching a flow state while being so proximate to the gay cluster seemed nearly impossible. I seemed like I was on 'wall duty’; standing up straight with my small bag to prevent others from trying to cut across the group. This allowed the younger, twinkier guys to bounce around in their own flow states. I locked eyes with another fellow on 'wall duty'. He was around my age; and minutes earlier I witnessed his eyes soften as he gazed on to the Lieutenant. We spoke few words but communicated measures.
I sensed the collective hopefulness of the gay cluster: it was a truly magical place to meet some one (compared to the monotony of online dating, or even gay clubs). My rational mind struggled to make sense of the social signalling: a certain amount of affluence was required to be there, yet these same people were willing to give up some measure of comfort to experience the sublime.
Without much room to dance, I mostly just closed my eyes and blissed out to the music… however, each time a wide grin crept across my face, I was pulled back by the same older white guy trying to make a move on me. Again and again, he continued with a line of tired questions, pointing out his slim yet aged Asian boyfriend as he passed by. Both were on the hunt; together yet alone.
The group dynamics started to take hold over my mind: was that older couple the destination of my current romantic trajectory? Would I be pushed out of the wall I now upheld? Would I some day have a partner cool enough to go to Burning Man with, yet that still left me dissatisfied? Would I be doomed to nudge cute boys to give me scraps of attention, perpetually interrupting their flow states? The uneasiness was hard to settle, and soon I began eyeing my escape path. Another Turtle relayed to me that my trip partner, the Instructor, had already departed, giving me clearance to make a break for it before a horde of people left at the set's conclusion.
I biked all the way back to the Post Office. While certainly the queerest post office I have ever known, it was a refuge from the gay males that cannot be sorted as easily as the post mail.
Visiting the Future Turtles nearly every night felt like a dream; as if dating an entire group of guys at once. While the camp might end, many of the relationships built would go on. The temporary nature of the event contrasted with my desire to have someone to lean upon when the group inevitably parts ways.
Several hours into the trip; my mind still raced and I felt it best to sort my conflicting feelings through my camp’s gift: post cards. I had brought a set of cards with various renditions of human energy bodies on them, and I poured what remaining creative juices I had into writing on them. At the bottom, I left my contact info.
I used the special Black Rock City post office stamp on each of the six letters and envelopes, and after refueling, walked back to the Future Turtles camp. Only a single person was awake; daybreak was already fast approaching. I left the letters on the bar, and walked towards the 'Deep Playa' where the art cars roamed and where the sun would rise.
The sunrise was glorious - a rich pallet of blues and oranges oozing behind a complex smattering of clouds, framed on either side by the Black Rock. The temperature was perfect. The vibes of those that were awake were pristine. I passed by a couple bars operating in this exceptionally remote area, but opted for taking a seat in the dust; no thing or person obstructing my view of the expanse.
Finally! I was able to reach a flow state without interruption. I drank the beauty in and allowed it to fill my container. Filled with serenity, I then began weaving together the threads that had come unraveled during the trip.
I had approached the rave the preceding night with unspoken hopes and ambitions; a mix of good intentions and unprocessed fears. The unresolved feelings of inadequacy and abandonment were frustratingly mirrored back to me by that older guy; pulling me out of flow.
A more gentle approach would be needed to avoid his fate. To offer service, but never expect repayment for it. To recognize the difference between my own impulses and those of the Divine.
I set back towards the City. The temperature was still perfect, and my mind was not yet tired, so I decided to deliver more mail. The journey would take me to the other side of the city, and uncomfortably close to my own mortality.
Still awake from the preceding night, I returned to hear some of my neighbors complaining about the lack of ice. Rationing had started, and each person waiting in line could only get one bag and one block of ice. The ice camp was not even open yet for the day, and yet people were already bickering! Avoiding the conflict, I moseyed inside the Post Office. The preceding day, Hexa had returned from a trip to the ‘Default World’, bring back well over a hundred letters that had accumulated in the post office in the nearby town of Gerlach.
I had diligently sorted the letters according to which ‘hour’ of the city the addressee was located in. This morning, I grabbed twenty or so letters for the 9 and 10 O'clock addresses, and set out on Hexa’s bike to deliver them.
It was shocking to find that some some camps were already breaking down, before the Man had even Burned. This added a sense of urgency: without camp signs, finding addressees would be even more difficult.
I completed this route and returned to the Post Office in time to organize a trip to the Ice station. Rather than walk, we rode on an Alice in Wonderland themed art car. The front of it was shaped like an impossibly high caterpillar, which towed behind it a table with seating for six. The main stretch of road down 9 was too bumpy for the car, which fortunately had its cups and plates glued to the table’s surface. We spent some time in line in the car before proceeding on foot; waiting for nearly an hour to get our ration of ice.
Crisis averted - for the day, anyways. I was still feeling UP, and Hexa was still out. I decided to deliver mail with her bike to the 3 O'clock neighborhood across the city.
The delivery mission allowed me to run into all sorts of camps: one group made custom soda by filtering and carbonating the ice water that many camps discarded. A camp of VW van owners seemed to be in a chipper mood considering how late in the week it was. They camper-vans seemed prepared for whatever hazards may come. I was not.
The sandstorm returned. Now on the other side of the city, I cursed my forgetfulness: I had not brought my goggles! This slowed my progress considerably as I used the brim of my hat to shield my eyes, at the cost of seeing no more than a couple feet in front of me.
I stopped into one camp, seeking momentary refuge and directions to their neighbor. People were playing with crystals and singing bowls on large carpets. I took off my shoes, and was told that, regrettably, they were out of chai, but that they still had carbonated hibiscus tea prepared by the camp leader, Skyler. The tea made my spirit sparkle. Listening to the bartender tell me about the spiritual revelations that Skyler had helped lead him to, I soon realized that I was in the midst of a garden variety cult.
I made my way to the exit after thanking the bartender, smiling and nodding politely so that any patterns of spiritual co-dependency could not invade my aura. I put my shoes on and continued my trek. Nearly 18 hours into my trip, exhaustion was starting to set in. I delivered what I could, and handed off my remaining letters to the 3 O'clock post office.
Rather than complete the entire circle on Esplanade, I decide to cut across from 5, towards my own camp at 9. This proved to be a near disastrous mistake. At first, I passed by various art installations, and could hear the thumping of music in the distance.
Visibility continued to decrease. Eventually I felt the wind at my back; propelling me rather than smashing dust into my face. Taking this gust as friendly was perhaps the second mistake.
I continued on, seeing less and less outlines of art installations and running in to two people going the opposite direction; one of which shouted: “See! We’re not the only ones out in this!” In retrospect, I probably should have asked which direction they were heading.
Time’s length became increasingly ominous; a creeping sense of despair culminated when I saw the Trash Fence. The seemingly endless plastic barrier encircled the city, preventing trash (and lost, high wanderers) from blowing away into the deepest parts of the Playa. This was not a good sign: the Trash Fence was far from anything, and I was unsure if it even connected with a visible path back to the city.
I still had some water, but no eye protection beyond my sunglasses and my hat. I could be stuck at the fringe for hours if the storm did not abate, unable to orient myself by any of the landmarks.
I tried to head in the opposite direction of the trash fence, but again and again, I ran back into it. One time, even literally.
Despair started to set in. Should I just pitifully burrow into the sand and wait it out?
Right as the Universe had finished reminding me of my own frailty, a burly Ranger in a truck appeared from the haze to ask me if I was lost. The answer was obvious.
I was not the first person she had picked up. She had found another Passenger, passed out next to the Trash Fence. He was now puking out the side of the truck. I placed my bike on his in the truck bed, before squeezing in to the back row of the cab.
The destination? The 9 O’clock medical camp that was just down the street from my own camp. The Ranger asked if I had water: only the disgustingly warm fizzy kind, but I gave it to the Passenger regardless. The Ranger drove slowly: it was hard to avoid collisions with art installations or bicyclists when one could hardly see past a few meters. Eventually we made it to the medical camp; presumably the Passenger would get an IV drip to rehydrate.
I struggled with getting his bike out from underneath my own, and ended up falling from the bed of the truck as I tossed it; my hand bracing my fall at the cost of injuring my shoulder.
The injury felt like a fair price for getting out of the sand storm. Magic is not free: there is always a negotiation.
I made it back to my tent, and was greeted by Hexa… and the realization that we had left the tent open just enough for the sand storm to cover everything.
Hexa had been on her own overnight journey; cavorting with storied Burners who had taken the radical ethics oozing through Black Rocky City and to their lives in the ‘default world’; for instance, by opening a recycling center in Detroit. They were mostly members of the Public Works: the people building the foundational infrastructure for the city. I was reminded of Buddhist monks, creating beautiful mandalas that were fated to be destroyed just a Block Rock City was each year.
I rehydrated and wiped off some of the dust. I had known LSD and 6-APB to extend wakefulness by 12 hours; but I was treading into uncharted territory. My mind bled into a pleasant delirium toned by the adrenaline rush of getting lost.
I rested my body for a couple hours, but I knew it would soon be time for the main event: the Burning of the Man effigy in the center of the city.
Walking to the Future Turtles camp, I found their glorious Leader giving a speech to the newbies on what to expect from the Burn. He left its meaning fairly open. As the Founder of Burning Man, Larry Harvey, put it: “It is a blank canvas onto which to project your own thoughts and feelings, a ritual outside of context and unfettered by explanation.”
The sandstorm was finally abating, and we walked from the camp to the perimeter around the effigy that was being maintained by the Rangers.
I inferred that the Burning of the Man was part of a greater ritual that culminated in the Temple’s Burn the following night. The Temple was an emotionally dense space, what I imagine the Wailing Wall to be like; filled with people crying as they stashed notes to, and photos of, lost loved ones in its walls. Meanwhile, the Man was protected against any defacement; its base filled with art that would go up in the Burn. It seemed appropriate to offer up some part of oneself; to connect to the effigy, to open the wounds so that the Temple’s burn could then cauterize them.
I did not have much to burn; and the ritual felt incomplete… perhaps I had already burned too much of myself that day.
My deeper, darker feelings had already been brought up to the surface, and the process of writing those letters followed by the beauty of the sunrise had allowed things to settle. The exhaustion from the sandstorm had burnt away any remaining feelings, exhausting the fear based thought cycles, and the act of being ‘saved’ sealed the experience as complete.
After the Burn, I stopped by the Post Office and picked up my pajamas and massage oil. With the dust covering everything in my tent, the prospect of spending the night sleeping in the Turtle’s cuddle puddle yurt seemed mighty appealing.
The camp had started the process of breaking down, pushing the Turtles to huddle around the fire out front. I soon found myself playfully sparring with an economist and a psychiatrist in training.
My greatest criticism of the Turtles was that some seemed hopelessly privileged. Their smarts, prettiness, and backgrounds shielded them from the class struggle that permeates everything to make reality shittier. It’s hard to reach the conclusion that society is rather unjust when your parents raised you to game a dying meritocracy, and you’re winning (on paper).
Burning Man is an oasis of post-scarcity economics; where those gifting the most are esteemed over those possessing the most. It is a rare opportunity for people to realize that humans can organize beyond cash-based transactions at large, albeit temporary, scale. Plenty come to Burning Man to party, but those that Know come to create in a place without a script; where dystopia and utopia exist both at once.
The primary purpose of economics is not to predict anything, but to legitimize the way things are. Similarly, I argued that modern psychiatry de-legitimizes the collective suffering of exploited people as a “chemical imbalance”. Pills and agnostic talk therapy serve those in power by delaying more meaningful changes to society. Clearly there are exceptions to these sweeping claims, just as surely as I was a delirious mess by this point in the night, but I felt exhilaration in disseminating these radical memes into the ideologically insular camp.
My rambling did attract one fan. The Lieutenant was drawn to the fire of the debates like a moth. Reciprocally, I had admired how much energy he had put that week into herding Turtles. I had been craving an opportunity to help him release.
The Future Turtles camp had been designed “to allow people to experience being sexually social in a safe and respectful way”.
What this meant in practice was that the Turtles rarely used the pillow-laden Yurt that had been sanctioned for midnight cuddle puddles… but they did frequently use the dark, air conditioned trailer christened “For Sex”… to sleep in.
I respected the vision and lamented the execution.
We can only create the conditions for intimacy to thrive, and then hope for the best. Intimacy forced is merely loneliness deferred.
The entire week, I flirted with this question: should I focus on one Turtle, and try to carve out something lasting from the Playa dust? Or should I simply be affectionate and supportive to all Turtles that crossed my path?
The question echoed my deeper romantic uncertainty: should I try to make a tribe of aligned lovers, or focus on building a nest with one person, special above all others?
One of the hardest parts of love is knowing when to pull back rather than dive in.
Unconditional love sometimes means practicing silence. If they are already at peace, why disturb them?
Why start a conversation when there’s nothing to be said?
It was painful facing this truth when surrounded by so many beautiful people.
I had associated MDMA and its cousin 6-APB with intimacy. And while these substances can unfold and amplify intimacy, they do not create intimacy.
The part of me that grasped, that schemed, that was so desperate to be acknowledged… did not return from the sand storm.
Like intimacy, personal transformation can not be reliably engineered by mortal minds. One can only set the stage and wait and pray. When we try to force change, we often create ripples that reinforce that which we are trying to escape.
By virtue of its set and setting, Black Rocky City makes its participants uncomfortable. Transformational magic happens outside of one’s comfort zone.
As unpleasant emotions rise to the surface, it becomes possible to strike at their deeper roots. This process of catharsis, of releasing strong emotions, creates the energetic substrate necessary for deeper healing.
Psychedelics can act as further catalysts. Acid may dissolve our old patterns of thinking, but it does not promise us that our minds will be filled with anything of value afterwards.
That final night, before we all departed from the fire, I asked the Lieutenant if I could massage him in the Yurt reserved for cuddle puddles.
He consented. ☺️
I was exhausted from the 24 hour trip, and injured from falling out of the truck… but I poured my heart and body weight into working the tension out of him.
At last: physical intimacy. The labyrinth of expectations had been dissolved in a vat of acid. I was finally free to simply ask and receive.
I had developed mixed feelings for the Lieutenant over the course of the week. Agents of chaos are often high agency individuals, but without ethical grounding, there is danger in even being within earshot of them. I respected his will to lead, but one must always ask: to where are the followers being led?
Days prior, I had probed his belief structures; inquiring as to what he was maximizing. “Novelty and hedonism”, he had told me. I could fathom the loneliness and discontent those values might cause… unable to find lasting fulfillment in any one, or any thing… because I had once been of the same mind.
After the massage concluded, he asked if I’d like to cuddle with him that night. The answer was obvious.
We were not the only ones sleeping in the ‘sex trailer’. Throughout the night, he placed my hand on to his glutes as we cuddled close. We were both exhausted and covered in dust; but to know in that moment that we both desired more felt like a balm on my soul.
Perhaps, the part of me that grasps had not been entirely lost in the sand storm.