The setting is Black Rock City, a place that means many things to many people. To the factuals, it is an experiment in temporary community, in which sixty eight thousand people drove to the middle of a dust-filled Nevada desert every year to live amongst one another for a week. To the bacchanals, it is a playground of playgrounds, free of judgments and filled with fellow revelers. To the explorers, it is a celebration of human creativity, art pieces upon art pieces juxtaposed against a barren land, with nary a backdrop other than sun-amber mountains and the stillness of silica dust, dry and cracked in some places, and in others, soft and piled like minature sand dunes, easily taken up into spontaneous vortexes that come naturally to a landscape laid bare, thousands of years in the making.
The night sky showcases its stars quite well there, most of the year. For one week, it yields the stage to the neons, the spectacles, the rhythms of the city below it, fading away into darkness but for the autumn-colored hue of a half-moon at half-mast. Twisted sculptures of metal and wood spring forth from the ground like tulips, each with a story to tell, but so inviting in their inherent splendor that nothing would be lost if they were to hold their silence. New stories will be borne out of them, swiftly and fruitfully. They always have.
The single person wanders this landscape in a variety of ways.
Sometimes a tourist, simply taking in the richness of a culture that is both borne out of the ordinary world, and meticulously designed to free people of all the shackles that it chains to them.
Sometimes a confederate, so radically disoriented by the sheer unfamiliarity of the terrain that the typical walls of cordiality and habit get utterly demolished, leaving him open to chance intrusions from fellow travelers, open to engagements that sidestep the usual fare about work and history. Open to engagements that speak more to hopes, and dreams, and possibilities, and joys.
Sometimes a student, visiting fellow travelers who have opened their doors to one and to all, offering their perspective on things worth learning, things worth knowing. The curriculum is an odd cornucopia, blessing some with forums for the burdens on their heart, gifting others with the sort of experiences that they typically travel halfway across the world and plunk down two Benjamin Franklins to consume. Here, the price is, simply, to pay it forward. Fifteen miles of footsteps in a day, and still yet a wealth of places to go, people to meet.
Save for early morning, the soundtrack is a pulse. One hundred and twenty beats per second, punctuated with drops and fades and synths and swaps until the trance either consumes you or sends you forth. From all different directions they come, until they blend into a peculiar silence, deafening when you seek them out, and yet invisible as a backdrop to your journey across the lands.
This is the city. It is a story unto itself, with many a storyteller, many a tale. This is mine.
* * *
This is not a love story. It has no deep passion, no night of romance, no mysterious dance of the courter and the pursued, no kiss to seal the memory.
Her name was Christina. She’d come from Concord, of some Irish heritage. It was her first year in the city, and like most first-timers, the experience thus far had been grand: fine folks in fairytale times, save for the occasional pause to help some of her more, er, overindugent campmates stay upright. I never quite caught the color of her eyes. At times they seemed almost a faint golden, though the lights of the night made it really hard to know for sure. She smiled a lot, and made for a fine adventurer.
I met her at three in the morning, which, by city time, was really more like eight at night. The streets have no illumination on their own, and people make their way with headlamps, or light-up wires, or whatever other electric fire they’ve managed to harness for the week. I couldn’t see her at first. What I heard was the faint jingle of a fringe belt, some fifteen feet to my left. From there came a curiosity about where she was headed next. The climbing wall. Add in some banter about belay gear and routes, and, in a city of sixty-eight thousand people, she’d found her first climbing buddy that night, in me. Jack Lewis would laugh at how easily the whole interaction went–so simple, really, and yet precisely the sort of “What? You too? I thought I was the only one!” experience that brings people together.
So we climbed for a while. We sat at the top of art pieces for a while, in silence, and looked out to the lights on the landscape. We talked about what we’d seen thus far, and what had spoken to our souls while we were there. Five days so little, and yet five days so richly seasoned with wonder. We went off on a journey together to show each other art pieces that had struck us, that we thought were worth witnessing. The infinite pool would have been a nice one. Placed inside of a pitch-dark hut that forces you to crawl into it, illuminated just one day earlier by no more than a faint red-ring glow–an invitation to look into the infinite rabbit hole that it had created by playing magic with light and mirrors. Tonight, it had taken the opposite hue, bathed in blue, bright and soft, with a couple already in there using it for its privacy. Or its prominence. Since they didn’t even break stride when the two of us crawled in, we whispered our way over to the pool to sneak a glance, and scurried back on out of there to leave them to their storycraft.
Christina reminded me a lot of somebody I knew from school. If you’d put them side-by-side, you’d figure them for twins. Same height, same heritage, same smile. I saw her doppelganger two days later at a dance in San Francisco, confirming it. A friend of a friend, she was–still just an acquaintance, some four or five years since I first met her at a grad student barbecue. Johari windows and all that. A friend once noted that the hardest part of being in a public-facing job was that people began to look the same. The sheer number of daily encounters virtually guaranteed that people’s stories would begin to ring similar, and it was up to the individual to dive deeper and see the uniqueness in each one, even as they seemed to sing identical melodies.
I don’t know if I’ll ever see her again. The years may simplify my memory of her, take away the little details like how the most popular costume at that halloween store she once worked at was fully-dressed nuns. I may not remember her talking about why she loved climbers for their awareness of the people and the world around them. I may not remember the adorable sailor suit that she was wearing that night. Or how her favorite of the Drifts installation on the way home was the one on the farside, the neuron with visions of people in it. Or the hard plastic sippy cup with a built-in straw that kept her hydrated, that she offered to me within thirty seconds of meeting me. Or that she did it without a hint of hesitation, upon learning that earlier that night, somebody had swiped my own kleen kanteen with the Trango non-locking carabiner I’d bought thirteen years ago. She heard the name of my camp exactly once over the course of the night, which makes it plausible that she could find me next year, though that is far from a guarantee. She was camped at 6:45g, though that alone carries no significance anymore now that the city has dispersed again for another year. Next time it comes together again, it’ll be different once more.
But if I should never see her again, what follows is the blessing that she gave me.
The next destination for us was maybe half a mile away, where some team of friendly Minnesotans, I think, had constructed a large crane atop a triangular base, carrying, as its load, a large metallic sphere lit from all sides in the friendly colors of programmed LEDs, like how Planet Krypton might have looked right before it exploded. Upon closer examination, you’d find that the spindly protrusions from its surface were row upon row of neatly-ordered toothbrushes. Art out here is weird. And wonderful.
To get there would require a straight line path away from the noise and into the deep. Tonight, the winds were behind us, brusk and yet warm, blowing enough dust into our path to keep us from seeing anything beyond what two stretches of the arm might reach. The lights of the toothbrush globe were strong, but not strong enough to be anything more than a vague glow slightly to our left, or to our right, and hopefully not somewhere behind us. We made it there ok, emerging from the canopy of dust to see it frame the colored lights under a light frost of fog, showcasing the rays that it emitted like some futuristic nostalgia disco ball. There was a bench underneath its base, and we sat to rest our feet. We didn’t have to say much by then, just looking up at the splendor, knowing that it was a joy we were sharing in together. The touch of our shoulders, light as it was, offered a surprisingly good conduit for emotion…nowhere near as articulate as what words might allow, but at least enough to notice a new idea, a fearsome thought, a quiet contentment. It offered a warmth somewhere in between being siblings and being lovers…a sense of comfort, a source of safety. That kind of peace that asks for Time to take pause, that it might be savored just a bit longer.
The journey back would be harder. The dust is soft on your eyes, but still blinding in the moment, nonetheless. Between us, we had three bandanas, a pair of aviation goggles, a headlamp or two, and some distance unknown between where we were, and where we called home. The wind was making music. And we were to dance. Nary a threat nearby, really, other than perhaps a wind-blinded bicyclist running into us. The walk was inviting, even if it was abnormal.
As a waltzer, the highest compliments you might hope to receive is for your partner to close her eyes. It is the sign of complete trust, of gentle safety, of knowing that the person you’re with will guide you, spinning through the dervishes about you, and freeing you to rest as you did as a child in the backseat of your mom and dad’s car after a good day, knowing that when you open your eyes again, you’ll be home. Our footsteps were gentle, her hand in mine, sippy cup in tow, her head upon my shoulder, wrapped up in the big orange robe I was wearing that served, that night, as a head scarf to protect against the elements. We made our way home.
And when the dust subsided, and the city revealed itself again, and the Christo wrap came off, Christina from Concord was greeted by the first lights of dawn, breaking over the mountains so starkly that the pulse of the city felt calm again. A quick goodbye, a heartfelt embrace goodbye-for-now, an exchange of blessings, and a final hug. The night was over, and slumber beckoned.
To be fully trusted, even for a moment…it is a blessing, precious. This is not a love story. But it is, it was, it mayest be still, a story of love.