I experienced Burning Man for the first time this past September. I went to the week-long festival in the middle of the desert by myself with some water, booze, and a one-person tent I got for $80 on Craigslist. I was somewhat unprepared and had no idea where I would camp (or how to camp). I got there at 10pm on the first night and I set up my tent in the dark next to the vehicle I arrived in, which belonged to a Stanford philosophy professor I met in an online forum the previous night.
I walked out into the darkness, ready for an adventure. And I found one. Several, in fact. When I found my way back to my tent around 4am, I was oblivious to the cold and easily slid into slumber in my mummy sleeping bag. At 9am, I was forced awake by the heat as my tent turned into a sweat box. The only escape was the outside world, and I dreaded it. I don’t even know what exactly I was dreading, as I had never seen the environment in the daylight. But I was hungover and alone with the feeling I’d made a terrible mistake looming over me. I unzipped the half-circle flap of my tent and crawled out into the blinding sun.
It took my eyes a few seconds to focus on the man standing in front of me, looking at me with an amused smirk.
“Hi,” I croaked out.
“Want some coffee?”
I followed him into a big mesh-encased, octagonal structure on the other side of the car from my tent where I watched him expertly heat a pot of water on a mini propane stove. He tried to make conversation with me, but I was incapable of forming any kind of cohesive sentences while my mind struggled to assemble the critical information of “where are you and what are you doing hungover in the desert, dummy?” He poured a packet of Starbucks instant coffee mix into a metal mug of hot water and handed it to me. He laughed at me and told me I would be fine — more than fine, that I was in for the best time of my life. I trusted him, John from Sasketoon, Saskatchewan.
When I saw him talking with the people at the neighboring campsite, I shyly poked my head around the corner. From the way they were talking, I thought they were old friends, but it turned out he had only just met them. As someone who’s used to being the beach head in my social circles, I was surprised to find someone better at traveling than me.
I fell in friend-love with John from Sasketoon, Saskatchewan. I wanted to be around him all the time, and he wanted me around. We went adventuring together and never disagreed about what to do or where to go. There were no awkward silences. If we were tired, we just were. We learned how to let go of our pasts together. I cried in front of him and didn’t care. We partied together, and danced our faces off to electronic music in the wild night.
He would wait for me. If we went somewhere together and we split up for a while, he would come and find me before moving to the next thing. I never had to ask him not to leave me, he just waited. He had this homemade spirit animal hat with a mini basketball cut in half, glued to each side, and lined with EL wire — a glowing chameleon in the night. One night we went to the Temple, where people go to mourn their lost loved ones. We split up and agreed to meet back at the entrance when we were finished there. For a long moment, I thought I was lost, but seeing that silly gecko hat wandering back to me just as I started to spiral into despair washed away every sad thought.
We stayed up late into the night talking about traveling in South America and physics and love. I loved him, but it was never sexual, because that’s not what friend-love is about. He made me feel safe, the way a big brother might. I thought to myself, or maybe out loud, that I hoped this was only the first of our grand adventures together. When he dropped me off at my friend’s house in San Francisco after Burning Man was over, we never said goodbye. Just “see you tomorrow.”
I never saw him the next day, but he did come to visit me on Thanksgiving with his new girlfriend. I lightly scrutinized her to make sure she was good enough for him, like a little sister might, and was happy to find she passed my tests. She took a picture of us with her fancy Polaroid camera that I kept in my jewelry box and looked at every day because thinking of him makes me happy.
Now that I’m traveling, and happen to be in a place where every day is kind of like Burning Man in a way, I keep thinking about him and how much fun he would have with me and the people I’ve been meeting. I see the same spark that I saw in him in the adventurers I’ve been cohabitating with here in downtown LA for the past week. I think there must be a whole tribe of adventurers like us out there that I’m just beginning to scratch the surface of meeting. I used to think I was a lone wolf. I still do think that, but what I was wrong about was thinking that being a lone wolf means one must be alone. John told me that if I just keep meeting new people, I’ll always be happy. So that’s what I’ll do. And one of these days I’ll make it a point to get out to Sasketoon, Saskatchewan, too.