Welcome to the City of Kings
by Philip Roufail
In 1998 I
was the pauper of Burning Man. Not only was I, in all practical terms,
financially destitute, but I was also alone. During the final weeks prior to my
departure, friends cancelled one by one until only I remained. And they were
the people with all the necessary supplies. Like nice big tents, generators,
air mattresses, flashlights, and camping gear. Or money for gas. I was faced with the crucial decision of canceling
myself, or making my way to Burning Man alone.
I made the
eleven hour drive in a car that was not meant to drive eleven hours in a week,
much less in one stretch. But the old
tank managed to carry the day and I arrived late on Thursday night. Under the
cover of darkness and faced with logistical tasks like putting up a tent by
myself in strong unforgiving winds, it was not until much later that I was able
to actually take my first tour of Burning Man. Very soon I realized that I was
not, in fact, at Burning Man. Burning Man, to me, instantly became an imagined
state of mind, a collective consensual hallucination both dreamlike and
penetrating, but not a place, or event, that has an address, or a newspaper, or
a post office, or a radio station. Burning Man has none of those things. But Black Rock City does, and
that's where I realized I truly was in Black Rock City, Nevada.
through the streets (and I was shocked there were streets!) for the first time,
I could not help but place everything in Black Rock City into two distinct
categories - the "haves" and the "have-nots." I was in awe
of the level of sophistication, planning, and resources that participants had
undergone to bring their imaginative dwellings to reality along the crescent
moon that is Black Rock City. I mean, how, exactly, does one manage to get
three jumbotron screens into the middle of the desert (I am still wondering)?
Or a glow in the dark pyramid made from wood? Or all those massive stack
speakers and huge geo domes?
resources were sparse -- I had a cooler of ice with sandwiches and drinks, a
one-person tent, and a car cover. Even though there is no money in Black Rock
City (with a couple exceptions) there is widespread bartering. News to this
novice! I had nothing with which to barter! My entire water supply consisted of
two five-gallon Arrowhead bottles. I had no body paint or water guns. No
costumes, glitter, or bicycles that become neon galloping horses at night. No lasers, art cars, trampolines, or swing
sets. Just a car, a tent, and me. How exactly, was I supposed to compete with a
painted bus full of drag queens on their way to a fashion show? I was clearly a "have-not." I was
a pauper in Black Rock City, and consequently, was faced with being viewed as a
non-participant in Burning Man, which I believe is one of the only few sins
prohibits me from detailing all the events that led me to shed this view and
all of the little fears that accompany it. For the sake of brevity, let's say
that I came to realize that I was not a pauper, because in Black Rock City
there are no paupers. In fact, Burning Man most effectively realizes the basic
historical tenants of those very American of ideals ÷self-determination and the
belief that all men are kings. For those of us who are the progeny of immigrants
(and most of us are), these ideals are even more precious. For this reason, I
suggest to you now that Black Rock City is the most patriotic city in the
United States. It is a great leveler. It is a true city of kings. And it is,
perhaps, the only one.
came time to leave a light rain was dropping on the desert and my car wouldn't
start. No matter. A very nice group of people in a loaded Land Rover jumped it
for me. And on the way out, I stopped at a gas station and maxed out my last
credit card just so I could get home. But it didn't seem that important.
I am much
better off in many ways since 1998, and will finally be returning to Black Rock
City and Burning Man. It will be easier going this time. I know what to bring.
Under threat of extreme retaliation, my friends won't bail. And I won't waste time wondering what to do.
I know what to do ÷ slip on a crown, take a golden scepter in hand, rise above
the desert floor like the honored God of some ancient mythology, and gaze over
Black Rock City as if I were the Man waiting impatiently to be burned.