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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.

Walking 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?

My own 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 there.

Space 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.

When it 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.

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