Today is one year from the day of this accident, so today I thought it would be good day to schedule this to post as I have no internet where I am. If you are in Black Rock City, you can find me in the temple.
A death on the playa.
Profound. People keep asking me how my Burning Man was and thats the only word I can really find to describe it. This was my 12th Burning Man, so I guess I should have figured out by now that the playa can deliver virtually any experience, but the two Burning Man’s so far that have been marked by the greatest evolution are for me the two Burning Man’s that have been marked by both great beauty and great tragedy – 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit our hometown of New Orleans while we were on the playa, and this year, when my greatest fear as both a Camp Organiser and as an Art Car Captain happened and we lost one of our campmates to a terrible accident.
Her name was Alicia, she lived in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, worked in an art gallery, and was a bright and vibrant being in the little time I spent with her. She arrived at Burning Man Wednesday night and I never saw her, she and another good friend of mine (also a first-time burner) arrived at camp while the Lady Sass was taking a little down time and the pair took off out onto the playa without waiting for us to regroup. As far as I can tell she climbed on the trailer of a moving art car and then either jumped off or fell while trying to get to the bus and then died when the trailer ran over her. (For the sake of clarity, since the story has already become confused, this art car was obviously not the Lady Sassafras.) Alicia had been on the playa less than 3 hours, and probably spent more time waiting in line, before literally and figuratively, she slipped through the cracks and the playa ate her up.
I found out about it the next morning (thurs) as I was about to walk to the Temple for the first time after the Lady Sassafras pulled up beside the Abraxas for the White Parade, usually my favorite morning on the playa. I had not in fact even known Alicia was coming to Burning Man, so after a short process of figuring it all out, I think I became totally numb. I have a long history of paragliding, back country skiing, and mountaineering, and so I have lost an inordinate number of friends – including Dave Norwood, the Preacher, a fellow paraglider pilot who died in an accident only a month or so ago, and whose name I was off to inscribe on the Temple Wall – and while few deaths come with a warning, this one seemed utterly surreal. Not really knowing what to do – my friend who had been traveling with Alicia had already been interviewed by the rangers and left the playa again – I walked out into the beautiful crowd of friends in front of the dragon and then saw the woman I really needed to see standing with another lovely friend of mine. I told the pair of them what happened, and then my other friend started to cry and I realized that by some bizarre synchronicity, she had been a passenger on the last art-car that had had a passenger die by jumping out of the car and being run over by the trailer, some seven years ago (I knew the story well, and the safety of the trailer on the Lady Sassafras has been a constant internal debate).
Desert Dwellers are one of my favorite acts these days but I could not hear the music nor did I have anything to say. We packed up the Sass and headed back to camp and I passed out in stunned exhaustion. At this point one of my right-hand men at camp and someone who I have made camps with for years at Burning Man did an exceptional thing, and wrote the art car crew that had been involved in the accident a note of love and condolence (Initially the rangers wouldn’t tell us who the other art car was). Running the Lady Sassafras is always a team effort, and at this point I would just like to say a word of appreciation for all of you who have worked with me on the playa, year in and year out, to make this dream a reality, I am humbled by the quality of people I seem to be fortunate enough to have around me, and my friends always make me proud and most certainly did in this incident. The next day we met with the crew of the other art-car when they came over to our camp, and you could see the astonishment on their face when they realized that we too were an established crew that run a bus and large trailer (there aren’t actually that many of those on the playa), and that of all the hundreds of camps on the playa, we were one of the few who could truly understand.
It was a unique meeting between two obviously dedicated art car Captain’s to say the least, and there were other equally bizarre and powerful coincidences that I wont go into here. I hope that meeting gave that crew some comfort and healing, and I can categorically say that I believe they hold no blame … people climbing on the trailers of our art cars is close to unstoppable and every art captain’s nightmare and I personally have stopped the Lady Sassafras countless times to get people down off of our own trailer. If anything can be taken from this tragedy, it is a reminder that the playa is a dangerous place, and we all need to look after each other and not take that for granted – I am constantly amazed by the things I witness people doing on the playa, and not in a good way. I also feel the burden of guilt that despite all the efforts of both crews to create systems of support and safety for both our tribes and the friends and strangers that we constantly interact with, Alicia never had an opportunity to be guided or trained, and had she arrived at our camp a little earlier, or stayed a little longer, she well could be alive right now. A sad and haunting thought.
The death of a campmate who hardly any of us really saw and yet who was one of us none the less created a strange resonance within the camp and a great deal of reflection and inner thought. I took the flags down off the Lady Sassafras for the night and considered not going out at all, but that not really the Louisiana way, so we rolled around playing mostly sacred music with most of our camp onboard. (We also took the trailer off and repositioned the generators and speakers). I am told I said we were going across the playa for a short cruise and that ended up being all night (the Lady Sassafras saw 8 dawns this year, a record), but we ended up with a prime spot for the Embrace Burn. Friday afternoon is our annual Albert Hofmann Appreciation cruise which I was greatly looking forward to and we had a great line up with David Starfire and Trevor Moontribe, and I was having a fabulous Neal Cassady moment behind the wheel until we got pinned down by the only major dust storm of the week on the Esplanade and after an hour or so, most folks bailed.
I decided to take the Lady Sass back to camp and regroup for the evening – the plan being to see if we could perhaps meet with the other art car crew for dinner, the idea of our two crews getting together seeming both appropriate and healing, and I found it timely that the elements were effectively shutting our pre-scheduled partying down. The dust was still rising in thick angry clouds as we made our way very slowly down the Esplanade, only to run into a Hindi wedding parade coming (as it turned out) from our neighbors at Faux Mirage. The synchronicity of our arrival on this beautifully attired group was perfect and they excitedly asked us if we would ferry them to the Temple for their wedding, which of course I willingly agreed. Able to take back over my DJ booth now that my famous DJ friends had departed, I played a mix of bhangra dance tunes and hindi ragas to the delight of my audience, while our driver Bob Hannaford took us fearlessly into the raging storm and somehow unerringly arrived at the Temple, which seemed to be in the eye of the storm itself.
This was my first time to the Temple (my first attempt halted by the news of Alicia’s death) and I was overcome by its beauty and intricacy, the attention to detail a welcome alternative to the massive temples of the past few years, this Temple reminded me of the great mosques of Persia, or of a faberge egg. Wandering in something of a daze, the tears finally started, and I cried for quite awhile, I cried for Alicia, I cried for Preacher, and I cried about how beautiful and precious a thing life really is, just like this jewel of a temple I now found myself in. I got on my knees for awhile and had a talk to my God about how confusing and frustrating some of her decisions could be (My God’s a woman Im pretty sure, or at least that how she likes to appear to me) and then I wandered back out onto the Lady Sass and started quietly playing some of my favorite sacred tunes and I watched the storm rage around us and the sun begin to set behind the other side of the Temple (Nice parking job Bob).
I had a very beautiful album called Salt Rain on by an Australian/Indian woman called Sasheela Ramen, and then the sun began to set through the Temple walls and the orange lights around the Temple began to flicker on at the edge of darkness with the storm still raging around us, the whole vision shimmering in and out of view as if a transmission from some other dimension of reality, and I realized I had seen a lot of things in a lot of places but at that moment I didn’t think I had ever seen a more sublime view, and as I stood there thinking about Life and Death and Tribe and Love lost and Love found and leadership and friendship, respect and honor, I realized, once again, that life just IS … it makes no sense, follows no rules, and never lasts any more than this instant … and as my eyes feasted on the beauty of the Temple and the setting sun, I felt everything swell up and fill me, I felt the very ISNESS of all things, the singular electricity of the moment, that blinding moment that Alicia was undoubtedly chasing as she made the unfortunate decision to jump from that art car trailer.
A beautiful song came on called A Song to the Siren, and although I had heard the song many times, I realized for the first time that the song was about Death, that Death was the Siren who is always singing to us, the sweet voice on the far shore to which we are all inevitably swimming, while Life is this leaky old boat we all sway around in, partners and passengers on the Great Journey. Watching the most amazing sunset I think I have ever seen at the most beautiful Temple that our tribe has yet raised to our Gods while listening to the sublime voice singing this remarkable song, my soul swelled again as I celebrated Alicia’s journey and thanked the world for my own, and a great peace and contentment then unexpectedly entered my heart, the great power of music to heal, and I found myself weeping happily in appreciation.
“On the floating, shapeless oceans
I did all my best to smile
Till your singing eyes and fingers
Drew me loving into your eyes
And you sang “Sail to me, sail to me
Let me enfold you”
Here I am, here I am waiting to hold you
Did I dream you dreamed about me?
Were you here when I was false?
Now my foolish boat is leaning
Broken love lost on your rocks
For you sang, “Touch me not
Touch me not, come back tomorrow”
Oh my heart,
Oh my heart shies from the sorrow
I’m as puzzled as a newborn child
I’m as riddled as the tide
Should I stand amid the breakers?
Or should I lie with death my bride?
Hear me sing “Swim to me
Swim to me, let me enfold you
Here I am,
here I am,
waiting to hold you.”
( A Song to the Siren; Sasheela Raman)
Burning Man is a crucible for the human experience; sometimes the greatest party on the planet, other times a genuine opportunity to evolve, a choice you generally have nothing you can do about. I don’t know what happened out there this year other than a bright light was extinguished, and from the sorrow of that moment, rare flowers formed. I feel as if I have learned as much about the important things in life in the last two weeks on the playa then perhaps in the last decade, and while time will tell if I have truly evolved, I am hopeful. By luck I met David Best at the Temple a couple of days later and got to show him the Lady Sassafras and voice my appreciation (He truly is one of my favorite artists, I was a little star struck) and he told me that it was his favorite of the Temple’s that he has built.
I told him I thought it was the most beautiful temple of all time.
From Bob: I was honored to be part of this day, it was my saddest and yet my best/happiest moments on the playa. I will never forget driving forward into a complete whiteout, not knowing if we were headed for the temple or deep playa or towards the man…
Then the sky opened up and the spire of the temple showed itself to me, dead ahead, while we were still in the midst of the week’s worst dust storm. And then the sky closed up, but I knew we were there.
We somehow arrived, just where we needed to be. An unexpected diversion, an opportunity to reflect and share in a random couple’s love.
Fitting at that moment. Fate? I don’t know, but my 1st visit to the temple was one I will never forget. No one can fully appreciate or understand without making the trek to Black Rock City.
I am packing now and I will remember Alicia in this year’s temple. I am ready to return.