Trail of Pogs
Dreamed 2004/9/4 and 2004/9/6 by Chris Wayan
I wake before dawn in a tent in the Nevada desert. Burning Man! It's cold and I dress fast--I have an art project to install before it gets too hot, and it soon will. I load a couple of the round tables I built yesterday into a bike trailer and lug them a mile to the Center Cafe, towing it on foot (my car died crossing the Sierra Nevada; I had to leave my much of my gear in Reno, including my bike). Trudge back in the alkali dust and do it all again; this time faster, for I borrow a bike. In the cafe, spread red tablecloths and use fishing line to attach intricate relief globes and travel brochures for four alternate Earths. A friend helps me take the last three worlds to the cafe and set them up: Earth, Mars and Venus as they'll be a thousand years from now, after massive human meddling. While I set up, people keep asking me if they're fantasy worlds--few even recognize Earth flooded from global warming, only one recognizes Mars, and no one at all knows Venus. Sigh...
Once the art's set up, it's time to pay my dues--time for Steve Mobia's dream workshop. I got into Burning Man free, in exchange for helping set up this daily workshop, painting the signs, and co-teaching. Steve himself shows up in a Sandman robe and cap. No, not Neil Gaiman's Sandman. A robe literally covered with sand...
Another guy named Stephen is the first to share a dream--about us, the organizers!
STEPHEN'S DREAM: CRIPPLED TIGERFred Olson, one of the workshop teachers (and the goat-punster in the dream) works on it with Stephen, focusing on the tiger's missing paw. Stephen shows us a big scar from an injury that nearly killed him at 4. His stepdad let much bigger kids beat him up, merely mocking him for not being stronger. Talk about a missing "pa"! But Steve doesn't regret the trauma--it gave him insight and compassion. In the visualization he sees a ghost paw now. Different from a physical paw: the ghost paw can step through walls!
All the world's a playa, a desert lakebed. No, here's a pit. Inside, a moat rings a cliff-walled isle. Fake zoo rocks. Blue cotton candy on the ground! A tiger roams the rocks. Stephen breaks off and says "Chris, I think the tiger was you." Only three legs are visible to Stephen on the playa, but now... his viewpoint enters the tiger!
Stephen the tiger discovers it was no trick of perspective. He only has three legs! His right foreleg is just a stump. Healed, sealed--an old loss. Stephen the tiger is worried for his 13-year-old daughter, who's climbing down the cliffs with her boyfriend, to a cave at moat level. Stephen follows, enters the cave, though he can only hear them, ahead. The tunnel's awash, like a sideshow Tunnel of Love. He meets a bearded, wise old goat named Fred. The goat says "Trust the kids!" But Stephen can't help himself--he prowls on deeper into the cave. In the water on the floor he meets a carp: a beautiful huge orange koi. It's Steve Mobia, organizer of the dream group! And the koi says the same thing. Finally, Stephen starts to realize he can trust his daughter.
I see why Steve identified me with the Tiger. It's like my recent dream Bleeding Heart (I have magic but also an unhealing wound) and even more like older dreams like Fossil Barbie, where I'm a crippled boy with a prosthetic antigravity-foot! Quite like the tiger with his ghost paw. (Only Steve's dream of me with a crippled right forepaw is, it turns out, not so symbolic after all. Try literal and prophetic! Within a week I got a mysterious virus that inflamed my right shoulder and kept me weak and sore for the next two years!)
For hours, as the sun climbs higher, a steady trickle of Burners come to wrestle with strange dreams. At last we call it a day. Steve Mobia says "Tonight let's all try dreaming collectively on the world situation--Dubya, war, terrorism, population, climate..." We agree, and break up.
THE UNBURNING MAN
After the group, I feel subdued and shy. Socially crippled tiger? I drop by the Burning Man Fashion Show. A mob of cute kooky women, but I can't talk to anyone--all shy again. Just mope.
I feel mad even at my own viewers--they gawk at the planets and read the brochures, but they steal the booklets and leave drinks and trash on the tables. Definitely not a museum crowd!
Go by the Earth Guardian tent where they had a kids' workshop scheduled, on the ancient lakes here. I can't find anyone who even knows about it. The volunteer at the tent seems ignorant. Oh well, typical...
Near sunset I eat with my sister Miriel and her friends--a big, well-organized group from Santa Cruz, who came on a biodiesel bus. They're nice, but relentlessly loving and positive. I feel like R. Crumb--the Old Pooperoo at the love-in. Oh well, it's the purest experience of Burning Man you could hope for--I was raised as a California hippie yet I feel straight among these folks. O that hippier-than-thou Santa Cruz tribe vibe!
Early dusk. I have fun singing the entire Sergeant Pepper album a cappella in Nic Griffin's camp nearby (she's the drummer for our band The Krelkins and the set designer for the Burning Man fashion shows). I feel more relaxed and flirtatious with her friends from San Francisco than than my sister's from Santa Cruz. They may be indistinguishably freaky to middle America, but they're two distinct flavors of hippies to me. San Francisco's culture allows a wider spectrum of emotions, I think. I seem to need that.
Dusk. It's time to burn the Man.
Our group, about 30 people, gathers in a circle for blessings. They take love and harmony quite seriously. Of course they take mushrooms seriously too. I join the circle when it'd be rude and distracting to stand aside, but I do feel split, both in and out. My lifelong role, really.
Evening. I'm riding in a bike-trailer, a sort of glorified wheelbarrow, being pulled in a whole school of bikes across the dark lakebed, a pool of shadow under bright stars. Utterly undersea. Fluorescent bikefish glow purple, green, white. Luminous liquid crystal refills the lost lake for this one night. A lake of light.
At last it's too crowded to bike further. On foot, we shoulder our way through the mob around the loud flashing art-cars orbiting the Man. Their egotism--"Look, Ma, look how loud and clever I am!" turns the rite to a tacky carnival show. Guess I'm not feeling the Spirit of the Burn...
Free drinks from a cart with a balloon heater blasting unpredictable flames. Nope, that didn't help. Loud, stupid music. A boudoir car, whose houris let us climb on the fender to gawk at the fire, though I'd rather gawk at them. A photographer brought a ladder to shoot the fire dancers, but seems more interested in the length of his lens. That guy thing about size, I guess...
But his techno-fixation is nothing, nothing. People brought fifty-foot cranes just to get a good view of the Burning--and show off. They perch like mice on dinosaur heads.
And the Burn is a true spectacle--the whirlwinds of fire, the rain of red sparks on the crowd... but I'll skip what everyone's seen, at least in photos. For the true burn happens after Burning Man falls. Until the great dome collapses, fire wardens keep people back; but then, cheering, they press inward, in a tightening ring around the great fire, like the event horizon around a black hole. Ecstatic (and Ecstatic) naked dancers run widdershins around the fire, risking burns--even ten feet from the flames' edge, radiation scorches my skin--I have to keep spinning like a rotisserie, like a planet, to keep from smoking. I circumnavigate the fire with them, feeling scared at times, for the crowd pushes us in to the edge of roasting. This is not the Goldilocks Zone! A man with a rubber chicken dangling from a high pole plows flameward through the crowd, while impromptu followers chant "Burn the Chicken! Burn the Chicken!" A dissident sect shouts "BAKE the chicken!"
An ash-covered man in a loincloth lies inside the ring, with his head toward the flames, ten feet closer than the nearest dancers. I hear a fire warden ask "Should we pull that nut out?"
His friend replies "Well, his hair's not on fire, yet."
And it isn't. Even after I make a full circuit, he's still lying nearly in the blaze, and his hair's not even smoking. Physically impossible--he'd have to be made of asbestos! Yet there he is.
The real Burning Man: the unburning man.
I want to be clear on this. It was instantly obvious he was either a suicidal nut or a miracle in the making, so I watched as closely as I could, in the whirling, red-spark chaos. And when I finished my own orbit, scorched and raw, and saw him lying unburnt in the fire, it was clear which one: a miracle, the only physical one I've ever seen. You can dismiss Burning Man as a circus if you like--much of it is. But at its heart was a true ecstatic rite that gave rise to a singularity--a point where natural law gave way to something stronger. I saw a human being do the impossible, there in the heart of the fire.
But later, separated from my friends, I wander outside the fire-worshipers, in the relative dark. After the Fire, I needed some Dark. Another world out here! Islands of light and noise from the sculptures and art cars, but the people gawking at them feel drained and passive. At first I assume it's just me, my melancholia, skepticism, alienation. No, there's a truth out here too. Outside the fire ring, like a halo of icy Oort objects far from the sunlit planets, are... consumers. Consumers of spectacle and ideas, not materials (give them credit--that's an achievement in America) deliberately renouncing money shopping and business for this week, but still... strangely passive, given Burning Man's wild reputation. In India they'd be painting each other, in Rio they'd all dance. Here, the machines roar and flash with energy... but the people are drained, just eyes. Dark stars.
As I return to camp I think "Is all this energy misdirected? At least unfocused. So much building and art without meaning. It's good for people to explore the creative possibilities of materials and technology--and learn they have the power to build. But the content is largely inane." It troubles me--my own globes were rigorously worked out extrapolations, explorations of ideas; out here I'm mostly finding just hazy gee-whiz carnival stuff. Spectacle only.
Back at camp, I confess "I feel like an outsider" to Miriel's boyfriend Scott. "I admit, it has it uses. Without a group to please, I see what I see. The cost is comfort."
Yet he and Miriel both say "But the group doesn't see you that way. They like you..." Simple insecurity? Yes, I don't know them well, and I'm shy with attractive girls. But so what if I fall short of Zen perfection in social skills? Others forget names too, and fail to link them to faces, and turn shy with attractive strangers, and fail to read feelings and characters well, and only rarely strike true fire in conversation... or with a touch. So? The difference is I expect dream-deep connections every single moment!
Exhausted by my long walk back, I lie down while the others go out dancing. For a moment I feel I'm just indulging my shyness again. I should go try to meet a girl at a dance. Wait a minute... I ache all over--this is no mood! They all slept in this morning, while I transported tables, then co-taught a dream workshop, then walked miles all day while they biked. Worked nonstop! My body needs sleep. Mood, indeed. How rude to my body!
Dream 1: THE BLACK WIDOW
I'm in the future. Global greenhouse! The Olympic Peninsula has turned subtropical. The hills look like Costa Rica, not Canada. Still densely wooded, though more mangos and avocados than cedars now. A few fields here and there, but most folks still live on the shore, in little fishing villages.
Boats offer to take tourists from cruise ships offshore, and show them the local culture. They're mostly ripoffs--shallow tours of Potemkin villages run by corporate chains. Our boat is a rare independent, I think. But the Canadian and/or Washington State governments are sponsoring better boat tours now. Are we part of their reforms?
A local girl on our boat has never left the Peninsula. She's bored by this beautiful land! To her, we're the exotic ones--travelers from glamorous San Francisco. Seems funny to be seen as exotic... but isn't that exactly her own myopia? She can't see the beauty and strangeness of her familiar Puget Sound.
Now our group's trying to escape a mansion, almost a palace--a maze of power, wealth and intrigue. Not easy to leave this constrained but privileged world. Nic Griffin, (drummer for our band The Krelkins,) teases and jokes and cajoles us onward, patient and cheerful... Despite sabotage and delays, the group starts moving at last. Where to? We climb a slope on bikes, struggling. A late girl joins us--the Olympic fisher girl. Only now, she's an heiress! To the whole mansion? Things really are changing!
But the Black Widow challenges us repeatedly. She's a shadowy Fairy Queen at the center of the mansion's web of wealth and power. And yet... I think she approves of us! Wry humor toward our struggles. Just doesn't want it to be too easy for us to organize--she throws barriers at us for a reason. We need unity, communication, traffic skills... and political skills.
Black Rock City is infested with foot-high tetrahedrons. They're everywhere. So awkward! We must clean them all up. Somehow I expected spheres, what with the planetary theme this year. Nope. Pyramids.
Hard work all day tearing down camp. Hot sun. Some go naked. I'd burn. Not the kind of Burning Man I want to be...
I'm already drained as our caravan starts for Pyramid Lake. I'm still wondering if maybe I shouldn't just go straight home and skip it.
The exit line turns out to be an hour-long stop-start nightmare of dust and exhaust, with my car stifling if sealed and toxic if open. Lose the others immediately. I'm in the slowest line, of course. This is the first time I've driven a stick shift in years, so I keep stalling.
It's night by the time I escape Black Rock City. I drive south rather slowly, on the crowded road, groggy and at first unaware I'm not just exhausted from packing but poisoned by all that exhaust. After I drift over the centerline twice I get scared. Thirty or forty miles down Winnemucca Valley I finally pull off at a wide turnout. I eat an orange and some chocolate hoping they'll wake me. Nope. But they keep me from sleeping quite nicely. I nap fitfully, fidget, pee, and notice I'm also badly sunburned, despite sunblock. High-altitude desert! Drink as much water as I can...
At 3:30 AM I drive south again. A crescent moon dimly lights the way, now. Still, I miss the turnoff to Pyramid Lake. Want to turn around, but can't. Bad shoulders--deep sand where I'll get stuck. I come over a hump and the road (the only exit) is blocked by police and tow trucks. A guy in line says someone fell asleep and ran off the road. Both lanes are blocked. Everyone else stays in line but I turn around--or try to. The moment my front wheels leave the road they sink in the sand. Oh, shit--I'm broadside on a blind hillslope with sleepy drivers coming at me! Three guys from cars in line get out and lift my entire front end out of the drifts. One advantage of a Civic--it's a light little car! I get traction--back on the road. Whew!
I can't take another car-line--more exhaust will kill me. So I drive back north about a mile and find the turnoff toward Pyramid Lake and take it, resigned. The highway behind me is poison; I might as well take my chance. Follow the dirt washboard road miles in the dark, at fifteen MPH. I'm blind and have no map anyway. Saw one in camp, once. The memory will have to do. Keep on guessing and feeling my way, until huge rocks loom around me. This feels like the center of the strangeness. Hey, a parking lot! Who knows where? I stop and nap in the seat again, but at least this time I can lean back.
Lost in the desert, I dream a true dream.
TRAIL OF POGS
I'm in a pretty little town on a conformist world. Steep winding lanes with small flowery yards and brightly painted houses. Postcard-perfect, but the result of strictly enforced social codes. And these folks aren't just fussy but dangerous. Their culture is precise and formal, so it's easy to offend them and stand out. Despite our care they quickly suspect we're foreigners. We hurry through town but a wake of whispers follows. And they're right: we're from the starship Enterprise, four or five of us, trying to study these people incognito, seeking clues to lead us to a girl about ten years old who was kidnapped. She's the key to the Revolution here!
We meet one friendly person: a dance hall girl named Sonya. She loves the son of a family running an Italian or French restaurant in town. I have two roles: I'm not just a Star Trek character, I'm also the Italian son. I love her back. We grew up together. But the restaurant is failing--Mama (not at all my waking mom) is a brilliant chef, but she just can't cook large-scale. We can't fill the place, and it's so big the overhead is killing us. I think our poverty's complicating my relationship with Sonya too.
Meanwhile, in my other life...
Captain Kirk is at it again. This time his brilliant idea is: "If we're attacked, we'll climb into this huge pine tree and use it as a fort." Sonya the dancer climbs into it from one of the balconies all around--the tree is in a sort of alcove high on the hill. She looks down and says "what a long way!" with unease. It seems a bad idea to me, too. Too vulnerable, and the risk of attack is real and urgent--several villagers are climbing the winding lanes toward us with stony faces. Not much use calling the cops, either: at the head of the grim posse is the mayor! No, they really don't like outsiders here.
Keep moving, climbing the crag; all the clues say the kidnapped girl's hidden near the summit.
What clues? A Trail of Pogs! (Pogs are round bottle-cap things with pictures--little kids collect and trade them like baseball cards.) A dotted line of them leads up the crag, stamped with the girl's freckled face. But it's not a single, clear line--three superimposed clue-trails for three different quests! I'll spot a clue for our quest, then a pog for Quest 2, one for Quest 3, then ours again. Easy to tell--our set of pogs are all photos of her face, and the others are words and symbols. Our tricorder pings whenever I hit one of ours. I learn to look ahead for our quest's clues, and increase the pings from one-third to nearly 100 percent by skipping irrelevant Pogs. Easy once you accept that most clues are for others. Lower down the mountain, I spent so much time puzzling over the irrelevant ones. To zoom ahead, all I need do is ignore them!
At the top of the trail is a mirror. Uh-oh. Captain Kirk is trapped. He can't help us find and free the girl because he's stripped and is admiring himself in the mirror. "I'm a ladies' man" he boasts, and maybe he is--this world has changed him. He has a double penis now!
Jeez. He was bad enough with one. I have to actually threaten to hit him if he doesn't get moving. Useless!
Do we save her? Do we start the Revolution?
I wake in a car seat at dawn, and find I'm by the lakeshore under the Stone Mother, right by the Pyramid.
NOTES ON WAKING UP
I wake pre-dawn, to find the biodiesel bus right beside me--found it blind across eighty miles of desert, mapless in the dark. Score one for intuition!
The Pyramid looms offshore--a golden isle catching the sunrise hours before the camp. It's as grand as Giza, but mineralized water and lake-creatures built it, not human religious nuts. The lake laps round it, dwindled since the Ice Age but still here, deep blue below red dawnlit peaks.
Sphinxes, too. We're parked between the paws of great crouching shapes with rounded heads looming over the camp. Before sunrise, I climb the sphinxiest crag--the Stone Mother. Lovely little fossil shells, spongy rock with radial spikes like fossil trunks. So obviously underwater, a few scant millennia ago--and will be again someday. It's a sacred place--every rock has eerie, compelling patterns; you can feel them watching you. I can't believe anyone would come up here and drink and smash glass on this holy text. But clearly they do. I clean up all the broken glass I can reach. Stuff my pockets full of pain. Feel the spirits here made that plain last night. We're here on sufferance.
I spend all day resting--convalescing from car-exhaust poisoning last night. Read and swim a bit, out to the Pyramid. And gawk at the rocks. I can't even fetch a towel from my car without pausing halfway back, hypnotized...
So what do the Santa Cruz hippies do in the church of nature? Near sunset, they sit in a circle and drink magic mushroom tea. I don't--it feels disrespectful to me. Subtler than getting drunk in the lap of the Stone Mother and smashing bottles, but still... My sister abstains too--as I said, she's the group mom. But the rest? As the mushrooms pry open their Doors of Perception, what do they do? Fascinating. They stagger around stunned by what they see in the rocks! NOW they notice the rock-spirits compelling me all day, that provoked a shamanic dream even before I'd SEEN them--just felt their power in the dark.
And my own eyes are opened--without chemical assistance. Thank you, Stone Mother! I've learned what I came for. Their mushroom high is my normal state.
Here I've been snorting at their Santa Cruziosity--and I'm more of a stoner than any of them. Artists, dreamers, shamans! We really are another species. By morning, they'll all come down again... and go blind.
I won't. I can't.
No wonder I'm... distractable.
So. "A tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing"? Does a point hide somewhere inside "My summer vacation getting nearly killed at Burning Man"? Oh, yes. The Trail of Pogs! I'll repeat it.
You can't expect perfect scores, socially or spiritually. Life has filler. Many cues and people and situations are meant for others. You may be their clue on their quest. Inefficiency, blur, confusion and failed connections are inherent in our layered world. It's a classic error of mystics to assume every Pog is for you! Quit seeking perfect grace. Batting .300 is world-class!Humans are drastic. Either the world is our personal playpen with a nanny-God babysitting us, or we start pouting and yell "it's all meaningless" (or get all proud we're so scientific and mature about the "fact" it's all meaningless!). My shamanic experiences convince me this cosmos isn't impersonal at all. It tries quite hard to meet expectations; you get what you came for. Let's ignore the problem of mixed motives inside us and assume we're whole-hearted and conscious of our own desires. Yeah, right! But just suppose. Even then, so many creatures share this world, each with their own wishes, their own quests... Inevitably, these conflict; they can't all be granted. And even if they were? A lot of messages and miracles aimed at others get in your way.
So what am I saying? That the voice of God is real, but as you walk along your trail... intermittent. For sound structural reasons.
Sadly, the vandalism continued. Today, the Pyramid and Stone Mother are off limits to all but supervised groups. I can't fault the Pyramid Lake tribe for this decision; my dream convinced me it really is a sacred site and that the spirits of the land itself, not just the tribe, resented the disruption and disrespect.
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