Near the end of my time at Burning Man, I realized I hadn’t spent any time in The Temple.
About the Temple: if most of burning man is white water rapids, the temple is a placid alpine lake. Although both are completely devoid of any water whatsoever, so my analogies leave something to be desired. Whatever, moving on.
This is one of the main constructs and the last to burn. It is a place for people to remember and honor people or things close to them, and hopefully find closure and peace. It’s also a quiet and contemplative place amid the maelstrom.
While I had thoroughly enjoyed my time thus far, I felt I was missing some of the deeper, more potentially “spiritual” aspects of burning man. Which, since so many people had reported that Burning Man could be a life-changed experience, I felt I hadn’t so far gotten the full experience. I didn’t feel changed. So I wanted to seek that out.
Nature, however, elected that day as national “dust-storm-a-palooza” day, and as such once I got onto the open playa I was in a near white-out (or “tan out” as the case may be). I was not to be denied, however. I pushed on, happy to have a full liter of water on me, good goggles for my eyes and a shemagh for my face.
Burning Man is laid out very logically with roads aligned at hours of the clock, and the giant Man at the center to serve as a focal point so you always know where you are. This method breaks down when you can see neither the Man, nor any of the camps or roads. I ended up pushing off in the direction I thought the Man would be, and ended up in a brown cloud of nothing.
Every now and then the blowing would ease up and an opening would appear, allowing me to actually see around for a few seconds.
However, nice as this was, it didn’t actually help me orient myself, so I continued trying to triangulate myself from various art installations I happened upon, trying to recall by memory where I thought they were in relation to the Man. Anyone who knows me and my memory probably cringes at this thought.
I was not alone out in the storm though. Many people on bikes, on foot, and especially in the roving art cars were out enjoying the storm, and I would from time to time have booming music come through the dust cloud to my right or left, or somewhere ahead of me, only to pass by unseen. A few times I had alarmingly close calls as a behemoth emerged from a cloud of sand nearly on top of me.
A couple times I stopped at an an art installation, just to take a break from the wandering, and the increasing complaining coming from my bike chain. It did not like the gathering of dust, it seemed, and cried out for oil, sweet oil.
Eventually however, a clearing in the storm happened when I was close enough to actually make out the Man through the dust.
I took this opportunity to walk around the Man and see what activity was there. Surprisingly what was normally a busy hub was mostly devoid of people. Only a very dedicated drum circle remained, pounding out a beat invisibly.
Back on my bike, now that I had orientation from being at The Man, finding the Temple was pretty quick. The number of bikes outside its perimeter clued me in that even in this storm it would be crowded. Once inside, I noticed the blowing dust winds less, and an overall feeling of quiet and stillness prevailed.
The center of the Temple is the focal point, and where many would leave their momentos and offerings. However, the walls and surfaces were also littered with messages, drawings, papers, and comments. The Temple becomes the embodiment of everyone’s projected emotions. Looking around, I found the Temple itself, even without the emotion attached, to be beautiful and ornate.
While I pondered all this, a man in a hot pink mesh shirt, pink skirt, and bright pink furry boots stepped gingerly over other people near the center, and knelt in front of offerings he had apparently left here before. He straightened them, tenderly brushed the dust off of them, and stared silently for several moments. Suddenly his face twisted into a grimace and his body rocked and heaved with open sobbing. I was shocked at his sudden and public outpouring of grief. I wanted to step over the bodies between us and offer comfort, but had no idea how.
Then out of nowhere, the opening strains of “Ode To Joy” erupted. It was a surreal moment, and I wondered at its source: an art car nearby blasting classical music? Was it possibly in my head and I was having some sort of spiritual awakening in the face of this man’s grief? Seconds later I would realize that an orchestra had amassed in the Temple and begun to play.
In the midst of a dust storm, in the middle of the desert, a twelve piece string orchestra had gathered. Violins, cellos, even a double bass I think. These people in their burner garb, goggles and boots, were putting on a performance worthy of black tie and tails in a concert hall.
They ran through all manner of songs from Ode to Joy to Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies, and many I didn’t recognize. It was beautiful and strange. After a few songs I remembered the grieving man and wondered how he was receiving this. When I looked for him he was gone.
The concert finished, silence resumed, and I left the temple.
On the ride back to camp, the dust storm had diminished somewhat so I and my wailing bike chain had a pretty straight shot back. Which was good because I was out of water and thirst was becoming an issue.
I went looking for a deeper experience, some spiritual side. But the heavens didn’t weep, my soul didn’t soar, my mind didn’t crack open with new and miraculous understanding. However, I did get to wander, lost in a desert, without any need to panic or fear for my life; I was safe the entire time and could just enjoy the moments. And I gained understanding that grief and release are assisted by physical objects and places; to walk away from the physical representations helps one move on. And lastly I got to experience sublime music played by people who dearly love it, received by people who dearly needed it, in a place everyone shared.
You really can’t ask for much more from an afternoon.