My loving and lovely sister, Kim, just told me that she’ll be coming up from San Luis Obispo for the second of two cool Tribes of Burning Man events I’m hosting this week, joining me, Larry Harvey, and a bunch of other burner luminaries in the legendary Westerfeld House for a very special evening.
So in her honor, I’m posting another chapter from the book, the story of her last days as her old sense before she blossomed on the playa into Gray, a committed burner who sees the myriad possibilities of life.
Through my Sister’s Gray Eyes
I went into my seventh Burning Man feeling a little jaded and over it, despite all the work that I’d been doing on this book – or perhaps because of it. Burning Man was consuming most of my waking thoughts as I wrestled with what it all means, with the big takeaway to tell you all.
Plus, how excited can anyone really be over an annual event, at least since we stopped believing in Santa Claus? The excitement just stops coming as naturally, the enthusiasm becoming something that needs to be deliberately summoned. Everything eventually becomes routine, even the edge, and I had been dealing with Burning Man way too much in 2009.
But then my only sister, Kim Williams, came to town a few days before we planned to drive to the playa together for her first burn. I saw the coming burn reflected in her wide eyes and that old twinge of anticipation began to form in my gut. I couldn’t wait to drive onto the playa with her.
She was excited but nervous, not quite sure what to expect but open to the experience. I really hadn’t been playing it up too much, preparing her yet trying to keep her free of expectations, the best way to do it. But she seemed to know that she was in for a life-changing experience and her spirit was infectious. Just six months after separating from her husband, unsure what the rest of life had to offer her, Kim was in the ideal position to get her head split open wide by Burning Man, letting it inform her understanding of the future’s myriad possibilities.
San Francisco was buzzing with Burning Man preparations, which almost seemed connected to the heat wave that peaked on Friday night, August 28th, when the 80-degree temperature at 10 p.m. lent an aura of unreality to normally foggy San Francisco. We still had two days to prepare and our bags were already packed with costumes, so we pedaled our bikes around the city, just playing and partying and feeling more free together than we had since childhood, when we’d play with the neighborhood kids until long after dark on summer evenings.
If Burning Man really were a cult then I’d say the gods were with us, lining the planets up in our favor, pointing the way toward our destiny in an alternate universe. I cut work short so we could ride our bikes to the pre-parties for that day’s monthly Critical Mass bike ride – another first for my sister, who hadn’t ridden bikes much since she was young. The ride included hundreds of decorated bikes – fake fur, electroluminescent wire lighting, disco balls, and an endless array of other geegaws – that were clearly bound for the playa, their riders exchanging giddy grins and offering, “See you out there.”
The ride wound its way into Golden Gate Park, where the sprawling Outside Lands concert festival was underway. Pearl Jam was headlining on the main stage later that night, but when a group of bicyclists stopped to smoke a joint across from one of the fenced concert stages, we realized that the walkway across the street afforded a perfect view of the stage and was directly in the soundscape. And the hugely popular and fun band Thievery Corporation – which would find added significance at the close of Burning Man that year, as I spent my final night dancing my ass off to the Thievery Corporation DJ, who was attending his first burn – was about to go on. That serendipity seemed like an unofficial start to Burning Man and we all danced and smiled, marveling at the good fortune that seemed so strangely normal in our little rock star world.
But Burning Man hadn’t really begun, and our list of things to do was long. My new Mohawk needed to be dyed red, Kim and I were going to get manicure-pedicures (my nails red, hers gray, another choice that picked up psychic significance along the way), we had several random supplies on our lists, and we still needed to buy all of our food and water for the week. Of course, by then, the water sections of every grocery store in San Francisco were emptied of large containers, as were many of the stores along the road to Black Rock City, as we later discovered when we finally settled for gallon jugs rather than the 2.5-gallon size favored by most burners.
We peppered our preparations with periodic cocktail stops, and our conversations grew deeper and more significant, even as our mood lightened and the anticipation mounted. Kim was juggling dating a few guys at the time – two of them significant – and doing a pretty good job at maintaining her independence with them, even as they pushed for commitments and expressed concerns about what she’d do on the playa. Male jealousy can be a scary force of nature. I’d been encouraging her to remain free and was a little bothered by her suitors’ forcefulness, as was she, and we seemed to really connect with the issue over sangrias and tapas on the night before we left.
“Don’t let them force you to make decisions that are either black or white,” I told her. “It’s okay not to know what you want right now. You can embrace the gray.”
“Yeah, embrace the gray,” she said, smiling beautifully and seeming to be looking all the way to the Black Rock Desert 360 miles away.
“You know,” I said, lighting up with inspiration. “That should be your playa name: Gray.”
“Ooooohhh, yeah, Gray, I like it,” she said. And her random choice of metallic gray nail polish earlier in the day suddenly seemed significant, a confirmation that we were onto something. She flashed me her nails and a conspiratorial grin. Kim was Gray, an identify she assumed in that moment, effortlessly identifying herself by the new moniker for the rest of the week.
We raised our glasses in a toast – Gray and Scribe were leaving for Burning Man the next day.