Baloney, Bourbon, and Breakfast — the signature of the Kentucky Fried Camp (KFC) at the annual Burning Man festival in Nevada’s Black Rock desert — was served on schedule at Burning Man 2013, as the Kentucky Fried Campers were undaunted when their fully-loaded U-Haul was stolen en route to the desert.
The desert is, amongst other things, a place of contemplation. Most world religions have played out, to one degree or another, upon shifting sands. It is a place of fasting in addition to a place of epiphany. It can also be a place of loneliness, locusts, and lassitude. Some feature sleeping beasts of stone while others keep a cool oasis hidden from view, like a damp cloth (hidden away and forgotten) in a dusty back pocket. My trip to Burning Man 2013 was a bit of all of these things, yet certainly greater than the sum of its parts.
I went back to Burning Man in a way typical to ‘burners’ who had taken some time away from the annual rites of passage out in the desert. Life had gotten too complicated (or too simple); I needed to clear my head (or muddle it back up); I needed a sense of community that reinforces the ideal that ‘a place is only as important as the people in it.’ I called my sister and made her promise that she’d help me make it happen. An old friend I had not seen in two decades was struck by a similar imperative (as so often happens in a universe where there are no mistakes). The stars aligned, and off we went.
Oh, there was art. There was music. There was fire and costumes and smiles. There were popsicles out of nowhere; fried baloney sandwiches; and dancing. One early morning as I finally lay my head onto a dusty pillow, Ravel’s ‘Bolero’ blared out in the night to serenade me to sleep. There was a fully operational movie theater out in the deep desert; art cars that defied logic and circumstance; and enough true goodwill to stupefy even the most jaded. There was also a temple.
I had some ‘temple business’ to take care of before the whole beautiful structure was set alight. While there is revelry and debauchery in abundance out on the playa (the desert floor), there is also something deeply spiritual about the event that often escapes mention. Every year, a temple is built on the desert floor. Day by day, burners flow through the temple to pray, meditate, and remember. This year, my temple business was saying goodbye to Jack, my Weimaraner. I had to put him down last year, and I just knew in my bones that it had to be done at the temple.
I made my way across the desert floor under the dark of night with two other kindred souls. I cried like a child as I made my way to the altar, adorned with messages, keepsakes, and offerings. This is the part of Burning Man you do not hear much about. It was a mammoth place, perhaps just large enough in its pathos to lay bare some 60,000 souls, including my own. While the temple is non-denominational, it is, if nothing else, a spiritual place.
As I ambled through my tears, I found myself saying “It’s OK now. Everything is OK. It’s OK now. Everything is OK.” While I am typically never at a shortage for words, my grief had stripped away any effective means of communication. I consoled myself with this litany, which surely resembled prayer by any conventional definition. I thought about the friends I’ve lost along my journey. I thought about their families. I thought about me and my place in the world around me. I felt small and humble, as Burning Man, when done correctly, is always a lesson in humility for me. I cried for Jack. I cried for my father, Donald Ray Kouns. I cried in front of the altar for the things I’ve lost. I cried for Tony and Todd. As I felt arms around me, the tears dried up, leaving pristine trails of salt along a dusty face. What followed was gratitude for the things that have been left for me, albeit for only a short time.
As has been the case since my first trip to Burning Man, my mind seized upon a book and a song. My first year out, it was (inexplicably), “Hot Blooded” by Foreigner, and The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon. This year, it was “Pocket Calculator” by Kraftwerk, and “100 Years of Solitude” by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. In typical playa fashion, I was talking about this particular (rather obtuse) song and suddenly heard an art car booming it into the cool desert night. Coincidence? As for Garcia-Marquez and his masterpiece, “100 Years of Solitude”? When I first read it, it spoke to me of timelessness; not so much in tune with ‘The Elgin Marbles’ as a vibrant, fecund treatise on the human condition. Instead of Mocondo, there was Black Rock City. In lieu of a banana factory, there was the real world outside.
Burning Man means 100,000 different things to 100,000 different people. It is a canvas I suppose–a canvas upon and to which we attach things of salience and resilience. It is a desolate place, populated by dreams and visions. Full of dust and heat, to be sure, but also full of love and hope. I left a large portion of my grief at that temple, and it burned to the desert floor. I made some room in my heart for brighter things, and the brighter things will take root soon enough I expect.
Nick Kouns is one of the charter founders of the Kentucky Fried Camp at Burning Man. The Kentucky Fried Camp serves bourbon and fried baloney sandwiches for breakfast at the annual festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. The camp has grown from a handful of stalwarts in the early years to around 70 this year.
Mick Jeffries is a photographer and designer; a mixologist who creates everything from commissioned Derby cocktails to Vampire Santa eggnog; the host of WRFL’s Trivial Thursdays; and a seasoned veteran of Burning Man’s Kentucky Fried Camp; and an Ace contributing writer and photographer for the past 20 years.
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