After a full day building camp, several friends formed a group to go out. Of course I wanted to join! I grabbed my necessities (headlamp, toilet paper, goggles, emergency champagne) and hopped on my bike. As we turned onto the esplanade, art installations rose from the dust as far as I could see. I lagged to catch glimpses of them as we passed. Art or friends? Art or friends? Curiosity pulled at me.
And then — we approached a pier.
Group mission be damned! This was the emptiest the playa would be for the rest of the week, and soon the pier would be crammed with tourists.
I stopped and put my feet onto the dust. I pulled the scarf off my mouth and called to my friends: “Guys! I’m stopping to look at art!” Either they didn’t hear me or didn’t care.
Except for Kitten, my faithful companion.
“I can’t keep passing art installations. It’s our first night out,” I looked towards our group; they had already blended in with the other blinking lights.
“We have all week to find music, but we only have a week to look at art,” Kitten dismounted his bike.
We stepped onto the pier. Nets and ropes hung between posts, hammocks swayed beneath the boardwalk. A long string of lights romanced me. I hooked my arm into Kitten’s.
The boards creaked under our footsteps — just like the old boardwalks I’ve wandered along in seaside towns. And for a moment, when I relaxed my eyes and looked up, it felt like we were at the sea. But looking down, seeing the dry lake bed below us, I thought of the sheer genius and manpower it must have taken to build this dock — from the concept to the design to bringing the materials and assembling them in the middle of nowhere without basic amenities like running water.
We arrived at the midway tower. We leaned in to view its inner intricacies. Some people were gathered on the upper level; I’d be willing to bet they were drinking whiskey.
“Want to go up?” Kitten asked.
“Not particularly.” I felt content looking inside the tower at the details that made it seem more like a relic than a modern piece of art. It gave me a sense of nostalgia for a time I knew only in turn-of-the-century novels. Antique photographs, compasses, hourglasses, bound books, and glass bottles — in all colors, sizes and shapes — the scene piqued my curiosity to touch and pick up the items. Every detail existed for exploration, a mystery to be revealed, a reverie in which to lose oneself. It was a living, breathing piece of art that transported us to a different time and place. The curiosity, the wonder of it all, put me back into the frame of mind of a child: everything was new and strange and deeply interesting.
On the other side of the tower, we found an antique desk — the kind in which the door to the main compartment folds down to become the writing surface. My literary heart skipped a beat.
“And what could be inside?” My curiosity whispered with glee.
When I opened it, I found the cubbies, that once may have organized papers and mail, were filled with antique glass bottles. How odd. I touched a few, pulling them out of the compartments and examining their details, trying to understand their riddle. And then — I found one that contained a piece of paper.
“A message in a bottle!” I gasped. I lifted it with awe. The bottle’s long, skinny neck was jagged at the top. “What kind of message do you think it is? Profound wisdom?”
I slowly put my index finger into the bottle, careful not to touch the toothlike edge, but my fingertip barely reached the paper. I pushed in a little more until the base of my finger rested against the pointed teeth. I could only move the paper around in circles along the side of the bottle. The shape of the neck made it impossible to drag the paper out.
“Don’t hurt yourself,” Kitten warned. “We are in the middle of nowhere and it’s dirty. You’ll want a working hand for the rest of the week.”
I sighed and pulled my finger out. “I’m just too curious.” I turned the bottle over and around, trying to see if I could read the message from the outside, but the paper was folded in half. Even more mysterious. I inverted the bottle and shook it, but the paper wouldn’t fall out.
“Oh well, let’s go,” Kitten said. “Slicing your finger is a bad way to start your Burn.”
“Let me try one more thing.”
I held the bottle so the paper was at the very base of the neck. I put my finger back in and pressed the paper firmly against the glass. It slid along the edge, I almost got it passed the base of the neck, but it slipped back.
“Leave it, come on, there’s a lot more to look at,” Kitten said. “There’s bottles everywhere. Just look at all these bottles over here.” He motioned to a couple of antique suitcases behind us with bottles on top of them.
“I have to know what it says!” I insisted. “I can’t just find a message in a bottle in a desk on the dock in the middle of the desert and just — walk away without knowing what it says! A message in a bottle at Burning Man. Who knows what it says? Maybe it’s written by the artist.”
I turned the bottle a little more, got my hand on the side with the shortest teeth and finally — I had the paper sliding up the neck and out of the bottle! I held it in my hand like it was a golden scroll of truth. “Yes!” I said to Kitten, my eyes wild with excitement.
I unfurled the paper and paused. I was hungry for the message I worked so hard to receive, but needed a deep breath. Delayed gratification.
“Come on, open it,” Kitten said.
I opened the paper.
I read it aloud: “Go Fuck Yourself.”
Kitten and I looked at each other and burst into laughter.
“Oh that is good,” I said as I caught my breath.
“We should’ve seen that coming,” Kitten smiled.
“A special message from the artist,” I joyfully mocked myself as I folded the message and rolled it back up. “A message just for me! How absurd.” I laughed as I placed the paper back in the bottle, making sure it was all the way in for the next person.“Well worth the effort, I say.”
“It couldn’t have been more perfect,” Kitten agreed.
I put the bottle back exactly where I found it and closed the desk.
Kitten and I continued our walk along the creaking pier to the very end. I looked out at the playa — illuminated art installations dotted the landscape — and I realized this pier was on an endless sea of wonder.
On Sunday afternoon, the first day of Burning Man, I stood at the corner of 6 & E in front of my camp wearing a minidress and holding a megaphone. As my campmates assembled our bar and stage behind me, I heckled passerbys to pass the time. Instead of making fun or being mean, as usual heckling goes, I gave compliments and encouraged radical self-expression. One thing I loved the most were men wearing skirts (“kilts!” some would say). Many passerbys waved, returned compliment, and even said, “I love you!” It was a happy, warm, feel-good way to start the week — one that would likely induce eye rolls from snarky, fuck-yer-burn participants.
My true reward came when two men, one younger and one older, in matching outfits approached.
“Heckle me, please! I long to be heckled!” The younger man said in a British accent.
“What kind of a masochist wants to be heckled?” I said into the megaphone. As they neared, I saw they wore socks, shorts and shirts with small pizza slices printed on them. “One who wears a pizza outfit, apparently.”
“We’ve been giving away pizza!” the younger man told me.
“Where’s my pizza?”
“Somebody else has it,” the younger man said.
My sweetheart walked over to us, perhaps because he heard pizza mentioned. He began speaking to the younger man, which gave me the opportunity to engage the elder.
“How many times have you been here?” I asked, expecting a large number.
“This is my first year,” he replied in the Queen’s English. “I’m 68!”
“Congratulations, that’s inspiring,” I said, taken aback. “Welcome!”
“And what brings you here — aside from the opportunity to wear a pizza outfit?”
“I’ve come for the temple,” he said. “My father passed away and — I never had a good relationship with him. There was a lot of pain for both of us. I’ve come to make peace with him and our troubled relationship.”
“That’s beautiful,” I said. “The temple is the place to do that. I saw my intentions from the temple last year stick with me and bloom over the course of the year.” I remembered the note I had written to the divine, asking for help embracing the present moment and letting go of my compulsive obsession with the past and future.
“That’s what my friend here told me,” he gestured to the younger man. “He said I would find closure and peace.”
“Yes, you can create whatever experience you set your mind to out here. Especially something personal and internal such as yours.”
“My mother, I am so much like my mother and I pushed away my father, she thinks this is important, that holding onto the resentment and anger — it’s not healthy. At first, maybe I was doing this for her, but now I can see that it’s for me.”
“Do you have any children?”
“What do they think about you coming here?”
“They laughed and asked me if I’m coming for the nudity and free love, but you know, after 45 years of marriage I think I’m past that.”
I laughed with him. “Maybe they will come next year after the hear what a great time you’ve had.”
“That would be fun.”
“And once they hear you’ve gotten what you came here to do.”
“I can only hope.”
I looked into his tender face and noticed his open heart. “Thank you for sharing your intention with me.”
“You’re welcome!” His eyes lit up. “I feel a bit silly, maybe even weak, for sharing something so personal, but my friend said out here people will love to hear it.”
“I think I have a gift for you — if you are interested.”
He beamed, “a gift? For me?”
“Yes, I think I have the perfect thing for you. Follow me.”
We walked to the van I would call home during the festival. I opened the front door and pulled out a bag of feathers.
“I gathered these feathers from the land I live on in California,” I told him. “I learned their symbolic meaning and prepared a message for each feather. I prayed over each of them to speak into the heart of whoever chose them with affirmation or direction.”
I held the bag out to him.
“I just choose one?”
“Yes, whichever one.”
He reached in and pulled out a large feather with a string that tied a small note to it.
“Which did you choose?” I asked.
“‘Goose,'” he read, “‘signals an opening to new possibilities, new creative portals, new directions, and new ideas. Affix yourself to your path and fulfill your vision.'” He looked at the feather and caressed it a few times. When his eyes met mine I saw they were filled with tears. “This is about my father.”
“Incredible,” I whispered. I could barely fathom the perfection of this message for him. Although I had prayed and set intentions for weeks before the burn, I was moved by the alignment.
He put the feather to his heart, “this one is just for me. Thank you.”
“Can I give you a hug?” I asked.
At the end of our hug, he looked into my eyes, “I’ll treasure this,” he said, lifting the feather.
We walked back to the street where his friend and my sweetheart waited.
“Happy burn,” I told him.
“Thank you,” he said, lifting the feather again. “Happy burn!”
Two days later, in the middle of the afternoon, I rested in the van. A small knock sounded and I opened the door. To my surprise, the elder man stood in front of me — wearing his pizza outfit.
“Oh, you’re resting,” he said. “I can come back later.”
“No, no, I’m just lying down, I’m not sleeping.”
“I came back because the gift you gave me, it touched me deeply. And I wanted to make sure I told you that.”
“Thank you,” I said. “That means a lot to me.”
“I have a gift for you as well. So that you can remember. I have watches, if you want one. I put them together.”
“Oh yes! I have been wanting a watch!”
He pulled out three watches. “Let me show you. On the front it has the directions because you can choose your direction out here without ego interference. And it says ‘now’ because the time is always now at burning man.”
“I love it. That is so perfect for me,” I laughed, acknowledging the serendipity of his gift like a wink from the divine that I had been heard last year.
“And inside,” he opened the watch, “I designed the vitruvian man for this year’s theme and there’s three compartments with mini candies: gummy bears, mints, and jawbreakers.”
“This is wonderful! It’s so thoughtful! And I can share these little candies with people as well. It’s the gift that will keep giving!”
The wrinkles around his eyes, now pronounced by the dust, crinkled as he smiled, “I knew I had to give you one. You can choose whichever color combination you like, the faces are all interchangeable with the bands.”
I held the three watches in my hands. “I wear a lot of white out here, and tomorrow is white Wednesday, so I think I’ll choose the white and silver.”
“That’s a great choice,” he said, putting them together.
“Thank you,” I said as I gave him a hug. “This, everything about this, means so much to me — more than I can express.”
“You’re welcome. Your gift means a lot to me. It couldn’t have been more perfect to set the tone for my experience. And to show that what I’m here for — it’s destiny — my heart’s desire is important and heard. I’m just glad I have something to give in return.”
Keeping my vow, the day I left work, I headed straight to Pinnacles National Park. Luckily for me, a glamsient friend had the day off and agreed to join me. We started at the visitor center on the east entrance where I saw a sign announcing the arrival of a California Condor.”A new baby! How exciting,” I said to the ranger behind the counter.
“Yes, a girl. We are thrilled,” she said. “It’s from the only nest in the park!”
“Do you have any camping available for tonight?” I asked. Knowing that many California parks fill up months in advance during summer, I braced myself for her answer.
“Oh yes, there’s plenty.” She handed me a map of the campground. “Pick out an empty space, come back and let us know which one you want.”
We drove towards the back of the campground — it was virtually empty! With so much availability, we found exactly what we wanted: a site surrounded by trees and bushes to give us privacy and shade. High Peaks Trail via Bear Gulch Cave
For our first hike, we chose the High Peaks Trail by way of Bear Gulch Cave. My glamsient friend informed me this is the most popular trail in the park.
The first section guided us to Bear Gulch Cave, a rare talus cave thought to be formed in the ice age. The canopy of trees made this hike gentle and pleasant even in the middle of the afternoon. Created by large boulders that had fallen and wedged into narrow canyons, the cave was easy to navigate — sunlight made its way into the cave through open spaces to illuminate the path. We walked over bridges and up stairs created in the 1930s; part of the way, we had to crouch to pass underneath boulders.
“Wouldn’t want to be here during an earthquake,” my friend remarked. “The San Andreas fault is pretty close.”
For a popular destination at the park, the cave was by no means crowded; we saw only a few groups of people.
Leaving the cave, the trail led us to a small reservoir; that’s where the strenuous climb began to the High Peaks. Without the tree cover, under the blazing sun, every step moved me further uphill and every step told me that I am out of shape! I quickly realized this section of the trail would be much more enjoyable in cooler weather — either early morning in summer or a cooler time of year altogether!
(That being said, we saw many groups with children. They seemed fine. Hot, but fine.)
Ultimately, our effort paid off — the trail took us to an incredible peak revealing far reaching vistas of valleys, rock formations and mountain ranges to the east and west. The High Peaks trail showcases prehistoric rock formations; volcanic activity created these rocks 23 million years ago and erosion formed them into what we see today. It surprised me to learn seismic activity moved the solid, massive boulders over 195 miles northwest from the time of their creation.
At the crux, we walked up and over boulders that created a long ridge — in many places, the trail was carved by dynamite into footholds and steps. We stopped to catch our breath, but lost it when a Condor flew overhead! One of only 36 wild in the park, we knew we were in the right place at the right time.
Shortly after we made our descent, we saw a couple on the trail.
“Is the peak much farther?” The young man asked. He sat in shade created by chaparral, his face was red and dripping with sweat. “We are thinking of going back.”
“You’re so close,” I told him. “Keep going.”
“It’s worth it,” my friend said. “The views and everything — you don’t want to turn back.”
“And there’s a cave on the other side,” I said.
Halfway down, we found a spot to rest and wait for the full moon. Despite my aching feet and jelly knees, seeing the moon — large and pink — rise over the mountains at sunset was a glory to behold.
It was dark when we returned to camp for dinner. Eating that night, I noticed a sense of vitality within me. My blood pumped through my veins, fresh air emboldened my lungs and my muscles felt active and alive! Balconies Trail
The next morning, my fellow glamsient left early for work. Part of me wanted to head home, but I quickly recognized that desire as my old habit of rushing to the destination. The Balconies Cave enticed me and, remembering to slow down and savor the journey, I chose to stay in the park.
Driving to the trailhead I saw quail, turkeys, and a doe with her fawn. The parking lot was empty apart from my car, and only the sound of birds accompanied me onto the path.
Meandering through trees, the Balconies trail is mostly flat — a perfect companion to yesterday’s strenuous hike. Yellow swallowtail butterflies greeted me as if to say I had made the right choice. I breathed deeply, enjoying the time to myself.
When I came to the entrance of the talus cave, I saw a large, metal gate. “Flashlights Required,” a sign read. Having seen a similar warning at the trailhead I had my headlamp — and thank goodness for that! The cave was pitch black; only little white painted arrows marked the trail.
Cool and dark, the deep quietude of the cave penetrated my being. I was completely alone, and instead of steadily moving through to the other side, I sat and turned off my headlamp. Surrounded by rock, my small, vulnerable body felt soft and humble, but I was not afraid. I felt held and supported. I seemed to dissolve, as if I were part of the rock, the air, the empty space. In perfect stillness, I tuned to the deepest part of me — connected and endless.
When I was ready, I moved forward through the cave. As soon as the first rays of sun beckoned me out I wanted to go back into the dark, cool, quiet chamber. It had given me a thrill unlike any other.
Hiking the next section of the trail — a moderate stretch with views of rock formations jutting out of the earth like balconies — my mind returned to my experience in the cave. Wholly grounding, yet also uplifting, I longed to return to the cave and the feeling of oneness.