Russell Brunelle (russellb) wrote,
Russell Brunelle

Coincidences at Burning Man

It seems when you get 50,000 bright and creative people together, all looking out for their city as a whole as well as each other, and most having already arranged some specific creative way they can contribute to the city's artistic, civic, or cultural life, that odd coincidences happen, all of which break in your favor. Put in another way, Burning Man seems to have this odd dream-like character where absolutely nothing "negative" can happen to you which you do not then have the power to turn completely around. At first I thought this was just me, until I spoke to several Burning Man veterans about it.

One example which stands out is Saturday afternoon.

I was carrying two things with me that day: a gallon container of water and my backpack, which also contained my only set of car keys. Essential to understanding this story is to realize that I didn't set up a tent or dome, and I didn't bring an RV: my car was what I was sleeping in, and that car contained all of my supplies including all of my water. Anyway, I was visiting a camp devoted to the ecology of the area, which contained some fascinating posters explaining the various kinds of life which return to the desert playa during the winter and spring rains. I set my backpack and water container by the information desk while reading the posters, and came back a few minutes later to find both missing. At first I thought maybe a camp resident was cleaning up and moved it elsewhere, but none had done so, and I was forced to the unpleasant conclusion that someone unassociated with the ecology camp had just walked off with it: in other words, that both items had been stolen.

I admit that theft is a bit of a hot-button issue for me: I've been a victim of actual theft several times, and credit card fraud twice, and have found that it's remarkable just how violated and angry that kind of crime leaves me feeling - particularly given that (at least in this country) people steal out of greed and laziness rather than any actual need. Anyway, suffice it to say that under ordinary circumstances this experience might have easily derailed my experience of the entire event, reversing the more generous and expansive view of humanity that I thought I'd gained in the preceding days.

But surprisingly, the first thing that came over me wasn't anger, but a sort of mental calm that I'm not used to under these circumstances: I realized that even though I couldn't see the exact set of steps that would lead to me being home, with a replacement set of car keys, at some point in the future that's exactly what would have taken place.

A "ranger" told me where to find the city's volunteer locksmith, so I could at least get into my car and regain access to my water supply. It was on my way to the locksmith that the real coincidences started to roll:

  1. Just as I was starting to become dehydrated, I noticed that somebody had put a cooler outside their camp with the sign "Free Water." It was even chilled. I'd never seen any camp offer that before.
  2. Near the locksmith, I realized that just getting into my car wouldn't solve the real problem: the key has a microchip which matches what the engine expects, and there was no way I could expect the locksmith to be able to duplicate the chip as well as the key, so there's no way I could expect to start the car. How could I get out from the middle of nowhere to a dealership (which CAN duplicate a key) and then get back? Would I need to have the car towed to Reno? I couldn't see clean solutions to any of this, at least not any which would let me see the burning of the Man that evening as well as getting me back to Seattle in time for my plane flight to Washington D.C. So, I started to panic a bit, which is the point at which I noticed that the tent I was standing next to was flying a big flag that said "Don't Panic."
  3. After waiting for the locksmith for a bit, I started to think I was in the wrong place and began walking off. I turned back to look one last time, which is when I saw the locksmith pulling in.
  4. After arranging to meet the locksmith at my car in an hour, I made one last visit to the lost-and-found booth just to make sure nobody had turned the backpack in. After striking up a nice conversation with a few other people in line, and sharing our stories (the other guy dropped his camera near the giant slide and was very sympathetic to my key situation), I popped up with, "You know, I guess this is a win-win situation: if I can't get out of here after the 'Man' burn then that just means I'll have to stay here for the 'Temple' burn the next day, which is an experience I'll remember far longer than whatever aggravations I'll go through as a result of losing my keys." This is absolutely not the way I normally think.
  5. It turns out that someone in the ecology camp actually had accidentally picked up my backpack instead of her own, and it was there when I passed by the ecology camp on the way back to my car. Thinking back on everything else that happened, I could honestly tell her that I had gained rather than lost trust in people as a result of this, and that I felt better than if the backpack had never disappeared at all.

Other coincidences from the week included:

  1. While visiting the "Temple" (i.e. the beautiful abstract structure that's completed during the week and burned the day after the Man burns as the city's final act of closure), running into the first person I knew from Seattle. Even more improbably, this same person managed to randomly run into me just before the Man burn, at night during a low-visibility dust storm when I was wearing both goggles and different clothes and was in a crowd of countless other people, and during the course of our ensuing conversation was able to convey the one piece of information that I needed to hear in order to feel comfortable attending this event on a regular basis for the rest of my life.
  2. I was thinking that I wanted to read all the back issues from that week of the city newspaper. While walking back to my car, a guy sitting on a sofa in the camp near my car asked me if I wanted to read all the back issues, and handed them to me. I hadn't even asked.
  3. When I randomly wandered into the dance offered by the Root Society camp, for the first time, the DJ was Christopher Lawrence. When I randomly wandered into the dance offered by the Opulent Temple camp, for the first time, the DJ was none other than Armin van Buuren. I didn't realize the significance of any of this at the time, though as part of my later attempts to educate myself about electronic music I now certainly do.
  4. After dancing for a while at the Opulent Temple camp, I realized that I was too tired to keep going. In fact, after eight hours of walking, and and three hours of dancing, I'd gotten to the point where walking was a bit of a challenge. And, that was the exact moment when someone chose to park, right behind me, a bicycle that was pulling a sofa.

In my handwritten notes I have another half-page of coincidences, many of which might sound silly to you if I were to post them here, but in any case I think you get the idea: in an environment this creative, positive, and dense, the one thing you can count on is for opportunities to arise and good things to happen.

But I would like to close with a final example, from Saturday evening just before the Man burn, where this dynamic essentially worked in reverse.

As I mentioned earlier there was a severe dust storm with high winds, so visibility was poor. I noticed that many people seemed to be sitting in a rough circle around the Man, but there were also plenty of people inside that circle as well as wandering back and forth between the two areas, so I figured the outer circle people were sitting where the public boundary would eventually be. Anyway, after staring at the Man for a while well inside the inner circle, the first person to strike up a conversation with me was one of the Man's designers and crew leaders: even as a first-year attendee, I recognized his name from the history exhibit on the Man's construction. We talked about the nature of the Burning Man event as a whole, its significance, the significance of the various design choices made for this year's Man in reference to this year's "Evolution" theme, and why we have reason to be hopeful for humanity's future. It seems I made a bit of an impression on this veteran, to the point where he at first couldn't believe this was my first time here, that I'd come here on my own, and that I'd come to these conclusions on my own. In fact, when one of the other designers pointed out that I didn't have a pass and wasn't supposed to be in the inner circle at all, this gentlemen vouched for me at length, even though he didn't know me from Adam, just so we could continue the conversation exactly where we were.

Later on in the evening, while watching the fireworks which precede the Man's ignition, I started thinking that some kind of resolution might be in order given that what I was about to witness would be a far greater spectacle, which I'd gone much farther out of my way to experience, than any New Year's countdown I'd ever experienced. What immediately came to mind was that I wanted to believe, in this second phase of my life (i.e. having left behind all previous careers in exchange for law school), that I will still have something to contribute. In other words, I wanted to believe that even dropped into an entirely new environment I could still see deeply enough to where people would find me interesting to talk to.

And, then I remembered what just happened in the inner circle with the designer.

It was kind of a magical moment :)
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