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March 2010 Cover
March 2010 Cover

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A naked friend at Burning Man

By Matthew Link

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A completely naked man stood at a small booth and instructed me to stop my car. I rolled down the window. A gust of white dust filled my lungs, and the setting sun glittered off his body. The wide desert sky pressed down from above, and he grinned and said, "Welcome to Burning Man."
I entered a circular makeshift city, a sprawling campus of 50,000 people who every August build a temporary Mad Max-like metropolis of tents, domes, roads, structures and non-stop parties in a flat mountain-ringed basin in northern Nevada, about two hours northeast of Reno.
Elderly topless women, drag queens in green spandex and heterosexual men in grandma-style muumuus waltzed past encampments with names like Baby Seal Club, Cirque Berzerk, Emotional Baggage, Barbie Death Camp and one of my favorites for some reason, TBD.
Somehow I found Comfort & Joy, one of the main gay camps at Burning Man. Two circus tents and a field of fuchsia inflatable palm trees greeted me. After searching out Kitten, the camp director, I pitched my tent -- in a pair of black Speedos and a cowboy hat -- and was ready to hit the nightly outdoor raves and tented lounges.
The next morning, all I had were vague tequila-fueled memories of the night before, strange visions of costumes and sets that appeared like a foreign movie without subtitles: a flamethrower target range, an Old West town filled with flashing lights, a metal hand three stories tall and a lady who'd had a long conversation with me at a "Psychiatric Help 5 Cents" booth.
I decided to go out exploring once again, this time in the daylight, and tied a bandanna across my face. I approached one of the guys at my camp and asked him if he knew where to get coffee. "Sure, it's at center camp. I'll take you there."
The fine white alkaline dust of the desert floor was beginning to stir up in the air, and he told me, "I'm just going to go naked. There's probably a dust storm coming. You'll need these." He handed me a pair of ski goggles. I took the goggles and, following his example, shed all my clothes,so they wouldn't end up with fine dust in every nook and cranny.
We hiked nude like this, with goggles and water bottles and tennis shoes, down the shifting streets of the momentary city. Strange figures came out of the thick white walls of the dust storm -- people on fluorescent-colored bicycles, men carrying lanterns and the fuzzy headlights of vehicles. We could barely see five feet in front of us.
I made out a building with a sign that read Flying Monkey Circus. "Let's go in there," I yelled to my new naked friend.
We ducked into a bar with two stories of walls and scaffolding swaying in the wind. Various Star Wars-like figures were gyrating to 1920s music, while someone on a trapeze flew about overhead. We helped ourselves to bottles of liquor on the counter, and I was quickly drunk once again. Before I knew it, my friend and I were taking tur ns flying nude on the trapeze, dust swirling around our heads while the song "Yes, We Have No Bananas" blared around us.
My new friend was Troy, a "Burner" in his late 40s. He took me under his wing for the next few days, and we would fuck in his tent when the wind died down, then go and discover strange corners of the city at night, chatting with various characters along the way. We became brothers in arms, looking after each other as desert companions.
"Thanks for spending so much time with Troy," Kitten later said. "He's a good friend of mine and he told me he was having a hard time connecting with anyone this Burning Man. He really enjoys hanging out with you."
A whole year later, I found myself at Comfort & Joy once again: the same circus tents, the same fuchsia palm trees. But the rest of the city looked completely different. I quickly found Troy again, complete with goggles and a birthday suit. "Hey, how are you?" I said.
He looked at me blankly.
"You don't remember me, do you?"
He smiled and said no. I smiled back and then just walked away.
I guess some experiences are temporary by their very nature, meant to be deconstructed and thrown into the swirling desert wind.

Author Profile:  Matthew Link

Matthew Link has written for numerous magazines and has appeared on many television and radio shows. His documentaries have aired on PBS stations and in international film festivals.


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