fata morgana

This is no optical illusion, but it's kinda weird, right?

This is no optical illusion, but it’s kinda weird, right?

“The scenery on the larger playas is peculiar, and usually desolate in the extreme, but yet is not without its charms…[O]ptical illusions give strange, fanciful forms to the mountains, and sometimes transfigure them beyond all recognition. At such times a pack train crossing the desert a few miles distant frequently appears like some strange caravan of grotesque beasts fording a shallow lake, the shores of which advance as one rides away. The monotony of midday on the desert is thus broken by delusive forms that are ever changing and suggest a thousand fancies which divert the attention…”

-Israel C. Russel, U.S. survey geologist, journal entry from 1881

Down comes Black Rock City, piece by piece, loaded on trucks to be hauled who knows where. Away, at any rate. In an almost inconceivable flurry of activity, a desert metropolis is raised and razed in the span of months. Ostensibly the playa surface will bear not a trace of what had transpired. No artifacts, no clues as to the scale of the endeavor, the vivacity and the profusion of its inhabitants. The desert is famous for its illusory phenomena—so much empty space is readily filled by the wandering mind—but this trick takes the cake.

Sitting in a bar that three weeks ago did not exist, situated in an emergent city that briefly would rank as Nevada’s ninth largest—population 70,000 or so at its peak—drinking a warmish beer that, like much else in said city, didn’t cost me a penny to obtain, I find myself chatting with an Australian woman who introduces herself as “Pash.” Short for “Passionate,” she tells me. She’s in her forties, decked out in costume jewelry and heavy makeup. Her bald husband, “Mr. Clean,” is seated beside her. “I can tell you have great genes,” she says to me, after maybe five minutes of amiable conversation. Laughing, I shake my head. “Oh come on. Your hair, your skin, your color. Let’s drink to those great genes of yours.” I want to make some droll observation on the expression she’s settled on—“great genes”—and point out that it’s my genes’ phenotypic expression she’s complimenting me on, not the genes themselves, but I sense the distinction would go largely unheeded. Plus, it would just be a dipshit thing to say after such unaffected flattery.

It’s altogether unlikely that I will ever see this woman again—our having met in a provisional bar within a provisional city, both of which would utterly vanish in the following weeks—but Pash feels convivial enough to give me one of the bracelets off her arm. Granted, there are more than a few of them, encircling both wrists in a sleeve of bangles, but she says a friend of hers made them from old Australian silver, smelted down and reformed. The words “Burning Man 2013” are etched across the slim, otherwise unadorned bands. I try to politely refuse but she insists, grabbing my arm and pressing the bracelet snugly around my wrist. “Make a wish,” she says. I smile and try to suppress my giggling. “Close your eyes and make a wish,” she repeats earnestly, and I find myself obeying. “Okay, have you got your wish? Good. Keep this on for nine months and it’ll come true.”

For the rest of the night I humor my new mate Pash, sporting the bracelet along with a few others I had acquired throughout the day. Their jangling on my wrist is an alien sensation, only slightly unpleasant. But by the next morning it’s off, stowed away somewhere, not wholly forgotten but mostly so. Of course I’d like to see my wish come true—and of course I’d like to respect Pash’s wishes as well—but one can only dwell in the realm of fantasy for so long. Sooner or later you wake up. You thirst for something substantive.

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