I Burned The Man to Unlock My Freedom
“Damn, my bike lock is broken!” Newly single and well into the second half of my 30s, coated in a half inch of dust, I fumbled with the chain on my furry, LED-lit bicycle. I had arrived at the promised land, Black Rock City, after 14 years of unsuccessful attempts, and just two days in, I was already faced with the death sentence to my experience, a bike with no lock.
A few weeks after college graduation, in the Spring of 2000, over grilled cheese at a Long Island diner, my high school classmates first
acquainted me with Burning Man, the annual festival that occurs in the Nevada desert every year.
In late August, over 70,000 people descend upon a temporary city that is known to participants as Black Rock. Built and burnt down within a
month, this week-long ‘festival’ serves as a pilgrimage for people around the world to convene in a commerce-free community centered
around art, music, and radical self-expression. It planted a seed that this was where I would find my “people”. And more specifically, my
Just a week after first hearing about Burning Man, the name appeared once more. In the midst of reading Daniel Pinchbeck’s “Breaking Open the Head”, a book about contemporary shamanism, this psychedelic utopia reared its head yet again. The gears shifted in my brain. I
needed to find a way to get there. Eventually.
Nonetheless, my life had other plans. Instead, I had opted for the safe, traditional path. I had a successful career at Google, a
‘perfect’ boyfriend, and a sprawling apartment in Chelsea with a walk-in closet that induced the envy of my friends. And none of it had
ever made me truly happy.
The morning I decided to leave my job at the ‘Big G’, I vividly remember a friend’s eyebrows narrowing as she whispered, “Are you
nuts? Where else would you work?” I strutted into my manager’s office and, eager to launch into my diatribe of my life’s mission, he
interrupted me mid-sentence. “You’re quitting, aren’t you?” My resignation was written all over my face. And it spelled L-I-B-E-R-T-Y.
Just a few months later, under the stark glow of a fluorescent street lamp on a bench in Norwalk, Connecticut, I broke up with the man whom
I had shared an apartment and six years of breakfasts and bedtimes. No longer in love, but lives too entwined to face the devastating breakup
that would ensue, I held on for five years too long. His best friend’s wedding became the moment that broke me down. “I am never going to
marry you,” I gurgled in between sobs as he patted my back, holding back his own tears.
For the first time in my adult life, I was completely untethered. A ‘slightly-above-average’ woman on the beauty meter, I felt constricted
by my vanity so I shaved off my long, dark curls on the way to the airport for my one-way flight to India. I had surpassed my breaking
point, and I chased my independence more passionately than I had done anything in my life.
So now, nearly 14 years after that post-Graduation grilled cheese dinner, I was finally in the desert. Just me and my bike. Popping frozen blueberries into party-weary mouths and gifting customized necklaces to complete strangers, I found bliss in this community. One
particularly hot morning, as the sun climbed high into the aquamarine sky, I headed back to camp to find respite in the shade, but I was
sidetracked by the nearby thump of high energy music. The gravitational pull from the camp known for its champagne sunrise
parties was too great for me to ignore. My trusty bike by my side, I locked it up beside another dusty two-wheeler and made my way through
the crowd of fellow free spirits.
It was here that I encountered a new acquaintance. We had met a few weeks prior, to not much effect. But at this very moment, I wondered
how it was possible to miss such a disarming grin the first time around. I was equally comforted and unnerved by him. “Hey, I remember you!” I blurted out, and he beamed such an ultraviolet smile in return that I was convinced the cloud of sand swirling around me was no
longer from the desert floor, but rather the dust being shaken off my barely beating heart, resuscitated back to life.
That morning, amidst the joy in my solo journey, I suddenly felt a surge of animal magnetism that I never imagined I’d feel for another
human. Fiercely protective of my independence, I had relegated myself to a life of flings and freedom until the last of my days. But as I
leaned in to get a better glimpse of this man’s smile, corners of his mouth upturned to reveal the delicious contrast between his white
teeth and caramel skin, everything changed.
He had big, brown eyes that were gentle, soft and slightly sad, and I wanted to make them smile too. Music pulsed through his veins, and our
light banter quickly turned in that direction. We discussed the best music to be heard in Black Rock City and I desired the map to his
treasure trove of auditory musical bliss. “Come to my camp. I’ll give you one of the schedules I made.”
Together, we walked to his RV, despite already running late to meet with another friend for a desert rendezvous. “Whatever you do, NEVER
make plans,” a veteran Burner had warned me before I arrived and now I understood why.
His eyes smiled once again as he handed me the schedule, and sent me off with a quick kiss on the lips. Wait, should I stay? Oh never mind,
I was off to have my freedom. Shielding his eyes from the sun’s rays, he bid me adieu as I pedaled off into the dust. “See you later. Enjoy
A series of adventures followed, replete with dancing fires and climbing Dali-like sculptures with my other friend. As sunrise teased us with its impending beauty, we made a mad dash towards a dot on the horizon. As we peddled, the dot morphed into thousands of dancing revelers.
Anxious to return to my independent solo journey, I was ready to go our separate ways, so when he suggested we lock our bikes together, a
tiny shudder reverberated through me. I hesitantly obliged. We had had our fun, and I was ready to move on. We locked our bikes together
As soon as we arrived, we lost one another in the throng. Unencumbered by another, I danced alone blissfully, weaving myself in and out of
the crowd, floating into the desert. Alone, I felt free and limitless, yet I couldn’t stop thinking about the new music man and his beguiling
smile. I thanked the universe for this moment of restored freedom but secretly longed I’d bump into him again. I was enchanted and
simultaneously perturbed by the tugging at my padlocked heart.
As I had suspected, letting my friend lock his bike to mine had less-than-ideal consequences. Hours later, I discovered that he had inadvertently changed the lock combination in his attempt to free his bicycle from mine. My bike was now anchored to itself by a jammed lock that would no longer open.
At Burning Man, bicycles are the symbol of one’s freedom and self-sufficiency is the key. Not having a functional bike or lock is akin to a jail sentence. Summoning assistance from some fellow Burners, I broke my bike free. But now I didn’t have the security that a lock provided. (Bikes without locks are often viewed as ‘gifts’ and disappear in the blink of an eye.) Oh, the irony.
Midweek, I discovered that my new crush would be DJing atop an art car for a tour around the dried lakebed known as ‘the playa’. With no
means of securing my bike as we drove around the desert in the modified glowing school bus, he offered to link my bike to his. Grateful for the offer, I shivered with the reminder that I was not completely self-reliant.
Quick escape mechanisms were my preference, and I disliked depending on others for assistance. I smiled, thanked him and hopped on board for the mobile dance party, temporarily surrendering my freedom, once again. At least for this fleeting moment, he was my rock. More
concerning to me was the fact that I was OK with it.
Back on land, we discussed our plans for the rest of the night. Blackness twinkled with diamond lights, the sky was richer than a Middle Eastern sheik bedecked in silks and jewels. Musical beats pulsed through the air and bounced off particles of powdery dust.
I was drawn to the technicolor brightness of the colorful creature ars — an octopus shooting flames from each tentacle, a chain of larger-than-life tea kettles on wheels, ships sailing on seas of sand — each hosting it’s own choose your own adventure experience. An internal battle ensued. I inched towards the play, yet I wanted to stay, with him. My stubborn compulsion towards freedom continued to gnaw within.
My eyes ricocheted between him and the land of surreal adventures. I struggled with the choice. My thawing heart pulled me towards him, where I kept locking eyes with his luminous smile. But once I surrendered to the colors that had grasped my attention, there was no turning back.
Distraught, I placed my hands on my heart, apologized and gave him a peck on the cheek. “I have to go out there. The desert is calling me.”
His plush lips mirrored the frown on my face as I disappeared into the darkness on my bike. Again. It’s what I do. Unchained freedom. Locked heart.
But this time, I felt an internal heaviness. I pedaled, faster and faster as the colors became more vivid, and the explosive sounds tasted brighter in my ears. Suddenly, the heaviness lifted as something around me shifted. I wasn’t alone anymore. And there he was, breathless, panting, speeding behind me on his bike. His glowing grin sent rockets of glee into my heart. “Can I join you?”
I wasn’t sure what surprised me more. That he had followed me or that I was pleasantly delighted that he had done so. And for the first time
in my life, I was OK with losing a bit of my freedom. As my heart had known all along, my man was awaiting me in the desert. And what
brought him to me was my freedom.
Dionisia attended Colgate University in Hamilton, NY, earning a BA in
English Literature. An Ex-Googler and world traveler, she loves the
power of words in the written form. When she’s not writing, you can
find her at the yoga studio, dancing up a storm or trekking Brooklyn
on a mission to find the next best coffee shop.