Desert research


This week it’s almost exactly one year since I returned from my first ever burn – way earlier than I’d initially planned. As I was prepping for the trip – packing things like carabin hooks, body paint, a headlamp, an anti bug spray that was so poisonous it was inadvisable to use it for more than one week at a time, a tool belt, a wide brim hat, electrolyte powder, a see-through caftan, goggles, a Camelbak hydration pack – I envisioned 10 days in the desert. I ended up staying for only 4 days. 

Nowhere is one of the European sister festivals of Burning Man in Nevada. Well – it’s not really a festival. Whenever I used the word festival, I was corrected by more experienced burners than myself. One of the key things that separate Nowhere from traditional festivals, is that it’s a completely commerce-free event. It’s also not an event where you go to be passively entertained – instead everyone participates. Participation is one of the 10 core principles of Nowhere

I’m afraid I didn’t do much in the way of participating. I’d been planning to – I’d prepared a yoga workshop, and I was signed up as a member of the kitchen team. I did wash some dishes and help clean up after meals, but I spent most of my time at Nowhere lying down, spray bottle in hand.  Occasionally I would get up to soak a scarf in cold water and drape it across my body for as long as it took for the moisture to evaporate (not long!).  Then I would soak it again, and lie back down. The mornings were mostly fine, and the nights too, but the days were so hot that I was completely incapacitated – nauseous, dizzy and lethargic. The Monegros desert was clearly not the best place for a pale Scandinavian like me, and it began to dawn on me that I probably needed to get out of there. 

But leaving felt like quitting. I tried to remind myself what I was doing at Nowhere in the first place. I was there to do research for my fourth novel, Fault Lines. If I left before the party was over, would I have enough material for the Nowhere scenes in the book? On the other hand, I wasn’t exactly participating in the party as it was. I had no energy for dancing, getting high, dressing up, going to workshops or making friends in other barrios. I was mostly lying on the ground with heat chills! So I started looking for a way to leave. This involved a lot of trekking around the playa (and several lie-downs in the Red Cross tent), but I managed to get the word out that I was looking  for a lift, and it payed off. 

Two Californians gave me a lift to Zaragoza in the middle of the night (a storm was brewing, and we had to leave before the roads turned liquid), and we slept on the ground all huddled up together outside the train station, until we could get on the train to Barcelona. They shared their food with me, I shared my blankets and my portable charger with them. I can’t remember their names – I only remember that he was a weed grower and she an acrobat. I also remember how kind and caring they were. They could clearly tell that I was a little anxious, and when I had to use the restroom at a petrol station, they assured me that they would still be there when I came back out. The guy got out of the car and waited right outside the restroom just to make it clear that they weren’t going to drive off without me (which I did worry about!). They also gave me their phone numbers when we parted ways in Barcelona, in case I needed help with something. This spirit of kindness was what impressed me the most about Nowhere. Burner friends of mine had told me about this in advance – that people tended to be genuinely helpful at Nowhere – but I was still surprised. 

It was an act of kindness that led to me getting a lift with the Californians. An Israeli girl that I had only briefly spoken to crossed the whole festival site just to let me know that someone down at the free-camp was going to drive out the next morning (or night, as it turned out to be). She didn’t even know them, but she had apparently gone out in search of people who were leaving early, just to help me out.

One early morning while I was there, someone spotted me walking around on the outskirts of the playa, and crossed a long stretch of sand to offer me food and drink. I remember being really confused – why was this stranger holding out a bowl of granola and a cup of coffee? He didn’t say much either – he had the dreamy, yet wide-awake look of someone who either hadn’t slept or was tripping on something – so it took some time before I realised that he was trying to give me the breakfast that he had just made for himself. I ended up accepting the coffee, and he gave me a strange bow and a smile, before he wandered back to the barrio. 

This scene made it into the book, along with a description of the stab of guilt that I also felt. I hadn’t given this person anything in return, and I didn’t get the chance either, because I left the same night. My only contribution to the Nowhere community was a sleeping pad – I gave mine away to someone who had a puncture in his. 

All in all – the burn scene is probably not my scene. In addition to being wiped out from the heat and red-eyed from the dust, I also felt overwhelmed with all the extroversion. I spent a lot of time dodging hugs from naked people – not everyone follows the strict consent rules of Nowhere when it comes to hugs! I did consider making myself a “No hugs” badge. At the same time, I was quite taken with it all, and I still wish I’d been able to fully take part. A part of me even wants to try it out again, now that I know what to expect. But whenever I feel the urge to give Nowhere another go, I remind myself that I’m not a desert animal and probably never will be.