I opened the stage at Burning Man 2016 with this story. The crowd there liked it, and I hope you do too.
It started off as a joke.
People used say that it was the best week to get brunch, to go to dinner, to try out any new spot that was typically too crowded to be worth it. The week everyone went to Burning Man, people joked that they should build a wall to keep the burners from returning to San Francisco.
But when it happened, it wasn’t a joke at all. It wasn’t a wall, either. San Francisco was just gone.
They piled up, an endless dusty caravan and people spilled out of cars and vans and RVs. Those who lived in Sacramento and Oakland found their way home, but everyone who tried to make the last bit of their journey to the west across the Bay Bridge and over to the peninsula found that no such place existed. The hills of Oakland sloped down and looked out over an untroubled Pacific. No Transamerica Pyramid poked the soft underbelly of the fog. No Golden Gate Bridge and no gap for it to span. It was as if the coast of California had been circumcised.
The Burners of San Francisco discovered in a ripple of shock that they had no ID, no house keys. Not one of them could produce proof of where they belonged. The few of them who trusted authority enough to ask for help from the cops found that they were treated as nomads. Refugees. The cops took one look at the dusty tent city on wheels and told the sunburned, unwashed masses to move along. Otherwise there might be trouble.
Those who did not trust the police tried their networks. Some of them found that they still had jobs in Palo Alto, parents in Sonoma, and friends all over the world. But when they asked those people, “Where do I live?” the answer was as unanimous as it was useless.
“You always say that your home is that crazy place in the desert.”
The Burners without a city called friends they had seen at the festival and asked them what they thought had happened, but none of them understood. “What do you mean you have no city? San Francisco? Sounds like some place in Mexico.”
Some had options. Some had money. Some shacked up with friends or family and tried to figure out what went wrong.
Most of them, thousands of them, camped beside I-80 and set a watchman for the cops. They talked about what they should do. There were several thousand of them; they couldn’t just give up.
In all the talk, one man arose. He was stumbling, mumbling drunk, but he was tall and white and everyone turned to hear. He suggested that they go down to Baker Beach, where it had all started. The answer would be there. He was quickly shouted down with an angry reminder that Baker Beach didn’t exist anymore.
But the drunk guy had planted a seed. If only they could go back to where it all began. If only they could undo whatever if was that had been done. A cautious optimism was born among them. There had to be away, right?
It wasn’t all of them, but the caravan was long, pulling back over the state line and gearing up in Reno. Gerlach residents watched headlights crawl over their ceilings in the night and wondered oh lord what now? Didn’t they just leave?
The playa was as white as scarred skin and drifts of it rose as the cars and vans drove out. They formed a circle against the wind, roughly where they thought the Man would be. In the first few nights, it was as if the Burn had not ended. They drank and danced. There was music beneath a canopy of hastily-strung lights. A few art cars drove people across the dark playa, gliding between the bugs and the stars.
But the speculation began almost at once. They mooped for penance, searching frantically for forgotten traces of man. They erased tire tracks and lines left in the dust by DPW laying cable. They sang their songs backwards and tried to unsay what they had said about their lives back in default. But nothing felt like it had changed.
A small group started rebuilding the lost city in miniature; first building the Golden Gate Bridge out of plywood and rope. They collected Hondas and Nissans and Toyotas and put together something like Chinatown, the tallest tents became FiDi. RVs lined up and became the Mission and handed out peanut butter and jelly burritos, one lone trumpet player blasting out Des Colores in the heat. Even the standoffish types arranged themselves into Sausalito and Marin, raising their wine cups to the weirdos across the bridge.
The dusty rainbow inhabitants of the Castro organized a mini-Pride and it made even the hardest former San Franciscans cry. They had lost the fair fogginess of their city by the sea, and this desert would eventually kill them.
The idea was natural in its coming; there was no other way for this to end. They built the platform and chose fire safety captains. They made plans for a night where there would be no moon. They thought they might have to pick somebody out of the crowd, but in the end he volunteered.
He was young for a CEO, a windsurfer in good shape. He had an easy smile and perfect skin; no tattoos, no scars. Blameless and unblemished. He told them quietly that if the city and his million-dollar house reappeared, that someone should tell his wife that he had died quickly in an accident, not suffered at all.
Standing with his arms raised, he let them tie him in place. He let them pour out their gasoline, their kerosene, their vodka and their butane at his feet. He heard their drumming as if from a great distance.
They lit him and he screamed, they all screamed, the dust lifted off the playa like a veil off a bride or a burn victim revealed at last, after all this time. The man’s arms fell and the coals burned through the night.
In the morning, they broke down the city. They packed it all in, pushing ashes and bone chips out, scattering the Man until he was everywhere and nowhere. Something had changed, they knew. Surely this was the sacrifice that would buy it all back.
That night they drove out on to I-80, over the state line and into the rolling fog.