This is my story for a contest the RGJ is running for a ticket to Burning Man. Enjoy.
How two sweethearts attended a hippie festival that celebrates life, love and whimsy, and nearly murdered each other right afterward.
“Seriously honey. If you don’t shut up right now I’m running the car into the ditch.”
That was four years ago on a dusty road, while two exhausted people, processing a week of insanity in the desert, were attempting to sort out how to grow together, how to accept change, how to negotiate the teeter-totter of gender balance -and also wondered if anything they owned would ever be clean again. How did we get there and why do we want to go back?
My wife and I just yesterday celebrated our ninth wedding anniversary. We met how most people do in college; I was training to become a minister in a cult, and was attempting to proselytize a fraternity across the street from her sorority. Our infatuation grew into friendship, and friendship into a deep, abiding love. In our traditional roles, my overgrown leader persona matched well with her sweet disposition and tendency towards submissiveness.
After college we were married and moved to Reno, where both of us, adopting the region’s fierce sense of individuality and practicality, questioned our religious calling and decided that a new path fit us better- we just didn’t know what it was so we moved to Guam. Island life was good, but a year later we moved back to Reno and almost immediately a friend of ours gave us a ticket to Burning Man so we could attend their wedding there.
Our time in Guam had changed us. Without the constraints of our past and without the influence of those who knew us we had developed a very strong desire to choose our own path regardless of convention or judgement of others. This seemed to make us a good fit for the counter-culture festival, so we spent the summer researching online, collecting gear and preparing for our foray into an environment we could only guess about.
We entered Black Rock City at night, car packed to the brim and barely able to even take in the spectacle around us. During that week we witnessed people driving around cupcakes and giant slippers. We rode a massive pirate ship of a party across the giant expanse of the esplanade. We experienced chaos and dust storms and lots of things I won’t include here, and we did it as a team. I learned I actually like to dance. Heidi became more comfortable in her own skin, as it’s OK to wear a little less out there. We strengthened our own bond by taking care of each other and formed new ones with our camp mates by taking care of them too. We can’t remember arguing even once, and we each wanted the other to get the most out of the festival.
Then it came time to leave.
During the festival, we barely had any down time. There was so much for us to see and do we had spent our week in Black Rock City just taking it all in and participating in the adventure there. Now that we were pulling out and heading home, all that excitement and adrenaline was giving way to contemplation, processing our experience and a slight sunburn. As we talked about what the festival meant to each of us, we soon focused our new outlook on the year ahead, and what other adventures we wanted to take together.
Very quickly I realized we weren’t going in the same direction.
“I want do be able to do my own thing.”
It sounded like my wife’s voice, and her lips seemed to have mouthed something along those lines, but it had to be a trick. I checked the radio and it was off. There weren’t any stow-away ventriloquists in the back seat, so I decided to ask her to clarify what I obviously must have mis-heard.
“Seriously, Ed. You’re not the only person with good ideas. Half the things you just said I don’t agree with.”
Immediately I told myself not to panic. Obviously I must have grabbed the wrong wife on the way out of the festival. It was getting dark, there were dust storms, anyone could make the same mistake. I just needed to convince this other look-alike to turn around so I could go get the one I came with. Before I could do that it was confirmed that she was indeed my wife, but there was something horribly wrong with her: she didn’t want me making all our decisions anymore.
None of what she was saying made sense to me. There was talk about how I had oppressed her. Stories about times I had shut her down or not let her express herself. She was getting louder and louder and none of what I had to say was helping. Somehow, while leaving to return to the “real world,” reality had given way to some alternate universe where I wasn’t in control and that was starting to freak me out, man. I always knew best. How could she possibly have forgotten that?
Somehow, during our week of experiencing an environment where judgement is tossed out the window and people are encouraged to be themselves, think for themselves and create their own reality, my wife had actually decided she should do it too. We spent two hours screaming at each other about who in our relationship should have the steering wheel. So much, in fact, that my cute, lovely quiet little wife finally threatened to jerk the wheel and send us careening into the sweet hereafter.
Even that didn’t end our conflict. We went back and forth, each of us stating our side. I was the patriarch, my station secure. I was best suited to make decisions because I was born with a natural ability to decide what’s best. It just made sense. If I was to keep our family together headed in the right course I needed to get her to see things clearly again. My shock from hearing such a change in my wife’s disposition led to confusion, and confusion to fear, and fear to screaming like a banshee. Yes, I am afraid I banshee-ed a bit. I’m not proud.
We were both red-faced, forehead veins pronounced, stating and restating our diametrically opposed arguments with vigor and some amount of spittle when something smacked me across the face. It wasn’t my wife.
We were both surprised. She didn’t know what to say. Luckily, I don’t have that problem very often so I continued.
“I want you. I love who you are. And as you change I want that new you too. I just need to learn how to let go of things staying the same.”
Seriously I still have no idea where the clarity came from but I’m really glad it did. In ten seconds we went from two people who felt they had no common ground to two people excited to reconnect and support each other. We didn’t realize it while we were out there but the whole time we were having fun we were also taking in all that freedom that comes when you’re allowed to figure out who you want to be. It’s what we loved about our time on an island, and it has allowed us to constantly grow and evolve as we’ve been together.
That ridiculous episode of screaming and near-death experience marked the beginning of a completely new couple we were learning how to be. We were becoming balanced. We were learning how to really support each other, and allow each other to become whatever each of us wanted. We’ve gone every year since. We’re grateful for the atmosphere and the adventure we encounter at Burning Man. Each year we’ve arrived much different than the couple that came before, but each time a stronger team than the year before, and we rarely try to kill each other on the way out.