“You’ve never been to Burning Man? Darlin’, you belong there. I wasn’t sure if I was going this year, wasn’t even planning on it – but now, I guess I am. I’ll give you a ride.”
New Orleans, 2006. I had recently moved there about five months before, the first time I had ever stepped foot in the city. Though I had seen it on the news a lot recently, nothing prepared me for what I was in person, stepping on the ground, smelling the decay and rot – but still, underneath that, there was something else it took me a while to put my finger on, a feeling… and then I realized what it was. There was a strength to the city, a spirit that even The Storm couldn’t take away. I fell in love with it instantly.
It was a strange path that led me there. My work with The Dresden Dolls had ended in Colorado, and with it the move to Boston. In thinking back all of these years later, I think it may have been a combination of a couple of things that prompted the email from Amanda. The first two were that The DD were going a slightly different direction, and also – I think The Brigade – what we called, and still call ourselves, were perhaps getting too big, too strong, especially the Boston chapter. Hell, we were even working on making it into its own entity, looking into becoming a 501(c)(3) performance group, renting a building where we could inspire & teach others.
And without question, one was my drinking. Though my work with them had never faltered for it, I was again trying to escape something dark & wrong inside of me by numbing it however I could. Still, I helped inspire hundreds of young people across the world to reach beyond themselves, to walk through their fears, to realize how beautiful they are. It was the first time I had ever, in my life, actually felt needed, felt appreciated. The first time I had ever felt loved.
Then everything I loved was ripped away from me.
Such is life. The Universe had other plans. I needed to pick myself up, to try to find the strength to keep moving forward.
In Colorado I found a good place to busk, saving up money I would need for gas. I would listen to the radio in my van at night, stretching out as much as I could in the back seat with Bean, my beautiful dog, caressing her as she rested her head on my chest and hoping sleep would come soon. It was then that I heard about Katrina and the devastation it left in its wake. It was September 5th, my birthday. I was alone with Bean, in our van, crying.
The next morning I started emailing people, and I connected with an old lover who was now living in New Orleans with her family, asking if there was anything I could do to help them. They were fine; she was safe with her family and out of the city. I asked if there was anywhere or anyone she knew of that needed help, and she gave me the contact information to a place in Austin.
“We need people. Show up anytime.”
I smiled for the first time in a week. Within the hour Bean and I were back on The Road.
Going through Kansas & Oklahoma, driving hard, Bean asleep on the throne I had built for her in the back seat. In the black of night there was nothing but the hypnotizing dashed lines on the highway, as if nothing else existed after the reach of my headlights. No signs, no horizon, no hills or turns. Only every few hours would another vehicle pass going the opposite way. 80mph and I would close my eyes, seeing how long I could keep them shut before opening them again in sheer panic. The rapid pumping of my heart helped keep me awake. I knew how stupid I was being, but only when I thought of Bean did I decide to pull over to the side of the road and rest for a bit. The morning brought sunshine and a beautiful view that stretched for an eternity.
19 hours later I was finally in Austin.
It was an amazing place. The “Austin Enchanted Forest”, a private 3 acre wild forest in the middle of Austin, art everywhere. They had set it up with donated tents, blankets, and everything else people who had to leave their home with next to nothing might need. I was “in charge” of welcoming people, showing them around, making sure they had everything they needed.
Bean was in absolute heaven. She had an entire forest to run around in and sniff, other dogs to play with, and every night she would sleep just outside of my tent. In the morning she would poke her head inside the flap if she thought I was sleeping too late and do this kind of “rrrroooowwrr?” thing, a cross between a growl, bark, and asking me to get the hell out of bed because it was time to play, to go on our morning walk in The Forest.
I lived there for four months in a 10’x10’ tent, going from volunteering for a couple months to helping set up and performing for their yearly “Austin Haunted Forest” through the month of October. The time I spent in Austin is another story, though.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“I’ll give you a ride.”
Burning Man was coming up fast. Raven, the kickass woman I had promised a ride to and I started preparing. We bought our tickets, figured out the route – there was just one thing we needed.
The van I drove there in had only made it that far because I needed it to, and it had done its job. Shortly after I got to NOLA when I needed to move it for parking and found that it had a flat tire and no spare, I decided it was time to let it go to the city. Considering that it was breathing its dying breaths, I wouldn’t have felt right selling her to someone who might depend on it. The next day it was gone.
My work was busking, doing street performance as a Living Statue. I was making good money, saving every penny I could for a van to get Raven & I the 2,200 miles to the Black Rock Desert. Once I had saved $800, I started looking…
Coming from the West Coast where vans & large vehicles are plentiful and cheap, I was surprised at how few there were for sale here, and how expensive even the crappy ones were. I couldn’t figure it out – and then it hit me. I understood.
This is hurricane country. People here need to regularly throw everything they can grab into a car and bug-out, and the bigger the vehicle, the more space for family & things.
I hadn’t thought of that. Time was getting close to our planned departure.
I worked extra hours, every day forcing my body to the limits of what it could stand, standing perfectly still. I took the suggestion that a nurse whispered to me one day and started taking aspirin to hopefully prevent blood clots from forming. At night I would look on craigslist for a van, widening the search, increasing the amount I could pay by working the extra hours.
It was grueling, painful, exhausting, but I had given her my word. I wasn’t going to let her down. Far too many people are so full of empty fucking promises, and I won’t be one of them. Hell, if I couldn’t find a van I was ready to buy her a flight to Reno – but hopefully it wouldn’t come to that.
Every night as I laid in bed and every morning, I would do a manifestation meditation. I would picture Raven & I driving up the road to the front gate of Burning Man, blasting music and singing along in a plain white van. In the visualization my window would be down all the way, arm resting on the door as we laughed triumphantly.
The days continued. Still no van. I refused to worry, and just *know* that it would work out.
Well, maybe I worried a little bit. I mean, c’mon, I’m at least *somewhat* human.
Then, finally. Less than a week before we were planning to leave, I found a van for sale in Baton Rouge, at just a tiny bit under what I had saved – and get this: It was the exact van I saw in my mind; white, plain, even a Ford. And it didn’t have a driver’s side window at all. I guess that when I saw it in my mind, every time with the window all the way down – maybe I should have visualized at least a little of the window there. Still, the Universe had given me *exactly* what I was asking for. It likes having fun with me, I’ve found over the years.
The van wouldn’t idle, the driver’s seat felt like it was one of those things in kids’ playgrounds – the animals with the big springs under then that you sat on and leaned every which way, then sprung back up headed in the opposite direction. It felt like the seat was trying to throw me out the window with every right turn I took.
I managed, with the help of a friend following me, to limp the thing home, then spent the next three days making it not only stay running, but idle smooth and strong. I ripped out the driver’s seat and fixed the base of it, checked lights, brakes, tires, fluids, everything. It would get us there. We had a van. It didn’t have a license plate, so I made one out of cardboard that looked almost real, if you didn’t look *too* close.
Then, something unexpected. An email from the seller, a nice lady when I met her. She told me of her uncle – Conrad, or “Uncle Connie”. He had lived as a homeless drunk in New Orleans, and after most of his life spent that way had finally gotten sober. He had bought the van to fulfill a dream he had – of driving West to see the ocean for the first time. Unfortunately, he had died before he could make the trip. Before he could make this dream of his – his only dream – come true.
In her email, she said that when we were talking and I was telling her my plans with the van, she felt something in me that reminded her of her Uncle Connie. She said he had a wonderful heart, a warmth and kindness to him – and she told me how much she had adored him, feeling so fortunate that they at least had a little time to spend together after he got sober. He would have loved something like Burning Man, she said, after I explained it as best as I could to her.
“This is going to sound really strange, but… would you mind helping him realize his dream? Would you take his ashes with you? Take him to the Ocean?”
As Raven & I made our way across the country, we took the time to enjoy it, pulling off to sit in silence and look out over beautiful, expansive views – and I would leave some of Connie there. In kitschy tourist spots, I would leave Connie. Native American craft shops, roadside diners, places that felt, in their way, sacred. Connie was on the road with us, living his dream.
Well, not really “living” it, being as dehydrated as he was – but at least doing it.
That year at the Temple of Hope, I left two silk bags of ashes – and then finally, on a cold overcast afternoon in San Francisco, I again poured two different piles of ashes on the sand, just a little bit below the tide line.
One, of course, was Uncle Connie’s. The other ashes were of the best friend I have ever had.
I stood there for a while, alone and holding my coat tight around me and silently crying, as I watched Bean’s ashes being taken out into the heart of the Sea.
She had always loved running in the ocean.