Have you challenged a trained killer to a fight only to end up crying in his arms? Did you go to Burning Man exclusively to fight this person? I did. Was it worth it? Burning Man is always worth it. So was the cry.
The graveled boatyard in Dillingham consisted of rusted cargo containers and fishing vessels up on wood blocks. I went to Alaska to find deckhand work in commercial fishing. Alaskan commercial fishing represented what joining the army might be to a boy from a red state. Rather than taking pride in notions of national service, you were catching dinner, for millions of people. The self-improvement vanities were similar too: become a man, pay for college, and learn discipline. I also wanted to stop feeling heartbroken for what seemed like an unfair amount of time.
My friend Kelly and I hitched to the boatyard from the small municipal airport and were dropped at the fishing vessel Shodan, a big-chested aluminum beast up on blocks next to a two story ramada and cargo container. Todd the skipper, Rubble the deckhand and their third member Mickey were very good to us, offering us chicken wraps and beer. Rubble had stubble and reminded me of a squat Sting. He was maybe in his late 30s, had intense blue eyes and a mohawk that was green. On his left arm was a fierce dragon tattoo that you could almost hear David Attenborough describing as “the creature’s way of signaling ‘beware!’.”
We had no jobs lined up, so we walked the yard daily, and dip in at night to get drunk with the fishermen. One night, we stopped by the Shodan to say hello. There was a small crew of folk around a small LP stove in the cargo container. At a lull in the conversation, I looked at Rubble and slurred, “You know, if you guys hadn’t shown up we’d have taken your jobs.” I was sure this was hilarious, and therefore lovable.
Todd looked to Rubble and drunkenly asked, “What’d you do to earn his disrespect?”
Rubble smiled at me.
In my nervousness, I leapt over the line, “Well, I guess we’ll have to take this to the Thunderdome.”
Without skipping a beat, “Sure thing – I’ll be camped at 8:00 and C – you come and find me.”
A few days went by and things got kind of cool between us. I went to a friend named Sean for his advice. After I told him what had happened, he laughed and asked,
“Ari, do you know who Rubble is?”
“Well, he currently works with disadvantaged youth in the South. Do you know what he did before that?”
“He was a cage fighter – just retired. And do you know what he did before that?”
“He was in the Marines.”
Just then, Rubble was walking down the thoroughfare towards a group of folk around a burn barrel. He wore surfer shorts and flip flops, brandishing a Corona that he was trained to use as a deadly weapon.
I ran over to him, “Rubble! You got a minute?”
“Sure man, what’s up?”
I matched his pace, “I hear you work with troubled youth.”
“Well, I know a young guy in a bit of trouble.”
“Uh huh… What’s the problem?”
“Well, he carelessly challenged a former cage-fighting-marine to a battle at the Thunderdome and he didn’t mean any disrespect by it and he doesn’t want to be a bitch by backing out, but he also doesn’t want to die…”
I thought he looked down and smiled.
“What would you advise this young fool do?” I added.
“Oh, he should totally do it.”
“So, you’re saying he’ll live?”
“Oh, he’ll live… And who knows?” he said swirling his beer at me. “Maybe we’ll just get out and count the stars. Take care, bud.”
I walked back to Sean.
“What’d he say??”
“Well, I’ll live.”
We continued the job hunt until Kelly and I found work with different skippers. During that time, many folk gave us free food, shelter, and advice. There was the odd couple who picked us up at the airport while hitchhiking into Dillingham. One of them housed us in a construction site where we slept in the sawdust. In that house lived Gusty, a Yupik man who taught us how to work with fishing nets while listening to his favorite 80s rock music. Or Mowgli, the part-time high tower climber, who shared his cargo container with us after we vacated the construction site. For this story, one man stands out. He was an outlying character in my Alaska story.
I remember him taking me to town one day so I could land a free meal. Behind the wheel of his old rusted pickup, he had a very peaceful presence about him. I’m going to call him Thomas, but that wasn’t his name. Thomas was building an adventure bus for his wife. He told me how she’d fallen a few years ago at a music festival, breaking her spinal cord, and leaving her quadriplegic. I was tainted with my own memories of lost love. Love that, in part, spurred me to Alaska, and I couldn’t help but think of it then. When I praised his perseverance, he shrugged. “I love her,” was his explanation for everything. That’s how I’d felt about my someone, wherever she was.
After the season closed, I drove home to Northern California and found work in construction. I’d had the romance of hard labor beaten out of me in Alaska, but I still liked working with my hands. Again, I found myself in a job that I knew little about. My boss reminded me of Proximo from The Gladiator. His old eyes twinkled an intense blue. He was a hard ass and a good teacher who judged my work within an 1/8 of an inch. Before long the construction site became my world and I left Alaska in my journals.
Burning Man approached and I thought of Rubble. I’d been to Burning Man seven times prior. The festival itself didn’t interest me now. And yet the Thunderdome had been built, like a theater awaiting actors. I tried to forget it in lieu of being a better worker. But, as a writer, the battle with Rubble was the end of the Alaskan story arc, and I had to see it.
I also deserved a good beating, perhaps.
The week of the Burn, my boss and I stood outside the partially built home and talked. It was Wednesday. The amber pine framing caught the afternoon sunlight between the redwood trees. In the conversation, he imparted some of his life philosophy to me.
To the best of my recollection, he said,
“I know what the key is – and I know how to find the door.”
A long silence passed.
“…You’re supposed to ask me what the key is,” he prompted.
“Oh, I thought it was the kind of truth that didn’t have an answer.”
“No, there’s an answer.”
“Oh. What is it?”
“To wake up – every day – and learn something new with the enthusiasm of a child.”
I re-crossed my arms and took it in. I could feel my body language saying, ‘I knew that,’ and yet I saw how he was on the job – his mind one with the music of the build – I understood that I didn’t know how to live that way. All I could think about was Rubble.
“You have to live it, every day,” he clarified, “to experience the world anew.”
I told him I was conflicted about going.
He told me to be safe and have fun.
I left Thursday morning by motorcycle and headed east into the desert to go and find Rubble.
My grandfather fought General Rommel and the Nazi’s in North Africa during World War II. From the cold desert night, traveling by use of a sexton, they would cross enemy lines to sabotage equipment or set up wires to catch motorcycle messengers, in order to win the war; the failure of which would have meant the extermination of our entire family on my father’s side. I left Thursday morning on my motorcycle without a tent or sleeping bag, packing only power bars and jerky, and drove over the Sierras into the cauldron of Nevada. I planned to hide in the desert to emerge and fight a man I hardly knew, because I didn’t know what else to do.
I parked in the shade of a box van, between a large camp of lesbians and a crew of tech entrepreneurs from San Francisco. My motorcycle suit would be enough to keep me warm, I hoped. Without a camp, everywhere became home in the salt flats of the Nevada Basin. I had no interest in the celebratory aspects of the event (which is integral to the event). This was an assault.
I searched for him that evening and all the next day. He was not in the database at Center Camp, nor was he at 8:00 and C. Without any leads, I simply wandered, letting the playa magic move me about. It swung me into the path of an investment banker from Canada who never stopped smiling, and seemed to cling the more we perused the ongoing madness of the event. We talked about our woes, which were similarly women-related.
Late in the evening, we sat in an empty geodesic dome playing ambient music behind the glow of a single blue LED. He told me his sister thought he might be suicidal. I asked if she was right.
“I don’t know…” His smile barely weakened but his eyes glistened far away.
I thought about it and gave him my best guess. I told him I thought his demeanor was a spiritually bypass. A way to keep him professional at his job, and like coal dust, it just never washed off. It was paramount to self-murder. He lit up, declared me a gift of the playa, hugged me and left to go write in his journal. I sat alone. Talking with him felt like looking into a mirror for hours. It was a relief to not feel responsible for his happiness anymore.
The night air was all dust and generator smog. Streets swelled with ghosting mobs of burners, seeping between the surge of sound and lifting of light into the night. To the east, the moon piqued over the horizon. I wondered why I’d come again, this time, without a single friend.
On Friday afternoon, a heavy dust storm had kicked up. I was at the corner of 8:30 and B. The interlocking streets went from nowhere to nowhere. I was lost. The dust was unbearable, whirling around my body, erasing the world and me from it. I gave up and decided to get drunk. On the left was a large open dance floor blasting terrible dubstep (a word my spell-checker doesn’t recognize), and to my right was the Vomiting Sparrow. I lumbered wearily past the bicycle racks to the Vomiting Sparrow toward the bar.
And in a city of 70,000 people, I found Rubble pouring drinks.
He slowly removed his dark goggles and rested them on his mohawk.
“I know you,” he said, squinting at me and into memory, “Ari. From Alaska. I’m supposed to fight you. Oh man. Ari, how are you?!”
The astonishment faded into an inebriated warmth. Again, he acted as a generous host, handing me a ghost pepper Bloody Mary. We sat down on a couch and caught up. He told me more about his life, how he’d always chosen the more dangerous path, as if tempting death, and never died. I was in awe of him. He told me more than I remember. Of the two of us, Death would surely wince before lifting Rubble from the earth, whereas I would be carried off daintily.
“I like you, man,” he said, “I don’t know if I trust you, but I like you.”
This trip had cost me over $700 in expenses and time off. I had no reasonable excuse for coming. He wasn’t Rommel. I could not conquer him. But winning was not why I’d come. I’d crossed a line with Rubble. I’d mistaken him for a hurdle to leap over instead of a friend. I needed to earn his respect again. And something else…
The dust gradually cleared and blue skies prevailed. His girlfriend arrived and they got ready to leave. The window of opportunity was closing. It was now or never.
As he mounted his bike in the thoroughfare, I asked, “Rubble, listen. I’d like to fight you, if you’re down for it.”
He shook his head, “I can’t tonight, man. I’ve got to cry and I’m gonna be all messed up after.”
“I’m sorry… What’s happened?”
“You remember Thomas? Well, his wife died four days ago… It looks like suicide.”
The floor dropped out. Unlike Rubble, I couldn’t wait to cry later. I began to weep into my hands as the whole journey and obsession shuddered to a halt there in the dust. Thomas’ tragedy was not my own. But my limited understanding of his motives reminded me of my own losses, except his loss was far beyond anything I had ever known. He did everything possible but it was not enough.
My heart was alive and very broken. I cried harder than I had since the breakup. Rubble gently hugged me, kissed my head and told me it would be ok. I said goodbye, and walked away in a blubbering cloud of alcohol-infused tears.
I was wrong to pursue this battle. Rubble had stung me beyond bone and ashes. Up until that moment, it had been about my pain, my pride, my catharsis, and my broken heart. I’d been wrong to waste my time pursuing the past where sadness never stopped howling. I was wrong to make it Rubble’s dilemma. The important fights were smaller; like being depressed every day. Somehow, I imaged he was every small fight rolled into one great battle. Like love we yearn for one big showdown. I couldn’t beat Rubble no more than yarn can beat a cat. Likewise, I couldn’t make her love me.
The next day came and went. Black Rock City glimmered like a pile of precious jewels in the desert night. I went to see the man burn with the rest of the pilgrims. Dark smoke billowed into the night air, casting embers between the swirling starlight. The plume of smoke was many times higher than the man, who shrank in size like a wasting patient, until his frame gave out, and was pushed over by a Kevorkian-member of the Department of Public Works. That annual symbol of man’s return to the dust by way of ashes was complete. Alas, poor Man! I knew him well.
It was time to go home.
I walked to the Thunderdome to watch other people battle. The crowd crawled up the geodesic dome like the apes they were. Death Guild entered and rigged the chamber for dueling. Shouts of bloody enthusiasm shook the arena as the greater playa sparkled as precious stones on black satin. Friends fought friends. Husbands fought wives. Fathers fought sons. Some took it seriously, others grinned the whole while through. People fought people who mattered, and the important battles to win – or to politely lose – were with those who mattered to us most.
The dust from the fights choked the arena. Next to me was a young man bellowing at the fighters. We talked about how fun it would be to fight. I asked him if he wanted to have a round. He would, he said, if it weren’t for the fact that he was a paraplegic… I’d failed to notice the wheelchair behind him. In 24 hours, I’d challenged a former marine and a man in a wheelchair to battles. Clearly, I was picking the wrong battles. With respect to their memories, I wonder if the same could be said of the women I’d loved.