When I met Steve, he was wearing a purple wizards’s cloak, sitting alone at a table in the middle of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Steve was not a wizard. As far as I know, he was just a regular human with no magic powers. But even so, he was a pretty incredible human, as I would come to figure out.
We met at Burning Man, hence the wizard’s cloak. That kind of thing falls into the category of Radical Self Expression in those parts, and it’s highly encouraged. I was wearing disturbingly short denim cutoffs and a long fur coat with an American Flag bandanna tied around my head.
It was the 3rd night of my first year and Burning Man, and a friend and I had been wandering around the desert looking for a party when we realized that we had made the rookie mistake of forgetting our IDs. Even at Burning Man, most bars actually do check ID to avoid being busted by undercover cops. It’s not quite as lawless as you might think out there. So we had to leave the bright lights and debauchery behind and make the long trek through the the streets of what Burners called Black Rock City.
Out in the suburbs, where we were camped, the streets were dusty, dark and quiet. You could hear the distant, ubiquitous thump thump thump of electronic music miles away, but here it was almost silent, almost ominous. We turned the corner at J St and there he was: An old man in a wizard’s cloak, sitting alone at a folding table. He watched us approach and then beckoned us over.
“Drink?” He croaked, lifting a bottle of tequila from the table and tipping it in our direction, raising his grey eyebrows.
“Uh…” I stammered. “Well, we’re kinda on a mission. Gotta grab our IDs from camp…”
“You sure? I’ve got some nice tequila here, and I’ve got the glasses ready…” He gestured towards the glasses on the table, bottle in hand.
My friend and I looked at the shot glasses, and then at each other and shrugged, “Sure, we’ll have a shot with you!”
He motioned for us sit, pulled back his long wizard sleeves, and slowly poured 4 shots. There were only 3 of us at the table, but as he poured the 4th shot, as if on queue, a woman exited the camper behind us and silently took the 4th seat at the table. She was attractive, and a few years younger than our host the wizard.
“Oh, this is my wife Shana, and I’m Steve.” he said, grabbing his shot glass and raising it in the air. We all grabbed our glasses and held them high and just as I was about to drink the whole thing down, Steve The Wizard announced that this was nice, añejo tequila and it was meant to be sipped, not shot. I suddenly felt a little stupid and took a very tiny sip of my tequila.
We sat quietly for a second, waiting to see who’d break the silence. Steve The Wizard was old, probably in his late 60′s, he had a grey beard, small round glasses, and long grey hair that he kept in a braid that stretched down to the middle of his back. All of this succeeded in making him look even more like a wizard, and I wondered if he didn’t always dress like that – purple cloak, pointy hood, loose sleeves.
“Forgot your IDs, eh?” Steve asked.
“Yeah, we didn’t know they’d be checking ID’s out there!” I said, knowing my ignorance would give me away as a newbie. For a place that talks so much about radical inclusion and acceptance, there is a whole lot of trying to fit in at Burning man. I sipped my tequila.
“Oh yeah, there always checking ID’s out there… So, it your first year here?” He asked, already knowing the answer. I nodded and took another sip of my tequila.
I asked Steve where he was from in the “Default World”, happy to be able to sound like a veteran and use the Burner slang term for the real world, outside of the festival. He told me he lived in the Santa Cruz mountains, in a cottage, off the grid.
He was that kind of guy, an off the grid kind of guy. He told us about the trails he had to walk to get to his place – everything had to be hauled in by hand via miles of trails. It was all solar panels and water cisterns and wood burning stoves, and I was fully interested in his description of his rustic life out there in the woods.
“Yeah, we’re pretty isolated out there,” he said. “but that’s what I love about it – It’s wild, and free.”
Perhaps to prove how wild it really is out there, he began to tell us a story of coming face to face with a mountain lion on one of his trails.
“I was out walking the trails at sunset, and I stayed a little later than usual. It got dark fast, and I didn’t have a flashlight, so I was heading home. I saw the eyes first,” he recalled, speaking slowly, deliberately. “You always see the eyes first – I’m sure he saw me way before I saw him, but once I did see him, I froze. And we had this moment…” He paused here, staring off into the desert. Into the nothingness. We were all transfixed by his story.
“It was like we understood each other,” he continued. “He didn’t want any trouble and neither did I. We were just two animals out there, patrolling our grounds in the night. We locked eyes and we knew this about each other. Neither was a danger to the other. And eventually, he slunk back into the woods, and left me alone.”
He had been staring out to the desert the whole time he told that story, speaking in low, ominous tones. But now he dropped the story-telling voice and looked back to his audience.
“And that was that!” he chirped, smiling, breaking the spell his story had cast. He raised his tequila to his lips. We all chuckled and finished out drinks.
“Another round?” he asked without really asking – he was already collecting the glasses and pouring the next round. We didn’t argue. He was a great storyteller, the tequila was working it’s magic, and I was feeling good.
“That’s a crazy story,” I said. “I’ve never been face to face with a wild animal like that. Were you scared?”
“In a way, yes,” he said. “But I when I was a living in a monastery in Tibet, studying Buddhism, we learned not to let fear control us. If there’s is something you can do to solve a problem, do it. If there’s nothing can do, then why worry? Why be afraid? You just have to let the problem solve itself sometimes.”
“That’s good advice,” I said. “But hold on. Tibet? How long did you study Buddhism for?”
“Oh, I lived in Tibet for 7 years,” he said.
I was shocked at his nonchalance. The way he said “7 years” was the way a normal person would say 7 days. But this was a very significant chapter in his life. He described living in a monastery as a practicing Buddhist monk for 7 years – red robes and shaved head and everything. It as a very different life to the one he lead now, and it was crazy to think of this tequila-swilling wizard as a monk.
“We weren’t allowed to have hair at the monastery,” he said. “And I hated always having to shave my head. I guess that’s why I have such long hair now.” He swung his long grey braid over his shoulder and stroked it like a pet snake. “Rebellion,” he said to himself, smiling. He leaned forward to fill the glasses once more.
I laughed, “is that why you left the monetary? You wanted to grow your hair out?”
“No, actually my Guru died.”
Again, I felt stupid. I tried to mutter an apology, but he wasn’t upset. He told the sad story of when his Guru died and how that eventually led him to leave the monastery and move back to California. He went on to share that he fully believes that his Guru has been reincarnated and now lives on in the body of a boy in Spain. He even flew to Spain to meet this boy, and he had a photo of him in a locket around his neck. It was a strange and sad story, but it was endearing. It made you want to believe in reincarnation and endless devotion. It made you want to believe that no matter what, everything was going to be alright. It was a story that only a wizard like Steve could tell.
Being a skeptic, I prodded a bit more about this supposed reincarnation: ”So, what made you think that this boy was your Guru?”
“He just knows things,” he said. “things that a young Spanish boy wouldn’t know - enlightened things.”
And that was it. Steve was convinced, and he didn’t care if I believed it or not. I respected that, but I wanted to change the subject. I told him that I had just returned from living and working for a year and a half in Australia and New Zealand. I expected to impress him with my worldlyness.
“Oh, you’ve traveled a bit,” He said.
“Yeah, and it sounds like you have too!” I said.
“I sure have, ” he agreed. Adding, “I once rode a horse across Iran.”
“What? Really?” I was shocked again at the nonchalance of this statement.
“Oh, yes, but that was back in the late 60′s under the Shaw, it was very different back then.”
“Wow.” I muttered, utterly enthralled and certainly under the spell of Steve the Wizard.
“Actually,” He continued, pausing to sip his tequila. “I was with my two brothers. We had driven a car across Turkey. Beautiful country. And when we got to the Iran border, we realized we weren’t allowed to cross with the car. Some paperwork nonsense. So we traded the car for 3 horses. And we just kept going. Beautiful country.”
He smiled, obviously remembering that adventure so many years ago.
“wow…” I muttered again. I didn’t know what to say. I’d traveled a lot, but this man had some real adventures under his belt. He was the real deal. A former monk, a horse-riding adventurer, a cabin in the woods, no fear of wild cats, and a taste for good tequila. I was impressed. When we first sat down at that table, I thought we’d just take a shot of tequila and leave. When Steve had urged us to sip our tequila, I was secretly annoyed that this old man was going to keep us from our mission to grab our IDs and get back to the party. But now, I didn’t care about the party at all.
We ended up staying there the whole night and helping Steve to finish that bottle of tequila, one small sip at a time. And with every sip, a story. Over the course of the night, I learned that Steve was the kind of guy that did pretty much whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted to. Whether it was living off the grid or learning to be a Buddhist. He was whoever he wanted to be. And in that moment, he was a wizard, and he had cast a spell on that folding table and made it the most interesting place to be at Burning Man that night. A difficult feat, as you can imagine.
Of course, he wasn’t really a wizard. He was just a regular human. But he was one hell of a human, that’s for sure. He was a human with enough stories to keep us enthralled until the small hours, and even then, I feel like he could have kept going. I was drunk, but Steve seemed unphased.
Each of his stories represented a chapter in his life. Each one very different from the last, but together, they painted the portrait of a man, unafraid to live his life on his own terms. The kind of man who goes to Burning Man in his late 60′s to drink tequila with young strangers.
I told him that I was impressed with his life and that I hoped to someday have my own stories as interesting as his.
“Well, my boy,” He said, leaning forward, “you’re well on your way.” he winked and gulped back the last of his tequila.
With that, my companion and I took our leave and said our goodbyes to Steve and his wife. We walked slowly down the dusty path towards our camp, looking up at the stars and breathing the cool night air into our lungs. I felt groggy, like our conversation with Steve had been a dream. I had to remind myself that I was at Burning Man: the land of flashing lights, thumping electronic music and all-night parties filled with wild, young, radically expressive hedonists. With all that craziness going on just down the road, I’d spent the entire night drinking tequila with an old man in a wizard’s cloak. It didn’t seem right. But somehow, at the same time, it felt exactly right.
In the days and years that followed, I eventually came to learn that Burning Man is just that kind of place. Whatever you’re looking for, you’ll find. And even if you’re not looking for it, it will find you. I found inspiration and awe in that old man. I found a man who seemed intelligent and successful, and who had really lived his life. And he was still living it – off the grid with his pretty wife in the woods of the Santa Cruz mountains. But he was a man who lived his life on his own terms, and went, it seemed, where ever the wind blew. To me, that was inspiring.
I’d always tried to live my life that way, despite much prodding from society to get in line. I was conflicted. That was part of the reason I was at Burning Man in the first place. But now, after meeting Steve, for whatever reason, I felt like I was going to be just fine.
I grabbed my companion’s hand and we ran back to camp, the cold desert wind stinging our eyes.