Burning Man

Gut Instinct: Water, Water Nowhere

There I am, munching greasy General Tso’s chicken outside the Laundromat, when a little girl bikes close and makes me an offer I can refuse.

“Mister, mister,” she says, dropping her pink two-wheeler to the ground.

I look up, perplexed. At 30, I’m still shocked to be addressed “mister” or “sir.” After all, my nose hair remains confined to my nostrils. Mostly.

“Are you thirsty?” She displays a sweating, dented bottle of frozen water and unleashes Cute Grin©: milk teeth and deep dimples. I’m accustomed to kids selling peanut M&Ms to fund fictitious basketball squads, but label-less bottled water is a whole new beast.

“No thanks, sweetheart,” I reply in my best dirty-old-man voice.

“It’s for charity,” she says crossly, dropping her sugar-and-spice act like a werewolf revealing its fanged, hirsute secret.

“No,” I repeat sternly. If my prophylactics ever failed, I’d be a fantastic father.

“Well, I don’t want you to have the water,” she replies. She blows raspberries and pedals off to peddle water to thirstier, more benevolent Brooklynites. Screw her: Though I’ll buy candy from kids, I will not buy bottled water. Lord, I hate the waste.

Americans buy more than 28 billion waters annually, of which 80 percent ends up in landfills. I glug tap, often imbibed from my refillable Nalgene bottle. I tote my carafe everywhere, like Linus’ blanket. I’m comforted by ready access to hydration. Call it quirk. Call it mania. Call it logical, given how I almost died of dehydration.

The year was 2000. I was 22 with a fresh journalism degree. My reward was road-tripping to Nevada’s arid, dusty Burning Man fest, which began last week. A synopsis: Folks construct a twisted, temporary city populated by artists, outsiders, fire fiends and shirt-cockers—that is, fully dressed men minus undergarments. It’s a floppy, searing sight I’d pay to un-see.

My crew was clueless. Whereas other Burners built elaborate shade structures, we had a couple tents and a tarp stretched over our station wagon’s trunk.

“Well, this is certainly…fun,” said my painter pal Bari. We huddled close while windstorms whipped dust and rocks into orifices where dust didn’t belong.

“Pass me the whiskey,” I said. They would become my four favorite words. Then as now, whiskey allayed fears, soothed nerves and erased inhibitions. Thus emboldened, I clambered across a replica Mad Max Thunderdome. I jousted. I let a mask-clad dominatrix whip my rump in return for free booze.

“If you hit me again, can I have another shot of Goldschläger?” I asked, bending over and grabbing the sawhorse. My question was answered by the whip’s crack.

Nighttime revelries relented to morning woozies. A double espresso cleared my head and hastened my downfall. Burning Man’s most vital decree is that attendees must drink water. A gallon daily is recommended. I drank a gallon, though I needed double to combat the dual diuretic drain.

“I’m so, so cold,” I told my friend Andrew, on the fest’s fifth morning. I was shivering inside my parka. The thermometer crested 80. I was dizzy, nauseous and cramped. Women, I felt your pain.

“Are you hungover?” Andrew asked.

It was an honest question, one I answered with a twitch. “Helppppppp meeeeee,” I moaned. Andrew dragged me to the first-aid tent. I was diagnosed with dehydration and placed on a cot. Saline—stat! A nurse alcohol-swabbed my arm’s crook. “You have such nice, plump veins,” she said, prepping a needle. My eyes became dinner plates as I recalled my traumatic childhood immunizations, which required multiple nurses restraining my flailing limbs.

“Shoot, your vein just collapsed,” the nurse said after the insertion failed. Hardly reassuring words, but expected: Under duress, veins sometimes swell and become temporarily blocked. The nurse’s second and third attempts proved equally futile.

“Don’t let me die, don’t let me die,” I wailed. The nurse backed off like I was radioactive and summoned a second nurse—a burly guy with callused hands.

“Noooooooooooooooo!” I screamed. Collapsed vein four. Oh wait, five. Blood trickled down my arms like tears.

“We need Felix,” the nurse said, calling for a butch Native American woman with long, braided locks.

“What’s the problem?” Felix asked. She smiled like Buddha.

“I’m too young to die,” I whimpered, near hysterics.

“We just need some saline to fix you,” Felix said, cleaning my red-streaked right arm. She sought a vein. Bloody failure. By now I’d been poked six times, a veritable needle gangbang. I was a shriveled, pathetic pincushion.

Wordlessly, Felix guided my left hand between her thighs and viced shut, enveloping me with warmth. It was the closest I’d been to a woman all week. “Whaaa…?” I mumbled, marveling at my hand lost between her smooth brown legs.

“Done and done,” Felix said, taping the needle to my arm, sending saline circulating through my parched system. “Now make sure you drink enough water.” She gently removed my hand from her thighs and patted me on that hard spot where my brains should’ve been.