During the following year, every time I was around, they would ask me how I got the pendant, which I wore everywhere with fierce pride. I had no good answer. So I would shrug and change the subject.
Gradually, though, I began to realize that the pendants were the art of a group called Alien Love Nest. Its shtick was that Burning Man participants would come up on a stage and perform; if the performance was deemed worthy, those in the spotlight would get a pendant. There was a new version of the pendant every year, each edition more beautiful than the last.
I loved these artifacts, and I set out to collect them. Starting in 2000, one of my chief goals each year at Burning Man became making sure I got my pendant. I wore them everywhere, always with that same pride.
One year I told the folks handing out the pendants to give me a topic, and I gave them five verses of haiku on the subject in five minutes. Another year, I read them a story I'd written for Holly Kreuter's collaborative Burning Man photo book, "Drama in the Desert," which I co-edited.
I was most proud of what I did last year: My wife and I preprinted several CDs with a cover picture of one of the pendants. While at Burning Man, I took pictures of as many people as I could find wearing them. They weren't hard to find. These, after all, are probably the single-most sought-after piece of Burning Man swag because they are beautiful and in short supply and there's always a story to tell about what people did to get them.
Then we burned the pictures onto the CDs, went up onstage, told the pendant makers how much we loved their art and gave them the CDs. They were touched, and we walked away with new pendants.
Perhaps my favorite story of what someone else did for a pendant came from 2000 or 2001, when we watched a couple of people arrive onstage with a very large box. They opened it, and out stepped a naked woman. She got up, and to loud music, danced herself into her clothes. It was a reverse strip-o-gram, and the crowd went nuts.
Now, as I prepare to head off to Burning Man 2006, I wanted yet again to honor those lovely pendant people, who now call themselves Alien Monkey Love Nest.
What they do is quite simple: They commission an image from a Seattle artist, send the image to a production company in China, get samples made, choose the best one, have the rest created, and finally take them to the desert to give away.
Some people may no doubt be surprised to learn that these lovely pieces of clay weren't handmade by the artists. All I can say is this is the age of globalization. But that doesn't mean the Alien Monkey Love Nest folks undertake this project with any less love and commitment in their hearts than any other Burning Man artists.
Of course, there's more to the story. For example, it's expensive to have the pendants made, and the group that gives them out is fairly small. So fundraisers must be held. And the little Chinese town has no other business than making fimo (a type of clay) pendants for clients.
As for why? Brian Wise, a current member of the group says it all: "It's a hunk of fimo that somehow has accreted all this energy and symbolism that people want desperately," Wise said. "Our goal, and the reason we exist as a camp, is to get the pendants to the playa," the common name for the Nevada desert in which Burning Man is held.
Anyway, I've been to Burning Man every year since 1998. And I have a pendant from every year starting with 1999. I've tried in vain for several years to find a 1998 version, and I came close a couple times. But no dice.
So here's my plea: Anyone got a 1998 Alien Love Nest pendant they'd be willing to part with? It would be something I would never forget, and I'd always have a great story to tell of how I got it.