Burning Man Stories Cover



A sample story from the book Burning Man Stories

My Costco Soulmate

by Phil Steele


The sign out front says:

“Costco Soulmate Trading Outlet is Black Rock City's leading supplier of high-quality, low-cost soulmates.” 

"We have one mission," CEO Rico said, "to help our members find top quality soulmates at the lowest possible prices. We do this by eliminating many of the costly overhead expenses faced by traditional stores. You know, like fancy display cases, sales people, advertising, research, morals, scruples and so on." 

Having missed my chance last year, I resolved to find a soulmate in 2003 with the help of the Costco Soulmate Trading Outlet. To participate you must trade in a person of the opposite sex—but if I had one of those I wouldn't need a soulmate—so on Tuesday morning, I approach the tent at 10:50 AM, hoping to snag a suitable random female before the 11:00 opening. 

On my second try I hook a passing girl who agrees to be my trade-in. She’s a petite, pale young woman in sky-blue shorts and halter, with bunny ears on her head. She’s a bit wary, but gradually relaxes as I describe the purpose of the Outlet.

After 11:00 has come and gone, she becomes a little impatient.

“They said they will open the doors any minute now,” I promise. By 11:15, she’s looking around like “What have I gotten myself into?”

At 11:20 they finally open and we enter the huge, stifling Costco tent, which immediately becomes a chaos of sweaty pent-up customers, confused Costco volunteers, and seemingly lost stragglers who have no idea why they are in here. Eventually we find a guy who assigns us each a number and writes it on our shoulders with a big black marker. Although we were first in line, we are numbered 18 and 19. We are each handed a questionnaire on a clipboard and instructed to wait outside in the “shade” until our number is called. 

Shade in this case is a euphemism for harsh sunlight slightly filtered through a screen stretched over a half-dozen sagging, dusty sofas. Occupying the sofas are customers 1 through 17, so we stand, sipping water and wiping sweat from our eyes while we complete our questionnaires. Mine is different from hers. It seems there are several versions doled out at random. A few typical questions from mine:

- What would you say is your best feature?
- What four books would you take to a desert island?
- Have you ever been a slut? Are you still?
- What can’t you live without?
- What is your IQ? Why do you know this?
- If David leaves his home traveling west at 50 mph, and John, who lives 36 miles northeast of David, leaves his home 10 minutes later traveling west at 190 miles per hour, at what distance from John’s home will they meet, and how many minutes after David’s departure? Show your work.

Of course, you must also list your camp coordinates, so that your potential soulmate can find you. I write “Singularity Point, 4:40 and Faith” which identifies the concentric street and the radial line, in clock notation, that intersects it.

The final space on the questionnaire calls for a testimonial from a person who knows you. Naturally my trade-in girl and I swap. I write of her: “Lulu is a sweet little bunny of a girl who deserves a sensitive, caring soulmate.” She writes of me: “Kind, approachable, smart, good sense of humor.” Fair enough. At least she didn't write, "Kidnapped and tortured me in the sun. Beware."

We turn in our questionnaires and are told to wait until our numbers are called. We chat while we wait. She’s from the skydiving camp. I learn that they created the Exploding Man event last year, in which thousands of carefully positioned people ran on cue to create a moving, half-mile wide figure of the Man on the playa while skydivers filmed it from above. This was a remarkably coordinated event for Burning Man, where just getting two people to meet for coffee at the same time and place can be insurmountable.

An hour passes. “Wouldn’t it be funny if we were matched up as soulmates?” I ask.

“Sort of,” she says.

Eventually my number is called, and I bid her farewell. Now it’s time for my interview. My interviewer is a crusty old Aussie burner in his early sixties who calls himself Outback Jack. He shakes my hand and leads me to a sofa in the “shade” for my interview. He reads over my questionnaire and asks me the usual getting-to-know-you questions: Where do you live? What do you do? He tells me his wife refuses to Burn, so it's a good separate vacation from each other. He likes to volunteer at Costco because he feels good bringing people together. Finally he asks how I picture my ideal soulmate. 

“Well…” I find myself suddenly going blank, perhaps from hunger, thirst, and sunstroke. “She would be successful…or at least intelligent…and sort of bohemian… but I guess that goes without saying if she’s out here.” 

“Would she be more of an introvert, or an extrovert?” 

“An introvert like me,” I say. “I always think I have great chemistry with extroverts, but it turns out it’s just them being extroverted.” 

He asks a few more questions, makes many notes, and finally says: “All right, let’s get your picture.” He leads me back into the chaotic tent, which has become even more packed, hot, and confused than before.

“Wait behind this line, and I’ll be back.” There is no line, but I imagine one where he pointed. Eventually a guy at a computer terminal in front of me says “Are you waiting for a photo?” and I say yes, so he gestures me to a chair and then takes my picture with a little webcam.

Jack returns and says: “You didn’t wait behind the line.” He looks serious, like he’s going to have to change something in my profile to factor in this new side of me.

“Well this guy said he would take my picture.” 

“It’s okay, mate,” he says. “We’ll just staple this on here,” he pulls my photo from the printer and staples it to my questionnaire. “Now you’re done. Come back tomorrow to pick up your soulmate.”

As I depart, I feel sorry for the poor lonely souls waiting in the long line that now stretches out of the tent in the noonday sun. It took me 90 minutes—and I was first in line—so they are surely in for a long, hot ordeal.

I bike back to camp, thinking about the Costco volunteers, working like elves to sort and pair up soulmates all night… or do they key the data into computers and use an algorithm? That seems unlikely. Perhaps they just match them up randomly. That would be a pretty good joke, a very Burning Man kind of thing to do.

The next day I return at 11:00 sharp and once again wait about 20 minutes for the doors to open. I enter the tent and present my Costco photo ID card. A distressed looking hippie guy, already overloaded from just the first few customers, takes my card, grimaces slightly, and says “Wait outside in the shade until we call you.”

I wait in the “shade” for a long time. “You can have a drink at the bar,” says a passing staffer. I wander into a crowded adjacent tent and ask what they’re serving. “Gatorade and vodka.” The bartender is throwing ice into a blender and mixing up a fresh batch.

“Sounds great.” I take a little plastic cupful and drink it down. It’s refreshingly cold and sweet.

“Philosopher, please come to the service desk to pick up your soulmate,” calls a voice over a tinny speaker somewhere. 

I feel a momentary surge of adrenaline, or perhaps it’s just the second Gatorade-and-vodka kicking into my dehydrated bloodstream. I return to the stifling tent and wait in a line at the service desk. When I present my credentials, the same poor hippie guy shuffles some papers around bleakly, then looks at me with a pained expression and says, “There was some sort of problem with the download last night. Let me go talk to a supervisor.” While he wanders away, I stand there thinking that they are taking the Costco shopping simulation a little too far.

After a long time, he returns, shuffles through a large file box full of soulmate profiles, pulls one out, compares the numbers to mine, and hands it to me. “Here go you,” he says.

Out in the sun, I eagerly scan my soulmate’s profile, looking for evidence that this has been worth the enormous, sweaty hassle. The photo shows a sweet-looking, plump, Hispanic (Asian? Polynesian?) girl with a lovely smile. I look over her very brief answers on the questionnaire, seeking clues as to why we were matched up.

What’s the best thing about you: “My wonderful smile.”
What magic tricks do you know: “Becoming invisible.”
Have you ever been a slut: “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”
How many fingers am I holding up: “21”
What do people say is your most annoying habit: “Elitist.”

Ah, that may explain it.

Her name is Serena and she is with something called Cult Camp, at 9:30 and Authority. I proceed to bike right over there, which takes about five minutes. In typical BM fashion, I find the camp situated not quite at the designated coordinates, more like 9:45 and Authority, but that’s actually quite good by playa standards. After all, our own camp was a full block-and-a-half from where it was supposed to be. 

I see a bunch of scattered tents around a big greenish geodesic dome bearing a sign saying “Cult.” A dazed-looking shirtless guy is wandering in the scorching sun outside the dome, like he lost something but can’t quite remember what it was. I ride up to him and ask: “Is there a Serena here?” 

“Who?” he asks. 

“Serena. Here’s her picture.” 

“Oh. Yeah.” He scrunches up his eyes in concentration. “I think that’s her tent over there.” He gestures absently at a little green one-man tent with a silver mylar shade-tarp stretched over it. I ride over to it and call tentatively, “Anyone home?” No reply. So I ride over the geodesic dome, and by peeking through holes in the sides I can make out a few half-clad people on sofas inside, sleeping or otherwise escaping the midday heat. “Is there a Serena here?” I ask through the hole.

“Huh?” Someone sits up, apparently confused at hearing hear voices from outside the dome. 


“I think that’s her tent over there,” mumbles someone face-down on a sofa, pointing vaguely with an upraised arm.


I leave my Costco ID card with a brief note on a folding chair outside her tent, anchoring it with a piece of rebar.

Back at my camp, Rion says, “Hey Phil, your soulmate was here looking for you.”

"Damn! This one?” I show him the picture. 

“No. This was a blonde,” he hands me her Costco ID card. Her name is Xara.

“Hmmm...there must be something wrong,” I say.

“No, I think they give you two soulmates. One that you seek, and another that seeks you.”

Well, that changes everything. I briefly attempt to do the combinatorial math of this in my heat-swollen, vodka-tainted brain, but it’s not worth it.

“Thanks.” I look at her card. This one seems a little more promising. The picture is a bit grainy and coated with playa dust, but she seems kind of pretty in a serious-looking way.

“She was very interested in meeting you,” our campmate Allison says. “She’s really cute. I think she’s definitely your soulmate.”

Rion whispers, “Well, sort of cute.”

I bike off to her camp, which she has noted as TOTEM, at Esplanade and 8:00. She has even provided the helpful note “Across from the Thunderdome.” This should be easy.

But after searching all around the Esplanade in the vicinity of the Thunderdome, I can’t find TOTEM. As a last resort, I approach some members of the Death Guild, the creators and disciples of the mighty Thunderdome, who are sitting in the shade of their plywood camp facade, dressed in full Mad Max punk regalia, staring sullenly out at the heat-blistered playa. Normally one does not speak to members of the Death Guild, especially in the midday heat, but I’m getting tired, hot, and desperate.

“Do any of you know where Totem camp is?”

Impassive stares. One turns her head to look at the others. Looks back at me. “No.”

“Thanks.” I bike away, looking for someone, anyone, at any Esplanade camp to ask for directions. I find two guys hammering on some wooden thing in front of their camp about half a block away. “Any idea where Totem camp is?”

“Hmmm…” they both pause and think seriously. “I don’t think so,” says the first one.

“Wait a minute,” says the second. “Isn’t it right over there?” he points. “Like sort of next door?”

“Oh, yeah,” says the first one.

“Thanks.” I bike over next door, and sure enough, I find a big white dome with a sort of foyer-shelter built onto the front, which was hiding the sign that says TOTEM.

I park my bike and enter. It’s hot and still inside. A bunch of especially shaggy hippies, emanating sweat and patchouli, are sprawled all over the floor near the entrance. I have to step around them to get through the doorway. “Is there a Xara here?” I display the ID with her picture. 

“I don’t know, man,” says a reclining guy with dreadlocks. “We’re all just waiting.” He gestures toward the back of the dome. I take off my sunglasses, and suddenly I see rows of massage tables, each occupied by a nude burner, each being rubbed down by a hardworking masseuse.  

"Does she work here?” he asks.

“I’m not sure. I guess she’s with the camp. She’s supposed to be my soulmate.”

Suddenly a guy on my right stirs, sits up, and leans toward me. “Hey, let me see that.” He’s wearing a tall black top hat, and he has long sideburns and protruding teeth. He looks at the ID card from Xara. “There must be some mistake…” he mutters. He pulls her wrinkled profile out of a pocket and shows it to me.

I explain the two-soulmate concept, while he looks at me sadly and skeptically, as if I’m trying to trick him. I show him the profile of Serena and tell him about trying to find her. “Then Xara left her card at my camp,” I explain. “She’s trying to find me while you try to find her. And there is some other girl out there trying to find you.” This seems to cheer him up a bit. 

“Listen,” I say, “if you manage to find her, just let her know I dropped by.”

“Sure,” he says, but I can see he doesn’t mean it.

“Good luck,” I tell him, and I do mean it, because I can see he needs a soulmate more than I do.

I biked back to my camp, where someone says, “Phil, there was some girl named Serena here looking for you.” 

“Jesus Christ,” I mutter. 

I dropped by the Cult Camp and the TOTEM camp a couple more times that week, but never managed to find either Serena or Xara. Usually someone said, “Oh, dude you just missed her.” But that was fine. I was plenty busy with other projects, and other soulmates, and I genuinely wished both of them the best of luck in the big game of soulmate tag on the playa.

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