This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on September 1, 2013.
The thousands of people who attend the Burning Man festival each summer know that spontaneous “weddings” are common there. Sometimes couples pledge their love, other times vows affirm friendship or single-dom. Burners can even borrow from an array of wedding gowns available from at least one Burning Man camp.
But when Tony Brasunas and Pamela Mendoza, both 39, decided to wed at Burning Man 2012, they wanted to do things differently. The couple, who met at the festival three years earlier, spent months constructing a three-room chapel that they loaded onto a truck in pieces and erected in the desert. They scrounged festival tickets for wedding guests – many of them first-time burners. They arranged for reception food, Champagne and cake – and lots of ice – to be delivered and stored in the desert’s 100-degree temperatures.
At dawn, after a two-day dust storm on the desert playa, the Alameda couple said “I do.”
Their paths first crossed at Burning Man 2009. Brasunas was on his way to play guitar at one camp’s talent show but paused to cool off at another camp’s water misters. There he noticed a woman in a blue dress preparing lunch.
“I admired her from afar,” he said. “She looked pretty awesome; making food, having fun. Her whole energy was very awesome.”
Mendoza remembers a man playing a guitar, but she didn’t have time to talk to him. The next day, while wearing a costume and a pink wig to explore the festival, she came across Brasunas playing Beethoven and cooking bacon on a camp stove for passersby. Now it was her turn to admire him from afar.
She returned to the bacon stand several times and was surprised to find that Brasunas recognized her, despite the costume. When she asked how she could thank him for the bacon, he said, “You can be my date to the Burn.”
“It was the highlight of my week,” Brasunas said.
They went out that night and the next and even gave each other the nicknames Snow King and Snow Queen because, at one point, they were both dressed all in white. “We danced and laughed,” Mendoza said. “It was magic.”
But Burning Man ended and they returned to their homes, Brasunas to San Francisco and Mendoza to Southern California.
Over the next few months, they exchanged Burning Man photos and a few e-mails. When Mendoza visited San Francisco in October, they met for lunch near Brasunas’ job in the Financial District then walked hand in hand to BART.
“It couldn’t have been any more different than Burning Man, but we still had a magical connection,” Brasunas said.
Mendoza visited San Francisco often because it’s near her hometown of Petaluma, and she and Brasunas frequently spent time together. They even introduced their mothers during a professional event in the Presidio, and Brasunas said they both realized they could become more than friends.
But with the distance between them, they dated other people. They didn’t see each other at Burning Man 2010 because they both had other dates. But Brasunas admits he couldn’t help but think of Mendoza and the fun they’d had the year before.
In early 2011, Mendoza moved back to the Bay Area. She was in a relationship, but it wasn’t going well. Brasunas, who was single, couldn’t stop thinking about her, so he came up with a scheme he admits was a little crazy.
In March of that year, he started planning a secret, romantic trip for April 1. He created a website inviting Mendoza to join him – if she was single by then.
“It’ll be the first weekend of the rest of your life,” he told her.
Mendoza did end her other relationship – on April 1 – and by midnight, she was riding in Brasunas’ “snow chariot” – his car sprayed with synthetic snow – to a chalet on Mount Shasta. There, they hiked, had massages and visited Orr Hot Springs. Mendoza also spent time meditating near two trees. When she passed between the trees, she said, it marked her commitment to her new life in Northern California and her new relationship with Brasunas.
Before the trip “I couldn’t quite see that I had this amazing partner in my life already,” Mendoza said. “I jumped into the unknown, and Tony was there.”
In May 2012, the couple returned to the same chalet on Mount Shasta, but this time Brasunas had planned something even more elaborate. He instructed friends to drive up from San Francisco with his guitar, Champagne, and hundreds of red and white flowers. He gave them directions and a photo of the two trees he wanted them to find – which, amazingly, they did.
When Mendoza and Brasunas reached the decorated spot on their hike, Mendoza thought she had stumbled across someone else’s ceremony. “I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, someone’s going to do something here.’ ”
Then she saw Brasunas’ guitar and realized that the “ceremony” was for her. Brasunas lifted her onto the bed of roses and knelt down on one knee. “I said yes three times,” Mendoza said. “I wanted my yes to be strong enough.”
When they returned home, they set to work building the wedding chapel. Brasunas had started it before the proposal, telling Mendoza it was for an art installation for the camp. They used social media and a Burning Man website to ask for help. Friends, fellow burners and people they’d never met volunteered to build, sew curtains and cushions, and even make stained glass windows. They also found wedding photographers who had never been to Burning Man but wanted to come after hearing their story.
They didn’t have Burning Man tickets for themselves, let alone their guests, but when word spread, the burner community offered up more tickets than they could use. The couple’s parents and siblings, who had never been to Burning Man, agreed to brave the elements.
On Sept. 1, 2012, Mendoza awoke at 5 a.m. Her friends helped her dress and did her hair. Then she rode in a purple carriage in a procession of friends and burners waving flags that led her to the chapel and Brasunas.
“It was like a waking dream,” Brasunas said.
The Burning Man wedding wasn’t legally recognized, so the couple formalized their union at San Francisco’s City Hall four days later. They plan to return to the festival this year.
“Last year was our Burning Man wedding,” Mendoza said. “This year is our Burning Man honeymoon.”