Saturday begins with the city at its fullest
development and ends with the traditional torching of the Man
and subsequent start of the dissolution of Black Rock City. Even
as one wanders through the City at the peak of its development
the events of the coming night are in the back of ones mind. One
is tempted to try to see whatever one is aware of missing so far,
but one might as well also wander randomly with assurance that
the time won't be wasted.
I have made it a point at all but one of my years to be one of those in the innermost circle for the Big burn. This now requires planning to be at your chosen location at the circle of lights well before sunset. A few hours before the Burn I begin drinking minimal amounts of water to keep my throat from getting dry to avoid having to urinate while stuck in the middle of the crowd. When we arrive scattered groups of people were already claiming spots, but we still have essentially the choice of being anywhere. In later years all this will need to be done earlier. After studying the winds I decide the location corresponding to the '8 o'clock' position to be the best bet. I don't want to be 'edge on' to the Man, but I definitely do not want to be directly downwind of a fire that size.This time it is a straightforward process of waiting in one spot as soon as the number of arrivals makes it prudent to do so. I stand there for perhaps an hour watching the daylight dwindle around me.
The man stands tall, warming to the last daylight it will see. The shadow of the western mountains silently glides across the vastness, and the day ends in my location with a wave of disappearing sunlight. Before long the numbers of people behind me formed a crowd too large to see the other side of. Most people are sensibly standing with little or no burdens, although a few groups actually display large coolers and picnic blankets! Rangers warn people about the hazards of such things in a crowd, with most people taking care of the problems. Tripods are actively discouraged, and bikes are banished far to the rear. Finally the people in front are told to sit down, beginning the most uncomfortable interval for me. Fortunately I am in a spot that stayed dry and with I am surrounded by positively motivated people, most with cameras like myself.
A sincere sounding man stands up and reads a lengthy poem to us, then sat down to scattered applause. Art cars have moved in near the rear of the main mass of people standing beyond the inner circle of sitters. The circle inside the lights is now restricted territory for Rangers, a few BM VIPs and various waves of fire performers.
The presentation seems orchestrated in 'acts' with younger fire twirlers going out first, and after an interval the 'professionals' move in, dancing and stretching with fire whirling in the air from wands, hoops, and even from butterfly wings. For a time the entire inner circle is filled with the whirling cart wheeling flames of what seems like a couple hundred performers. The neon on the Man lights up with gleeful acknowledgment from the surrounding crowd. Many superimposed drum beats fill the air as the blue twilight sky darkens enough for the first stars to appear overhead. By now many thousands of people are at the height of a mass exodus towards this spot, adding to a thickening ring of humanity as they arrive. The crowd is now so large one can only see a minute portion of it, mostly those sitting down in my region and the first layer of those standing perhaps 50 feet behind me. I am glad I am in the front row, and I am incredulous that I ever doubted the wisdom of doing this despite the extreme measures it requires. I feel reasonably comfortable, with no aches from the neck muscle pull I suffered a few hours earlier, no doubt due to the Aspirin I took earlier.
The noises around
me add up to a sense of the collective mood, a joyous anticipation
such as what I remember from seeing launches of the great rockets
of the Space Age. The blue neon colossus pulses in the night.
Waves of sapphire mist spread from it in the dusty fog, the lines
of neon blue light spreading in their thickness as I stare. My
greatly dilated pupils make focusing the image in my video camera
viewfinder a delicate task, but I manage despite the near sensory
overload. Periodically orange flares from flame spewing vehicles
momentarily brighten this or that part of the dusty skies above
the horizon formed by the crowd.
Three rockets are fired straight up from around
the Man throwing bright briefly glowing red flares into the air,
yet another signal to any lingerers that now was the time. Suddenly
the crowd cheers upon seeing the first stirring of movement in
the Mans arms as they slowly rise, steadily, and finally locking
into place at their raised position. The Man seems to beckon,
Hundreds of flashbulbs from the crowd throw long shadows of sitting people out into the darkness, all different group silhouettes stretched toward the center. The flashes approach the frequency of strobe lights in their numbers. Performers carry, twirl, and swing about torches by the hundreds which scribble looping patterns like a tangled spring into the darkness before me. To my right people start a long tube of fire in motion as a large 'jump rope' and other performers try to jump inside the loop with more than a casual interest in being good at it! A couple people miss the rhythm badly and lose some of their body hair as the blazing 'rope' snags them.
A pair of young women wear beautiful large butterfly wings with the outer parts fiercely ablaze. I begin to wander in my thoughts to imagine this as a kind of ritual offering of a lot of little fires to the central icon before it responds with its own burst of glory.
Bright red flickering light plays across the base of the man which at first resembles emergency vehicle lights, but they grow and spread, the crowd roaring in excitement as the red lights surrounding the base spew fountains of red and merge into a deep red mass of rising sparks. From this about a dozen red rockets climb on thin towers of ruby light, then a group of similar white fireworks shoot skyward beginning a fireworks show which erupt into a brilliant cacophony of light!
Closely bunched groups of fireworks rise and spread, for an instant resembling decorations made of bundles of fiber optic tubes tipped with bright specks of light. Sparkling surges of green and blue sheets rise and briefly hide the Man, which reappears adorned with rows of sparkling fountains spreading from the arms and legs, nearly all working as they should. More caches of rockets are found by the flames probing hungrily through the compartments carefully packed over the last several hours, and a mass of dazzling spears of light rise and merge as one. Bursts of color spill out sideways from the erupting mass while very tall poles of light rise far into the skies. They explode and multiply above as green fireballs whose branching arcing trajectories seem to briefly trace the contours of a vast cathedral vault against the sky. The flaring of this event must have lit the mountain tops for many miles around, and indeed it could be seen from space. I never look through my viewfinder for this moment, its dazzling radiance sprays across my retinas and for an instant I am one with the sight.
People are screaming in psychedelic adrenaline fired awe as especially dense surges of colored fire rise in a continuous stream, as if a great cauldron of molten frothy metal was emptying itself seen inverted. The source of this roaring upside down firefall is now belching out great amounts of smoke, moving to my relief fully 90 degrees from our location. A lull in the fireworks reveals the pedestal of the Man beginning to burn fiercely. The neon on the left arm (from my vantage point at about the 8 o'clock position) has gone out, but under the circumstances I am impressed that the rest is still working, although as I watch the right arm, then the head and the trunk lights go out, leaving the legs alone glowing blue for a time.
The fire is licking at the base of the open
geodesic dome supporting the Man, with the toroidal base structure
supporting the dome now fully involved, and then the last of the
neon gives up the ghost. Yet more fireworks in more sheltered
parts of the base ignite in a great golden fountain briefly dominating
the spectacle, and as it fades the dome appears to be made of
lines of fire and the Mans left arm has partially fallen.
The Man now appears to be waving good-by, luridly
lit from below and still accompanied by intermittent bursts of
residual fireworks. The base is a fiercely roaring flaming mass
and the burning latticework dome above it reminds me of the nose
of a burning airship. The Man is still untouched by the fire,
although the other arm now goes down. The brilliantly lit Man
seems posed in a gesture of dignified farewell, like a performer
acknowledging applause. Smoke pours from the lengths of the legs
for a time, then the left leg bursts into flame first as new sources
of smoke arise from the tips of the arms. Every distinct segment
along the limbs sends ribbons of smoke drifting in parallel streamers
downwind, to curl and contort as one before they reach the great
billowing smoke rising from the base.
The tips of both arms then begin to burn amid a new group of bright high climbing skyrockets emerging from the solid mass of flame, which now begins to climb up the legs. The dome maintains its shape while the downwind portion is engulfed in the fierce fire. An arm erupts into a series of streamers spreading downwind as neon tubes explode and the bottom half of the Man suddenly catches fire, more sources of smoke appearing along the other limbs.
Great billowing masses of dense brown smoke
roll in a vaguely repeating rhythm toward my left. Air twisted
by violent searing fury spins off a series of snakelike fire tornadoes,
writhing as they glide across the brightly lit playa to dissolve
before reaching the crowds down wind. One very thin fire twister
rises taller than the Burning Man itself, lazily swaying as it
dances gracefully into the blackness. Through all this the Man
appears if anything to be fire resistant in comparison to its
brilliantly roaring base, and the fire dancing across the entire
geodesic latticework dome begins to subside while the Man on its
two support posts only reluctantly burns. The dome structure crumples
as another series of smoky eruptions spread downwind from the
last of the neon on the right arm bursting.
At last the Man is pulled down, seemingly falling on the other side of the fire and as the greatest roar of the night comes from the multitude the traditional moment of maximum intensity, and of the dissolving of boundaries, is upon us. I quickly make sure I have everything and begin a rapid walk toward the brightness ahead, knowing there were thousands of people immediately behind me. I run a little, still almost alone out there for a brief time as a collective hesitation seemed to hang over most of the crowd. Small groups run inwards, whooping and yipping over the joyously excited roar of the great mass of people.
I run as close to the fire as I can get, stopping about 15 feet from an inner circle of special Rangers wearing silver thermal protective suits. I am among only a few people at this innermost zone, and half of the length of my body is being baked to the limits of my endurance. I shoot video of others arriving here in 'no mans land', keeping my back to the fire with my down jacket insulating my upper body, although my pants sting alarmingly against my legs. It is hot enough to make toast out there! I turn to begin the heating on the other side of my body and happy mobs run past me laughing with a few holding hands. Some are in whimsical and ceremonial costumes and many have luminescent necklaces. Larger groups begin running inwards, most turning right as it got too hot, to form an overall cyclonic vortex shaped migration pattern. A few adventurous soles dash into the intolerably hot immediate surroundings of the vast bonfire and throw things into the flames, then hurry back. After I decide I've been cooked enough I enter the uncomfortably dense crowd and make my way out into the coolness of the electric night surrounding us.
For perhaps a hundred feet the crowd is uncomfortably dense, but the going gets easier and finally I am free to wander in the cool breeze and the chill of evaporating sweat under my jacket feels so good. All the good art cars seem to be gathered here, some grouped together to make multicolored glowing islands towering above the people circulating about in the darkness.
A tall cutout human figure is mounted on a thin pole being carried into the crowd lining the raging central fire. It is painted as a caricature of George W. Bush, with his characteristic deceptively vacant 'deer in the headlights' expression, wearing striped prison coveralls with painted flames licking at his feet. His erect penis projects forward with the label just above reading 'I THINK WITH MY DICK (CHENEY)'. People nearby yell 'Burn him!' and indeed swarm around the effigy, yelling obscenities with gathering frenzy as they gradually near the fire. I watch the silhouette steadily shrink in the distance, with many red and green laser lights playing across it. Finally it is thrown into the fire with local noisy celebration, adding its few sparks to the vast billowing golden cloud emerging from the wide nearly hidden bonfire.
From the distant eastern region of the city a brilliant series of split green high power laser beams form a kind of dynamic fan like pattern in that part of the sky. One thinks of an emerald anchor point of a vast spider web vibrating in a brisk wind. Despite efforts to ban then, occasional fireworks climb and burst in the distance, but not so much over crowds of people as in the past. Music blares from tall elaborate wheeled constructions which wander in the darkness giving their ambiance to mobile groups nearby. People dance, run, gather, hold each other, and simply wander among a constantly changing background of colorful and often beautiful things.
One amazing sight is a device to cause a vibrating spinning flexible cord coated with florescent paint and brightly lit by a nearby ultraviolet bulb, to describe a sine wave shape like a translucent repeatedly pinched glowing tube. The 'persistence of vision' characteristic of the human eye contributes to this effect. Many people wear chemical glow light adornments, a few others sport phosphorous coated glow wire decoration of varying complexity. A woman wearing a wide tasseled umbrella like hat passes by on tall stilts.
One can not complain
about the lack of good art cars this night, indeed it looked like
a number were either laying low until now or have simply concentrated
in this area on this Night of Nights. One moving structure looming
above the multitudes looks like an elaborate river boat, another
calls to mind an edifice of a European government building. A
party float sports four giant red neon penises standing like castle
turrets around the outlined elevated platform people are dancing
on. There is a classic metal 'airstream' trailer outlined in bright
red glow wire. A buggy built at nearly double scale stands out
in the night like a day glow apparition from another era, a buggy
with florescent green wheels, a red body, and a radiant bleached
blue white canopy, all lit with long UV tubes suspended from both
One elaborate large ship on wheels has a crows nest, glow wire adorned masts, and the word 'Nevada' painted below its rear deck railing. It is the apparent sole survivor of the giant 'ship cars' of the past couple years. A small crane topped by a red light holds a cage with someone inside enjoying being slowly spun while holding onto the bars upside down.
A sculpted scorpion seemingly large enough
to ride in sat unintended in a darker region, a torch flickering
from the tip of the erect tail. A humorous animated glow wire
adornment of an art car simulated a giant buzz saw blade partially
buried in the Playa.
The great central bonfire is now a wide low carpet of flame, with shifting dabs of color floating above it as the light of distant bright things is churned to near incoherence by the heated air. Turning to constantly watch for things, I see the Moon rising over the bejeweled Playa, a little more than half full and the fuzzy group of stars of the Pleides climbs into the heavens. It occurs to me to start drinking water and I head for center camp. Somehow in the dark stretches along the way the events of the week flood my senses, I am grateful for the overall experience but somehow a sadness creeps up on me, perhaps the culmination of tensions I felt this week as fate ended up not being kind to my attempts to participate as I had hoped. I am painfully alone in the world in my grief for one terrible minute.
Then it is over, and Center Camp looms ahead with flags above and joyous people below. Much of the interior is lit a deep ruby red, and the layers of partially overlapping carpets between the poles briefly make you think you are not on a Playa. Buying a lemonade I find a bench and stare past the carpets and couches covered with sprawling refugees sleeping or staring at the ceiling. Many are sitting and chatting, a few are locked in embrace. Lemonade never tasted better in my life! I am one of the refugees for a time, relaxing and watching the motions around me trace their paths across my visual field and sensing the throbbing of the great living thing I am part of by being here and appreciating it. I decide I am ready to face the outside again and wander out again past the Esplanade street into the darkness.
At once I see a snake of fire standing on its tail over a cheering crowd. I have to see what this is! As people leave the area I take their place until I have a clear view of the source of this apparition. There is a ring of large fans blowing air a little to one side of the center to form a vortex. Men in protective suits are spraying burning liquid into this mass of spinning air with long pipelike nozzles. Fiery shapes are pulled from the stream, wrapping themselves around the empty center to form a hollow whirling tube 3 or 4 meters across. Spiral streamers wind around the tube, roaring into existence with especially dense portions spinning like a cloak of fire worn by an invisible whirling dancer. The more opaque outer layer decays and reveals a brighter 'core' tube, perhaps a half meter across, gracefully swaying inside its more uneven outer sheath. During the next few minutes the entire tube writhes like a dying snake and then dissolves, as if a spirit had been banished. The spray has stopped conjuring the demon, the show is done.
I make my way to camp and break out the 'sports drink', swiftly downing the bottle. I spent too much time with too little water tonight and I am trying to make up for it. Realizing sleep is still hours away, I wander to the sparkling Bok Globule and see a losing battle being waged with the elements, the dim projector obviously on its last legs and the generator alarmingly sputtering. By this time my past concerns about my input to the experience have become academic, and I have only supportive remarks for the beleaguered operator of the dying light show inside the dome.
Outside again I notice Orion well into the eastern skies, a sign this time of year that it is getting late. I wander in a roundabout manner back to camp when I finally decide I am tired, have some good Scotch I keep in a hip flask, then settle into my tent to lay on my back and hear the merged throbbing from many sources punctuated randomly by exploding fireworks. After I place my foam ear plugs in both ears the noise seems to withdraw to greater and greater distances, finally becoming a feeble ghost of itself as the gentle pressure buildup of the expanding plugs is completed. It is dawn before I fall asleep, and a little too soon when the hot sun on my wind denuded tent wakes me up.
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