Fire Dancers gathered to places along
the secured zone and many variations of safety instructions were
delivered, mainly that we might have to be ready to get away quick
at a moments notice and that the crowd will start moving but should
do so only after the verbal Go ahead is given. Tripods and tables
were warned away from the inner zone, citing the 'rush' to come.
Drumming gathered in loudness and number of sources, and various
instruments trilled into the gathering twilight. A pair of large
winged puppets with heads resembling the draconian flying reptile
'Dimorphodon' bounced over the heads of the crowd behind me. Glimpsed
behind the hundreds turning into thousands were major art cars
moving in to themselves supply elevated viewpoints.
The inner 30 feet or so of people were directed to sit down, giving those standing beyond that point a 'second inner tier' from which to enjoy the view. It will be impossible to move while waiting for the festivities to start but I occasionally stood and stretched while I could before the actual ceremonies began. Our Ranger was a whiskered humorous fellow who cracked jokes and chain smoked, every few minutes dealing with people who lacked the laminate which entitled them to be within the restricted inner safety zone. He was very good at dealing with people playing stupid or trying to bulldoze their way in without credentials, handing off one or two especially persistent folks to others closer in to deal with.
The intensity of the collective mood steadily grows and events begin to converge toward the peak moment of the week. As a paraglider buzzes in sounding like an aerial gas lawn mower I follow its looping path overhead, when suddenly the Man lights up, there is a flash and a close series of bangs and several rockets leap straight up from all around the Man, leaving trails of golden sparks and twisting columns of white smoke which drift to the right. For a moment I think there has been an accident! Nothing more happens, apparently this is but a more dramatic signal to the multitudes to gather. From everywhere in the Tent City the inward exodus dramatically accelerates, thousands of people moving in seeing how far into the dense gathering crowd around the well elevated Man one can venture. Drumming and music fills the air, someone nearby plays crazily on a small horn with a middle eastern sound. Above it all reddish Mars looms in the otherwise nearly starless night.
I can see the Man and its attendant guards and performers beautifully, however of my outer surroundings I can see little more than the innermost circular boundary of people. Flashes of fire lit glow flare along the horizon, and occasional bright warm fire light comes from directly behind, casting long shadows including my own some distance ahead. Our Ranger offers to take my camera, I leave it running and he walks side to side and aims it behind me for about 30 seconds, catching a bright fire spraying art car that slowly moves in an apparently fairly clear area some 40 feet out at the edge of the crowd. Thanking him profusely, a cheering rises from the crowd and I see the arms of the Man being raised into the darkness, the traditional gathering signal for the community! The first 'wave' of fire performers use hand held flame throwers, bursts of fire puffing up across the empty inner circle.
Suddenly something goes wrong, the eastern extended arm of the Man loses its locked position and swings back down, slamming against the side and bouncing a little as the crowd groans. Incredibly, the neon stays lit. Now the man is waving or giving a fascist salute!
Quickly the arm is raised again, and
thousands cheer in encouragement as it is slowly worked back to
the high position. Wild celebrating and whistling signals both
arms being raised again, and for 6 seconds victory is expressed
like a game winning move at a sports event! Then suddenly the
arm support gives way again and it swings back down faster than
before, upon impact shattering the neon in that arm and along
the eastern leg beneath it sending a tall puff of white smoke
downwind from the blown tubes. The rest of the blue neon on the
Man continues to glow, this accident remaining a relatively minor
one considering all the pyrotechnics adorning everything. The
Man now waves good-by for its last minutes of life.
The fire performers scarcely miss a beat, professionally paying attention to what they are doing. The next act in the fire ceremonies are hundreds of people twirling fire batons, wearing blazing head gear and fanlike masses of finger torches, all moving gracefully as the fire dancers began spinning a living carpet of twirling spinning fire around the Blue colossus.
Without warning a series of rockets brilliantly rise vertically around the Man as before but this time as the opening salvo of an impressively drawn out finale. Broad surges of dense rocket clusters roar from the smoke leaving trails like a bamboo forest in their wakes. Another closely timed mass burst hides the Man for several seconds within an incandescent glittering column like a caricature of a volcanic blast, the paths of the climbing rockets flaring outwards looking for a moment like a fiber optic light with the colored lights at the ends of the diverging luminous fibers.
With a loud bang the first of a series of yet brighter rockets surge yet higher. A series of red flares luridly light a deep orange red the entire volume of smoke now enveloping half the pedestal. More rockets appear in loose and tight groupings, the leftover smoke trails often being lit in reds and blues by fireworks, flares and the persistent central neon glow.
From the arms of the Man neat little rows of fountains erupt, suggesting golden blazing wing feathers, although those of the fallen arm are directed downwards. A beautiful golden waterfall like pattern of fireworks then sprays up a little like a luminous fountain, covers the upper pedestal and drips down the sides with other similar fountains looking like liquid gold for a few special moments.
A flash and loud burst heralds fiery columns roaring up and out, fanning out and seemingly crowding against each other as they rise up and nearly overhead!
By now I use the camera passively in its wide angle zoom setting only to supplement the unmatchable sight, holding it where I know is roughly where the focus of the action is. No viewfinder must come between me and the multicolored sparkling dazzle filling the sky. It is a moment of visual ecstasy. Massive areas of the sky above the Man fill with overlapping spears of sparkling whiteness. Exploding skyrockets send out sputtering branches high overhead, weaving a momentary latticework ceiling among the golden spark laden billows. The spreading dense smoke cloud streaming from the pedestal quickly gives way to brilliant fire. The dark billows enveloping the man become incandescent waves of fire, from which substantial amount of rockets still emerge. The Man quickly disappears as a minor detail within the wide pedestal fire.
As the Man is engulfed in the conflagration the head and body neon still glows blue, but not that in the remaining extended arm. Major fire fountain eruptions occur at the pedestal corners which become the sources of fires which work their way towards the central blaze. Great blasts are heard but go unseen except as colored glows within the deepest eddies of the dense rolling smoke cloud. The wind direction has shifted, the smoke now almost passing overhead. The five fires converge, briefly leaving only the outer corners of the sprawling pyramid not yet burning.
This fire is becoming uncomfortably hot, even at this distance. Rapid bursts of internal explosions remind me of great crazily beaten drums. The smoke column widens and rolls into curling folds roughly hollowing out the spreading central canopy as part of it passes overhead. Thousands of sparks swarm along its rolling heat currents, but most remain far overhead. Large slabs of burning canvas and wood chips are carried about in roaring waves of heat still gathering their fury close to the fire. Another cache of skyrockets bursts partially inside the opaque smoke but dramatically partially emerges to compete with the spectacle below. My attention darts again to the base where twisting masses of flame are breaking away to form fire tornadoes, directly in front of the fire from my direction. For a few moments part of the darkened man reappears, arm still extended but missing the lights and most of the head.
The drumming attains an adrenaline fired intensity and the crowd roars in approval as the first of the several tornadoes or 'fire devils' if you will, forms, dancing around like a spinning length of transparent hollow tubing. It dissolves and reforms to writhe in dark silhouette against the brilliant fiery background. They move almost directly toward me initially but thankfully veer to the right. A new denser tornado appears, writhing and scouring furiously at the fire lit playa. It appears both in silhouette and as a backlit funnel towering overhead.
crowd roars continuously, yipping and whistling in its restlessness.
The fall of the man goes unseen from here, the actual moment of
unleashing the spirit of the night being held off as the pedestal
continues to blaze and bring forth dancing fire snakes.
People near the inferno give signals to outer layers of Rangers to keep the crowd back. Now the near anarchy is to begin at some stage in the collapse of the blazing pedestal. The center of the structure falls in where the remains of the Man must have been and people hurriedly get up, reviving numb limbs and preparing to move when the go ahead is given. "OK" is finally yelled and I run straight toward the fire, past almost everyone and enjoying the precious moments of open space now available up to the distance where the fire is too hot.
People whoop it up as they run in small groups at first in a vast counterclockwise spiral towards the still largely blazing shell. Standing fast against the crowd direction to watch another tornado, I have a glancing collision with someone running by. Fortunately both my hat and glasses are secure and only need a little readjusting.
More people run into this still fairly clear hot inner zone, and I notice how long it is taking to fill up this time as opposed to earlier years. Not allowing myself to be carried by the crowd to where the sparks are densely drifting to the ground is a priority. For a time the spark filled low roof of smoke above and the dust kicked up below as well as everyone around me is lit a fiery orange as people run, dance, and incredulously stare at the still punishingly hot inferno. It looks like people having a hell of a good time in hell! A few dash by the blaze closer than they can remain just for the thrill of it. Some run in lines and hold hands, a few run naked in the ancient light. Closer than anyone cares to go are people in silver fire protective fire suits still forming an inner ring to warn people away. I am still at the innermost border of a huge gathering crowd bounded by survivable conditions. Being able to move pretty much as I please is such a blessing, the cool air opposite the side of the fire feeling so good. The pyramid still preserves its structural shape but it is making the transition to a giant bonfire.
The crowd near the fire started getting
too dense for my comfort, and I made my way to the edge to wander
for hours separated from anyone I knew. it was very crowded anywhere
near where the Man was, and things like art cars and even major
art projects were only locally visible. The bonfire provided a
kind of reference point well into the night just because of its
size, but later the absence of the Man seemed disorienting. I
just walked for miles in different directions hearing the musical
cacophony, which consisted largely of live sounds tonight. Of
course drums reberverated everywhere and horns of all sizes blared
from a dozen places. There were independent fireworks but much
less than the days they were allowed. The burn platforms were
all used, lighting up their corners of the playa. People ran and
wandered singly and in groups, couples stood together apparently
oblivious to everything but each other, and tens of thousands
of people celebrated being there.
I briefly returned to my camp and left
a message Mike would fine indicating all was well, since we were
separated at the initial rush of the crowd.
Returning to the site of the Man I glanced amused at the spot in the ring of lights I had sat for over two hours and moved on into the modest group surrounding the wide well burned area. It looked like a pond of mostly darkly encrusted lava with a few active smaller fires scattered about, but with dark regions people were walking over. I actually walked about 20 feet into one of the dark paths of ashes among the glowing coals, but I was cautious about the possibility of stepping on nails!
I soon wanted to be cool and safe again
and headed back out, but a group of people kneeling near something
caught my eye. It turned out to be the biggest candle I have ever
seen, the wax seemingly having been poured into something the
size of a small spa with a thick rag like wick burning like a
torch amid a pond of melted wax , which people were gingerly scooping
up and playing with.
I finally made it to Center Camp and enjoyed a lemonade drink and then used the remaining ice to cool my water. After an unsuccessful attempt to find a group of friends at the then empty Tethered Aviation Camp I was near sensory overload and made it back to camp as Orion loomed in the Eastern skies.
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