Saturday is for
me dominated by thoughts of the Burn and what to do about getting
the best view. I have settled into a routine described in past
years regarding limiting water intake during the last hours, planning
ahead for the most comfort of the situation ahead. You have several
hours to experience the Tent City at it's maximum development
and population, then plan or drift into wherever you will be during
the ceremonial climax of the event. Gordon had planned to assist
a new friend who was a fire spinner, so he sadly wasn't going
to be with us.
Walking was a rarity this year due to habitual use of bicycles, but knowing better than to bring them out there that night we set off on a long walk, delightfully interrupted by an offer of a ride in an art car. As the surroundings began turning into dabs of garish afternoon color we glided over the flatness to our destination. The tent had long been stripped away, leaving only the conical log pile beneath the Man.
Once again we sought out a place at about 7:30 along the inner lighted circle, about 90 degrees from the prevailing winds. The Sun still glared over the mountains overlooking Black Rock City as we stood there along with others who had by sunset claimed places along the inner circle.
It felt good to stand as long as one could, because by then my back had begun to gripe about the extraordinary movements and places it was subjected toduring the week. I stood until Rangers began asking people to sit down after the surrounding crowd was over a dozen deep. From above one would have seen a thickening circle of people sharply defined inside by the light circle, with a fuzzy outer region with swarms of people migrating there like ants being attracted to a plate of sugar. As always, people near the center were told to remove bicycles, tripods, coolers and lawn chairs from the area and most complied, although a few foolish people still had blankets spread out with coolers and bags of food and drink, all which would become burdens and possibly dangers once the crowds were set loose.
This year the Rangers in our area are professional and benevolent, with none of the negative authority figure behavour I witnessed last year. As twilight progresses the crowd cacophony grows in volume and complexity. People are made to sit up to about 30 feet back, from there on everyone stands up, all more or less immobile in what is becoming a crowd of some 30,000 people, assuming several thousand choosing more distant vantage points. Cranes with elevated photographers at their tops tower over the multitudes. Beyond the visible crowds the art cars form a loose circle providing elevated vantage points. Here and there bursts of flame flash from so equipped art cars in the distance.
The fire spinning pageant is the main extra attraction one sees from the innermost seated section. The elevation of the Man assists later on when the fireworks begin. From then on most of what happens originates well above the heads of the crowd, providing the kind of widespread satisfactory view one has with a rocket launch. The proceedings somehow seem to drag on this year, with long waits for things to proceed. The Lights on the Man flash to life with a great cheer, the right leg neon partially out. The lights are then turned on and off a few times, perhaps trying to cajole the lagging neon to life, then the Man shines over the arriving performers with all but a single outer bulb on the right leg working. This year there seems to be more people inside the inner circle than ever before as groups of performers, rangers, VIPs and film crews circulate. The arms begin to rise, in a ritualistic gesture for all to come hither. Of course by now most people had arrived who would be anywhere near. The amphitheater like mass of people glowed with chemically luminescent hats, necklaces, wristbands, and hundreds of freely distributed 'light saber' like long wands. Finally the fire spinning starts, with many drummers slowly gathering in number and intensity. The fire dancers are of a wide range of ages, some on stilts, some dancing and using flaming finger wands expressively. There seems to be fewer such performers than in previous years, never is there quite a sensation of overlapping fire squiggles over a wide area. It is a triumph of the organization that there is a Man in front of us at all, standing to be burned at its appointed time. The enormous work that went into creating this reality is proudly displayed as a reborn neon colossus. This is the dominant feeling I while sitting there waiting for the Burn, yet there is also a sense of wondering how much tradition is taking over for its own sake. On the other hand, by this time it is indeed a tradition, with some children of early event participants now probably attending as young adults.
At the first sign of sudden light at the base
of the structure the crowd sonically erupts as if each wants to
be the first to proclaim the start of the Burn. Rows of pink firework
sprays erupt along the arms and hips suggest ing long wing feathers.
Green fireballs rise around the Man, leaving smoke trails spreading
and drifting in the light breeze. A Ranger stands immediately
before some unfortunate people to my left taking pictures, prompting
people to loudly beg him to sit down. I am grateful he isn't a
meter to his right, and briefly wonder why with his freedom of
movement he can't be 15 feet away from us.
Successive caches of distinct batches of fireworks are ignited in turn and flash into brief chromatic glory. One batch whooshes up in unison to bloom in sparkling clusters overhead, another launches a spray of massed rockets fanning out leaving shimmering golden pathways behind, dissolving in the accumulated smoke being constantly lit by new surging skyrockets. At intervals the behavior changes to batches which explode well above the Man spreading colorful branching arches. With a 'whoosh' many incandescent sprays rise, surround and cover the Man, and are joined as they decay by fresh sparkling geysers, spraying up like bunches of incandescent blades of grass sprouting and dying in time lapse. I am reminded of videos of the enigmatic electrical emanations seen flashing into space above massive thunderstorms called 'sprites'. The Man is briefly hidden in a solid brilliant mass of overlapping streaks renewing themselves faster than they decay. Above this other fireworks rise and pop like the sputtering of popcorn being made, and higher still the rate of branching explosions, most green in color, reaches a sustained rate for nearly a minute usually seen but a few moments in most fireworks show finales.
A loud hollow thud
booms over the audience from the base of the Man, already fiercely
burning, as a white flash appears, grows dramatically and turns
golden as it envelopes the base and the Man itself. A fireball
of terrifying dimensions spreads out, rolling out and down at
the edges as the dazzling mass rises. The heat from this massive
fuel explosion briefly interrupts the cool of the night, and the
crowd wails an involuntary chorus with an ascending then descending
note built up from thousands of exclamations of surprise and delight.
The fireball cools at the edges as it rises, twisting and folding
in upon itself as it darkens into a massive smoke ring briefly
outlined by adjacent bursts of fireworks.
The base now burns fiercely, under a Man covered with small blazes but with the neon in the head, arms and upper body somehow still burning green. These go out as soon as I notice them and the process of the Man being consumed begins. Fireworks still roar skyward hissing, screeching and sputtering their brief lives away while the green of the blown neon seems to float around the Man, painted across the surrounding smoke by some distant high power green lasers. Numerous narrow beams from nearby hand held lasers also slice through the smoke.
Drums resume their sustained cacophony as the
fire engulfs the base and creeps up the Man. The fire volume is
less than in the last few years, so the conditions allowing fire
tornadoes to form are barely met. A succession of narrow snake
like twisters carrying few sparks writhe from the main fire and
lazily undulate as they drift downwind. These become targets for
hand held lasers, which slice defiantly at these tall cobra like
This Burn seems to take a long time, the intensity of the fire seeming to 'peak' and starting to peter out with the Man largely charred but still intact. The right arm then partially collapses, raising anticipatory cries from the audience. Dense smoke pours from the length of the figure in a dozen merging streams from along it's entire length. A higher note of collective excitement heralds the collapse of the entire left arm, leaving the remaining portion of the other one appearing to point at something in the distance.
The tall bonfire finally totters, leans to its left and collapses into a concentrated mass of sparks swarming and rolling forth in vast billows. The crowd is worked up into a frenzy yelling, screaming and bellowing into the night as thousands of people get up and begin the final exodus to the central fire. We head toward that blazing center through a crowd that seems to be mainly walking. Here and there chains of people hold hands as they run. It would have been nice to arrive 20 seconds earlier, but the instantly formed dense crowd ahead isn't very deep so we surge through the current of humanity, briefly finding it uncomfortably packed with not much more than breathing room. For a terrible moment I feel like I am being fed into the fire by a mass migration beyond my control.
We break through to the brilliantly hot empty region beyond sustained human endurance. The huge bonfire is spread before me, with a roughly radial arrangement of the collapsed logs looking like a magnified version of the typical image of a campfire. The Man's head and upper spine lie still intact on their side along one edge of the conflagration. This time I made sure my video recorder wasn't stuck on 'pause' as at this occasion last year. This swarming around the central fire is a kind of mass enactment of swarming phenomenon on many scales like the fertilization of a Mammalian egg or the gathering of matter into a spiral accretion disk swirling around massive stellar objects. Being here is like the climax of a pilgrims journey to Mecca, circling and reaching out for the central sacred spot. It is the peak experience of the week. This also marks the first signs of the unraveling of the event, like being in some kind of magic city with less than 36 hours to exist before dissolving and drifting away.
Whooping, yipping and cheering rise from beyond
this fiercely crackling central furnace. There is happy crowd
babble and cries of excitement but somehow it seems surprisingly
quiet here in the fire zone. It is fiercely hot, only my down
jacket insulates me. I am at the same distance as Firemen wearing
protective clothing, and my pant leg cloth is almost unbearably
hot on my skin so I turn around frequently while taping visual
impressions of this nucleus of the event. People stretch their
bodies and writhe in the ecstasy of the moment, others cringe
against the blistering heat. There are costumes, fur coats, tall
hats, scanty rags, and nothing on the bodies I see. Waving hands,
light sabers and cameras are glimpsed above the heads of people
fading into the cool darkness beyond.
The crowd around
the fire tend to spiral in a counterclockwise direction because
most people are right handed and often choose that direction in
a quick decision. Michael suggests we keep going with the crowd
flow to avoid getting bumped. While I hesitate a brutally loud
explosion expels glowing debris and my hearing is alarmingly suddenly
reduced and replaced by a high pitched ringing. It is like a gun
shot at close range, and While worrying about my ears I decided
I have had enough, yelling 'Let's get out of here!' to Michael.
If I had moved on around the fire with the crowd I would have
been a fraction of the distance from that explosion.
Taking a last look at the intimate inferno I turn and as gently as possible maneuver my way through the horribly dense innermost mass of people shoving their way inwards. finally there are empty spaces between people and I can take off my down jacket whose insulation's heating from the fire had reached the interior. The relief from the heat and sweat is nearly as great as when diving into a cool pool from a hot sauna. The cold night air feels so good, and at last I drink all the water I want. Looking back at the bonfire a large star shaped wooden framework, with a pair of bicycles lashed on to it, is passed along over the heads of the crowd and fed into the flames.
Here and there ephemeral
mini communities form among large music blaring contrivances.
Across the dark playa people swarm among hundreds of attractions,
with numerous art cars aglow with electrical, chemical and ultraviolet
powered radiance while lasers wave their green lines across the
The horizon sparkles with pulsing lights punctuated by flaring eruptions among the multicolored neon skyline of giant stages, towers, tents and domes. Beyond all this the bright Moon lights up the nearby broken cloud cover.
We walked back to camp and broke out the electrolyte laced drinks and began to replenish our abused bodies. Parting ways I then went out for a few hours on my bicycle, pausing at this or that center of activity. I didn't bring a camera this time, feeling in a mood to be unencumbered. Along my travels I came upon the burn of the massive Crude Awakening tower. Among the smoke and sparks it appeared magnified into a startlingly tall apparition looming like one of H.G. Wells' Martian invaders.
While turning my bike in a wide circle the scene suddenly erupted with a yellow radiance heating my back, spinning about I watched the largest fire cannon ever built roar its contents into the sky, enveloping the tower in the process. The fireball may have been a couple hundred feet wide, fed by a series of carefully timed and directed sprays of fuel toward the apex of the flame. This fireball dwarfed the earlier one during the burning of the Man. The mushroom cloud billowed with cooling red outlined currents as it rose, quickly fading into a black widening column lifting with it thousands of sparks. Finally the roaring tower of flame leaned crazily in slow motion and collapced to the ground with a roar. The spark cloud appeared as a solid mass that broke up into overlapping swarms of golden locusts rolling and spiraling in the churning air, rising and drifting in loose formations far downwind.
Our little group finally met at camp, where we shared some refreshments in private to cap off the night. I learned that Gordon was fairly close to us on the inner circle to our right, sitting on the plastic tarp thrown his way yesterday by the storm. As the Man collapsed, he stood up, stretched, looked around and the tarp was gone, passed by fate to other hands.