Burn the Man!

Playing with fire at the 1997 Burning Man festival

A quarter mile northeast from the Church of the Orbital Orgy, a family--mom, dad, big brother, sis--sat on a couch, watching television. "They're toast," I thought. And they were. The couch suddenly lurched forward, jerked to a stop for a second, then hyperaccelerated and smashed into the TV, which was rigged to explode, and did. The suburbanites--crash-test dummies, actually--began to burn. The crowd roared like Roman gladiator fans. Behind me, someone lighted the fuse on a brick of 10,000 firecrackers. As they erupted, a massive geodesic sphere rolled by, carrying a naked woman. She was painted gold and strapped to a chair suspended in the craft's center. Inside the sphere, mounted speakers blared techno music and a strobe light flashed like ice-blue automatic-weapons fire.

That's five minutes of what I remember from the 1997 Burning Man, the most dangerous underground art festival in the world. And one of the best parties. An annual gathering of freaks in the desert, about 12,000 this year, who come to make art, get naked, help build a temporary city, and then burn large parts of it down. The festival--equal parts Mardi gras, The Road Warrior and techno-pagan fire rite--climaxes on Sunday night, every Labor Day weekend, when organizers torch a towering wood effigy of a human, packed with explosives. "Burn the Man!" is the event's rallying cry.

By now, the story of Burning Man's origin is part of global pop-culture mythos: In 1986, San Francisco resident Larry Harvey built a large wooden man in the aftermath of a shattered love affair, took it to Baker Beach one Labor Day weekend with friends, and set it on fire. Last year, several news stories on the festival said the man was an effigy of the guy Harvey's lover left him for, but Harvey recently said no, it was an act devoid of any specific meaning. Either way, it was a rush, and it drew an audience. Harvey and his friends kept building men, and burning them every Labor Day weekend, word spread, and the crowds got larger.

In 1990, at the City of San Francisco's insistence, the party moved elsewhere--to the no man's land of a dry, prehistoric lake bed, deep in the Nevada desert, about 127 miles northwest of Reno. Until this year, Burning Man was held on federal Bureau of Land Management property in the center of the wasteland, 14 miles from the nearest road. It drew big numbers from various shades of Bay Area counterculture--ravers, Wiccans, machine artists, computer programmers, experimental musicians and other alternative-lifestyle enthusiasts. The festival doubled in size four years in a row, and hit 10,000 last year when it also suffered its first fatality. A drunken motorcyclist, riding at night, with no headlights, was killed when he ran into the side of a parked van. Also, two campers were seriously injured when a car ran over their tent on the outskirts of the festival; and a local sheriff arrested a man for selling drugs when he casually displayed his pot and psychedelic wares on a blanket like they were incense sticks and tiny Buddha statues.

This year, Burning Man was held on the same dry lake bed, but the site was private ranch land only half a mile from the highway. Washoe County officials imposed 121 restrictions on the festival's use permit. They also forced organizers to take out an $11 million insurance policy and pay $321,000 for police and fire protection. Tickets to Burning Man were $40 last year. This year, the price increased to $50 in advance, $75 at the festival. Unlike the past, when gate crashers could easily drive around the pay point to reach the festival site, the Burning Man '97 site was protected on all sides by mud bogs, dense brush and natural moats. The site itself--christened Hualapai ("Wall-a-pie") Playa, after the vanished Native American tribe--was an oval of flat, white, hardpan alkali about three miles in diameter.

Moving closer to pavement may have been necessary for the festival's survival, but it was clearly a sacrifice. In past years, the Mad Max road rally from the highway to the festival site was part of Burning Man's postapocalyptic charm. For miles and miles, you raced across the cracked earth, cyclones of dust trailing behind you, until finally, on the distant horizon, you could see a tiny matchstick man that slowly grew in size, multicolored dome tents sprinkled at his feet like a thousand marbles. This year, you could see the Man from the traffic jam on Nevada state Highway 54.

He was illuminated with neon rods that changed color from violet to green and stood atop a platform of hay bales. The Man was shorter this year, four stories instead of six--and no longer the festival's center point. Festivalgoers used to camp in a chaotic spiral outward from the Man. This year, camping was restricted to a designated semicircle with an internal grid and clearly defined main roads. "Last year it was circles," said a friend. "This year it's squares, like a trailer park."

I rolled in to the festival around 7:30 p.m. Friday, August 29, the third night, and meandered until I spotted a Kentucky Fried Chicken exit sign, its arrow pointed heavenward. I recognized it from my first Burning Man last year, when I camped with the household and entourage of The Moon, a co-op house in San Luis Obispo, California. I was in luck. The Moonies are cool, and camping near a tall beacon--like, say, a fluorescent sign pilfered from Colonel Sanders--is key to finding one's tent at 4:30 a.m. after a full night of the Burning Man experience. This year, the Moon crew arrived in a Merry Prankster school bus dubbed "Beelzebus." As I reintroduced myself, I learned I had missed The Moon's performance-art experiment that afternoon.

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