Burn the Man!

Playing with fire at the 1997 Burning Man festival

Burning Man is mind-bending enough during the day, but the festival truly thrives at night. Late Saturday afternoon, as the heat relented and a pink sunset flowered in the dusk, a howl went up and spread through the festival until thousands of voices were raised in a primal, wordless release. Then it's on.

A good time-management strategy for Burning Man at night is to walk at random. When you see fire, go that way. I did, and came to a machine that looked like the metal frame and wheels of a charred covered wagon, but with a 20-foot industrial drill for a snout. The machine rolled slowly along on its giant, spoked wheels for a while, then stopped. The drill powered up with a whine and began spinning madly, the machine's handlers screamed, "Get back, get back," then the snout breathed fire like a dragon.

Nearby, two men torched a giant face of rope with spinning fireworks for eyes. A leaf blower spit flaming sawdust through its gaping mouth. Naked forms ran by, swinging huge maces of burning steel wool they periodically smashed on the desert floor. Someone ignited a brick of magnesium with a blowtorch. The eerie, white flame seared my eyes.

Blinking painfully, I started walking toward South Camp, a quarter mile away. A man wearing a suit of flashing red LED lights cartwheeled past me. At South Camp, I stopped to watch a game of Alien Chess, played on a large-scale (20-foot-square), black-and-green board with blue and red, two-foot-high metal alien pieces, all of which glowed in the dark. After checkmate, I strolled down the main road, lingering at the Temple of Atonement to watch the live S&M action.

Desperate for a place to chill, I beelined to Bianca's Smut Shack, a communal tent with a simple formula--beds, chairs, couches and porn. Bianca's had a kitchen, and bare-chested waiters bore trays of complimentary grilled-cheese-sandwich squares, jalapeno poppers and cigarettes. Some carried jugs of sangria, and spray bottles of margaritas they spritzed into willing mouths. Heaven. I kicked it on a couch, leafing through a Spanish catfight mag, until I noticed an exodus was under way. Something about an opera.

It was put on by the Daughters of Ishtar, and purportedly reenacted a 3,000-year-old ritual honoring Ishtar, Sumerian goddess of love and war. The "opera" was mostly wailing and fire-dancing--routine for Burning Man--but did have two nice touches: a horned Pan character who gave away fruit from a horn-of-plenty and a diva who gushed wine from the nipple of her metal breastplate. The piece culminated with the immolation of the main set--a phallic temple that, to the disappointment of many, never fully collapsed. At the Burning Man festival, burning something without burning it down is viewed with the same disdain some hold for tantric sex and decaffeinated coffee. I soon got bored, scanned the horizon for the KFC beacon, and, shivering from cold, set course for Colonel Sanders.

Radio Free Burning Man broke the news of Princess Di's fatal car accident in the morning, which quickly turned into a massive game of telephone. By afternoon, rumor had Ronald Reagan and Dolly Parton dead as well. I laid low in Bianca's most of the day, venturing out to chat up a film crew shooting footage for an indie flick called Road Daze. Evidently, the script has the two main characters top off an epic road trip with four days at Burning Man. A water truck drove along the main road in South Camp, wetting down the dust. Several nudists followed behind, dancing in the spray. At dusk, I cruised around the desert for a while in a human-scale, free-rolling hamster wheel I found parked near the Moon camp, then got ready for The Burn.

People gathered around the Man at dark, forming a circle with a 50-yard safety radius. A wild procession from Center Camp arrived shortly after 8--the mobile living room, robots, the oompah band, several drum troupes, standard-bearers wearing goat masks, fairies, dominatrixes, a rocket that belched blue flame, fire swallowers, and thousands of freaks carrying torches like peasants storming Dracula's castle.

Slowly, the Man's arms rose from its sides and locked in a victory position. The crowd went rabid. A man in a Mylar suit walked to the hay platform, set himself on fire and ran up the steps. He gyrated like a self-immolated puppet for a few seconds and lighted a fuse on one of the Man's legs before he ran down the other side, and rolled around on the ground to put himself out.

First, fire blasted from the Man's feet and hands, then slowly crept up his legs, torso and finally his arms, setting off thousands of sparklers and firecrackers along the way. Two minutes after the fuse was lighted, his head exploded. Colored balls of fire rocketed upward. The Man wobbled drunkenly for a few seconds, then crashed to the ground. Catharsis.

Some people ran up and tossed handfuls of money into the flames. Others set fire to every hay bale and wooden structure in the vicinity. Stilt-walkers in evil clown costumes ran wobbly through the chaos. Two men in bunny suits watched impassively as the rocket thing spewed blue flame. A camera crew from MSNBC was chased from the area by a mob chanting "Burn the Media!" The festival was now a frenzy.

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