The cool of dusk was paradise. Back at camp, The Moonies were shooting potatoes from their CO2 cannon at a stacked pyramid of empty water bottles. A few minutes later, they set a couch on fire and started shooting at that instead. As the curtain of night came down, I hiked to the center-camp stage, arriving for the last song by the Mermen, a bitchin' space rock/surf band from San Francisco.
An emcee in a wizard's costume took the mike. "All right, everybody," he said, "it's just about that time. To the Man!"
The crowd in front of the stage dispersed to join the small clumps and caravans of people approaching from all directions and filing onto Black Rock City's four primary internal roads, all of which led to the Man. The pathways were lined on both sides with tall flame pots, and many in the mob carried torches, like peasants out to storm the palace.
"Don't burn the Man! Don't burn the Man!"
A single-file line of protesters passed me by. It was the Kentucky Fried Chicken tent people again, carrying placards that read, "Save the Man" and "Flaming Men for Burning Man."
Slowly, all the people formed a circle around the Man, with a safety radius of about 75 yards. The Man's arms, which had been at his sides, slowly began to rise until they locked above his head. Fire twirlers and jesters on stilts entertained the crowd. Twenty-five minutes later, I was feeling irritable and impatient, like a little kid waiting for the fireworks in a small town park on the Fourth of July.
I want it go boom, mommy. Make it go boom now.
Finally, with no fanfare, a woman walked up to the Man with a tall, skinny torch and lighted a fuse on one of his legs. A flame shot up and spread through the Man's torso. His head exploded. Blue fireworks shot out of his eyes. He raged in flames for five minutes, then his skeleton collapsed and he crumbled into a fiery heap of wreckage. The hay bales that had defined the viewing perimeter were put to the torch. Drumming and dancing began.
A rave started up around the center stage. Techno pounded through the speaker stacks as a woman in a bat-winged, black-leather dominatrix suit sucked her fingers and danced erotically on a runway. Three men rode by on a mechanized metal cart with four high wagon wheels and a long snout that spewed flame.
Like the night before, I started moving through the madness at random. I took in the first act of a rock opera that featured an actor playing the Unabomber strapped to a cross, then stopped in for some free chai and tabbouleh at the Nub Galactic Tea Kitchen camp, where a deejay inside a tent decorated like a hashish den played hip-hop and dark ambient music. Warmed and fed, I stopped by a nearby camp that was sponsoring an independent film festival, then another showing Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes on a sheet tacked to the side of a camper.
"Avert your eyes," a man called out behind me, seconds before a pile of magnesium ignited 100 feet away and burned with an intense, white heat. My legs ached from walking, and I drew a bead on Colonel Sanders. As I approached the Spiral Oasis, I saw a group of people pushing an oil drum on a freight dolly. One of them carried a rifle. "Come on," someone said, "we're gonna take a barrel of gasoline out into the desert and shoot it with a tracer round."
Turned out the sniper had a night-vision scope. Ten minutes beyond the northeast apex of the festival ground, the group stopped, then retreated about half the distance. The rifleman took aim and fired a green phosphorescent round that streaked into the desert, struck the invisible drum and detonated the gasoline in a most gratifying mushroom-cloud explosion.
Nineteen hours later, I was on the Las Vegas strip. I drank coffee and played blackjack at Luxor, a megacasino/hotel shaped and decorated like an Egyptian pyramid. I decided Vegas was just as surreal as the Burning Man, but with inferior taste.
I poured quarters into a slot machine and tried to assign a meaning to the place I'd been. Was Burning Man a postapocalyptic party before the apocalypse? A dress rehearsal for a spiritually chaotic, hedonistic, creative, communal way of life for after the crash? An exercise in freeform art? A techno-pagan quest for the cathartic release of tribal ritual? Or just a good excuse to load up on drugs and blow up shit?