The Night of the Burning Man

Saturday night we rode our bikes toward the beacon of the Burning Man at the very center of Black Rock City. On his platform maze in the growing darkness, the Man glowed brilliant white as the clouds hid the light of the stars and the moon. All around us there went a strange procession of cyclists, pedestrians and fantastically-shaped vehicles crawling with lighted creatures, both real and imagined. All together, we made our way to the huge ring around the man where people sat five to ten deep and behind them the people stood. Beyond the standing crowd the people on the larger rolling discos and decorated cranes watched from above and we all listened to the beating of many drums. Hundreds of fire dancers took their places in the huge ring around the Man. Armed with flaming balls on chains, fiery staffs, twirling hoops, the dancers tumbled and twisted, dancing dangerously close to each other and the seated crowd. The many uniformed fire control staff were watchful and friendly, ever mindful of safety and lawsuits …

We only saw one guy catch on fire. He caught fire twice. Right before our eyes a creaky old guy on stilts wobbles to the edge of the fire dancers’ circle, parting the troupe of lovely, costumed fire nymphs. Stilts tied with rags to his legs, he clumsily swings his fireballs while teetering dangerously. For a short time he swings his fireballs in unison, arms outstretched, he basks in the crowd’s attention. All eyes are upon … Him!!! Suddenly, he staggers, his arms give out, he touches one of his flaming balls on a string to the flapping rags that bind the stilt to his leg. We watched in fascination. We watched his face and saw his horror and his fear. I, too, felt fear and horror as I watched him burn. But I was hopeful … and soon was cheering with the crowd as the other fire dancers ran to his rescue with smothering blankets all in the sparkling blink of a twirling eye. Dragged away to the center of the fire dancers’ circle, he reemerges later, without his stilts. He holds a blanket and prepares to smother the flame of a nubile young performer. Instead of extinguishing her fire, his shirt-sleeve ignites and he is once again smothered and beaten and dragged from the crowd.

The drums pulsate and the dancers dance faster. Mesmerized by their strength and grace we cheer them on until one by one they put out their flames. The drumming stops. The lights on the Burning Man go dark. There is a silence in the crowd. And then I watch the man explode. An entire firework factory showcase must have been installed at the base of the Burning Man because the explosions went on and on, raising a thick cloud of smoke that obliterated the Man from our sight … and then, fireworks still spouting and shrieking, the flames began to lick the base of the Burning Man. After the last spark of pyrotechnics had died the Man appeared again. His lowered arms began to move, to reach out, reach up and the people went nuts. I watched as the flames rose higher and higher and burned hotter and hotter … and hotter. The fire dancers’ circle was completely empty now, save for the fire-suited professionals required by federal law. The faces in the crowd were transfixed and aglow. The heat from the fire soon began to create fiery, tall, wispy tornados filled with sparks and flame. Pushed by the wind through the hapless crowd, these fire-devils rained coals and soot and choking smoke. Some people bathed in the vortexes of the fire devils, while dancing and swatting their heads. The skeleton of the man could be seen through the flames, stark black against the white hot waves of fire. It was the largest, most spectacular fire I had ever seen. “Incredible,” I think. “WOWWW!!!” I breathe, as I bask with my lover in its heat.

After a while, the Burning Man begins to collapse and the professional firefighters back away. The crowd moves toward the lessening flames and the heap of glowing embers. Some idiots poke smoldering lumber in the coals and even walk on the fire. The people begin to move around the Man, counter clockwise. They sing and chant. Drums begin to beat. We drift for a while with the current of the crowd and feel the press of bodies carrying us along in the flow. In silent agreement, Eric and I glide out from the crowd. We make our way to the edge of the Burning Man’s circle and to the darkness beyond to find our bikes. The art cars and the cranes and the mobile discos were moving away, thumping off in every direction, off to the next event, the Afterburn, the united, joyous release of all our hopes and fears for the future … to celebrate fully, The Present …

Back at camp we somehow all arrive by 10:30 as planned. After replenishing our drinks, we hop on Gary’s cloud car. There is even room for my bike and Eric’s. We proceed with hilarity back to the playa, out to a formerly unoccupied space. Miraculously, we find a huge open air disco powered by many moving installations. A giant flower light, four stories high, has poised its glowing bloom like a chandelier over the heads of the revelers below. A towering venus flytrap lurks nearby. Thousands dance on the desert dance floor, but we keep to the edges of the fray, dancing and watching on the fringe. The carnival atmosphere is so surreal! It is Halloween and Mardi Gras and Earth day-gone-Hollywood all rolled into one. The fantastic lights of the art cars maneuver dreamily, slowly, twining their way though the glowing multitude. Longingly I look out to the darkness circling the festival. We leave the crowd behind and take a blanket out to the pods. Along the way we pass the giant haystack filled to bursting with techno and dancers, neither one of us wants to be inside. Invisible, we ride to the darkest outer edge. The pods are filled, so we throw our blanket on the ground well away, we think, from anyone or anything. We rest on the ground sitting close and together enjoy the silence and the darkness, for a while.

by chris logan

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Tales From the Playa

Tales From the Playa are dreams and memories of events that took place at Burning Man, as told by participants. Submit your story here.