The day to burn that Man

Hanging around the "Minaret."

It was a day and a night, and one blended into the other, and the experiences were not what you thought they were going to be, and then the ones that did happen according to plan became something else entirely.

We realize there’s no authoritative way to get an overview of what’s happening here, so we don’t really try. That’s one of the good things about so many people having so many different experiences, and maybe it’s one of the reasons why it is so hard to quantify the whole Burning Man experience. It’s this, but it’s also that. It’s my experience, it’s your experience, it’s ours together and it’s ours alone.

Umbrella man was back again this year, doing his thing in the afternoon sun.

We sat on the Poop Deck for a bit, a second-story structure that allowed us to look out over the Center Cafe and out into the open playa, and we thought about all the people having their own Burns — the ravers and dancers, the wanderers, the camps hosts, their guests, the old friends, the new acquaintances. It’s easy to think of all this as a communal exercise in shared joy, and lots of times it is, but there are plenty of times that it’s not, and you’re making your way on your own or with your friend or small group of friends.

It’s a little like traveling alone — the highs are so high, and the valleys so deep.

We like to explore our immediate neighborhood, and yesterday we went out to 6:30 and D to catch up with friends at Red Lightning. There was a group meditation exercise going on, more than a hundred people under the shade of a teepee, being led on their journey by a woman who helped them isolate their pain and banish it. We lingered on the outskirts for a bit, then decided that our thirst was of a more physical realm, so we took a seat at the bar across the street at the Conscious Dreaming camp.

There were spirit centers all down the road at 6:30 and D

The group there was part of a larger collection of camps that were completely off the grid — they were entirely wind and solar powered. They were successful enough so that the tap beer was wonderfully chilled. Jeanette was behind the bar. She’d traveled to the Burn from the Cayman Islands, where she is involved in … right, you guessed it, financial services.

Then we made our way through the environs, more sacred spaces and yoga centers and places for enlightened spiritual quests. And just as in any big city, one neighborhood blended into the next, and suddenly we found ourselves in the Art Car Camp, and then onward to the Home Brew Camp, where in addition to alcoholic libations of all kinds, there was a homemade Banana Soda that … well, it was just so damn good. (It could certainly stand up to the addition of vodka, too. Just a thought.)

There were places for reflection and meditation.

The day was wondrously beautiful — again! The rain early in the week has given way to one of the most beautiful string of days the event has ever enjoyed. And there are lots of people enjoying it. As of Friday afternoon, there were 48,915 people in Black Rock City, and it’s nice to see the city growing again. To our knowledge, last year was the first that saw a population decline, but it’s back on the upswing again. How big will it get? And looking into the future, how big can the afford to be? (Word came today, Saturday, that the population of the city had reached 50,504, which would make this the largest Burn ever, at least unofficially at this point.)

Evening came and plans emerged. Megatropolis, the city at the far end of the playa,  would be torched around 9. Before that, there was to be an explosion that was said to be the largest that’s ever been attempted on the playa. So off we went.

The art cars gathered for the big Megatropolis burn.

We were here in 2007 when Crude Awakening went off, and it was hard to believe that anything could top that. But last night’s giant blast of flaming … propane was it? that exploded just past dusk was huge. We weren’t ready for it at all. One minute, we were standing and chatting happily, the next a giant roar of flame filled the sky, and the heat and light pushed us back almost unconsciously.

The art car / mutant vehicle crowd gathered for the Megatropolis burn.

The gathered crowd then biked and walked and rode over to Megatropolis for their big fiery show. The city’s buildings had been heavily tagged with graffiti, a real pain of a problem this year. The Temple has also been defaced, and you’re surprised to see it, and you’re surprised that it could happen to what is usually a much-revered space. But the canvas that the Temple has provided is unique — there are broad plains of whitewashed wood that the taggers have found irresistible. Jess Hobbs and Rebecca Anders and others have been struggling to accept what’s happened to the Temple.

But this was Megatropolis’ night. The pyrotechnics were sophisticated. The city glowed red before fireworks started shooting out of the tops of the buildings. Then the Pyramid caught fire, and it burned the way you kind of thought it would. There were more fireworks, and more special effects, and then lots and lots more fire, and in half an hour the city was incinerated.

The opening moments of the Megatropolis burn.
The firelight kissed the crowd.
It wasn't long before Megatropolis became a pile of flaming embers.

As if on cue, the wind came up and brought with it a blinding whiteout. It caught many by surprise, because the day had been so gentle. You just didn’t think you’d need the goggles and facemasks and headlamps on a night like this, but things turned, and then suddenly you really needed them. We inched our way back to the Center Cafe … inch by dusty windblown inch. We all looked like we had white clown makeup on by the time we reached home.

We arrived just in time for the finish of the Battle of the Marching Bands, the uproarious event emceed every year by Raspa, the night he calls his favorite event of the week. Band after band performed to loud cheers and claps, and eventually a winner was declared (though alas we couldn’t determine the name, but perhaps a commenter will fill in the details.)

The annual Battle of the Marching Bands took place in the Center Cafe.

Stephen Raspa awarded a tropy to the winner of the battle.

At 11 or so, the radio crackled again with details of the setup for the Mutaytor show, this time a second-story affair complete with aerialists. But the wind and the dust put an end to the high-flying plans, but the music was great.

And on and on it went, long into the night, the art cars roaming and blaring, the music camps in full roar, the Center Cafe offering shelter from the storm. By the middle of the night, the wind had died, the stars became visible again, and all of a sudden you realized it was the day of the Burn. No more counting down. The Man burns today.

About the author: John Curley

John Curley (that's me) has been Burning since the relatively late date of 2004, and in 2008 I spent the better part of a month on the playa, documenting the building and burning of Black Rock City in words and pictures. I loved it, and I've been doing it ever since. I was a newspaper person in a previous life, and I spent many years at the San Francisco Chronicle. At the time I left, in 2007, I was the deputy managing editor in charge of Page One and the news sections of the paper. Since then, I've turned a passion for photography into a second career. I shoot for editorial, commercial and private clients. I've also taught a little bit, including two years at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and a year at San Francisco State University. I live on the San Mateo coast, just south of San Francisco in California.

13 Comments on “The day to burn that Man

  • Dirt Wheel says:

    Truley amazing work John. Felt like I was there with ya. You’ve made this time away from the burn a lot easier. Don’t stop. I’ve been watchin’ on the upstream video feed as well. Really kool. I have an old bandanna from last year covered in playa dust. I kind of wave it around, it brings me back.

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  • ms trouble says:

    I *think* the winning marching band was called the Titanium Sporkestra. (Hope I got that right.) The competition was fierce, but these kids really rocked the center camp. What fun!

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  • Steve says:

    Have fun at the burn!!!

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  • John Curley says:

    Thanks Dirt Wheel, and thanks Ms Trouble!

    And we’ll try, Steve. :)

    Altho it’s blowing pretty darn hard as we speak …

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  • Jay Fab says:

    Thanks for the updates, really great. I miss being there!

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  • Karlamatic says:

    Thanks for writing this. Wish I could be there taking it in, but hey, its only what, 370 days to go…

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  • Kathleen says:

    Love your writing! I feel as close to the city as I can be. It’s an amazing time! Thanks for keeping us all involved. Peace Kathleen

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  • Megan says:

    I am in awe and borderline obsessed with the Burn and all that it encompasses. Sad that I couldn’t make it out this year, but I am most definitely going to lose my “virginity” next year. Until then you’re stories will keep me inspired and looking forward to it.

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  • Yes! We, Titanium Spokestra took home the coveted Battle of the Bands trophy this year. All the marching bands were great; we are honored. The show was a blast.


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  • Claire Stern says:

    What a pleasure reading your blogs and what a great surprise to see my son’s photo at the very end because, as enjoyable as all the other marchings bands are, Seattle’s TITANIUM SPORKESTRA won the Battle of the Marching Bands. I have lived vicariously through these blogs because I had to cancel and sell my tickets to BM this year (Boo hoo) at the last minute. See you all on the Playa next year. TITANIUM SPORKESTRA RULES *******************

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  • Grego says:

    Graffiti wasn’t a “problem” at Megatropolis; it was encouraged as part of the installation. At one point there were a half-dozen of us with borrowed rattle cans spraying attempts at art on the blank canvases of the buildings. Good stuff! I appreciated having a legitimate place for graffiti in the Metropolis-themed, but generally not paintable, city.

    P.S.: Love is the answer! :)

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  • Lindsay says:

    Dude. We were totally on our way back to our camp, when Titanium Sporkestra distracted us.. We didn’t make it home for another 3 or 4 hours… Haha!

    You guys rock!

    )'( Playa love.

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