Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

September 6, 2005 Burning Man: The end of the world.

The last few days of Burning Man felt like the end of the world, something from a horror story where society is simply unraveling. The man burned Saturday night, amid great festivity and excitement and a lot of fireworks. Everyone was out in their finest costumes, draped in multi-colored lights and glow sticks and “flashy-blinkies.” The party lasted most of the night; some people were still going when I made it to my morning shift selling coffee at Center Café Sunday morning.

But by Sunday night the mood had changed. All day people were packing and leaving, and the camps were thinning out. In a rather inconvenient tradition, after the man burned people stole the street signs as souvenirs. Telling the dusty streets apart became increasingly difficult, especially in the dark. Landmarks were disappearing as well. I knew how to find my way back to BusCamp from the toilets by heading towards two brilliant blue lights that shone beyond us. By Sunday night they were gone, though. I found myself following the shadow cast by the porta-johns themselves in the glare of a flood light half a mile away.

The crowd at the temple burn Sunday was smaller than the one at the man. I watched it from very close, instead from the deep Playa where I’d seen the man burn. It was simply stunning. Watching the temple go up in flames, I began to understand what could lead people to burn buildings for “fun.” The temple was an exquisitely delicate structure of wooden platforms and pagodas. As it burned, each arch and span and rail burned separately, and the whole structure was outlined in fire. Where it had been an unmoving creation of wood and red paint, it was now a living thing of moving dancing flames, alive and glowing in the dark. The night was windy, and clouds of dust swept across the playa, through the crowds and the burning structure. The heat of the fire and the wind from the desert created spinning columns of dust that glided steadily out of the fire, ghosts moving in a silent line and vanishing in the light by the time they reached the awe-struck watching crowd.

At midnight there was another burn, of a beautifully crafted clock tower that looked like a cuckoo clock or small castle. The artist who created it had been offered $30,000 not to burn it, but he was adamant; at midnight Sunday it was to go up in flames. So we gathered for yet another fire. This one was astonishing in its own way. The clock chimes began to ring at midnight. As fire engulfed the tower, they continued to ring for a long time, deep sonorous bells that could be heard across the playa. I felt as if I were watching a church burn down, the bells its last cry for help as it, too, was converted from dead wood to vibrant flames with a life all their own.

After the burns, though, it was clear that the ephemeral world of Black Rock City was coming to an end, its society seemingly collapsing with it. Not only had the street signs been stolen and the thieves left town, but the lamps that used to line the esplanade and mark the radials were no longer lit; there weren’t enough volunteers to light them in the evening ritual that had been part of the vibrant city at its height. The red lights of the club at 7:30 and Esplanade were gone, so I didn’t know for sure where to turn off to return to BusCamp. Guessing, I headed down the street that seemed most likely. It was the right one, but the colorful billowing banners of the Swingers Club were gone as well. There were still groups of people in the roads, but where they had been decorated gaily in every shade of colorful light, now they were dark and hard to see in the clouds

of dust. Six or seven figures huddled around a single flashlight, seemingly hiding out of view of the quiet cyclists pedalling past. Where darkness had meant the safety of nothing to run into a few days earlier, now it was risky. You couldn’t see whether someone was skulking in the shadows, lost, trying to find their way home in the smoke and dust of the weirdly unfamiliar and constantly changing cityscape. Around the city cauldrons of fire added to the sense of the world coming to a frightening end. They glowed orange over the cityscape, clouds of smoke, dust, and soot drifting across the playa. Small stoves sent sparks into the wind next to the theme camps, as everyone burned the evidence of their presence, anxious to leave no trace as they slipped away from the city in the night.

In the morning, of course, the eerie nighttime scene disappeared. No longer were people skulking in the darkness, taking the city apart as they left. They were packing to go back to work in the default world, the neon and lights loaded on their trucks or in the backs of their vans. They had run out of glow sticks, and the batteries in their flashlights and flashy blinkies were dead after a week of use. The burning cauldrons, dim in the bright morning light, were merely a practical and sometimes even artistic way to get rid of trash, not a sinister effort to erase all traces of the nighttime revelers.

In the broad light of day, I began packing up myself. But the image of the end of the world from the night before lingered, much more exciting than the mundane task of getting my van ready to leave the playa and return to the real world.

Continue to the next entry. Return home.

All text and photos on this site ©Joy E. Hecht. Temple drawing from the Burning Man website.