Drawn to the flame They came, 16,000 strong, to the middle of the desert to see the Burning Man -- and to attend the world's wildest party. The point? Don't observe life, experience it.

September 07, 1997|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Black Rock City, NEV. -- It seems improbable, this gathering of 16,000 on an ancient dry lake. Overnight, a city of streets and temples is carved out of the dust of the Black Rock Desert and the first pilgrims appear on state road 34. Within a few days, the Hualapai Playa is home to Nevada's sixth largest city. Then, overnight, the swarm disperses, leaving the desert empty.

For a few precious days, they have created a place like no other. The celebration -- five days of performance art, participatory art, music, hedonism and spectacle -- is called Burning Man. And if it is about anything in particular, it is about new experiences.

"NO SPECTATORS," says a sign above Cafe Temps Perdu, a tent-covered coffee bar with hay bales for chairs. Burning Man is not to be simply observed -- but experienced. Shed the self you carry around in the everyday world, dive into the counterculture and free your inner pagan.

But only for a while.

"In a few days there'll be nothing here, just tire tracks," says Pete "The Postman of the Playa" Isaacson, a self-described tenured grad student from Hacienda Heights, Calif.

He's one of the multitudes drawn to this forbidding place 125 miles northeast of Reno; 25 miles from Nixon, the last place with a decent store; 17 miles from Gerlach, pop. 350, the last place with a phone.

But Burning Man is not a place you come to on a lark. This is survivalist boot camp. Bring your own food, water and shelter. Portable toilets are provided, but little else comes with the $75 entry fee. So, why come?

"I kind of felt like Richard Dreyfuss in 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind,' " says Isaacson, 33, sitting beneath a parachute draped over a dome frame of 1 1/2 -inch PVC pipe. "I just felt I had this image of The Man in my head."

Ah, yes. The Man. He looms over Black Rock City, an icon, symbolic of everything and nothing, a blank slate onto which you put whatever meaning you choose. He stands 40 feet tall, a wood frame stuffed with burlap. Tubes of purple neon outline the body. Green neon illuminates the rib cage and shoulder blades. From sundown till near dawn The Man, set atop a 30-foot pyramid of hay bales, throws his iridescent glow onto the desert floor.

The crowd is here to see him burn. But Burning Man is more than a high-tech bonfire. It asks, demands, that you participate, that you get down on your hands and knees and crawl through a maze built to approximate the sperm's journey to the ovum. At Burning Man, the thousands flout society's rules, its commercialism, its restrictions. Care to walk around naked? Fine. Care to paint your naked body? Even better. Care to play naked giant Twister? In Black Rock City, anything goes.

There's "the feeling of being able to do what you want to do without anyone saying anything, as long as you're not hurting someone, unless they want you to," says Britta Garcia, 33, who is here this Labor Day weekend from San Francisco for her first Burning Man.

This is the sixth trip for Jim McGreen, a 40-ish artist from Sebastopol, Calif. When he first made the drive to Black Rock, he was one of 600.

"I knew Burning Man when he was just match sticks," he says, standing beside his motorized cross, complete with sun umbrella.

Blasphemy, you say: The sacred imagery of the sacrifice turned into a scooter to ride across the lake bed? People gather around to have their pictures taken in mock poses of crucifixion. McGreen, who works primarily in metals, says 12 years of Catholic school education inspired him to build the cross.

"We thought it might be OK at the Sebastopol parade, but we don't think so," he says. Burning Man is a better place for such things. "This is an opportunity to do some things and not be judgmental."

Even the police turn a blind eye. They stroll the city, drive its streets, harass no one. The only arrest is of someone waving a gun.

Swoosh! A tracer trail of red rushes into the black, starlit sky, explodes into streams of red, blue, green and white, and casts a glow upon the surreal nightscape. The sound of dynamite rips through the air.

Saturday night is a precursor to Sunday's big burn. The buildup since Wednesday has been slow. Each night there is a little more fire, a few more sky rockets. By Saturday evening, the city is eerily reminiscent of that last outpost scene in "Apocalypse Now," the one where everybody is stoned and no one is in charge.

At Cyber Cube, two women in Day-Glo face paint and clothing do a dance of seduction to music and drums that calls to mind India and the tabla. Farther on, wind chimes made of pipe, ceramics, coat hangers, metal trash can lids and other urban detritus wait for passers-by to create a soundscape.

Naked bodies stroll past. After awhile, the sight of swinging glands and members, adorned or bare, becomes, well, ho-hum. Seen one, seen 100, seen 500, seen 1,000. Don't stare, say Burning Man's organizers. Very unhip, tres declasse.

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