Ashes to ashes, Burning Man city returns to dust

Associated Press/August 31, 2003
By Don Thompson

Black Rock Desert, Nev. -- As the ashes cooled Sunday where the wooden Burning Man toppled in a flaming finale, residents of the West's strangest city began returning their community to the desert dust from which it sprang just a week ago.

A record 30,500 people turned some of the nation's remotest real estate into a hedonistic utopia where everything is recycled and where drugs, clothes and inhibitions are optional.

Pilgrims from most states and a Babel of other nations journeyed here for what they insist is far more than weeklong party. It is, they said time and again, a Life Changing Experience.

The creation and utter destruction of what for a time becomes Nevada's seventh largest city is part of the annual ritual that evolved from a spontaneous San Francisco beach celebration of the 1986 summer solstice.

The Burning Man that year stood a mere eight feet tall.

The one ignited late Saturday towered eight stories: a 40-foot stylized wooden man highlighted in blue neon, atop a 40-foot-tall Aztec-style wood and canvas pyramid.

The torching ceremony included dozens of dancers, twirling flaming hoops and chains to the frantic beat of dozens of drums. Flame-belching bicycles and fantastic vehicles paraded across the night-time playa as neon-green laser beams criss-crossed overhead.

"Fire is a very powerful cleansing element," said a reveler who identified herself as Princess Yewlie of Seattle. "The energy of all the thousands of people who come here concentrating on that flame is very cleansing and rejuvenating and empowering and all of that."

A series of accidents marred the otherwise peaceful gathering. On Saturday, Katharine Lampman, 21, of Belmont, Calif., was killed when she accidentally fell under the wheels of an "art car," which is similar to a parade float.

And five people were taken to area hospitals after two plane crashes at the festival's temporary air strip.

Two involved in a Saturday crash were listed in critical but stable condition at Washoe Medical Center in Reno, while two others were in serious but stable condition.

The condition of a passenger who suffered a back injury in a Friday crash was unknown. The names of the plane crash victims still were not available.

Beyond the Burning Man stretched a seven-square-mile encampment that for a week was Black Rock City, built from scratch on a dry lake bed about 120 miles north of Reno.

In its early incarnations there were no vendors or money changing hands in what also is known as the Republic of Burning Man. Participants were told to bring what they needed and carry out everything they brought in. Any services were on the barter system.

That largely still holds true, though size and experience have brought the trappings of civilization to the wilderness.

Black Rock City now has a cafe, ice concession, recycling center, radio station, daily newspaper, airport, and entrepreneurs providing most of what residents inevitably forgot to bring.

It also has tongue-in-cheek variations on more traditional bureaucracy: a Department of Mutant Vehicles, Black Rock Rangers to help keep order, and a Department of Public Works to help put the whole thing together and tear it apart. Instead of garbage trucks, volunteers patrol the streets on bikes equipped with recycling bins.

This is not your typical tent city.

Residents create hundreds of interactive "theme camps," competing to offer the most elaborate and alluring desert oasis -- or mirage.

Some literally rely on smoke and mirrors along with surreal art and music. Others provide costumes, computer-altered photographs, laser light shows or alcoholic beverages to blur reality.

Their creations must be built to withstand 40 mph winds, dust and electric storms, 100 degree days and 40 degree nights, and sudden rain that can turn the talcum-like dust to ankle-deep mud.

Organizers intended this year's "beyond belief" theme to reflect humankind's search for a deeper, spiritual meaning, though on a "playful" scale.

Reflecting the Burning Man's counterculture, techno-edge roots, most of the camps poke fun at organized religion, and many tend toward more sensual diversions often involving body paint or bondage.

Visitors are invited to "discuss altered states of reality and consciousness" at the Altered Mind/Gender Blender Bar, or receive absolution at the Temple of Eternal Dalmatian.

There is the Church of Stop Shopping; the Church of Better Fun; the Black Rock City Bike Repair & Divinity School; the Surely Temple; the Tyrannosaurus Rex Jesus Temple; and the Black Rock City Wedding Chapel (fake weddings on demand; real ones require advance notice).

The Purification Station offers the opportunity "to be completely and absolutely absolved of your sins...and then commit new ones. Sin, Repent, Repeat."

Camps variously invite participants to write the 11th Commandment, become a Messiah For A Minute, or climb into a casket to listen to what their friends might say at their funeral.

"Poking fun at something may have a liberalizing effect. It's good for religious traditions to have a sense of humor," said James Donahue, president of the Graduate Theological Union, a Berkeley, Calif.-based ecumenical consortium of nine theological graduate schools.

"Is Peace Mellon a cult, a religion, or a bunch of health conscious partiers obsessed with vine fruit?" asks one camp's Web site. (Yes, most camps have their own Internet presence.)

The answer, it turns out, is the Peace Mellon is a half watermelon full of chopped fruit, ice and vodka, ceremoniously passed around a circle as a sign of peace.

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