Burning Man Fest Attracts 30,000 to Desert

Associated Press/August 30, 2003

Black Rock Desert, Nev. -- Rising from the desert in one of the most remote places on earth is an 80-foot temple topped by the stylized figure of a man.

It wasn't here last week and it won't be here after Saturday night -- except for the pile of ashes expected from its ritual burning.

In one of the most bizarre rites of the Silicon Age, nearly 30,000 people are camped in the middle of the Nevada desert 90 miles north of Reno to build and then destroy a temporary city built around a religious icon.

"This can be anything from a kind of playfulness, to narcissism, to a more serious spiritual quest," said James Donahue, president of the Berkeley, Calif.-based Graduate Theological Union, a consortium of nine theological graduate schools. "It is what you make of it. People bring their own interests and desires to it."

At its most basic level, the annual Burning Man event is a weeklong bacchanalia. Yet since its spontaneous origin on a California beach 17 years ago, participants have often found deeper meaning.

Jill Jacobs of San Rafael, Calif., wearing a tiara, goggles and not much else, wrote prayers for herself and her friends on a memorial temple Friday afternoon.

"Burning Man touches something primal -- it doesn't have words," she said.

This year's Burning Man has its most overtly spiritual theme yet: "Beyond Belief."

"It's always been about 'beyond belief,"' Dwight Harbaugh of Palo Alto, Calif., "Maybe now we're calling it what it really is."

The Aztec-style pyramid and its wood-and-neon Burning Man mark the center of Black Rock City, where streets are named Authority, Creed, Dogma, Faith, Gospel, Reality and Vision, and cross streets are labeled Sacred, Profane, Real and Imagined.

Costumed or painted pilgrims guided by "temple guardians" take turns filling 16 niches at the pyramid's base, becoming human shrines to whom passers-by are encouraged to leave offerings.

Annette Himelwright of Klamath Falls, Ore., stripped off her virginal white diaphanous costume Friday afternoon and climbed onto the central of three crucifixes near the pyramid.

"I couldn't tell you if it's about religion or not," she said, putting her clothes back on. "It's about a good time -- freedom."

Jason Ayers of Phoenix dressed as a "neo-Pope" to visit the memorial temple where dozens of people wrote the names of loved ones on intricately crafted and painted walls.

"There's really nothing else in the United States that lets people memorialize their loved ones and then burn it," he said.

At a second temple dedicated to the dead, visitors leave more offerings to be burned during a second ritualistic conflagration Sunday night.

"I'm a pagan and this is a chance for me to dress in a bizarre way, but also to flaunt my paganism," said a purple-garbed Gael Shepherd of Roseville, Calif.

Jacques Rossouw of San Francisco played music on a didgeridoo, a long, wooden wind instrument.

"I find Burning Man is spirituality without the church, without all the religious practices," he said. "It doesn't come with any of the traditional strings attached."

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