by Michael Dees
This was my second trip to the playa, but the first one that really counted. When my best friend and I experienced the Burning Man community in 2000, I never really “got it.” I had read that everyone was supposed to be a participant, but it never really sunk in what that meant. We had constructed a simple plywood cutout cartoon dog to pull behind our tandem bike, with a small ghetto blaster playing “Who Let the Dogs Out” taped to the tow bar. Pulling it along the Esplanade and down the streets of the city we got plenty of laughs and comments like, “Hey, look out! There’s a mad dog chasing you,” which was exactly our intent when we built it. But still I felt like the dog was basically our entry ticket to the show – it allowed us to observe the endless parade of strange people and even stranger pieces of art. I was still just a spectator.
On our last night there, a Friday night, I almost started to get it. After the weather repeatedly thwarted our attempt at an artistic statement – we had planned to ignite our dog and pull him across the playa in flames (another story in itself) – we finally gave up and had him cremated at one of the small burn platforms. The wind and rain had chilled everyone unexpectedly that night, so the burn platforms were popular gathering places. As we placed our creation on the coals we got a meager round of applause. When he burst into flame we could feel the physical and emotional warmth increasing around the circle. When the lady across from us raised her skirt to warm her backsides, the sum of the evening’s events hit me all at once, and I laughed uncontrollably for the next several minutes. I was deliriously happy beyond what the situation should have called for. Part of me was starting to get it, but I still didn’t consciously understand. We had decided before our trip that we would leave Saturday morning to avoid the choking traffic of the Sunday exodus. We figured “The Burn” would be just another big bonfire, and we had seen plenty of them before. What complete idiots we were to leave before the event’s climax. If we had stuck around just 12 hours more, I might have understood.
When we returned in 2002 I was determined to learn something about myself. I spent three months of my spare time designing and building something I hoped would bring pleasure to others – a bicycle powered seahorse that flaps its wings and sprays water out its mouth. It was a great success. I got big smiles and hugs from almost everyone we met, and I was starting to feel like a real part of the Burning Man community. In talking with many of my new instant friends, I realized they weren’t just a bunch of weirdoes assembled here for my amusement. They were all just like me – an average guy who periodically has to shed the shroud of conformity we’re all forced to wear in public, and see what’s under that calloused exterior. At Burning Man we put on our thinner skins and open up more to strangers because we know we’ll be accepted without anyone even asking who or what we are, much less judging us by our answers. There are no accountants, software developers, fry cooks, or safety consultants here – just people connecting with other people.
On the night of The Burn we put on our finest costumes and further disguise our outside world images. Then the first volley of skyrockets bursts, drawing our attention to The Man, and we automatically emit the OOO’s and AHH’s characteristic of any other fireworks show. But when the Roman candles and fountains within The Man’s skeleton ignite, it somehow becomes more personal, and the passion within the crowd focuses on the doomed figure. But doom and gloom are light years away from this jubilant gathering. As the waterfall of fire cascades from the top of the lighthouse, the crowd is illuminated physically and emotionally. Within seconds The Man is aflame, and the visceral scream of 29,000 people fills the desert night. At that moment the final skin that separates us all is temporarily stripped away, and the emotional plaque that clogs our souls is vaporized. At that moment no one is trying to hide anything – we are all revealing our true inner feelings amplified to many times their normal intensity. Not everyone is experiencing exactly the same thing, but for a short time we are all driven to total personal honesty, and we share its outward effects with all those around us.
The fire tornadoes that march one after another from the Burning Man seem to feed on the raw emotion of the crowd, drawing it out of us even more, and sending it skyward to rejuvenate the heavens. After they launch their precious cargoes, the swirling smoke columns dance with delight to the edge of the crowd, then rise to join their siblings in the clouds above. As the flames die down and the man becomes a pile of coals, we shuffle away to other celebrations. But we are repeatedly drawn back to the ring, feeling its warmth and re-experiencing the elation of The Burn.
The Man may be only wood, metal and lights, but the sense of connectedness and emotional catharsis his destruction brings are very real, and represent the true value in this whole event for me. The fact that this community is a totally artificial environment doesn’t diminish the feelings of good will and personal growth that I will carry back to the real world.
My spirit is alive and well!