Burn Night 2005.
The man’s arms rose as the din of thousands of cheering desert children irrevocably announced the arrival of PART II. A week’s worth of explosive creativity didn’t end tonight; it’s transcended to the next level.
The largest circle of people I ever stood in. The sexiest fire-dancers I ever saw. The most furious fireworks show I ever witnessed. And, of course, the greatest ball of flame. After brilliantly withstanding the climbing fire for several minutes, the Man’s leg finally buckled and he began to fall with one arm still raised overhead. As he crashed into the Playa, it was as if he was smashing the earth with a great war hammer. Rightly so, because the best was yet to come!
Burners don’t just burn the Man. They burn everything imagination lets them. Tonight the Playa truly came alive. Fire, dust, drumming, dancing, howling, hugging, smoke, wind, skin, fur, electricity, rhythm, demons, angels, smiles, rebirth.
Hours later, the spirit of the Man still burned brightly, beneath a glowing heap of embers. Flickering faces of every brother and sister encircled the shrine, showing no signs of weariness. But, inevitably, the Burner’s greatest fear finally made its appearance from the shadows in the back of everyone’s mind: There was nothing left to burn.
Time to get productive. Time to get spontaneous!
One of the masterminds behind the GIANT version of the Man, quickly came up with the idea to burn “the Head.” For those of you who, somehow, did not see the Giant Man, it was a replica that was so large, only his head and arm were visible above the Playa. It resembled the fallen Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes. His head alone was seemingly large enough to function as a small house.
Let’s see… It’s Big. (check) It’s the Man. (check) Equation = Good burning material!
Let’s still see… Big. Far. Ok. Man. Hmmmm. Good burning material!
Let’s be real. It’s Big.
Hmmm. It’s Big. Really Far. And Really BIG.
WHO CARES! (Gotta love how true Burner spirit won out over logical reason.)
Quickly, a handful of us who were standing around the fire set about summoning “movers” to help us retrieve The Head and add it to the fiery wreckage of The Man.
Must – keep – burning!
Soon, approximately thirty people were rounded up. In a glorious instance of classic Burning Man history, a sizeable chunk of the fire-dancing crowd broke away from the fire itself and vectored out, into total darkness, on foot without even so much as a flashlight. Moments later, I found myself walking alongside our leader (one of the creators of the Giant Man), as he navigated the pack toward its destination… also known as sheer and utter doom.
Only minutes later, our party began to diminish. What started as a quick jaunt to go over and grab “The Head” gradually became an act of survival. But nothing could prepare us for what was to come.
Cold darkness surrounded the party. Our numbers dropped to half of what they were. Still, the fifteen or so among us assumed a new fiery passion, like none I’ve ever witnessed. Our voices broke through the icy night. Chanting. Shouting. Recruiting every passerby we saw with this mantra: “Burn the Head. BURN THE HEAD!”
Most steered clear of what must have appeared to be an angry mob of pirates, making a blind march in double-time toward some unknown destination, all the while shouting, “Burn it! Burn it!”
Only then… WAY past the point of no return, did we realize this wild goose chase was taking us too far away. Had it been a mile? Two? Someone jokes, “I think that’s Gerlach ahead.”
“No way, it’s Empire!”
Hopes began to dwindle. We were left with perhaps only a dozen survivors in our party, when at last, our destination appeared in the distance. Like some lonely, dark monolith, a Great-Big-Head rose before us.
It was HUGE! But nobody cared. We were exhausted.
After a few moments of rest, our leader directed us into removing the non-burnable materials affixed to the outside of the head. Wires were clipped. Metal removed. And fluorescent bulbs shattered as hands began to tear apart at what nobody could really see. But, who cares? It was big and burnable. ‘Nuff said.
Of course, the voice of reason, like a forgotten ghost, spoke up again. It became painfully obvious that burning this big piece of junk right where it sat would be waaaay too intelligent, on many levels. We were freezing, tired, and all standing in the dark wondering how on Earth we would even move the damn thing. Hell, we even had enough people to start a new bonfire and start drumming again.
(snap back to fantasy)
“Six to a side!” Our leader rejuvenated what little energy we had left, and everyone suddenly realized this suicide mission wasn’t going to be over until he said it was over! Like greedy ants, we assumed positions on either side of the giant (lest we say “forbidden”) fruit and lifted…
Oh my god, the bitch was heavy!
Not only that, each member of our party had come from a different walk of life. Some of us were big, short, fat, thin, old, young… Here I was, fairly short myself, pushing UP as hard as I could, while the movers in front and in back of me rested a side of the mammoth Head on their shoulders. Jokes and curses immediately followed. It was clear there was no WAY we were going to carry this thing all the way back. No WAY!
So, of course, we set out carrying it anyway. We were mad. Not to spoil any illusions or anything, but we were completely crazy. But who cared? This was Burning Man after all!
If people avoided our path before, now they scrambled out of our way in a god-fearing panic. Our momentum was, indeed, great. A few times, deserted bicycles were yanked out of our way with the swiftness and precision of a S.W.A.T. Team. We weren’t stopping for anything.
A couple of times we had to set the bitch down. But every time we got a little closer to the original burn, our hopes raised a notch. Perhaps we will make it, we thought. It’s a possibility. Perhaps. Then we rearranged to accommodate for passers-by who volunteered to help us bear the weight of our newfound burden. A burden born of wild, purely spontaneous Burn Night gusto.
Freezing, tired, wasted, delirious, driven, mad, by, the HEAD! The Head, it’s going to burn! Burn the Head! BURN The Head!
In unison, we all rose once more and launched across the Playa with a frightful passion. The strength of numbers was our ally. Blind faith was our map. The promise of newfound fire was our fuel.
I couldn’t imagine what it must have looked like… this gigantic representation of the Burning Man’s head floating across the Playa in the dark, carried by this mob of insane, driven people chanting in unison “Burn it! Burn it!”
Then. The fire. It came into sight. At long last! Our planet Earth is in sight. We-had-RETURNED!
At this point, I was standing under the leading-edge of the head along, with about five fellow vertically-challenged movers, while our taller movers lined the sides. Despite what we had been through, our pace now sustained at an unstoppable brisk walk. Just when all seemed like everything was going to be all right, someone shouted “Ramming Speed!” I couldn’t help myself. Nobody could. Flirt with death. Ride the snake. “RAMMING SPEED!!”
The head launched forward across the Playa at double speed. We found ourselves running. RUNNING. With this huge thing on our backs! Not only that, we were running straight toward a crowd. And, beyond that, a blazing fire! All reason was lost. There was no such thing as “try.” Only “do.” To the lake. The ancient lake…
The people in the fire crowd slowly turned their heads. Their jaws dropped. They scattered like mice as this, this Head, emerged from the darkness on a collision coarse straight for them.
Bicycles were flung out of our way. The meek were swept aside like driftwood on the reckless sea. A great parting of the human waters left our fiery target destination in full view. Almost there. Almost there. The crowd began to cheer.
What happened next, I seemed to perceive in slow-motion. Yet, it was undeniably happening in real-time, which was, quite simply, too fast. Within a second, I realized that I was running straight into a fire at ramming speed. I tried to duck to the side and get out of the way, but failed on first try as a side of the head fell onto my shoulder, delivering a good reminder of what pain feels like. A side of our cargo landed on a taller mover, who had just surpassed me still carrying the thing. I leaped out of the way and the structure, again, fell on the man in front of me, square into his back. Somehow we both managed to get out of the way as the remainder of our great offering plowed into the fire. It was a close call but was answered with great celebration.
Our mission was accomplished! We did it! I immediately asked the guy in front of me if he was ok. He assured me he was all right.
Almost as quickly as the blaze of sparks rose in the air, everyone was once again dancing around the re-awakened fire.
One thing, if anything, was for certain: participation had meaning. This was perhaps but one single hour of Burning Man. And the night was still young.