Week Nine: As the Man Burns

“Big dust storm comin’!” announced a burly ranger, who seemed to appear out of nowhere. “Best be getting back to your tents… batten down the hatches.” I glanced at my friends, gave a nod, and we wove our way back through the crowds to where our bikes were parked. Recalling the ferocity of yesterday’s storm, we hurriedly pedaled away from the iconic wooden figure of the forty-foot, triangle-headed Man, back across the playa to our encampment. A wall of grayish-brown wind surged through the southern streets of Black Rock City, and I hoped we would make it home in time before the dust made it impossible to navigate.

Storms like these certainly made life in the Black Rock Desert a challenge, but it would be hard to picture the week-long Burning Man Festival without them. 50,000 people had gathered from across the world to build a temporary city on a flat, lifeless expanse of hardpan clay in northwest Nevada - the second-largest flat region in the Northern Hemisphere. Domed nightclubs sat empty at the edges of the playa, waiting for nightfall. Giant sculptures of steel and wood littered the open spaces, ringed by a colorful expanse of flags, pavilions, tents and RVs. And in the center of it all stood the Man atop his spindly wooden pyre.

Twenty-one years ago, the first Burning Man was torched on a beach in California in front of 20 people, and since then it has grown into a monstrous artistic event and an ongoing experiment in community-building. Nothing may be bought or sold at the Festival… only bartered or given away. While walking around the streets of the city, people are continually calling you into their encampment to enjoy free lemonade, snow cones, lollipops, smoothies, foot massages or a good, stiff drink. And the camps themselves have themes, with structures designed to look like Irish pubs, western saloons, gypsy wagons or even the hallowed halls of Monticello. I would often express my gratitude for a cold refreshment by playing flute music to my generous hosts.

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