Off the map: Week twelve, burned again

At sunrise on Thursday morning, 30,000 citizens of Black Rock City gathered in a giant circle around a Burning Man art piece called “The Embrace” and waited for something to happen. The 70-foot wooden sculpture depicted the heads and shoulders of a man and a woman looking deep into each other’s eyes. As my campmates and I watched, flames began to spill out of the eye sockets. The fire crept across their skin of overlapping wooden slats, setting their scalps aflame before devouring the two heads completely.

Like the arms of a fiery god, twin currents of black smoke extended above the bystanders on the eastern perimeter, raining ash and cinders down upon their awestruck faces. The blazing figures merged into one giant colossus, spewing flames so dense they resembled molten lava. Tornadoes of dust and sparks were conjured into existence by the hellish temperatures and unleashed upon the desert plain. These whirling demons danced to their own apocalyptic tune before fragmenting amid the crowd.

Eventually, the flames died back and exposed the network of blackened neurons and connective tissue that had been lying beneath the wooden skin. This layer crumbled in turn, leaving behind a smoldering skeleton that was too structurally sound to collapse on its own. The attention of the crowd began to waver until a motorized crane rolled onto the scene. Against all common sense, the mischievous operator used the arm of the crane to ram the burning platforms until they wobbled and crashed to the ground, narrowly missing the vehicle. Thousands of exhausted citizens cheered.

Spectacles such as this are commonplace at Burning Man – a festival of imagination and unbridled self-expression. There is no place like it on earth. For just seven days, a dream city exists in the desert, full of gargantuan sculptures, mutated vehicles, and garishly costumed participants. For many, this event brings out their best, for it allows them the opportunity to live out their ideals of creativity and generosity. Others are unable to handle so much freedom; they fall prey to their vices, but usually survive to regret it.

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