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About one half hour before it goes up, the 40-foot-tall wooden sculpture at the center of Burning Man raises its hands to salute the sky. Summoned by the gesture, a vast crowd of revelers comes swarming in across the desert, lit up with glowsticks or electroluminescent wire, caked in dust, clad in costumes, half naked. Thousands more ride in on the desert’s flotilla of art cars, psychedelic dreadnoughts decorated as dragons, or starships, or things less recognizable. From these vehicles, waves of music wash across the scene, unifying into a throbbing field of ecstatic noise. Lasers crisscross the sky.
Then the fireworks begin, and the end is nigh. A concussive thunderclap splits the air. Immense fireballs engulf the Man. The crowd bellows in delight. The resulting inferno consumes the structure, which wavers for long minutes before collapsing, the furious turbulence of the heat churning the air and whipping up tornados of dust that hover in the blaze’s wake like hallucinations. At last, the structure melts in on itself in a wave of sparks. A little later, the crowd will gather in, and some of the more ecstatic Burners will strip and dance around the still-blazing pool of debris. It is one of the most otherworldly artistic spectacles that I have ever seen.
I went to Burning Man this year at the end of August, and it has taken me a few months to sort out how I felt about it. This orgiastic cultural shindig has been written about so many times, from so many angles that one almost hates to add to the pile (there’s even a boom in Burning Man scholarship in the academy). In one form or another, the festival has been around since the mid-‘80s, and in the Black Rock Desert for more than two decades now. It is either a running cultural joke or a holy pilgrimage, depending on your point of view.
Both impressions have to do with the evangelical zeal of serious Burners. People really believe in Burning Man. When you roll up along the long, dusty desert trail to the official entrance, a team is on hand to meet you at the gates. Returning Burners are greeted with the words, “Welcome Home.” First-timers (aka “Burgins”) are made to get down on their knees and hug the ground, baptizing themselves in the alkaline desert dust.