September 1st, 2001 was the Saturday just before the end of the Burning Man Festival and while the eight-day art/life/wackiness extravaganza runs all the way to Monday morning Saturday pretty much stands as the main day of the festival. For it is on Saturday night that they burn The Man.
The Man is a giant humanoid statue that stands as the predominant installation centring the temporary city of Black Rock, Nevada as well as being the namesake (and the starting point)* for the whole shebang. The highly-stylized and visually stunning Man is erected upon a high platform and altogether he stood (if I recall correctly and when it comes to numbers – not names – I usually do) 142 feet tall. At the time the rumour was that they were going to make The Man a foot shorter every year to ensure the festival would run a finite (if optimistic) number of years, but I believe that nifty idea has since been reversed.
In addition to being very tall and foreboding, every nook, cranny, crevice, and cavity of The Man was packed with fireworks that were designed to shoot off in any number of random directions once he started to burn. Oh, it was so dangerous.
But then Burning Man is a rather dangerous place all-around (which is sort of ironic considering it is a land of such child-like wonder). Aside from the very real danger of gathering nearly 30,000 revellers under a searing sun for a week without any outside comforts or resources (sunstroke and dehydration is basically ubiquitous), nearly everything one encounters seems to be riddled with sharp, pointy, jagged edges. Mutant vehicles sporting elaborately welded overhanging shards of sheet metal blindly cruised the streets while intricate and complicated installations bound to no level of construction code whatsoever incited attendees to enter, crawl through, jump on, or ride in them, and all of it was held together by little more than the glitter-drenched hopes and wishes of good-natured top-drawer party-animals dressed in unicorn costumes if anything at all, and a few rolls of baling wire.
Oh, and pretty much everything shoots fire. Like, there was never a moment that you couldn’t see thirty-foot columns of fire blasting left, right, up and down at pretty much any time of the day or night, but especially at night. It seemed that size mattered when it came to plumes of brimstone, as mutant vehicles constantly challenged each other to flaming inferno blast-offs, egged on by cheering onlookers who clearly felt that their unicorn costumes were flameproof.
And most dangerous of it all was the actual burning of The Man.
As darkness fell the entire population of Black Rock City gathered in a tight circle around The Man for the lighting. Once lit The Man ignited fast, quickly becoming engulfed in flames that scorched our eyes and roasted our skin, as fireworks shot screaming upwards into the sky, outwards over our tents, cars and campers, and down into the crowd itself. We 28,000 natives protected ourselves with a fierce force field formed of magical vibes and maniacal catharsis as we danced and danced ecstatically around our giant fire-god. Oh how we danced! I remember thin, twirling tornadoes ripping outward from The Man one after another as the arid air met the intense heat and still we danced, working ourselves into an absolute froth. Finally The Man fell with a whoosh of sparks, fireworks, and crunching metal, eliciting a massive unified primal cheer from the sweating, mostly naked crowd. How hundreds of us weren’t maimed or killed remains beyond my comprehension. It almost makes me believe in freak-formulated force fields Regardless, it was a sight to see, I’ll tell you that.
After The Man fell the nightly celebration was kicked off proper and we collectively went on 28,000 co-mingled mind-blasting adventures, several of which I suspect ended up in the First Aid tent. Not mine though, fortunately.
*Burning Man started when a guy randomly built an 8’ tall man out of wood and burnt it (as well as a wooden dog) on a beach in San Francisco back in 1986 to mark the summer solstice with a few friends. It’s a shame the dog didn’t survive the expansion.