090201 Burning Man VIII, Black Rock City, NV

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While the bulk of the previous seven daily missives regarding my experiences at the 2001 instalment of the Burning Man Festival were not truly date-specific and instead took a stab at themed memories, given that September 2nd was my final day at the fest I have an easier time remembering what actually happened on that particular day.

Note that I said, “easier” and not “infallibly perfect”.

I would have certainly woken up early with the desert heat inflaming my pup tent and then brushed my teeth and cleaned my dusty feet (in precisely that order) using the ice-cold water (née ice) from my cooler before tromping down to Center Camp for my morning coffees.  But this morning was different.  The Man had been brought down the night before in a spectacular blaze of glory (and randomly jettisoned fireworks) and many of the Camps were in the process of being dismantled and/or burned.  After a week of laughter, introspection and tears from my spot manning my Psychiatric Help 5¢ booth I had no other option but to set it alight, so I dragged the yellow wooden box to the nearest burn platform (raised metal stages designed to save the playa from unnecessary burn marks) and tossed it on top of the embers of some previous art.

It burned really, really well.  I stood staring, recalling dozens of strangers who had sat down at the booth and just completely poured their hearts and souls out to me hoping for hope or seeking salvation.  Amazing what a few pieces of plywood and a coat of paint will do.  Some guy stopped to take a picture of my booth inferno, which is saying something ‘cuz this was the era of film.  I’d love to see that picture but I know I never will.

After burning the booth I cleaned up my own camp before heading to the volunteer depot to offer up my required two hours of volunteer cleanup.  The person asked if I had done the 3D maze and I told him I had so he sent me there to go through it and ensure it was ready for burning.  The 3D maze was exactly that, an officially sanctioned tri-level enclosure that was full of crawlspace rooms and lots of tricks and turns.  Several days before I had given it a whirl and found myself stuck in there for close to an hour backtracking and looking for the escape hatch that led to the roof.  After going through every room several times I sat down and thought hard until the answer jumped to my brain.  Of the 35-40 rooms there was only one that had a simple escape, where one would emerge from the floor and immediately see the hatch to the next room in the wall just ahead.  “Aha!” I thought.  Compared to all the other rooms that one had been much too easy, so I tracked through until I came to the room and sure enough it had a secret hatch leading up to the roof, and I was out.

Going through it on the final day I found very few pieces of trash*, but I did find a lot of people trapped inside, several who told me they had been stuck inside the maze all night.  Burning Man isn’t all just fun and games.

The Temple

While The Man gets burned on the penultimate day, this was the day that the rest of the officially built Burning Man creations were burnt, things like the maze and the temple.  I’m struggling to remember if I saw the temple burn but I’m pretty sure I did.  It was an amazing structure that I had visited twice, and both times found myself surrounded by people in tears.  The temple had been built of raw wood with countless asymmetrical holes cut into it, and the idea was for people to write the names of lost loved ones on a tiny scrap of wood and place that scrap somewhere inside.  By the end of the week the giant temple was overflowing with messages of grief.  It was beautiful, tragic, powerful, and truly, truly awesome.

Though the festival didn’t officially end until the following morning for some reason I decided to leave on Sunday afternoon.  Thinking about it now it was probably due to a bunch of reasons; I had a lot of ground to cover to make it to a Kevin Breit/Bill Frisell concert at a jazz festival in Guelph, Ontario just five days hence, I wanted to beat the huge line of traffic that was doubtlessly going to fill the one road out of the desert, and probably most importantly I was sorely looking forward to a shower and a real bed and just couldn’t talk myself into putting it off for one more night.  Whatever the reason, with hugs and handshakes to the group of seven Camp companions that had befriended me for the week I started up my Honda and pulled out of there with the air-conditioning set to “stun”.

Two or three hours away I spotted a lonely dive motel that had rooms for $25 and I pulled in.  After about three showers and a few cold drinks I decided to check down the back of the couch in the dingy room hoping to find some change (if that gives you any idea how broke I was).  I don’t remember if I found any money, but I did find a large black-handled folding knife with a blade that was caked in old, dried blood.  Astounding my present self with my level of stupidity, rather than calling the cops and likely solving a murder I thought, “Hey, nice knife,” and tossed it in my luggage, crossing the border into Canada with what was surely evidence of something nefarious five days later after power-driving fourteen hours a day across nearly the entirety of the continental United States of America.

Luckily I crossed the border a few days before 9/11, lest I would have been stuck in the US for several extra days with no money.  And a bloodied knife.  But as luck would have it luck had it, and I made it to the Breit/Frisell show early enough to get the front pew (but that’s another story, of course).

In summation, Burning Man is a festival unlike any other, a collection of creativity and freedom that in my experience is unparalleled anywhere by anything and I’m pleased to the core to have attended.  I suspect part of the reason I’ve not attended again since this life-affirming experience is because I don’t want to taint my enthusiasm for it.  And because it’s so far away.

But when it boils down to it, if Burning Man taught me anything it is this: Believe in coincidence and always trust your astrologist.

*It’s rather amazing how devoid of trash the entire site was.  After going through the maze I took a bag and went around scouring for garbage to pick up.  I hadn’t seen a single cigarette butt on the ground until day six, and in my two hour search on this final day the amount of trash I found could have fit in my pockets.  Not bad for 28,000 hedonistic revellers.  

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