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BEHOLD the MAN


[Published in 2009, based on experiences at the Burning Man festival in 2007.]

Just past Gerlach, a gritty mining town about 100 miles northeast of Reno, past the Indian taco and Philly cheese steak stands, past the taxidermy displays of beheaded antelopes and glassy-eyed pumas, past the wilted posse of leather-clad bikers and tramp stamped girls in cowboy hats, there’s a sign at a fork in the road announcing: planet exit.

Nevada has always had a penchant for over-the-top—Vegas and Area 51 only the more publicized eccentricities—so I roll my jaded eyes and bear right at the fork. A few miles later, I’m tailing a caravan of overloaded SUVs and gleaming Airstream trailers on a pitted washboard track east of Highway 34, watching dust devils whirl on thermal currents in the distance. An hour later, I pull up beside a wooden kiosk sporting a red flag, where a diminutive dominatrix in black leather underwear, pilot’s cap, goggles, and thigh-high boots collects my ticket and informs me she’ll need to search my car for stowaways.

Think I’m going to argue with her?

Leather Lass directs me to Greeter Gal, an ample, middle-aged woman wearing only a tattered pair of cut-off Levi’s, rubber flip-flops, and a surgical mask.

“Been with us before?” she asks.

First time, I admit, and does she have enough sunscreen?

The woman howls a weary laugh as if I’m the thousandth idiot to ask her that today. She instructs me to pull over, step away from my Subaru, climb a seven-foot wooden A-frame, straddle an iron temple bell dangling on a chain and yell:

“I’m not a virgin anymore!” as she clangs it three times with a steel bar.

My Burning Man initiation has just begun.

At nearly 4,000 feet above sea level, Black Rock Desert is the largest flat expanse in the northern hemisphere after Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats. Around 13,000 years ago, this now-desiccated basin was a Pleistocene sea called Lahontan, submerging about 8,600 square miles of Nevada under 900 feet of water. Pyramid Lake is the only liquid not yet absorbed by the scorching Nevada sun or sucked into the atmosphere by the Washoe zephyr. The longest stretch of desolation—27 miles worth—is known as the “playa,” a dead-flat, alkaline anvil of pale gray gypsum waiting to be pounded into sheetrock.

For the next week, this is going to be home to a perennial, quasi-socialist/psycho-neuro-pharmacological/counter-cultural/neo-pagan community of nearly 50,000 adventurous souls. Beginning on the Monday before Labor Day weekend, revelers stream into the broad valley with RV trailers, generators, tents, lean-tos, quonset huts, solar showers, geodesic domes, camouflaged tarps, bamboo shacks, heraldic banners, plywood dance platforms, and bizarre theme bars that dispense free alcohol of dubious pedigree. Eight days later, it all disappears like the water that once covered the playa.

Burning Man is the accidental creation of Larry Harvey and Jerry James, who threw a summer solstice party in 1986 for 20 friends on San Francisco’s Baker Beach, and ostensibly torched an eight-foot effigy of Harvey’s former girlfriend. During the first three years, the annual fete grew to 100 revelers, the effigy’s height soared to 40 feet, and the cops finally pulled the plug. In its fourth year, a lease was signed with the Nevada Bureau of Land Management, and Burning Man was reincarnated in the ancient seabed.

“Black Rock City” is laid out using routes labeled with clock coordinates and alphabetical cross streets. I’ve been invited to camp with one of the art tribes somewhere between Avenues 4:00 and 5:00, assuming I can find them in the middle this dusty sprawl of anarchic yuppie refugees.

After a few passes through a maze of theme camps with names like Ascension Temple, DeMa Terial, and Burners Without Borders, I locate the Celtic Forest entourage. Encircled by a Winnebago wagon train, I erect my backpacking tent and get a quickie trailer tour from “Temptress,” a distracting blonde in black lace bustier and leather chaps open in the back. A professional photographer in her other life, Temptress hefts a tripod-mounted four-by-five with Polaroid back, and then hops a passing jeep heading toward the playa.

Most everyone has a “playa name,” an alter-ego handle that expresses, if not their true identity, at least the essence of how they see themselves. “Dusty Dog,” a dead ringer for Benjamin Disraeli stranded in the Sudan, accompanies me on his beach cruiser past an already reeking bank of portable toilets. About 300 meters beyond the Esplanade, a broad boulevard circling the open playa, I spot the steel “forest” I’m looking for, glistening in the oblique sunlight that punches through a spectacular layer of billowing thunderheads.

Jeff Schomberg, a metal sculptor decked out in Akubra hat, Blundies, and bush shorts, is the creator of Celtic Forest, an array of 25-foot-tall welded tree sculptures with propane burners sprouting from the tip of each twisted branch. Six trees encircle an eight-foot cauldron of blackened metal books, out of which a gleaming winged angel rises like the skeletal terminator.

Temptress sets up her tripod for a portrait of Jeff and his wife, Laura, a willowy pirate queen with blonde mane cascading from beneath her floral bandana. I’m introduced to a young couple in an electrified surrey flying a tapered crimson banner. “Dragon” is a bald man wearing a leopard Flintstone pelt and buckskin buskins. His wife, “Pixie Little”—a 6’3” Amazon with gilded hair, metallic scale mini-dress, and boots with painted flames licking the six-inch platforms—tends to me like the lost soul I obviously am. Fishing into her lavender backpack, she surfaces with a oval steel pendant—hand-cut in the iconic shape of Burning Man inlaid with stylized brass flames—clips it around my neck, and hands me a card emblazoned with a pink heart pierced by an arrow. It says: May the power of love overcome the love of power.

“There,” Pixie smiles. “You are now an emissary of Playa Love.”

Other than the ubiquitous nudity, drugs, and rock n’ roll, why would a 50-year old guy drag his ass into the desert for eight days of triple digit heat and choking dust storms?

In a word: Volksgeist.

For the last 20 years, I’ve been studying, photographing, and writing about a universally shared experience Georg Hegel believed to be the source of all human spiritual traditions. Often connected to “sacred” places that draw vast numbers of celebrants on pilgrimage, I’ve seen the phenomenon celebrated all over the world, from Hajj in the Arabian desert to Saga Dawa on the Tibetan plateau. But nothing quite like this.

At Burning Man, a pilgrim’s object of focus—when he or she can focus—is the mind-blowing, three-dimensional creations and outrageous performances that elevate this event way above your run-of-the-mill rave. Here, art is the medium of spirit—writ large.

Wandering onto the playa, I marvel at Steam Punk Tree House looming over the gypsum wasteland like a post-nuclear Lost Boys’ lair. Sean Orlando’s industrial-strength creation spews thumping techno music and invites you to climb an erector-set of limbs for a view from the filigreed balcony, or take a swing on the tractor-tire suspended by a chain.

Farther out in the blistering wasteland I discover Perspective, a series of gigantic alphabet blocks carefully arranged by Trey Watkins. Walking around them, I squint, stare, and scratch my growing beard in bafflement. But when I stand in just the right spot—find the correct perspective—the blocks align to spell:

w-h-e-r-e-a-r-e-y-o-u.

That question resonates in my mind as I stare slack-jawed at Mike Ross’ Big Rig Jig. Picture two tractor-trailers with gleaming cylindrical petroleum tanks passing in opposite directions on a desert highway and falling into high-octane lust with one another. Imagine them rising into thin air and arcing in a circle like serpents chasing each other’s tails—a diesel powered pas de deux.

When the sun goes down, people become art. Fire dancers twirling flaming hula-hoops share the desert stage with torch-juggling acrobats. Out at the far edge of the Esplanade, geodesic discos amp up to full capacity, pounding out a soundtrack to the Mad Max-end-of-civilization-as-we-know-it extravaganza. Death Guild has even erected a replica of “Thunderdome,” complete with bungee-harnessed gladiators wielding foam rubber cudgels.

Demented we may be, but some inmates of our asylum provoke insight. A psychologist from UC Berkeley tells me he’s finally experienced “groundlessness,” a state in which his predictable world of hot showers, clean clothing, and Peet’s coffee has suddenly vaporized into panoramic incongruity. His illusion of “reality” has parted like a curtain to reveal an all-pervasive pattern of human addiction based on the desire for pleasure and aversion of pain. Here, he explains, your deeply embedded programs break down; your requirements for comfort are exposed to dirt and sweat, wind and sand, and your ego literally begins to dissolve. All you can do is let go of your expectations, ride the raw electric current, and surrender to the unexpected.

Suddenly, that fatuous road sign outside Gerlach begins to make sense.

Because Burning Man is all about the unexpected, everyone is encouraged to participate in the performance, no matter how bizarre the vehicle or venue. But sometimes, “art” exists only in the eye of the performer, and sometimes it crosses the line. Just before 3 a.m. on Tuesday, as revelers are celebrating the lunar eclipse over Trego ridge, an anarchist from Oakland sets fire to “Green Man,” the 40-foot, neon-lit wooden effigy not slated for immolation until Saturday night. BLM officers in water trucks arrive in time to douse the tarp, and nab the perp for felony arson. But the Man abides. New structural members for the festival’s namesake are trucked in from Reno the next day.

Sometimes, that fine line between performance art and insanity disappears altogether. On Wednesday night, “Optic Orange,” a 22-year old from Fort Collins, Colorado, quietly hangs himself in the Comfort and Joy theme tent. For several hours, every joyful stoner under the big top assumes the dying young man is actually a slow-dangling, life-size marionette.

Mornings on the playa are as sharp and clear as a polished sapphire, but afternoons grow menacing as molten hematite. Thermal currents begat dust storms of Biblical proportion, requiring masks, scarves, and goggles. Dust devils whirl across the gypsum expanse like dervishes, and whiteouts are more commonplace than in the Sahara. Orphans of the storm take refuge at Center Camp, a tented pavilion framed by an archway of junked bicycle parts. Here ice and coffee, the only commodities you can buy in Black Rock City—legally, anyway—are sold. Geeks and reporters use WiFi to check e-mail on grit-coated laptops. Scrawled messages are posted on most upright surfaces, calling attention to everything from misplaced friends to fetishistic services. BLM notices exhort revelers to be mindful of MOOP, “matter out of place,” an acronym that aptly describe pretty much everything—and everyone—here.

Under this circular big top, revelers dusted in fine gray talc appear as dazed as post-apocalyptic survivors. Musicians, jugglers, and stand-up comics compete for an audience as the zephyr winds howl. Clots of semi-naked bodies writhe in sensual massage or ritual dance in the center ring. My personal favorite—the “Monkey”—is a slow-building primal chant reminiscent of a Sufi dhikr: “Hu, hu, huu, huuu, HUUU, HUUUUUU…” that culminates with hundreds of sweating, tattooed, bracelet clad-arms thrusting skyward in praise of…Cheetah, I guess.

I strike up a conversation with “Ragnar,” a tall building contractor resplendent in green silk boxer shorts and a trimmed silver goatee. His girlfriend, “Shakti”—about fifteen years his junior—is a doe-eyed portrait of vulnerability swathed in a gossamer I Dream of Jeannie outfit, a fanciful departure from the executive business suit she wears at her corporate office in San Francisco. They’re camping with a group called Deep Heaven. Like me, Ragnar’s a virgin this year, but Shakti’s working on her third burn.

“I had a lot of trouble connecting with this experience,” she confides, “but after an emotional meltdown, I had kind of a breakthrough. For the first time in my life, I felt free to explore the parts of myself I never get to see or show to the outside world. Here, it’s safe to wear what you want, move the way you want, and totally do whatever you feel; dive in where you never had the courage to go before. This desert is a sacred place, you know. It frees you to be who you really are.”

“It’s all about breaking down ego,” Ragnar concurs, “deconstructing the old way of seeing things and rebuilding yourself from the ground up.” Ecstasy helps, he admits.

3-4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine seems to be the drug-of-choice on the playa. “It’s not a sexual thing,” Ragnar assures me. “It’s really about communion. All those barriers we put up to keep ourselves separate just drop away and you feel this super-intense connection with everyone.”

Chemical volksgeist?

This afternoon, Shakti plans to participate in “Critical Tits,” a female-only bicycle lollapalooza. It’s now tradition at Burning Man for women of all ages, petite or pendulous, anorexic or zaftig, to strip off their t-shirts and brassieres, paint themselves with day-glow and glitter, mount their gaily decorated beach cruisers and ride 10,000 strong in a Circus Maximus of mammary abandon. Less evolved spectators—like guys—are supposed to be respectful of the women’s ritual of exposed vulnerability, in the same spirit as Lady Godiva’s serfs discretely averted their eyes to avoid causing their mistress embarrassment. I station myself for the event near Dana Albany’s eerie art piece titled Bone Tree, with massive trunk and gnarled branches constructed from the bleached white remains of long-deceased animals. Below its brittle boughs, a churning mob of topless Amazons prepares to crank laps around the playa. Although the late afternoon is drenched in a golden light, the sky behind camp is an ominous blue-black accretion of nimbus clouds. And just as the clot of riders takes off toward the Green Man, a BLM Jeep cruises through. “Hate to spoil the fun,” crackles the ranger over her loud speaker, “but Gerlach is reporting a 70-mph thunderstorm moving this way. We’re asking everyone to clear the playa—ASAP.”

Back at our encampment, my tent is already a hopeless disaster. The wind has penetrated the dome’s rain fly and covered my sleeping bag in a layer of gypsum. Most campers have already retreated to their RVs, but a young Bulgarian couple, Georgi and Emelia, are still chilling beneath their canvas shelter behind my car, oblivious to the on-coming storm. I clue them to the weather report and we quickly secure the tarp flaps to its PVC frame moments before we’re hit with gale force winds. Gritty rain batters the canvas sheeting as we push hard against the plastic tubes, grounding the flimsy structure from within.

After 30 minutes, the storm subsides and Georgi tosses me a cold one just as a whoop resounds outside the tent. The sun has reemerged beneath the dark cloud cover, shining like a nuclear klieg light on a curtain of retreating rain to the east. An intense double rainbow arcs across the angry indigo sky. I climb atop a Winnebago luggage rack and watch the whole of Black Rock City break into spontaneous celebration, cheering and chanting to a Reggae soundtrack.

The fierce wind retreats beyond the fold of deep purple hills surrounding the basin. A waning moon rises over our desert proscenium as night unfurls its velvet backdrop. At Celtic Forest, Jeff’s burnished trees breathe fire like emaciated dragons guarding the perimeter, and the winged angel glows red above her fiery cauldron. A twenty-foot-long battery powered vehicle swathed in gossamer and neon leaves waits at the ready. Laura, dressed in a black latex gown with Edwardian collar, invites me to ride along in the crowded “art car” wedged between “Keiko,” an almond-eyed hottie in Venetian feather headdress and rabbit fur wrap descending to iridescent thong panties, and “Marie,” a dimpled charmer in powdered wig, her bosom erupting from the décolletage of a sequined Empire dress.

Twist my arm.

“Travis”—decked out in 10-gallon Stetson, pink fur chaps, and pretty much nothing else—mixes Kettle One and Orangina on the bar cart at the back of the vehicle and doubles as DJ. As we glide across the playa, our sod-busting Bacchus passes out cocktails in aluminum camping mugs and pumps techno-disco-samba into a soft focus abyss sprinkled with spiraling diamond dust.

Maybe it was that rainbow; maybe the MDMA, THC, DMT, LSD, or whatever psychotropic abbreviation these folks are on; or maybe it’s simply the fact that all of us—stoned or straight—have finally understood that we’re only MOOP in a vast, scary universe, that all we really have is this magical moment and each other to help celebrate it. Keiko and Marie snuggle into the fleece-covered seat on either side of me, smile dreamily, and entwine their suntanned arms around mine. At least for tonight, at least here—on the Celtic Forest leaf-mobile—life is pretty damn sweet and everyone is beautiful.

There is something primordial about fire. Something simultaneously terrifying and romantic. Controlled, it is nurturing, life giving, sacred. But I’ve seen first-hand what happens when fire breaks its leash. In 1991, I watched it destroy everything I owned in the Oakland Hills, consume 3,000 homes and kill 25 of my neighbors. I came away from that with a new understanding: Fire is a living thing, protean—in one moment form and in the next emptiness—and it will snuff you in an instant, without a single tear, if you get too close to its heart.

But that is why we’re here—to get as close as possible to the “burn,” to that cathartic moment when our pent-up collective desire for thermodynamic release is safely consummated. “Have a nice burn,” well-basted campers exude. Even the music blasting from aimlessly cruising Road Warrior vehicles reflects our pyromaniacal aspirations. Tangerine Dream, AdamX, and Crystal Method are cut with smokin’ Earth, Wind and Fire, and the ever-funkadellic Trammps—hot as they ever were.

Burn baby burn…

At nine o’clock Saturday night, the entire population of Black Rock City begins a migration toward its geographical nucleus, toward the halogen-lit perimeter surrounding our sacrificial Green Man. He stands godlike, Osirian, unflinching above a pyramid of desiccated timbers. Having already survived one botched execution, there are a few who’d like to see our icon reprieved. “Let him live!” someone shouts behind me. But the Green Man, like Jesus, must fulfill his mission of atonement.

Celebration ramps to a fevered pitch as the Green Man’s neon arms are mechanically raised into the air above his wedge-shaped head—not a plea for mercy, but an acknowledgement of destiny. His time has come. The music builds to a wild crescendo; fireworks light up the playa like Shock and Awe over Baghdad. And then the effigy is consumed in an orange fireball. Fifty thousand burners gasp and roar their approval like plebeians at a Christian martyr barbecue. The orb of flame billows skyward and dissipates into a smudge-gray cloud to reveal the crackling structure transformed into its raison d’être:

But the Burning Man is only an appetizer; our lust for conflagration has not yet been sated. The spontaneous nation of barbarian warriors, princess sluts, naked acrobats, fire twirlers, junkies, and smug journalists begin to migrate, like glittering organic plasma, in the direction of Crude Awakening.

Eight immense human figures, sculpted from bits of rusted scrap metal by Dan Dass Mann, supplicate before an eight-story wooden oil derrick packed with demolition charges. A heated pipeline connects the structure to a 2,000-gallon reservoir of propane buried beneath the playa, and four globe canisters containing 900 gallons of NASA-rejected jet fuel are positioned beneath each leg of the structure to ignite the propane as it becomes aerosolize.

“It will be quite an impressive display,” a barrel-gutted civil engineer named “Rebel” told me earlier today. “Propane expands 270 times its density when released into the atmosphere, produces about 2,500 BTUs per cubic foot. We figure the fireball will shoot a thousand feet into the air and put out around two-point-four gigs of energy—‘bout enough to power the Bay Area for a minute or so.”

Only one minor problem: Crude Awakening will be the largest “controlled” pyrotechnic display attempted since the firebombing of Tokyo, and no one is quite sure in which direction that propane will expand. “I’m told the medics are setting up a triage post at Center Camp…just in case,” Rebel confided.

I wield my bulletproof eos-1, mounted to a magnesium alloy tripod, and trudge hypnotically toward the eight fire-breathing Goliaths that bow before the 90-foot Baal of non-renewable energy. The mob pulses and throbs; our sound and fury builds to a cacophony of sonic dissonance entraining into a musical stew—a single, haunting electronic melody pounded raw by an unearthly bass.

Tension mounts for an hour as frenzied revelers hug the cordoned perimeter awaiting the fiery wake-up call. Suddenly, red, white, and blue fireworks shell the black night as a heavy metal protest punk band pumps our feedback-distorted National Anthem through weapons-grade loudspeakers.

Columns of flaming jet fuel rise from the four corners of the derrick as if the structure were about to launch into extraterrestrial flight. And then a pressurized stream of propane is injected into the center of the inferno, expanding upward and outward, a mushrooming fireball rising like Yahweh’s righteous anger a thousand feet into the night sky. Burners shriek and howl in delight like elated Israelites witnessing the demise of Pharaoh’s army. A girl behind me swoons in near-orgasmic ecstasy, “Oh, yeeesssss! I am so done now!”

I am your rose in the morning. We are in the glory of heaven together.

On every surface, intimate inscriptions adorn the laser-cut plywood walls of the Temple of Forgiveness. A masterwork of sacred architecture, the temple’s sensually curved intersecting torii rise sixty feet into a deep lapis sky, the Japanesque geometry bathed in the warm luminance of a fast dying sun.

It’s hard to remember the light when you’re swallowed by the darkness.

Around the temple’s open façade, gypsum encrusted bicycles accrete like flotsam after a tempest, as burned-out revelers—pensive, brooding, crying, clutching each other like lost children—squat together in clusters. Against one wall, a grizzled Hell’s Angel sprawls between two young brunettes, both wearing black lace corsets, fingerless gloves, and studded leather collars. They hold the burly biker tenderly as tears stream from his squinting eyes, down through the gray stubble on his cheeks to his bushy Fu Manchu. One can only guess at the cause of his anguish: Is he mourning Sonny Barger’s demise or lamenting a broken marriage? The paradox of Burning Man is that here everyone is anonymous and simultaneously exposed.

Freedom is God’s breath on your soul.

Steel cables cross-brace the temple’s structural members over an open atrium, where the central altar is chock-a-block with photographs, objects, articles of clothing, memorabilia, neatly lettered poems, and hastily scribbled messages to loved ones—departed in spirit if not body—pleading for a little understanding…

Dad, I’m sorry I will never be the man you wanted me to be, but being who I must be is why I am at this place.

…venting frustration with dysfunctional relationships…

Ben, karma is a bitch! Women are not your fucking toys! Your girlfriend-spermdumpster deserves better.

…or lives of quiet desperation…

When you burn, take from me my insecurity, fear, jealousy.

Dusty pilgrims circumambulate the memento-stacked altar, solemnly placing their messages of forgiveness, frailty, and faith wherever they can find a tiny niche, pausing to absorb the angst and elation penned by others. Some, lacking a muse of their own, recall the sage admonitions of cultural icons like James Dean:

Dream as if you will live forever. Live as if you’ll die today.

Others reveal their own moment of genius:

When I tell the truth, I feel like a bee without a stinger.

A regal bronzed woman with piercing cerulean eyes and blonde topknot, a torus of coral beads cascading from her slender throat above a turquoise halter, her muscular quads bared between a faux tiger pelt jacket knotted around her waist and knee-high Uggs, stretches her arms upward toward a circular opening in the latticed atrium. In her right hand she clutches a plastic trident like an operatic Shiva. The woman draws a chant from deep in her diaphram: “Aaaaaauuuuummmmm shanti, shanti, shanti…” and the audience around the altar become transfixed, merging organically into her Sanskrit aria.

Practitioners of a more conservative faith might find such a syncretistic, “new age” spiritual mash-up disingenuous, ludicrous, even profane. And there was a time I might have concurred. But I’ve since witnessed Tibetans Buddhists prostrating to a cairn built of yak dung adorned with bits of broken glass and a tattered flag. I’ve stood in the midst of bleeding and weeping Muslims in white bath towels trampling each other to death for a chance to touch a piece of black meteorite set into the wall of a shrine no one is quite sure who built. And I’ve watched a cantankerous Greek Orthodox monk acting as tender midwife to a pregnant cat in a monastery where human females have been forbidden to set foot for the past five centuries.

What is religion if not a rational absurdity?

Duality is coming to a close.

A lanky young man in dreadlocks and baggy shalwar—bare chest decorated with henna, wrist wrapped in mala beads—sits beside me in full lotus, his eyes closed in meditative bliss, his long fingers curled into a yogic mudra. Between him and the altar, a woman draped in a black veil weeps like the Magdelene beneath a photo of a man on the beach, his blonde hair wind-blown, his boyish smile promising a future that was apparently never to be. The veiled woman receives momentary comfort from a topless soul sister in silver lamé hot pants and green paper umbrella painted with tiny cherry blossoms.

I forgive myself.

Ecstatic devotees encircle the shrine, rocking side to side in a building prayer for peace, raising imploring arms and melodic voices to join our blonde diva’s theatrical blessing of the flock. Watching from the wing, white beard and hair frosting his nut-brown face, David Best, visionary designer of the Temple of Forgiveness, smiles like a benign patriarch at his family reunion.

At nine o’clock on Sunday evening, David escorts the last grieving pilgrims from the temple. The once ubiquitous thumping music has been replaced with an ethereal echo of chimes calming the cooling playa as fifty thousand celebrants wait in relative quiet—contemplative, self-reflecting, almost funereal.

Two robed torchbearers enter the structure from east and west, set the kindling-dry alter ablaze. Flames from the proxy pyre rise into the tower’s atrium, illuminating its intricate geometry, coruscating like animation on a screen. And then it appears that the temple itself is made of light, pulsing against the black night sky, obliterating the Milky Way with its super-luminance, dancing like Shiva—destroyer of illusion—until all life force is liberated from the molecules. What remains, now collapses slowly into the all-consuming dust.

We are hushed, reverent, a pensive tribe mourning at the funeral ghat of our dead king. The Green Man burned to expiate our sins; the oil derrick was consumed by our collective righteous anger. But the temple’s flames have released our guilt and fear into the heavens, left us purged, open, with nothing more in our hearts but…okay, Pixie, I have to admit it…love.

At Five a.m. on Labor Day morning, I climb from the gritty womb of my sleeping bag, break down my deeply distressed tent, and prepare to face a dusty exodus from the desert. By this time tomorrow, the dense encampment of Black Rock City will be no more than ephemera, a morphic resonance resting beneath the playa, awaiting next year’s veteran and virgin pilgrims.

After strapping my crusted bike to its roof rack and stowing gypsum-dusted gear in the trunk of my Outback, I pause to watch a faint shift in contrast begin to delineate the Trego ridge. This is the time of fajr, the pre-dawn prayer for Muslims. It is said at the moment a piece of dark string held up to the night sky becomes visible against the horizon, the moment human vision syncs up with the rest of creation. And then I remember that I am standing—as Shakti said—on sacred ground.

I smell the dust on my hands, gently rub it from my fingers, and slip back behind the wheel of my other life on a not-too-distant planet. Note: Photos illustrating this essay appear on Flickr [https://www.flickr.com/photos]. © Tom Joyce 2007

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