Food Feature: Burn, Baby, Burn

Outrageous self-expression order of the day at Burning Man 2000

Strange, wonderful things happen to you when you join tens of thousands of people who come together the week before Labor Day to camp out on an immense dry lakebed in the middle of Nevada's Black Rock Mountains. Setting sandled feet on this powerful, forbidding lunar landscape known as the playa, you forget to care what day or time it is. You eat whatever you have carried in with you from the last edge of "civilization" 20 miles away. If you're smart, you drink water all the time. You wear very little or nothing at all during the long, hot dusty days. You may or may not bundle up against the chill of the utterly black night. You stroll or bicycle across the playa for hours without getting tired. You lose the need for sleep. You unconsciously absorb the amplified trance and techno beats pounding away in the distance at every hour. You become hypnotized by fire. You are humbled by the Milky Way silently exploding over your head. You beat drums. You dance. You howl. You sing. You laugh. And you smile. Eventually, you realize you are smiling all the time.

Welcome to Burning Man 2000, the 14th annual "anything goes" outdoor gathering of men and women united by a desire to amuse each other and observe as few social rules as possible. It's been 10 years since visual artist Larry Harvey's late-summer party moved from his home in San Francisco to the Nevada desert. Since then, a full-time non-profit organization has been formed to spend the year preparing to build and dismantle the temporary Black Rock City on the playa each summer.

Legend has it that after his girlfriend left him for another guy, Burning Man founder Larry Harvey invited his friends from the Bay Area art scene to join him as he burned an effigy representing "the other man." What started as a group of friends helping Larry get over his romantic loss has evolved into the most creative yearly ritual of organized chaos in the world. Over the years, the life-size effigy has grown into a 50-foot, wood and neon structure erected each summer to tower silently over the central playa of Black Rock City.

Burning Man enters into a contract with the federal Bureau of Land Management each year to establish the temporary, city-sized campsite in the middle of nowhere. Burning Man has very few rules except those that forbid littering in any way shape or form. "Leave No Trace" is as elemental a theme of being part of Burning Man as "Anything Goes." One of the miracles of Burning Man is not that 37,000 people choose to spend the last week of summer on a dry lake bed with no amenities other than port-a-potties and an all-night coffee stand.

Everyone is encouraged to participate, participate, participate. Gawkers and passive audience types are shunned. Revelry and play are celebrated. Everywhere you look, people are whisking by on decorated bicycles or golf carts or unicycles. Girls in feather boas fly up and down on swing sets and trampolines. You see lots of jugglers and hula-hoops.

Between the rough boulevards of Black Rock City are parachute tents, pryamids and geodesic domes with names like Acid Caberet, ARTery, The Black Light District, BubbleLounge, Camp Chaos, Disturbia, eville, G Spot Cafe, Gigsville, Hookadome, Illuminaughty, M*A*S*Hcara, Snowflake Village and The Wacky Shack. Open bars trade libations for trinkets, magic tricks and good stories. No money changes hands. Contrary to popular opinion, campers take the warnings of local undercover law enforcement seriously and drug use is all but invisable, at least during the day.But the real show begins at sundown, when the entire camp cheers together as the sun drops below the mountains. By night, Black Rock City becomes the most bizarre carnival playground anywhere. The lights, run by hundreds of generators, can be seen for miles. Away from the campsites, a single sparkler produces a fantastic light against the desert night. A red flare bathes a quarter mile of playa in a strange Martian pink as it floats forever back to Earth.

The essence of Burning Man is the fantastic collision of raw elements and 21st century technology. The pyrotechnics of Burning Man take many forms. Dr. Megavolt in his protective suit and birdcage helmet is famous for literally playing with lightening. He stands astride a giant semi trailer equipped with enormous tesla coils roaring with power as they heat up the night air with 50,000 volts of pure electricity.

Among the most powerful sights is the nightly duel of two gigantic mechanical dragons that blare strange sounds and breathe real fire. Friends of the creators ride in the dragon's belly and many more funseekers beg to hop a ride.

Looking out across the ancient playa, rimmed by more than a mile of partying campsites, the view is pierced by scattered fireworks, bright flares, sudden bursts of flame and countless blue, green and pink glow sticks bobbing along. Every few hundred yards people huddle and dance around a bonfire. These fires are the cozy destinations for everyone's tour across the chilly playa floor.

At the other technical extreme, electro-luminescent wire transforms simple bicycles and other multi-wheeled contraptions into a menagerie of iridescent beasts. Glowing blue kangaroos hop through the night. Rainbow colored fish swim in a sea of black air. Loch Ness monsters, mermaids, seahorses and disembodied heads seem to be floating in and out of nowhere from dusk till dawn.

The culmination of any visit to Burning Man is the moment when The Man himself is set on fire. Standing on top of a hundred kerosene-soaked hay bales, The Man erupts in a shower of fireworks before becoming consumed by super-bright yellow-white flames. His magnesium heart burns white hot as the crowd of thousands cheers "BURN!" "BURN!" "BURN!" A giant flamethrower explodes a hellish geyser of flames so large that they morph into an ominous mushroom cloud hovering over the spectacle. Everyone in Black Rock City shrieks in gleeful amazement. After days of one outrageous sight after another, nothing can prepare a Burning Man novice for this cataclysmic celebration. You stare. You shake your head in giddy disbelief. Your mouth can only form simple gasps of "OH - MY - GOD !"

After 15 minutes of this ecstatic light show, the Man's arms fall to his side and into the pyre. The crowd roars in triumph as he crumbles into a heap and sends forth a cascading shower of sparks. Yet even after this fiery crescendo, the night is very young. Over the next several hours, many colossal sculptures and installations explode and burn. Hundreds of naked men and women twirl fire and dance a pagan rite beneath a towering phallus ejaculating sparks and flame. Thousands of lights pulse to the primal beats of a hundred drums. And the Milky Way slowly disappears above the glowing smoke hovering over the playa.

Dawn returns. Ashes smolder. A lone techno beat pumps on. Stragglers crawl into dusty sleeping bags. And the miles-long exodus of RVs and rental cars crawls out of the mountain pass and Black Rock City ceases to be.

Until next year.

Burning Man is held annually at Black Rock Desert, 120 miles north of Reno, Nevada, the week prior to and including Labor Day. Tickets are $90-250, depending on how soon they're purchased. For information call 415-TO-FLAME or visit www.burningman.com.

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