butterfly

My last 24 hours of Burning Man, Pt. 2

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Braving the still-strong winds and dust, wrapped in my cocoon of a face shield, my cousin and I head out to the open Playa to watch the Man burn.  It is 7:30pm - the Man is scheduled to burn at 10 (with much preceeding pomp and circumstance).  We stop to adorn ourself in glowsticks, visibility being a key element to survival and accident avoidance at night in Black Rock City.

The air is still full of dust - we can see the Man, though barely, and head towards him to see what's going on.  There is only one row of people ringing themselves around him, guided by Rangers.  We take a seat behind them as the winds pick up and my eyes begin to sting something fierce.  The rangers are friendly and interact with the crowd - we gift them glow sticks, they get territorial and possessive over their "sections" because they love us.

A girl in front of us gives back massages to everyone in her diameter, and Nathan and I are two such lucky recipients.  Her name is Molly.  I try to gift her the last bracelet I made but it falls to the ground and I hopelessly search for it in vain.  Someone else gets ground score tomorrow, I suppose.

I keep my head down and eyes closed, praying the incredible sting in my eyes will die down if they can just get a little rest.  Every time I look up to see what's going on around me it's harder to open the eyes, the pain only grows worse.

The Man raises his arms in anticipation.

The ceremony starts and I glue my pained eyes open.  Many processions pass us by - many groups of tribal drums, carriers of the fire that will eventually ignite the man, the Burning Marching Band, other musical groups, dancers, torch bearers.  Anyone who's anyone, I suppose.  I snap pictures like crazy.

Then, the fire dancers come out.  Some have metal gloves with flaming fingers, some have Poi, some have double-ended torches.  Some are on stilts.  All dancing together, spinning, to the rhythm of several groups of drums.  We are seated between two and the beats intermingle, completely different tempos melding into a caucophony of sound as fire dances in circles and arches and everything becomes blurred behind my stinging eyes and the cold winds carrying the incessant dust sweep through my simple cloth with which I have clothed myself, and I give myself over to something bigger, something stronger than myself.  Stinging and shivering and jittering and filled with the driving drums and blurred vision filled with beautiful arches of fire, I am transported somewhere else altogether, yet am rooted to the spot.  I feel my heart swell, my soul fill every inch of me down to my fingertips and then explode out like invisible rays of light, over and through the crowd behind me and the Man in front of me, across the Playa, filling the entire desert.

A torch is thrown into the center of the Man's support structure, and the pyrotechnics begin.  Fireworks fill the sky in place of the fire dancers and it's a celebration, everybody cheering.  BURN THE MAN!  BURN THE MAN!

He catches fire and the fireworks cease.  The crowd cheers and then quiets for a time, watching the beauty of the massive fire that sweeps through the Man's surrounding structures, a stories-tall eruption of flames, while He stands tall in the center, burning but still standing.  He looses one arm, then the other, to massive ovation.  Then more quiet, as the beautiful sweeping surrounding structures all fall and the Man's legs still stand on its tall support, slowly burning.  The crowd is allowed to rush closer, anticipating the final fall.  An eternity elapses in the span of what could not have been more than twenty minutes.  He falls and the crowd cheers and then unexpectedly quickly disperses.

At this point one contact is just out, the other hanging on for dear life in order for me to fully witness the event.  I have only one thought: get to the car.  I am pummeled by a cyclist who shreiks curses but refuses to acknowledge my presence as I attempt to apologize for not being more visible.  We move on, my only goal to get to the car and take out my contacts and close my eyes, oh the bliss of closed eyes.

We get in the car, I follow through with my one-track mission.  Nathan wanders off to say his goodbyes at the camp he somewhat adopted via their bar and is gone for a long time, returning merely saying, "wow... i.... am... exhausted.      ....anna is awesome."  I need hear no more.  We both nap for a time.  He picks up the few remaining things around our camp site, like our trash bag and glow stick moop.  My eyes are closed, blissfully closed.  We leave the city, but I am blind to our departure.  I doze on and off, occasionally engaging my cousin in small talk when he can tell I am awake.

Denny's, 5:00am, Reno.  We stumble in, and the all-knowing nods and remarks from the staff let us know we are not alone.  Several other blurry figures weary from the same event are scattered throughout the building, recognizable to me only by snippets of overheard conversation and the smell of Playa dust everywhere.  I run my face under real running water, I open my eyes in the stream to cleanse them.

I am still blind.

It is time to take my cousin to the airport.  Neither of us have the energy or will to talk, due to exhaustion but equally as much an overwhelming realization that we haven't even begun to digest what happened to us out there on the Playa.  I put in my contacts, crying all the while from the pain, drop him off, we have awkward goodbyes, I program my GPS for Laura's house, and head down the I-80.

I have to stop a couple times to take out my contacts and rest my eyes.  I finally make the long stretch and barely make it, squeezing different parts of my face and head to make my eyes stay open - they sting just as fiercly as they did the night before out on the Playa in the middle of the dust storm.  The Playa is everywhere - on my dash, in my suitcase, in my clothes, in my hair, in every inch of the air inside the car.

I make it to Berkeley, am welcomed by Laura.  I take out my contacts and accept blindness for the next 24 hours, my eyes having taken such a beating there are no longer whites to my eyes, only reds.  My journey home only half complete, but already feeling miles away from the Playa, I begin my acclimation back to this world.