Peaceful, record crowd leaves Black Rock
September 5, 2004
BLACK ROCK DESERT – A record 35,500 costumed revelers ritually burned a 40-foot neon-and-wooden icon of a man and began parting the Black Rock Desert north of Reno Sunday.
The 19th annual Burning Man festival, a bizarre counterculture event in one of the most remote places in America, was relatively uneventful after a series of tragedies a year ago.
Bureau of Land Management spokesman Jamie Thompson said the event ran smoothly with no major accidents. Officers issued 167 citations overall during the event, down from 177 a year ago. Six arrests were up from five last year.
Last year, two people died and four were hospitalized with injuries following accidents with aircraft and the Mad-Max-style “mutant vehicles” that roam the desert.
Participants who remain an extra day were set to burn an elaborate Temple of Stars Sunday night, laid out in a quarter-mile crescent even farther into the desert.
“There’s no comparison to last year. This is the best one yet,” said Wendy “Rebel Barbie” Wright, 37, of Reno, referring to the latest temple creation by artist David Best.
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It took thousands of manhours to build the illuminated temple mainly from lace-like filigrees of plywood left over after toy punchouts were made.
Builders started construction four months ago in Petaluma, Calif., before trucking the components into the desert aboard flatbed trucks.
This year’s structure was so elaborate that it only opened to participants Friday night, barely 48 hours before it was to be burned.
By tradition, participants leave the names of departed loved ones and other remembrances to be burned. Many visitors cried while composing their gifts, and some collapsed into the arms of others.
One middle-aged man read a lengthy and moving essay about his eccentric late mother, then fell to the floor of the temple.
“To burn it, it’s like giving it to a higher force. It’s like an offering,” said Fred Dickson, who helps build the temple.
“It’s an emotional experience,” said Silvie, of San Diego, who would give only her first name. “There’s a reverence here.”
Burning offerings dates to an age-old human impulse that echoes today in organized religions.
“It’s communal. Its a tribal thing,” said Steve Bunis of Danville, Calif.
For many participants, torching the temple has become the centerpiece of the annual burn, a more intimate, spiritual event than the rave-party-like immolation of the man icon the night earlier.
That burn was accompanied by flame-belching vehicles, fire sculptures, and jugglers dancing with hoops and spirals of flame, accompanied by a hypnotic drumbeat and techno music filling the desert night.
“I think they’re all different so I don’t think you can compare,” said Robert Jaret, 42, of Novato, Calif., contrasting this year’s burn to three he has attended.
“I didn’t feel as much energy, which comes from the man. I think it was a little small. It could have ignited better,” said Greg Tarantino, 44, of San Rafael, Calif., who was attending his sixth burn.