i couldn’t believe the brightness of that fire

This is Burning Man really is the most amazing book about Burning Man; I was enjoying it hugely even before I got to the 1998-2003 section. But what that particular section describes is more than just interesting history to me. It was the focus of my life during those years. I know half the people and saw all the art that Doherty describes. Here’s my first year at the Burn, described down to the last detail by Charlie Smith (who went on to make the Hearth, maybe my favourite piece of all time):

“I see a big temple, all beautiful melted plastic, and then I see a giant Tesla coil… What the fuck is that about? You’re going across the desert and hear this crazy ripping sound and see lightning striking right near the ground – let’s go! … I take a tour down to Center Camp and see this huge copper tree shooting water; then I go by at night, and it’s all on fire and I’m thinking Woo, nice…” This was in 1998, the year the Man exploded. “I couldn’t believe the brightness of that fire…”

For all this evocative delight, Doherty to his great credit doesn’t shy from the Man’s power to fuck lives right up, suck money down a giant drainhole, destroy relationships and melt human flesh:

“I turned toward the Dice fire just in time to lock eyes with a burning man walking out of the fire and toward me. I will never forget the look in those eyes – eyes that were looking directly at me, eyes that said ‘What did I just do?’… This man before us, this melted man, he was not surviving the night.

“Someone cut Sinatra; people sprang to action. A man from the Death Guild eased the burned man down to the ground (no one knew where to set his melted skin down – a dusty piece of carpet, the bare playa, where? Was this really happening?) and talked to him gently, trying to calm him. ‘What you have, it’s like a really bad sunburn. Hell, I get horrible sunburns out here. You’ve probably got a third-degree sunburn, that’s all. Happens to all of us. I got sunburned real bad out here, earlier in the week…’ The burned man looked on with huge eyes… You could see deep into his body, where the fire had burned away the skin.” He was taken away from the playa, and he died. He had walked into the fire deliberately, for reasons no one will ever know.

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