Drawn to the flame They came, 16,000 strong, to the middle of the desert to see the Burning Man -- and to attend the world's wildest party. The point? Don't observe life, experience it.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Black Rock City, NEV. -- It seems improbable, this gathering of 16,000 on an ancient dry lake. Overnight, a city of streets and temples is carved out of the dust of the Black Rock Desert and the first pilgrims appear on state road 34. Within a few days, the Hualapai Playa is home to Nevada's sixth largest city. Then, overnight, the swarm disperses, leaving the desert empty.

For a few precious days, they have created a place like no other. The celebration -- five days of performance art, participatory art, music, hedonism and spectacle -- is called Burning Man. And if it is about anything in particular, it is about new experiences.

"NO SPECTATORS," says a sign above Cafe Temps Perdu, a tent-covered coffee bar with hay bales for chairs. Burning Man is not to be simply observed -- but experienced. Shed the self you carry around in the everyday world, dive into the counterculture and free your inner pagan.

But only for a while.

"In a few days there'll be nothing here, just tire tracks," says Pete "The Postman of the Playa" Isaacson, a self-described tenured grad student from Hacienda Heights, Calif.

He's one of the multitudes drawn to this forbidding place 125 miles northeast of Reno; 25 miles from Nixon, the last place with a decent store; 17 miles from Gerlach, pop. 350, the last place with a phone.

But Burning Man is not a place you come to on a lark. This is survivalist boot camp. Bring your own food, water and shelter. Portable toilets are provided, but little else comes with the $75 entry fee. So, why come?

"I kind of felt like Richard Dreyfuss in 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind,' " says Isaacson, 33, sitting beneath a parachute draped over a dome frame of 1 1/2 -inch PVC pipe. "I just felt I had this image of The Man in my head."

Ah, yes. The Man. He looms over Black Rock City, an icon, symbolic of everything and nothing, a blank slate onto which you put whatever meaning you choose. He stands 40 feet tall, a wood frame stuffed with burlap. Tubes of purple neon outline the body. Green neon illuminates the rib cage and shoulder blades. From sundown till near dawn The Man, set atop a 30-foot pyramid of hay bales, throws his iridescent glow onto the desert floor.

The crowd is here to see him burn. But Burning Man is more than a high-tech bonfire. It asks, demands, that you participate, that you get down on your hands and knees and crawl through a maze built to approximate the sperm's journey to the ovum. At Burning Man, the thousands flout society's rules, its commercialism, its restrictions. Care to walk around naked? Fine. Care to paint your naked body? Even better. Care to play naked giant Twister? In Black Rock City, anything goes.

There's "the feeling of being able to do what you want to do without anyone saying anything, as long as you're not hurting someone, unless they want you to," says Britta Garcia, 33, who is here this Labor Day weekend from San Francisco for her first Burning Man.

This is the sixth trip for Jim McGreen, a 40-ish artist from Sebastopol, Calif. When he first made the drive to Black Rock, he was one of 600.

"I knew Burning Man when he was just match sticks," he says, standing beside his motorized cross, complete with sun umbrella.

Blasphemy, you say: The sacred imagery of the sacrifice turned into a scooter to ride across the lake bed? People gather around to have their pictures taken in mock poses of crucifixion. McGreen, who works primarily in metals, says 12 years of Catholic school education inspired him to build the cross.

"We thought it might be OK at the Sebastopol parade, but we don't think so," he says. Burning Man is a better place for such things. "This is an opportunity to do some things and not be judgmental."

Even the police turn a blind eye. They stroll the city, drive its streets, harass no one. The only arrest is of someone waving a gun.

Swoosh! A tracer trail of red rushes into the black, starlit sky, explodes into streams of red, blue, green and white, and casts a glow upon the surreal nightscape. The sound of dynamite rips through the air.

Saturday night is a precursor to Sunday's big burn. The buildup since Wednesday has been slow. Each night there is a little more fire, a few more sky rockets. By Saturday evening, the city is eerily reminiscent of that last outpost scene in "Apocalypse Now," the one where everybody is stoned and no one is in charge.

At Cyber Cube, two women in Day-Glo face paint and clothing do a dance of seduction to music and drums that calls to mind India and the tabla. Farther on, wind chimes made of pipe, ceramics, coat hangers, metal trash can lids and other urban detritus wait for passers-by to create a soundscape.

Naked bodies stroll past. After awhile, the sight of swinging glands and members, adorned or bare, becomes, well, ho-hum. Seen one, seen 100, seen 500, seen 1,000. Don't stare, say Burning Man's organizers. Very unhip, tres declasse.

The Beavises and Butt-heads of the world cannot abide such high-mindedness. For them, this is a most excellent adventure. Naked chicks! Drugs and alcohol! Fire! They can barely pull themselves from the Temple of Atonement, an open-air S&M; shop. Always something startling here: a naked man on his back, blindfolded and tied to a barrel; a naked man shouting the strokes as he is lightly flogged; a naked woman, hands cuffed to a bar suspended above her head, enduring a light whipping that is more arousal than punishment. And who is to judge?

Everywhere there is music -- drums, industrial, metal, ambient space music, R&B;, rap and funk. There's even pirate radio on the FM dial. Each stop has its own groove. At the Aesthetic Meat Foundation, the performance is played out against a soundtrack of dark, hypnotic, industrial noise. The group's fliers say the ritual is to invoke the force of KAOS, but at 2 a.m. it's unclear how that connects with the man in black leather and the woman in the nun's habit who pulls a blood-dripping cow's liver from a plastic bag and caresses it as if it were a baby.

"Touch the sacred liver," she says, holding forth the cold organ before it is nailed to a cross and burned in a pit.

"Weird," whispers a voice in the crowd. "God damn weird."

"We aren't a cult. We're a culture. A cult excludes. Burning Man is radically inclusive," says Larry Harvey, whose burning of an effigy 12 years ago on Baker Beach in San Francisco was the beginning of Burning Man.

He is sitting by an RV, smoking Basic filter cigarettes, wearing sunglasses and his ever-present Stetson. Burning Man is a place to escape to, he says.

"It's a way of leaving the world behind, entering this space and feeling an intense communication with it," he says. "We bring people to the threshold of religion."

Burning Man has all the trappings of religion -- pilgrimage, ritual, an icon. But there is no intercessor, no priest or shaman. There is no dogma. Yet, something here appeals to a white middle class whose counterculture roots began with the beats of the 1950s and the hippies of the 1960s. Add today's cybernauts and you have a community of like minds finding a place in the desert. The community is 99.9 percent white.

"It's not like my home," says Harvey, who lives in San Francisco's racially diverse Fillmore district.

Blacks, Asians, Hispanics already have a strong ethnic identification, brought on by being minorities, outsiders. They don't have time for three days of rugged sun and fun. The people here, many from the San Francisco area, are the outsider artists and free spirits who can afford the camping gear, the RVs, the fee.

Sure, Burning Man bars no one, but the world is full of segregation. Even if the fliers and Web site say nothing about race, an internal coding takes over. Burning Man? A desert arts festival? People getting high and walking around naked? Must be a white thing. It'll be a long time before a rainbow coalition dances beneath The Man. For now, Burning Man is a white folks' party, says Harvey.

"They're rootless," he says, philosophizing. "At the same time, they suffer from the trauma of disconnection. So they, more than any other group, are searching for a home, a family, a tribe. They're drawn to us like moths to a flame."

Sunday night. The Man is ready, arms raised, limbs and head packed with firecrackers. Fires dot the landscape.

"It's pretty irrational, the whole thing," says Phil Keeley, a 41-year-old production manager. "It's already passe for the deep hipster types. They make fun of you for coming here."

"They" have probably forgotten what it's like to join in the ritual. "They" are back home, looking to stay a step ahead. "They" aren't here as damn near everyone fuels up on marijuana, hashish, mushrooms, LSD, nitrous oxide, alcohol, whatever. Thousands stream to the 400-foot perimeter surrounding The Man.

The sky fills with more fireworks, flares and sky rockets. Firecrackers explode everywhere. A procession of 200 to 300 drummers, torch bearers and dancers enters the perimeter. Some are painted, some are half-naked. Some are twirling long poles with flaming flares on each end. Above it all stands The Man, green and purple neon glowing against the night.

"Less procession, more fire," yells someone.

An intense soul wanders behind the crowd, his flame thrower scorching the desert floor. Thousands are chanting, moving to the drums. Here and there a voice yells:

"Burn the man!"

The procession continues. It seems pre-Christian, Roman, something not seen since the time of the Mayan, the Olmec, the Druids, the long-dead tribe of Easter Island. It is from a time of fire and drums. It is the need for primitive ritual played out in the lives of late 20th-century America. Such ideas seem true and right, then a bicycle in the shape of a banana passes by as if to say, "Don't get too serious. Burning Man is not about anything, really." Burning Man is an absurdist joke, a chance to poke fun at everything, including Burning Man.

Inside the perimeter, two tepees explode in flames. A sculpture of snakes climbing out a box is set afire. Each blaze heightens the arousal. The crowd knows what is coming. But when? When? Suddenly, a black-clad flaming man runs through the dancers and drummers to stand beneath The Man.

Thousands gasp, roar their approval. In a few minutes, The Man is on fire. Explosives packed in his head and hands whistle and shoot into the night. It's like the Fourth of July on acid.

Orange flames climb up The Man's arms and legs. Glass tubes shatter. Sparks fly off the burning effigy. Last year, The Man fought his destruction. When workers pulled on the ropes, he wobbled, defiant. He didn't go easy. This year the first pull sends him falling, backward, crashing to the desert floor. A primal scream erupts from 16,000 throats.

"Yeaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhh!"

They surge forward, slowly, drawn by the fire's deep, mysterious pull. A delirium brought on by the drums, the flame, the spectacle, seizes the crowd. An intoxicated mob swarms around the burning hay and remnants of the icon. They are close to violence, marching counterclockwise like pagans from a forgotten eon.

Thousands encircle the pyre, draw closer and closer until they cannot withstand the searing heat and choking smoke. They are dressed as bunnies, as Fred and Wilma Flintstone, as Death with an erection; women are cowboys; men are in Catholic school girl skirts, army jackets and officer's hats. The gender bending is nonstop.

"I am Caligula!" a man yells in the night.

Orange cinders drift crazily in the thermal updraft. Two bales of ,, hay explode with frightening power, driving back a section of the crowd. It is as if The Man is saying, "I'm Not Dead Yet!"

The playa looks like the Kuwaiti oil fields. Every bale of hay is on fire. A 30-foot Trojan Horse, built for tonight, burns and crumples to the ground amid cheers and raised fists. A bamboo windmill filled with wax blazes like a giant candle. Perhaps 30 fires are burning, each sending its own toxic smoke into the air. The eyes burn. The lungs sting from even shallow breaths. People wander through the aftermath, make love on the ground, dance around fire pits like cave men.

The night is a sensory overload. So much is indulged. So much is let go. But one truth remains through the burning and the dancing, the brain-addling intoxicants. It lies at the heart of Burning Man. Call it respect, common decency. The audience in front of Circus X gets a dose of it.

Juicy Danger is about to perform its act in which a man juggles a 10-inch chain saw, a bowling ball and an egg. Nurse Tiny Tina, the assistant, immaculate in white outfit, hat and white platform shoes, struts around the ring, firing blasts from her flame thrower, accenting each pull of the trigger with a taunting, playful grind of the hips. She tries to extinguish the flame, but it doesn't go out as planned. Deep in the crowd, a drunken male voice yells out, calling her a name, like she was some stray dog.

The curse sends murmurs of anger and disgust through the crowd. Did he really say that? Unbelievable. Wrong, totally wrong.

Tiny Tina turns toward the anonymous voice, pulls the trigger and sends three bolts of flame roaring into the night.

"Yeah!" yells the crowd. "Yeah."

Pub Date: 9/07/97

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