Friday, February 8, 2013

Burning Man Stories: Playa Adventures 2005

5 Things That Could Have Killed Me at Burning Man 2005:
The Colossus, Angel of the Apocalypse, Tesla Coil, El Diablo, Cirque du Flambe

My second year of Burning Man, I was still full of wonder and amazement, and eagerly threw myself into every new experience on the playa.  Some of these were dangerous, although most or all of that danger was mitigated by precautionary measures.  Upon coming home, I drew a comic strip called "5 Things That Could Have Killed Me at Burning Man 2005, but the sketchbook that contained it was in my car which got stolen, and I never got it back.  C'est la vie!  But anyway, here is the tale:

The Colossus stood in the "keyhole", a wider part of the 6:00 street leading to center camp from the Esplanade.  Every year a large interactive art piece filled this public space, and this year's was breathtaking.  A large central tower stood on a conical base of steel mesh which housed lights that would shine up at the tower at night.  Three arms branched out and bent down, each one suspending a large boulder by a chain, each boulder dangling a rope down almost to the ground.  Burners could grab one of the ropes and pull either direction, rotating the top of the tower and three large poles sticking out an an angle from the top.  
One of the boulders was perfectly flat and level on its top side.  Particularly agile burners could jump from the pyramidal base to grab the edge of the boulder, heave themselves up on top of it, and then proceed to climb up the arm to the top of the sculpture.  I saw someone do this, making it look easy  and receiving the cheers and accolades of his fellow citizens, so I figured it would be no trouble for me to do the same.  In the evening as my dad and I wandered over to the center camp, I stopped him and climbed onto the base to contemplate a jump onto the edge of the flat boulder.  People were spinning it at the time, so I had to slowly rotate around the base as I was judging the distance and height.  It looked hard, even impossible for me.  Standing on my tip toes and reaching out, the rock was still several inches away and I'd have to trust my grip, as well as muster the strength to pull myself up.  Someone saw me eyeballing the rock and rallied the others to stop spinning the sculpture, telling them I was about to jump up.  This seemed to put additional pressure on me to perform this stunt which, up to then, I had only been considering.  But now I was committed, and mustering my strength, I leapt off the base and groped for the edge of the boulder.  I barely caught it with the tips of my fingers, but this was not enough, as my body swung forward, pulling my hands with it and dislodging me.  I fell about ten feet, according to my dad, onto my side, hitting my head on the grate of the base.  This was not as bad as it sounds, as the metal grate had a lot of give to it.  I'd had the wind knocked out of me, and as people crowded around me, trying to help me up, I told them I just had to lay there for a little while and to give me space.  My dad was worried, of course, but after a few minutes' recovering, I was able to stand and walk away just fine.
Angel of the Apocalypse: Towers
2. The Angel of the Apocalypse was a large interactive fire-spewing art installation.  I'd never seen art like this, that you could actually climb on, affect, interact with, become part of.  An outer ring of 18-foot towers and an inner ring of 12-foot towers spouted fire around a central pile of large twisted logs.  Burners sat and stood on these logs, basking in the gas-fed flames emerging from the sculpted steel towers.  The entire installation resembled a giant phoenix, with the towers being the tips of the wings, the pile of logs being the bird's body, and nearby, a large metal bird head served as a fire barrel.  I enthusiastically jumped onto the logs, which were stacked sparsely enough to allow me to slip in between them, shielding myself from the flames.  The flames would shoot from the artfully carved holes in the steel towers, bathing the pile of logs, and the burners in heat and light.  I later found out that the buttons that activated the towers were dispersed among the logs, and were operated by participants.  There was a DJ playing rock music, and occasionally someone on a loudspeaker would coordinate all the people on the buttons with a count down from five, and all the towers would erupt at once, creating a palpable wall of heat and light.  Even with my eyes closed, the light shone through my eyelids, taking on a red hue, and the intense heat convinced me I was near death. 
Yet, this was all 100 percent safe, with safety monitors posted around the pile of logs, making sure no drunk or tripping people came to harm.

Angel of the Apocalypse in the background

3. Tesla Coil
One night as my party trekked around some of the back streets, our attention was grabbed by a spurt of lightning up the road.  A Tesla coil was running, a metal pole with a large cylindrical on the end, from which arcs of blue lightning coil and wave like streams of water or blood vessels.  It's really hard to look away from this raw display of power.  The sound is unnerving, a high-pitched buzzing crackling.  There was a ring of safety cones with a thin ribbon slung between them, forming a safety perimeter a few feet from the limits of the lightning's dancing fingers.  I realized that if I just walked past that perimeter, I would likely die.  This was a common feeling on the playa: no safety net, no one responsible for my survival but me.  Needless to say I watched the display and when it was over, we wandered on.  In later burns, I would witness the performance of Dr. Megavolt, who dances on a truck between two Tesla coils, wearing a full metal suit with a bird cage for a helmet, and holding up florescent light bulbs which the Tesla coil's beams cause to light up, and wooden two-by-four's which the coil would ignite.

El Diablo

4. El Diablo
Traversing the open playa, distractions in every direction, suddenly, one called to us with its booming voice, a few false starts like a massive lighter being flicked.  Then a giant torch fired up, shooting a tall spire of jet fuel flame 30 feet in the air.  One of our party said it was an afterburner, a plane engine shooting burning jet fuel straight up.  Like the Tesla coil, the raw power was palpable.  We approached it slowly, but even without a safety perimeter, we were kept back from it by the intense noise and, closer, the heat and light, not to mention the feeling of terror rising up the closer one got.  This show lasted a minute or two, sometimes changing colors and letting off sparks as the controllers added different chemicals to the fuel.  Then it was over and we howled our joyous appreciation of this amazing spectacle. 

5. Cirque du Flambe
I met a friend on the playa and we wandered the Esplanade, the city's "main drag", enjoying the various offerings.  We encountered the Cirque du Flambe, taking place right on the open playa, watched by a large semi-circle of a few hundred people.  Acts involved playing with and handling lit fireworks. One guy in a fireproof suit stood as a target as others fired Roman candles at him. At some point the MC invited volunteers to come up and participate in the show.  One of the principles of burning man is participation, joining in and not being a spectator, and I had an instant desire to jump up and be part of the show.  Looking around, it seemed no one else was so motivated, so I raised my hand and came forward.  Two other volunteers were coaxed up to the front and we were lined up in front of the audience.  They went down the line and we gave our names.  The woman in the lingerie and robe was Annie Panty.  The young guy introduced himself as Dave (It never fails!).  I also gave my name as Dave.  First the female MC said we were wearing too much clothing and should take some off.  This was in the spirit of the event, and they had us guys take our shirts off.  I shimmied my pants down my legs, revealing some very worn briefs, but the hostess had me pull them up again.  Then they had us play a bit with a flaming sword.  They passed it to the girl who kind of waved it around a bit, then Dave in the middle did a little flourish with it.  When it was my turn, I showed off a little, having practiced with swords a few times, and I swung it around my head in a circle.  Next, they held up a flaming hoop for us to jump through in turn.  As the other volunteers jumped through, the male MC, dressed as a clown, pulled me aside, and told me I could ham it up by doing a little dive and somersault going through the hoop.  This of course appealed to me, so when it was my turn I ran a bit and then dove, but on my flip, my foot caught the hoop and pulled it onto me.  The flame was not as hot as I'd expected, and the performers quickly grabbed it off me.  I had only minor burns on my back, and a few charred spots on my playa pants, which I'd spent hours covering with runes with a sharpie.  I didn't mind; the burns added character to the pants.  The MC called out a sexy nurse who administered meds in the form of a flask of vodka which I took a pull from.  The next thing was a flaming jump rope which performers held and twirled as they encouraged us to jump in.  Naturally, Annie Panty was a little more practiced at this and was able to jump for awhile before running out.  Dave did his thing. I managed to jump a few times before the rope caught me.  I tried again but couldn't keep the rhythm for long.  Then they pulled out another flaming rope and it was time for double dutch.  After watching the rotating flames for awhile, I sheepishly declined to run in. Having had no practice at double dutch, I could see I'd be quickly engulfed in flaming rope.  While the flames were mostly show, not as dangerous as they look, still I felt kind of done, having had my fun.

Sketch: 5 Things that Could Have Killed Me at Burning Man
Left side: top: Cirque du Flambe, bottom: The Colossus
Right side: top: Angel of the Apocalypse, bottom left: Tesla Coil, bottom right: El Diablo
At some point in the week, a campmate who was giving people playa names, dubbed me "Daredevil Dave", a tag that stuck for a few years, until I became the free radical.

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