Thursday, May 23, 2013

Burning Man Stories: Lamplighters 2009

The Lamplighters are a theme camp and public works project on the playa.  Every year they erect hundreds of tall, stable wooden lampposts along the main roads of the city, and every night of the event, they light them with oil-burning lanterns.  These glowing beacons really help the festival-goers at night to orient themselves, and they provide light and a beautiful ambiance to the city. 

In 2008 (or was it 07?...), I was passing by the Center Camp Cafe in the early evening, when a young brunette woman approached me and invited me to volunteer to be one of the Lamplighters.  I asked her "what it involved", and was told it involved cleaning and filling lanterns, and then walking through the city hanging the lit lanterns on the posts.  I was obliged to decline, as I was tripping on mushrooms at the time, and I told her I was just too high for that right then.  She seemed disappointed but understanding, and I saw her rally others nearby who were more receptive.  I felt a bit sad that I was not able to help when I was asked, but I knew I could make up for it by volunteering at future time.

In 2009, I put that plan into practice, heading over to the Lamplighters Village.  The recruiter who approached me out in front of the entrance was surprised at my exuberance to join up.  I'm guessing not all are so glad to participate. 

Once in the village, I was given a uniform and assigned to a group.  The uniform consists of a long white robe with a flame design around the bottom, and a matching head scarf.  A barrel of cloth robe ties in all colors gave participants a chance to customize their outfit, and I chose a blue tie to tie around my waist, pulling in the robe.  I chose to be a "bearer" or some such title, as opposed to a "lifter."  This meant that I would carry a long pole on my back, weighted on both sides evenly with 12 total lanterns.  The lifters would come up behind the bearers and, at the same time, lift off one lantern from each side using a pole with a hook, and then lift it and place it on the post. 

When all were ready, the leader gave a little invocation, declaring our intention to light the city.

My group was assigned to the 9:00 spoke from the Man, which meant we got to ride on the top of the Lamplighters' "art car", really a very utilitarian-looking stripped down truck with a top deck, and painted all red.  This was my first really good ride on an art car.  Standing ten feet off the ground, riding all the way from center camp to the Man, (about a half-mile), I got a great view of the inner playa with all its many art pieces and festive crowds. 

At the Man, we disembarked and lined up, and we were given the poles we were to carry.  The burden was not heavy, but we had to walk slowly to keep the lanterns from jostling too much.  The routine went like clockwork, having been done countless times, and coordinated by the "helpers" who were more experienced and able to relieve anyone that was having trouble. 

Along the way, the citizens of Black Rock City poured out their love upon us, mostly in the form of shouted thankyou's, as hugs and handshakes were not practical in this situation.  Some bestowed gifts, or performed for us in various ways as we passed.  It felt great to be so appreciated, as I myself have always appreciated the work of the tireless Lamplighters. 

Afterwards, the leader of our group, or "Luminary," invited us to look back at the avenue we just lit up, and indeed it was a beautiful and rewarding sight.  Then we were given medallions for our participation, a new one of which they design each year.  We were also invited to party that night at their large camp, and in effect, be part of them.  The option to camp with them was left open.

This was a great time and a moving experience which I recommend to anyone who goes to Burning Man. 

"We cannot hold a torch to light another's path without brightening our own."  ~Ben Sweetland

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