Illumination, navigation, celebration

All across the country, all our supporters want to know: How was Burning Man? The short answer is, IT WAS GREAT! The long answer is very long, so I’ll break it up into several pieces. The first one follows.

My first day at Burning Man was a blur. Literally.

The whiteout started at the worst possible time. We had partially unrolled the unwieldy 30-foot sail over the top of the Squid Wagon, and we had to abandon it and dive inside.

For a long time, we sat watching fine playa dust sift through tiny cracks in the doors and windows. Then we started trying to unearth the dust masks and goggles we’d brought to protect our lungs and eyes. Meanwhile, the sail flapped and chafed against the van, and we couldn’t see five feet. Finally, wearing our protective gear, we groped our way to the Lamplighters’ lounge, almost missing it in the total whiteout.

Was this what we’d driven across the country for?

The storm hadn’t abated by 5 pm, when we coughed and hacked our way to the Lamplighter Chapel. We milled around with the other newbies, until someone directed us to Digital Dan at the signup board. Dan is a tall, handsome man, and he looked like a sexy, elegant monk in his flame-decorated Lamplighter robe. He was also mysteriously silent. At the time, I thought that was to keep the process solemn and avoid back-talk. It seemed so appropriate that it was days later I finally realized he has a health issue that prevents him from talking.

Barry and I had seen pictures of the Lamplighting processions, but we were new to the complex, labor-intensive process. Each night, this volunteer public utility lights over a thousand kerosene lanterns and carries them, in robed processions, to 20-foot lampposts along the city’s major streets.

Each route requires dozens of people who sign up for one of four roles: A luminary, who leads each group; carriers, who carry 12 lanterns on long sturdy poles across their shoulders; lifters, who use long, slender poles to hang the lanterns on the lampposts; and support, the people who keep lanterns lit and take care of carriers’ and lifters’ needs.

That first night, Barry signed up as a lifter on the lengthy 2 o’clock route. I was nervous — was I strong enough to carry 30 pounds of lanterns and pole? Was I agile enough to hang lanterns 20 feet in the air? I decided to sign up as support, since that sounded easier.

There were about a hundred people milling about in the dust, cleaning lamps, trimming wicks, and using turkey basters to fill the reservoirs with kerosene. The tricky part was lighting the lamps in the storm, and I fretted about my ability to keep the lamps lit.

Finally, the robetenders helped us put on our robes and tied the cowls behind our heads. Then we gathered into groups, according to our routes. Our luminary, an old hand by the name of Jeff-Who, introduced to the lead carrier, a wild and crazy young woman named Ducky. She immediately began group bonding activities, including calling us the “Deuces” and inventing our own gang sign. Looking at Ducky and another carrier, a slender, silver-haired woman, I thought maybe carrying lanterns wouldn’t be so tough — they looked pretty normal, not like body builders.

So when Jeff-Who reviewed our roles and mentioned that support people would be expected to take over if a carrier or lifter was unable to finish the route, I wasn’t too worried.

Maybe I should have been.

We began lifting the loaded poles onto the carriers’ shoulders. I saw the silver-haired woman falter, then begin to walk slowly toward the front of the chapel. She seemed to be having trouble.

She didn’t quite make it to the fire cauldron, where all the routes gather for a convocation before spreading out. I found myself stepping in, putting a rolled towel around my neck and taking the heavy load on my shoulders. It wasn’t a question of whether or not I could do it. She could not, so I had to.

The load was so heavy and the wind so strong that all I could do was slowly place one foot in front of the other, following the person in front of me. I couldn’t turn my head, so I couldn’t see except straight in front of me. I was too focused on the pain in my neck and shoulders and arms to see anything, anyway. To make matters worse, the lanterns developed a maddening swing that got worse with every step.

Damn. This was the hardest thing I’d ever done, and I hadn’t even signed up for it.

Worse yet, I was near the end of the line, and the lifters weren’t taking my lamps and lightening my load. I was right at the edge of my physical limit, and I festered as I carried my load, angry at being ignored. But I was too exhausted by the task at hand to even complain.

I later realized we’d been sent out with extra lanterns. Since mine were swinging so much, they’d mostly blown out. In the fierce wind and whiteout, the lifters had all they could do to hang lanterns that were actually lit.

When it was all over, I stood in the middle of the road with my head down, like a horse that’s about to collapse in exhaustion. Someone took my lanterns and my pole, but I could barely get my arms down. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to use them for the rest of the week. I practically had to be lifted onto the truck for the ride back, where I heard Jeff-Who telling us this was the worst weather he’d ever seen for Lamplighting.

But our ordeal was not over.

The truck made a detour on the way home, out to the Man. That route had run out of lanterns, and they needed us to light and hang some of our extras.

It had only been about ten minutes, but somehow I found use of my arms again. I picked up a lifting pole and managed to hang a lantern. And another one. I drifted away from Barry, towards an empty lamppost, and then onto another one. Finally, I ran out of lanterns. As I turned back towards the truck, I panicked. It had totally vanished in the whiteout.

First came fear, then adrenaline, and then, when I found the truck, relief. And more relief when Barry appeared out of the whiteout.

We arrived back at Lamplighter Village exhausted. The kitchen crew had held dinner for us, but we could barely lift our forks.

This was Day One of a typical Burning Man experience. We’ve often heard it said that the event will push your boundaries, whatever they are. Even — especially — if you don’t know what they are. Evidently, I had some boundaries regarding strength and stamina that needed pushing. Day One of Burning Man 2008 was great!

2 thoughts on “Illumination, navigation, celebration

  1. I’m confused. What is all of this for. Are you a part of some group or something?? I mean I can tell you are but what is it? And what does the job entail? And where are you??

  2. I admire you for your “stick-to-it” attitude. you were brave. Sounds likes a wonderful experience and one you certainly will not easily forget. Thanks for sending it “our way”. Love, Aunties Julie and Mary Pat

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