|I rode my bike around art cars, then circled the inner playa to see
some of the art. At the Friends of Black Rock camp, they had maps and historical
displays about the Black Rock Desert. A sign warned potential hikers: "You
will be on your own."
The bar was running low on water, so I donated a gallon. A band was playing blues on the stage.
Once we got to the perimeter fence, the Sandmen split off from the rest of the Rangers. We then split up into two groups, so that we could work both sides of the Man. I got paired-up with Ranger Phlapjak, who was from southern California. Ranger Bayou assigned us to the 9 O’clock side of the Man. Before going on post, however, there were some special individuals we needed to escort. The fire performers had something special planned, something even people high up in the organization did not know was going to happen. It was all very hush-hush. A half dozen Rangers, myself included, were sent out beyond the perimeter. There, we waited for a bus to pull into position. A bunch of people got out, all in special clothing. The secret event was a group of special effects guys were going to set themselves on fire when the fire dancing was done. Surrounding them “like the wheels of a wagon,” we escorted them into the perimeter to the area of the Fire Conclave. Once there, we went to our assigned positions. The Sun began to creep behind the western mountains.
The outer ring of the burn perimeter was manned by dirt Rangers. Inside that was a ring where the Fire Conclave would be performing. Inside that, closest to the Man and up with the guys in the silver suits, were the Sandmen. That's where I was. Each Sandman had an assigned area to watch. It was a quarter to 9 when the Lamplighters came through in procession. Right after 9 PM, the Man’s arms rose up, bringing cheers from the thousands of people surrounding us. The fire dancers started, and as many times as I’d seen the Conclave perform, it was unique to watch it from the perspective of inside the perimeter. I got to watch them and see the faces of the audience illuminated by the flames. I didn’t know it at the time, but Go-Go was dancing not far from me, over at the 11 O’clock sector.
The performers danced for 25 minutes, and then settled down to watch
the show. But first, out came the special effects guys. One by one, they
were lit on fire. From my position, I could see each guy did there own
thing. The one to my left just walked around, with his whole body on fire,
but the guy to my right danced and bounced around, like OMG I'm on fire!
When they dropped to the ground, that was the signal for their associates
to put them out with fire extinguishers. It all happened so quickly I wasn’t
sure anybody got it on video.
I could hear the fireworks going off behind me, but the threat of someone bursting through the crowd was too important to ignore. I managed to sneak a couple of peeks over my shoulder, but the fireworks were going off directly above us, so it was hard to watch, anyway. I was concerned about burning embers falling on us, but just then something hit my foot. Something else hit my shoulder. It was a little plastic cap, about the size of my fingertip. The residue from the fireworks containers was falling straight down on us. It was amazing watching the faces of the people before me. The fire inside the structure started before the fireworks even ended. This was showtime, the time we Sandmen had to be most on our toes.
When the Fire Conclave settled down, I thought they’d form one long ring around the perimeter. But the Conclave isn’t just one group; it’s a bunch of groups from all over the country. When they were done performing, they all settled down with their friends, in groups of two to twenty. This created not a ring of people but rather a chain of islands inside the perimeter. I kept a close eye on the outer perimeter, but didn’t see anybody breaking through. Ranger Shrek, to my left, pointed out one shirtless guy he thought might be a problem, but all the guy did was play “Taps” on a trumpet. The Man caught fire, and the heat began to get intense.
There was a loud FOOM! and a blast of hot air rushed past me. It was the first of three big gasoline bombs set inside the Man for maximum visual effect. I turned my head in time to see the second one go off, a massive ball of fire that rose above me, filling my entire field of vision. The third one lit up the whole desert when it went off.
I was watching the outer edges when some of the Conclave in front of me waved for me to look behind me. I turned, and a tall, swirling fire tornado was coming straight at me. It was moving so slowly, however, I didn’t feel threatened at all. It was fascinating to watch the dust swirl in a tight pattern as it crawled along. I had time to calmly walk out of the way and walk around it before it dissipated. Some of the Conclave laughed, and I thought it must have looked surreal. To the cheers of thousands, the Man fell into the mass of flames. It was several more minutes, however, before the perimeter was dropped, so we all had to stand our ground and wait. Right about then, three people come through the perimeter line and just start sauntering casually towards the Conclave groups. I thought, What the hell? I moved to intercept them. It was two guys and a girl. The tallest guy said someone in the Conclave told him the perimeter had been dropped. Out of 50,000 people, they were the only ones standing—did it look like the perimeter had fallen? They were good natured enough about going back to the perimeter line, except the tall guy seemed to get a little ticked that I followed them (to make sure they went back out).
It was a couple of minutes after I got back on station that we got the
signal to drop the perimeter… and that was the scariest moment for me.
Fireworks, flames, fire tornadoes, they were nothing compared to seeing
thousands and thousands of faces rushing at you like an endless
tsunami wave. They just kept coming, rushing past me, yelling, smiling
and laughing. It was Phlapjak that waved me over with his flashlight. As
partners, we needed to leave together. It was a great burn. Everybody was
safe, everybody had a good time, and everybody got to go home. That’s a
winning night to me.
|When I first saw the structure of the Man, I guessed it would be a
quick burn, and I was right. Most Rangers working perimeter checked back
in at HQ in record time.
Back at HOTD, I met up with some folks that had watched the burn from camp. I think I even saw Monkey Shoes again. It was a sincere relief to get through the Sandman duty, and I took it easy the rest of the evening. I put my feet up and finished off my last beer before going to bed.