Burning Man was conceived in 1986 when a San Francisco man named Larry Harvey invited a friend to burn a wooden effigy in honor of the Summer Solstice. It has grown into an annual week-long festival, a place of pilgrimage for some 25,000 people who form a temporary community in the Nevada desert the week before Labor Day. Burning Man culminates in the conflagration of a huge effigy, an event that has taken on sacred significance. A new documentary, "The Burning Sensation," focuses on the performance-art aspect of the festival, but many have found it to be spiritually transforming. Here, Marshall Elliott gives a first-hand account of this year's Burning Man.

It's Friday. A dust storm has just blown in, lifting a thick cloud of dust. Off in the distance, I hear the rolling thunder of drums, though I can't see anything.

c 1997 by George Post
Photo c 1997 by George Post

I wander over to see what is happening. I see friends dancing with bandanas over their mouths, and the excitement is like electricity charging the air. I pick up a drum, sit down, and join in. More people come, from all directions. Drumming faster now, shouting, people begin to leap into the air and spin until soon, there are a couple hundred of us. Everyone is covered head to toe in a thin layer of white dust as a large metal phoenix statue is lit on fire. Building and growing in intensity, we invite the magic in through the wind and the rain until-hours later-the clouds clear, the most beautiful sunset comes out, and a rainbow touches down upon the horizon. We all begin laughing and hugging one another in large circles. All of us feel it: you can see it in our eyes. We've just been there

: Another spiritual epiphany at Burning Man.

Each year, in the week before Labor Day, more than 25,000 people gather on the flat playa surface of the Black Rock desert in northern Nevada to enact the ritual-a week-long event culminating in the burning of a 70-foot tall man effigy. This structure, which glows in blue neon at night, provides the city with a center, and its most powerful talisman, to which participants ascribe whatever meaning they choose to the experience. Any description of this week is impossible. It is a party, a temporary community, a carnival, an arts festival, and a tabula rasa for radical self-expression. It is a powerful place. While any attempt to define what happens here is inadequate, it certainly is a stage for spiritual transformation. The first time I came here last year, I thought I was inside of God's brain.

When it comes to the issue of spirituality at Burning Man, almost every viewpoint is represented, including some bizarre mysticism and plenty of self-made religions. Many people are happy to discuss their views when asked, but truly the only answers here lie within. While navigating through the city, full of shamans and teachers of all kinds, the soul finds its resonance in the creative explosion. Individual boundaries, taboos, and preconceptions are tested; ages are lived in days.

Black Rock City, as the festival's encampment is called, is actually a large village full of people who aren't specialists. Everyone here is good at so many things-constantly we are reminded of the full depth of our eclectic talents. We are all ministers to our spirits; ready to help each other out, whether you need to marry someone else, or more importantly-if you need to marry yourself. For many, Burning Man is their first vision of the fully unleashed creative power of the divine, and our god-like roles as creators.

Every thought is put into collective action here. When listening to the heart, needs seem magically to be met. Your back hurts? Go lie down at center camp. Before long, you'll end up in a conversation with an incredible person who will offer you a Thai massage. Need a gallon of red paint? Ask the playa. It will happen. Often you don't even need to ask. Sometimes, you don't even know you need it yet. This is the byproduct of a care-based gift economy. Vending is prohibited here. You can't buy food, and you can't buy water. You can't even buy a commemorative t-shirt (but, yes, someone will help you make

one). Somewhere in the process of all this generosity in the face of survival, the community comes alive. Everyone waves, smiles, greets, and hugs. It's infectious and it lifts the city ever so subtly each day to higher places.