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Firebrands

Once a year, on a barren plateau in the Nevada desert, free spirits from Orange County and elsewhere convene to camp and be campy. Not to stir strife but to commune with nature and one another. And to torch the Burning Man Festival's namesake.

September 05, 1997|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It can be described as a cross between a love-in, Mardi Gras and the Doo Dah Parade.

But the annual Burning Man Festival--a five-day creative free-for-all in a desert wasteland 127 miles northeast of Reno--defies definition.

There was a petting zoo filled with stuffed animals and a host and hostess garbed in leopard skins.

There was Alien Abduction Camp, where people took numbers and stood in line to have their brains "probed" by aliens. Afterward, they were presented with an alien love child: a plastic glow-in-the-dark alien figure.

There was Camp Pezaluna, where Pez dispensers and candy were passed out in the shadow of a giant happy-faced Pez dispenser.

There was Detroit Vortex, a campsite where everyone walked around wearing 3-foot-tall hats resembling enormous lampshades.

And there was Girlie Camp, featuring X-rated demonstrations. But, Darryl Krieghoff of Lake Forest says, "you probably can't mention that."

In its 12th year, the sunbaked festival, which ended in a blaze of glory Sunday night, turned the barren Haulupai plateau in Black Rock Desert into a surreal commune--an RV-park-tent-city peopled by thousands of bizarrely costumed celebrators, naked sun worshipers, out-of-this-world art installations and drums beating late into the night.

"I recommend it for anybody that can tolerate noise for 24 hours a day in the hot desert," says Krieghoff, 36, a tissue specialist for an Irvine heart valve manufacturer.

"It is a time for people to just really cut loose and experience something totally different from their everyday life," adds his wife, Anne, 41.

The Krieghoffs, who brought their two children, saw the celebration of son Austin's seventh birthday turn into a communal event.

The family brought with them an enormous wooden birthday cake, which Austin, his 4-year-old sister, McKinna, and other children painted. When they were done with the cake, they burned it. ("We were at Burning Man; you burn things," Darryl Krieghoff says.)

Virtually anything goes at the Burning Man Festival.

Men and women skinny-dipped in hot springs three miles away, then muddied up and spent the day walking around with mud-caked bodies.

To escape the desert heat, the Krieghoffs joined other festival goers chasing the water trucks that periodically sprayed the ground to keep the dust down. Explains Krieghoff: "You strip down and run behind and get showered up."

Nights, they kept lookout for the Lurker: a man who wore a black suit covered with reflective tape. He was only visible when they shined their flashlights on him.

"People would chase him down, and he'd have to run as fast as he can," Krieghoff says.

*

Except for cash used to buy ice, money was nowhere in sight. If you wanted something--a beer, a massage, food at a pancake breakfast--you bartered for it.

The annual ode to personal freedom originated in San Francisco when conceptual artist Larry Harvey, seeking to lessen the pain of a broken romance, got together with a group of friends and torched an effigy on the beach.

This year, the Burning Man Festival drew an estimated 12,000 people from around the world for what organizers, who charged $75 admission, billed as an "experiment in temporary community."

The Krieghoffs were back for their second year.

They learned about the festival on the Internet.

"It just looked like a lot of fun--people partying in the desert," Krieghoff says. "I needed a vacation, and we thought we'd check it out. We didn't know we'd stay for the whole thing."

Last year, the Krieghoffs were entertained, but this year, following the festival credo of "no spectators," they were part of the entertainment.

Anne Krieghoff says they just wore shorts and T-shirts last year.

"This year, we got a lot more free," she says. "Lingerie is kind of the thing of the day. A lot of guys wear sarongs, and a lot of girls go topless."

While Anne lounged in her lingerie, Darryl wore some of the '60s and '70s vintage clothing they had brought along--"anything you wouldn't be caught dead in today," he says.

The Krieghoffs' shade canopy was made of a dozen international flags they had sewn together, and they hung their vintage garb on the lines.

After Austin's birthday party, Krieghoff and several Orange County friends clad in vintage clothes entered a fashion show. "Someone in our group said we can be White Trash Fashion by Austin," Krieghoff says.

After walking down the runway individually, Krieghoff and company modeled their fashions collectively. The announcer, one of the Space Cowgirls--the festival's fashion police--announced that it was Austin's birthday.

"When the crowd heard it was his birthday, we had a thousand people singing 'Happy Birthday,' " Krieghoff says. "Someone said, 'Where else can you get a thousand freaks to sing you 'Happy Birthday'?"'

*

As Burning Man Festival tradition dictates, the event ended Sunday with the torching of the Burning Man--a 40-foot-tall effigy of wood and neon tubing.

A man in a flaming, fire-retardant suit torched the effigy. Fireworks shot out of the towering festival symbol.

"It's probably the most spectacular fireworks show I've ever seen," says Krieghoff, who plans to return next year.

"It's a camping trip for us," he says, allowing that the Burning Man Festival "is a little more free-spirited" than their average camping trip.

"We also go to Yosemite every year," he says, "but there aren't nude people riding bicycles in Yosemite. Nor are there large burning objects."

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