Why I Don’t Work the Temple Burn
It was Saturday, Burn Night, in 2001, and I was Shift Lead.
In the late afternoon, Silent Wolf’s “significant other” had been arrested for allegedly messing around with a small cluster of ATVs which were parked near the Center Camp Café, and which belonged to Law Enforcement. When they returned to their ATVs, the LEOs found her standing there next to them. They had a person in custody and asked her if she knew the guy. She did not, but for some reason, she said yes. Then they moved forward and attempted to arrest her. Both parties became aggressive in response to each other. They got one cuff on before she jerked free, then they took her to the ground. She was laying on her stomach and had her hand clenched together underneath herself, with one cuff on. She was then arrested and taken into custody, for resisting arrest.
After the burn, we received a report of a sexual assault. A woman had been raped and was now with our Green Dots. Description of the assailant was “Asian male in his mid-twenties with long black hair”. (We also had a report on the clothing worn by the assailant, but I cannot remember what he was wearing.)
I was angry and shocked at this report and the information that was being relayed from the interview. I resolved to do everything we could to find this individual, and then attempted to organize a block by block sweep of the entire city using all available Rangers, and beginning nearest the last known location. Some bike-mobile Rangers on the open playa were asked to spread out and ride to all of the fires, looking for someone fitting the description.
Black Rock City was on fire (literally, in several places), and “going off”. There were a lot of incidents, medicals, reports of stolen stuff (much of it found missing after participants returned back to their camp after the burn) participants shooting off pyro, people driving their unmutated vehicles around, vehicles driving through the trash fence in both directions, etc. People were burning their art pieces (which were sitting directly on the playa), couches, and some were even burning structures and art in their camps.
Silent Wolf’s SO was still out at the Law Enforcement compound, which at that time was on the southern side of the city, outside the perimeter near the DPW Depot (which was not as close to the trash fence as it is now). The SO was a foreign national and did not have her ID on her when she was arrested. Silent Wolf and his SO were camped at Outpost Tokyo, and he had back to Tokyo to search for her ID in an attempt to secure her release after many hours in custody at the compound. When I went back to Tokyo to meet with Silent Wolf, several other Rangers camped there then informed me that there was a BLM vehicle parked a couple of blocks back watching our camp through binoculars. (The city was a lot less condensed back then, with more gaps in between groups.) The BLM officer in the truck seemed especially interested in the camp where Wolf and his SO were living. Later on, this same BLM truck decided to roll right through our camp (between tents and vehicles) pulling into to the Tokyo camp off of “D” Street, and rolling all the way through onto “C” Street. He drove right past me where I was parked in camp, sitting there in my truck.
After a little while, I got out of my truck. Another Ranger in leadership came up and offered me a pill. He said it was Adderall, and would help keep me up, and said that several other Rangers had been taking some to “party all night”. I politely declined, but he asked again and again repeatedly, ultimately holding his hand out and becoming more insistent that I should take it from him. His face was dusted white from the playa, and his eyes looked dark like they were all pupil and no color, the darkness of his eyes accented by the whiteness of his dusty skin. I declined one last time, a bit taken aback at his insistence, and then finally walked away. A little later, Moebius came by to meet and discuss a problem with me, and I noticed that his face was also white and his eyes seemed to be black too. (I told myself this must be an optical illusion.) He had a strange request, and I was unable and unwilling to help him out to resolve his issue.
Another Ranger called me and asked for a jump, he was stuck out near a fire around 8 o’clock and open playa. I agreed, then Jynx and I climbed into my Suburban and we drove out there to give him a jump start. We pulled up, got out our cables, and jump-started his Jeep. I turned to head back to Tokyo and was only a few minutes away when he called me back, asking for another jump. He had apparently floored it when he went to leave and dusted out the group of participants he had been talking to, then his Jeep died again. (His vehicle was cold-natured and not idling correctly.) The participants were a little agitated about his dust stunt, and we needed to get him out of there and back to Tokyo so he could get the Jeep parked and stop driving. By the time we pulled back up to his vehicle and parked grill to grill, Jynx had fallen asleep in the passenger seat. I popped the hood and set up the cables again. I got back into the Suburban to rev up my engine a bit and charge his battery. We were sitting there with our hoods up, our headlights shining at each other’s vehicles, and Jynx asleep. After a few minutes, the Ranger got his jeep started again, and went to rev up his motor to make sure it kept running. However, this Ranger neglected to make sure that his vehicle was in neutral before he hit the throttle. The Jeep jumped forward and banged into my grill.
Jynx awoke with a start, sitting up abruptly with his eyes wide open. I saw the opportunity to pull his chain, so I said: “Dude, we just got into a head-on collision!” Jynx said “WHAT?!” All he could see was the hood up and headlights shining underneath it. He sputtered and started to freak out, then I laughed and told him what had actually happened. I hopped out and talked to the Ranger with the Jeep, who apologized sincerely and promised to repair any damage to my truck. I told him to drive to Tokyo and that I would follow him there to make sure he got home safely (and parked the Jeep for the night).
At about 0400 I was driving around on the open playa, trying to clear my head and still looking for a long-haired Asian rapist. There was a medical call from the former site of the “Double Dice Lounge” (two big, cube-shaped structures that had been a giant pair of dice, way out beyond the Temple. (The dice had been set ablaze a little earlier that night, and had now burned down into a giant fire circle.) I heard Painless answer his radio, and it turned out he was near my location and on my way to the call so I ended up picking him up. Painless and I were glad to see each other, and greeted each other warmly, chatting on our way out to the scene. It turned out that the medical call was from El Mano (a DPW worker, formerly known as “Circus Boy”) for a non-responsive participant. We pulled up to the edge of the fire and looked around. El Mano showed us the guy he had been concerned about, and Painless checked him out, while I walked around the fire. I said hello to a few people I recognized while I scoped out the scene; the remnants of the Double Dice Lounge, the ruins of their bar (which was still in operation, although almost dead) and the human dregs leftover from their party, scattered about in varying states of costume, sobriety, and consciousness. Most of the people there were sitting on benches or laying on the ground.
After we were clear of this scene, we say goodbye to El Mano and hopped back into the truck. After cruising somewhat aimlessly back towards the city, we ended up at the Temple. (I had already been there once, earlier in the week. I did not then realize what the Temple was, and kind of blundered in expecting to be entertained by the art. After a minute or two I was struck hard with the realization that I was standing in a mausoleum or some sacred and solemn structure that I was in no way prepared to deal with at that time. I had left immediately. At least now I knew what I was headed into.)
We parked on the south side of the temple, circling the truck around to face the East, and we sat there for a few minutes looking at the dawning light before we got out of the truck. We walked away from the truck and away from each other, approaching the Temple separately, from different angles. Neither of us said anything to the other, we seemed to share an unspoken understanding that we each needed some time alone with our thoughts. Near the front of the temple, there was a metal coffin sculpture made of melted firearms welded together. Next to this was a large crate that was filled with small pieces of wood scraps, all various shapes that had been cut out from the building material. The scraps were cut into angles and arcs, about 2 or 3 inches long, and each of them had something meaningful written on it, done by participants who hoped to burn all these words and experiences away. I found a bin nearby with more small blank scraps of wood and picked one up. I wrote “I still love you” on my piece, and put it in the crate. I felt sad, and yet calm and peaceful. After walking through the Temple, I went back to my truck and sat in the driver’s seat to wait for Painless. He came back after a little while and got back into the passenger seat. We watched the sun appear in the east, as it began to rise. Just then we saw an ambulance pulling up with all of its lights on. They pulled up to my window and said “We are looking for the Double Dice Lounge, but can’t find it! It is an emergency!” Painless and I looked at each other, then I started the engine and slammed the truck in gear. Turning to look back at them and pointing northeast through my windshield, I said: “Follow us.”
We raced up and parked at the Double Dice scene, the ambulance trailing behind us. A grim scene greeted us as we approached the fire we had so recently left, less than an hour previous. A young man had chosen to walk into the fire. His feet began to burn and stick to the coals, and he fell down. Then his hands and arms made contact with the giant bed of coals, and he could not get up. A couple of people had somehow grabbed him out of the fire, laying him down and immediately calling for medics. (This was before Khaki had two radios, so we did not hear the call.) Al Mano was still there, trying to help, and he was fairly shaken. The young man was laying on a blanket, shivering, and there were grey rolls of skin curled up all along his limbs and some on his torso. The paramedics from the ambulance rushed forward and began trying to stabilize the patient, while we watched in silent horror, standing in between the observers and the scene. The patient was alive but in critical condition, and he was transported to an LZ in the ambulance, and put on a chopper to a special burn center. (I think he ended up at UC Davis.)
After we finally left that scene we wandered about in the truck, talking quietly and trying to process what we had just witnessed. Sometime later, on another random arc of travel, we came across a golf cart parked at about 1:30, halfway between the Double Dice scene and the nearest section of Esplanade. The cart was sitting alone in an open expanse of the playa in the middle of nowhere. There was someone sitting in the driver’s seat, slumped over the wheel. We approached to check and see if the person was ok. It was El Mano, and he did not respond to our questions or our touch. We shook him a bit but still got no response. We called for medics. It turned out that Tulsa was working at (what is now) ESD Station 3 and he showed up in a golf cart called QRV3. He came out and I think he gave Mano a sternum rub or awoke him somehow. We were glad to see that he was now conscious and responsive, and then we followed him home to make sure he got there ok.
By morning, there had still been no sighting of anyone matching the description of the rapist.
I think I finally went to sleep in my Suburban in Tokyo about 0930. When I awoke, it was almost time for the Ranger party. I called the Shift Lead and asked for any update on the search for the long-haired Asian, and heard back that there was no joy. It was now assumed that he was no longer in the city.
(NOTE: Back in the days before there was a “Ranger Social” at Tokyo after the Temple burn, there was another tradition. Boggman, the Ranger Operations Manager, had a standing arrangement with the Gate management to acquire a stash of donated liquor and beer from the Gate, and he would bring this to Ranger HQ (which was located at the back of the Center Camp circle in those days) on Sunday evening for the official “Ranger Party”. This was an attempt to blow off steam, begin decompression, and congratulate ourselves and each other at the end of each event for a job well done. Ultimately this practice was frowned upon by his manager, who did not believe it was a great idea to get most of the Rangers drunk at HQ on Saturday night.)
I pulled up and parked at HQ, noting the party had begun, and Rangers were spilling out from under the shade structure, milling about with drinks in their hand, talking loudly and having a good time. I started walking towards the group, then suddenly realized that I was not ready to face the party. I turned on my heel and ducked into the old green Korean war era “GP Medium” tent set up behind HQ, which we had affectionately named “Hotel Moron”. There were cots set up inside intended for use by participants, some of whom were too unprepared to camp or survive at the event, and who was (in our ungracious estimation) “too dumb to ask their neighbors for help”. (Thus, the origin of the “Moron” designation.)
As I stood in the quiet tent, the temporal representation of what would ultimately become known and utilized as “Sanctuary”, I realized that I was not ok when tears began to cross my dusty and sunburned cheeks. I leaned over and held onto a cot, crying almost silently as I thought of all I had seen in the past 24 hours, the past week, the past 3 years, and the past 32 years. A rapist in our city, and we can’t find him. My friend’s girlfriend thrown down, stomped, and arrested. The young man laying on the playa, layers of his skin curling off of his body. The Temple at sunrise, and my lost love. After a few moments, I stood up, took a few deep breaths and felt better after this small release. I checked the volume on my radio and headed out to the party.
Boggman smiled and handed me a drink when I arrived, and a few friends clapped me on the back, asking where the hell I had been. I wasn’t at the party for very long before it started to get dusty. Then it was announced that it was time to mobilize for the Temple Burn. We weren’t used to this new schedule and this “Temple burn” yet, as 2001 was the first time the Temple burn happened, the Temple of Tears.
By the time we were all loaded up in the trucks and halfway out to the Temple, a dust storm had enveloped most of the inner playa, if not the whole city. No way to tell, as visibility was for shit. As I pulled up I could dimly make out the outline of some Ranger vehicles I recognized, so I parked next to them and ventured out towards the perimeter, where I found the group of friends and Rangers I respected most. Nearly all of us were in that one section of the crowd about 5:45 on the perimeter. I was wearing my dust mask and goggles, and as we watched the Temple ignite, I thought of my wood scrap and the love it represented. I felt the tears begin again under my protective layers of gear.
This was my first experience at the Temple, and I was a participant, standing in the crowd watching the flames. To this day, I have still never worked as a Ranger on a Temple perimeter, in all of my years at Burning Man.
Author: Ranger Crow date: 01/10/2017