Nearly all 35,000 celebrants who for a week had filled the streets of Black Rock City on the Black Rock Desert of Northern Nevada were lined up 300 feet from the Burning Man. Exploding fireworks saluted the beginning of the Man's flaming death.
Great bursts of fire surrounded the Man as fireworks lit up the giant circle of spectators. The pyrotechnics slowed as flames began climbing slowly up the Man's wooden legs, up his body, which minutes before had been outlined by blazing electric lights.
The crowd, outlined by light sticks in fantastic patterns, broke into cheers, chants, screams and whistles - any sound that could express the climax of the weeklong celebration the alternate-lifestyle event has come to symbolize in its 20 years.
The flames shot up the Man's legs, to his torso, his triangular head. The three-story base caught fire, taking with it the dozens of original artworks which had decorated the maze inside.
Weird vehicles shaped like sailing galleys, like tanks, like cats, like gigantic buses, like nothing you've ever seen before, flashed lights, shot off flamethrowers with resounding booms. Bicycles wove through the night, riders in brilliant outlines and wheels spinning light sticks.
The Man now ablaze from head to toe, was still standing, still erect, still symbolizing the self-expression event.
The Man was all flames now. Slowly his right arm began to sag, then fall. Then the left arm. Finally, the body, decimated by the flames, began to topple forward, then crashed on the playa in a crescendo of rising sparks and embers. The crowd noise rose in waves as the remains of the Man disappeared in fire.
The crowd was living up to the Burning Man tradition of "no spectators." The members were involved, and would continue to be the rest of the night. Just by being there, they were involved.
The playa was too chilly for the topless women of the day, but the male nudes continued their form of self-expression.
On Sept. 4, many of the celebrants marked another burning, this of artworks scattered about the playa. It was on this day too the exodus began, leaving the blowing clay sand and the playa, to return to its vast stillness. There will be few traces of the Burning Man or the Black Rock City - until next year.