In Seattle, a spark of Burning Man

The fourth-annual Critical Massive in the forest north of Seattle is that community's regional burn. Photos: The yearn to burn

MOUNT VERNON, Wash.--From inside my tent, the sounds outside are typical of Burning Man: constant laughing, art cars driving by and the steady beat of techno music.

But this is not Burning Man, the annual counterculture art bacchanalia held in Nevada's Black Rock desert. Instead, this is Critical Massive, the Seattle Burning Man community's yearly four-day festival.

Critical Mass yearns to burn

And while for many Burning Man attendees there is little that can top that event, a growing number of people all around the United States and the world are finding that events like Critical Massive are a fantastic way to approach, if not actually repeat, the experience of being at Burning Man.

The events, organized along the lines of the general principles of Burning Man--participants only, leave no trace, radical self-expression and radical self-reliance, and no commerce--have been quietly taking place for a few years in cities like Austin, Texas; Las Vegas; and in rural areas of Delaware, Arizona, and several other states and countries.

As an eight-time Burning Man attendee myself, I'd always wanted to see what one of the so-called "regional burns" was like. Could they feel like time spent in Black Rock City--Burning Man's temporary city--or would they be a cheap alternative?

That's why I found myself this weekend, during my Road Trip around the Pacific Northwest, in the forest near this town about an hour north of Seattle for the fourth annual Critical Massive.

And I have to say, after 48 hours of fire art, gourmet cooking, terrific costumes, improbable and creative shelters, a small collection of art cars and time with this branch of the community I have spent so much of my time with for the last eight years, that while Critical Massive is not and could never be Burning Man itself, it is one hell of a lot of fun.

For some time, Burning Man founder Larry Harvey has been touting the idea of small, do-it-yourself festivals. That's because, he often says, people are always coming up to him and saying they wish Burning Man could happen more than once a year, or that they just can't figure out how to survive an entire year before returning to the event.

As a result, events like Austin's Burning Flipside, Arizona's Toast, Las Vegas' Dark Skies Arts Festival and of course, Critical Massive.

Road Trip 2006

And these are not gatherings of a few dozen unprepared campers. Rather, Burning Flipside attracts more than 1,000 attendees, and this weekend Critical Massive topped out at at least 550, many of whom arrived with what looked like their full Burning Man setups.

For example, there were 17 theme camps at the event, including the Seattle group Flight to Mars' huge sound system, a very large dance floor setup and even a small version of the Martian-theme maze it erects each year at Burning Man.

Another group, the Alien Monkey Love Nest--which is famous in Burning Man circles for the medallions it creates each year and gives to participants who perform on its stage--was on hand at Critical Massive and had set up a 60-foot parachute shade structure that was connected to a similar parachute belonging to another group.

The result was a giant shaded area under which dozens of people could regularly be found listening to music, talking, cooking and drinking. And it was exactly the kind of large structure that can be found at Burning Man and which I was not prepared to find at a regional event.

Part of the Burning Man community
In fact, several camps at Critical Massive had set up the kind of infrastructure that I would have expected only people to bring to Burning Man, and that is testament to the idea that many people now look at regional events as a piece of their larger Burning Man experience.

"If you give them the opportunity and the opportunity presents itself," said Dave Martinez, aka Diem, the lead Critical Massive organizer, "the community will come forth and they will make it happen."

Martinez said that as an official Burning Man-blessed regional event, Critical Massive has grown to include many of the same departmental organizations as its parent event: a Department of Public Works, Black Rock Rangers (nonconfrontational, uniformed mediators) and others.

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