Early September, Last Year
A woman wearing a bright red headband and a lower-calf-length green dress with brown USA Xtratufs stands on the “This is Not a Step” second-from-top rung of a six-foot A-frame ladder. She’s yelling instructions and gratitudes through the megaphone in her right hand:
“HURRY UP AND FOLD YOUR PARCHMENT AND PUT IT THROUGH THE HOLES IN THE BASKET SO WE CAN BEGIN THE CEREMONY! AND THANK YOU ALL FOR COMING! NONE OF THIS WOULD HAVE BEEN POSSIBLE WITHOUT YOU! THANK YOU ALL SO MUCH! AND HAIL SATAN!”
“HAIL SATAN!” The crowd cheers, in kind.
On this south Alaskan beach, sixteen, six-foot-tall wooden posts are planted in the sand to form a circle with a sixteen-foot radius. Each post is adorned with sixteen nails, each six inches long and .63 inches wide. Something like six-thousand half-sheet pieces of paper are attached to these 256 nails, averaging what is, somewhere between 20 to 26 half-sheets per nail or 320 to 416 half sheets per post. Inside the circle of wooden posts is a giant basket woven from various sticks and Trachycarpus fortueni (palm) leaves that stands about twelve-feet tall at the rim and has a crudely cylindrical 18-foot circumference. A sign of similar make sits atop the basket displaying the word “DREAMS.” At peak the sign is about sixteen feet from the basket’s sandy base. This structure is set ablaze at a strict 8:30pm AKST on-the-dot someday mid-September, annually.
It had become sort of a running joke throughout the members of this faction of the now world-wide burning basket community, ever since the Alaskan basket-incident of a few years past when temperatures that September dipped so low only fourteen people showed up amidst a blizzard to the event and the basket failed to burn. The town’s weekly published a quote from one of the fourteen who stated during the debacle “only Satan can save us now.” Despite the small fishing town’s composition of near seventy percent practicing Christians, the towns people took a liking to the phrase. Burning Basket is, after all, a higher-latitudes-only event noted as the prelude to winter—a celebration of the community’s communal grit in the face of sustained sub-zero temperatures. It’s the sort of place where, on occasion, only one car in the neighborhood starts on a given morning and that car is used to jumpstart all the other neighborhood cars.
This town, population 2,000 in the winter and 5,000 in the nightless-fuck-all-these-tourists-and-snowbirds-summer (Snowbird: the term used by locals to describe community members who live here in the summer months and defect to warmer climates come winter. Honestly, almost everyone living in this town with any real money shares this trait so the term probably grew out of jealousy more than anything), almost lost their right to hold the official Burning Basket sponsored Burning Basket ceremony. This was not due so much to the fact that the official Burning Basket organization refused to embrace this town’s Satanist-for-a-day mentality as it pertained to the event, but rather because in 2014, on the eve of a scheduled burning, a teen boy named Stan walked into a liquor store (noticeably underage) and purchased for less-than-Alaskan-market-value the largest available bottle of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey and consumed said bottle along with two other Alaskan teenage indulgees. And it was not so much due to the fact that Stan and his two friends drank all 1.75 liters of oak-aged ethyl, but rather because their immature pre-frontal cortices failed to assess the dangers associated with such an action. In fact, as the town’s coroner would report, it was likely that the boys stopped storing memory around 1am AKST that morning, after which Stan and his friends broke into a taco truck down on the spit and stole seven pounds of shredded cheddar cheese. And it was not so much due to the fact that Stan and his friends blacked out and stole a shitload of curdled dairy, but rather because Stan, according to the police report, left his friends at the taco truck and over the course of another hour, stumbled half-a-mile over to the beach where the show was all but set to go on and, quite astonishingly, climbed 12-ft up and into the Burning Basket basket around 2 am AKST that morning. And it was not so much due to the fact that Stan climbed up and into the basket, but rather because his friends had been found and promptly arrested at 9am that morning and, feeling an obligation not to rat out their friend, never dropped Stan’s name as an accomplice in the cheese theft. And it was not so much due to the fact that Stan wasn’t ratted out by his friends, but rather because Stan’s single-parent mother was accustomed to Stan (a wholly-capable almost-adult in her mind) being out for days at a time without word and so she thought nothing of it when Stan wasn’t around the next day. And so, it was, that because Stan, fully unconscious and un-animated went un-searched-for and was only discovered at 8:41pm that evening—which meant eleven minutes had eclipsed with him, and the basket, set full ablaze. Which, if you’ve ever been on fire, you’d know eleven minutes is way too long a time for a person to be on fire. As was the case for Stan, whose body wasn’t removed from the basket until after the flames were put completely out at 8:56pm, fifteen minutes after the event coordinator first heard him moan.
The 300 or so attendees of this year’s basket burning indulge in the communal offerings of a group offering non-orchestrate bongos and winds. Four shirtless men on drums stand behind four nearly-nude women sitting cross-legged playing with different styles of wooden [musical] pipes. A fifth man is playing the didgeridoo. The group is situated sixteen yards from the basket-structure and adjoining posts, and they’re surrounded on all sides by an elaborate display of sticks, dried flowers, and stones laid out onto the beach floor. None of this band’s members have lived in this town for more than three years. Only three knew each other before today.
Attendees of the annual Burning Basket are encouraged to remove a piece or two of the previously mentioned half-sheets from one of the previously mentioned wooden posts and use a complimentary pre-sharpened Dixon #2 golf pencil to jot down their dreams of the future. In order to deposit a folded half-sheet, one is encouraged to step over a six-plus-a-few-inches-foot-long pathway of rocks stretching from each post to the basket. Here, participants stick their hands through one of the six holes in the side of basket and drop their dream-note inside for burning (child-sized dreams are placed in one of the two holes just above the basket’s base).
At approximately 8:25pm AKST two very caucasian-looking event coordinators dressed in unfortunately-Native-looking attire, light and twirl metal staffs wrapped in Kevlar wick at both ends that are soaked in Coleman liquid petroleum. A practice intended to signify the ceremony’s beginning as well as inspire the crowd to move a safe distance from the basket. At approximately 8:28pm AKST, local fire marshal Jenna Sanders climbs the ladder which was previously used by the megaphone lady and doublechecks inside (per 2014 case).
At 8:30pm on-the-dot AKST, Mrs. Sanders takes one of the ignited fire staffs, yells a final “KEEP A SAFE DISTANCE!” through her own megaphone, and dips one end of the flaming stick into the basket of dreams, which, aside from all the dreams, is stuffed with all sorts of good kindling. It takes a few minutes for the fire to really get kickin’. Cooking, really, is what the dreams are doing. In the early stages of burn the twelve-foot-tall basket stuffed about six-foot-high with flammables brightens this Alaskan beach the same way you’d expect a pumpkin to brighten a front porch come October 31st. Flashes of light extend out onto the sand through holes in the woven palms and sticks. It takes approximately six minutes for the first flames to reach up and take hold of the DREAMS sign, at which moment the crowd bursts into cheers and bongo drumming from a safe distance of thirty-six feet or so away, of course. At height, the flames reach a remarkable 56-feet and billowing black smoke billows slightly off in the direction of a north-northeast facing wind. Overall, it’s a beautiful and mild-tempered late summer day here in southern Alaska.
The woman in the red insulated headband yells through her megaphone for parents to take control of their children.
Sixteen minutes go by from the time the fire is set to the time the DREAMS sign completely burns—along with the rest of the structure—and collapses onto the beach floor. What was once a large work of art that took six days and a community effort to build is now indistinguishable from your everyday beachside bonfire—didgeridoo and fire-twirling aside, of course. At 8:56pm AKST the basket has burned, collapsed, and is reduced to a pile of smoldering ash on the sand. A slender gentleman of awkward height and long matted dreads uses a tan rake to pull any stray dreams back up onto the pile for a more complete burning. A few in attendance confuse the rake wielding man for the rake itself.
By now, 9:16pm AKST, the ashes are more-than-tolerable for your average Alaskan callus covered foot. Adults and non-adults alike dance shoeless over the burnt dreams to a rhythmic chorus of drumming, wind-piping, and didgeridooing. These ashes of hope are kicked around by children via quadricep femoris flexion and plantar dorsiflexion. Adults, mimicking the excitement of their children, scoop piles of ash into their hands and toss them LeBron-James-pregame-style up over their heads where the dreams stay as lingering black clouds of aspiration.
The burnings always have a different theme. Last year was DARE, and INSPIRATION the year before (though, being crafted of sticks and leaves this 11-character word was squished on the sign like: I N S PIRATION. Similar to the 9th grader that runs out of space on the right side of his college-ruled term paper), six years ago was FEAR, which was the same year the organizers of Burning Basket learned best not to use any words which might lean negative, definitionally speaking. What would have otherwise been a mundane and reasonable notion (the burning of FEAR) as the Burning Basket, the prelude to winter, is really a celebration meant to rid one’s self of a negative yesterday enroute to a more positive tomorrow, did not turn out mundane. For in this small fishing town, for reasons partially explained here, the event known as Burning Basket earned a secondary title; “The Great Exchange.” Though this title itself, while unofficial, eventually gave way to the even less official “You Show Me Yours, I’ll Show You Mine.”
And so, on this day of burning, the thing that sets this small southern Alaskan fishing town apart from all the other high-latitude towns with large baskets being set ablaze is the truly remarkable, plausibly magical, thing that happens as a result of the burning of the basket on this particular beach. Here, what happens as the ashes fall back to earth—hinted at by the unofficial titles for the event—and delicately touch down on the coronal peaks of unsuspecting noggins, is truly special. It is a phenomenon yet unexplained by hard science; though psychology may have a battery of vague explanations to offer as it having something to do with the basket’s beautiful setting. This small Alaskan fishing town is, after-all, breathtaking. Quite likely the most pristine plot of settled land left on Earth, with its caring towns people standing on a coal-sanded beach against the backdrop of snow-capped mountain peaks towering over a simmering bay, and what-not. Truly magnificent. But anyway, there is on this day annually, a grand data-transfer that occurs along with the burning, dancing, and ash-cloud formation. On this day, today, for instance, a young woman girl named Sage wrote on her half-sheet a very personal dream of someday becoming the governor of her state so that she may protect local rivers and preserve the salmon runs so that her father will always have plentiful work, much unlike this year’s runs which were difficult financially not just for her father, but the whole town. And so, when a speckle of Sage’s dream ash fell from the sky and topped the tippy top the of the head of a late-twenties alcoholic fisherman named Ben, Ben was met with an unmistakable for anything other than epiphany, epiphany; a full and welcomed new understanding that if he were to really change his fate at sea, like REALLY change it, that he wouldn’t find the answers he needed with the large-net-in-water tactic of summer’s past. No, instead Ben realized he might need to hit the books, understand the inter-mechanisms to crafting legislation, of policy enforcement, or even of winning campaigns. On that day an older woman of 63, an artist who has been selling woodblock prints on the spit to tourists going on thirty-six years now, felt a strong urge to toss her work aside in favor of getting a class-A CDL trucking license. A local police officer was met with his new dream of being able to afford interpretive dance lessons. Three young girls simultaneously dreamt of purchasing lift kits for an F-250 they were, ages combined, still too young to own. Already wealthy doctors dreamt of finally earning money, librarians dreamt of an escape from their high-stress jobs, an eight-year-old Native Alaskan girl was overwhelmed with an urge to “finally grow the balls to get up and leave this fucked up town of ice and moose shit.”
Michael, watching all of this from a spot on a log 46 yards away that must’ve washed ashore years ago, looked up at approximately 8:51pm AKST to find a still-folded smoldering half-sheet whisking about in the air over his head, slowly descending until it landed onto the sand just six inches from his left foot. A quick two-step pat down with the underside of his worn-down Steve Madden and the half-sheet was thoroughly extinguished. Michael picked it up and unfolded the piece of paper. Still visible among the half-sheet’s flaky burnt edges and other indecipherable doodlings was a message: “To Be Happy.”