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Leaving no trace

I couldn’t see 10 feet in front of my face. When I had left camp minutes before, it had been clear. I shifted into the lowest gear and pedaled — hard — into the wind, the dust, the moment. I was headed to the temple with a specific purpose. And I wasn’t going to let a little dust storm stop me.

As I rode into the dust, monuments appeared through the storm — temporary installations built by artists for the Burning Man festival in the Black Rock Desert — telling me I was still on the right path. The wind slowed me down some, but the sky began to open up, and I could see the temple standing tall on the horizon. I rode my bike up to its perimeter, pulled my goggles off my face and my handkerchief down from my nose and mouth, grabbed the hose of my CamelBak, and took a long drink of water. Soothing the dryness. Satiating the dust.

Temple of Promise, Burning Man, Black Rock City, Nevada, September 2015. Photo: Allan Donnelly


I turned to face it, the Temple of Promise, towering in front of me — a wooden cathedral, shaped like a cornucopia rising 70 feet off the desert floor; a series of pointed arches getting progressively smaller, clad in staggered 2-by-4s, twisting into a spiral so that the tail of the cornucopia created a courtyard. The team that built Promise labored together for a month in the heat of the Nevada desert to create a sacred space for the dwellers of this pop-up city. As I walked slowly toward the temple, the opening of the cornucopia grew bigger and grander in scale. I paused at its threshold, filled with a plethora of emotions: Bittersweet anticipation. Loving nostalgia. Beautiful serendipity.

I entered into the shelter of Promise. People were moving slowly, standing, sitting, lying down, looking around. Looking at messages written on the walls all around them. Messages of hope. Of grief. Of loss. Of love. Messages left by visitors from the temporary city surrounding this temple. Pictures of loved ones past. Objects left as altars and offerings, admissions and artifacts.

I went to the temple that day to let go of something: a long relationship that ended suddenly, one year earlier, on the very same site where the Temple of Promise now stood. I placed pictures on the walls, stapling them to the wooden slats spanning the arches. I walked down the spiraling nave of the temple, looking for open spaces on the walls. There wasn’t much room.

As I walked, the peak of the arched nave lowered and lowered until just before I had to duck my head. There was an opening into the courtyard of the cornucopia. Three trees, made of metal and devoid of leaves but draped with offerings, stood in the center of the courtyard. I found an open spot for my last picture and hung it on the trunk of the tallest tree.

Three nights later, on the last night of the festival, I sat in silence with thousands of others to watch the Temple of Promise burn. The gigantic structure threw flames one hundred feet into the air, billowing black smoke, generating small tornadoes from all the heat. We sat and we watched. We listened to the loud crackle of the burn. We let go of our messages, our remembrances of the past and our hopes for the future, as the Temple of Promise vanished into the mystery of the playa and made space for a new temple, in all its ephemeral glory, to rise in its place next year. ■ 

Pop-up City

Images taken by Allan Donnelly at Burning Man festival in 2011 and 2012