By Joel Warner
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"A lot of Denver Burners consider Burning Man a sort of home," says Jesse Thompson who, like Phipps, has participated in the revelry for the past eight years. "When you arrive at the gate, they even say 'Welcome home.' Afterwards, there is a bit of an adjustment period coming back. Some people get depressed when they get back.
"For me, I find it difficult to get back into the groove of the daily grind, of work and real life and all that fun stuff," he continues. "People started to find ways to bring the Playa dust with them."
For some of the Burners, a few handfuls of Playa dust wasn't enough; they wanted to bring Black Rock City home. Enter Apogaea, Colorado's very own Burning Man.
During the last weekend in June, between 200 and 300 people will make a two-hour trek south for a freaks' fete in the forest featuring theme camps, art installations, interactive workshops, costumes, dancing, music, absurdist theater and maybe even fire -- barring any bans. It is an adaptation of the Burning Man model on a small, localized scale. A party created on site by and for those who participate, open to everyone with something to contribute. No spectators.
"We have this amazing, cool community here, and the spirit and the fire originates from Burning Man," Phipps says. "People bring it back from the desert and do totally cool things here."
"This whole scene is a chance to be around really intelligent, creative and very motivated people and seeing what they're doing, to get some of your own ideas," Thompson adds. "Eventually you gotta take action on some of them, or you feel like you're just standing by, watching."
But wrestling a wild vision into the bold light of reality is easier said than done, and Apogaea isn't the first attempt at a regional burn in Colorado. From 2000 to 2003, a group of Burners organized an event called Geodesica on Lake Wellington. Each year, about a hundred people showed up and mounted angular artworks around the campsite; in the parking lot, art cars festooned with geodesic domes were parked among the RVs and camping trucks. But the action was limited by fire bans and noise restrictions.
"We were basically on a public campground, with parking spaces and numbered spots and everything," says Julie Mahoney, who helped organize Geodesica and is now the main architect of Apogaea. "We had a lot of noise complaints. If someone's living out there in that environment, and in the middle of the night they hear some DJ spinning" -- she makes a sound that approximates a techno beat, like boom-ch-boom-ch-boom-ch -- "then you're going to have a problem.
"I was on the radio a lot during that event," she continues. "I'd have to go to the DJs and be the bad guy, like, 'Sorry, guys. Gotta turn it down.'"
Last year, Apogaea piggybacked onto another alternative-arts festival, Dreamtime, which was held on a private stretch of land outside the Western Slope town of Paonia. The coupling drew more than 600 people, but it felt a tad schizophrenic. The Dreamtime organizers were interested in pursuing conventional avenues, like sponsorship, a notion that didn't jell with the Burning Man commitment to autonomy and a barter economy.
"Apogaea symbolizes a more expandable system or model for what Burning Man started, which is just basically a huge artists' community of gifting," says Thompson, who is a member of Metameme, an artistic DJ collective known for throwing multimedia parties in warehouses and art spaces around the city. "It's a chance to demonstrate that philosophy among new people who otherwise wouldn't be able to go to Burning Man, to inspire other people and get excited about that kind of thing. That's a whole other aspect of community than you see demonstrated at Apogaea and Burning Man events, one you don't see on Capitol Hill. People normally aren't encouraged to give anything away, but that's the attitude at these events."
Committed to that philosophy, Apogaea's organizers decided to strike out on their own.
Julie Mahoney first attended Burning Man in 1998. The experience gave shape to her social life and even challenged her professional vision: That year, she left her job as an engineer to devote more time to creative pursuits.
"Before Burning Man, my husband and I had like six or seven friends through co-workers, just people that we knew," says Mahoney, who has the ready-for-anything toughness of a seasoned outdoorswoman. "Suddenly, we tap into this crowd and we've got 300 best friends. The biggest problem that I've got now is that I can't always go out and do this fun thing, because I've got to go home."
She and her husband no longer just attend Burning Man; they help build it. A week before the party, the Mahoneys join in the construction of Black Rock City, hanging out with the Black Rock Rangers, a volunteer group that helps erect the city and run it peacefully, and members of the Borg, the official entity that oversees the foundational aspects of Burning Man.
Mahoney studied what she saw out there, and she's applying it to Apogaea.