updated 9/5/2004 5:17:06 PM ET 2004-09-05T21:17:06

As jugglers danced with hoops and spirals of fire, vehicles belched flames and hypnotic drums echoed through the night, more than 35,000 costumed revelers ritually burned a 40-foot neon-and-wooden icon of a man deep in the Nevada desert.

The 19th annual Burning Man festival, a bizarre counterculture event in one of the most remote places in America, was back, this year with record crowds.

“It’s an emotional experience,” said Silvie, of San Diego, who would give only her first name. “There’s a reverence here.”

Saturday night’s burn, 120 miles north of Reno, was relatively uneventful after a series of tragedies a year ago. Bureau of Land Management spokesman Jamie Thompson said the event ran smoothly with no major accidents. Drug arrests and citations were also down, preliminary reports showed.

Last year, two people died and four were hospitalized following accidents with aircraft and the Mad-Max-style “mutant vehicles” that roam the desert.

The annual fantasy event grew out of San Francisco’s bohemian street theater nearly 20 years ago, when a group of artists and spectators spontaneously burned an 8-foot wooden figure on a Bay Area beach. The event has been growing ever since.

'Best one yet'
While many people were packing up and leaving the desert Sunday, others stayed to burn an elaborate Temple of Stars later that night, laid out in a quarter-mile crescent.

Many were awed by this year’s temple, created by artist David Best.

“There’s no comparison to last year. This is the best one yet,” said Wendy “Rebel Barbie” Wright, 37, of Reno.

It took thousands of hours to build the illuminated temple from lace-like filigrees of plywood left over after toy punchouts were made. Builders started construction four months ago in Petaluma, Calif., before shipping the components into the desert aboard flatbed trucks.

This year’s structure was so elaborate that it only opened to participants Friday night, barely 48 hours before it was to be burned. By tradition, revelers leave the names of departed loved ones and other remembrances to be burned in the temple.

'An offering'
Many visitors cried while composing their gifts, and some collapsed into the arms of others. One middle-aged man read a lengthy, moving essay about his eccentric late mother, then fell to the floor of the temple and hyperventilated.

For many, torching the temple has become the centerpiece of the annual burn, a more intimate, spiritual event than the rave-party-like immolation of the man icon.

“To burn it, it’s like giving it to a higher force. It’s like an offering,” said Fred Dickson, who helped build the temple.

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