Updated: Apr 15, 2021
St. Elmo’s Fire seemed a myth to me - until I saw it. It was faint enough that one had to be away from the light of the burn barrel to witness. And there it was, hovering on the tip of the radio antenna of my Bronco like the blue flame of a candle just about to go out. It was unmistakably electric; a tiny sliver of lightning confirming the legends. The arc then zapped down the metal of the antenna flickering like an old neon sign. I was astonished! It took time for my eyes to adjust to the dark of the starless night, but after a bit, I noticed all the antennas on the long row of parked vehicles had this same mini electric show. A thunderstorm was rolling toward us along the Granite mountain range and electricity was literally in the air. I trotted back to the rest of the survey crew camped out on the newly-set site of Black Rock City with this news. “Everybody’s gotta see this! It’s St. Elmo’s Fire!”
Moments later we all stood in the open majesty of the Black Rock Desert playa on a stormy night gazing at the charged wonderment of realized myths. And this was only the beginning.
After the Gold Spike of Black Rock City is set, (the center point of Burning Man from which all things are measured), my survey crew of about twenty jumps into motion to set up an open camp, which is little more than an eight-panel octagon with the vehicles and campers parked in a line away from it. This octagon becomes our survey station and windbreak for the task of laying out the entire grid of the city. Cots and bunks line the walls as we sleep under the stars. It’s always the first dusk after Spike that enchants me. The camp is set and weeks’ worth of high-stress prep work is done. We have some chow from our camp cook, stoke the fire barrel, and settle in. The sky softens to pastel colors of peach and pink. If we’re lucky, the wind dies and the playa shows us her best with the deepest of quiet as the stars wink on one at a time. The surrounding mountains nod and curl into their rugged beds without a sound as the light fades behind their silhouettes. Blackthorn will usually pick up his accordion to start plinking out a tune as The Professor accompanies on guitar. We heave a collective sigh and let the pressures of living evaporate to the glittering dome of the Milky Way. There’s surprisingly little conversation. The moment is sanctified and we will catch up on the winds of change, but for the moment, serenity is our host. The plan is to enjoy a calm evening and be up before dawn to etch in the Esplanade of the city by lunch.
“It’s when Gerlach disappears into the clouds that you gotta get yer ass off this damn playa!” These were the wise words of our local guru, Cowboy Carl. My attention was trained on the southern horizon. After discovering St. Elmo's fire zapping our truck antennas we all saw that the fickle playa was mustering up a thunderstorm on a wizard’s whim. A gargantuan thunderhead was gobbling the dim lights of Gerlach and rolling our way; its black belly strobing with the lightning bolts of Thor. It was time to make a call.
“Whaddya guys think?” I said while watching the beast.
“Your call, Coyote. You da boss.”
“I’ve seen this kind of thunderhead before,” I replied. “They most always pass us to the south and hug the mountain ridgeline. They seldom clobber the playa itself. I think we’re alright and if it gets dicey, we can break camp and scramble to the shoreline."
I stood for a moment with that same small zap of electricity buzzing my brain.
"What if St. Elmo’s fire is an omen? What if it’s a warning of some kind?” I asked.
“Well,” The Professor chimed in, living up to his name, “St. Elmo’s Fire is named after Saint Erasmus of Formia. In Italy, Elmo is short for Erasmus. Early sailors regarded this strange phenomenon as a good omen; a sign from their patron saint that has come to protect them in the storm. So, St. Elmo would be a good guy that has our back. I’m all for staying and watching the show. What was good for the old-time sailors is good enough for me. Besides, we just got settled and the whiskey is splendid!”
I took another long look at the darkening skyline.
“Ya’ll up for it? Shall we follow the harkening whims of St. Elmo?”
There was a hearty tip of the glasses as we all agreed and hunkered down.
The winds picked up as the sky closed in. Lightning strikes were starting to jolt the hillsides. Our eyes met over the tops of our beers as we instinctively tried to slouch lower than the burn barrel, the tallest thing on the playa. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. But we were strapped in for the ride.
I got up with a few others to go check the truck antennas again. The blue charges were not only zapping up and down the antennas but shooting bolts between trucks! St. Elmo was right along with us and his dance party was the first blinky light rave of the season. Who knew that our guardian saint was a raver? Possibly the original raver! We went back to the burn barrel and I stood watching, about to make the tough call to break camp and head for the safe harbor of Gerlach.
But then the miracle of our patron saint waved his hand to cleave the sky and the thunderhead split down the middle as if hitting the bow of a great ship. We sat truly astonished as the thunderhead was now TWO storms flanking each side of the playa as they moved along over the ridges of the mountains missing us completely. They marched along on charged legs of lightning as we huddled by the fire like castaways in a lifeboat. Any raindrops we got were wayward defectors blown awry as the cracks of thunder announced the true power of nature. What a show. From here on out, it was a game of chance as the strikes blasted where they liked, the smell of ozone filling the night.
Then the storms rolled north still hugging the mountains, the long arm of Elmo guiding them away. And just like that, the night returned to stillness. Such a dynamic place.
“St. Elmo’s fire is a form of plasma. The electric field around the object in question causes ionization of the air molecules producing a faint glow easily visible in low-light conditions.”
So say the science books. But not to us on that night. St. Elmo was someone we were camping with. A visitor from the great beyond. Besides, one doesn’t say no when invited to a rave with the gods. I think the old saint appreciated that we were willing to play. So much so that at the very end, he tossed us a beautiful bone. Our courage had earned it. As the storm moved on, it left open clear skies as the Milky Way unveiled itself like a string of blooming night flowers.
Then the full moon popped out.
We had forgotten about the moon. The desert was instantly aglow in what seemed like daylight - a radiance I will never tire of. We stepped away from the firelight into the glow and that’s when the grand prize was given. The rays of the full moon were throwing a rainbow onto the fading thunderhead. A NIGHTTIME RAINBOW! A moonbow if you will. It was ghostly white with just a brush of color on its edge and spanned the playa from mountain to mountain. It stayed for just a few minutes then wafted to the heavens taking its pot of silver with it. Nobody spoke. Words were not worthy.
I have since faced many more lightning storms on the Playa during the survey of BRC and have not taken that chance again. St. Elmo gave us one pass and I won’t push that luck. Besides, the storms these days are much wilder. They’re like bullies stomping down the middle of the playa drenching all in their path with lightning strikes everywhere. We listen to Cowboy Carl’s advice and scram outta there.
As for St. Elmo? It will always be a deep honor to have made your acquaintance, your Grace. May we meet again someday.