The Original Burning Man

Discover Burning Man's inspiration in the Vinotok Fall Festival in Crested Butte, CO
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Sep 15, 2014 | By Whitney James

Living in Colorado, I retreat to the mountains almost every weekend (last summer, for three months). Normally, the towns that punctuate my trips are filled with normal things like mountain bike-toting 4Runners, fishing holes, climbing routes, craft beer and coffee galore. But last fall, when my friend and I went to Crested Butte to mountain bike through crunchy fall leaves, we were in for a surprise. 

It began when we stopped downtown for Moscow Mule supplies and the storeowner commended us for coming in early. Why, we asked? Because the biggest event to hit Crested Butte was about to go down, and everyone with any semblance of sanity (including the storeowner) was already on their way out. Apparently we’d picked one of the most notorious days of the year to visit – the last day of summer, and the first day of Vinotok Fall Festival. 

While it seems like something out of HBO’S True Blood, Vinotok is actually rich in history. Allegedly the inspiration for the Burning Man, the event begins a week before the Autumn equinox and culminates with a massive procession and bonfire. In its 29th year, it is part film festival, part medieval gathering, and largely folk theatre. The festivities include rabid partying, fire blowing, and ultimately the burning of the Grump, a ginormous wooden figure said to represent the grievances of the community. When the Grump is toasted, everyone’s collective worries are washed away, providing a clean slate for the new season. Suddenly, the guy we’d seen walking around with deer antlers affixed to his head earlier that day made more sense.

Things became interesting as we were enjoying a rum tasting sometime before sunset. A group of wild-haired, half-naked, hand-painted, and otherwise decorated individuals forced themselves through the doublewide doors of the establishment. The self-proclaimed “Mumming Troupe” burst out in some kind of historical chant, smartphone cameras from restaurant patrons flashing away. Minutes later, the rally ended as abruptly as it began and the group took to the street. As our gaze followed, we saw the mayhem had already begun. Antlers, feathers, leaf headdresses, and loincloths abounded. 

Hardly finishing our rum, we spun off our barstools to burn our grievances with the rest of the pagan-crazed town. We shot fire into the sky. We fought our way through horned mountain locals. We welcomed the fall and the end of an era. I can still practically feel the glow of the bonfire under that perfectly-timed full moon. 

Vinotok occurs this year on September 20th, and locals say it gets bigger every year. Go for the leaves, stay for some rum, and don’t forget your paper maché marshmallow. I’ll be the one taking your photo.  

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