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Keep it simple at Zozobra in the future

Last week, the Journal North used this space to urge readers to attend the annual burning of Zozobra and to throw shade on Santa Feans who no longer feel compelled to destroy their gloom in the special and peculiar ritual created in the 1920s by artist Will Schuster.

It turns out that the actual destruction of Zozobra 2018 was great as usual (see photo above). But other things went wrong.

Monsoon weather and the decision to allow backpacks – the idea was to give Old Man Gloom worshippers a chance to bring their own food into the Magers Field/Fort Marcy ballpark venue to picnic like in the days of old – combined to create last-minute chaos.

Zozobra was ignited early, in the space between two storm cells, one of which had already caused a thunderstorm. In the meantime, security checks for the backpacks had slowed entry. Efforts to have backpack people go to just certain entrances failed, and backpackers and non-packers were stuck in the same lines. Waits to get in were reported to be as long as an hour and a half. Hundreds of people – as many as 1,500, including visitors from out of town, some of them who took the Rail Runner up from points south – didn’t get in. Many tried to rush the gates when the burning ritual got underway and police blocked entries to keep people from getting in with unchecked bags.

Zozobra chief Ray Sandoval had to make to make some tough calls. In the moment, he did the right thing – starting the burning with the threat of another thunderstorm looming was the proper thing to do. And keeping people with unchecked backpacks outside a venue where 60,000 people had gathered had to be done, a sad but true fact in today’s world.

Sandoval’s mistake, which he now acknowledges and apologizes for, was made beforehand, when Zozobra’s organizers decided to allow backpacks at the burning.

He and his fellow members of the Kiwanis Club that stages Old Man Gloom’s annual demise are now offering refunds that come with free tickets to next year’s burning and a poster. Those who missed out, but spent the night at a hotel can get free or reduced rates for a stay at the Drury Plaza Hotel.

Sandoval’s real error was trying too hard to please. It must be emphasized again that he rebuilt Zozobra into a spectacular success after it had become a subject of community division over ticket prices, and non-traditional and extended additions to the length of the burning ritual. As Sandoval said before last week’s burning, his team “nailed it” last year when crews were checking people through security at the rate of 2,000 per minute.

Sandoval is always looking for ways to make Santa Fe’s unique celebration better and more fun. But backpacks without better organization of security checks were a serious misstep that could have turned very scary or worse amid the intensity of a big crowd and anticipation of a spectacular event. Being kept out had to be miserable for people who traveled to Santa Fe to see Zozobra, but couldn’t.

We still say show up for Zozobra as many times as you can. Sandoval and his crew obviously learned some new lessons (a no-backpack policy for next year, of course, has already been declared). Given his track record, Sandoval deserves support as he moves toward ensuring that nothing like last week’s mess happens again.

With the huge crowds that are now coming to the burning, keeping things simple must be the mandate going forward.