Back from Burning Man

Well, I’m back to bobbing around in False Creek after a spectacular week in the Nevada Desert.  Actually I’ve been back for a week now, but I’m still trying to decompress – funny how the “default world” can seem so surreal.  I’ve held off on posting this so that I could edit it slowly as the memories came to me, and so that I could sort out some photos to go along with the anecdotes.

The Man: Just This Guy, You Know?

Rather than evangelize, let me just say this:  maybe you’ve planned go to Burning Man but something got in the way, or maybe you’ve seen images or TV shows about it and thought it sounded interesting.  Maybe you’ve just seen the deranged, happy looks in the eyes of folks who’ve recently returned from the desert, and noticed the lasting changes in the way they look at the world around them, and maybe that made you wonder just what the whole thing is all about.  Do yourself a favour and just get there.

It’s not too difficult; the trick I’ve used to great success several times now is to get a ticket when they first go on sale in February, then stick it somewhere that you’ll see it regularly, like on your fridge.  If you have the ticket and it turns out you can’t go, you can easily bounce it on Craigslist pretty much right up until the day the event starts, for as much as you paid for it – so there’s almost zero financial risk.  Drop the $250 when the tickets go on sale, and your life will mysteriously get out of the way and allow you to go to the desert.  However, if you tell yourself you’re going but wait until August to buy your ticket, your life will conspire to prevent you from going, be it work-related problems, or financial or whatever.

Anyhow.  After a few frantic days of last-minute preparation (ok, I admit it, mostly costume shopping), Carrie and I loaded up her truck with a huge pile of camping equipment and headed down to Seattle to meet up with our three-RV convoy.  After being denied a border crossing back in February, I didn’t want to take the chance of having our whole RV turned inside out – or worse yet, having the whole RV turned away – just because of a little black mark on my record.  We made it across with zero hassles, and spent the night in a Super-8 before reconnecting with the rest of the motley band at the Seattle REI.  Interesting fact(*): the Seattle REI is the second most visited tourist attraction in Seattle, after the Space Needle.

(*: by “fact” I mean that someone working the door at the REI told me this, so take it with a grain of salt.)

Carleigh and Bayrock in the Monday sunrise

We drove looooong through the night and arrived at the Black Rock Desert at approximately 2am, where we had to wait in a long, dusty lineup of RVs, trucks and cars for the next three hours.  When we finally arrived at the Greeters Station, all the first-timers (“virgins”) were pulled out of the RV to roll in the dust, ring the welcome gong, and receive a certificate good for one spanking at the Greeters Camp.  I thought the certificate was pretty lame, personally – in previous years the spanking was administered promptly and with great enthusiasm shown by both spanker and spankee, but apparently there have been complaints.  *sigh*.

Setting up camp while the sun rose was gorgeous, and went smoothly – we were all far too excited to sleep, so we broke out the costumes and ran giddily around the playa all day, hitting up bars and checking out art.  Most of the big sound stages weren’t yet setup, so Monday night was by far the quietest of the week, but that didn’t stop us from tracking down bar after bar and partying as hard as possible.

Tuesday was much of the same.  The first ‘real’ day of Burning Man; wake up, struggle into consciousness, clean up with babywipes, apply sunscreen, don your most fabulous, anticipated costume and stumble out into the blinding white desert in search of adventure.  Of course there was no shortage of adventure, and the day was mostly spent riding from art installation to art installation, making new friends at the Man, gathering and subsequently losing a posse, and drinking fabulous martinis at Martini Village.  Sleeper hit of the day: Lollipop Shot Camp, where we were served shots of Ketel One vodka and Tootsie Roll Pops in custom take-home glow-in-the-dark shot glasses, on lanyards for easy access of course.  The procedure – dunk the lollipop in the shot glass, twirl it around for a minute, take the shot, repeat – was both fun and dangerous, and we all agreed we needed to take a break from drinking shortly thereafter.

Drew and new friend 'Ja', at Lollipop Shot Camp
Drew and a new friend at Lollipop Shot Camp

By Tuesday night the Opulent Temple was up and running, and the throbbing house music could be heard from one end of the playa to the other.  Shortly after we met up with them the crew decided to head for the other side of the playa to catch DJ Dan at another stage, and Carrie mentioned being tired and planning to head back to camp.  When she left, I decided I’d had enough of house music and headed off to find some dubstep, eventually meeting some folks who told me that DJ Mimosa was playing at the Space Cowboys stage, so I took off like a shot to get there.  Mimosa was hands-down my favourite act from the Emrg-N-See festival in Oregon earlier this summer.

As I arrived at the stage, I rolled up on my bike at a reasonable clip.  I wove in and out of the hundreds of bicycles lying on the street, aiming to drop mine as close to the stage as I could to make it a more undesirable target for a bike thief, should any be around, and managed to make it within about twenty feet.  As I approached what looked like a good spot, I swung my leg up over the bike and rode on a single pedal, unravelling my long skirt and adjusting my hat while riding with one hand, and then gingerly stepped off as the bike reached the drop spot, allowing the bike to fall gently to the ground.  A nearby group of three girls, unnoticed until that moment, began a round of polite applause.

“That was the best dismount I’ve seen this year!”, said one.

I took my top hat in hand and bowed low in acknowledgement, and at the lowest point of the bow I was startled to see that I had dropped my bike directly next to Carrie’s – nearly on top of her bike, in fact.  I guess great music is universal; I spent the next half-hour tracking her down in the massive crowd, letting her know that it was just one of those quirky Burning Man coincidences, and that I wasn’t in fact stalking her.

My custom-built Rad Playa Cruiser™
My custom-built Rad Playa Cruiser™

Wednesday I parted ways with my crew to meet up with Miya, whom I hadn’t seen in a few months, and we spent the day riding double on my Rad Playa Cruiser™ which I had equipped with stunt pegs for exactly such an opportunity.  In four years of Burning Man I have yet to see a single other bicycle with stunt pegs, which confuses me somewhat – mine cost me a grand total of $6, and have come in handy numerous times each year.  What better way to meet cute girls?

“You’re looking for Root Society, hey?  Hop on, I’m heading that way now..!”

Just as an aside, my Rad Playa Cruiser™ has now seen three Burning Man expeditions, and currently resides with my friend Dan Ross as his primary bicycle.  She began life as a $25 junk store bicycle and underwent massive reworking to become the jewel that she is today – please click here for a photo of her in the “before” state.

Rocking 'Hair of the Dog' with an impromptu band
Rocking 'Hair of the Dog' with an impromptu band

Miya and I ended up bouncing from bar to bar, eventually finding ourselves drinking at ‘Hair of the Dog’, an open-mic bar a block or so from Center Camp.  Miya noticed a whiteboard behind the bar, listing things the bar could use as donations, such as orange juice, tequila, baby wipes and… “little people”.  Apparently one of the bartenders had a thing for dwarves and/or midgets, but this entry spawned a furious row ending with Miya standing on a barstool and berating the bartenders mercilessly, arguing that her 5’4″ frame certainly qualified her as “little”.  She was quite convincing, and soon found herself working behind the bar helping random burners take the edge off the day.  I seized this opportunity to take the stage, and played and sang several songs with an impromptu band.  We were pretty bad, but considering none of us had ever met before, much less played together, we weren’t terrible and the crowd was quite appreciative.

Thursday was much quieter during the day than the previous days, spending most of the time taking it easy and recovering from the past three days of lunacy.  Most of our camp napped intermittantly, and I had an excellent guitar and mandolin jam with Glyn and a few random folks that wandered under our shade structure throughout the afternoon.  Thursday night on the other hand, Carrie and I got into our most dressy costumes and headed out for a night of dancing.  We made our way to the enormous Root Society dome to see Bassnectar, which was apparently also the plan of about seven or eight thousand other burners.  The dome was packed wall-to-wall, and they’d configured soundsystems outside as well, with spillover crowds extending well out into the streets.  The bass could be felt from blocks away!  We danced well into the night, and I didn’t get to bed until well after sunrise.

Miya attempting to make breakfast crêpes
Miya attempting to make breakfast crêpes

Friday I met up with Miya again, who had had a very rough morning dealing with a medical emergency involving a member of her camp.  We spent the afternoon and evening just talking and wandering around from art installations to bars, spending an hour or so watching a terrible italian caveman soft-porn flick in the Bad Ideas Theatre and eating popcorn.  We ended up crashing reasonably early, in preparation for the festivities of Saturday.

Saturday, the day of the burn, felt like it arrived far too quickly.  Our camp, ‘Team Gong Show’ (a subset of the ‘First Republic of Slacking’) had planned a three-hour party in the afternoon and I had been elected bar manager.  In preparation for this, we had stopped at the Rite-Aid pharmacy in Alturas, California to purchase alcohol – the ridiculous prices of booze in the states never cease to astound me.  We purchased a grand total of twelve gallons of vodka and rum for just over $120, and in three hours of serving heavily-sauced smoothies to a crowd of about a hundred or so we went through it all.  The theme of the party was, unsurprisingly, “The Gong Show” and after buttering up the crowd with drinks and house music for an hour or so, the gonging began.  I went up to play and sing A-Ha’s ‘Take On Me’ with my mandolin, to much acclaim, though I was gonged when I returned to the stage an hour later to perform Britney Spears’ ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’ on the acoustic guitar.

in the Deep Playa, surveying the land
in the Deep Playa, surveying the land

The burning of the man was spectacular, with phenomenal fireworks and a huge fireball erupting from the base of the man to start the blaze.  The man himself was particularly well built this year, and it was a solid forty minutes or so before he finally fell.  I had plans to meet up with Miya at midnight, but I took a short nap after the burn which turned into a three-hour stretch, and I woke up at 1:45am, groggy and faded from the day’s heavy partying.  Fortunately, I subscribe to the theory that every Burning Man meetup plan should have at least one backup plan, and so I had also made a plan to meet her at 2am at Center Camp should we miss out on the midnight meetup.  I raced over to Center Camp, losing my third set of goggles of the week on the way, and waited – but she never showed.  When I made my way back to her camp to see if she was there, I found her fast asleep in her tent – it turned out she had also partied way too hard during the day, and had slept right through the meetup times as well.  We ended up napping for another few hours, intending to wake up for sunrise, but we even missed that by about an hour.  The early morning was spent riding around in the deep playa, checking out the furthest-flung art installations, talking and enjoying the morning sunlight.

Overall?  Amazing.  Very much a different experience from the previous two years, but that’s pretty much always how it is – you go in with expectations of how things are going to be, but you can never really predict what will happen or how it will affect you.  I was a lot more ‘crew’-oriented this year, instead of heading out solo like the previous years, and I stayed a lot more sober.

I will most certainly go again.