Chapter 6 – Burning Man – Day 1 Part 1 – Surreally Here at Last

Originally posted 12/20/2008

On the main road, along the edge of the Black Rock Desert, just before the entrance, is a sign.  Each year the design is different, but each year you know, when you see the sign, that you are just moments from entering the surreal and challenging world that is Black Rock City and Burning Man.

Some go there to party, others to appreciate the art.  Some go to enjoy a week of freedom from structure or judgment.  Still others, like myself, go there because they are drawn there or seek some type of spiritual experience.  And so we all flocked there to the entrance.  Being part of the post 12:01am Monday arrival process with thousands of other vehicles passing along the, at first, narrow desert road that leads to the city was an experience in itself.  All those folks waiting, anticipating what the coming week would bring.  Will the weather be too hot / cold?  Will the wind kick up the talcum powder fine dust that makes the playa what it is and result in a playa dust storm like those documented in past years?  Will they be able to find their friends / camp mates / rides home at the end of the week?   In a city of almost 50,000 people, unless you’ve planned ahead and know where to look, it takes a miracle to find someone, somewhere, at any given time.

Others are asking themselves, did I bring enough / too much food / water / alcoholic beverage / equipment / clothing?  Will I be able to find a good camp spot / my group’s camp spot / the porta-potties soon?  And then, you’re there, on that narrow road.  Too late to worry now, it’s almost 2 AM and you have become part of the ‘Arrival’ process.  Thousands of cars lined up for miles ahead and behind.  It all seems surreal, magical.  Indeed, for the Virgin Burner, the journey along this desert strip of road, begins something beyond magic.  The playa and the city on it are full of energies and radiate the aura of something awe inspiring. They say that the playa provides what you need when you are there, even if its not what you want.  The playa, they say, knows what it is you need.

My main motivation for going, was spiritual.  Enjoying the art, the people, the sights and sounds, the challenge of survival in an unfamiliar landscape, confronting my own comfort zones, and stretching those barriers or even breaking them wide open.  It was all about to happen.  I felt like a kid on Christmas morning just itching to rip the wrappings off a new present and see what “Burning Clause” had brought me.

The ‘unwrapping’ process was slow.  After driving single file for a few miles, the road widened into multiple lanes, perhaps eight or more, I can’t remember since I was continuously looking ahead, not to the side, and anticipating the upcoming gate. According to the information I had, this is where the ticket stubs would get removed and the vehicles searched for stowaways and newly arrived burners get to ‘ring the bell’.  After what seemed like an hour of crawling along on that desert road, I finally made it to the brightly lit gates.

I was greeted by a friendly young guy who asked polite questions, and checked out the RV for stowaways. After handing back my ticket and handing me a city map and event booklet, he told me to proceed up the road.  Where, I wondered, were the bells to ring and the semi-mischievous greeters who often ask you to roll around in the dust if you are a virgin burner?

Still traveling across the desert in eight or so lanes of traffic, we all moved ahead toward Black Rock City – some faster than others, which kicked up dust on the road.  The idea was to keep the dust from going higher than your vehicle, otherwise, you were going too fast and a ranger would come flying out of nowhere on a 4-wheeler to slow you down.

So, having passed through the ‘gate’ I wondered how far the city was.  I could see the bright lights way off in the distance actually off to one side rather than straight ahead.  Those lights, punctuated by periodic bursts of flames rising into the night, could hardly be missed.  Then. ahead, I spotted a second set of gates.  Here were a second set of greeters, and the bells.  Another polite and happy greeter met me at the next gate.  The greeters are volunteers too, all too happy to answer questions and give hugs and make you feel welcomed home. They work hard at making everyone feel like they’ve just arrived home, (which we have) and, truly, they do a great job.

I handed this new fellow my four camera registration forms and he prepared the camera tags I would need in order to be allowed to take pictures inside the city.  He then asked me if I wanted to ring the bell.  “Hell yeah!” said I and promptly invoked the ritual of ringing the chime bell with a mallet and shouting “I’m Home!” as loudly as I could.  The adrenaline flowed and I felt like I could climb a mountain – it was now after 3AM, 6 AM Eastern time, and I was wide awake and ready to face the new day.

My polite greeter did not ask me to grovel in the dust, even though he knew I was a virgin burner.  Others were not so lucky.  Nearby, a young lady was making playa angels in the dust, egged on by her greeters who used her own camera to document the event.  Just beyond the gates an art car – like a gazebo on wheels – sat with several resting greeters sitting on it, while music blared and others in various states of dress danced nearby.

I remounted my RV and passed slowly through the final gate.  Let the surrealism begin!

The entrance road joins up with the city at the 6 o’clock position but does not actually meet the end of the 6 o’clock roadway.  Instead, it branches toward the 5:30 and 6:30 streets to place drivers on the outermost circular street.  Consulting the map, and knowing my camp would be at 5:45 and the wheel (the circular area around the center camp cafe) I opted to go right and try to find the 5:30 road.  The street signs were not really helpful and when I finally found one it was the 5:00 road. I had apparently passed the 5:30 road somehow. So, I followed it toward the center of the circle.  5:00 actually goes to the inner Esplanade road, not the wheel, so I accidentally ended up on the Esplanade traveling toward center camp, and received a few suggestions from passers-by as to how to get back to the wheel.

Finally, turning left at the Black Rock Roller Disco, I was on the wheel road at last.  I drove slowly, watching for some sign of the ‘chapel’ whose spires would help me find the right location.  After passing 5:30, I knew I had to be close.  Finally I saw the spires far off to the right, across the wheel, toward center camp, and then I came upon another structure along the edge of the wheel road and stopped to get directions. This tent-like structure seemed to be built more permanently than others nearby, and had an elevated platform at the back, so I entered and inquired as to the location of Lamplighters Village.

The first person I met, called himself ‘manslave’ and pronounced that I had found the place I was looking for.  This structure, he told me, was the Lamplighters Lounge.  There were a few others there on the various sofas spread around the lounge and several others already sleeping on the ‘community’ futon cushions around the edge of the enclosure.  The music was turned up but, from what I had read about Burning Man, this was par for the course every night (and the reason I had brought earplugs, just in case).

I inquired after several Lamplighter council members who had planned on doing camper placement in the village, but was told that since it was so late, they had already crashed for the night.  I was told to just pull the RV off the road and park next to some existing tents by the lounge. So I pulled around and parked, then headed back to the lounge to meet some of the others.

Manslave was still there – full of energy – along with several new faces.  A shirt-less young man in bright colors with a long pink? tail, and another young lady wearing what I can only describe as an outfit straight out of the Victoria’s Secret catalog. If this had not been Burning Man, and I were not already prepared for what I might see here, I might have thought this all odd. Instead, I merely accepted what I was seeing as proof that I had arrived.  Besides, I was determined to fit in, and avoid any judgmental thoughts in this place.  Who was I, I asked myself, to judge others in this place?  After all, had I not been dreading being judged myself?  So, I just smiled, accepted my surreal new surroundings, and soaked it all in like warm sunshine on a brisk spring day.

I wandered around Lamplighters village to see if anyone else was still up but it was dark, no lights lit in the tents there.  I passed through the chapel – seeing the tables laid out for working on the lamps.  I crossed the center road to the cafe but there was still caution tape around the entrances – the cafe was not yet open for business for the week.

So, I headed back to the lounge where several more folks had wandered in – some not even from the camp.  There was a steady stream of folks popping in and asking where one of the camps was. Apparently that camp had not set up yet, because we kept sending people there and all they found was an empty spot and they would come back and hang out for awhile.

The structure built on the back of the lounge, that looked like an observation platform was, indeed, a second floor porch over top of the lounge bar which faced inward.  The bar had a large counter for serving in the front  and left side and many shelves, coolers and a mini-fridge lined the back of the bar. In the center of the lounge between four sofas was an artistically painted, oval plywood table and a tall lamp on a tripod draped in orange fabric which lit the area with a colored glow.

view of the Lamplighter's Lounge

The Lamplighter's Lounge

After some time had passed, I wandered away toward the RV, thinking to catch a nap.  There I met my (temporary) next door neighbors emerging from their very small tent.  He, wearing a pith helmet and not much more, and she, wearing a g-string the size of a guitar pick. They said hello and then she asked if I was having a good burn?  I explained that I had only just gotten there but, “so far so good”.  She offered to do a few jumping jacks if that would liven things up and then proceeded to do so.  I smiled, assured her it wasn’t necessary and, as is the tradition at Burning Man – asked if there was anything they might need.  As they dressed, I stepped  into the RV and asked if they needed some earplugs – i had brought a box full of them – “Sure” they said, so I passed them a few pairs to last the week.

I never did get his playa name right – although it sounded kind of cool, he always had to spell it out for people.  Her playa name was ‘hot slice’.  He, it appeared, had an official AP press pass and all the equipment to go with it. She was with him there, but was also part of another theme camp.

I followed them back to the lounge – forgetting for the moment about napping. Back at the lounge a few more Village dwellers had gathered. The young man with the tail, it turned out, was from our neighboring camp -  “The Burning Marys” a group of guys from San Francisco. They had a large dome and sound system they called their “HomoChic” chill space.

After while, I noticed that the sky was beginning to lighten, so I popped back over to the RV to grab my cameras and headed out toward the center camp cafe.  The cafe was still wrapped in caution tape, not quite ready for business, so I headed out where the promenade – from the cafe to the man – joined the center camp and the Esplanade or ‘inner-ring’ street.  The sunrise had begun, so I took a few shots, walking partway onto the promenade and realizing, for the first time, just how vast the semicircular city truly was.  Pictures fail to show the distances between points and this year, in particular, the city was designed to be far larger than it had ever been before.  The Man looked so very far away – even on a forty foot tower.  Indeed, at the beginning of the promenade, I was half a mile away from him and I had to zoom in to get a good shot.

view of The Man at Sunrise on the promenade

The Man - Sunrise on the promenade

Sunrise reveals the dusty haze across the artwork-dotted landscape.

Sunrise reveals the dusty haze across the artwork-dotted landscape.

Fire sculptures greet the dawn - awaiting the next evening and flame!

Fire sculptures greet the dawn - awaiting the next evening and flame!

Center camp cafe awaits its first visitors of the week

Center camp cafe awaits its first visitors of the week

After taking a few shots there, I decided that if I walked much further out onto the playa, my feet would wear out for the day, so I headed back to Lamplighter Village to grab my bike and hydration pack. Even though I had not used my bike in more than two years, biking was still easier on the feet than walking, and I’d do plenty of that as a lamplighter.

As I passed, I noticed that the center camp cafe had finally removed the caution tape, so I popped in to look around – they were not yet selling coffee or tea but the space inside the tented area was filled with all sorts of art pieces and performance spaces – the center held what appeared to be a one-ring circus area whose top was open to the sky.  There were two performance stages with many old sofas and benches laid out before them.  There were tables and built-in benches around the outside walls between entrances and benches around the outside of the ‘circus ring’ wall.

Heading out the opposite side of the cafe, I passed the row-upon-row of bicycle racks that surround the cafe tent and I made my way back to Lamplighter village, to ‘start’ my morning.

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