Satellite photo of Black Rock City taken on Sep. 2, 2010. | Photo courtesy of GeoEye

Last month, after years of invites, missed opportunities and procrastination, I finally made my first trip to the annual arts and music festival known as Burning Man. Now that my synapses are firing normally again, I’ll try to share my experience, assuming I’ve deciphered the notes I hastily scribbled in moments of downtime during my week in the Black Rock Desert.

I originally thought that, rather than a salacious account of the debauchery that I had heard goes down at Burning Man, I would explore Burning Man’s bars and share some of them with my readers. But as I would find out many times during my time on the playa, making plans for Burning Man is all well and good, but be prepared to abandon them and just go with the flow.

So with that in mind, what follows is a travelogue of an incredible week unlike any I’ve ever had. To be sure, many drinks were indeed consumed and there were shenanigans aplenty, but for those of you who stop by Thirsty in LA for cocktail- and spirits-related info and the like, feel free to skip this recap and return to your regularly scheduled booze blog. Otherwise, read on dear friends and fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night…

MONDAY to TUESDAY, 8/29-30: Journey & Arrival
The plan was to caravan to Burning Man in three RVs: one with me and my friends Scot and Chris; another with fellow Angelenos Maya and Shea (Synthetix); and a third with our friends from SF, all veteran Burners: Dave (Digital Rust), Amber and Paul. We convened at my house on Monday for load in, with the goal of arriving at Burning Man on Tuesday morning.

Tuesday morning, sunrise on Hwy 395.

It’s been said that even the longest journey begins with a single step. For us, the journey to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert began with a detour to the tire shop after our RV suffered a massive tear in one of its rear tires. Fortunately, the full spare held up just fine and we arrived at the Main Gate around 12:30pm on Tuesday.

After a quick inspection, we were waved through to the entrance, where three gorgeous women greeted us and asked if there were any “virgins” (Burning Man newbies) aboard. We said “yes, all of us” and were asked to step outside. They said “Welcome Home,” gave us big hugs, then told each of us to ring a large bell and yell, “I am no longer a virgin!” Hugs from random people and greetings of “Welcome Home” happened with such regularity at Burning Man you could easily take them for granted, if everyone wasn’t so genuinely warm and welcoming. I’d been there five minutes and already I never wanted to leave.

In Burning Man lexicon, “Home” is Black Rock City (BRC), the temporary city created by Burning Man participants that spans some five miles in diameter. The city is shaped in a semicircle that radiates from the Man itself, located at the center. This year, BRC was home to over 51,000 citizens, a Burning Man attendance record. The theme of this year’s Burning Man was Metropolis: The Life Of Cities, and BRC citizens, artists and musicians would interpret the idea of “Metropolis” in countless ways. Since we had arrived on Day Two, most of the camping areas along the inner roads were taken. After a brief scouting mission we secured a spot in one of the outer rings, set up Dave’s shade structure and unpacked our provisions.

Then it was time to explore Black Rock City on our bikes, the preferred mode of transportation for most BRC citizens. As we rode past camps that varied from simple tents to elaborate cities-within-a-city, I started to get an idea of Burning Man’s immense scale. But it wasn’t until we turned onto the Esplanade, BRC’s main road, that the enormity of it all became apparent. Once in the open and away from the relative isolation of the camps, you could see Black Rock City spread across the playa for miles in either direction, with something capturing your attention no matter where you looked.

We then rode to the sprawling area known as Center Camp. I checked in at Media Mecca, where registered filmmakers, photographers and writers could get info and connect with fellow media types. My camera was “tagged” and I was given a media laminate which read, “This pass entitles you to pretty much nothing.” As tongue-in-cheek as this was, it wasn’t entirely true. In addition to an official press conference, media were invited to tour various art installations, meet the artists, and stop by Media Mecca for daily happy hours. Did I mention I didn’t want to leave?

After Media Mecca we stopped by “The Pagoda,” a structure near The Burning Chapel of Love (a gazebo “built with hard work and love” that would host ceremonies throughout the week, then a wedding vow renewal on Thursday night before it was burned). The ladder climb to the Pagoda’s top level provided our first scenic view of the playa.

Then it was back on the bikes for a ride out to Bliss Dance, a stunning 40-foot steel sculpture by Marco Cochrane. The sculpture’s numbers are impressive: 7000 pounds, 55,000 welds, composed of 97% air. But mere statistics don’t convey the power and beauty of Bliss Dance, an artwork that would draw us back again and again.

Temple of Flux

After Bliss Dance it was time to visit the Temple of Flux, a massive, 21,000 square foot installation with five wooden structures (named Antelope, Bryce, Cayuga, Dumont, and El Dorado) that collectively resembled an otherworldly canyon.

Burners visit the Temple (its name and design are different each year) to leave notes and mementos dedicated to loved ones they’ve lost. The Temple would be ceremoniously burned on Sunday night as a spiritual coda to the entire week.

I wrote my own messages and walked through the Temple’s pathways, quiet spaces of reflection and meditation that contrasted greatly with the cacophony and energy found elsewhere on the playa.

On our way back to camp we stopped by DISTRIKT, a rollicking day party that was jumping all week, no matter what time it was when we rode by. But we were starting to feel the cumulative effects of the long drive and an afternoon of exploring, so with that our whirlwind “orientation tour” was over and we headed back. The sun was setting, and Black Rock City was about to come alive.

The Gilded Lily at Ashram Galactica

After a disco nap we headed to the Moroccan-themed Gilded Lily bar at Ashram Galactica, the “finest luxury resort in Black Rock City.” We timed our arrival well: the lavishly-decorated tent would soon get packed, as it would be throughout the week. With flowing drinks, gourmet food and a beautiful, friendly crowd, it’s easy to see why it was so popular. Tonight happened to be Sash Night, and each of us were given one as we entered.

In keeping with Burning Man’s Leave No Trace ethos, most of the bars are BYOC: Bring Your Own Cup. In other words, you should have a travel mug or go-cup with you if you expect to be served. With my trusty mug in hand, I bellied up to the bar and looked over the cocktail menu. Instead of ingredients, lyrical descriptions were paired with the drink names, so I took a chance and asked the bartender for a Blood, Sweat and Sand. She asked to see my menu, looked carefully and quickly made a dreadful cocktail of randomly chosen pre-made mixers. Knowing that the bartenders were volunteers (and in most cases not professionals), who were working without the help of an actual ingredient list, I didn’t protest. I did keep my orders VERY simple from then on, though. After a few rounds, we were off to find a sound camp to get our groove on.

I’m sure this is true for many virgins, but I will never forget that first night ride to the Esplanade and out onto the playa. It’s one thing to see Black Rock City stretch out into the distance during the day, but it’s at night when the true spectacle of Burning Man is revealed. At that moment I really knew what “sensory overload” meant: lights twinkling from miles away, flames erupting all across the playa, Mutant Vehicles moving in every direction, hundreds of sound systems turned to eleven, and thousands of burners decked out in incredible costumes that often defied description.

Opulent Temple

No time to gawk, though; we had to ride on to Opulent Temple, the SF-based sound and art camp. The elaborate outdoor setup had multiple fire elements, lasers and visual screens, as well as a massive flame cannon mounted atop the DJ booth. Add hundreds of dancers, and Opulent Temple was a consistently roiling mix of energy and dust throughout the week. Wish I could say the music was enough to keep us there, but it wasn’t long before the über-cheesy music got to us and we moved on. We figured we’d be back in the wee hours to check out Aphrodite, and then Dave’s sunrise set at the Temple of Flux. Alas, neither was to be, since Chris, Scot and I rode back to camp and crashed, despite Dave’s early morning attempt to roust us.

WEDNESDAY, 9/1: Yacht Rock, Body Sushi and dirtybird
Our second day at Burning Man started, oddly enough, with my first viewing of Hot Rod, a movie that Scot and Chris had endlessly hyped in the weeks leading up to Burning Man. I’ll admit, it definitely exceeded my expectations.

Ready to Yacht Rock!

Then it was off to a Yacht Rock themed party on the Esplanade, featuring a playlist of soft rock karaoke favorites on the PA and a nice rum punch made with Sailor Jerry, natch.

Center Camp Cafe

We then made our first visit to Center Camp Cafe, an expansive yet surprisingly quiet space that featured art, performances and a coffee bar, one of the only places in BRC (along with the Arctica ice vendors) where cash is accepted. The “commerce-free” nature of Burning Man is the great equalizer. You’re responsible for bringing everything you’ll need for the week, as well as what you might want to gift others. It’s really mind-boggling that all of the food, drink, art and audio-visual experiences available to BRC citizens are free.

After Center Camp, it was finally time to ride to The Man, the geographic center and symbolic heart of Black Rock City. While the Man is usually around 40 feet high, the Man’s base changes height and structure from year to year. This year, the Man rose from the desert floor to a height of 104 feet. Its multistory base featured a sound installation created by Searchl1te called Sounds from the Urban Innerground, described as “a 24-hour sequence of recordings gathered by our team as we visited urban centers around the world.” Looking out across the playa from the top of the base has to be one of the most unique panoramas to be found anywhere in the world.

Chris and Scot hadn’t visited the Temple yet, so we rode there next. As we locked our bikes, I saw how much the Temple had changed since the previous day; it was now covered by many more notes, memorials and graffiti. People grew increasingly bolder in how high they would climb the fragile structures to leave something, despite requests and warnings not to do so. One guy even put his foot through a section as he tried to climb; thankfully he wasn’t hurt.

The next stop was Home, a sculpture described by artist Michael Christian as made up of “spheroidal shapes created with designs based on maps of cities from around the world, line drawings of streets, rivers, lakes, buildings, etc.” Despite its size the globe could be freely spun, while at night a light from its center would “shine through the cracks and spaces similar to the light and energy that every city has.”

The Kinetic Cab known as Crustacean Wagon stops by WANT IT!

Then it was time to meet up with the SF crew for sake and body sushi at WANT IT!, a camp hosted by the SF-based Want It Radio. If you’re a gymnophobic sushi hater, this probably wasn’t the party for you. Personally, I loved eating spicy tuna off the midriff of a lovely, prone woman without using chopsticks or hands, but maybe that’s just me. That said, there wasn’t quite enough food to go around, so it was back to camp for a full meal and preparations for the night ahead.

First stop after dinner was Ashram Galactica, where we met a fellow virgin who had recently moved to Los Angeles. She had just arrived in BRC with some veterans, and had the same wide-eyed expression that I’m sure many of us virgins had on our faces throughout the week. I’m not sure if it was part of the night’s theme, but a dapper gentleman was walking through the tent, sizing up guests, and giving them name tags with their new names. For some reason I was dubbed “Smooth Criminal.”

Then it was off to the Temple to find the Janky Barge, where Dave was scheduled to play another set. When we arrived several Mutant Vehicles had already gathered; the various sound systems, flamethrowers and fire dancers created a dazzling display of sights and sounds.

Temple of Flux at night

Before we boarded Janky we had a chance to walk through the Temple, which glowed from within in a way that hinted at its fiery fate on Sunday.

After Dave’s set it was time for our first visit to the incredible Nexus and Root Society sound camps. Nexus and Root Society both featured thunderous Funktion One sound systems that were among the best I’ve ever heard. Their quality was especially jaw-dropping considering the difficulties involved in setting up and maintaining them in the playa’s unforgiving environment.

The Nexus PyroSphere

Even if you were on the other side of BRC, you could find Nexus thanks to its awesome PyroSphere, a 22-foot geodesic dome with 92 effect valves that spewed fire in patterns submitted by the public. The Nexus DJ booth was set up inside a geodesic dome, while the outdoor dance area was surrounded by a huge jungle gym of nets, swings and chains packed with Burners.

Not to be outdone was Root Society and its three dance areas. First was the outdoor Tower of Babel, featuring a massive visual wall with built-in DJ booth and dance platforms. Most of the music featured there didn’t do it for me, but for sheer audio-visual bombardment it was hard to beat.

Next to Tower of Babel was the Yoshiwara Dome, which continuously bathed dancers in a red glow while DJs played much harder and darker than what was usually featured next door. On the other side of Tower of Babel was the Underground Dome, the smallest of the three venues and therefore usually packed.

But the night belonged to Nexus and the acclaimed SF label dirtybird, featuring back-to-back, hour-long sets from Worthy, Justin Martin and Christian Martin. Christian had the set of the night, dropping bombs that flowed from tech-house to breaks and electro.

We stayed at Nexus as 30,000 Watt Baby (Nate Manic, DJing incognito) and Mr. Rogers took us closer to daybreak, then walked a bit into the playa and planted ourselves on the ground to watch the first rays of the sun shine across BRC. It was my first Burning Man sunrise, and it would not be the last one I saw that week.

Was it really only Wednesday?

NEXT: Tiki Party, Exploring the Playa, Gnome Adoption and Grand Mal

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