And so it begins

opening-night-5-5So crazy Flash was behind the bar on the night the Gates opened, making up something he called Rocket Fuel, which involved pouring various liquids and liquors back and forth from one glass to another, adding ingredients and tasting along the way.

The result was a lethally smooth concoction, capable of knocking you off your feet even while you thought you were drinking nothing stronger than a spritzer.

Flash the mixologist
Flash the mixologist

It was Opening Night, and there was also a birthday to celebrate, and Flash behind the bar pretty much guarantees things will get raucous, so the elements came together smartly for the official  start of Burning Man 2009.

Around 11 pm,  people started lining up rides to get out to the gates to watch the people who’d come blasting in at midnight. It’s a funny tradition. On the night the gates open to the public, a  lot of the people who are already inside the city go out to greet the people who have been waiting for HOURS and HOURS to get inside.

opening-night-31Now when I say “greet,” that covers a lot of ground. Yes there  were some cheers and shouts of welcome,  but mostly there was lots of abuse. Funny stuff. People with megaphones informing the arrivals that this is a dust-free event. Telling them to slow down.  Oh, and they were told that they should be giving lots of beer to the people who’ve been building the city for them, too.

None of it mattered. The people streaming in were laughing and dancing and just happy to be here. One guy got out of his car, naked, and rolled around face down in the dust. The call went up in the stands for him to be body-cavity searched.

opening-night-5-4One of the greeters had plugged in a vacuum and reversed the flow, and he was dousing all the arriving cars and trucks and buses and RVs with an early taste of the playa.

We had ridden out to the gates in a big, white Space Shuttle that was flashing green and blue. It had a big sound system, of course,  and Leslie had a diverse programming menu which included everything from off-the-wall comedy bits to Frank Sinatra. (The Sinatra got us all in a distinctly New York state of mind.)

We also had a guy on board whose state of mind you had to wonder about. That was Larry Harvey. I radioed that I was in the car with him, only to be told in reply that there is no such thing as Larry Harvey. I was imagining things. Oh. Ok.

Looking at what he hath wrought.
Looking at what he hath wrought.

But what must have been going through Harvey’s mind as he rode shotgun? I mean here we were in the middle of the night and everyone was coming to his party. Well, not exactly his party, but the one he started a long time ago.

But he’s not taken to making ponderous statements in situations like that. He can expound endlessly in the right setting and maybe with the right questioner, but tonight he was content to bang some kind of bone he was carrying on the roof of the car, the better to get the primal energy flowing.

opening-night-2About three quarters of the way out to the gates, a guy and girl hopped in the back of our art car, as people  are wont to do. It was Vice, of the DPW crew, and he’d been out here for a month  working. I told him it was good to have some DPW in the house. I don’t think he really knew what the hell I was talking about, but I just let the moment slide. But it was fitting to have him there, to bring things full circle. I mean, here we were, sitting with some of the swells and luminaries of the proceedings, art critics and regional directors and all manner of leading lights, and yet here we also were with a stake-pounder and a trench-digger. It worked for me.

opening-night-5-14The whole night felt like a reunion. The people coming in were being welcomed “home,” and the people already here, the ones who’ve been here for weeks working, were having their own get-together. There were Miss Stress and Makeout Queen in the stands, heckling. There was D.A. with a clipboard, no doubt counting down the days until cleanup begins. There was Wild Child, the head of Gate and Perimeter, on probably his biggest night, looking … well, looking pretty cool, considering.  When it’s your job to make sure that all 45,000 or so people coming through the gates actually come through the right way, it makes for a challenge.  There was Rugburn and Easy Going, Fondue and Elo, Eric the Orange Guy, Montreal and Playground and Porn Star and Photo Mike … and on and on and on.

The revelry lasted for hours. Eventually, we all made our way back to camp. It was 2 in the morning, but most people were headed back out to the playa. The music was pounding, the lights were blinking, and there was more rocket fuel to burn.

Welcome home.

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One guy with a vacuum gave the arrivals an early dusting
One guy with a vacuum gave the arrivals an early dusting

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About the author: John Curley

John Curley has been Burning since the relatively late date of 2004, and in 2008 he spent the better part of a month on the playa, documenting the building and burning of Black Rock City in words and pictures. John is a longtime newspaper person and spent many years at the San Francisco Chronicle, where he was a deputy managing editor in charge of Page One and the news sections of the paper. Since leaving the Chronicle in 2007, he was a contributing editor on Blue Planet Run, a book about the world's water crisis, and for the past two years has been a lecturer at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. He has also started an event and editorial photography business, and is also working on a book about the "Ten Dollar Doc" from Arco, Idaho, which will make a lovely film someday.

68 thoughts on “And so it begins

  • Thank you so much for the vicarious travel to Black Rock City! I am staying away this year to look after my 8-month old baby girl, but pining for the adventure of spirit that each pilgrimage to the Playa affords. I’ll be tuning in each day this week for the commentary and pictures — keep ‘em coming, please! One more thing: be sure to check out Whack-Canuck at 5:15 on Biology…

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  • Ah, so wish I was there. Was at my first opening night gate party last year at my 10th year (straight I might add). It was a glorious event. I particularly loved hanging with the DPW swine rockin to Justin Timberlake, classic. Love to DA, Panther and all my ARTery peeps, I am missin you all. Bring sum 09 dust back for me.
    Octopus

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  • I hope everyone embraces and enjoys the desert this year with pleanty of joy, silliness, fun and love. I will miss it again this year. it makes me sad but please Remember to be relaxed and happy let the stresses go and be involved in your own evolution as wonderful human in this amazingly wonderful place. Please be safe and return all our love one and friend home to us so we may go with them next year. My count down has already begun!

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  • Dying to get back to the dust and grim and neon and hazy painful loveliness of it all!!!! Miss you Burning Man! See ya’ next year!!!!!!

    Thanks for the report and pics, well done! aj

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  • Dying to get back to the dust and grime and neon and hazy painful loveliness of it all!!!! Miss you Burning Man! See ya’ next year!!!!!!

    Thanks for the report and pics, well done! aj

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  • I worked that shift; totally brutal and awesome. Some people were excited coming in, and some cantankerous. The shop vac was hilarious. Remember: The Party Starts in D Lot and GATE ARE NOT GREETERS. No, we will not hug you. Thanks.

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  • The party starts in D Lot? Tell that to the guy from Minnesota who I hung out with there who drove for 33 hours and arrived 10 minutes early only to get stuck in the aforementioned D Lot for 7 hours, while listening to Gate people hissing “We’re gonna make you pay!”

    Welcome home?

    That said, despite the somewhat puzzling beginning, it was “the best burn ever” for me.

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