Rain? In the desert?

It rained in Black Rock  City on Monday, and it maybe wasn’t the most fun in the world.

Among the things we discovered during the storm was that a) it was a good idea to bring waterproof boots, and b) it was not a good idea not to bring anything else that was waterproof. Oh, and the lovely Center Cafe, which provides such delicious shade during hot, sunny days, as well as very delicious iced mocha drinks, does NOT provide shelter from falling raindrops.

We maybe were not alone in making this discovery.

People were trudging through the muck, building up their playa boots and looking for safe harbor. It was a different kind of distress than what you experience during a whiteout. During the rain you worry about your stuff, and you worry about how long the storm will last, and you worry about how you are ever going to get dry.

It was hard to get reliable information about the last time it rained really hard at Burning Man, and for how long. Our best source was Durgy, of the Black Rock Beacon, who remembers coming to his first burn in 2000, and getting rained on most of Thursday through Sunday.

“I didn’t really know what to expect, except to expect the unexpected,” Durgy said, which is exactly what he got.

With all the rain and muck, did it make him regret coming Burning Man? “Hell no!” he said. “I was with a bunch of good people. … We came to watch the Man burn, and we did,” he said.

In the afternoon, Claire, on the good ship Lake Lahotan, sensed the approaching storm.

Yesterday’s rain lasted maybe an hour, starting at around 5:30. It was not a warm rain; the temperature was chilly, considering it’s the desert. No one could use their bikes, and the gates to the city closed because vehicles don’t do well in playa mud.

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The art and artists

Bliss Dance in the daytime (photo by Tod Seelie)

We got out and about a little bit before the official start of Burning Man, and we got to talk to some of the artists and see some of the big pieces that are gracing the playa this year. We also were lucky enough to collaborate with Tod Seelie, the amazing Brooklyn photographer who’s been documenting underground culture for the past decade. Welcome aboard, Tod, and we thank you!

Bliss Dance at dawn (photo by John Curley)

Working on "Bliss Dance." From the artist, Marko Cochrane: I've worked on “Bliss Dance” every day since last year's Burning Man. It's composed of 55,000 welds, mostly done by hand. It's 40 feet tall, weighs 7,000 pounds and is 97% air. The design is based around the structures of geodesic domes, and 4,500 of the ball joints are threaded to attach the steel mesh “skin” with screws. I used to do a lot of scale enlarging professionally, the original sculpture this was based on was 13 inches. I then made a 4 foot version and then this final 40 foot sculpture. It is supported by six I-beams buried 2 feet under the surface in a radial pattern." (TS)

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Welcome, stranger

The Gate crew had a little shindig before opening the doors to the city.

And just like that, it has begun.

If you came out early to Black Rock City this year, you got a little surprise: They let you in.

The gates swung open Sunday evening at 6 p.m., apparently to avoid creating an  hours-long lineup of cars on the dusty entrance road and in the holding lots. Previously, the gates haven’t opened until midnight. And to be official about it, the event itself didn’t actually begin 12:01 a.m., just as advertised.

But things got to an early start when the cars full of happy faces made their way past the gates and traveled up to the greeters’ stations, where bells were rung to welcome newcomers and people danced and laughed and generally felt pretty damn good about being home again.

Happy to be here? You bet.

Everything felt early this year. The city went up fast, maybe faster than ever. Hell, the Temple is going to open on time this year, and when’s the last time that happened?

Theme camps were let on the playa a bit sooner this year too, the better to set up their situations. And why not? So much work goes into getting it all out here, why not let the camps have a chance of being ready for everyone when the show gets started?

Nah, that's not a real gun. But Bravo hauled it up to the top of the Gate tower as the cars were lining up for entry into the city.

It’s still going to be fun to watch the progress as the week progresses. The big domes are going up at the sound clubs,  the giant tents are being staked into the ground along the Esplanade, and just as at every DMV everywhere, there were a lot of people waiting for paperwork. You have to have a permit to drive a mutant vehicle on the playa, and that means waiting in line for one. Just like home.

As you watched the newcomers breaking out their gear, you had to feel good that you didn’t have hours and hours of setup to do. But it was also a little poignant not to be getting the same rush of joy at feeling the desert on your skin again, and being stunned anew by the hugeness of the sky.

There was lots happening behind the scenes. Between “poofs” from flamethrowers and the thumping of sound systems, the radio was crackling with last-minute details that needed tending to. Art Placement teams were out, making sure that the artists installing their pieces had what they needed and knew the drill. But they all had to break their camps and make the playa a clean landscape for their work.

Logan, the DPW boss, had given his salutary address at the last meeting before the event. In front of the hard-ass group of driven workers, he said, “This is my favorite thing in the world. You’re my favorite people, this is my favorite place, and someday they’re going to look back on this and say, “I can’t believe it kept happening.’ ‘’ There were cheers and applause, and the crews might have stuck out their chests a little further. Twenty years of doing Burning Man in the desert, and it all got done again.

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The State of the Art

Minaret in the Keyhole with people
Minaret in the Keyhole with people

This morning we woke up to the light patter of rain on our dome. It was a fresh morning on the playa, one that sharpens your mind as you take a walk to check out the progress our ARTISTS are making beneath a cold blue sky speckled with dabs of white clouds.  The weather has been cold And there have been long white outs but our valiant artists have persevered and a huge array of projects are being completed.

We made our way towards the 2 o’clock side of the City and visited with Karen at Infinitarium. The sculptures are in place and they’re building out the fire effects. The Garden is a beautiful layout of plants with the tallest being the Fleur. There are some Willows, the Lovers (Two leaves), Trumpets and some Dandelions. Like I said, the weather has been rough on all the artists this last week, and this morning is was cold, cold, cold. Karen said, “Look at us. Who wears thermals at 10:30 in the morning on the playa? Who’d have thought.” Indeed, and that makes it all the more wonderful to see all the people out here trudging through the long hours to finish their projects.

Bliss Dance
Bliss Dance

We wiped the dust from our goggles and wandered out to the Keyhole where yes, Brian Tedrick’s Minaret is as beautiful as you hear it is. At night it is illuminated with rings of color and during all hours of the day and night our bold citizens climb up Minaret’s vertebra, then midway they go inside and make their way to the see-through sphere at the top to revel. It is truly a worthy Keyhole piece. Last night we met some folks who say it isn’t finished yet though. Still to be installed are misters in the top steel orb. These misters will release BBQ sauce and flame effects are still to be installed also that will, with the touch of a button at the bottom, instantly incinerate the revelers in the sphere, thereby creating a fine hourly grilling bonanza of our bountiful supply of citizens. They may have been joking but I say it sounds delish!!

We hear there was supposed to be snow on Donner pass today. Crazy.

If you want some beauty, this year make sure to get out to Bliss Dance by Marco Cochrane. She is a sublime form, twisting and flowing and simply divine. Today they were putting on her finishing touches.

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The Man abides

The Man is up and looking pretty damn sharp. By day, he is all shimmering silver and gray, and at night, he’s aglow in all his green, pink and aqua goodness.

The gargoyles have been put in place, and Flash seems happy. Would the gargoyles be too big and draw too much attention to themselves? Or would they be too small and be lost in the massiveness of the structure? There was no way of knowing in advance, really. But now that they’ve been mounted into place, it’s easy to see that they work. They’re watchful, and poised for flight.

Kudos, Flash, for the instincts to make it come out right.

The Man base is painted in a dull flat gray, the color of concrete and skyscrapers. … And then out beyond is the Temple, the just-dead-on-perfect counterpoint to the hulking brutishness of the big city.

Are you excited about coming yet?

We’ve all been watching the weather reports. This morning, the Weather Underground said there was a 50 percent chance of precipitation for both Saturday and Sunday. As of Saturday evening, we hadn’t had any measurable rain. But the predictions were upgraded late in the day to an 80 percent chance of precipitation (!) for tonight. So things may get very interesting over the next couple of days.

All day, people were sensing the change. “It smells like rain,” they’d say. And we’d agree that it was a good smell, all clean and cool. Cool might be too weak a term: It’s positively brisk today. Sweatshirt weather.

There was a massive whiteout in the middle of the day, and I think we all thought the rain would hit us then. But it didn’t.

So we don’t know what will happen tonight, or tomorrow, or tomorrow night at midnight when the gates open. It might be muddy (or whatever you call the playa when it gets wet. It’s like instant cement, tho. Every step you take adds another inch of goo to the bottom of your shoes. Soon you’re wearing platforms.) But it seems pretty clear that it’s going to be chilly.

And of course leave it to us to be cheesy and sentimental and say that no matter how cold the night may be, it’ll be warm inside when you get here.

See you soon.

Making the Cafe all purty

Volunteers are swarming all over the Center Cafe, transforming the massive, utilitarian  tent in the center of the city into a space that both shelters and entertains participants. That it is also the place to get a jolt of caffeine at any time, day or night, also makes it an essential part of the Burning Man experience.

This year’s event is themed Metropolis, and many of the decorative touches in the Cafe have an urban feel to them. Rigging wires are being covered in what looks like pipe, there are flags that look like clothelines, and the space is ringed with wooden burn barrels with fabric flames.

Dangerass, the volunteer coordinator for Cafe Decor,  is in the center of it all, leading the volunteers with energy, enthusiasm and heart.

“Every year I say to myself, ‘Well, maybe this is the last year for me at Burning Man,’’’ she says. “Then I think about it, and I realize these are my peeps!”

She sweeps her arms around the Cafe, where a crew of about 40 people are putting up lights, painting stages, arranging carpet and myriad other things, getting ready for a really big party.

Much of the decor was made back in San Francisco, where recycled clothing and donated items were used as source materials at volunteer Decor parties. Then the effort moves to the desert, where the first item of business is to get all the stuff that is stored in trailers unloaded.

“We need brawn in the beginning and fluff in the end,” Dangerass said.

The Decor crew gets their share of muscle, both male and female, and it’s crucial. There are hundreds of yards of carpet to unload, and most of it has several years of playa dust covering it. And there’s enough other stuff to fill three semis and a shipping container, all of which must be broken down and laid out in the cafe.

And yet even with all the work, “This week is the best week of my life,” Dangerass says. 

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Closer and closer

It was a bitch and a bear on Thursday. Wednesday night might have been one of the most beautiful nights in the history of the playa (and yeah, given that this desert lakebed has been virtually unchanged for hundreds of thousands of years, that’s quite a statement), but Mother Nature and Mr. Blowhard Wind reminded us the next day that no, it’s really not all that hospitable here.

Thursday afternoon, the dust was blowing so hard it hurt. Movement was impossible. The tents of a lot of veteran burners, people who’ve been doing this awhile and know the drill, got shredded. (Which made for interesting improvised sleeping arrangements, but that’s another story entirely.)

Theme camps are moving onto the playa in force, and artists are busting hump to finish their installations before the event begins. There’s activity all over the playa, and it’s filling up fast.

There’s lot’s to report, and we’ll be back in a bit with more.

Out at the edge of the city … another city

They’re the outlaw project, or maybe just old school Burning Man. They’re the wild West, with infusions from all over the world, most notably New Zealand and Ireland. They’re the gang at the far end of the playa, building the huge project with the tiny budget. Megatropolis.

Five buildings will light up the far reaches of Black Rock City, each of them huge, and the tallest rising almost five stories above the desert floor.

The crew has a crackerjack core of carpenters and builders, but a bigger bunch of people who are willing to do a lot of hard work and take direction. But the size of the crew is minuscule compared to some of the other projects here. They’re about 20 strong, give or take.

And they’ve done it with very little money, too. Most of the leaders of the project are into it in the thousands of dollars already (but it’s not too late to help, by the way. Go to the Megatropolis web page to contribute).

Otto Von Danger and Kiwi are the lead dogs. They met at the regional burn in New Zealand this year, and the plans took shape. Build another city inside of Black Rock City, in the year of Metropolis.

Some of the buildings are recognizable, like the Transamerica Pyramid. Others are more iconic: the smokestack, the apartment building and the mega mall. In the center sits the tower, the biggest of the buildings and the one where you’ll be able to get a ride to the top on a scissor lift.

The whole city will be lit from the inside as well as the outside. It’ll be glowing in the distance, and the colors will be changing regularly. Oh, and there will be fire and fireworks — lots of both! — when the city is burned on Friday night of the event.

In the dust and the wind of the first couple of days, the generator was balky.

The construction camp is rough around the edges. It doesn’t have the amenities of the other big projects of its kind. There are some chairs and couches, some of which were apparently used in some sort of fire safety demonstration the first time they were on the playa.The overall impression that it’s a rough place to be.

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