By Richard Mahler (September 2006)

We spot the first one on Interstate 80 around Fairfield, as we speed east from Sonoma County toward Sacramento. “That’s a fellow Burner,” I tell Mas Cabeza, wagging my finger toward a painfully overloaded car with a pair of colorfully-decorated bicycles strapped to the back at a rakish angle. “Just like us, they want to arrive at Burning Man on opening day.”

Mas Cabeza and I are joining old friends, French John and Fuzz, in a pilgrimage to an annual festival in the Nevada desert that is ground zero for radical self-expression. Mas Cabeza’s given name is John, but he’s chosen a Spanish translation of his last name — Morehead — to distinguish himself from our foursome’s second John, an American who’s been living in France for 30-odd years. Fuzz uses his college nickname, as do I. Among a small group of Sonoma State University alumni, I will always be “Captain.” At the time I was a disc jockey using the moniker “Captain Kilowatt” on Santa Rosa’s KZST-FM.

We have convened in late August to spend six days on the godforsaken Black Rock Desert, 150 miles northeast of Reno. For Fuzz and me, it’s a return visit. French John and Mas Cabeza are “virgins,” in Burning Man parlance. This entitles them to a bear hug from an official greeter as we pass through the entry gates of surreal Black Rock City. Each virgin is urged to ring an enormous celebratory gong and do a happy dance.

“Get the fuck out of the car,” a saucy greeter screams at the startled folks in front of us, as we await our turn to rumble onto the dry lakebed where Burning Man looms — and is ultimately consumed by flame — above an inland sea of dirt and dust. The greeter’s minimalist silver skirt is sliding off her pink panties, which means she is overdressed by the standards of many participants in this clothing-optional bacchanal.

“You’re too clean,” she yells, picking up a handful of talc-soft playa dirt and rubbing it across bleach-white T-shirts. “Now move the fuck out of here and get this party started.”

Mas Cabeza looks a little bewildered. Fuzz and I have tried to articulate the Burning Man zeitgeist but it is one of those things that simply has to be experienced. How can one hope to convey the sensation of circulating among 39,000 people who’ve succumbed to varying degrees of uninhibited nudity, unashamed narcissism, liberal drug ingestion, eager alcohol consumption, free-form dancing, hardcore camping, conspicuous body adornment, exaggerated performance, and way-out art appreciation?

It’s only Monday and by Saturday night my newbie pals will be as decked out, brain altered, and awestruck as the oldtimers, happily cruising the playa on clownish bicycles in search of the odd, the outlandish, and the opulent.

The main attraction on our very first night would have knocked our socks off — were we wearing any.

“People call it ‘The Belgian Waffle,’” somebody tells us, as we enter a monstrous structure shaped like a cross between a cathedral and an airplane hangar. Fifteen stories high and the length of a football field, this architectural masterpiece is built entirely out of varying lengths of two-by-three-inch lumber. There are no beams, buttresses, or columns. No metal beyond nails. Too bad it will disappear — like everything else — within days after Burning Man ends on September 4.

Indirectly illuminated by eerie neon-green lights, the cavernous building is officially called “Uchronia,” named after a Belgian art movement. Ninety workers from Belgium nail-gunned 100 miles of wood to create this undulating wave, whose sides seem to drip in defiance of gravity. We joined hundreds of other revelers in the cavernous interior to dance to thumping electronic music. I later learned that the Belgian architect who built the

“Waffle” spent $250,000 of his own money on the structure, which used lumber from the reject pile at a Canadian mill. The architect said he would plant enough trees in his home country to offset the carbon emissions emitted by the Gehryesque work’s construction and subsequent burning.

We maneuvered our tricked out bikes among more than 200 other installations and sculptures dotting the several square miles of flat, empty desert. As we rode, the four of us dodged dozens of “art cars,” the exuberantly mutant vehicles that are a Dr. Seuss book come to life.

Imagine, if you can, an auto or bus that has been modified to look like a praying mantis, a Spanish galleon, a crescent moon, a cocktail glass, a fire-breathing dragon, a celestial observatory, a frontier-era saloon, a furry kitty, an unkempt lawn, a World War I biplane, or the White House (with the fuselage of an airplane poking out of the Oval Office). Some of the vehicles are massive: three stories high and 100 feet long. Most have high-wattage sound systems, so that occupants and those nearby can dance their hearts out. A few big art cars park on the playa and become the centerpieces of all-night raves.

As usual, fire and light are big deals at Burning Man. It’s hard to top the actual torching of the “Man” on Saturday night, which disappeared this year in splendid flames as its intense heat spawned a series of miniature tornados. The conflagration is preceded by 4th of July-style fireworks and the coordinated antics of several hundred fire dancers. Thousands of pagans circle the spectacle and scream at the top of their lungs.

Fireworks were a big draw, too, on Friday night, when The Flaming Lotus Girls — a collective of female welders from San Francisco — presented a choreographed show highlighting their pride and joy: a stainless-steel mother serpent skeleton curled around her cracking-open egg. What makes this assemblage special is the intricate network of hydraulics that allows the snake to move its head, tongue, and jaws. Flames shoot from each vertebra as well as the creature’s head and tail. Incredibly, visitors are allowed to stand up to a few feet from these screeching geysers of fire and are even able to control many of them with push-buttons.

Not all of the festival’s art is so dynamic, however. I was moved by the simplicity of the Temple of Hope, a memorial to lovers and loved ones lost, and by the abstract “Starry Mandala” tower of lashed bamboo poles that yielded a kaleidoscope of shadows and light. Someone erected a set of 14 white sails across the lakebed that looked like an elegant regatta. “Duel Nature” was a giant DNA double helix made of red metal rectangles gleaming in the sunlight. A stark memorial to U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq consisted of a long series of crosses, each bearing the name and picture of a war victim. Elsewhere, a cluster of glittery star shapes were hung around a treasure chest, where one was invited “to wish upon a star,” dropping written dreams into tiny slot. One day, at the farthest end of the playa, I came upon a young man playing on his drum set beneath an umbrella. Another day I lounged on a couch parked incongruously by itself, which allowed me to watch a kite pull a kid on a skateboard across the playa and a flag-twirler drill team do things no high school would ever allow. On a third occasion I followed a line of a thousand people linked in a kind of conga line, colorful blankets draped over their heads, creating a 3200-foot-long Chinese dragon said to be visible in a Google Earth photo from outer space. On bikes that night I saw a group of cyclists from South Africa, each dressed like a giraffe, and another bunch from somewhere else, each trailing an enormous trail of illuminated balloons. Between them were ninja sword-fighters attacking one another with glow-stick sabers.

At the edge of all this were more attractions than a carnival sideshow. Cirque Berzerk featured fire eaters, acrobats, and stilt walkers. The Lingerie Lounge specialized in topless pole-dancers and amateur strippers. Thunderdome was something out of ancient Rome, with gladiators going at one another with foam bats before a bloodthirsty throng. In front of The Lost Penguin Café, the director of the Simpsons movie played a tuba from which flames erupted. Lamplighters by the score carried oil lamps at dusk, looking like characters from the Arabian Nights in their long white robes. A cherry-picker adorned like a 40-foot flower writhed to a disco beat. Giant mesh female figures cried blue fire onto the ground. Naked runners were encouraged to sprint toward the Duck Pond’s water-park, flopping themselves onto a sheet of plastic for a long, wet slide. Line-skaters circled to the beat of Eighties Funk at a makeshift roller rink. Belly dancers did their thing beneath a waxing moon. Dancers gyrated until seven a.m. at one open-air club after another.

Among the amazing things about Burning Man is that all these entertainment are free. Nothing is sold except for ice and coffee; and no vending or advertising is allowed. A “gift economy” encourages participants to donate and barter for goods and services. One day I was gifted with a healing foot massage and balm rub, staving off the effects of too much dust and too little moisture. Most mornings I attended a yoga class led by Naked Dave, at Grooveville Camp. One afternoon I donated a bottle of Panamanian rum to The Golden Café and was rewarded in turn by a silver medallion good for free mixed drinks at every Burning Man to come. Their impromptu band was among the best in Black Rock.

Our own little camp morphed into something bigger, as we dissolved boundaries between neighbors from Northern California, Colorado, and Seattle. Our fancy outdoor shower— resembling a Wild West gallows — was a big hit, as was the music blaring on our thrift shop stereo. We were gifted with a cello-and-violin recital, Japanese fans, a DVD, ice cream, and hors d’ouerves. We responded with gasoline, electricity, peace cranes, cookie, and brownies.

Our foursome made gorgeous meals — from shish-kebabs to tabouli, buffalo burgers to barbequed chicken — each night, following a margarita-dominant cocktail hour. It was a treat to update friendships that date back 37 years as we moved “outside the box” into geezerhood. We then set off to see the Technicolor nightlife that gives Burning Man its character and texture. Inevitably, we lost one another at some point, as schools of circulating bicycles separated us from one another. We plopped into bed anywhere between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m.

Discomforts were rare: one bad dust storm, a few hot afternoons, an exceptionally cold night, painfully dry eyes, and near heat stroke as we set up camp. Ear plugs helped at night, as did face masks and sun-block.

Catharsis came for me at the Temple of Hope, where I laid artifacts from my four-year relationship with Laurie, which shifted abruptly after our engagement at the 2005 festival. After agreeing to marry during Burning Man, we split up in early 2006 and realigned in friendship. There were many tears as I laid a photograph and bandana on the pyre that would be burned the last night of this gathering. My feelings were bittersweet, since the ticket that allowed me entrance to the festival was a birthday gift from Laurie. At the temple, I was surrounded by dozens of grieving fellow humans, and hundreds of tiny altars they had created for those they had lost.

Yes, all good things must end. For our crew, the 2006 fadeout began with disassembly of our tents on Sunday morning. By 2:45 p.m. we were easing away from the corner of 3:30 and Fate, passing a joyful couple as they showered together next to the empty space we left behind. It took three hours to get out of Black Rock City and onto the highway. We stopped at a truck stop in Fernley for a fast-food dinner and gasoline. The clerk said more than 100 Burners had bought showers that day, clogging the drains each time with their gooey playa dust-turned-to-mud. I looked in the mirror of the men’s room and didn’t recognize the grizzled, sunburned wild man who stared back at me. We followed a near-constant parade of dust-covered bikes lashed to ungainly rigs all the way down Interstate 80 into the Bay Area. By 4 a.m. I was snuggled in bed back in Sebastopol, visions of the six thousand pairs of breasts I’d seen in the annual Critical Tits Parade dangling in my head. Another Burning Man Festival at an end.