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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Journey of Fire... A Burning Man account by Onnoleigh Sweetman...

March First Friday is gearing up with Las Vegas' first official "Burning", an event inspired by the annual Burning Man art and music festival in Northern Nevada. My very good friend, spiritual sister and guest blogger Onnoleigh "Onna" Sweetman, is sharing her personal experiences with us again about her time at Burning Man in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada.

Below is part 2 and 3 of her experiences. Part 1 was first published on this blog, on August 23, 2011


See you at the burn... First Friday, March 2nd, 2012... http://www.firstfridaylasvegas.com/

Onnoleigh Sweetman at Burning Man

Journey of Fire Part 2 and 3
From the dust we came and to the dust we shall return and emerge new beings of light.
 --Onnoleigh Sweetman


“So here I was standing directly at the base of the man...  It was 3:30 in the morning on a Monday and with a two day hitchhiking adventure to get to this point I reveled in my own awe and inspiration.  I looked up to the wooden sculpture with gracious humility.  The Man, standing tall and proud with his left leg forward, looked as though he was glancing behind him with his arms in stride, as if to allure to what he was there for.  This wooden Man, in his own final passage would soon find his way to his own destiny in the ever so deeply intended theme of Rites of Passage.  The week would fly by and with every intent my soul could muster I would purge everything I so badly wanted to release into this glowing structure.  I looked up at this man with a steadfast intent of soaking it all in.  Knowing, that this too shall pass.  That these moments on the playa that I crave with an unquenchable thirst would soon be a memory.  In complete awareness I closed my eyes and took it all in.   The dust beneath my feet, the sounds of electronic beats in the air, the mysticism of being in the middle of nowhere almost as if on another planet.  As I opened my eyes I knew this was a pivotal moment for me.  There was a brief time I wasn’t sure I was going to make it to the event.  All the preparation, all the passion, everything that I came to Burning Man for this year, was represented in that brevity of a man.  That I myself, would transition along with the burning of this sculpture through my own Rites of Passage and leave all the heartache from all the death that I had experienced this year behind me.  In almost every sense, this wooden man in a remote desert had become my God.  My hope.  My Savior...”

The day of exodus to the burn was upon me and for the first time in my own history I actually slept the night before leaving. Refreshed and ready to go I stood proudly as it seemed as though this year I had the preparation dialed in. Everything was packed neatly in zip lock bags to avoid the ravenous dust that was soon to be upon me, the ultimate burning man list was checked from top to bottom, and my spirit was calm and centered. Having my ass kicked a thousand times over by the playa in the past, this year I bowed in karmic humility and took everything that I had learned in previous years and applied it ever so fervently to the spiritual preparation and every other aspect of the burning man experience. So far I was off to a beautiful start.

At 5:00 pm on Saturday I met my rideshare at the RV rental place. Jeremy, a dance producer and Jon a 26 year old were both from Camp Auto Sub in Boston, Massachusetts and both virgin burners. The excitement was in the air and I remember looking back at my first burn thinking how nothing could ever prepare these two for the magic they were about to experience. And how in one week, we would all step back into this RV forever changed by the initiation and cleansing of the dust. One can see pictures, watch videos, but there is nothing in comparison to the actual live event itself. I also wondered what was in store for me. I had set myself on a diligent mission of flowing and allowing with whatever the playa had in store for me and felt more prepared than ever to return home to the dust.

The ride was calm minus a little hail and lightning on the way, and Jon and I (both fans of psychedelic trance) rocked out to Shpongle and Infected Mushroom most of the way. I was surprised at how clear the roads were. We didn’t see hardly any vehicles, hippie busses or RV’s on the way. This of course was the calm before the storm. With a 50,000 max limit set by the BLM and a two lane highway from Fernley, Nevada all the way to Black Rock, I almost cringed at what could be a monstrous gate wait into the event. But that was still a day away. The playa had a mini adventure in store for Jon and me and it would be an almost 48 hour trek from start to finish to the gates of Burning Man.

At 4:00 am we landed outside of Reno in Lemon Valley. With an early entry pass for Jeremy, we decided to crash for a few hours at my dear friend and light worker Crisalicous' house. It had been nearly a year since I’d seen her and I welcomed a pre-burn experience with her. With only a few hours of sleep we were up and ready to start the day. Jeremy’s plans were to head straight to Burning Man which meant that Jon and I needed to find a way to Fernley and the Love gas station by 8pm. A few phone calls later and we ventured into Reno to designer and artist Marcio Decker’s house. As with all my trips to Northern Nevada, the Sunday experience was like a family reunion for me. Seeing old faces from the dearest times of my life which mostly were encountered in Burning Man’s backyard of Reno, Nevada. From Marico’s we headed over to meet the countless Burners’ of camp EZRA to assist in the final stages of the Ezcargo-go art car. A mass snail with one amazing sound system, the crew was quick to assemble then disassemble the art car in preparation for its journey into the Black Rock desert. From Reno we ventured into Fernley. With only my back pack, a 6 gallon water jug and a zebra print coat, I felt like a diva version of Christopher McCandless of “Into the Wild”. I might not be trekking through the wilds of Alaska but I was proud of myself for not stressing over the change of plans. A producer for ten years, I plan, perform and execute everything that I do to a tee. This time, I decided to just trust that everything would work itself out and I would land my dancing feet on the magical dust in no time.

 In Fernley, we were dropped off at a Casino where we spent the next three hours. Exhaustion started to creep in. After a beer and dinner I found myself almost falling asleep at a video poker machine. Sounds of a woman calling out bingo numbers beckoned annoyingly in our ears. I couldn’t help but feel anxious to get on our way. A week with no internet, no television, no social media, no slot machines or tourists is the highest version of a vacation for me if there ever was one. Just pure homegrown art, with amazing people, engaging interaction and adventure. We were so close… I soon would be home… Back to a place where my soul shines at its brightest and my smile at its’ warmest. The best version of me eluding from this physical body in all its’ brevity. With urgency in our souls and a spark in our steps we ran across the freeway to the nearest gas station. We were so close. Our supplies were already on the playa and that just left one more thing. Us. Our final passage into the mystical land of Burning Man!

At 9:00 pm our final ride arrived in Fernley. Tee jay and Michelle also known the rest of the week as Mom and Dad. I had met Tee Jay and Michelle at the 2008 burn and remained stellar friends ever since. This year they were gifting me my first ever stay in an RV. (Well deserved I might add after roughing it in a tent for almost a decade). We loaded ourselves into the RV and were on our way. The gates were open but as anticipated the lines were long. We listened to BMIR radio live from the playa hosted by the Rock star librarian who was giving its listeners all the tips on the when and where of the week in music on the playa. The hosts were even interviewing the “Greeters”. “What’s your name”? I heard a man ask. A boisterous woman could be heard replying “Smooches”! I smiled in excitement. “Smooches” is Elaine Hirt. One of my former performers in my first Dance Company and close friend.  “We must get to her at the greeter gate I exclaimed excitingly”. And three hours later we did just that. I ran out of the RV to see Smooches chatting at countless burners on her loud speaker. I charged her and gave her the biggest hug possible. Nothing could be better than being greeted to the homeland of the playa with someone that has shared some of my most amazing experiences in life.

And so we were in. I finally made it to the mother ship. We traveled the allotted speed of 5 mph and headed to 9:30 and Birthday. Our home for the next week. When we arrived, the “Jelly’s” and the members of the “Panda Sky Bar” were working diligently on setting up our camp which included a very large and oversized teal bus that would be our mutant vehicle Jelly fish for the week as well. But my mission was not yet completed. It was about 3:00 am on Monday and I needed to venture with Jon clear across the playa to 3:30 and Esplanade to locate Jeremy and his RV. “I’ll be back before sunrise” I told my camp mates and with that we were off. We traveled straight ahead towards 9:30 and Esplanade right to the man. I was surprised at the amount of art cars and burners that were already “in it” for a Sunday night. These people apparently didn’t mess around. Years ago when I first started “burning” the playa was calm and steady throughout the beginning of the week and you could feel and see with your own eyes the energy build and grow as the days went on. The city coming in to its own, ever changing, with every day, never quite looking the same. Over the past few years, with a sudden influx of people attending the event that has changed. Monday nights have begun to feel like a Saturday with the party not missing a beat right when the sun sets...

We finally made it to 3:30 and Esplanade. None of the looking points sounded familiar and we searched diligently for Jeremy for about an hour. This is when I started to get nervous. What if we didn’t find him? Could I last a few days or even a week without all my fur, costumes, and makeup? The partial glitter pony inside me decided not and I continued to freak some more. I had forgotten how difficult it could be at times to track a person down in a 50,000 person city. With looking points such as glowing eggs and unicorn busses one can become consumed within the city’s wonderland and become lost down its engaging rabbit hole quite easily. That’s when I remembered one of my intents for the year. Trust the playa, let it guide you. That’s when, in my head I said “ok playa, I give up, show me where he is now” and with that I looked up and immediately found the RV.

Monday morning on the playa brings with it the birth of a new Utopia and with it smiles and hugs and hellos to friends old and new. My home for the week was a two part camp, a combination of The Jelly’s and The Panda Sky Bar. The meshing of both would bring with it uplifting music that would change my point of view on compassion, camarodity and dub step forever.

The Jelly (a large upside down jellyfish) was constructed by a group based out of San Francisco and Denver, Colorado. Roscoe Ferguson, (whom spearheaded the project) stated that “The jelly is a 30ft long, two story pleasure craft that exists for the sole purpose of creating smiles and spreading its underwater charm across the playa”. A very true statement to an art car that could be looked at as nothing less than a vehicle that is one of “God’s motorized angels” blasting ambient sounds from its Do’s that one could only refer to as dub-trance. A complete labor of love, I witnessed the jelly’s construct the final stages for two days on the playa. The driving force behind this project? “ I labor on it so that I may have the opportunity of picking up dusty strangers and friends in the desert and provide them with an amazing unexpected experience, transportation through the hot desert sun, cold beer and water, and an elevated view to take in all that the playa has to offer” says Ferguson. And speaking of views, the Panda Sky Bar made for an amazing back yard for the week. Built on top of a school bus, this wooden structure stood over 12ft tall complete with a bar and DJ booth. Headed up by Ashot Petrosian, an engineer for MTV networks, rumor around the camp was he put in 50,000 of his own hard earned cash to construct the bar. And the camp mates donated a total of $3500 to stock the bar with liquor and cordials.

Monday also brought with it my up close and personal introduction to the Function 1 sound system. Our direct neighbors were camp “Wide Awake”. And wide awake they were with an art car with custom made plexi glass to cover the four 50,000 dollar a speaker sound system on what looked like an antique art car with giant wooden wheels. This camp and vehicle was founded by none other than, the one, the only, “God of the Ravers” Pasquale Rotella. For those of you living in a forest with no contact to the outside world, Pasquale Rotella is the man responsible for the epic and mind blowing EDC (Electric Daisy Carnival) parties over the past fifteen years.

Pasquale, dark and handsome, radiates a business charm with just the right combination of dreamy and reserved. And here I was, camped next to the one man that has made not only a lifestyle, but a business out of his love for electronic music. Inspiration at its best.

Pasquale’s camp was busy and full of energy. What looked like tour busses lined the camp one by one and the beats coming from the art car drew me in as if I were in a trance. I walked the short distance to the art car and began my week by dancing with a refreshing smile to the DJ commanding the art car and his audience. And then it hit me. This was the camp that Las Vegas based DJ Tatiana was camping with. I asked around the camp for Tatiana. One man asked who she is. I replied “The Goddess of Music”. And with that reply I made my way into the Wide Awake dome to find my goddess inside. A tall dark beauty with sultry brown eyes, “Tati” stood alongside the DJ booth where numerous packages of red bull lined the dome. Quiet by her demeanor but enriched with a calm and centered strength, one can only admit they are standing in the presence of an ancient soul when in her company. Pre-playa we had discussed how we were going to find each other this year and we both smiled with excitement to see one another and our RV’s placed so serendipitously side by side. Tatiana, whom rocked the decks the entire week with Wide Awake and its’ art car had this to say. “When the music on the art car brings people from all ends of the playa seeking that sound they hear, you know you've stumbled upon all the goodness that is Wide Awake. Music moves us from the inside”.

And from the Inside it does; that is the driving force behind most musicians on the playa. It is in my opinion an example of spirit speaking to spirit. The gift we give and so graciously receive in the dusty desert of Black Rock. And as I always say “The right DJ’s are true musical shamans, healing their audience through electronic beats”.

The most spirited of DJ’s for the week, hands down go to the crew of Camp EZRA and the 60 person snail art car called the EZCAR-GOGO. Feel good dance music at its’ absolute finest, the snail was headed up by lead DJ, Izak Engel. Izak originally from South Africa made his way to Reno nine years ago and immediately found his way to Burning Man. With blonde hair and blue eyes, Izak erodes a sex appeal that commands the decks and the audience with such an immense energy that patrons from all over the playa were automatically drawn in to the EZCAR-GOGO and its’ engaging energy. Electro House could be heard thumping at all times of the day and night on the art car complete with the boisterous community driven dance junkies of CAMP EZRA.

The Panda Sky Bar also became popular for its luscious beats as well as its day and night parties. The speakers were basically by my head while sleeping and numerous times the melodic beats pulled me from a deep sleep running up the stairs in my pj’s (or barely dressed at all) ready to dance the morning away. A great backyard if I have to say so myself. One morning I recall awakening to the most delicious and ambient of sounds. I remember yelling from my bunk to Teejay that the music was just so damn good and we had to wake up. I made my way into my backyard and up the dusty steps to the decks of the bar. A reserved yet commanding DJ was slaying the decks. That DJ was none other than San Diego based melodic genius Zak Johnson. The sounds emanating from the speakers were a sound and style I had never heard before and it pulled me into a hypnotic state of bliss. I smiled and immediately danced right by the DJ booth. There was something mysterious and addicting about Zak J. I didn’t want to leave the dance floor but instead lust after everything that was going on behind that DJ booth. When his set was finished, Zak lingered around the sky bar. That’s when I approached him. “I really enjoyed watching you” I said. “I really enjoyed watching you, enjoying me” he replied. From that moment on I knew Zak J was going on my roster of top ten DJ’s of my electronic experience.

Our direct neighbor from The Sky Bar, Zak was a virgin burner whom traveled with friends he mostly went to kinder garden with. Oddly enough there were three other burners somewhere in the mass dust that I had also shared bus and bicycle rides with from upstate New York...One can only look back and wonder in awe to remember yourself as a child, then look to the present, admist glowing lights and dust storms, and think how we could ever imagine these immense illusions of granduer we were currently experiencing. Was this predestined? That some eighteen years later we would all be in a remote desert over 3,ooo miles from our safe and conformist town nestled outside of Rochester, New York?

And that’s when I came to a conclusion.  

I didn’t go to Burning Man and become a “burner”.  I was a “burner” who happened to find Burning Man.

Journey of Fire Part 3

Amidst the lights, the music and art cars stands a structure off the grid of the party and the chaos. A divine force, the very essence and the core of the festival is truly represented in the mystical and reverent art installation of the Temple of Transition.

Tuesday brought with it some difficult and resistant moments. My main intent for the burn of 2011 was to take my mother’s ashes and spread them at the temple. Carrying her in my back pack for four days, the plan was to meet friends and journey to the temple that afternoon. I headed to Black Rock Syndicate, the meeting place, an hour late. As I walked the dusty path, I could almost hear my mother in my head. Her excitement, awe and wonder at an event she helped me prepare for, for so many years. The special way she would say my name that only a mother could do. In my head I explained the streets and layout of the event, the theme camps and art installations. “ So here you finally are mom”. I thought to myself. Memories of meeting a random burner named Bucket in the ICU came rushing in my head. The both of us standing outside of the hospital, thinking how our parents must have planned this in some serendipitous fashion. Me expressing my ultimate fear of placing my own mothers name in the temple…. This was it. I was really here. The thought of what I was about to do weighed heavily on my soul. I wasn’t sure if I was ready for this. Heck, I wasn’t ready for her to die either but here I was… When I finally reached Syndicate I saw long time Reno promoter and friend John Moon. Both Moon and Vegas burner JD offered to go with me whenever I was ready. John suggested the next sunrise but JD was on his way there with a man he met named Prophet. And so with that, JD, Prophet and I headed to my camp for what was to be a brief detour before the journey.

Back at camp, Teejay and Michelle were installing the shade structure outside our RV. Electronic beats could be heard blasting from the Panda Sky Bar and boisterous screams and laughter from the numerous art cars passing by. I tried my best to be in the present moment thinking in my head, you’re at burning man, you’re home, savor every second. Bur the thoughts of my mother kept weighing on my mind. Procrastinating as much as I could I ultimately decided this was not the time to trek to the temple.

We all decided to kick back at my camp for a bit before JD and Prophet biked to the temple.. We all engaged in stellar conversations of yoga, Las Vegas Swami’s and more. Prophet, who had tattoos on his arm that said “THERE IS NO LIFE BUT LIFE AND WE ARE THE LIVERS”, offered me a numerological card reading. His uplifting message that I would make mass amounts of money and attain fame doing my art seemed to put me back into my high energy persona.

As we were chatting, a young man named Jesus from Ireland joined our conversations. He was a virgin burner and having the most profound experience. He looked at us all and with tears in his eyes said. “I came here to Burning Man for the party, little did I know my mind would become expanded. I had no idea about “spirituality” or that this existed…. I could empathize completely with him Recalling my first year when I stood at the edge of Soul System at 10:00 and Esplanade, to dance and welcome my first Sunday Sunrise. I recall watching and feeling the connection between me, that desert, the sun and all the thousands of beautiful people. I didn’t feel alone anymore on this journey. There were others like me… That was my first experience of “Oneness”.

Some may adhere to a belief system that Burning Man is just a wild party. A drunken drug fest, of neo-hippies and anarchists. But there is no doubt for those that have attended, there is a simple truth. There’s a spiritual driving force about burning man….Something that speaks to every soul. You find it walking by yourself on the dusty paths, dancing in between thousands, or trekking alone through deep playa. The meaning of existence…

The Temple of Transition

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for fellow Burners art with me; thy song and thy poi they comfort me. Thou prepare a table before me in the presence of mine fears: thou anoints my head with cold water; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and joy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in and on the Playa forever - Cross Sidhe

It was around 3:00 am in the morning and Teejay and Michelle and I traveled most the esplanade and dance camps on our side of the playa. We were currently around 6:00 off the esplanade and that’s when I knew that the pivotal moment was upon me. I looked to the temple that stood in all its brevity a long way in the distance. I looked with a heavy heart beyond the lights, beyond the art cars and took one slow breathe. I looked to Teejay Michelle and said “It’s time”. I looked ahead and with a determination of a child to grow up and become an adult, I flipped my back pack over my shoulder. I felt like a refugee on the last legs of its journey home and knew that this would be the ultimate journey of my existence. The journey that I had so solemnly come to Burning Man to do. The journey of my own Rites of Passage: to spread my mothers’ ashes.


Brian Paco Alvarez enculturating Las Vegas into the millennium...

posted by Brian Paco Alvarez, Curator and Chronicler of Culture at


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