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Saturday, August 23, 2014

A lifetime of Burns: Part 1 Discovery

By Onnoleigh Sweetman,
contributing writer and editor

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…

- Onnoleigh Sweetman Journey of Fire

After a year and a half in Phoenix, Arizona, I found myself back in the thresholds of southern Nevada. It was late August of 2001 and I stood at the base of Bootleg Canyon in Boulder City, Nevada. Dusty yet serene, the desert wind had a combination of fierce power and a peaceful stillness as it whipped through my long blonde hair. I gazed up into the canyon with an almost childlike wonderment. I had no rhyme or reason why I was back in southern Nevada but something deep within told me I needed to be there. Like knowing the sky was blue, I knew with every ounce of my being, that something big was coming my way. Destiny had its hooks in me and my perception of the world was changing with every passing second. I could feel it, (the change) coursing through my veins like an infectious disease, only this disease was welcomed. I shut my eyes and took a deep breath. As I slowly reopened them, I noticed my sight and perception of the things around me had shifted, changed. The aura of what once was, took on a completely new life form. I could feel that my destined path was calling me, and now that I had “changed” my perception, there was no other choice but to allow the universe to lead me to whatever it was that was so deeply clawing at the core of my soul.

Present day: “Birmingham”? “No, Burn-ning Mannn”. “What’s that, like a concert”? No Bitch it’s much more than that I thought. “To explain it, really explain it, would take hours of your time”, I exclaimed to the doctor prodding and probing me. “Oh “she said innocently as if to adhere to be somewhat interested. “In a nutshell”, I said poignantly, “think of a non corporate setting where thousands of artists go to a desolate desert to build a city with art installations and art cars beyond your wildest dreams. Then at the end of it all, burn mostly everything to the ground”.

After all these years it never ceases to amaze me the amount of people that have no idea what transpires each year in a man built utopia only a few hundred miles away. Then I think back to the times I heard about Burning Man. The most poignant being in August of 2001. I met up with an ex-boyfriend for drinks at The Hacienda Hotel and Casino on the outskirts of Boulder City, Nevada. Many times we discussed my artistic talents, my path and where the hell I was headed. At the time, I was an adamant club goer, reveling in the artistic dance styles of the rave scene. So much so, that I began chronicling my experiences and had dreams of taking rave style elements of dance and showcasing them on stage.

And that’s when he mentioned once again, this thing called Burning Man.

“Burning Man”. “It will change your life”. This is event is so, you, I recalled him saying. I still couldn't quite grasp what he was talking about or what the event was all about. Heck, at the time, I was in my early 20’s and I still couldn't grasp what I was all about… My very first recollection of Burning Man was in 1997. I was 19 and stumbled across a local newspaper that donned a picture of a young woman with flaming red hair wearing all leather crouched on top a vehicle with whips in hand looking as though she was ready to pounce the next unsuspecting victim. It was an article about a festival called Burning Man in a remote desert near Reno. I recall ignorantly thinking who would want to go to Reno, when everything one could need is in Las Vegas. I tossed the paper aside and never really thought about it again, until the night of this particular conversation. A conversation that would unknowingly be a prelude to the next 13 years of my life…

“There is no such thing as chance; and what seem to us merest accident springs 
from the deepest source of destiny”.

Looking back, I feel as though the sacred desert of Burning Man was already calling to my soul. The burn of 2001 would come and go, but with it, leave an imprint in my mind, of something to be discovered in the desert of the North. The events following that particular burn would shape the course of my entire life. Within two weeks of the 2001 burn, “destiny” would finally show its face. The playa would send a burner fresh from the dust, to the bright lights of Sin City. This particular “burner” a world renowned mountain bike racer and designer, Jan Karpiel, and I would meet, with myself in leopard pants and kitty ears dancing on top a stage of a night club in Las Vegas. We met like most romantic legends are told and fell in love with a classic story of love at first sight. Within three days of meeting and not spending a minute apart, I at the age of 23 would risk it all, leave everything behind, pack two back packs, and hop in his company van and move to the back yard of Burning Man to none other than Reno, Nevada.

Reno, Nevada, a hidden gem of fabulous art, community and camaraderie, would ultimately be the most magical of cities and experiences that I would ever encounter… I would spend 4 years leading a tribe of dancers into uncharted territories in the dance world. I would collaborate with numerous artists, produce multiple dance show, become a resident DJ, and organize large scale parties and more. But most importantly, I would land my dancing feet on the playa for the first time and finally understand what “welcome home” truly means…

Thirteen years of Burning Man culture and I am still never at a loss of words for the event, or what I should call lifestyle. My meeting with my first burner love, I truly believe to this day, was to bring me to that event. I didn’t got to Burning Man and become a burner. I was a burner who happened to find Burning Man.

“The key to immortality is first living a life worth remembering”- Bruce Lee

Over the years my burns have been good, bad and downright ugly. I have broken up on the playa, found love in the desert, been stranded, split my face open, experienced the death of my best friend Sam in 2005, spread my mother’s ashes in 2011, cried, screamed, grieved, healed, laughed, and danced. Burning Man is not for the weak of heart, but rather for the warriors of heart. The playa tests your limits, stretching you beyond comfort zones both mentally and physically. Every year I approach Burning Man with excitement. But with as much excitement I also approach it with reverence. After experiencing the death of a best friend in the desert of dreams, Burning Man takes on a whole new level. There’s not a day that goes by when I’m walking the dusty paths that I don’t think of him, transitioning into his next existence at 3:00 and Esplanade. 

That I don’t think of all the beauty we experienced together with our Reno family on the playa and off the playa. I bow in humble respect for fellow poi spinner Sam Rich whom would exclaim a year before his death at the festival, that he knew he was going to die young and he knew it was going to be at Burning Man. Beyond the party there is something very powerful, very ancient about the land we call the playa and the festival we call Burning Man. It beckoned me from Phoenix and changed the entire course of my life. It has burned away fears, ignited fires, and changed me from the inside out. This year I shall return to my Mecca, and when the wooden man burns, I shall once again rise from the ashes anew.

Photo published with prior approval of Burning Man. All rights reserved.

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

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


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