This is the story of the Spike, the first official act of the Burning Man season, which is important because of all the ritualized practices that have grown up around the event, this one might be the most heartfelt and stirring.
But this story is also about the beginning the work that is necessary to build Black Rock City, which will become home (or Home with a capital H, as the participants like to refer to it) for somewhere around 70,000 people, who will gather in the desert at the end of August and over the Labor Day weekend to celebrate art and express themselves radically, among other things.
It’s ironic that Burning Man takes place around a national holiday, because Burning Man has reset the calendar for many people. For them, the year is about the season of the Man; and it culminates when the Man burns on the Saturday of the event. That day is their New Year’s Eve, and after the Temple burns, a new year begins.
So we are into the high holy days now, and to carry the metaphor just a step further, Spike becomes something like Christmas. It’s not so much about the giving of gifts or the birth of a savior, but rather it is more about an affirmation of hope. Maybe in some ways it’s Easter, too, because the feeling of renewal and rebirth is strong.
Maybe this religiosity makes you nervous, but we are not talking about deities here, or paganism, or any other worshipfulness. What we are talking about are the things that bind people together – hope, love, community. It’s no random accident that people say they are going Home when they go to Burning Man, because for many people, this is the family they have chosen.
Here is an outline of what happens over these days: The first of the crews arrive in Gerlach several weeks before Spike happens. The season begins earlier than you might realize. The logistics and office work and ordering of goods and arranging for services takes months. The tiny town of Gerlach begins to fill up with the folks who make the event happen.
Then, a few weeks in, there is a ceremony that marks the official start of the organization’s presence in the Black Rock Desert, and it is when the people who are most intimately involved with building the city gather together to collectively drive a stake in the ground, the exact point upon which the Man will be built. But before they take the sledgehammer in their hands and strike their ceremonial blow, they will say a few words to the assembled crowd. They will speak of their intentions, their joy, their sorrows and disappointments. Or they might be completely absurd, depending. There is no script.
But mostly, people take advantage of the opportunity to speak from the heart, to people who love them and will stand by them. There are often tears in the deathly hot desert, from both the speakers and the listeners.
Coyote is the superintendent of Black Rock City, and he takes the hammer and speaks first. “Every year we put the stake in the ground, and every year we change people’s lives,” he says. “And every year people take a little piece of Black Rock City home with them in their backpacks … little embers. … It’s a break from the normal madness. None of the mudslinging and politics and crap that’s in the news every day.”
Some people carry umbrellas to keep from getting scorched by the sun, many people have beverages in their hands, and there are shouts of agreement, as well as catcalls and whistles. Nothing gets overly solemn or cheesy. But somehow the words penetrate the everyday armor of cynicism and safe distance.
“It’s hot out today,” Coyote says, “So I’m not going to talk much. And we ask that you do the same!”
And then others step forward to take the sledgehammer and say a few words.
Will Roger, who founded Black Rock City’s Department of Public Works, says, “My hat’s off to all of you for keeping the spirit of DPW alive. A remarkable, dedicated, wonderful group of people. Here’s to you.” Then he hands the sledge to “the only person I love more than DPW, my wife, Rosie.” That would be Crimson Rose, who directs many of the fiery things that attract the Burner moths to the desert, who has been at Burning Man for 23 years. “We couldn’t do it without you,” she says.
Playground takes the sledge and says, “Every time I say the word ‘cancer’ I want you to say, “Fuck Cancer.’” Her husband is home undergoing chemotherapy and radiation. “Fuck Cancer!!” people shout. She asks some of her colleagues to join her in the center of the circle. “These are the people who have totally had my back as we go through this cancer nightmare,” she says. “Fuck Cancer!” the crowd roars back. “I could not do it without these guys. They make me shine. You make them shine.”
Dylan Blackthorne comes forward. “A long time ago I decided that I was going to focus my energies on building the world that I wanted to live in,” he says, “instead of fighting the world that I did not want to live in. This is part of that.”
There are warnings and pleas to take care of each other, and for us to take care of ourselves. There are many people grateful for the opportunity to serve. And there is more heartbreak.
“I learned during (desert restoration) last year that my father had gone into hospice,” Makeout Queen says, through her tears, “and then he died in January. It’s been a really hard year. … And I moved out of the only home I ever knew, and the only community I ever knew. And it’s been really crazy. … But coming out here, and seeing ALLL of you motherfuckers, makes me realize that I made the right decisions. And the only reason I made the right decisions, is that all of you motherfuckers tell me to stop making the dumb ones.”
All of the stories were not alike, but many had similar themes – sorrow, joy, the gratefulness for being here again. There were people who had been doing this for ten years, fifteen years and more, and others who were there for the first time. If you weren’t moved by what was said, it wouldn’t have made sense for you to be there at all, really.
When all the people who wanted to speak had spoken, Coyote took a bottle of Champagne and smashed it into the Spike. People rushed to pick up the shards of glass, and then the ceremony was over. People drifted off the desert floor and back into Gerlach, to get ready for the next task.
But a few folks stayed behind to begin the actual work of building Black Rock City. The eighteen people who are on the Survey would start plotting out the map and marking the outline of the city onto the desert floor.
And that’s where we’ll pick up the story next.