From Dust to Dust

The time has come to leave Black Rock City, and it feels awful. And wonderful. And terrible. But probably most of all, it feels like it’s time.

For the past seven days, it’s been go go go go go. Even an hour away from the action brought on severe FOMO-induced anxiety. So you kept going, because dammit you can sleep when you’re dead. And by the end of the event, you DO feel like you’re dead, but oh wait a minute, you have to strike your camp and pack everything up and moop the ground and maybe make a 6- or 7- or 8-hour drive home, and the jungle drums of the real world are pounding in your head. So yes, it’s about time to go, no doubt about it.

But still a part of you wishes you didn’t have to.

People were bailing out of Black Rock City by the thousands even on Sunday, before the Temple burn and ahead of the cold and maybe the rain, leaving those of us behind in a thick cloud of dust.

Burning Man seemed to take a step back into the normal abnormal this year. There was a lot of work to do even as the gates opened, but people got to see just how hard it is to pull off this thing. It’s not Disneyland. You don’t punch your ticket and start going on all the rides. You have to build them first.

Every art project begins its life on the playa with a handful of people staring at drawings and putting tape measures in the dust. It’s a terrifying, exhilarating moment for something so fundamentally mundane.

The torch that Crimson Rose carries to the Man in the fire procession on Burn Night stays lit for approximately 17 minutes. The walk lasts a little longer than that, so by the time she’s passing the art cars in the outer perimeter, her flames have petered out. On Saturday, in the blowing dust and darkness, the journey seemed especially challenging.

Temperatures had cooled during the day, and forecasters had warned of an arriving front, one that would bring even cooler temperatures and maybe even some rain.

Sure enough, right as sunset approached, the wind kicked up and brought with it a mountainous wall of brown blowing dust, plus some “sky wetness,” as Chuck called it, because he didn’t want to use the dreaded “rain” word.

The dust was blowing so hard by the time the procession began from Center Camp, you couldn’t see a spire from the middle of the Esplanade. The stilt walkers and flame carriers had to be guided around the Whale at the keyhole, and the tenders had to chase art cars and bicyclists out of the way as the fire and drummers moved up toward the Man.

As we walked along, snapping our snaps, we thought about some of the things that had happened during the week that made this year what it was.

For the first time, the normal abnormal on the playa included cell coverage, and the world as we know it did not come to an end. In fact, after years of lamenting how horrible it would be if we were connected to the outside world while we were here, the impact was … barely noticeable.

There weren’t many faces buried in screens. Yes, there were plenty of pictures sent to Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat and all the rest, much to the consternation of some people on those sites, but to them we say, is it asking too much to just scroll on by if you do not wish to see what’s happening here? People like to share what they are doing, and this is a visually stunning place, so who wouldn’t want to press the button and share a pic? It’s just what people do, even here. It’s the normal abnormal.

Maybe some of you who were here know without a shadow of a doubt that you’ll be here next year, but we are never one of those people. We always have the existential choices dancing in our heads. We think of all the things we could do with the time and money and energy we expend on this place, and why aren’t we doing them?

Yes, we read the silly Business Insider piece that characterized Burning Man as a middle-aged cry for help. A minor but interesting research paper got twisted into a sweeping clickbait pronouncement, and everyone had to have an opinion about it. As if it were some great revelation that the sometimes-tedious nature of the workaday world is something we enjoy taking a break from. The thing is, moments of genius and inspiration are regularly accompanied by long stretches of tedium and repetition. Being parents or students or teachers or electricians or scientists or public servants or artists or writers is sometimes very hard work, but hardly the cause of our discontent. Our daily lives do not divorce us from the search for meaning and truth and beauty, but sometimes there isn’t much time to pursue it. So spending time in a place where 70,000 like-minded souls are also seeking release and inspiration is supposed to be indicative of a problem? We don’t agree.

—-

As we walked through the dust during the fire procession, listening to the drummers and exchanging greetings with friends along the way, we thought of the memorial procession for Tom Sawyer that had taken place the day before. We walked with that group for a bit, maybe 25 or 30 people in all, as they carried their pictures and tokens and tchotchkes of remembrance. The group circled David Best’s elegant Temple, and passers-by seemed to hush at the group’s approach. They settled in at the southeast corner, where they attached their pictures of Wacko to the outer perimeter.

It was all too moving to maintain composure. For the past year, we’d followed Tom’s battle with cancer, and we were amazed at how many people showed their love and support with messages, acts of kindness great and small, and donations to help him get the alternative treatments that became his only hope.

In the end, the treatments weren’t enough to save him, but to watch the outpouring of love, affection and gratitude for having him known him was completely overwhelming. He touched so many lives, and for once, people got a chance to tell him thanks, to tell him they loved him, to tell him how much he had meant to them, before he was gone. Glowing memorials are usually reserved for the dead. But Wacko’s year was one long loving living tribute, and the force of that affection was plain again at the Temple.

As we walked through the windy fire procession, we thought again, strangely enough, of the DPW parade, which also took place in blowing dust, snaking its way through the city, visiting people and places that we’d never have otherwise seen.

There are so many neighborhoods in Black Rock City. Because that’s one of the things about Burning Man: No one constituency has taken over. It’s not ALL ravers and sparkle ponies and sound cars. It’s not ALL starving artists making big art. It’s not ALL about sexual and relationship exploration. It’s not ALL about meditation tents and body treatments. It’s not ALL about overindulgence in every conceivable way, because Anonymous Village is here, and many many people are sober. It’s not ALL about any one thing at all, which keeps the event vibrant and interesting, even while you judge some things you discover there ridiculous and abhorrent. And we assume the people we have nothing in common with are having just as good and challenging a time as we are. No one group or vibe dominates the event, although many individual people can rightfully claim that they have won Burning Man. And every one of them is right.

We also thought about the burning of the Lighthouse the night before, which was a stunner. It seemed that just about everything with Max and Jonny Poynton’s Lighthouse project was done well. It became one of the event’s all-time favorites, it opened pretty much on time, and did we mention it was beautiful? And oh, the burn. What a magnificent burn.

This burn wasn’t about pyrotechnics, but about the flames themselves: There was a cascade of green fire at the outset (maybe eerily reminiscent of the hellfire from Game of Thrones), but soon the entire structure, all three towers, were engulfed and roaring. After a few minutes of lovely, if typical, burning, things began to shift. The flames turned white — brilliant, snow-white white, from the presence of, we are told, magnesium. (You hear certain accounts of why things happen the way they do here, but few of them can be confirmed in a timely manner, and this will have to be one of them.)

The effect was amazing, so amazing that we had to turn to the person next to us and ask, “You’re seeing that too, right? It’s not just us?” No, it was not just us.

We even had a vision of the future of Burning Man this week. If not the future of the Burning Man event itself, then the future of the Burning Man Project.

We visited Fly Ranch, the oasis in the desert a few miles down the road, which the organization purchased in June, the culmination of almost 20 years of effort. What will happen there? No one knows yet, not even the leaders of the organization. Most definitely they have visions, there is never a lack of vision. But many groups of people were shuttled out to the geyser and hot springs to help formulate something great, something communal, something inspirational.

“I finally felt like I wasn’t a trespasser,” Will Roger said as he sat and looked out at the waters and remembered the day he first stepped foot on the land after the sale went through. No, he wasn’t a trespasser, or a visitor. He was an owner.

“When Rod and Larry and I used to dream about this for the last 20 years, we came up with and talked at length about every possibility that could happen, that made sense. In truth, this was bought as a gift to the Burning Man community, so my vision is that the Burning Man community, in their brilliance, will cause the next steps to happen, whatever they may be.”

To that end, various and sundry groups of people were brought out from the sand-blasted playa to the heavenly waters, to soak, to talk, to dream. Their comments and reactions and ideas were captured, and no doubt a summary of that brainstorming will be forthcoming.

“If you have a global community,” Larry Harvey said, “and you have a meeting place like this, it will be a little different” than Burning Man. “It will be in a minor key. … I’ll tell you one thing: We’re going to tell people, this isn’t the Black Rock Desert, is the Hualapi Valley. We have neighbors. … That means, turn off the rock. Turn it off. Let’s do acoustic. … I’ve told a variety of people that, and they grin.”

We admit that we were grinning when he said it, too. And we were thinking about the music That Damned Band played earlier in the week, way out in the playa at the Last Apothecary, out of earshot of the sound camps. It was only a fiddle, a guitar, a flute, an accordion and a washboard. Oh, and there were voices – the voices of the performers, and the voices of the audience, singing along. It was a cultural mashup of DPW types and LED-wearing passers-by, and they were all singing and dancing, and they could hear each other think. It was like nothing we had experienced before on the playa, and we thought now that it might not be the last time.

On and on the scenes came rushing through our head: the slushies and pop orchestra at the Frozen Oasis; the music at Star Star, our old friend El Pupo, who livened up every party and burn that it appeared at. We thought of the DPW takeover of the 747, another cultural mashup that might be a harbinger of what is to come. Unlikely collaborators, creating something new, something unexpected, something unique.

Eventually, after the fire procession circled the Man, and the conclaves performed, and the fireworks exploded, the Man was set ablaze. To the extent that burning a thing that so many people had worked so hard and so long to build is normal, it was the normal abnormal. The Man fell into a pile of embers in good time. The sound cars pulsed their beats but didn’t distract from the burn, friends held on to one another but didn’t rush the flames, and later, when the rowdy crowd moved forward to circle the dying flames, others moved back to a pop-up city of neon and sound at the art car perimeter. The normal abnormal.

Sunday night again was blowy and dusty, and at dusk the remaining thousands formed a circle around the Temple, waiting mostly in silence for the fire to be lit. David Best his own self circled the scene, kindly reminding everyone that his Temple would burn very very hot, and he asked people to be careful, to take care of each other. And for the most part, we did.

Our section was exceedingly quiet and respectful, the silence only disturbed by a hyperactive young guy who kept asking, loudly, if anyone would like some potato chips. No thanks, we’re good.

In the distance, from one of the sound camps over near 2 o’clock, a guy presumably in a DJ booth kept yelling at people on the Esplanade to slow down and turn off their headlights. He probably didn’t realize how far his voice would carry, and how out of place it would sound to the gathering at the Temple.

Kevin, the ranger assigned to hold the fire line in our area, was gentle and kind as he asked people to sit close together, the better to prevent anyone from rushing in too soon. When the potato chip guy stood up and gathered his things, as if to move forward, Kevin moved decisively to prevent him from hurting himself or other people. Good on you, Ranger.

The burn itself was lovely, quiet, and from our vantage point, uneventful. The normal abnormal.

And then it was back to camp, to a roaring burn barrel that fought the chill, and a communal feast of leftovers, drinks and freshly grilled cheese quesadillas.

And then it was really time to go, to pack up our dust-caked clothes and our dust-caked gear into our dust-caked cars and trucks and RVs and head for home. Even on Monday night, the line at exodus was seven hours long.

We will stick around for a few more days, gathering more bits and pieces, looking to weave another story or two. There’s much more to tell, of course, but at some point it all begins to sound like a travelogue, and maybe it’s not all that interesting to someone who wasn’t there. Do you like to look at pictures of other people’s vacations? Do you like to hear stories of their fabulous adventures? Let’s just say a little goes a long way, and we’ll keep that in mind.

Thanks again for following along this year, and we hope you’ll come back as we watch the desert re-emerge, and as we watch what happens down the road at Fly Ranch.

About the author: John Curley

John Curley

John Curley (that's me) has been Burning since the relatively late date of 2004, and in 2008 I spent the better part of a month on the playa, documenting the building and burning of Black Rock City in words and pictures. I loved it, and I've been doing it ever since. I was a newspaper person In a previous life, and I spent many years at the San Francisco Chronicle. At the time I left, in 2007, I was the deputy managing editor in charge of Page One and the news sections of the paper. Since then, I've turned a passion for photography into a second career. I shoot for editorial, commercial and private clients, and I'm especially fond of shooting weddings. I'm also the editor at large of the Tasting Panel magazine, which is devoted to the beverage industry. I've also taught a bit, including two years at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and a year at San Francisco State University. I live on a (house)boat in Alameda, California.

37 Comments on “From Dust to Dust

  • Carine Vandeuren says:

    Thanks with all of my heart for sharing the pictures, the live webcast and all the impressions. All your love vibrations came right to my home and my heart.

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  • Jolene says:

    Great article on an event that fascinates me. Thank you

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  • Ann says:

    Wonderful article. You described it better than I could have ever hoped to.

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  • Barbara St Jacques says:

    Thank you for your story and for sharing all with those who wish they were there.

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  • Morrell says:

    Thank you so much John, you always hit the nail squarely on the head!!!!

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  • Chris Calaba says:

    Well written. Great shots. Fantastic article.

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  • Glenda says:

    Thank you for your beautiful photos…….you made my default burn wonderful……….great portraits……cute one of Mr. & Mrs. Clean……….

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  • Jess Hobbs says:

    Thank you Curley. A new little life changed the cadence of my yearly practice of art building on that dusty canvas. Your words and pictures are a window that let me see the continuing beauty of our social experiment and I’m grateful.

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  • John Curley says:

    Thanks so much for reading, and for the super sweet comments, they are much appreciated!

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  • Nathan Marcotte says:

    If it’s true there is a finite amount of energy in the world, that energy cannot be created nor destroyed but only transferred, then there is no truer evidence than Black Rock City, Nevada. It’s a land where the life has been sucked out of the soil, then dispersed in the form of violent dust storms pelting its inhabitants with the energy transferred from 360 degrees of death. It’s both withered and weathered. It’s baron, but beautiful. It’s as flat as the world until the dust breaks and you realize it’s not. It’s Burning Man.
    Most people think of the event as a few thousand has-beens and never-wills experimenting in the desert, but where they’re wrong is that it’s 70,000 people gathered for 70,000 reasons resulting in 70,000 unique answers to questions they might not have even known they were asking. It’s not a place to escape the world, to leave your worries and stresses behind, and to indulge in decadence. It’s a sanctuary to bring what keeps you up at night, but down during the day, and to learn how to not just live with your life, but to actually live your life. It’s 1 week to enhance the other 51, not forget them.

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  • ConsciousChris says:

    Great article and awesome photos! Thank you so much for sharing your story. I have dreamed of going to Burning Man and am deeply fascinated by it. <3

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  • Marko Biloxi says:

    Great job on the coverage, article and photos John Curley. There are many people like me (Burners By Heart) that will never set foot on the Playa or see BRC in person, just because. BUT, we do attend by listening to BM radio and watching the live webcast, Facebook, Twitter posting, etc. So keep it up and make it even better for us….because there are many who just cannot attend.

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  • Cori Castro says:

    I met you on my way out with Super…what a beautiful surprise to find your words. It could not have been described more eloquently. Thank you..

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  • Loved, reading this, John.

    Was not there this year, but your descriptions and impressions brought back to the forefront of my memory feelings of years past. Beautifully done.

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  • Teri (MysTeri) Bigio Berling says:

    This was in A remarkable story telling Burning Man… And although I wasn’t there this year, the essence of it ring true and deeply into my heart. Thank you thank you thank you

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  • xtraslky says:

    Please – more stories more observations more details more feelings. 15 year burner – this is the first year I had to skip. Hearing the backstories and gossip and fictions and inner truths is a soothing benison to one deprived of home and yearning to return.

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  • Deborah Marshall (Alaska) says:

    Excellent Read, John Curley….thank you for putting it down, and especially Love the sunglass montage–took me right there. Wind and dust and flame.

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  • Beautiful…

    Thank you John.

    Looking forward to the Hun’s reports coming up? I hope she’ll be out there.

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  • George Greer says:

    Since returning from the playa a few days ago from my first Burn, I’ve been trying to explain to my co-workers, my family, my doctor, the customs border guard, etc. what Burning Man is all about, and I have had a great amount of difficulty expressing it in words, despite still being fully pumped up myself. John, this article captures it beautifully and will certainly help with my future explanations and promotions of the event to me colleagues. Very well expressed. Thank you very much. George georgejgreer@me.com

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  • Pedro Cervenka ( turnerbroadcasting) says:

    Well written, clear, concise. Heartfelt. I agree with your conclusion, your thesis, your presentation, and the tone. Hopefully 2017, the end of cannabis prohibition, and the return of the wheels that were viciously vandalized from the 747 will mark a turning point in the evolution of the burn.

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  • Paxton Hoag says:

    It was a delight to see the pictures and hear of Wacko’s procession and memorial, Thanks. I have enjoyed your stories. You should come visit the Oregon Country Fair, Wacko’s home. Thanks again for your reporting…

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  • Dottie Hollister says:

    Thank you so much. This touched my heart in many ways. It brought back memories of my own Journies to the playa and hope for possibly one more in the future. It brought full circle my understanding of all the reasons the songs of the burner culture still resonate in my soul.

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    • black chicken says:

      Thank you so much John, missed out for the first time in ten years, but your words put me right there in the dust and wind. Even hear the guys voice echoing
      ” ANY BODY WANT SOME POTATO CHIPS?”

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  • Juno says:

    Grateful to share bits of the normal abnormal with you, Curley. And always for your eloquent reflections of the city in the desert.

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  • Jesse says:

    It was an honor to be part of the procession for David, who was a very good friend of a quarter of our lives. I was the one who climbed up to put his hat on the spire. My entire burn was centered around him, and it was the last of many gatherings of the groups of people that loved him.
    Thank you for the pictures.

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  • KristiJo says:

    I could keep reading and reading… I wasn’t there, never have been, but doesn’t matter…

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  • Good piece. Great photography. Couple observations: I’m struck by how WHITE the sunglasses photo collection is. Barely a single person of color in the whole hundreds of photographs. Also look out for Fly Ranch. It won’t be long before the Eric Schmidts and Russian oligarchs’ sons make a play for this place. Sorry, but Jerry is dead and the Pranksters bus is moldering in a field. Glad you had fun, you self-centered Boomer.

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    • Merlon Olsen says:

      If you have suck disdain for Burning Man why are you on here? Why are you reading? Why are you bothering? Are you so narcissistic that you think your comments will “enlighten” us and we will all abandon BM? No people of color? You need to re-look at the pictures. You clearly dont have a clue what Burning Man is about. Just another whiny troll and my guess is that you have never even been to a burn.

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  • Susie says:

    Hungry for news from home, and dealing with the-entry Blues, I gobbled up your story and pictures. Thank you for your insight and honor for our crazy 1 week a year home!

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  • cheryl says:

    Loved reading about this…didn’t know much about Burning Man until my daughter decided to go this year. Then I ran into so many negative articles (like the one you mentioned) I was fearful for her…your accounts of what Burning Man IS, and your focus on the positive makes me proud for her choice in going, fully taking part and can’t wait for her to “kidnap” me next year so we can experience one together. Thank you!

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  • Lazlo says:

    John,

    It’s been a real joy to read your journal entries this year. Thanks for sharing your thoughts in such a profound and sensitive way.

    My 17th Burn was epic as all the previous ones have been. I helped run a great theme camp. I also placed some ashes of a departed friend in the Temple and was glad that the Temple Burn has quieted down substantially from the last few years.

    Every year, for as long as I can remember, I go through a similar experience in Black Rock City. I’m riding in deep Playa on a mid-week night. I stop and look back at the city, and the hair on the back of my neck stands up. I am struck with the realization that a) none of this should be here; b) I’m lucky to have the chance to experience it; and c) in a week, it will all be gone. It is like the immediacy of the experience jumps up and down on my central nervous system.

    Sadly planted back in the default world, I long for glimpses back into that thing that has vanished. Your writing helps ease the pain of knowing I’ll have to wait another year to experience home again…

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  • Pooh Bear says:

    This was a great year. The energy seemed extra loving and supportive. The family felt like a family.

    There is one thing I hope we can have a discussion about. I really, really, really hated that I had phone connectivity this year. I have a meditation ap on my phone I use every morning, and everyday the default world tried to invade my home through my phone. I held out and didn’t open email or social media but…yuck. Rather than just unilaterally decide that phones are going to work at Burning Man now, could we have a discussion? Could census do a study to find out how this effects participants experience. If the majority wants this I’m willing to accept it, but this is a big part of my experience and I’d like to see it discussed.

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  • thank you…….2016 Brand New Burner…..”Reaver” –

    and now my comment-

    “to each is their own burn”

    this was the first lesson I learned about the burning man community a year and a half before I stepped onto the playa.

    the lesson that ponders about now reflected through the looking glass of this burning man walk about:

    “and I burn with my friends”

    “to each is their own burn, and I burn with my friends”

    Interesting lesson; one of many more to come as the round up of this experience is shared in the many fibers and threads of life. Though, like this quote, so conveys your article. A misnomer of subtle contexts of an experienced pen game.

    This is the thing about perspective, to keep it in focus –
    “one must adjust the eye and the lens at all times to capture the moment.”

    And the new moment of burning man is that of seeking a centralized identity? –
    for burning man – Who might I remind you is now 30 years old – the amoebas in the trenches of B.R.C. are busy asking asking that question with some very active imaginations.

    My advice to one that presents such a solemn shared expression,
    note my share and its subtle context of misnomers –

    ‘What identity do you define as these nuisances burn in this precious moment of silence temples burn by which this bass noise is the silence?”

    Justin
    09.2016 p.d.

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