time to burn a man or two

The Man burned last night. Three of them, in fact. And I feel like I’ve been to Burning Man, circa 1993.

Here’s what happened:

It was another brutally hot day of building and pounding and digging and trenching and setting up shade and erecting posts and laying out flags and getting camps squared away.

It is really goddamn hot. But maybe it’s just me. No one mentions it, or not much, anyway. It’s not like when there’s a little heat wave in SF, and everybody can’t stop talking about the weather. Here, not so much. It’s hot. Yeah, so? You were expecting something else in the Nevada desert in the middle of August? Grab some shade if you have to, but bring me a hammer on your way back.

the DPW made one of the mini-men that burned last night
the DPW made one of the mini-men that burned last night

Meanwhile, everything continues to expand, the desert sprouting new encampments the way cells split in a science movie. Where there were two, now there are four. Where there was nothing, now there’s a trailer. Or six.

Still, there is still an immense feeling of limitless space. There is plenty of room for everybody. And the real shape of the camping area hasn’t really emerged yet. There are street signs going up everywhere, and I find myself looking for the lamp posts that line 6:00 to help negotiate a path over to the Depot. But there’s nothing that looks like a real Esplanade yet, and there aren’t any giant sound systems pounding music into the day and night.

But the city is growing. And there are more people arriving every day. And hundreds, maybe thousands, more will come in on Monday when the art camps and other big enterprises get access to the playa. So everything is going to ramp up again.

Last night, as the sun went down and the full moon came up (“Hey you hippies, check out the moon!” the radio crackled), people started asking each other when they were “heading over,” kind of like the way you talk on Burn night when you are deciding what time to head out to the Man.

I’m a rookie. I didn’t know what they were talking about. But it turns out that there’s a pre-Burn, or little Burn, or Little Man Burn, or whatever you want to call it, in the last days of the week before the numbers in the city really start to swell.

When night finally fell, they torched two men and a woman (Lady Liberty), plus a pyramid. (But there were no glowies or blinkies or el-wire, and only a handful of LED headlamps.) It was a Burn without all the trappings of a rave.

It was different. It was as if we all had gone back in time. I’m making this up, but it felt like what I imagined it might have been like back in ’91 or ’92 when the gathering first moved to the desert. Or maybe that this was some regional Burn in an area that hadn’t really caught the fever yet. The scale of it all was decidedly human.

You ran into people you’d met over the past week and just stood and talked and laughed. It seemed like you knew half the people there, or they knew you. And they were friendly and chatty and didn’t once mention that it was hot in the daytime. Everything was smaller and more intimate.

And there were the happy coincidences and synchronicities that are so very much a part of what happens at Burning Man. You need something? It appears. You’re feeling a little tired and stressed and thirsty? Oh, here’s a beer. And a shot of Irish whiskey. Down the hatch. And here’s someone who sits down next to you in the dust and talks about the real Man burning early last year.

Jackrabbit had had dinner in town, and she struck up a conversation with a couple there and invited them back out to the playa for the evening’s festivities. I’d say they were in their late 50s or early 60s, and they’d never been near Burning Man before.

As they stood there in the darkness and the light from the fires played across their faces, I said, “Kind of romantic, huh?” They leaned into each other a little bit, and Walt said, “I want to come here for the whole week now.”

See you when you get here.

About the author: 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. I've also taught a little bit, including two years at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and a year at San Francisco State University. I live on the San Mateo coast, just south of San Francisco in California.

12 Comments on “time to burn a man or two

  • Kyle says:

    That’s an amazing story. It’s great that all of you who spend so much pre-event time setting up so that it’s ready when the rest of us get there got to enjoy such a personal, intimate mini-burn under that beautiful desert night sky! The hair on my arms stands up when I think about it. Can’t wait to see you all when we finally come home to BRC! We’ll be at 3:00 and the outer border, Eastern Sierra camp. See you soon!

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  • aimee says:

    oohhh I’m getting chills…thank you so much for your hard work…can’t wait to be there!

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  • CDR Dot says:

    Thanks for the photos and story!! Now I’m really getting anxious to be home again in BRC. But I also envy you guys the intimacy with the place, each other, the moon and even the weather. Maybe next year I’ll have to volunteer for the early work and really experience Burning Man.

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  • Thunder says:

    At the House of Mouse, where I spend too much of my life making the scratch to burn… The reading feels illicit and hallucinatory, never mind the pictures. And I’d totally lie if i didn’t tell you that I feel like a cheeseball because tears are welling up, a tsunami of gratitude I try to suppress in the corporate world.
    I get it now.
    I’m coming home.
    I know what that means and I can’t wait to make killah coffee for all ya’ll.

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  • JAMI says:

    omg. THIS MAKES ME WANT TO CRY these pics are so beautiful. i can’t wait to see you all there!!!!!

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  • kim says:

    wow this experience sounds so beautiful! and intimate and real! it gave me chills too. I remember that moon and was on the Reno end of it, longing to be on the Playa as it rose over our heads. can’t wait to go home! thank you so much for sharing your pre-burn, pre-populace story, it sounds like it was wonderful.

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  • landry says:

    @thunder i hear you. im totally crying over here.
    just this morning i was thinking of bringing some fancy coffee out for you all at center camp cafe!
    i’ll come looking for you.

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  • Dylan says:

    Early Man! The night when all the serious construction is put on hold for some drunken, in-no-way-serious construction. If there weren’t Early Man and its amateur pyrotechnics, DPW just wouldn’t be the same.

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  • art says:

    i kind of think the whole idea of attending is to enrich other people’s lives and make people laugh. i hope that is true. anyway, i want to check out the feasibility of my idea.

    i would like to dress up like lucy, from charlie brown (not much of a stretch, for me), and put up a sign that says “psychiatric help, 5 cents”. i am trying to talk an ex-girlfriend into being a nurse, wearing a starched white uniform with a tiny little mini-skirt. she is an exotic beauty, by the way. she is debating weather to do a sharon stone type thing, without any panties. i hope that wouldn’t be considered in bad taste.

    the main gist of the whole thing is to ask people to fill out forms, like you always do at the docs, and then give them a spanking, if they so richly deserve it.

    is this the kind of thing that would be considered acceptable?


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  • Kurt says:

    Beautiful pictures and great story. My experience of the happy coincidences and synchronicities that you mention from the ’08 burn happened on Wednesday. I had emerged from my tent fairly early and continue to sleep for a couple more hours on a sun chair. I had already unknowingly ‘cooked’ myself some sleeping on the sun chair without sun screen. I ate a little and drank water and started out about 11am on my first 2 hour ‘roam’ of BRC of the day. Again, I failed to remember sun screen. I got about 2 minutes away from the camp when a wonderful soul stopped me and said that I was getting sun burned. Somehow I wasn’t feeling it at all, but of course he was right. I return to camp and applied the goo. Had he not been so considerate, my oblivion and subsequent burn might have ruined the rest of the week.

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  • coleman tent says:

    It’s really big bonfire to burn a man,
    The glow of a camp fire to warm weary campers who may have been very busy with their wilderness adventures is a sensation that is hard to match in any other recreational setting. Burning man are all part of the fun of camping.

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