Doing the heavy lifting

They’re discussing the early burn at the 8 am meeting of the Heavy Machinery crew, and Chaos was filling in for Big Stick, who was off the playa for a few days.

“I want us to set an example,” Chaos was saying. There’s a protocol for the early burn, where all the various crews build wild, ramshackle objects, haul them out to the playa and set fire to them a couple of weeks before the actual burning of the  Man. It’s one of the biggest nights of the build, and coordinating with Heavy Machinery is key.

Any group that wants to burn something has to let  Heavy Machinery know, so that they can prepare the playa and make sure any equipment needed will be ready to go. But even though there were 14 projects last year, by Thursday there were only a handful of teams that had checked in for this year.

Chaos in the office above the equipment yard.

The early burn is Heavy Machinery’s world in microcosm: The logistics of gathering 50,000 people in a harsh desert landscape for a giant festival and making sure that it all comes off without a hitch are a continuing amazement. If each person is expected to be radically self-reliant, imagine what it’s like to be the crew that everyone else relies on. As Chaos said, “We don’t want to disappoint 50,000 people.’’

There are waves of activity that sweep over the heavy equipment yard. The first is “transpo,” which means transporting all the rail containers and everything else from the Burning Man ranch to the playa. Then comes the buildout of the city’s infrastructure (and yes, there is considerable infrastructure even in a city that will leave no trace a few scant weeks after the Man burns).

If you need post holes dug for your shade structure, you call Heavy Machinery. If you need trenching to lay your electrical lines, you call Heavy Machinery. If you need containers or trailers moved, you call Heavy Machinery.

As Chaos sits in a two-story tower that looks out over Esplanade and Ring Road, he easily juggles three conversations, two over different radios and one with a visitor. Sometimes he’s using one radio to answer the request he’s just getting over the other. Then he comes back to the in-person conversation in mid-thought, no problem.

Chaos has done this before. A lot. Most recently he was in South Africa for the World Cup, doing corporate event work. He got into Heavy Equipment when he worked closely with Big Stick in New Orleans after Katrina.  Big Stick runs Heavy Machinery, and the two found they worked extremely well together, and they’ve been a team at Burning Man ever since.

We’re nearly at the end of the second week of the build, and Heavy Machinery will move from transpo and infrastructure to the needs of the funded art installations. Of course, there’s plenty of overlap, because there have been operators all over the Man and the Temple since the beginning of the build. The Temple, particularly, has been busy.

The Temple of Flux will consist of five giant “dunes,” and each of them are made up of  of about 18 giant panels, each of which must be lifted into place with a crane. It’s a hard-hat area, and the work is moving fast, because the Temple crew determined to finish on time.

Gary has been out at the Temple quite a bit. He’s in his third year with Heavy Machinery,  after Big Stick and Bruiser noticed how capably he handled things at a fire opera production at the Crucible a couple of years ago. “It’s a mix of aesthetics and mechanics,” Gary says of working the crane, even as he’s nimbly manipulating levers in the cab. Lift, carry and set into place. Lift, carry and set into place. The work is repetitive, but tricky every time.

Back at the yard, Chaos is going over spreadsheets of work assignments and handling the queries of the staff members who show up in his office with the stuff that needs attention.  Last year, there were 4,000 jobs and more than 10,000 radio calls over the six weeks of Burning Man prep and teardown. There are about 25 operators and riggers, plus a handful more devoted specifically to transportation and welding.

“I know how to manage a staff,” Chaos says, and that’s evident. He’s laconic, despite the maelstrom around him. There’s no rush. He’s a little like the airline pilot who comes over the intercom to calmly inform you that yeah, we’re gonna have a little bit of a rough ride, but it’ll be fine.

The staff is an interesting mix of personalities (which, at Burning Man, is an incredible understatement. It doesn’t begin to convey the intensity of the reality).  And one of the things that working at Heavy Machinery gives the crew is the chance to learn a skill that they can bring back to the “default” world.

There are variable reach forklifts to operate, and boom lifts and skid steers, and the playa is a great place to learn. It’s completely flat, and there is lots of collaborative supervision. And if you earn a certificate of competence from Burning Man, it’ll open doors for you back in the real world. “I’m hoping to be able to get temporary work that’ll allow me to do my own work,” Rachel says as she crosses the yard. “These are skills that people are willing to pay for.”

Pretty soon the big art pieces will be done, and it’ll be time for Heavy Machinery to get the theme camps squared away.  There’ll be rigging and lifting and trenching, and it’ll need to happen in the dust and the heat.

Heavy Machinery is expecting your call.

Rachel believes that the skills she learns here will travel well in the default world

Modified Cadillacs are a big part of Heavy Machinery culture; the crew uses three of them, plus a couple of Range Rovers
Gary's been working with the Temple crew since they arrived on the site.

Roo is a recently vested member of Local 80 in Los Angeles, where she works on films like "Memoirs of a Geisha"

Aristotle has a philosophy degree, books acts at the Amnesia club in San Francisco, is the unofficial entertainment director for the build, and ... oh yes, knows his way around big machines, too.
Chaos listened to ideas for the crew's ealy burn offering at the morning meeting.

The directions are pretty clear in the yard. Big Stick, who runs things, is Richard.

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.

11 Comments on “Doing the heavy lifting

  • Showerboy says:

    As always fascinating! Thanks for the work friends. SB

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  • Tiahaar says:

    Love Heavy Machinery and the guys and gals that make it run, build on!

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  • Lizard says:

    Thanks for highlighting the important work the Heavy Equipment crew does. I got to see Roo, Fix-it, Alfie, and my man Gary in action setting up the Infinitarium at the Electric Daisy Carnival in June and they are amazing! Wish I were there to watch in person. Thanks for the vicarious experience.

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  • JUST Monk (dammit) says:

    I simply won’t even think of digging a trench unless Weld Boy is at the controls.

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    This is a huge project, organisation used many heavy machine to process it. Good Job.

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