Plenty crunchy

Dude, the playa is in really rough shape.

I’d tell you to get ready for it, but what are you supposed to do? Put fatter tires on your bike? If you have an art car, great. You’ll be getting around just fine. If you don’t? You’ll have thighs of steel in a matter of days.

Still, it’s always a crapshoot when you hear someone say that the playa is in this condition of that condition (and this report is no different), because it will all depend  on where you are. The playa is a hard lakebed in some places, but six inches of muck in others.  But it sure seems like there are more upwellings of crumbly desert dirt this year, just waiting for car wheels to turn them to dust. And then the dust will get into places you didn’t even know you had.

As you’ve probably heard, it’s rained here very recently.  Does that help the situation? In some ways, sure, it dampens down the dirt and puts a nice dry crust on the surface when the water evaporates.  But the moisture seems to gather randomly here and there, eventually forming giant crumbly mounds that are just waiting to be turned to airborne talcum powder.

But what does it matter, really. You already know it’s going to be plenty dusty. It’s just a question of degree. And maybe, as Drew said over breakfast, maybe the playa is just in generally worse shape as the years go by.

And while we’re on the meteorological beat, there’s also this: It’s been blowing like crazy. Like, really crazy. The whiteouts have gotten an early start as well.

(photo by Erica Bartel)

Why does it seem like the affairs of the heart are so intensified on the playa?

And it’s not just what happens here (and of course there’s plenty of that), but it also seems like there are a lot of people here who have just gone through or are in the very throes of a painful breakup. This must be a place that heals the heart, or makes you feel it more intensely.

Or maybe you feel more free to talk about … you know, stuff. I’m a guy, so of course I’m not going to be as skilled at talking about stuff as the womenfolk. Yes, I am generalizing and stereotyping and being cliche. But hell, cliches work because they’re true, right?

The other side of the equation is true, too. There are lots and lots of connections being made. You can watch them happen. And later, there will be a steady stream of couples getting married at the Temple at sunset.

But all the emotionality seems much more intense here. Like it says in the Burning Man guidebook, this is a great places for couples. And it’s a horrible place for couples. But it also seems like this is the place where people come who used to be part of a couple, and you hear about it, and you hear yourself giving advice you didn’t know you had. And you find yourself looking at your own relationships through the prism of somebody talking about what used to be. And it makes you wiser. It makes you say the things about yourself you didn’t know you were going to say.

And one final thought; if you’re a playa virgin and want to be, I say good for you. But if you’re a playa virgin and don’t want to be, I say this is your year. :)

It really is amazing how fast things happen when operations get under way. Yesterday morning, there was no fence. Yesterday afternoon at 2:46 in the afternoon, seven and half miles of fence was finished. Yesterday, the Man base was nothing but a spike in the ground. The Golden Spike, around which the spokes of the city are laid out. Today? Holes dug, concrete foundations laid in (although it seemed only Ludy got to write his name in the wet cement). The whole camp was set up sharply, with RVs and a shade structure and generator and a HAMMOCK. A lovely hammock in the lovely shade. Hi, hammock. Hi, shade. We like you. We shall return.

There’s a really fine description of all the Man bases over the years written by Will Chase right here on the Burning Blog.  This will be the ninth year that the Man will sit atop a structure that is meant to tie the theme of year’s event to the most iconic structure on the playa, the Man himself.

So I casually mentioned to the Man base crew that I thought last year’s effort would be hard to top. The answer came pretty quickly: “Did you see the one the year before?”  And hell yeah, the Man on top of the Washington Monument in the year of the American Dream was huge and amazing and beautiful. And Metropolis looks like it is going to be very huge and grand, as well. But the point is, no one’s keeping score. There will be no Oscar handed out for Best Man Base. Which is exactly the way it should be.

And also? The really key issue is, how is that sucker going to burn?

The heavy equipment yard is in amazing shape already, with lots of machinery ready to make things roll. And when you walk by the yard, the stuff looks really huge. But then you walk out a bit further and you get to place it all in the context of the general vastness.

So we were talking the last time about how things are the same in a lot of ways, year after year, and how after 20 years in the desert you’d expect people to get jaded by it all. Marnee Benson was posting some really nice things over on Facebook the other day, about the survey crew putting the flags in the ground, the better to know where everything is going to go. It didn’t matter a single bit that the piece was written three years ago; it read like it could have been written three days ago. (Well, except maybe for the parts about World of Warcraft. That seems to have lost its grip on Burning Man staff.)  And then she sent another one along, also from three years ago, and also perfect:

“Good news! The porta-potties were delivered today. All 1,000 of them. It’s funny, they’re lined up just like they will be during the event, along all the radius streets, just as I’ve seen them for years. But now they’re out there all by themselves. Like toilet sentinels. Guarding the playa against pee and poop.”

Yep, exactly right.

Several weeks from now, this will be the heart of the city. Yesterday, there was a scissor lift right in the middle of the Center Cafe.

(photo by Erica Bartel) Three flags in the ground mark the spot where the Temple of Flux will be built.

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.

19 Comments on “Plenty crunchy

  • Mike Hedge says:

    truly beautiful work John.

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  • kenna says:

    yay for thighs of steel. i am ready.

    thanks john.

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  • moontroll says:

    Your updates and ruminations are vital to many of us out here in the Default, so thank you big time. I love your writing voice and your photographs — strangely calming. Seems like when the Curley updates start rolling in on the Burning Blog, our upcoming trips to BRC become much more real and immediate. xo

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  • David says:

    There has been a cool front stalled over Utah and Nevada all week. Been very windy here too. It’s supposed to pass by the weekend.

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  • openscarf says:

    I love this post too, I will start following.

    I’m ending my virginity this year. I just wish I wasn’t so anxious. Does the anxiety vaporize once there? I want the answer to be yes…

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  • Joe Maliga says:

    Burning Man, the event, is great, but it’s the desert and mountains that are pure magic. Put the man-made with the natural, and voila. An experience extraordinaire.

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  • GonzoRock says:

    @openScarf…. YES!

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  • Jake says:

    Thank you for the great writings. Those pictures did a number. It seems almost like the Langoliers.

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  • Kate Russell says:

    Your words touch my heart and fill the empty spaces that will soon be filled with Playa dust, chunky or not – I gotta be there! Thanks for the imagery and insights.

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  • Michele (gypsy) says:

    This is a great way to be part of building the city without getting in the way. The pics will be in my head when I arrive to begin my journey. Great writing! I can’t wait to come home.

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  • BrotherMichael says:

    crumbly crunchy playa?
    white outs?
    intense heat?
    high winds?

    we will brave that and more.


    John Curley, you are our lifeline to the source right now.
    Thank you.

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  • JimmyTheD says:

    Your reflections upon the playa are like a calming balm upon my otherwise stressful life. Thank you so much. Being unable to de-virgin myself this year (due to a really tough divorce), these notes and pictures only inspire me to work harder towards my goal of getting to the Man next year.

    People of Jewish faith use a phrase regarding their homeland; “Next year in Isreal!”.

    Mine is “Next year on the Playa!”

    Many, many thanks and keep the updates coming!

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  • Deontay says:


    I don’t know what else to say…I’m a BM Virgin. This will be my first year there.
    I’m excited to go but am also intimidated. I don’t know what to expect. I hear nothing but praise about the event.’s like stepping into the unknown.
    I hope to be there by Tuesday of the event.
    Thanks for the great blogs..Keep up the great work.

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  • stephen says:

    it’s been said the Man doesn’t get bigger each year, he just gets wider. pulling more people in with the ultimate agent of attraction, the zeitgeist power amulet. thanks for this John…

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  • Ben says:

    Just want to comment on the playa being good and bad for couples. My current girlfriend and I started to get close during preperation for burning man in 2007 and by the end of the week we were near inseperable. Now its 2010 and we are still together with very few bumps along the way, I cant wait to be out on the playa with her once again! I think this place could tear flimsy couples apart, but take a strong willed, like minded couple and put them out there and the bonds may only strengthen! Just rambling a bit, but its hard not to with the event so close!

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  • david wiles says:

    I am sure that walmart has

    dust chains in stock for
    big balloon tires.

    What do you think.??

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  • Firefly says:

    My wife and I have been together for 13 years and I will be going to Burning Man for the first time this year, alone. She wants to go, but with a 3 year old daughter, one of us must stay home. With this going to be the longest we have ever been apart, I am looking forward to the opportunity to get to know myself better, and hope that at the same time I can learn how to be a better husband and father. I am going to use this experience to strengthen our relationship, even if she can’t be there. Sounds kinda weird, but I think it will work out. She has also given me permission to “do what (who) I want” while I’m on the Playa. I love my wife and I can’t wait to love her more.

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  • Bare says:

    I truly look forward to every word you write, it’s the connection to “family” and the place we all trek to year after year, even if we say “we’re done” the dust, it’s in our blood, a life force. and you breathe life into it, all, with your writings.. THANK YOU for that…. see ya in the dust, very soon….

    Ice Mistress

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  • Firefly says:

    Ok, I went to burning man and what I learned is that I love my wife more than anything. And I learned that hooking up with someone, even if you have permission, is not as easy as it sounds.

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