C’mon Home

The road to Gerlach and Burning Man passes by Pyramid Lake

There’s been a dramatic  shift in the city over the past four or five days.

The people who build the city have been joined by the people who make the art and run the big theme camps, and now the city  is fleshing out and filling in. What once was open playa is now crowded with trailer camps, the big vehicles circled like wagon trains.

And it seems that people are throwing their arms around each other all over BRC, as another celebration of  community, art and FIRE draws very very close. It’s like the day  of a big dinner party; everyone will be coming over soon, ready to laugh and drink and dance, and you can’t help but be a little nervous even as your excitement mounts.

Much of the Temple of Transition is up, in all its glory

It’s hard to get population numbers at this point, but you should know that there are more early arrivers here than ever, or so it would seem. While in previous years you’d see signs saying “Reserved for Theme Camps” all over the playa, they’re not needed anymore, mostly because those folks are now coming in early to get things set up before the event begins.

The city reminds me of what it used to look like on Monday or Tuesday of the event week. People are in the throes of  getting used to the desert, of setting up their stuff, of getting everything ready for a week of adventure.

The newcomers arrive bright-eyed and anxious to get the playa dust all over them (it has strangely beautifying effects on almost everyone).  Then, by the end of that first day, there are flushed faces and tired-looking eyes. That’s what working in the dust and the heat all day will do to you.

But then evening comes, and the sky goes all orange and blue and purple, and the temperature drops, and the twilight lingers for what seems like hours, and you hug and scream when someone you haven’t seen for so long finally makes it to the playa, and you remember again what you came here for. You came for the art, you came for the music, you came for the desert, but most of all you came for the people. The community of freaks and bright lights and big hearts that call this place Home.

The lighting crew was installing the Man's neon last night.

The neon on the Man was blinking off and on during the evening last night, and at one point he seemed to be shirtcocking; wearing a shirt with no pants. But by the end of the night, all his rainbow hues were glowing in the darkness, head to foot of the striding Man all alight.

The flags are flying over Center Camp, and the Decor team is rolling out the carpets, painting the murals and attaching the lights, among the thousand other tasks that are necessary to turn a tent in the desert into a performance and relaxation space.

And still the people are pouring in. Even midweek in this still-getting-ready period, there were waits of up to an hour or more at the Gate. If you’ve been here before you know it, but if you haven’t you should be told: they’re not fooling around at the Gate.  The Gate folk are not greeters.  They will not be hugging you. They are the ones who will check your ticket and look in your stuff and make sure you’re not carrying fireworks or firearms or plants or people that don’t belong here.

The Gate folk are rough and tough on the outside, like so many others who build the city, but the dirty little secret is they are people who love what they’re doing, love being here, and want to see you have a good time.

Why are so many of the people who make this show happen so mean and tough looking? We don’t know. We know that when you’ve been here long enough and have spent enough years going to the event, the naivete and the blinky lights wear off, and something else takes its place. What that something else is … well, that’s the hard thing to articulate.

We keep coming back for the people.

The Early Burn is the first big fire gathering for the people who are making city.

We were sitting the other night in the lounge of the Heavy Equipment yard. Music was being performed, of course, and there was bumping and hugging and general raucousness. There were haircuts and beards and piercings and tattoos in numbers  you don’t see in the default world.

There were sweatshirts and overalls and leather and metal, but it was put together in a way that you can’t find at the head shop or vintage apparel store. Many of these styles, these clothes, these personalities, these people, are one-offs — unique, edgy, original.

Original. Most of all, original.

You can read the Burning Man principles again — the ones the describe what happens here, rather than proscribing your behavior, and you remember that one of the fundamental concepts encourages self expression. This is the place that nourishes your freaky side, or your thoughtful side, or your loud side, or the side of you that likes to dress up, or dress down, or not dress at all. This is place that allows you, WANTS you, to be what you want to be. DEMANDS that you be yourself, because the normal  strictures and conventions are absent. You can do pretty much whatever you want to do, as long as you’re not hurting someone else, or being an obstacle or impediment to their freedom.

You get to be what you want to be for this week.

Our home away from home while the city is being built.

And if some of that freedom and encouragement comes back to the default world with you, hitches a ride like the playa dust in your pocket, well then, all the better. You’ll have had a taste of what it’s like to have no one looking at you sideways because of who you’re with or what you’re wearing.

That’s not to say that judgement stops once you enter the gates to the city. It doesn’t. And it’s not to say that you’ll be instantly popular with everyone and everything, because you won’t. That’s sometimes a disappointment for newcomers. They arrive thinking that this is their new life, this is their new personality, that there won’t be disappointments or hurt feelings or feelings of exclusion.

But those things exist here, too, and you might feel them in similar ways that you feel them in the default world. But what we have here is an idea that you don’t have to live with or abide by the cultural “norms” of the default world. You don’t have to behave in some way or another because that’s what society expects of you. You won’t get pegged into this square hole or that round one here.

No, if all goes right, you’ll get the chance to see more of who you really are. And you’ll let more people see you as you are, and you’ll step up and have the joy and courage to accept all of it. You’ll revel in it.  And you’ll be among many other people who are doing the same thing, exploring that sense of self and community and possibility.

Again, this is not to say that there is an expected outcome, that we’ll all reach the same conclusions about joy and happiness and spirituality and all the other big questions. But you’ll be in a place where the search is both joyful and poignant. Your feelings will be heightened and intense. You’ll struggle to live and thrive in the heat and the dust, and when you come out on the other side, you’ll be that much richer and deeper for having gone through it.

And you’ll have done it with many other people, and almost by default you’ll have created that community that believes that the  journey is the destination.


Big, big cranes helped put the Temple together.


The spires are waiting to escort you to the Man.


The Center Cafe is up and is in the process of being prettyfied.


The Center Cafe flags are up, too.


Boom lifts brought the lighting crew close enough to adjust the neon on the Man.


Party boats are sailing the playa as the building of the city gives way to art and theme camps.


The "golden hour" of sunset will encourage you to take some snappies.


Peter Hudson is among the artists whose work is popping up in the desert now.


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.

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