The Early Burn

Burning Man is all about ritual. It’s an event rich with symbolism, although the meanings attached to those symbols vary widely.  You can get as many theories about what prompted Larry Harvey and his pals to burn that first Man on Baker Beach as the number of people you ask. The answers will vary with circumstance, even from Larry himself, but it wasn’t because of a breakup with his girlfriend. It started as a romp, a thing to do because it sounded fun to do.

So it is with the Early Burn. Two Saturdays before the start of the big event, the people who are here building the city get together to burn a bunch of stuff. It’s  really no more complicated than that, but the interpretations again vary widely.

The big crews build effigies that either mean or do not mean anything. Last night, the Heavy Equipment camp burned the effigy of a radio — the thing that drives us crazy and nevertheless is a big help in making all this happen. The Oculus crew, which builds the Center Cafe, built a “Tim Burton tree,” as described by Goatt. Did it have anything to do with this year’s burn, or any year’s burn? Maybe, maybe not. But you get the sense they did it because they could. Much like Larry and his pals in 1986.

Anyway, the Early Burn has become a custom and a ritual. Effigies are burned, and many of the people come dressed up as someone else in Black Rock City right now.  Some of the similarities are chilling, they are so good, such as the Weld Boy alter ego, but I’m  guessing you wouldn’t get much out of a description. It’s almost like your Aunt Sara imitating your mom; it’s hilarious for your family, but for outsiders it’s … eh.

By the end of the night, all that was left were piles of flaming embers.

Anyway,  Micheal Michael, one of the founders of Burning Man and the man responsible for setting up the Black Rock Rangers, was talking last night about how the Early Burn is reminiscent of Burning Man in its infancy.

In 1990, the first year in the desert, after the celebration had become to large to stage at Baker Beach in San Francisco, there were only about 80 people around to see it.  No roads, no Porta Potties, no shade.

“We were so hot we climbed under our cars in the heat of the day just to get out of the sun,” he said.

(Newbie note: It’s hard to realize just how hot you can feel out here. This desert is at about 4,000 feet, too, so you have to acclimatize yourself to both the heat and the altitude. It’s really not a  bad idea if you can delay the heavy activities for a day when you get here. Give your body a chance to adjust.)

Last night, there was a small-town feel to the festivities. In contrast to the hugeness of the Burning Man event itself, this little gathering let you run into the people you know, or talk to  the people that you’ve seen before and would like to get to know.

There were fireworks from Dave X to get everything going, and then the effigies went up pretty much at the same time.  There wasn’t any need for a perimeter ring; when the fires got going, you had to move back to get out of the heat.

The view from the Man base was beautiful.

The Power Camp’s burn was the flashiest and the noisiest. It shot fireball after fireball into the night, all while screaming whistling sounds split your ears. Fun!

There were bugs around the light towers, and lots of them. We don’t know if it’s all the rain this year, but there seem to be more living things in the desert than ever before — plants, bugs, birds … lots of things you just don’t expect to see.

There was plenty of PBR, of course, the beer that waters the playa, and after the Early Burn many of us climbed onto the viewing platform of the Man base. It’s a funky climb up, with alternating stairs that make you clamber up the structure like a Neanderthal (which, we were told, was Ludi’s idea.) The view from up high was great, and everything felt all safe and secure, even as the wind was coming up. It’s a great space.

As the night wore on, the wind grew fiercer and fiercer, and by the midnight hour, there was a pretty good dust storm blowing that made you put on your goggles. The blowing sand made us think of the fog in San Francisco, but instead of being cold and damp, it was warm and dry. It wasn’t unpleasant.

The wind stayed strong all night, and Sunday came in the same way.  People roused themselves  to crawl out to the playa and clean up the mess from the previous night’s burn. By 10 am Sunday morning, the Playa restoration from the Early Burn was complete.

Bring on the big show.

Walking over to the Man base after the Early Burn.


All was safe and secure on the viewing platform.


Jenessa came dressed as Coyote, with plenty of hostility toward the radios.


If it’s Burning Man, there has to be fire poi.


Phoenix Firestarter was warmed bu the the glow of the fires.


Bunnie and Ezra


Tracy and Joe the Builder


Dave X, Rosie and Joe


Corey from the Emergency Services Department medical crew


There was more than one Makeout Queen around the fires.

Eva from the Man Base crew


Brian from Man Base


All the effigies went up almost at the same time.


The Power crew’s fire started off with a blast.


The Spire’s creation drew a dancing crowd.


Joe the Builder’s offering was simple, but powerful.


Hello, Izzy!


Ghost Dancer


The radio from hell


There was more than one Weld Boy, and it was scary.


Spoono  working on his iconic art car.




On the night of the Early Burn, laterns are hung from the spires for the first time.



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.

14 Comments on “The Early Burn

  • Crabwalker says:

    Oh my…!

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  • lemur says:

    lamplighters kick ass.

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  • Joanna Sunshine says:

    Thanks John! Your blog posts are keeping me from going insane with anticipation this year. If it weren’t for you and your words and pictures I might have an aneurism from the strain of missing the playa! So keep those posts coming or I might not make it another week…

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  • Alexis says:

    I’m so excitedI can barely contain it! Thank you for sharing the early burn with us. It looks warmer around this community than around the fires itself. Thank you for letting us share in the experience. See you soon!!!

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  • Bean says:

    Please tell me who alter-Weldboy was. So good.

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  • Jason says:

    Seeing these blog posts makes me long for the playa so much I feel I could cry. But then I realize I’ll be there in a week and nothing can make me sad.

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  • I gotta stop reading this stuff before I freak out.

    Did anyone else notice the smiley face at the bottom of the page?

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  • roissy says:

    Hi John,

    Great shots, I have always enjoyed your articles. I am curious as to what camera you are using for the night shots???

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  • wyrm says:

    This blog post brought to you by Pabst Blue Ribbon, The Beer That Waters the Playa™

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  • Bruce says:


    As always — you’re a gifted journalist with pen and lens. Thank you. And, again — thank you.

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  • Alchemy GodsDirtyLilSecret says:

    Sooooooo jealous…seething …want to be there building it with you, Ive been ready to travel, yet saving for the burn and i may miss it, missed buying my ticket by one day. Im pretty faithful in beleif that some how the Man wont let me down – ill find a real ticket and come up and build,burn,clean and grin….Its all about art- ahhh the dust! Its NOT about money as the jaded are burbeling into their beers and tears. I just finally magicked up an in house internet service today- Im back on line and still writting my Book about The journey to making a way to the burn and burning- 12 years of Burningman . I have a plan to continue ariving HOME and im lucky enough to read these blogs now without having to walk 2 miles across town to the wifi- Your all beautiful!
    I love how the event is growing, even if it has been growing faster than i can keep up at times, its a miraculous ,diamond we are all inclusions of.
    Thank you you lucky fuckers…I cant wait to watch it all burn!

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  • Rhona Creenan says:

    To all at Burning Man,I’m so so sad.My first visit was 1997 when there was just 8 thousand people, the man was built on bales of straw and camels roamed the playa.I had never been to a place where I felt like, this is it,this is how life should be, but I found it in the desert.I came back and spread the word and one friend in particular found his way there and has been there every year since,peace and love Iain.My last visit was 2002 and all of a sudden there was 30 thousand people,not as intimate as previous years,but still that feeling of unadulterated joy at being able to lose your mind for a week with like minded people.I left glorious California in early 2003 and haven’t been back since but I know 2012 will be my year and I can’t wait to sit on the playa and watch the sun come up over the mountains.To everyone, be safe, Burn Baby Burn……..

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  • Julie Young says:

    The desert is cathartic. It is also sustainable. I need help procuring water If you would like to help please stop by 32400 Cantlon Dr. Wadsworth Exit 43 for a swim and donations. Your 2nd carthsis in the desert. I could feed a whole city. Julie

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  • Julie Young says:


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