a playa love story

We’ll ask for your indulgence today and offer a personal story in place of the regular  blog post. But we’ll write a little about love, and we’re hoping you’ll be touched by the people involved, even if you don’t know them.

The Burning Man guide book will tell you that love on the playa is a complicated thing. Burning Man is good for couples, Burning Man is bad for couples. That’s what it will tell you. It’s a hard place to be together, and it’s the best place in the world to be together.

We will tell you, though, that playa love, the kind that blossoms in the extreme atmosphere here,  both sensory and emotional, where all your experiences are intensified and more vivid, we will tell you that playa love can  survive, prosper  and endure. It can take root, and flower. We tell you this because we have seen it over and over, and we saw it again last night.

Once safely aboard, Helen was all smiles.

Helen and Ben met here in the desert four years ago. We know Helen a little better than we know Ben, and we know that she moved from Baltimore to San Francisco in large part because of Burning Man. The first time she came, she came by herself, but she found a home here, and maybe she found herself, too. And she  found many like-minded souls, and the experience  became part of her life. These days, she coordinates the volunteer activities for the Decor crew at the Center Cafe, the folks that make it so pretty.

Ben is a builder and a thinker and a soft-spoken, hard-working kind of guy. Their courtship quickly turned to partnership, and last night, at a “chapel” built between the Man and the Temple, and surrounded by what looked like a thousand friends and admirers, they got married.

There are many playa weddings here, and they are almost routinely beautiful. But this one was otherworldly. And we say that having seen a lot of weddings, because that’s what we do.

Helen had asked us to take pictures for her, and we were honored to be asked. When we were planning things, we thought it might be fun to travel to the chapel together and take pictures along the way, but we couldn’t arrange that, so we made plans to meet up with the wedding party just after sunset near the Temple. We hitched a ride on the Narwhal, which left Media Mecca and took us and others to the wedding.

About three quarters of the way there, in the middle of the playa, in the middle of a brief whiteout, Helen appeared. We didn’t even know it was her right away, because the dust was blowing so hard. But HER art car had broken down, and she needed a way to get to her own wedding. And as so often happens here, serendipity led her to us, and now we were all riding along together.

All cheers upon her arrival.

When we got to the chapel, there were hundreds, maybe a thousand people around. Ben and Helen are those kind of people. They touch your heart; you meet them, you love them. And here was the evidence — so many people gathered at the far end of Burning Man to help them celebrate.

There were bagpipes and singing and dancing. Little Zach was the ring-bearer, and Juni was the bubble (nee flower) girl. There were heartfelt oaths, there was a joining of hands of everyone present, and honestly, we’ve never seen so many people so weepy. We know that many people cry at weddings, but we’ve never seen so many people sniffling and wiping their eyes.

Ben and Helen promised many things, she to always have his back, he to always protect her. They promised to be playa buddies, and all that implies, forever. Then there were hugs and kisses and fireworks,  the deal was sealed and the celebration began.

It went long into the night. The was a champagne toast right there in the middle of the Center Cafe, which had been roped off with white sheathing for the gathering. Then it was on to the reception at the Mansonian Institute, which we really wanted to go to, but, alas, we couldn’t find. (That happens a lot here, too.)

The journey to the chapel took us by the Man.

Anyway, that’s our playa love story for today. We think it’s a good one, and we think other people think so, too. We may not always be able to say what love is, but we sure know it when we see it. And we all saw it in Helen and Ben.

There are many places you can fall in love, there are many places you can go to on a honeymoon. Some are even more beautiful than this one. But we don’t know of any other place where 50,000 people gather to encourage the best in each other, to open themselves up, to live freely and honestly and openly, and encourage others to do the same.

So cheers to Ben and Helen. And to playa love. We hope it lasts forever.


Junie and Zach were in the wedding party.


The ceremony began with songs.
Helen's sister walked her down the aisle.


Helen and Ben


The crowd closed in around the couple.


Beautiful vows were exchanged.


At the end of the ceremony, there was a long kiss.


A Champagne reception was held in the Center Cafe.


Helen thanks everyone who helped her celebrate.


A performance on the silks capped the reception.


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.

24 Comments on “a playa love story

  • Kat Lucid says:

    Wonderful!! Congrats Helen and Ben!!

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  • goon says:

    Simply a beautiful story. Congrats!

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  • congrats! i wish them love in the ever present. :)

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  • Katie Pants says:

    Thanks again, Mr Curley, for bringing the playa to me when I can’t be there. Much love and blessings to Helen & Ben!

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  • Evereve says:

    Congratulations Helen and Ben ! Love love love is all we need and true, love is in the air always at burning man and we have it all tattoed in our heart ! Thanks for the photo and the beautiful story

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  • Nature Mike says:

    SO BEAUTIFUL… Maybe it’s because I fell in love on a giant yacht this year at burning man, but I am currently wiping my tears away after finishing reading this. I wish the bride and groom so much love as I have decided to find my new love at the end of the month. Burning Man is powerful place and there is some very good energy to be given and received on the playa.

    Here’s to all the new love found on the playa this year.

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  • Mary Peroutka says:

    John Curley,
    You don’t know me but I wanted to thank you so much for the playa love story.

    You see, I am Helen’s sister and I was not able to make the trip to Burningman. Although I watched the live-streaming it was so hard to see anything. I was able to hear the vows that she and Ben exchanged and that was wonderful. Your article however, put me there with what happened and most important , with pictures of my beautiful baby sister, her wedding outfit, the chapel and her with her Ben. I just wanted to thank you for letting me experience Helen’s wedding in another beautiful way. You just never know who your words are going to reach do you??
    Thank you-

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  • Michele says:

    Yes, Mr. Curley,

    I echo Mary’s sentiment. We spoke last night on the live feed (it was a pleasure). Your words help keep those of us who can’t be there, right there.

    Thank you.

    Michele (Original Sin)
    New Orleans

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  • PlayaParticle says:

    That was so lovely and heartfelt. Thanks for sharing it. Something about this particular story touched me in a very sweet way. I separated from my partner after being together for 14 years about 3 years ago and I’ve been wondering about when, or maybe even IF, I my formerly Very romantic self might re-emerge or even whether I wanted it. But somehow, in the midst of reading about Helen and Ben, I realized that I was subconsciously fantasizing about a Playa Romance of my own and was surprised to find that instead of the story vaguely trailing off, that I was really picturing and feeling out what it might be like to be in love and in deep relationship again. It was very good feeling indeed. I like that part of me and I’m very glad that it’s back.

    Thanks for inspiration!

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  • Barbara says:

    Best wishes from my heart for Helen and Ben.
    I wish them a happy life !

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  • Lisa Jordan says:

    Congrats you two! I, too, am wiping tears. I have found lovers at the Burn but not true love. What a magical place to do so. I hope to move from Atlanta to San Fran soon to be closer to Burner Family. Dusty love.

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  • Kate says:

    Thanks so much for this! Having gone to high school with Helen (yes, she was just as cool back then), it was a thrill to get a glimpse of her and Ben’s happy day.

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  • Nicole Gruen says:

    Awesome writing – gave me goosebumps. To the happy couple! Thanks for your love :)

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  • Paula Tobin says:

    Mr. Curley,
    Thank you ever so much for your glimpse into the playa. I am stuck in New York and you just connected me with my little brother Ben and my new sister-in-law Helen. Fortunately I had the pleasure of meeting her a month earlier in San Fran at a pre Burning Man gathering. It was incredible and she is the perfect mate for Ben. Now I feel like I was there and you are responsible. Thanks again so much.
    All my love to Ben and Helen :)
    Paula (and John, the newest Flaming Lotus Girl!)

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  • glenda says:

    beautiful photos , John……….Helen and Ben’s story is the ideal I hold and look up to and you told it well……..

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  • Tony cOOch says:

    Real sweet docu-photo journal of a pretty amazingly beautiful event. Well done by all & best of future wishes;-). hugs from “cOOch”

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  • Sally says:

    What great pics! Blessings to Helen and Ben – so happy for you both!!

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  • Sandy Draggoo says:

    Dear Helen and Ben — I feel like I was there with you two AND Jeanne and Kraig. For the rest of you, I am the “mom in law ” of the sister “Jeanne” — and have known Helen for many years. Helen, I am sooo glad that you had such a GREAT wedding. I was so glad to see all the pictures and to know that you had BOTH Jeanne and Kraig there. What fun !! Blessings on you both !! Hope to see you when you get HOME to Michigan. Love Sandy

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  • Jkp says:

    You are several shades of awesome mr Curley. Thank you for your perspective over the past several years. It’s impossible to put the playa in print and photographs, but you continue to push the envelope. I don’t take many playa photos anymore because of people like you and Neil (nightshade). Keep it up young man, you’re onto something here. I’ve got a solid hug and a lukewarm beer for you next year. I mean, it is the last year right? Much love.

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  • Awesome, inspiring, beautiful, respectful, fun, playful, playaful, radiant, YAY!!! Love you two!

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  • We had so much fun working with Helen and making her wedding outfit. She is such a warm enthused person and that delightful energy in infectious!

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