The Time Is Now

Smoke from wildfires in California has turned the desert skies pink

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but holy crap it’s going off all over the place out here in the Black Rock Desert.

It’s Monday. Less than a week till the gates open. As Cobra Commander said at the DPW morning meeting, “Holy s— it’s Burning Man.”

And it’s true. It is upon us. It is upon you.

The desert already feels like it’s getting crowded, although that’s ridiculous. There are maybe a couple or several thousand people out here now, and many more on the way. Today is the first official day that artist theme camps are allowed to start setting up on the playa. Roads are in place, spires are up in many parts of the city, and the big art pieces are well underway – Otic Oasis, Burn Wall Street, Thistle,  Ego, Zoa. … the ones you should be marking down on your “who what where” list, because it’s going to be worth a trip from anywhere to visit them.

The more fundamental aspects of the city are either set to go or coming together fast. Trenches are being dug and power lines are being strung all around. The Center Cafe is all up and rigged (that giant sail of shade and rest in the center of the city), and the pretty-izing crew of Cafe Decor are setting up shop now, getting things all ready for you.

Ranger stations, emergency medical crews,  Gate and Perimeter, the various ice-dispensing Articas – all the backbone pieces of Black Rock City are ready or damn close to being ready for you. It’s almost become a contest among the various tribes and constituencies of the building crews out here; who can get it done right, and get it done first? Who’s going to win  Burning Man?

The crew from Otic Oasis has to haul gear out into the walk-in camping section of the city

Some of you may be familiar with all the preparation that this event requires, but some of you may be surprised by the logistical requirements. After all, the event only lasts a week, and then  because it’s a “leave no trace” event, when everybody goes home, it’s as if no one had ever been here, right?

Let’s just say, not really.

There is an insane amount of work done by a large number of people in insanely harsh conditions. All to get the place ready for you, because it’s you who are going to be bringing the awesomeness.

But by all accounts, this has been one of the hottest years ever. Don’t take my word for it; listen to Logan again, who said this morning that he’d never experienced the heat that has hit the city this year. And of course you’ve heard that this is going to be the dustiest  year in the history of Burning Man. You’ve seen the “Dustpocolypse” picture on the internets. But I’d caution you to avoid jumping to conclusions. Yes, there have been whiteouts. And maybe they’ve happened a little early. But there have been whiteouts during the early time in other years, too, so it’s a little too soon to make grand pronouncements.

The sky has been different this year, though. A different color. There are wildfires burning in Plumas County, and if you look at Google maps you’ll see that the path of smoke from those fires has carried right over our burgeoning city. So the sunsets have been especially dramatic and surreal.

Flash is helping people get squared away in their trailers and RVs

And through the dust and the heat, the work has gone on. The accomplishments of a dedicated band of outrageous characters never ceases to amaze. How can there be so much done in a mere couple of weeks? If you didn’t see it with your own eyes, you’d pretty much swear it couldn’t be done. But camaraderie is a powerfully motivating force. And there’s lots of camaraderie in these parts.

There’s a comparison to be made with summer camp. You’re in a very  different place with people you’ve developed a special connection with, even though you only see them once a year. The thing about this camp, though, is that you are required to do a LOT of hard work to earn your place here. Everything is very difficult. Things take longer to accomplish. “We’re so used to being in the fast-food world,” Barbarino was saying the other day. “You order your burger and you expect to get it in 45 seconds. It doesn’t work that way here!”

No, it sure doesn’t. You don’t know where your stuff is. You don’t have the things you normally have. Oh and did we mention that it is hot?

Now, we’re not bringing this up to gain your sympathy. The workers have become accustomed to a certain amount of adulation and awe. … They’ve earned it, of course, but the work is not anonymous any longer. We asked SF Slim if he thought the veil had been lifted on the early work here, what with Instagram feeds and on-playa wifi  and Facebook updates. “No,” he said, “it’s not that the veil has been lifted. It’s just that you can see pictures of what’s going on, but you don’t see the look in people’s eyes … you can’t feel the energy. You have to be here to feel that.”

He was talking as maybe a hundred people had gathered in the darkness to wax the Man. Wax is melted and pieces of burlap are dipped in the wax, and then they are rolled up and attached with wire to the Man. This is done so that he will burn fast and furious on Burn Night.

There seems to be some ceremony or ritual taking place almost every night out here. Saturday night was the early burn, where the various crews make totems to be burned to kick off yet another cycle of the Burning Man preseason. There are fireworks to watch and beers to quaff. The early burn is to Burning Man what a country fair is to Six Flags Magic Mountain. Quaint and small, charming and relatively low-key.

The Jerk Church orchestra made an appearance at the waxing of the Man.

And yet the rituals and gatherings build and grow organically. Last year, there were maybe three or four musicians out at the waxing of the Man, and they had a handful of people joining them in singing fine drinking songs. This year, those same players were back, but they had more friends with them. The Jerk Church was in the house  – singers, guitar players, mandolin players, an accordionist, someone on the saw – and song sheets were passed around so everyone could sing. And just about everyone did.

It while it wasn’t an officially sanctioned event (whatever that is), the singalong didn’t  fall into the category  jackassery or shenanigans, which are other ways that crews both bond and blow off steam.  The jackassery has been taking place for years. “There are only two requirements,” Coyote was saying. “It has to be funny, and no one can get hurt.” Alas, someone took a shenanigan too far last night; that person is now both out of the city and out of a job.

And still the work goes on, amid the frivolity and the heat and the camaraderie and the frayed nerves and the sleep deprivation and the exultation. Everything all at once, all pointed at Sunday night, when the gates open.

As  Lighting said the other day out at the Otic Oasis, amid the work and the sweat and the organizing and the leading, “I used to think that life was a journey, and maybe by 55 of so I’d have it  together. I wanted to be 55! … But then I realized … wait a minute. This is it. This is good. You better have a good time with it.”

And so the time spent out here is cumulative: the longer you’re here in the heat and the dust, the more challenged you are. But somehow,  it’s not really about the number of days that you’ve spent here. Niko Peaches was saying that even though he’ll spend about 80 days here, getting ready and then tearing down, the work doesn’t progress in a predictable arc. “It’s been a series of ‘nows,'” he said.

So think of that when you arrive in the city next week. The time is now.

A good-sized crowd gathered to help with the waxing of the Man.


Otto Von Danger was handing out funny money from the Burn Wall Street project.


At the waxing of the Man.


Bling and schwag play an important role in BRC.


When the day’s work is done, the Oasis crew hauls its model back to camp.


Heavy equipment is everywhere


Natalie Trotta was plenty hotsy at the early burn.


Retro? Ra$pa? You decide.


Fawkstrot and 10-9 might have been a little happy to see each other.


Some people were sporting white war paint at the early burn.


Cobra Commander at the early burn.


The Man base served as a backdrop for the early burn.


We were innocently taking photos of the line of early burn projects when she appeared and said, “Wouldn’t it look better if I stood here?” We agreed it did.


Build it up to burn it down.


The Man Base crew in front of their leaning tower of monkey Pisa.


Has social media changed the nature of the Burning Man preseason? Your call.


Kind of happy to be back among friends.


About the author: John Curley

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, and I'm especially fond of shooting weddings. I'm also the editor at large of the Tasting Panel magazine, which is devoted to the beverage industry. I've also taught a bit, including two years at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and a year at San Francisco State University. I live on a (house)boat in Alameda, California.

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