A Family Story

Sometimes sparklers can be even more fun than music
Sometimes sparklers can be even more fun than music

Burning Man is about a simple thing, really. The burning of a wooden totem in the shape of a man, his arms upraised in … what? Exultation? Supplication? Who knows? … Maybe his arms are raised because he just looks good that way. It doesn’t matter, really, and you can ascribe any meaning you like to it.

And maybe that’s how Burning Man has come to mean so many things to so many people – a rave, an art exposition, a grand human and civil experiment, one which only coincidentally happens to feature massive explosions and fire. But there’s more – the ten principles, written ex post facto to describe the values exhibited by participants: The radical self reliance, the radical self expression, the communal efforts, and the immediacy of the experience.

Still, much of Burning Man began simply, as a simple response to direct need, and yet now is layered with ritual and remembrance.

Another of those Burning Man rituals takes place tomorrow night, the early burn, where crews gather to burn their own stylized effigies, meant to symbolize their specific participation in the event. A giant radio, perhaps, or the replica of an office, or maybe even one giant stake pounder. Again, who knows? … It’s up to the people involved. But there will be something different this year. Someone will be missing. And that absence will say a lot about the nature of Burning Man, and the people who attend.

A million years ago, when Burning Man was still wild and untamed, there were no fluffers, there were no radios, there was no commissary. You took your shade by the side of a truck, and if that wasn’t enough, you climbed under it to get out of the sun.

You entered a Black Rock desert that did not have roads, and certainly did not have thousands of bright orange cones lining the way. There was only blackness and the scribbled directions that said to get off the highway at a certain spot, travel six miles east, then turn left. It was terrifying and strange, just like the people you were with.

Eventually, though, order had to be pulled out of the chaos if the event was going to survive, and so a navigable city was laid out. The center of the city was always marked with a stake where the man would eventually stand.

“But we could never find the damn cone” that marked the stake,” Coyote remembered. “We’d have to go back to the ranch in shame and defeat.” To rectify the situation, Peter Mars, who at the time worked in the wood shop, constructed a four-by-four triangular-shaped man that the survey crew could put on top of the stake that marked the center of the city. But everyone grew fond of the the early man, and when the time came, they decided to give him a proper, that is to say flaming, sendoff. And thus the early burn was born.

You're never too young to learn how to play
You’re never too young to learn how to play

A fine group of musicians were playing outside of Coyote’s trailer last night. People had gathered around the burn barrel. Drinks were shared, and there was plenty of singing and dancing. It was a sendoff party, because Tony and his wife, Mel, were going to have to leave the playa today. Their twin boys are starting school this year, and it’s time for them to enter the educational system. For the first time since 1999, Coyote will not be at the early burn.

“The system can be cruel,” Coyote said later. “It teaches you about winning and competitiveness and money, and all that other crap,” he said. “But the DPW is a family,” he continued. “We have to take care of each other. … You are the best role models that I could possibly ask for.”

The DPW is a hard bunch, but there were some sniffles to be heard when Coyote finished speaking.

“Coyote is like the father I never had,” Booya was saying. He works with Coyote in the offseason, and he comes over to the house for breakfast most mornings before the workday begins. It’s that kind of relationship. “I lost my father early,” Booya said. “So I had to choose my mentors. Tony’s one of them.”

Effin’ Andy tells a similar tale. “Coyote’s my father, you know,” he says in that deadpan way of his, when his eyes go small and he turns dead serious. You almost start to believe it’s true, but of course it’s not. But what is true is that Andy counts himself lucky to be held in Coyote’s extended reach.

So you could say that in addition to the many things that Burning Man is about, it is also about family. The family that you have, and the family that you never got to have. Bonds can be strengthened, and new ones formed. Either way, values are communicated. The old show the young the way. Good and evil are defined. It sounds odd to say about an event that has such a wild reputation, but there’s an essential wholesomeness that never seems far away.

Coyote’s boys don’t know any of this yet, of course. They don’t know that the big grownup world can be harsh and indifferent. They don’t know that they’ll have to find their own way, that maybe they’ll sometimes feel like square pegs in round holes. So far, they only know that dad will dance with them when the music starts to play. They only know that he’ll keep them safe when the roman candles shoot into the sky. And they’ll know that he’ll be there with them, instead of on the playa, when it’s time to send them off to school.

It wasn't long before the dancing started
It wasn’t long before the dancing started
As dusk deepened, roman candles chased the darkness
As dusk deepened, roman candles chased the darkness


Dad was there to keep you safe
Dad was there to keep you safe





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.

15 Comments on “A Family Story

  • Genie Gratto says:

    In tears at my desk. John, thank you so much for doing such a wonderful job telling the stories that build the city.

    Report comment

  • Sparks says:

    It has always been about family for me. A family of freeks, geeks, weirdos, and in general damn good people. You know the ones you love and hate, who given all the souls on the planet to choose these are the people you would choose to build a family. Welcome home sounds good to the outside world, but I know a lot of us have found home here, in the hearts of our choosen family.

    Beautifully wrote… Good luck to Coyote as he sends his boys off to the world of school.

    Report comment

  • P Fluff says:

    That’s how it feels and that’s how it is. Thats how it begins and that’s how it ends. No Coyote at EarlyMan you say, damn. Things done changed.

    Curley, your blog posts this year have delved into the heart of the experience as I know it. A grand thank you for keeping me and Chloe in the loop while we take this year off. Bravo!

    Report comment

  • gretagarbage says:

    yup, tears.
    well written.

    Report comment

  • AAurelia says:

    Yes, those early years were indeed marvelous adventure.
    And they have given me the strength necessary for the future.
    We looked around and then found it.

    Report comment

  • lala says:

    Right on, Curley. And good luck to your boys, Coyote!

    Report comment

  • just... y'know.... says:

    As a father who has never taken his kids to the playa, and will again be kissing them goodbye before heading out next Sunday…. eyes…. strangely….. wet……

    Report comment

  • Andrew Johnstone says:

    Thanks so much John… BRC can never be a true city without the laughter of children. This year is my daughter Ursula’s 12th burn…. she is 12 years old.

    Report comment

  • John Curley says:

    thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and kind words.

    Report comment

  • Thank You John for that beautifully written blog! Those boys have had a wonderful Burning Man world experience in their pre-school years that I am sure will make them more than ready for what lies ahead.

    Report comment

  • Jenn (Kitten) says:

    So beautiful… I love that this family exists beneath all of the looky-loos, party-animals and adrenaline junkies (or exists simultaneously). There is a heartbeat beneath the Playa that is seems only some of us can feel. No matter how much change occurs, it is always there, as long as we choose to invest in it.

    I have always loved the idea of investing the spirit of Burning Man in my child. No matter who she becomes, I will be happy knowing that I taught her to recognize that heartbeat. There is little else I can do… “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself…”

    Report comment

  • kelly says:

    What a wonderful story. Yes, it’s hard to send the kiddos off into the world. My kids are now 14 & 10. They went to Burning Man 3 times, back when school started the day after Labor Day. When they changed the school start date to the Burning Man start date the kids couldn’t go anymore. It broke my heart as I drove to the Playa with the kids standing on the porch in tears screaming “We want to go to Burning Man!” Families sharing Playa time is an unbelievable experience. When everyone is grown up and out of school we will go back together! Until then just remind the kids as my husband tells us “everyday is Burning Man!”

    Report comment

  • kim lane says:

    gulp….yep, for me too- it’s all about family- beautifully told, thank you.
    This time next week we’ll be home- with the kids, grateful that school starts late for us this year!!

    Report comment

  • Ali Baba says:

    Lovely. Chosen family is definitely a key part of my experience in the desert.

    Report comment

  • marlowe says:

    Tonatillo Perez, Coyote, me hermano… I am honored to share this life with you, me hermana Melissa, & those firey gems we call Atticus & Colby. Thank you John for
    transcribing such eloquent emotion…the icing for me was Tony reading this post to me only to be perfectly interrupted by jumping loud serene 5 year old boys… The day before Schools First Day of Play without Playa….
    Auntie Marlowe Loves

    Report comment

  • Comments are closed.