The desert time


Summer has returned to the playa.

After unseasonably cool (even cold!) and wet weather early in the build, we’ve had blazing sun for days and days now. Early last week, we were so cold and damp, we wanted to sit by a fire in the middle of the day. Today, that thought is unimaginable. It’s hot. Plenty hot.

And just because it’s the single biggest question on everyone’s minds as they get ready for Burning Man, let’s talk for a second about playa conditions:

They’re not  great.

But here’s the thing: they haven’t been that great in six out of the past seven years, at least. The lone exception was the year after heavy fall rains covered the Black Rock Desert under many inches of water. Heavy rains re-set the playa floor. When the desert is inundated, it creates a deep, thick crust that’s more resistant to crumbling, and underneath the crust, there is a firm floor.

But that’s not the way it is this year. Actually, the playa doesn’t seem all that different this year than last year, and last year wound up being a fairly moderate year for dust. There’s general crappiness out around 3 o’clock, but there always seem to be lots of mounds out there. So again, nothing much is different than the past several years.

What does that mean for you? Be prepared for whiteouts. Bring goggles. Pitch your tent (and art) securely. Also? It might rain, so maybe a poncho isn’t a bad idea. Also? It might get cold, so have at least one warm thing to wrap yourself in if the need arises. In other words, it’s pretty much the same as every other year.

The last light on Razorback
The last light on Razorback

The playa seems the same, and many things seem the same, year after year. King Paul, the head of the Oculus crew, said, “What’s the definition of insanity? Doing the same things over and over and expecting a different outcome, right?” We agreed, and we’d heard the quote before. But we said that it’s also true that we do the same things over and over out here, and the results ARE different. So does that make us crazy too? Paul raised his eyebrows and agreed.

“You get to work with a bunch of kick-ass people,” he said, “you get the camaraderie, and the rest just comes.”

Yes, the rest just comes. We all go through changes in the offseason. We lose friends and family, we get married and divorced, we move, we change jobs. Sometimes we get sick or hurt, and sometimes our spirits suffer distance and alienation.

But then we come out here and we get to be the same again. And we get to work with a lot of the same crazy-ass people in the same crazy-ass environment, and the crazy happens again.

Paul moved to San Juan Batista this offseason, to a 2500 square-foot house that hasn’t been lived in for seven or eight years. It needs everything – foundation, plumbing, electrical, the whole works. “I’ve got my work cut out for me,” he said. But soon, he said, he’ll get the gardens going, and get some livestock, too. “I’m ready to rock and roll.”


Contemplation near the fence
Contemplation near the fence

All of the crews seem to be rocking and rolling these days. Black Rock City has hit its stride. Shade is kicking it, Dylan announced this morning that the Spires crew has just about finished its work, and they’ll put the last spire in the ground Thursday afternoon, which is always a reason to celebrate. (There are many reasons to celebrate out here, and that’s just another one.)

The Road crew has done tons more pounding, the Man is standing, and the Rangers and Emergency Services are all set up out at the 9 o’clock plaza, the Fuel station is humming, the staff recycling center is ready in full swing, and Dispatch at the Depot is fielding all the radio chatter. Artica had a party last night, and their ice stations are far along. The metal, motor, signs and bike shop crews are in full roar and nearing the finish line. And look at that, the Man Krewe (the folks who make the Man’s head every year), have been working on the big Man’s head right out there next to the Man Base crew. And the head is a giant thing, standing about sixteen feet tall.

Even the local staff bars are all on line. We were at the “soft” opening of the Wrong Hole bar the other night, where the folks who keep the golf carts humming like to hang out. We were treated to a blackberry infused something or other, and while we neglected to get the particulars, it was in fact most delicious.

The Black Hole bar, the home of the Gate crew, is quite well appointed. Tilden has installed her gorgeous flame tree in the front, and an intricately carved gravestone, memorializing the brethren who have fallen this year, is also at the bar, at least for now. It’ll be moved soon out to the Gate.

The stone is inscribed with Latin, and it notes that some have made the journey to Point 13 – referencing the radio channel that Gate rides on.

Beany at the Wrong Hole
Beany at the Wrong Hole
The front of the gravestone at The Black Hole
The front of the gravestone at The Black Hole
And the back of the stone
And the back of the stone

So everything is buzzing, and it damn well better be, because the gates open in omigod three days.

The Oculus crew has put up the Center Café, and the Décor crew is busy making it pretty. The tech team has put wifi all over the playa, and many camps have set up their own networks, as well, working with the tech team’s feed.

And HEAT (heavy equipment and transportation) … well, HEAT has been here for weeks, but now it seems like they’ve been here for months. Virtually their entire crew was squared away on the playa since Fence Day, which was two and a half weeks ago now, and their equipment is all lined up in the morning and evening, ready to help the other crews and the artists as they arrive.

The Power team has been digging trenches and laying cable all over. It seems like all the work has to squeeze through Power’s funnel, and it makes their jobs that much more critical and pressurized. They work from 8 am till whenever what needs to get done that day gets done, usually well after sundown. They’ve also managed to build their fabulous compound behind the HEAT yard, complete with two roof decks, a theater light to put hippies in the spotlight, a bar, of course, and swinging couches, great lighting, the works.

The Commissary crew has been serving meals on the playa for almost two weeks now, and the Trash folks have their staff transfer station up and running.

Transpo is just about finished running material from the ranch, and the office squads have laminates and checklists and inventories and the kind of paperwork that buries you at your job, too.

Each of these groups, the subgroups of DPW as well as the other departments that it takes to make Burning Man happen, functions as its own little tribe. Often there are patches and T-shirts signifying allegiances. And each tribe has a very particular, specific, identifiable personality.

Tech is very much behind the scenes, with their folks climbing up towers and racing off from one end of the playa to the other, yet faceless to the larger masses. Power seems home to a truly divergent group. “A home for wayward awesome people,” as Rabbit put it the other day. “They asked me if I was going to camp with them again this year, and I was just glowing.”

Oculus, the Center Café crew, is a little different in that its members don’t camp with each other. They go their own ways at the end of the day. The Man Base crew, by contrast, seems to function like one organism. It might be impossible to find one Man Base crew member more than a few feet away from another one at any given time. They are tight.

The Calicos in the evening
The Calicos in the evening
The view to the north
The view to the north

And HEAT. Hoo boy. HEAT seems like the toughest fraternity to pledge for. Just as their presence on playa is the most elaborate, it is also the most intimidating. They have a big space along the Esplanade right at the 5:30 corner, and there’s usually lights and a burn barrel going, and there are people sitting around on couches and back under the shade and standing at the bar. And baby, it takes a lot to just saunter in there and pretend like you belong. If you’re in the club, you’re in, it’s all good. But if you’re not, you’re gonna feel the eyes on you.

Of course, even amongst the various tribes, all is not always rosy. We often paint an overgeneralized, idealized picture, because fundamentally we are an outsider. We do not spend eight or more long hours in the hot sun doing tedious tasks with the same group of people over and over, day after day. Some people are just going to rub you down to your last nerve, and it’s not going to be easy to make it through the day. There will be animosities and jealousies and feuds. Sides will be taken.

But still, somehow, to this point in time, at least, it all goes on. It all seems tenuous and fragile, battered by pressures from outside the organization, as well as from the inside. There are plenty of powerful people who would like to see this thing never take place again, and on the inside, along with the communal spirit, there are resentments and frustrations and dissatisfaction.

The desert is a good metaphor for it all.

The desert is too hot and it’s too bright and it’s too empty. In the middle of the day, when the light is flat and shadows are nonexistent, the desert is suffocating and relentless. But then … as the afternoon wears away, and as the hills take on color and texture, and as the sky loses its harsh brilliance, the transcendent perfection happens. And the perfectness continues well after sunset, the sky as fabulous a thing as you could ever imagine, and the air as soft as a lover’s whisper.

The desert is never perfect until suddenly, amazingly, it is.

Limbo Lloyd, an opal miner out in the hills between Empire and Nixon, told us years ago that he was always puzzled when people asked him what he did out here in the desert to break the monotony. There aren’t movie houses or restaurants or any of the other city distractions that people come to depend on.

“I just sit out in my yard,” he told us, “and watch the sky, and the wild horses that come out front. I’m never bored.”

Just now an Imagine Dragon song is coming out the speakers at the Oculus compound.


These are the days of the golden light;

This is our destination.”


And all of a sudden, again, the desert is perfect.


The Temple crew, working working working
The Temple crew, working working working









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.

8 Comments on “The desert time

  • Birdie Roy says:

    Thank you for the amazing photos and capturing the spirit so well….I cannot wait to be there……one more day
    love and dust…

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  • Fluff says:

    Last year you said the playa was in “achingly perfect condition.”
    This year you’re saying it’s “not great” but then go on to say it’s not that different from last year.
    Playa chickens updating the blog? Can’t wait, either way.

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  • Willow S says:

    Beautifully said. Thank you

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  • willow hair says:

    Too old to be there, but maybe next year

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  • I’ve enjoyed your reporting of the buildup – and it is a build up!
    Luckily I scored 2 tickets late in the game so I get to enjoy the dust, too! See you there!

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  • pilar says:

    awww, good one, curley cue! your words and pictures are a balm to the soul. can’s wait to be in the dust. BRC OR BUST!

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  • Steve says:

    I just want to ride on an Art Car.

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  • Peg's mom says:

    I’m now too old, in poor health and poor to be self reliant on the Playa in person this year, but I plan to watch (as I did last year) and live self-reliantly in my own camp. This year, I will wear my new silk robes, write poetry and paint while gifting my camp with foot rubs and others with my smile and hugs. I sent two people to the temple this year and one day someone will put me there. My only regrets: that I didn’t put Burning Man on my bucket list much sooner and that I didn’t have the opportunity to feel and touch the art up close and personal. I watch the web cam (thanks to whomever is sending out the spirit of the burn), and the blogs (I especially like Halcion and all those the contribute the Burning Man site). Thank you all for your work and dedication to the principles. I send my virtual hugs. Peace.

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