Under the Big Top


The big move from Gerlach to the playa has begun.

For the first several weeks after work crews arrive in town to start building Black Rock City, people bunk in all corners of the struggling little desert village.

Burning Man is of course the biggest industry here. There used to be an active gypsum mine in the next-door town of Empire, but that plant shuttered several years ago, leaving not much to do and not many people to do it.

Bruno is the other big industry in town. The 91-year-old Italian immigrant owns the restaurant and casino, the motel (which we’re told used to be a school), a trailer park and seemingly just about every other commercial enterprise. There are also three bars in town, and no churches. The friends of Black Rock-High Rock have a nice visitor center, and Quinn is opening a pizza parlor and taco place any day now. You can tune to KLAP FM radio while you’re here, and they are located in a small space on Main Street. A nicely appointed post office, a sheriff’s substation, a school and a community center pretty much completes the civic presence.

There are a handful of other places, and they have some great backstories, but we’re about to leave it all behind for our home in the desert. And that also means that instead of eating in the crammed back room at Bruno’s, we’ll be fed and watered in the Commissary that’s set up on the desert site.

To that end, the giant circus tent was erected yesterday, with the help of dozens of pairs of hands plus some heavy equipment from the HEAT crew (heavy equipment and transportation). The Commissary is a … well, we can’t quite bring ourselves to call it a beloved place, but it is at the heart of the experience here. We take our meals there, and so we get to hear what’s going on with the other crews, how the work is progressing, where the evening’s gatherings will take place, and of course juicy gossip is the prime currency.

Sarah and Sylkia go over the game plan
Sarah and Sylkia go over the game plan

In many ways it’s like going back to your high school cafeteria. Where are the cool kids sitting? Who walked in with whom? What is she wearing?? (For the record, a strict “cover your bits” policy is enforced without exception; no one wants to sit where something unsavory might have been parked earlier.)

There are stitch-and-bitch sessions, impromptu participant-led seminars, Ranger training, human resources meetings and all manner of other get-togethers. And even though mealtimes are set in stone (if you miss dinner, you miss dinner, too bad), you can almost always duck in for a cup of coffee or a sport drink. And because there are swamp coolers set up in back, plus an internet connection, it is also often our workspace.

This is the third year for the big tent. We outgrew its predecessor, which often had dinner lines stretching way out into the dust. The organization also feeds many of the law-enforcement people who police the site, and as their numbers have grown, we just plain outgrew the old tent.

An all-hands call goes out when it’s time for the tent-lifting, like some twisted version of an Amish barn-raising. “The new kids look kind of bewildered,” Squirelly was saying as we were about to begin. “One minute they’re out pounding stakes on Gate Road, then it’s ‘OK, now we’re gonna put up a tent!’” But it’s a key task: as Effin Andy said, “You wanna eat, right?”

Sylkia is in her second year as Commissary manager, and she’s been putting up the tent for four. The pressure is on. She and her crew and the Spectrum catering people will be serving breakfast on the playa on Friday. “I think everybody’s morale goes up when we get out here,” she says, and she’s right. We didn’t come here to live in a trailer park; we want to be out in the desert. “I can’t wait to get them out here, seriously,” she says.

The huge white tarp is laid out on the ground, and tall metal poles are positioned accordingly. The tips of the poles have to poke out through holes in the tarp. “Hi, I’m from Camp Innuendo,” one guy said as he searched for the hole.

Chaos giving hand signals to Snake Oil
Chaos giving hand signals to Snake Oil

People then line up along one long side of the tent, and they lift it into place. Straps are secured, and then they move to one of the shorter sides. The process is repeated for the other walls. The three big center poles are last, and they have to be lifted into place with a skid steer. It’s tricky business, but Chaos and Snake Oil get it done.

The older, smaller tent ironically took more muscle to erect, but the big new one is heavier and unwieldy, so heavy equipment is used. Standing nearby as one of the giant center poles is pushed into place, it all seems perilous.

“What could go wrong?” Patches says, repeating our question. “What could go wrong is we don’t eat.”

Morning Notes: Rain? Who said anything about rain? The ominous green swaths that were showing up on the radar maps yesterday morning broke up before they reached the playa, and outside of a few very light sprinkles, it was a dry day in the desert. The sun even broke through in the late afternoon. … Haul Road is still a mess. The center area had been watered and rolled, and it seemed to be drying to a firm surface. But the outer edges that took the traffic yesterday were chewed to a fine, inches-deep talc. … Lex announced that a Gerlach Moop Crawl has been scheduled for Saturday. Leave no trace. … There was no trace of bourbon-infused peaches last night, but the Manhattans were quite refreshing.

Nobody is happier than Sylkia that the tent is up
Nobody is happier than Sylkia that the tent is up


And some more pics from the tent lift:






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.

3 Comments on “Under the Big Top

  • Chad says:

    I really am digging these Building BRC posts. I know some people will see them as a progression in the wrong direction, I find them to be enlightening and help me appreciate the broader community that is Burning Man. I know when I arrive in a little over two weeks, I’ll have a greater sense of awe in all that went into making this city happen. Much love.

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  • Pebbles says:

    Thank you so much for these updates! Reading them from my office while I impatiently await our leave-date extends the event that is Burning Man. Thanks to all those working their tails off!

    I’m dying to know, how’s the weather / playa conditions looking this year?

    See all in the dust.


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  • McDude says:

    “There are also three bars in town, and no churches.” My kind of place!

    Also, I dare say that’s a VR Forklift and not a skid steer!

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