A lesson in loss at the Mazu Temple … and onesie Wednesday



A campmate was applying balm to art director Charlie Nguyen’s back out at the Mazu Temple build site this morning. Charlie’s entire back was covered with welts, the result of the continuing plague of insects that are bedeviling everyone in Black Rock City this year.

Kiwi Hankins, the architect, designer and build lead, was out with Pope Phabulous, Hyster-ing the last of the eight beautiful metal dragons that will surround the sculpture. Kiwi is a veteran Temple builder; his last contribution the gigantic Temple of Transition in 2011.

And Nathan Parker was just pulling up in his van with a donated generator, so that the 25-plus people working on the site will have the power they need.

These are tough times for the Mazu crew. It’s not just the heat and the bugs and the thousand natural shocks that art projects are heir to. All the planning, all the fundraising, all the building they’ve done over the past year took a body blow the other night, and they’re still trying to recover.

Chelsea was out measuring distances and dropping flags
Chelsea was out measuring distances and dropping flags

Parker, aka Witch Doctor, spent eight years in the DPW and is now the project lead for the Mazu Temple, and he was in the advance guard setting up the camp. His trailer broke down a couple of times on the way from Reno to Gerlach last weekend, and he had finally made it as far as Willy’s in Gerlach on Sunday night before it finally quit for good.

So he left the trailer in town and hooked it up to a generator to keep the camp’s food from spoiling, and he got a ride out to Black Rock City to see about getting a tow.

By the time he got back, a fire had broken out and destroyed the trailer. The trailer was a total loss, and all the camp’s food was lost. But there was another loss, which had nothing to do with this year’s project, that will take longer to recover.

Chelsea was out measuring distances and dropping survey flags. “People have lost everything on this project,” she said. “Relationships, boyfriends, homes.”

And now Nathan’s loss.

Nathan Parker
Nathan Parker

Betty June and the Artery crew have been helping to coordinate what amounts to a home-grown relief effort. As we were visiting the site, a pickup truck from the Gate crews rolled in, packed high with food and supplies. There are about 22 people in the Mazu camp now, and after this weekend, that number will swell to 35. Then for event week, a large contingent of Taiwanese supporters known as the Dream Community will arrive, and the camp will reach its maximum of about 90 people. Many of the people from Taiwan will be experiencing their first Burn.

The Temple of Promise crew has been letting the Mazu cooks come over and use their kitchen, which is no doubt bringing the two crews together. The DPW Fluffers, who normally only visit their own work sites, are also keeping Mazu snacked and watered.

“Times of growth aren’t usually very pleasant,” Montreal, the camp lead, was saying. She’s a DPW veteran as well, and she remembered being out here at the end of Playa Restoration, when the last spike is pulled from the ground. She remembered saying at the time, “I’m either having a lot of fun when I’m here, or I’m learning a lot.”


Montreal had built the kitchen from the floorboards up of an old RV that had been salvaged for the purpose. “It’s ok,” she said stoically. “I’ll build a new one.”

Nathan, the project lead, said he went by the Black Hole the other day, the camp headquarters for the Gate, Perimeter and Exodus people. “I must have had a dozen people come up to me, some of whom I’d never even met, and they said they’d heard what happened and they said here, have some everything. … I came out with two pillowcases that were full of socks and underwear and pants and tools.”

But there were other losses.

They say that problems that can be fixed with money aren’t really problems, just expenses. And if you look at it in that light, then sure, the fire is an expense, not really a problem.

Folks from Gate arrived with donated supplies
Folks from Gate arrived with donated supplies

But it’s a little harder to look at it that way when everything in your life that you treasure is also lost to the flames.

And that’s the situation that Nathan is in.

He’s a bit of an itinerant soul. He’s traveled around the world, most recently two years ago. “When I stopped paying rent” for that trip, he said, “that was home number 40. … You don’t live like that without learning to travel light and not be sentimental about stuff.”

So before that trip he got rid of everything he owned except what would fit in his backpack. Except for one tub of mementos from his years in the DPW. T-shirts, hoodies, patches, badges, buttons, all the reminders of the time spent here with the people he’s closest to in the world. And all of those DPW mementos were burned in the fire, too.

We’ve never known Nathan to be an overly demonstrative person, but he’s always engaged, and always thoughtful. But now he seemed … distant is not quite the right word. Accepting. Composed.

“Every goddess needs a sacrifice,” he said resignedly.

Nathan checked out the donations from Gate, Perimeter and Exodus crews
Nathan checked out the donations from Gate, Perimeter and Exodus crews

“Of all the places in the world to lose everything I own, this is the place to do it. … Within this fence is easily the highest concentration of my dearest friends in the world, at any time of year.”

Nathan went to town yesterday to take a look at the carcass of the trailer. He poked around in the rubble, looking for something to salvage. He came across a blackened and charred DPW mug. The handle was gone, but there was no question that it was his DPW mug.

Of course it’s an easy metaphor for the tough and gritty and survivalist nature of the DPW. Nathan’s got plans to clean off the gunk and take a wire wheel to the body and reattach the handle. It’ll be the memento that survived, this one with an entirely appropriate fiery patina.

“But in the end,” Nathan said, “it’s just stuff. It’s only important because it reminds me of this place we’re in right now.”

Betty June started Nathan’s next collection of souvenirs. She gave him the marker used during site survey that showed where the center of the Mazu temple will be.

The site marker Betty June donated
The site marker Betty June donated


In other news:

A lot of coaches in sports programs dedicate a day of the week to a particular characteristic they want to instill in their players. There are All Out Effort Mondays and Accountability Tuesdays and Appreciation Wednesdays and the like.

It’s a little different out here in Black Rock City.

Days of the week get their own designations, but they are usually dedicated to items of clothing. For instance, there are Bootie Shorts Mondays and TuTu Tuesdays and today was Onesie Wednesday, where everyone was supposed to wear their one-piece pajamas to work.

So to offer a little counterprogramming to all the bug news, here’s an homage to Bill Cunningham and his man-on-the-street fashion reports for the N.Y. Times:






IMGL8659 IMGL8667




Now Joe (right) and his cohorts from the Artery aren’t wearing onesies, obviously, but for some reason many people from the Artery are wearing white cowboy hats. They must be the good guys.

And one final note. There are two things you can do at night in Black Rock City these days: sleep, and feel better tomorrow, or party, and feel better tonight.

There are a fair number of pretty big gatherings. The other night at the Transfer station, folks took turns smashing recycle bottles against the walls of a container. Last night, the Oculus crew celebrated finishing the rigging for the Center Café by having a Yacht Rock party (with the ever-fabulous Ezra doing the DJ-ing). There was much dancing, and many sing-alongs. Tonight, the Ghetto crew will do a soft-opening of their bar.

You can also sleep when you’re dead.

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.

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