Black Rock City Rises Again

The sledge and the Spike
The sledge and the Spike

It was right about the time that I pulled out a lens cloth from my back pocket and the cash I had stashed there came out with it and went blowing down the playa that the thought began to take shape: This might not have been the most auspicious beginning of the playa season.

It wasn’t just me, though. There was Marnee racing off into the deep playa after her hat that just wouldn’t stop rolling. Beer cans were flying in the wind. Someone lost a shoe, ferchrissakes. How is the wind so strong that it steals your shoe?

In the years that we’ve attended the Spike ceremony, when the members of the various Burning Man tribes take turns smacking an iron stake into the ground to mark the place where the Man will be built, the weather has been … let’s just say a little more welcoming. It might have been hot in years past, sure, but the wind has rarely been howling so fiercely and there weren’t pebble-sized pieces of playa hitting you in the face.

“There’s rocks in my beer,” my traveling companion noted as we sat and listened and laughed – and maybe got a little misty – as people stood in the middle of a small circle and talked about how long they’d been coming to do this thing in the desert. Some told why they started doing it in the first place, and others said how grateful they were to the people who had gathered here, because they had become so important in their lives. “Y’all were there for me when I needed it most,” one young woman said, casting meaningful glances around the circle. “And I don’t know if I would have made it without you.”

There might have been a few tears, but then again, the watery eyes might just have been because of the communal dermabrasion that was going on.

Still, the Spike ceremony tends to bring out a lot of emotions. For one thing, you’re just so damn glad to be out in the wide open space again, Razorback over there shrouded in clouds, the Calicos at the far end with the pinkish glow, and the ominousness taking shape back near Gerlach, threatening even more havoc.

Booya leaned into the wind without fear of falling overt
Booya leaned into the wind without fear of falling over

And then you start seeing all the people that you haven’t seen enough of since last year’s summer camp, dirt rave, company picnic, whatever you want to call it. But there they all are again, or at least a whole lot of them, and they’re drinking beer and Champagne, and there’s Will Roger and Coyote lighting up celebratory cigars, and there’s Genie and Paul and their little Merritt, striking a blow for the Rangers, and there’s the sign crew, the motor shop, the survey crew, taking turns in the circle …

The gang’s all here.

And then all of a sudden you’re simply happy to be among them, grateful for the chance to be a part of this again.

Hey look: We understand that everything about Burning Man has changed. We know it was better last year. We read all the blogs and all the comments, and we read all the newspaper stories that, when you think about, reveal nothing if not how stupidly difficult it is to keep pulling this off every year. And we’ve been looking at the archival stuff that the org has been posting, and we’ve stayed up crazy late watching the 20-year-old videos that Danger Ranger has been unearthing.

So maybe more than anything we kind of can’t believe that all this is still happening. Through all the contentiousness, all the battles, in the unlikeliest of settings, there are still people coming who have been coming since the beginning, and there are still people coming who’ve been coming for 15 years, or 5 years, and there are still people coming who have never been here before.

And yah yah yah, we know Burning Man is on the tech bras bucket list now, and it’s Mecca for the sparkle ponies, and almost in spite of itself it’s still one of the best places to dance all night, dance all night, dance all night till you feel alright, which of course annoys the hell out of some people, but honestly I’m not one of them.

Will and Crimson listened to the testimonials
Will and Crimson listened to the testimonials

We don’t much care about any of the distractions, because even after all this time we still can’t pretend to know what’s at the heart of the thing. The best we can come up with is that there are many hearts, and they are all encouraged to beat here, and that’s the most important thing. Dare to be you, dare to be more, dare to be great. Work like hell to make something beautiful. Gift people, and learn how to accept a gift. Don’t buy anything, don’t sell anything. Include people.

It’s not very complicated, and we don’t want it to be.

It’s a temporary autonomous zone. It’s an experiment in creativity and empowerment. It’s never been perfect, and it’s never going to be. Not all of the people are wonderful, and you won’t suddenly become the most interesting man or woman in the world for having gone. You are simply experimenting with ideas. And the thing is, you don’t get to do that very often, much less do it while be surrounded by people who are doing the same thing.

Duchess summed it up perfectly. She was handed the sledge and took her turn in the circle. You could barely hear anyone anymore, because somehow the wind was blowing even harder and you could feel granules of dust in your eyeballs and the effects of the drive and the elevation and the moment were all becoming just too much.

But she said that she was back because this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity … that happens every year.

Yes, a once-in-a-lifetime thing that happens every year. Until, for any one of a thousand reasons, it doesn’t happen anymore. But until then, give me a headlamp and a pair of goggles and I’ll meet you out there.

Duchess offered words of wisdom
Duchess offered words of wisdom

And now, what you really want to know: How’s the playa?

From the point we left the highway till we got to the spike, there wasn’t a single serpent. Not a one. The surface was hard and flat and smooth. The dust was blowing like crazy, and it looked like a storm cell could roll in at any time. But the first impressions were pretty damn good.


More to come.

The survey team was ready to work after the spike ceremony finished
The survey team was ready to work after the spike ceremony finished
Coyote, superintendent of Black Rock City, called the gathering to order while his sons checked on the Spike

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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.

35 Comments on “Black Rock City Rises Again

  • DhammaSeeker says:

    Goddammit there’s something in my eye!

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  • affinty says:

    “…We understand that everything about Burning Man has changed. We know it was better last year. We read all the blogs and all the comments, and we read all the newspaper stories that, when you think about, reveal nothing if not how stupidly difficult it is to keep pulling this off every year…”
    I hear you Brother. IMHO Burning Man continues to be created by people who care. The founders, the board, the staff, the event staff and the volunteers. I come because they care. Are mistakes made? Yes? Who cares? I don’t.
    I know everyone who is in the game at Burning Man cares! Feel free to call me

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  • BigBlueDoggy Dave says:

    I am so happy to see this moment once again! I don’t really know too many of the folks out there now in person, but I know your names and faces and follow some of you on Instagram and crave the imagery of our city being built! It all starts to feel so real and the excitement builds quickly from this point on! So grateful to all of you for all that you bring to our city! Thank you!!

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  • eggchairsteve says:


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  • Nugget says:

    Thanks for such a great post, John. It really brings a tear to my eye* to see all of you out there to build our fare city.

    *By tear to my eye, I mean I’m ugly crying.

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  • Tangles says:

    Thank you John Curley for your writings. You always have a way of making me feel like I’m right there with you. Thank you to all of you amazing souls out there building BRC. I can’t wait to have my once in a lifetime experience again this year. Nine of them so far!

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  • Rebar King says:

    Keep it simple….it’s not about doing it right. Just do it. Be there and let those that have just arrived for the first or second time have there own experience. It’s not up to the veterans to tell someone they have tried this and that and it doesn’t work or it does work. Whatever works for you. Everyone sees the world differently.
    Cherish the brief moments we come together and align.
    I had the best year ever last event! Even after 17 years contributing to our little scene at point 5.
    Have fun y’all…I’m going to stay home and take care of some business…but I’ll be back.
    “It’s not very complicated, and we don’t want it do be.
    It’s a temporary autonomous zone. It’s an experiment in creativity and empowerment. It’s never been perfect, and it’s never going to be. Not all of the people are wonderful, and you won’t suddenly become the most interesting man or woman in the world for having gone. You are simply experimenting with ideas. And the thing is, you don’t get to do that very often, much less do it while be surrounded by people who are doing the same thing.”

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  • Yuri says:

    Geez, so how many people does it take to drive in that first golden stake that begins the BRC? lol
    Thank you, guys, can’t wait for the rest of us mortals to be allowed there…

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  • I’m looking forward to my 4th time on the playa and 4th time in Media Mecca — this year I can finally arrive early! Where else would someone be stoked to pay to go work in the most harsh place on earth and be happy to be there longer than the event?

    Maybe one day I can be on the playa for the spike ceremony.

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  • Monster says:

    Thanks for starting this mayhem all over again. We (BRC Hardware) will be out there soon to fix your shit. Not that you all ever need us to fix anything, but we’ll throw some duct tape you way or something.

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  • Trevor koberstein says:

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful experience.i follow burning man with great delight.what an incredible event.I have been involved with festivals in new zealand for 20 years so realise the passion, hardship, challenges ,rewards, growth that participating and creating festivals bring.loved to see sum of the characters involved!wishing you all the best for this years burn.

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  • Suz Kaufman says:

    Once again, thank you for sharing, so plenteously, the experiences and photos of this experience. We live in Pennsylvania and travel a week to be with you all, but never have the opportunity to see the work that goes into making the city happen in person. I feel your joy-it’s contagious! Dusty, gritty joy! We love you and can’t wait to hug your dusty necks.

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  • scout says:

    You keep building the city, DPW, and we Lamplighters will keep her lit every night, without fail.

    Thank you.

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  • Major Blaze says:

    Thanks again for another wonderful story and moving photos. I love your blog and love that you can be out there as the city is being built. I look forward to my 11th burn in a row, my wife Judy and I will be with the last voyage of the Neverwas Haul at BRC. And no, the NWH will not be burned!

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  • John Curley says:

    Thank you all for being so kind and generous, for taking the time to read the stories and for sharing your thoughts and reactions. It means a lot, and the words are greatly appreciated. … It’s pretty clear that you’ve all got great stories to tell, and a lot of you have made huge contributions to Burning Man. … People sometimes ask why I keep going back out there. Aren’t I just telling the same stories over and over? And I always say no, because I’m always discovering new people — people like you, and that’s what keeps it amazing. So thank you for that, too.

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  • Tashi says:

    “this was a once-in-a-lifetime thing … that happens every year”

    no truer words

    see you soon!

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  • Razor says:

    Ceremony and repetition of ritual has replaced spontaneity and unpredictability. Let the Man burn on Saturday night… again.

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    • Brick says:

      Wah Wah. *camera close up on Razor’s chagrined expression*

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    • Oh, c’mon now. Let’s pretend we’ve been to Burning Man.

      Some of the traditions you’re against go back as long as Burning Man itself, you just may no know about them.

      Also, these small traditions are very small parts of Burning Man.

      Or, maybe one can discard anything that is a “tradition,” like the Cacophony sense of humor and pranks, burning a big effigy and temple, center camp, deep playa. Maybe completely banish an organized city layout and the porta-shits.

      While Burning Man does happen with a plan (there are so many moving parts, it would go from nearly impossible like now, to completely impossible) and the culture has traditions — a culture with traditions? Hogwash! — most of the event is made up as it goes along. At least, the things that happen after the scripted and planned art is installed and the boring, traditional trash fence and commissary are up.

      If you’re so concerned about the stake ceremony — using the term “ceremony” loosely — maybe you’ll find Coachella or Fun Fun Fun Fest more of your liking. They have no traditions and no culture.

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  • bc bob says:

    I see Dirgy made it back to summer camp . . . enjoy!

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  • Michi says:

    wonderfully powerful & beautiful words .thank you. see you soon

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  • Ranger osho says:

    Thank-YOU! So great to see beautiful pictures of my brothers and sisters. I really appreciate it. See you in 24 days.

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  • Siggo says:

    This annual article the day after the spike is laid is the pullcord on my excitement. I want my Christmas-in-August to be here now.

    Thank You DPW. I can’t wait to see the city you build for us and add my own little bit to it.

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  • Rainbow says:

    Thanks a million times over for the inspiring words and the gorgeous photos of all my favorite people in the world right now. I have been a grateful burner since ’07 and a Lamplighter since ’08…. Someday – I am gonna be one of you wild and crazy and wonderful people.
    This year I’ll be coming home in 23 days.
    Love, thanks and dusty hugs

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  • Momma Clover says:

    Let’s just say I’m in the 60-70 age group. My first Burn was ’13…I knew nothing but that my son calls this is spiritual home, his spiritual retreat, and as an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church USA, I wanted, needed to understand…
    it’s ’15 now, and I’m still ‘understanding’….
    that this may be the next significant spiritual renaissance that moves our global people.
    Let me clear, as a person living with several significant disabilities, the weather was …enough said. Coming from a cautious, risk adverse community, the experience was ….let’s say ‘a learning curve’. My only regret was that to many whom I met, I may have seemed a self-reliant, gift giving observer, dull in self expression.
    I am grateful for this community, for the core who continue to commit even after the ‘week’ is over, and I ‘pray’, send up ‘beam me up, Scotty’ thoughts, for the many who ‘get it’, for those’ looking for ‘it’, even those who don’t quite get that the Burn is ‘it’. I don’t know if health or finance will ever allow this again….but I am getting ‘it’.
    Thank you, Burners.

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    • xtraslky says:

      momma clover its hard for all of us! And yet we keep on grinding up against our learning curves, certain that whatever this is, its valid. its authentic. Don’t undermine your playa gifts, you have no idea what the beat of your butterfly wings will make happen a world away. Your comment lit me up, thank you.

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  • Geraldine O'Connor says:

    I’m from Scotland and have heard a lot about the burning man. I would love to make it over and take part. Maybe next year if the universe agrees

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  • Glenda Solis says:

    Gorgeous photos John! Thank you……

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  • A Critic says:

    “It’s a temporary autonomous zone”

    Temporary autonomous zones do not pay millions to be controlled by the federal government.

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    • It’s not controlled by the federal government, other than federal laws that apply anywhere.
      Technically the permit is a fee to borrow the land from we the tax payers and citizenry.
      I probably had different experiences than you, but I never felt I was held captive or under some sort of police-state surveillance.

      That was one of the big problems with the Cliven Bundy mess.

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