Why the hell DO we keep coming back to this godforsaken place, anyway?
That’s what you ask yourself as you roll across Route 447, the midday light flat and the heat so intense that it almost seems to have taken solid form. It’s knocking against your car window, daring you to stop and get out. But you’re smart and you don’t stop, and maybe you even speed up a little, but you keep an eye on the engine’s temperature gauge, because you don’t want to break down out here, out of cell range, without another car for miles, under the crushing sky.
What a difference a year makes. What happened to the greens and purples and yellows along the roads and in the fields? Now there is mostly dirt brown and dead-grass gold, and there’s nothing charming or intriguing about it. There’s danger afoot, and it’s moving just as fast as you are. We’re told every year that the desert is trying to kill us, but some years, like this one, it’s easier to believe.
Nothing seems welcoming, even as you come into town. The heat is in triple digits, and main street is empty. There are no cars on the road, just a few parked next to the hot concrete walls of Bruno’s. There’s no shade, and no birds sing.
Why the hell do we keep coming back to this godforsaken place?
SF Slim is a tall, gaunt, intense man somewhere in the neighborhood of middle age. He wears skinny black pants on the playa, matched with an orange dress shirt and a black sport coat that has a big DPW patch meticulously safety-pinned on the back. His boots are made for heavy duty work yet have high-ish heels. His bald head is covered with a big, black, wide-brimmed hat, and another DPW logo is wrapped around the front.
You can fairly say that he cuts quite a figure, and he has been cutting that same figure for years.
Slim has held various jobs, both on the playa and off, but he has none of the trappings of a middle class life. He once brought out a ratty old hearse to the desert, gave it a name and gave plenty of people rides, or simply gave them the keys to go play on their own. But of course he doesn’t have the thing anymore — he left it for the crews, or maybe it just died. The point is, it is no longer encumbering his life.
And that is more broadly true, as well. Slim has few encumbrances or constraints –no definable career (though he is one of the smartest people you’ll talk to, and has worked in startups as well as established firms). It’s not a lack of talent or skill that has kept him on the fringes of the workforce; it seems more a choice he’s made not to commit to one path.
He is not committed, in the rigidly traditional sense, to one person, either, although he has a longtime partner who, one would assume, reads the same thoughts and treatises on polyamory that Slim either writes or links to on social media. There is commitment there, to be sure, but it is of a broader kind, and no less sincere.
Slim keeps moving; from here to there, from the Ghetto to the Black Hole, from Transpo to the Depot, from concert club to lecture hall, from San Francisco to Gerlach, all the while talking and laughing and striding forcefully, gallantly, inexorably forward. He came out to the desert for the Spike ceremony, too; he put out a call on Twitter, or somebody did it for him, and a ride promptly materialized. He was scrambling for a return trip, too, because he had to be back in the city for an appointment.
He was due for another post-operative chemo infusion in his six-month battle with cancer.
So we’re out in the desert now, in the hottest time of the day, on the hard-packed playa. People always want to know about playa conditions, so we’ll say, for whatever it is worth at this point five weeks before the gates open for the Burning Man event, that the playa seems to have been baked white and hard. There were orange cones leading us out to where the Man will be built in the far reaches of the event site, and we were doing 60 mph without a thought or care about ruts or gullies or mounds. (Requisite public service announcement: these conditions will not last. Your results may vary. Bring food, water, sunscreen, shade and goggles, at the very least, and be prepared for anything. And we mean anything.) Some “helpful” soul has gouged a faint ring of tire tracks around the Spike site.
Coyote gathers the tribe in a circle. There is whisky and beer and not a little bubbly wine. There are parasols and not many layers of clothing, because, as we think we have mentioned, it is ungodly hot.
There are not a lot of people in Gerlach yet; the hordes will arrive to build the perimeter fence next week. But some of the people have been here for months. The metal shop and auto shop and ranch hands have been here awhile, and even this smallish increase in numbers comes as a shock to the system. “I’m not quite used to it yet,” Tami says, “but it’s great to see everyone.”
And she is far from the only one who feels exactly the same way.
You probably know what Spike is, in that you’re reading about Burning Man and you’ve already heard a story or two. Spike is the time that Black Rock City first takes shape, when a bunch of people get together and drive a stake into the ground, marking the spot upon which the Man will eventually be built. The city grid is laid out from this center spot: All things take shape around it.
So the Golden Spike is pretty rich with meaning right from the jump.
But the ceremony surrounding it has grown, like so much of Burning Man itself. Like it or not, Burning Man has layers of meaning now, layers that have built up over time, as more people have invested their hearts, and their blood, sweat and tears into making it what it has become.
Because that’s the thing: the people who show up make Burning Man what it is. There are always people who leave, for all their good reasons, and there are new people who take their place. Still, the event is not a show put on by organizers or planners or administrators. You can’t ever really know what course things will take, because, as Crimson Rose told us a long time ago, “All we do is set the stage.” And this Spike is the first step in setting that stage.
Of course you’d be right to tell us that Burning Man used to be something else, and that it might have been more avant garde, and that it might not have been for the masses, and that hey, there weren’t any rich people around then. (Although there aren’t any rich people around this day, either.) But honestly, we don’t care all that much, because Burning Man was what it was at the beginning, and it was what it was in the aughts, and it is what it has become now.
I guess if you were around at the beginning and were generous of spirit, you might even be mildly amused at the evolution of Burning Man – the excesses, the splendor, the exclusivity, all of the problematic things that make people right when they say that it’s not what it used to be.
But we’ll talk about what it is now, and we won’t apologize, because it would be silly to think that ANYthing that has been around for 30 years and that depends on the creativity and energy of its enthusiasts to survive wouldn’t change in three decades. And that brings us back to Spike 2016, which, to our eyes, didn’t look much like what it used to be.
As is customary, Tony Coyote gathers people around the spike, and he laments the fact that his family isn’t with him this year (the boys are getting big, and although school hasn’t started yet, they still have things in their lives that had to keep them home.)
Coyote passes the sledgehammer to Will Roger, the founder of the DPW who now has a home in Gerlach and serves on boards and commissions in the region and is still on the board of the Burning Man Project. Then it goes to the Cobra Commander, operational chief of the DPW, who says, “The DPW found me 19 years ago and took me in. … It’s still the best goddamn place in the world.”
A newcomer was given the sledge, and he said, haltingly, with great concentration and effort: “I’m nobody special. I don’t come from anyplace special. But out here I feel special.” Rusty, a gruff big-rig driver for the Transpo team, takes the sledge and tells a story: “I was asked the other day how many years [I’ve] been coming to Burning Man. I said 21 years. But I’ve been coming to the playa for 54 fucking years. It’s in my blood. … And when I die, guess what, I’ll be in yours, because you’ll be eating dust.”
Kimba is called forward, and she says, “Thank you so much for letting a super nerdy girl be part of your cool kids club.” That was met with shouts of, “Welcome to the nerdy club!”
Sailor stepped in next, carrying a shovel and a hatchet. “This has been a fucked up year,” he said. “[But] I’m happier now. I’m about to bury a hatchet.” And then the girl in the circle with him kissed his cheek. … There are all sorts of dramas in the desert, but we’re not going to get into all of them.
And then there was Slim.
How can he even be here?
“I’ve had a hell of a year so far,” he began, and yes, you could say that. He’s gotten his cancer diagnosis, he’s faced the prognosis, he’s seen a support network spring up around him, he’s had surgery, and now he’s in the middle of another round of chemo. (We’re intentionally not being specific here; it’s for Slim to tell and say what he wants to say about his situation, and what he says and how he says it eclipses our little notebook.)
“I want to expand on something that Makeout Queen said,” Slim said, referencing Amber giving thanks to her team for helping her get through some tough times, too. “The support that we offer each other has made this year almost a fucking cakewalk for me. It extends beyond the next month or the next three months or however long you’re out here. It extends to the rest of your lives. We have each other’s backs five deep.
“When Tom Sawyer needed 25 grand for his last medical treatment, we came through for that in a couple of weeks. When I had a break in chemotherapy and I wanted to fuck off in New York and not think about my disease, and go see the most sought-after musical in the history of musicals, you fuckers got me a front row seat in 24 hours.
“This is year number 22 for me. And thanks to your love, and your support, and our strength, I am absolutely going to be back for year number 23.”
And then be banged the sledge on the spike and went back to cheering on the others.
Soon enough, Tony smashes a Champagne bottle on the spike, and on the third try, the bottle finally breaks, and the shards go everywhere. People rush in to pick up each piece. Everyone hangs around for a bit, but eventually the survey crew chases folks away, and they start laying out the grid of the city as the sun finally, mercifully, gets a little lower in the sky.
This piece of desert is still just a godforsaken “temporary autonomous zone” where anything can happen. Well, maybe not anything anymore, but a lot of things. And what happens? Out here you can sometimes feel that specialness of being human, without having to be self-conscious about it. How many times does that happen in your life? Maybe it happens for you more than it does for me. Maybe it happens for you where you worship. But, without wanting to get all cult-ish and New Age-y about it, this is that kind of place, too. Sacred, steeped in ritual, with articulated values. No apologies.
Radical self expression can take a lot of forms: artistic, mostly. But to be radically human, feel radically alive, feel radically accepted, feel a radical sense of belonging? Feel radically empowered to have someone’s back, just as they have yours? That’s probably not what the spike started out being, but it’s not a bad place to be right now.
End note: A veteran of the DPW, Rest Stop Buddy, has taken Spoono’s place as the cook for the Survey team. The coffee smelled good and the food even better on the first morning on the playa. Rest Stop was preparing Thai food for the evening meal. Not bad for the middle of the desert, right? But we noted that he’s got big shoes to fill.
“Not fill,” he corrected. “Standing alongside.”
True enough. Spoono will always be standing there in the desert alongside us. So will Tom Sawyer. RIP.
Here’s a bunch more pics: