A Hot Start

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.

Coyote asked for a moment of silence to remember those no longer with us

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:


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.

32 Comments on “A Hot Start

  • Rainmaker says:

    Thank you for all that you’re doing!!

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  • Misa says:

    Thank you Mr. Curley! <3

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  • Glenda says:

    good words to accompany your images….always enjoy your posts!

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  • Halcyon says:

    Damn, John. You gave me tears in my eyes and warm fuzzies inside. <3

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  • Stuart M says:

    Great work Curley!

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  • The Hustler says:

    Wonderful as always.

    I have an early-week bartender shift in Media Mecca, there’ll be a dusty beer waiting for you, on the house.

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  • John Curley says:

    thank you so much for reading, and for your kind comments

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  • BigBlueDoggy says:

    John, what is it about your writing that always brings me to tears? Your way of capturing and expressing the deep emotions surrounding Burning Man never ceases to amaze me. And the photos… even though I scarcely know most of the people in the pictures in person, I always feel so connected when I read about them and see the faces. Some I follow on social media just to feel connected thru the year. As a Burner mostly on the fringe of Burner society living a beyond full time career job in LA, my main connection is the 3 weeks a year I spend fully immersed in Burning Man, building our camp, spending time volunteering, seeing all of my friends from all over the world, making new friends. And then it’s over and I am back into the workaholic life I have chosen. So much loss this year in so many areas. Our camp is celebrating the life of one of our own who was with us last year but is now gone. And so many others… Somehow this silly camping trip to the desert has become my main focus of the year. It’s hard to explain to people, but in reading your words just now, it all makes sense. I need Burning Man. It redeems me and my life. I love and thank you all. See you soon!

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  • Catie Magee says:

    You always hit me smack in the heart with your writing, John. Your authenticity and honesty are so valued. You capture our essence not only in your photos but in your words as well. Thank you for telling the stories that make up the fabric of our city, our community, and our hearts.

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  • Ty Mckenzie says:

    living vicariously through you and your blog. I can’t thank you enough

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  • Stealth says:

    Between the evocative imagery of your writing and photos, I almost felt I was there: swinging the sledgehammer, sharing some lukewarm bubbly, a few tears sneaking out. Dusty hugs, John.

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  • Rio says:

    “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.”

    Like the Ship of Theseus, king of Athens: Was preserved by the Athenians to the time of Phalerus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among philosophers for the question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same and the other contending that it was not the same.

    Thanks John, can’t start my burn without your posts. Good to have you back!

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  • Burning Man doesn’t start for me until I’ve read all of John’s posts. Hello from Canada to you and the incredible crew out there putting in work. See you soon.

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    • diagonal says:

      I agree, Tangles. I’ve gone twice to BM, first in 2006. John Curley writing and pictures definitely marks the sperm hitting the egg for this annual event. Thank you John for spreading the feeling of being there at the month-long ‘starting line’.

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  • Opal Essence says:

    so lovely and yes, tears,
    tears of joy…,

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  • Tangles says:

    Reading your “Building Black Rock City” writings is one of my favorite things about Burning Man. Thank you so much!

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  • Boom Boom says:

    This is always the beginning — the real start of the adventure for me. Sure, my camp has had meetings, discussed equipment and layout, and I’ve been working on some new outfits, pouring over videos of last year, but your blog always marks the real beginning of the Burning Man experience for me. Thank you for sharing the real story of the building of the city in your heart-melting words and photos. The hard work and hard love that go into making our city make our experience. Thank you!

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  • John Curley says:

    again, thank you very much for reading and your extremely kind comments

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  • John says:

    You know it’s Burning Man season once Mr Curley starts his amazing stories and photographs!

    It’s always a pleasure to read your stories and your pictures are always marvelous!

    Can’t wait for more stories!

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  • Thank you, I look forward to your posts every year, and your moving photography/storytelling.

    Thank you my friend

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  • Hugz says:

    This is my third time coming Home, and each time I’ve been greeted by the anticipation built through the story-telling of John Curry. First in 2013, then in 2014 and again this year. I’m thrilled to be able to share with my friends who I’m bringing Home for the first time this important element of the experience. BRC is bigger than the week (or so) that we’re in the dust… and thanks to your story telling Curry we’re able to experience that — even if we can’t be there to help with it. THANK YOU is not enough. I wish I could meet you and give you a big hug to show my appreciation for this amazing gift you grant our community!

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  • can't wait says:

    Over the lips and past the gums, look out )'( here we come! – I hope the anticipation lasts!
    It’s sooooooo good!

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  • Catalyst says:

    Thank you John Curley. Your writing is beautiful.
    And so it begins…your posts always coincide with my mad scramble of preparing our camp gear and supplies each year. Your updates keep me motivated and moving ahead strong each day until I return home. See you in the dust.

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  • G-Man says:

    John: my only complaint is that we’re not hearing daily (ok: hourly) from you as the city rises from the dust.
    I am going to miss BRC for the first time in 24 years this season so thanks for being my virtual guide and avatar.

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  • beautiful post – it’s my 1st time & I’m enjoying the possibility to hear about its creation.

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  • cheryl says:

    …..when I see the media saying horrible things about Burning Man…I direct them here. Thank you!

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