Monday Rolling

There was a chill in the air this morning for the first time we could remember. Maybe it was because we were up before the sun, but it still felt good to wear a hoodie on the trek for coffee.

“This is my morning outfit,” Victoria said at the entrance to the Commissary, gesturing toward her layers and tights. “Then in an hour it’ll all come off because it’s too hot.”

Still, in the moment, it felt good to be a little cold. Monday was the start of the second week of work here in the desert, and the energy and enthusiasm is palpable.

Anna “Auntie” Social pulled up in the passenger seat of the dusty red pickup Sunday night, seemingly without a care in the world. The sun had just set, and there was beautiful color in the sky, and the evening glow seemed to make her face even more radiant.

She had asked if we could come by and take a few pictures of her performance, if that’s the right word, and as she leaned out the window, we started talking about what kind of pictures she might want. Something close and intimate, or maybe from a wider perspective, showing the atmosphere and scene? We honestly weren’t sure of what would be appropriate for the occasion.

Just then our eyes wandered down, and we noticed the shining silver hooks that were poking out through the skin on her thighs, and the gauze taped to her wounds. She had already been pierced, and yet here she was, sitting in the truck, smoking a cigarette, sipping water, composed as could be, trying to make sense of the questions we were posing.

Anna was about to be suspended from the wings of an art piece, the Scultura di Colletivo by Kyle Larrain, in front of the HEAT yard. Milo was doing the rigging, and a crowd of people had gathered, some new to the experience, like us, and some veteran aficionados.

Suspension has some history in Black Rock City. We were told later that the AMF – the Aesthetic Meat Foundation – used to stage events here. They’d suspend someone from the back of a truck, then drive all around Black Rock City.

This evening’s performance didn’t have that carnival quality to it. When Annie was slowly lowered onto the hooks, the crowd hushed. The sky was mostly dark now, but every now and then a light would flash and illuminate Annie’s face. She looked very much at peace.

“This high is going to keep me going for hours,” Anna said later, when she showed up, incredibly, at a party at the center café. Anna was also at the 7 a.m. DPW meeting at the Depot, ready for a full day of work.

The night before, she had been tethered, almost ironically, to a pair of wings, from where she took flight on her interior journey to conquer pain. And now, on this otherwise routine Monday morning, here she was, ready to begin her relatively routine day.

The desert is full of contrasts. This was another one.

Addendum, 8/16): Any story about a suspension should include a bit more about the support team that is so important for a success. In addition to Milo, who did the rigging (or, as we initially and idiotically called it, the stringing), Taryn aka Dahlia assisted with the piercing, rigging, and lowering, and Gage (or is it Gauge? we apologize in advance) and John Bastaard helped with the lowering. The level of trust and concentration necessary was impressive to witness. Even as Anna hung in the air, tears rolled down Taryn’s cheeks, tears of joy, elation, connection.  

We have some history reporting about creepy crawly things in the desert, but you can’t blame us for this one. Jessica posted a picture the other day of a beautiful, but terrifying, creature that she found in Gerlach. The critter is a tarantula hawk, and we should point out a few things right away: 1) it was dead; 2) this was the only one that has been spotted; and 3) there is no infestation.

But still. This thing is terrifying.

wasp image

The tarantula hawk is a kind of wasp that preys on, you guessed it, tarantulas. It uses its three-quarter-inch stinger to paralyze the spider. Then it pulls it back to its nest, where it lays its eggs on the spider’s abdomen. When the larvae emerge, they eat the spider, alive, from the inside out.

Oh, and if one of them should sting you? Here’s how Wired magazine described the experience: “There are some vivid descriptions of people getting stung by these things,” says invertebrate biologist Ben Hutchins of Texas Parks and Wildlife, “and their recommendation—and this was actually in a peer-reviewed journal—was to just lie down and start screaming, because few if any people could maintain verbal and physical coordination after getting stung by one of these things. You’re likely to just run off and hurt yourself. So just lie down and start yelling.”


Cassandra Griffin, aka Bear Trap, works in town at the Saloon during the weeks leading up to the event. She’s a haircutter but has stepped away from salon life. “I found my personal bandwidth was getting taken up by my clients, and I didn’t have any left over for my own life,” she said. Meaning, she cared a lot about how little Bobby did on his math test, because the mom sitting in her chair was worried about it, and she found her own concerns being crowded out of her life.

She makes sure that things are going smoothly in the staff areas of the Saloon. You can grab a shower, do your laundry, generally just sit in the cool and dark for a little bit and take a break from the heat and dust. “The org really saw that it was helping people, so they said ok to it again this year,” she said.

On the playa, Cassandra will give haircuts to crew people, too. She’d been doing it for awhile, but Pinecone down at the transfer station came up with a solution to the moop problem that the hair clippings were causing. Bear Trap’s new salon space is in one of the giant steel recycling containers that don’t get filled until after the event.

Coyote at the OSHA training
Coyote at the OSHA training

There’s a lot of personal and professional self-improvement happening here in here in Black Rock City, which is kind of surprising when the common impression of Burning Man is a weeklong descent into Bacchanalia.

Just yesterday, another 40 people completed an OSHA training course that Coyote gave in the Black Rock Saloon. That brought the total number of people Coyote has certified to 174 since the organization started the program last year.

“It’s a good thing to have on your resume,” Andrej was saying afterward. And while it customarily costs between $150-$300, you can get it here for free, so why wouldn’t you do it?

Similarly, John, aka Chickenbone, has been training new operators for the skid steers over at HEAT, and this year there are three new operators, all of them women. “It makes sense,” Chickenbone was saying, “because that box (that you sit in) is really small.” The Black Rock Desert is a good training ground for heavy equipment operators: There are many experienced people on hand to tutor and mentor, and the flat desert makes for a good place to practice.

Meanwhile, KJ, aka Oh My God, reminded people at the morning meeting that the third of four manager-training sessions will be held tomorrow, and she invited everyone who has a new role in the organization to come and get some guidance. “You can hang out with your fellow people and talk about how it is to manage people in this strange environment,” she said.

And there are other, less formal, get-togethers where people share knowledge. There will be a sewing meet-up in the Commissary this evening, the better to learn how to sew your patches onto your hoodies. Of course, there will be more sophisticated stuff going on, but we know where we’re headed.

And Wee Heavy also reminded people that if they have questions about issues involving trans folk, well, here’s the place to find it.

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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