Suddenly a City

In a day, we went from working in the Black Rock Desert to becoming citizens of Black Rock City, and we welcomed friends and family and alumni and artists and townspeople and anyone who could manage to make it out onto the playa last night.

The occasion was the Early Man burn, the first big one of the season, when the crews that have been out here building the city get together to burn their ever-more-extravagant wooden effigies.

The HEAT crew made a giant margarita dispenser, and they named it Cuervo, honoring their new leader. They mixed up 10 gallons of the juice, and it was gone in an hour. (We heard they were delicious, but despite our best reportorial efforts, we cannot provide a first-hand report.) The Special Projects team had a lava flow of pine pitch, the better to brighten their burn. The Commissary crew had a miniature feeding tent, a desert diorama.

It all felt a little like a high school reunion, on prom night. Lots of people put on finery, and Austintateous continued her tradition of dressing up as somebody else. This year she appeared as Nice from the Shade crew, and of course she was smashing. And Nice herself had made it out from New York City just in time to appreciate the effort.

Coyote repeated the story of the Early Man at the morning meeting, as only he can do. In the late ‘90s, the survey team had spiked the playa where the Man would go, but then they couldn’t locate the spike when they went looking for it. So they did it again, and to mark the spot, this time they built a little wooden Man. Everyone grew fond of the little guy, and when it came time to put up the real Man, Will Roger decided that they should burn the early version as a sign of their affection and appreciation. And there’s been an Early Man burn ever since, and each crew creates its own effigy, and they are all burned at once on the Saturday a week before Burning Man opens its gates.

Dave X made the rounds beforehand, going over the plans, and making sure that everyone understood the importance of fire safety. “Ok, so after you pour your fuel,” he was telling Jeff, “you step back, and when I give the signal, you light your road flare. Do you know how to light a road flare?” It seemed like a fair question to us, but Jeff said Dave goes over the same instructions with them every year, so he pretty much had it down.

Then the flares were lit, and the igniters advanced in a wave of red. Fireworks had been planted in among the wooden sculptures, and they flared and soared all around us. Soon everything was ablaze, and people oohed and ahhhed and took their pictures, their faces lit by the orange glow.


As the fires wore down, people made their way back to Flip’s rolling bar from the Ghetto. The bar, operating out of the back of a pickup, has been busy of late, with engagements at First Camp, the Black Hole, the Ghetto, the Green Bikes, the Transfer Station …at all the places that have held socials in the past week or so. It’s been a busy season.

Further down the fire line, That Damned Band played a few numbers, and people milled about, catching up with new arrivals. Some, like Garlington and Phoenix and Shalaco and Foxtrot and Sarah and lots of others, were in Black Rock City just for the night. Unable to make the entire season, they knew that this was the last night that the playa would feel like a very small, mostly working-class town. The artists and big theme camps will be rolling in on Monday, and the city population will swell, and you’ll no longer feel like you could eventually get to know just about everyone. The city will become home to 70,000 people.

Wait, what?? Opening Day is just a week away?? Unfathomable. But here it comes.

Sunday dawned bright and hot, like all the other days for weeks, but the wind has kicked up a bit, and the dust was starting to blow. In the early afternoon, a tornado-like plume made its way up 5:30 and then veered off to the trash fence, coating the normally placid walk-in camping areas with a nice thick layer of playa.

This day felt maybe a little less hot than all the days that preceded it, but the thermometer in our camp read 101 in the shade at 2 pm, so you couldn’t really say that things have cooled off much.

There are thunderstorms in the forecast, with a 20-30 percent chance tonight, and 30 percent tomorrow. We’re used to hearing predictions that never come to pass, of course, and we’ll keep our fingers crossed about this one.

Here are some 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.

3 Comments on “Suddenly a City

  • Major Blaze says:

    Thank you Curley for another look into a place and time I could not be. I really enjoy the tapestry of words and photos you create. I loved the photos and liked how you showed so many faces and the size of the crowd, wow! I would love to be there for those moments, and I am grateful I can come to the burn this year!

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  • The Hustler says:

    It seems like Burning Man went from “I hope I can go this year, I’ll worry about it in a few months,” to getting on a Reno-bound plane at 0-Dark:30 Friday morning.

    I’ll just skate in to make the end of the Media Mecca meeting (leaving my unpacked gear in a near pile in a designated space in Journeylizm) the day before the gates open.

    This year was epic, for good or ill. I have reasons (lost 2 this time) to go to the temple, but also reasons to celebrate.

    So, see you in a few days.

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  • Kaitlyn says:

    A great retrospective of the experience!

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