That Was the Week That Was

Did you get a lot done this week? We kinda did.

Roads are in, power is on, bunks are filled, and there are even rumors that the internet is about to appear. In general, things here in Black Rock City are in a full-throated roar.

The Man is taking shape, the Temple is rising and the Catacomb of Veils is being outlined in the dust. The Veils crew has been here for awhile, the better to get a jump on their giant project. Dan and Fonzie were saying hello to  drop-ins at the site at sunset Saturday, and their excitement at having boots on the ground was already comingling with the realization of the task at hand. “It’s a marathon,” Sullivan said.

We’re told that the Catacomb is going to have the largest footprint of any structure ever built at Burning Man, bigger even than Kiwi’s Temple of Transition. At about 20,000 square feet, the Catacomb is going to be simply massive.

And that’s a bit of an emerging theme this year: go big or go home. The Man (and Man Base) is super large. There’s an entire town square being built around the rotating Man, where artisans and makers will be plying their trades and crafts, much in the Renaissance style.

So it’s a little more than a week in, and we’re well-launched. We thought we’d make the rounds and touch various bases and get some status reports from around the playa.

But before we start, though, we should note that yes, it is still hot. Like, really hot. Yes, yes, it’s a dry heat (humidity under 10 percent), but it’s been hot for days and days, and the forecast is for days and days of more of the same. The thing is, after a while you start to take the heat personally. It gets to you. It gets under your skin. It weakens your will. It makes you want to break things. You’re sick of it.

Ok, maybe it’s just us.

But we have to be thankful, too. Not just because we’re in an amazing place doing amazing things, but also because the weather has been relatively benign. The nights have been impossibly perfect. There has been no wind. No rain. No lighting, no hail. How long can it stay like this? We don’t know, obviously, but it’s been a welcome change from the plagues of recent years. It’s been hot enough to think of fire and brimstone, but there haven’t been any locusts, so on balance we’re taking a positive view of things.

So here are a few snippets about some of the people who are making all this happen. All of them could and should get full-length stories, personality profiles, multiple portraits, but we’re just not that good or that fast. In the interest of getting a sense of what’s going on and who’s getting it done, here are a few quick hits:

Cuervo in the HEAT yard
Cuervo in the HEAT yard

Cuervo is the new sheriff in town over in the HEAT yard (heavy equipment and transportation). He’s filling the big boots Chaos left behind when Chaos was bumped up to become the major domo of the city build, or whatever his official job title is.

So it’s Cuervo at the helm of HEAT now, managing about 50 people, and getting the right pieces of equipment to the right places at the right time to make sure that the city and the art get built.

Cuervo is no newcomer to HEAT, so that helps the transition. He was the transpo manager previously, and one of Chaos’s key people. But still, it’s still a big step up, and so far, so good. “The most important thing I do is take care of my number one resource – my people,” he says.

“I worked my way up, so I know what it’s like to be a small part of a big operation. … I always worked hardest for the people I thought cared about me, and now I want to be the person that inspires other people. … I need them a lot more than they need me.”

Don’t you wish you had a boss who thought that way?

Switch and Shade minding Point One
Switch and Shade minding Point One

Things are relatively slow at the Point One entrance to Black Rock City. There are only two Gate folk on hand at the moment, Switch and Shade, and the number of cars and trucks coming and going is light. The two of them have sophisticated handsets that are used to check people’s credentials, and the system has been working well. It’s still early, but a good start is better than a bad one.

There are other signs that the digital systems are functioning well. Picking up credentials in Gerlach couldn’t have been easier. You need a wristband and a vehicle pass to get on the playa now, but if you’ve got the necessary paperwork, your path is smooth. In the Commissary, Marco and his folks are scanning laminates and keeping track of numbers, and it’s all working without a hiccup.

Back at Point One, Switch and Shade (and the other Gate people) will be checking people on the way OUT of the city, as well as on the way in. If you don’t check out, you can’t check back in on the same pass, so when you get here, don’t think of trying to rotate a vehicle pass to pals back in town. It’s not going to work.

Switch is a marine biologist in Orange County, and we guess that it makes sense that she’s standing guard at the entrance to an ancient lakebed. And Shade has worked in Thunderdome as well as Gate, and she’ll likely pull some harnessing shifts in the dome this year, too. Wearing black is suitable for both jobs, so she’s got that covered.

It doesn't matter whom they're for; Florida Man gets the trailers ready
It doesn’t matter whom they’re for; Florida Man gets the trailers ready

Florida Man is scrambling in and out of the rows and rows of janky trailers and RVs that line the road down near the Depot. We never really knew there were so many RVs in the world until we started coming to Burning Man. These trailers, though, are BMTs (Burning Man Trailers), and their … um … vintage condition means they need a lot of attention. It’s a Whack-A-Mole situation, though, because as soon as one gets fixed, another pops up with problems.

Some trailers have plumbing, and some don’t. The ones that do had sanitizer pumped into their lines in preparation for the season, and now it’s time to get it out and get them ready for occupants.

Florida Man is officially the HVAC and Plumbing lead for the Housing crew, and he’s a man in much demand these days. “Who are all these trailers for?” I asked. He looked at us with a puzzled expression, like it didn’t seem to matter. The trailers just had to be made ready, that’s all, and they had to keep working, and that was that. So he went on about his business, and we went on with ours. (For the record, though, most of the trailers are for people who will be working during the event and need a place to get out of the sun and dust to be able to function properly on the job.)

In Kat's lair
In Cat’s lair

You can see Cat buzzing back and forth across Black Rock City on her motorbike at almost any time. During the day she’s going from one tech job site to another, maybe checking the communications towers, generally doing the things that need doing to bring the internet to Black Rock City. We really couldn’t function without it, and no, it’s not because we just can’t live without Snapchat and Facebook. All manner of systems here depend on a functioning and robust network, and Camera Girl and Kat and the rest of the tech team are the ones who make it go. And the demand is always increasing.

Three 60-foot towers are up on the playa already, and there are 53 department sites that need the internet, up from 45 last year. Lots of them use Salesforce and other related programs, and they all need the network to function.

So Cat and the others have lots of work to do. But Cat likes to ride, and her morning and evening commute is on two wheels in the middle of the desert. If you see a trailer with a big black cat on the top, with its head rotating back and forth, you’ve entered Cat’s lair.

Summer time at the Depot
Summer time at the Depot

Summer Burke is a writer and a singer and a guitar picker, and during the build you can find her working Dispatch at the Depot, fielding calls from various departments, handing out radios and generally keeping the lines of communication open. She keeps the memory and spirit of Burning Man’s beginnings alive through both her writing and her manner. She writes for this here Burning Man Journal, too, and her bio says that she’s not a burner, but we think she is. “I think John Law said it best,” she says. “Burning Man is the logical extension of punk rock. … We do it because people will dig it.”

Blackthorn loading the rig
Blackthorn loading the rig

Blackthorn has been the leader of the Spires install team almost as long as we can remember. He’s also a terrific musician and songwriter, and he married his longtime sweetheart, Sam X, in Austin in the offseason. Blackthorn is hard-ass and tireless, but also thoughtful and observant, with insights at the ready.

There is a mix of old faces and new recruits on the Spires team. “We’ve got a lot of energy and positivity on the crew this year,” Blackthorn says, knowing that his words will be fit for consumption by a wide audience. He probably notices the groaning look on our face, so he quickly adds, “but we’ll beat it out of them.”

We’ve done lots of stories about the hard-working Spires crew, counted the number of greater and lesser spires, pounded a few bases ourselves, so we won’t repeat all that today. But we’ll say that it’s a fine thing to have committed veterans like Blackthorn around, because the values of hard work and community get passed on to the next generation by people like him.

Gary checking out the gear
Gary checking out the gear

There’s a big crane sitting in the open playa, as if it’s on display at a used crane lot. Gary is climbing in and around it, putting it through its paces before the heavy equipment yard will sign for delivery. “If it doesn’t check out, we’ll send it right back,” he says.

Gary is one of the crane operators whom the makers of big art call when they want an operator with both a decisive and delicate touch. He’s a stickler and plays things by the book, so it makes sense to have him be the one who checks out the new equipment.

Juicy Jake at the Ghetto
Juicy Jake at the Ghetto

Juicy Jake is the leader of the Ghetto team, and he’s the one who has to make sure that the workers have living spaces and arrangements that keep them ready to do the hard stuff of building the city. He seems to get a bit more dialed in to the job every year he has it.

The façade of the Ghetto got a makeover this year, the result of a work weekend in June. It reminds us of a storefront in the ghost town of Rhyolite, but it has stoops out that welcome people to sit down and talk for a bit.

Jake was born in Worcester, Mass., but there’s no trace of New England accent. “I moved to Cali in ’07,” he says, “and I have a fast-paced work ethic, and a fast-paced speech style. People would say, wtf did he just say??” So he slowed down, enunciated his words, and lost his accent. “But it still comes out when I’m with” people from New England.

Jake picked up his first consultancy gig this week: a new pod is taking shape at Utilities Village, and Mary Poppins brought Jake over to brainstorm how to do it like Jake does it in the Ghetto. If he can help set up another camp space that works as well as the Ghetto, it’ll be a big addition to Black Rock City.

End notes: Alaric Moore from the Ghetto Commissary crew is organizing a blackout of Black Rock City for 11 pm on Wednesday of event week. Here’s the key info: What: Turn off your lights. Why: So we can see the stars. Who: All of BRC, that means maybe you! We’ll have more about it as the date approaches, but for now, think about how cool it would be if Black Rock City went dark for an hour in the middle of the event. The stars would pop, brother, the stars would pop. Can we get 70,000 people to stop and look up together at the night sky? Let’s see … The wind picked up slightly on Sunday morning, and there was a weather service warning for a dry lightning storm starting at 10 pm. Lighting and wind are a bad combination for brush fires. …



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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