Season Premiere

The deep thinkers of Burning Man beat us to the playa this year, and we’re not quite sure what to make of it all.

You see, the Golden Spike ceremony is usually the first thing that happens as the Black Rock Desert begins its transformation into Black Rock City. It takes place towards the end of July, a good four weeks before the gates open for the actual Burning Man event.

It is a very workmanlike progression. In the early years, Burning Man was kind of a shapeless chaotic happening that took place in a stunningly beautiful yet godforsakenly hot and barren stretch of desert about two hours northeast of Reno.

But then the late great Rod Garrett was asked to and came up with a plan that would not only bring some order to the chaos of the city, but also encourage its exploration, because one would be freed from the very appropriate yet no less unnerving worries about being, say, run over by a car, or burned to death.

Garrett’s city design was beautiful, with radiating waves of humanity all bunkered in proximity, the better to get to know each other, and with wide expanses of desert reserved for art and inspiration and, as it has turned out, extravagant all-night dance parties.

(There is more, so much more, but we can get to all that later.)

But for now, it all begins with the Golden Spike, where the hard-living folks who will build the city come together to drive a ceremonial stake into the ground, marking the spot upon which the Man will be built.

Coyote asks the crowd to gather round the spike

Larry Harvey and his philosophizing posse took the pomp and ceremony that has sprung up around the spike and used it as one of the prompts for this year’s Radical Ritual theme.

When workers of the DPW, our Department of Public Works, arrive in the Black Rock Desert, their first task is to locate the exact position of the Burning Man, for it is from this very spot that our entire city is surveyed. Then a gilded metal stake is pounded in the ground, and over many years this action has evolved into a ritual. Each member of the crew takes up a hammer, and with a single stroke, imparts an ounce of energy that is confluent with their common effort; in some sense they’ve created Burning Man.

 And you can absolutely believe that every person present on this very hot afternoon believes to the very depths of their souls that yes, indeed, they’ve created Burning Man. They will build, as they like to say, the largest art project on the playa – the city itself.

And that’s why it is so easy for the people at Spike to treat the ceremony with such honor and respect.

That’s why there are costumes, and speeches, and Champagne, and cigars. That’s why people drive, fly, train and hitch to get here in time. It is why Tony Coyote, the superintendent of the city, brings his family with him, to let his boys hit the spike, as well. Because it’s about honor and pride and craftsmanship … and family.

In his theme writing, Larry goes on to say:

This year’s theme is an attempt to reinvent ritual in our post post-modern world. For this purpose, we will disregard assertions of belief and concentrate instead on the immediate experience of play….

We are certainly down with that. After all, there isn’t much bringing us together in the grander ways, is there? When is the last time you had a sense of common purpose with your neighbor? How about at work? How about, oh my god, in the political realm? Do you feel we are advancing inexorably toward a more fulfilling and satisfying future, and the inevitable advancement of the species?

No, of course we don’t feel any of those things, because why should we?

So you go to the church or the synagogue or the mosque, or cheer for the Dodgers or the Warriors or the Patriots, and you look maybe more desperately than ever for some sense of belonging, of being welcome, of being necessary.

And what do you get? You get none of those things, or not enough to nurture you.

So there, overly simply, is the motivation to start packing for Burning Man, because goddamn it if fire spewing hundreds of feet in the air, and sculptures delicately carved out of metal, and vehicles too improbable to be imagined don’t all lead us to start saying the same thing: “Yeah, THAT is amazing, and I want to play, and let’s do something amazing together.”

The more you can imagine, the wilder and more fun it will be, and the better it will make us all feel in the end. It’s not the sex or the drugs or the dancing all night that draws these fire-lit snowflakes together, it’s the wow. And the wow must be held sacred, and it is perfectly correct to surround it with ritual, so others may know that it is special and central to your life.


Family gathering



Ok, now that the throat-clearing portion of the dispatch is finished, why don’t we just get to what happened out there this time?

Well, you might already know, because it has happened the same way many times before. Twenty times, actually (although you can read Coyote for the official total).

Tony is always the first to grip the now-bent sledgehammer (which this year was on loan, incredibly, from a museum that is commemorating Burning Man’s years in the desert. The hammer was due back to the museum after the ceremony, presumably under police escort.)

Coyote calls the group to attention, and he soon passes the hammer to Will Roger, the founder of Burning Man’s Department of Public Works, and a person who’s been out there every year since there were only four people around for the occasion – himself, Tony, Rod Garrett and rep from the Bureau of Land Management.

And Will says he’s thankful to there, thankful for the work that will be done to create the city, yet he seems somehow subdued this year. He’s not wearing a big cowboy hat or bandana. He’s not wearing his DPW denim that is covered with patches collected over the many years. He’s not smoking a fat cigar.

He talks briefly later about the cycle of the seasons, about the distances he’s traveled on his personal journey since he first started showing up here. He talks about the passing of time. He lives part of the time in Gerlach now, and every evening he’s here, he walks a labyrinth he’s built in his backyard.

Will Roger takes a turn

Will takes a swipe at the spike and then passes the sledge to Charlie “Louder” Dolman, the event operator brought in several years ago to manage operations at the site. Charlie brought lots of event experience with him, but he says that what’s he’s been reminded of since he got to Burning Man is the importance of family. “I came here after doing other events, but they didn’t have the Burning Man feel. … The org could save a lot of money by having someone else do it,” but they’ve chosen to keep the work in the family.

Charlie makes a bit of news when he says that the organization is seeking a ten-year permit from the BLM, putting greater importance on how things are done this year.

But the theme that came up most often was family. This was the family that some of these people never had, or it was the family that they had chosen, or the family that they finally had felt a part of. When Nips took the sledge, her four-month-old was nestled in a pack slung across her chest. When she put the pack down, she raised her baby in her arms, and the crowd chanted, “One of us! One of us! One of us!’

Slim had something important to say, as he often does on occasions like this. He said this year, as he dealt with cancer, he learned the difference between, or the importance of separating, intention and outcome.

“If you come here with a certain expectation, this environment, this landscape, is going to fuck it up. … You have to have an intention in order to make anything happen (but) you just can’t be attached to a specific outcome.”

And then Slim got even more personal “To have this be my outcome, to be with you and be a part of all we are about to create together, is the biggest gift I could hope for.”

Slim and the crooked sledge

And on it went, for an hour or so, person after person saying thank you, I feel like myself here, I am welcome here, I found a family here. It was intimate, it was personal, and it was private, so we’ll let most of the particulars stay out there in the open sky.

After the elegance of beauty and power of the speechifying was finished, it was time to get to work. The survey team shooed away the revelers and began to lay out a circle 400 feet from the spike, which would describe the fire perimeter on Burn night 37 days hence. Then they put up the fancy new Octagon, the open-air, eight-sided structure that would provide some shelter from the desert as they camp out for the week.

The Survey team is the one and true First Camp on the playa, and those folks might be some of the most fortunate people on the planet. That first night — Thursday night — was almost impossibly perfect. Dead calm, cool but not chilly, and the sky so full of stars it made you believe they couldn’t all be real. It was a Hubble print come to life.

They lit the Burn barrel, brought out the guitars, and passed the whiskey. The crescent moon sank lower and lower in the sky, and the Milky Way grew brighter and brighter. Soon there was only darkness and the sound of voices – some singing, some shouting a story, lots of people laughing.

As he stood off a little ways away from the fire, Bruka was musing. “This is really it,” he said. “This is what Burning Man is trying to get back to.”

The season has begun again.

As the moon set, the firelight grew brighter


An update on conditions:

What’s happened to the serpents? The thigh-busters? The snake-y mounds of piled-up playa that force you to dismount your bike as you make your way out to the Temple?

Why, it would appear they are … gone.

As always with Black Rock City, though, your results may vary. Still, we found the finally-dry floor of long-ago Lake Lahontan to be flatter and smoother than any conditions we’ve previously encountered. YES WE HAVE BEEN FOOLED BEFORE by wide swaths of flat playa that led to overgeneralized remarks about the whole playa, but this year’s rains and runoff seem to have done their job. It is mighty flat out there.

There is about an inch or so of dried-up mud on the surface now, formed over the past month or so as the sun finally baked away the standing water that had covered the playa for months.

But all that water seems to have flattened the entire area. The only visible remnants of Burning Mans past are the faint tracks still remaining on Haul Road, the main entrance and exit point during the build.

We’d say, though, that the news is not all good. That crumbly surface layer is going to break down easily as traffic comes and goes, and when the wind begins to blow, as it most assuredly will, those tiny broken-down particles are going to go airborne. So yes, it is going to be dusty.

Can you imagine? Dust in Black Rock City? But the question seems to be how epic the dust will be this year. We’re sure we don’t have to tell you, but we will anyway: Be prepared. Goggles and facemasks would seem a particularly good idea this year.

A few 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.

42 Comments on “Season Premiere