Part of the blog series for the 2017 theme, Radical Ritual.
This year will be the 20th Black Rock City that I have etched into the desert, but it will be the 22nd Golden Spike that I will set. That’s because there was a county line border dispute in 1998 — the first year of the Golden Spike Ceremony — and I ended up setting it three times.
Sheriff Skinner of Pershing County didn’t much like Burning Man. In fact, he hated it. So much so, that he had flexed the powers of his office in the off-season to have the event banned from his county. And now Will Roger and I were riding around the south end of the playa in his blue Chevy pick up truck with a glitchy GPS trying to find the Pershing/Washoe county line.
“You sure the county line is this far south,” I asked Will. “We’re getting pretty close to Gerlach.”
“Yep, pretty sure. But the bad news is that this is where all the mud is.”
I had flown over the Black Rock Desert earlier that year and had seen the dark water stain that settled at the bottom funnel of the playa like the bilge of a boat — pretty much right where the county line sat.
“Well, this is it,” said Will, stopping the truck as we arrived at the GPS waypoint. “This is where the Man is supposed to be.”
We got out of the truck and stepped onto the dubious surface. It had a white crust like kosher salt with black mud just underneath.
“This is where everyone gets stuck every year,” said Will, shaking his head. “Some of this mud never dries out. It’s like we’re being told to stand in the corner. I think the Pershing County Sheriff wants us to fail.”
“We can’t have the event here,” I said. “We’d have 10,000 stuck in the muck! We’d need the National Guard to get us out.”
We stood with our arms folded as Will stared north. He was a man that questioned authority and was quick to buck a system when that system didn’t make any sense. We all were — it’s what launched us out to the playa in the first place.
“To hell with this!” he said, “Let’s drive north for a bit and get out of this mud. We’ll set the Man marker there. I want to make a ceremony out of this. Just like when they drove the golden spike for the transcontinental railroad. This is big what we’re doing out here, and I want to give it the proper reverence.”
“So you want a ‘Golden Spike’ ceremony tomorrow when we set this thing?”
“Sure — why not? I invited the Reno Gazette, the county commissioner, and a few other mucky mucks. I want to make a shebang out of this.”
“But we’ll be well into Pershing County.”
“You let me worry about that.”
The next day found a small group of people standing alone on a wind-whipped playa in a circle around a 12pound sledge hammer and a three-foot steel form stake that had been spray painted gold. Will gave a short speech about the unique nature of our city that springs forth out of nothing on the blank slate of the Black Rock playa.
It’s true that the entirety of Black Rock City really does start from a simple three-foot stake tapped into the ground. I often wonder if the playa can feel the pierce of it every year — like the pinprick of something new — and whether the playa is seasoned to the cycle of our city that explodes from a single point. I suppose it’s fitting that the first thing we do to Black Rock City every year is pierce its navel with gold jewelry.
Will finished his speech and after group photo shots for the Reno Gazette, he handed me the hammer.
“Coyote, the city is yours to build. Go ahead and set the spike.”
There was silence around me as I started tapping the stake with the same hammer I used to build the promenade my first year in ’96, and the same hammer I still use today. The ringing bell sound that it makes will always be woven into this ritual for me — like hearing that familiar old love song that’s braided into the flame of your first crush.
We passed the hammer around in a natural pecking order, and the honor become genuine as we realized we were setting the point that would become the hub of a community and a thousand dreams coming true.
After handshakes and hugs, Will, the county commissioner, the news reporters, and the mucky mucks climbed into their cars and trucks and vanished with the breezes leaving me alone with my crew.
There were six of us. We were the Dirty Half Dozen — a special force squad that was desert ready and determined. All we needed was an old blue forestry bus that we nicknamed “Blue Meanie”, water, flags, tortillas, and Spam. We were ready to build a city.
Trouble in Gerlach
“Coyote, Coyote — do you copy? This is Mr. Klean. Do you read me out there?”
The sound of the radio startled me. We had been cut off from outside contact and I had forgotten that it was hanging on my hip. It was the third day of survey and most of the curves of the new city grid were in.
Back then, there were only just a few radios so the survey work was done with flag semaphore much the way a ground crew guides a pilot into an airport gate.
I had an old antique railroad transit for sighting in the lines, and at those distances, the signal flags could only be seen at dawn and dusk when there was no shimmer, so we slept out under the stars and woke with the glow behind the eastern mountains to start work at first light. We still do.
“You got Coyote — I read you loud and clear. What’s up?”
“Coyote — I need you to stop survey right now and bring your crew into
Gerlach to the office. I’ve got some bad news.”
The next hour found us in the small town of Gerlach. We were sunbaked and uncomfortable as we crammed into the tiny office that was once the Gerlach jail.
“The BLM’s pissed and so is the Sheriff that we’re building the city in Pershing County,” said Will. “I figured I could talk some sense into them about the mud, but they’re not buying it. They want us to cease and desist and move the marker back into Washoe County, or they’ll revoke our usage permit. We have to pull up all the flags and start over.”
My crew was stunned. I was stunned. Will was holding his temper as his jaw muscles clenched. Three precious days of work was down the fucking drain, with the entire event just weeks away.
“We’re talking less than a mile here!” I said, “What difference does it make to them?”
“They just want us to stick to the original deal. They’re afraid that if they give us an inch, we’ll take a mile, which we kinda just did. It sucks, but that’s the way it is.”
On the Move
The Dirty Half Dozen sulked out of the jail and back onto Blue Meanie with grumbles and groans of ‘bullshit!’ Nothing kills a crew moral more than to undo the work just done, especially when each flag was fought for on a hot waterless playa.
We got back to the site and regarded the swooping lines of our work. The expanse before us seemed to care nothing of the arrogance of borders. They were just imaginary margins that were drawn by those who wished to divide.
“This is bullshit, I know,” I said, “But there’s nothing to be done, so let’s just get back at it. The show must go on.”
“Why? Why must the show go on,” asked Flynn. He was tall with a drawl, and held rebellion in his jaw like a cowboy’s cheroot cigar. There was silence as we all questioned the old saying for the first time. I suppose we all felt like upending some tables. And then the sad truth.
“Same reason as always, I guess — because we sold the god damn tickets.”
Now there were just six of us standing around the same 12-pound sledgehammer and three-foot steel form stake. Most of the gold paint had been chipped off the stake when we pulled it up and it no longer seemed like a golden spike of reverence to us. Now it was just more work to be done.
We had followed Will’s glitchy GPS into Washoe County to the spot where Will and I had first gone with the kosher salt surface and black mud. I went to the general area and stomped my foot down without ceremony.
“Let’s set the damn thing here.”
I picked up the stake and placed it with the hammer poised. The moment hovered for a bit with the tinge of an opportunity lost. I looked up and saw five disenchanted people with arms folded and eyes rolling to the mountains.
“Come on, you guys! Yeah, this is a set back, but we’re still going to have the event and burn the fucking man, right? They’re just mad because we’re having more fun than they are. A lot more fun!”
“Coyote’s right,” said Flynn, “It may be just the six of us, but it’s still the Golden Spike and it’s still our ceremony. Let’s get in a circle and do this right — sorta.”
We got in a circle. Flynn started chanting,
“Mumbo jumbo, mumbo jumbo — Burning Man is great — yeah yeah, so on and so forth, and yada yada.”
We all started cracking up and dancing around with our own versions of ‘mumbo jumbos’ and hoots and hollers — then ended with a group high five. And that was that. A ceremony’s a ceremony, no matter how small.
“Ok,” I said. “Let’s get to work. Now we have a chance to do it even better.”
Then the grand arcs of the city started forming out of the white slate of nothing with all the promise of a vibrant village soon to come, cruddy mud be damned!
“Coyote, Coyote — do you copy? This is Mr. Klean. Do you read me out there?”
We were two days into our survey for the second time when Will called to tell us to stop and come into Gerlach — again. And now we were back in the jail office, hot, sweaty and uncomfortable, but this time a BLM Ranger was crammed in there with us.
“This is Ranger Bilbo,” said Will. “He’s an environmental agent that has been studying this playa for years. You might have seen us out there when you were working. We were testing the playa surface for mud.”
Ranger Bilbo sat with his legs crossed. He had a weathered kindness in his eyes and seemed a bit gangly and nerdy with his floppy desert hat and tan khakis. Though he was law enforcement with a badge and gun, he seemed more like a boy scout than a cop. I liked him right away.
“Ranger Bilbo agrees with us that it would be a potential state of emergency to hold the event on the current site. So we took our claim to Terry Reed, the head of the Winnemucca BLM Department, who asked how far we would have to move to get out of the mud. Ranger Bilbo told him about a half a mile, which turns out to be the original site that I had picked on that first day. So — he granted us the half mile.”
Will and Ranger Bilbo sat quiet. Will was biting his lower lip and waiting for the real truth to sink in.
“Are you telling me what I think you’re telling me?” I asked. “That we’re going to have to pull all the flags yet again and start survey for a third god-damn time?”
“I only have one question.”
“Is Sheriff Skinner pissed?”
“Well, I guess we’d better get back out there, then.”
“There’s one weird kicker,” Will went on. “Moving the city just half a mile doesn’t put it all the way into Pershing County. The back of the city grid and the gate will still be in Washoe. We’ll be straddling the county line. And check this — Sheriff Skinner is already threatening to establish this border through the city and prohibit nudity on the Pershing side.”
“Good luck with that,” said Flynn. “That would be a harder border to enforce than the Rio Grande!”
The Final Spike
I drove the Dirty Half Dozen back out to the playa in the Blue Meanie. Nobody spoke as we munched on tortillas and spam. We spent the rest of the day pulling up the flags we had just put in, then finally pulling up the Golden Spike itself.
The next morning we followed the GPS back to the spot that had hosted the fanfare of the first Golden Spike ceremony. Its memory seemed like an escaped balloon drifting off into a tiny speck. The reporters were gone. The county commissioner was gone. Will was back in Gerlach and the mucky mucks didn’t know that we existed.
Without a word, the crew fanned out to the south and started getting into position to wait for my flag signals. And now, I was left standing alone. On the ground in front of me was a 12-pound sledgehammer and a dirty three-foot steel form stake that had a couple flecks of gold paint still left at the top.
This was the real Golden Spike ceremony of 1998. It was one born of frustration and strife. It was filled with anger toward the idiotic. It was set in spite of the ludicrous world that shunned it and was not to be forgotten. This was the true forge of a lasting ritual.
I picked up the hammer, placed the spike into its original hole and hammered it in with a fury. But it was not without its speech of reverence. It was only heard by the snickering gods of the desert playa and muttered through clenched teeth.
“WHAT THE FUCK EVER!!!”
Top photo by John Curley