The Gang’s All Here for Early Man

People are pouring into Black Rock City now. Most of the newcomers are getting their art ready, and soon people from more of the big Theme Camps will join them. The work will reach a crescendo in the coming days, a period that is known now as Build Week. It’s the last frantic final push to get the stage set for participants, who will come through the Gate in less than a week for the start of Burning Man 2017.

There are very distinct and separate elements to the Burning Man season, and we reached another one last night at Early Man.

Like almost everything else in Black Rock City, ritual has grown up around what began as a very pedestrian, workmanlike event. Years ago, when there weren’t so many people here working on the city, they’d mark the spot where the Man would be built with a spike, and that would be that.

But one year, Tony Coyote will tell you, they lost sight of the spike. They couldn’t find where the Man would go. So, to make the spike easier to find, they built a small mini-Man, to make it easier to find the center of Black Rock City amid the vastness of the desert.

When that first Early Man had fulfilled his purpose, crews wanted to honor his service, so of course they burned him, in a ceremony that came to be known as Early Man.

Bee’s Knees was out patrolling the lines.

But it’s not just one little Man that is burned now; many crews now build their own effigies to torch. It’s a way of relieving the tension and pressure of the build, and it’s a nice social get-together for everybody who has been working out here in their own private Idahos.

The last time there was such a big get-together was when the fence was finished, more than two weeks ago. But there was nothing formal about that gathering — it was just a late-afternoon break to mark the completion of some very hard work.

Early Man is different. It’s more social, and people raise their games for it. There are costumes and general finery. As Bullwinkle said after dinner and before heading out, “Hey, I gotta get dolled up.” Many people joined him.

Early Man is also the time that newcomers make their presence felt. It is no longer just construction crews who are here in the desert; there are many more support staffers here, and, for one night, the friends and families of the workers are welcomed on playa for the festivities.

Which is of course, great — but it is also … different. Instead of there being only a small cadre of people you know, there are now hundreds and hundreds of people you don’t know. And that’s a reminder that when the Gate open, the city will be filled with people you don’t know. So it’s natural to feel maybe just a little distance from the people who are just arriving.

The porta-potty

But no matter. Every new person who arrives brings more of the awesome with them, and that’s as it should be.

And this day and evening were shaping up magnificently.

Down at the Gate, cars were lining up to get into the city. Some were passenger cars packed to the roof with … stuff. There were trailers, too, and all manner of racks and luggage carriers.

There were only a few staffers at the Box Office and the Gate, but honestly, things went so smoothly it didn’t seem to matter. Check-in took maybe 30 seconds. Getting through the Gate took a little longer, because Early Man complicates things.

People coming in just for the night have to be identified and kept track of, so it can be assured that they’ll be leaving in the morning. Bee’s Knees was out there working the lines, and she knows the area well. She helped pound all the stakes on Gate Road, and she helped put out all the thousands of cones that line Gate Road, and now she was taking her shift on Gate, Perimeter and Exodus. “It’s like working Survey,” she said of the early work. “It helps to know where everything is.”

The sky started going off again around sunset, which seems to happen almost every night. The skies are a bit hazy from distant fires, and there were just enough clouds to provide a dramatic backdrop for just about everything. Again, folks gathered on the western edge of the Ghetto to ogle the orange glow, but it won’t be long before the views are obstructed. Best to take it all in now.

Finally it was time to head out. The Lamplighters had already done their thing — all of the spires on the 6:00 promenade had glowing lanterns hanging from them. And what’s that? Why it’s the Man himself, now standing upright in his pagoda, his familiar face outlined in glowing neon.

The lighting teams were also testing their gear on the roof, and it made for a beautiful scene in the gathering darkness. We can’t recall a time when the Man Base looked so welcoming for the throngs heading out to Early Man.

Cuervo, the head of the HEaT crew, came up with an ingenious way of involving some of the most overlooked — but important — people in the community art project that is the building of Black Rock City – the people who service the porta potties. There is no doubt that we simply could not survive here without them. And can you think of another group that is so ignored? That you just don’t want to think about? But they are here every day, doing what needs to be done, in the heat and nose-stinging stench.

As the time to torch all the effigies drew near, a United Services honey wagon sounded its horn and made its way slowly to the giant porta-potty at the center of the display. “People worked hours and hours on their own time” to make it, Cuervo said. But the truck would not be making a pickup this time; instead, it would drop off the fuel that would ignite all the fires.

Red highway flares were lit, fireworks soared overhead, and the Early Man fires were underway.


The city was mostly sleepy and quiet the next morning. For once, there was no 7:30 morning meeting to roust the DPW  to the Depot. There was work being done, to be sure, but the general hustle and bustle seemed more subdued. It felt very much like the morning after the night before.

But then a familiar rumble broke the silence. It was the United Services truck making its appointed rounds, doing the nasty thing that it does, that must be done.

We asked Tapatio if he was on the truck that delivered the fuel last night. “Oh yeah,” he smiled, “I was there.”

And the smile on his face as he worked the hose to suck out the muck said volumes about the joy that community effort can bring.

Happy Build Week to you and yours, and off we go.

Here are some more pics:

Friends from Reno came in for the night.
And some came all the way from the Bay Area.


And some have been out here for weeks and weeks.
Franny and the Cobra

Hilarity definitely ensued.
Camera Girl wore flowers in her hair.
Shalaco offered a toast.

The shade truck Priscilla was put to good use.

These dudes are among those who build Media Mecca.

Homeslice and the Ghetto bar bring the party all over the playa.



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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