Now What Do We Do?

Coyote doffs his cap in a moment of silence for Larry Harvey

Logan’s morning meeting today, the third of the season, was short and sweet and all straightforward and businesslike. As per usual. Black Rock City is in the process of being born again, and there are meetings, just as there are meetings every day, every week, every month at the Burning Man Project HQ back in San Francisco.

So everything seemed normal, even mundane, which is an odd state of affairs for an undertaking that is going to transform sleepy little Gerlach and the adjacent Black Rock Desert, into the third-largest city   fourth-largest metropolitan area in Nevada in about four weeks.

The Cobra Commander began things by thanking everyone who had participated in the Golden Spike ceremony the day before, when maybe a couple of hundred people gathered in the godforsaken heat of the late afternoon (triple digit temperatures are the norm) to pound a spike into the desert floor, marking the spot where the big Man will be built, and the center point around which the city will be constructed.

We’ve been to a number of these happenings now, and like the event itself, each one is different. The same, but different.

This is how it all begins, in a barren, hot, forbidding desert, with no trucks, no trailers, no art, no signs of life, save for the people who came barreling out of Gerlach, headlong into the unknown, to keep tradition alive.

Yeah that spike isn’t going to pound itself

This year’s ceremony featured pale ochre skies, sizzling temperatures, and enough smoke in the air to make the sun a hazy light orange ball. Your eyes burned, even though the wind wasn’t blowing very hard. The effects of being at 4000 feet were heightened, and as always the case when there are nearby wildfires burning, your appreciation of the sky show was tempered by the knowledge that not too far away, people were losing their homes, and vast stretches of the land were being stripped of all signs of life.

And the fact that death and ash were in the air was of course also fitting, because another death hung heavy in the air, too.

Several people who picked up the sledge to help drive the stake into the ground asked for a moment of silence for Larry Harvey, the man with the hat, the person who, with the help of a small group of friends, first dragged a wooden effigy to Baker Beach in 1986 and put a torch to it, starting the event that has become this gargantuan worldwide organism, whose reach extends around the globe.

But mostly, this was about coming together as we always do, to mark the spot where the Man will be built, to crack a bottle of champagne over the spike, and begin the work that creates the expression engine that is Burning Man.

Coyote, the superintendent of the city, started things off as he always does, pulling the crowd away from the beer-loaded fluffer trucks and gathering them into a circle around the spike. This was a new spike (“I just spray-painted it an hour ago,” Coyote said.). The original is still on the display at the Smithsonian.

As he’s done for the past several years, Coyote called up his two boys to join him, and to take a whack with the sledge at the Spike. Proud mom Mel was on the sidelines, beaming.

Then Coyote spoke a few words and set the tone:

“This is my 20th spike, and I don’t have my hammer,” he joked. “The hammer’s in a museum.” People started laughing at the notion that this thing has a presence at the Renwick Gallery, and he joined in. “I still can’t say that with a straight face.

“There’s another thing that’s not here today, and that’s Will Roger, the guy who started this back in ’98 (Roger was busy back in SF; after seven years as chairman of the Burning Man Project Board of Directors, he was handing the reins to Dennis Bartels.) Coyote continued: “He was the one who put the hammer into my hand and turned me into a builder. … And building Black Rock City turned me into an artist.

“This ceremony has always been about the builders, and that’s what you’re looking at right here. These are the people who go out and BUILD Black Rock City. … And one of the things that happened to me when I was building was that I felt connected to Black Rock City, and I became connected to the people I was building it for. And that’s what this thing is all about.”

The gathering

And at that point he seemed to remember that oh yeah, he was going to need a bottle of champagne to eventually crack over the Spike. “Is there any champagne here today?” he asked. Good god was there champagne. People started popping corks and shooting them at him in the circle. Bottles got passed left and right. Sometimes you found yourself in the cross current, bottles in each hand, one going left, one going right, each getting a swig.

And then there was the parade of speakers – Charlie Dolman, the event manager (“Louder, Charlie!), Chaos, the overseer of the DPW, Playground, who also helps honcho the event,   Cobra Commander, D.A., Hazmat, all the key backstage folks who work all year long to make the thing that happens in the desert for a week.

Through it all, you thought about the people who were here, the people you love, the people who’ve become your family. You thought about how happy you were to see them all again, to be in their inspiring company once again, to feel their insane creative energy shooting up all around you.

And of course you thought about the people who weren’t here, too. Maybe the people who used to be here long ago, but for one reason or another have moved on to another period in their lives, a life that doesn’t allow for spending six weeks in the desert anymore.

You thought about the people who weren’t here for the first time, too, and you tried to reconcile what it would be like going forward without them.

And of course that brought you back to the central person who won’t be here this year. Not that you missed Larry Harvey at the Spike ceremony, because he never came to that. But you know he paid attention to it, what happened here, because the inspiration for last year’s theme, the one that had the Man housed in the structure for the first time, was at least partially inspired by the work and workers it takes to build Black Rock City. He said so himself in the piece he wrote announcing the theme.

And all of that filled you with wonder and fear and resignation. What the hell is it going to be like without him? Where will this whole thing go from here? Where will the inspiration come from? Jesus, you realized, it’s totally up to us now!

And then the realization struck: This thing has ALWAYS been up to us! We’re the ones who build the city! We’re the ones who bring the party! We’re the ones who make the art, give the gifts, leave no trace. It’s always been us! And Larry knew it!

So Larry’s not here, and now it’s up to us. And it’s always been up to us.

Here’s a few more snappies:

Charlie Dolman
Cobra Commander
After all her years working at Burning Man, it was hard to believe it was Molly’s first Spike
The Bike Shop was well represented
Proud mama Mel


After Spike, the survey crew began its work


And even more:

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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