Progress Report

The Man crew is all on board

If you’ve been following along at home, you know a little about what’s been going on out here in the scenic Black Rock Desert, where the air is hot, the streets are dusty, and everyone calls you by a name that’s not your own.

You know about the Spike, you know about Survey, you know about Fence – the big early dates on the build calendar. But what comes after that? Well, we’re glad you asked.

When we touched base last time, the crews had just finished the nine-mile trash fence around the perimeter of Black Rock City. There was nothing else here. Just a fence, a bunch of trucks, a few containers maybe, but that was about it. After the big opening Fence day, the daily grind sets in, and, emotionally speaking, there seems to be a bit of a lull in the air.

“You call that a lull?” HeAT manager Cuervo says skeptically when we put the proposition to him. Well, we guess he’s right. You can’t really call it a lull when you are hauling hundreds of containers and trailers the 12 miles from the work ranch to the playa.

Still, a lot of what’s happening now is the stuff that bubbles below the surface of Black Rock City. It’s the lava beginning to move as it makes its way to the surface, before the big explosion of art and people. In just a week, the city has begun to take shape.

Dawn over the HeAT yard

The closer you look, the more staggering the logistics become. Think of it: workers are staged in sleepy Gerlach as the closure order draws near (the date that the BLM allows the transformation in Black Rock to begin). They bunk in town at the trailer park and the Showers property, nose to nose, face to face, all tight and cozy. In addition to space, they need food, water and power. (They don’t actually NEED a bar, but they’ve got one anyway, the Black Rock Saloon.)

Then, shortly after Fence, they all head for the open playa, where again they will need a space to live for the coming weeks, plus everything they need to stay alive. Shade would be nice. Remember, this place is trying to kill you. There’s nothing here, no resources, just the alkaline remnants of an ancient lakebed.

Over the course of the past seven days, not only has the workforce successfully relocated to the desert, but they’ve also begun to build the city. The gigantic Commissary tent is up, the Heavy Equipment and Machinery yard is brimming with gear, and the skeletons of the Center Café and the Artica ice house have risen, as if by wizardry. The Depot is buzzing, the radios are crackling, and the IT teams are putting up towers to bring connectivity to the city. Water trucks are dampening the dust, the Metal Shop has its plasma cutters, and the Auto Shop is transitioning from the ranch to the playa.

The HeAT crew is raring to go

All this in the first week: We go from desert landscape to the outline of Black Rock City, and it doesn’t seem possible. It has happened this year in super hot, super smoky conditions, which serve to remind you that you need to be prepared for the elements here.

And oh yeah, while all this is happening, the Man base, the city’s centerpiece, is also taking shape.  “They don’t really need me at this point,” designer Andrew Johnstone says, “but I just like to be around it.”

We all do. You can’t help but remember that this is the last Man that will carry Larry Harvey’s imprint, so everything that’s happening now seems to have a special poignancy, an extra layer of … something important.

We want to get this right.

Hazel, who is a very lucky girl, gets a lift from Papa Flip on the way to the morning meeting

Alipato was telling us the other day about the time that he had his dad come out for a visit, to see what his son was working on at that Burning Man thing. “Now my father wasn’t all that happy with some of the life choices I’d made,” Alipato said. His father was an Air Force guy, and you can imagine his skepticism about Burning Man and the desert hippie ravers.

Alipato had him come out for Early Man, when the crews burn a collection of effigies, kind of a warmup for what’s to come in another couple of weeks. The amazing thing is that so many crews find a way squeeze out time between pushups to build something funny, haul it out near the Man base, and set it on fire, to the delight of all.

After Early Man, Alipato was driving his dad off the playa and he finally asked, “So, what do you think?”

“Son,” his father answered slowly, “You all do the same kind of thing that my unit would do. But you all are having fun while you’re doing it.”

Alipato at the Depot


You have to have fun while you’re doing it.

That’s the reason the big HeAT opening night playa party had a disco ball hanging from a crane, had a dance floor and a DJ, had a fire burning in hollowed-out car chassis, and had the Hobogoblins playing near the chill zone.

That’s the reason the Oculus crew kept working into the early evening to get the last stringers in place so they could host their Yacht Rock party later in the evening.

Camera Girl, the head of Burning Man’s IT, said that her group had been trying to come up with a name for the blog that would document its exploits. She said they arrived on a catchphrase that seemed to fit: “We could have been rich, but we love you too much.”

Somehow, Camera Girl has managed to keep coming out to the desert at the beginning of the build, even as pressures have mounted for her to stay back in the city and keep the paperwork moving. DA mentioned the same thing, that as the organization grows and responsibilities get larger, you find yourself spending more time in the glow of a computer screen, rather than in the glow of a desert sunset.

Camera Girl at Point One

Which brings us neatly to the year’s iRobot theme, which is examining our relationship with work, with others, and with ourselves in an age of artificial intelligence and the inexorable advance of the robots. If you haven’t already done so, we recommend listening to Caveat’s podcast series on this site for context and thoughtful analysis.

It’s not easy here. It’s hot. Your stuff breaks. Sometimes YOU break. But you keep moving forward, a step at a time, an hour at a time, a day at a time. But you don’t move forward robotically. The differentiator here is the emphasis on fun, on creativity, on expression. And it puts the responsibility on us to examine our experience here, and perhaps curate it appropriately, as we search for an antidote to 21st Century-style isolation. [Editor’s Note: Put down your phone.] [Editor’s Note 2: Your Facebook life is not your real life.]

For now, even as we trudge from one hot, tedious, dusty job to another, the setting and the intention of the event keeps us moving. It’s a good time and place to think the big thoughts, to look for ways to cherish and enhance what it means to be human.

Blackthorn brought a friend to the desert this year, a giant clown

To everyone not represented in these words and pictures, we apologize. There simply is no way to be comprehensive when describing an effort of this size. By the time the event starts, DPW alone will have around 700 workers on site. The emergency services team will include 600 volunteers, ready to lend help as needed.

The elephant is just too big to touch it all.

And finally, a word about conditions. You already know that it’s hot. Even the vendor truck drivers piloting the big diesels are complaining about the heat. You know it’s been hot when only the smoky haze can keep temperatures below triple digits. Remember too, though, that we routinely get 40-degree temperature shifts over the course of the day, so if the weather changes and we start out cooler, the nighttime can get chilly.

Fine white powder has been blowing steadily

The playa itself has been baked hard and white. The surface is mostly flat, but there are some choppy zones on the 3 o’clock side. The dust is like the fine white powder of a bitterly cold blizzard, blowing freely, the opposite of Sierra cement.

The smoke cleared a bit on Sunday, for the first time in what seemed like a very long time. The sky was actually blue, the sun was yellow, and you could see Razorback in the distance.

But to sum up: You’re going to need your goggles, you’re going to need your facemask, and you’re going to need your sunscreen. And shade would be nice.

Here are some more pics:

The Commissary tent is up, and hundreds are eating there every day


The Road Works crew had a work party at Booya’s, where they put reflective tape on the thousand or so pegs that will mark the roads in Black Rock City


The Gate staff is manning Point One


Portos are going in all around the playa


Rest Stop Buddy will keep the Metal Shop open late to help staff with their projects


Goatt likes to lift things


Kimba and some of the Man crew take a meeting


The Oculus team had all the posts in place


Someone got a lift


Artica had the double station set up on Ring Road


Working on the Center Cafe


The First Camp team took five for a snappie


The Depot in the dust
Juicy Jake will have about 200 campers in the Ghetto


The smoke was bad, but it made for beautiful sunrises. It cleared a bit on Sunday and Monday


The Sign Shop crew creates the art that marks the intersections


447 was pretty hazy



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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