Once more into the dust

Coyote gathers the group around the Spike

Yes, we did in fact put the Golden Spike in the ground, marking the beginning of Black Rock City for 2019. Shortly after the ceremony ended and most everyone had left, the Survey team was set to begin their tasks. But they were chased off the playa by a storm of wind, rain, lightning and walls of dust. So good to be home!

And we were reminded again that if everything went according to plan, Burning Man would be no fun at all. But there’s very little chance that either of those things will happen.

It’s not that you forget, exactly, how beautifully barren this part of the world is, because each passing Burning Man seems to come a little quicker than the last. But after you leave Interstate 80 and head out of Wadsworth, the  jungle drums start beating in your head. You start remembering how challenging Burning Man can be, and how nasty the Black Rock Desert can get. As has been said many times, the desert is trying to kill you. Don’t forget that. 

It all begins innocently enough, as you head through the Native American lands around Pyramid Lake, across what Tony Coyote’s boys call “the underwater world,” where Lake Lahontan used to be. The desert sage and grasses on the valley floor still seem like they are at the bottom of a sea, with sharp rock columns rising up from the abyssal plain.

Each year you try to guess what the winter was like by the amount and color of the flora and fauna along the desert highway. Some years, even early in the season, the land is already baked to a pale gold. Other years, like this one, there are patches of green and yellow, and wildflowers lining the route. And once you reach Gerlach and the beginning of the Granite range, you notice that there are still patches of snow around the peaks.

Molly said she was aiming all year to be there for Spike

Now, though, snow is the furthest thing from your mind. The temperatures are hot, damn hot, as people begin to gather for Spike. And while the sun is harsh, the skies are blue, which is a change from recent years, when distant wildfires put an amber filter on the sky. 

You say your hellos and crack open your beers, happy to see your friends and colleagues again. That’s one of the things about Spike; you take inventory of who has made it through another year, and who hasn’t, and what kind of shape the survivors are in.

A wrapper blows across the desert floor before someone snatches it up and stuffs it in their pocket. Hey, didn’t we just moop this place? It seems like we did. But that was way back in October, when all the fun of the event had ended and there were only a couple hundred folks left to make sure that we had met our promise to Leave No Trace.

But now Tony Coyote, the superintendent of Black Rock City, in full regalia with patches marking his 20-plus years of service, is calling the folks to join him around the Spike.

Some people have been out here for months already, working at the ranch on the fleet vehicles and the housing units, and they kind of look like the rest of us do when we’ve been out here awhile and then the paying participants start to arrive: Startled. Where did all these people come from?

Marnee was at the center of negotiations for this year’s permit

Really, though, there aren’t all that many people, maybe a hundred or so. The Spike ceremony is private and low key, and it wants to stay that way. Unlike many of the rituals that have grown up around the practical things that have to happen to build Black Rock City, this one has stayed small and relatively free of artifact and hilarity. There are lighter moments, for sure, but the overall mood, if not solemn, is at least deeply respectful, with a healthy dose of gratitude. We’re happy to be able to be here.

Tony will bring up his two boys, Atticus and Colby, to take the first sledgehammer swipes at the Spike, which marks the place the Man will be built, and around which the city streets will be laid out. “This isn’t the real spike,” Tony says as he places it upright into the ground, because the “real” one, the original Golden Spike, is on loan to the Renwick Gallery and the Smithsonian Museum for a show about Burning Man that is now moving around the country. “My tools are in a museum,” Coyote says. “I’m feeling kind of old.”

It’s Tony’s 24th Golden Spike ceremony, but the 27th time he’s done it, because they had to do it three times one year, the result of a … oh, let’s call it a jurisdictional issue with local authorities.

Molly comes up and says that she’s spent the year offline, dealing with cancer. “And I win,” she says, to whoops and cheers from the group. “All year long it has been my goal to be with you here today, and yes, again, I win, because I get to do Burning Man with you again.” (There’s some dust or something in our eyes at this point.) “Thank you for letting me be one of the people who put a hammer on this Spike,” she says. (We’re not crying, you’re crying.)

Will Roger comes up and says, “We have a city to build that’s going to change people’s lives.” And that’s true, it’s always been true. Even if you ascribe to the notion that getting older is simply the gradual process of becoming the person you’ve always been, the stuff that happens at Burning Man often seems to give that process a helping hand. People call Burning Man transformational, but for some folks, the more accurate word might be  revelational. Because when you are really up against it, when you are indescribably hot, impossibly tired, borderline dehydrated, emotionally stretched and absolutely on your last nerve, truths about one’s self are sometimes revealed. We kind of count on that happening, actually. And no doubt it will be like that again this year.

Chaos and KJ have a baby due the day Burning Man is set to begin

The theme this year is Metamorphoses, because of course it is. Things have changed. Things are different. It’s the first Burning Man theme that does not carry Larry Harvey’s direct imprint. It’s the first one that had to be developed without him, so of course it feels different. Burning Man is still very much an individual thing that happens in a collective space, and what happens here is up to the people who come here. Nobody tells anybody what to do or how to act. You’ve got to figure that out on your own. You’re not here to watch things happen, you’re here to make them happen. But the theme helps set the table for the year, and this year is all about change.

The little speeches go on. More beers are opened. There is whiskey and Champagne and cigars. Oh there’s flavored bubbly water, too, because hey, it’s 2019. “It’s kind of a cross between the Oscars and an AA meeting,” Professor Plague says, summing things up perfectly, as is his wont.

Marnee comes up next. She’s the one who’s been at the center of the negotiations the org has been having to get its permit for the event from the Bureau of Land Management. It has been an especially difficult and drawn-out process this year, and the organization didn’t get the final approval to proceed until … the afternoon before Spike. “This is where our soul is,” she says, emotions coming over her. “I just want to thank everyone for helping to get this done.” You almost feel a weight lifting from your own shoulders as she gets to finally breathe a little easier. “I’m gonna say something to myself as I hit this,” she says with the sledgehammer in her hands, “but maybe you can imagine what it is.”

The speeches go on, and some are from the prominent personages of Burning Man, and some are from newcomers, out here doing this thing for the first time. Some are meant for public consumption, and some are intensely private, meant to be shared only with this extended family that has gathered around on this extremely hot afternoon.

Finally, Coyote returns to the center of the circle with a bottle of Champagne in his hands, and he smashes it on the Spike, christening this new year. (At least a dozen people come running and immediately clean up the shards of glass. Leave no trace!) People clamber back into their cars and trucks and mutant vehicles, and eventually roar off in clouds of dust, back towards the highway.

Storm clouds have gathered in the distance. The wind has picked up significantly. It is still some distance away, but there is lightning in the sky. If you don’t have business here, and maybe even if you do, it is time to leave.

And so we depart, leaving the Survey team behind to begin mapping out the city. As we head back towards town, the clouds get thicker and more ominous. There is a great deal of electricity in the air, with lightning flashes coming almost every minute. We’re safely back in town when the rains finally come.

But this is the desert, with its wide open skies. It may be raining where you are, but you can see patches of sunlight in the distance. On one side of town there are rainbows; on the other, out toward the playa, there are only storms.

We pile in the truck and head out Route 34 with the idea of checking how things are going on the playa. We get so far as an overlook spot, and, as we are pelted with hard rain, we see another rainbow, and large amounts of blowing dust that wipes out any view of what will become Black Rock City. We hope everyone got off safely, and we head back to town.

““You should have known better!” Phoenix says the next morning. “You know that every time we leave the playa, it turns out fine! It’s only when we don’t leave that it turns into trouble.” Phoenix and a skeleton crew spent the night keeping watch over the Survey camp. “As soon as they sent everybody home, we knew it would miss us!”

And so the storm did. The dust walls stayed on either side of the playa, and only a few drops of rain landed on the camp. There was no standing water to prevent the Survey team from doing its work. And there was a fabulous sunset, eerie red light coming through the clouds. Later, there even were  stars.

We have begun again.

Here are some more pictures:


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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