Beat the Heat

The past couple of days have been about the hottest of the build season.

It’s pushing 100 degrees, and sometimes it’s absolutely still, and sometimes there’s a lot of dust blowing around. But when it is still, and you are out in the noonday sun, you know without the shadow of a doubt that you are in a real, live desert, and that there is no escaping the heat.

A few of the big art camps have arrived, Folly and Head Maze among them, and some of the workers on those crews have taken to laboring in the evening, when the heat has broken. The organization crews, though, have kept soldiering on in the daytime.

You see them late in the day with that thousand-yard-stare in their eyes. Clothes and skin are coated in fine dust. There is mumbling and shuffling. No one is moving quickly anymore.

How hot was it? When Lucky Charms of the Shade crew spilled some water on the playa, “I could hear it sizzle,” she said.

Which brings us quite nicely to the subject of breakdowns. They come both physically and mentally, and when you get here, you can expect to have both, as well.

Installing the shade at the Center Cafe

The physical manifestations are somewhat easier to spot. Coyote asked the morning meeting, “What’s the first sign of heat exhaustion?” “Irritability!” came the shouted answer. “That’s right, irritability,” Coyote said. Then someone in the crowd shouted, “SCREW YOU!” so yeah, it’s real.

The thing is, after a while, you begin to take the heat personally, like it is out to get you and maybe only you, and you don’t like it, not one bit. So you take it out on people around you, intentionally or not.

As Stinger says, building Black Rock City brings out the essential toddler in all of us:  “You need something to drink, maybe a snack, and definitely a nap. A change of underwear would be nice, too,” she says.

She’s funny, but it’s a serious situation. Workers are reminded constantly to take care of themselves, and to take care of each other. This is why there are Fluffers, who drive their big, overheated trucks from one work site to the next, delivering cool drinks and salty snacks. They are a godsend, nothing less. (But we wonder, who fluffs the Fluffers. Who do THEY call when they need a little something to pick them up and lift to their spirits? There is no good answer to that question.)

Anyway, as we were saying, it’s hot, and that leads to breakdowns, both physical and mental.

Lining up the Spires

The mental ones are more insidious, but there are trained professionals on site to help. [Side note: those human resources people seem to change every year, though, so maybe that particular job is tougher than it looks.] 

But as Caveat Magister noted in his fine book, “The Scene That Became Cities,” which I can’t recommend highly enough, you can expect to have breakdowns, as well. And honestly, if you don’t have a breakdown or two or three during the event, you’re probably not doing it right.

You tend to learn a lot about yourself at Burning Man. Like the saying goes,  character is revealed under pressure, and although this may look like one big party, it isn’t really, not always. The good times do not always roll. You will likely sometimes be lonely, and you will wonder why everyone else seems to be having a better time than you are (Facebook and Instagram images be damned.) But if you are doing it right, you are taking chances, and you are being radically self-expressive, and hey, that just doesn’t go smoothly all the time. Plus, there’s the heat and physical effort required to get and stay here. And it all combines to create a volatile mental landscape.

If you are a sane person, you will wonder what the hell you are doing here at all. You will wonder who the hell you really are. You will wonder why you’re with the people you are with. And oh by the way, where ARE those people right now, and what are they doing?

You will wonder what you should be doing, and where you should be. And you will wonder why it seems that nothing is going the way it was supposed to go? And how can you get back on track?

Knocking in the stakes for the Spires

Why are you having this vague sense of being an outsider? Why is it that no one talking to you? And why is it that the people you do talk to don’t seem all that interested in what you have to say? Why didn’t you know about that party? Why did you even GO to that party? And hey, this is Burning Man. I’m supposed to be having the time of my life! And I’m not!

In short, you’ll begin to doubt that you truly know yourself. All the carefully constructed facets of your public-facing persona will seem weakened at their foundation.

We can’t stress enough that these feelings, while difficult, are entirely normal. We can almost guarantee that these feelings will be fleeting, and that they will not become your new life. And it’s important to remember that if you didn’t have them, you probably wouldn’t be doing Burning Man right.

So pack that knowledge away with your sunscreen and goggles, and bring it out at the appropriate time. Maybe it’ll help. And try to remember that this might be a good place to explore being the person that you want to be. Aspiration is at the heart of this permission engine.

It’s funny, right? When you are a kid, you looked at adults and you thought that they had it all figured out. And it probably came as a shock when you were in your twenties or thirties, when you realized that nope, being an adult doesn’t necessarily mean that you have it all figured out.

And we can tell you from personal experience that when you reach your fifties (earlier if you are lucky, later if you are not), that you’ll finally understand that NOBODY has it all figured out, unless of course they’ve become religious fanatics, in which case they’ve decided to leave all the key moral decision-making to a supreme being of their choosing. In our minds, they’ve stepped away from the human fray.

But not us, right? We’ve realized that we’re only going to struggle a little bit better each year. We’ve learned that with each passing failure, we’ll come back and fail better the next time. So, we’re just going to say that no, Burning Man wasn’t actually better last year. It’ll be better next year.

Schoolchildren from Gerlach made their annual visit to Black Rock City on Thursday, and you can read about last year’s adventures here. Cobra Commander told the troops to be on the lookout for their visit. “They’re not going to see anything horrible or offensive, right?” he asked. “That’s good, because they’re children, and we want them to leave here with hope (laughter erupts). So act accordingly for three f— hours. Three hours.”

The Man is scheduled to be lifted into place Friday morning, and although it will look finished, Goatt there will still be more “poodling” to do. Poodling? “Yah, you know, like the fancy stuff a poodle has.”

It’s a beautiful structure already, and getting more beautiful by the hour. There’s a pureness to the geometry of the structure, but still complexity in its execution.

“There’s 1.75 miles of rivet strips that go on this,” Goatt said, “and we used 25,392 plugs. And what we’re gonna tell Man watch is that there are actually 80,000 plugs, one plug for each citizen here. … There’s a little bar code on your ticket that matches up with each one.”

They are very proud of the fact that the level is exACTly right: “We were a quarter inch out, and we said let’s go for it, we’ll shim it a quarter inch.”

“Every piece of wood in the shop was sanded, stained, and routed all the edges, to capture that clean line. … The nice thing about staining is, if you nick it, it’s just nicked. If it’s painted, the scratch will show.

“We’re trying to find ways to utilize the structure in more elegant ways. And the geometry is incredible. We’ve got this really strong masculine geometric force downstairs, and a gossamer thin, curved feminine force upstairs.”

The crew was installing the cladding as we spoke, and later, Slim and others will take the intentions that people have written on pieces of paper and install them in the center of the Man.

“There’s a full moon tonight,” Slim said, “and we’re going to take advantage of all that feminine energy.”

Goatt working the corners

We had to make a Reno run on Wednesday, and on the way back, we saw something we’d never seen in these parts before: A murmuration of white pelicans.

White pelicans are big, with a wingspan of 8 to 9.5 feet, so to see them performing their aerial ballet so gracefully was breathtaking. They were still quite a ways out over the lakebed outside Nixon, but still near enough to be mesmerizing.

According to the Nevada Department of Wildlife, Anaho sland, near the eastern shore of Pyramid Lake, supports one of the largest breeding colonies of American White Pelicans in the United States. In recent years, between 8,000 and 10,000 pelicans have returned from their wintering grounds in southern California and Baja, Mexico.

A bunch of them put on quite a show.

Here are some more pics:

The Head Maze crew was working at night

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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