Finishing Touches




The Ghetto crew was out in force

They put up the 4:20 Spire on Thursday, and as Tony Coyote says, it’s the only event in Black Rock City that happens on time.

Semi-officially, putting in the last spire at least symbolically brings the build season to a close. The reality, of course, is that we’re nowhere near finished, but oh yes definitely we will be ready when the gates open midnight Saturday night.

But the Spires crew (who put up all the wooden spires that line the way to the Man and around the Esplanade and out the 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock paths to the city) join with all the other teams working out here to have a celebration of the work ending the event beginning.

Of course the gathering has gotten bigger and bigger over the years. At the risk of joining the “get off my lawn!” set, we’ll tell you about the old days, when really only a handful of crews took part. At the appointed hour and at the appointed place (4:20 pm at 4:20 Esplanade), work vehicles would stream in from all over the playa. Once gathered, beers and whiskey would be quaffed, a janky spire would be put in place, and that was pretty much that. In 30 minutes, it was all over, and everyone went back to work.

Now it is quite the extravaganza, with people from all over Black Rock City, whether they’ve been building the city or not, taking part. Which is fine, of course. Who doesn’t like a popular thing getting more popular? But at this rate, we fear that the Last Spire, as Yogi Berra once said of a popular restaurant, “Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.”

Still, it’s nice to see all your friends once last time before we all scatter to the four corners of Black Rock City. HEaT, Special Projects, the Ghetto Crew, the Yellow Bikes Crew, Tech, Artica, Housing, Plumbing, Road Works, Fuel, Fluffers … everyone’s there, and everyone’s ready for one season to end and the next to start.

Here are some more pics:

We met up with the Shade crew for a pre-dawn build at the Blue Oasis, one of the larger sites of the many many hundreds they install.

We all know what badasses the Shade crew are (which you can read about here.

They’re getting toward the end of their pre-event work, and it’s been hot and hard, as it normally is, but they wanted to get this big structure out of the way before the heat of the day started taking its toll.

So here they were, while most of the people who are in Black Rock City were still asleep, knocking and digging and hammering and stretching a gigantic shade structure into place. And they did it like  it was no big deal.

There was no, “Oh, this is amazing,” no “Can you believe how early it is,” no “Aren’t we fantastic for doing this?” No. None of that. They just went about the work in their usual raging way — laughing and shouting and joking. No big deal.

Here are some more pics:


Dana and Andrew with a portrait of Larry that Andrew did for Dana’s memorial to Larry Harvey.

Dany Albany was out installing her Larry temple the other morning, the second year that there will be a memorial for the Burning Man founder. Longtime Man designer Andrew Johnstone was there, and his wife is a noted teacher. He was telling us that she has famous quotes from prominent personages posted all around her classroom, from many famous people. There is one quote that the kids are particularly proud of, which hangs over the classroom chalkboard. It says, “Belief is thought at rest.” 

“All the kids go, oh, that’s a great one!” Andrew said. The quote is one of Larry’s, of course.

Ranger Crow set up the Gerlach Rangers program

As you might imagine, an influx of 70,000 or so participants to a remote desert town can have some very major impacts on the local population. Things might have reached a critical stage several years ago, when rain closed the entrances to Black Rock city on opening day, and hundreds of people were stranded in town for as long as 24 hours.

There have always been strangers and drifters who show up in Gerlach, hoping against hope that they will magically procure a ticket, even though the event has been sold out for months, and the chances of actually “manifesting” a ticket, to use the local parlance, are exceedingly slim. But ticketless people arrive every year, some of them perhaps not in the best shape, maybe not at the top of their game. But still they come, and they can be a burden on local residents.

To address the situation, Ranger Crow of the Black Rock Rangers, himself also a Gerlach resident, came up with a Ranger program to help deal with the issue. Local residents are given direct phone lines to the Rangers, so if someone is sleeping on their lawn or parked in their backyard, they have a place to call for help.

The Rangers met at Bruno’s the other morning to talk about the situation and coordinate with local Washoe County sheriffs. “We’d love for things to get handled, before it gets to us,” Sgt. Zirkle said, and that’s the idea. Burners taking care of wannabe Burners.

Molly works in the Burning Man office in town, and she remembers a couple of years ago, when a man showed up without a ticket, and just kind of hung around. “He said his son was on the way with their tickets, but that never happened.”

What did happen was, one morning when Molly and the other office folks showed up, there was the man, buck naked, washing himself off in their hand sanitizing station. “That was it,” Molly said, and he was escorted off the property.

So that’s the idea here; if trespassers are causing problems, the locals have people to turn to. There will be Gerlach Rangers in town 24/7, with as many as 80 Rangers signing up for shifts.

Our home away from home

When you get to this point of the week, when all the big camps are here, and some that are not so big, you have no chance, none chance, of keeping track of who’s going where, who’s doing what, where your friends are, if they are even here yet, and where in the city they might have landed. Right now, Black Rock City looks like one big giant tent city/RV park, and pretty much every neighborhood looks the same. The shift pods, the trailers, the dusty couches, the shade structures lying on the ground, the dust-covered cars and trucks, the containers, and lots of people standing around trying to figure out what the hell to do next. Everything is about the same height, and most everyone’s stuff is strewn about the camp. It’s like everyone moved into town on the same day, and all the new neighbors are trying to figure out what to do with all their stuff. 

It’s not a pretty sight.

Still, it’s fun to be here, because … well, because it’s Burning Man. Or it will be pretty soon. Maybe this is the place that all your off-centeredness, all of your random thoughts, don’t seem out of place. It becomes easy to see that there is always someone even weirder than you, and hey, look at that cool thing they made. Here, you get to try things on for size, see if they help you become who you want to be, or not.

That last part is a key ingredient to the process, though. You have to determine whether the things that you let yourself do here, or whomever  you let yourself be here, is working. Radical self expression doesn’t absolve you of the responsibility of figuring out if it’s something that’s working or not. Around camp, we joke about adding to the original 10 Principles. Probably the most-sought-after addition is Consent. That would be our 11th Principle. But maybe number 12 might be, Radical Self Reflection. Because we think it may not be enough to be radically self expressive and radically self reliant. There’s still the responsibility of taking a hard look at what’s working, and what’s not.

In any case, we’ve  done what we can to keep our eyes and ears open for what’s happening in Black Rock City, but things are finally, clearly and very definitely getting away from us. There’s no way to keep  track of all that is happening hee anymore. 

And guess what? The gates open at midnight tomorrow night, and we just might go to Burning Man.

So think of it this way: You know how when you don’t hear from a partner or a parent or a child for a while, and you wonder what’s going on? It’s not always easy to accept, but don’t you find that when that radio silence happens, it’s usually a sign that things are going pretty well?

If you don’t hear from us for awhile, you can assume the same thing.

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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