The Early Man, and More Big Picks

The scene and vibe on Saturday night was reminiscent of the night that the Temple burns; Black Rock City was mostly quiet and serene, and at dusk, most of the people who are here walked or biked or rode out just beyond the Man pavilion to gather for Early Man.

This particular slice of Burning Man’s ritual behavior began as so many of them do — by meeting a practical need. In the ancient times,  the Survey team would mark the spot where the Man would be built, but one year they came back out to the playa and couldn’t find the spot they had marked. So the wood shop built a little Man and painted it in dayglo green, to make it easier to find. Then, when the little Man had fulfilled its its purpose, they of course decided to burn him. You can read the whole story of how it began here , and see how the one effigy became many for Early Man.

So there everyone was, ogling the art projects that the various work crews had pulled together between pushups over the past few weeks.

There was a giant radio from the radio team, a kinetic working crane from HEaT, a dumpster fire, a small scale version of the Temple, a Man pavilion piece of a snake that hopefully would spit fire, on and on and on.

There was an innovative entry last night, too: Tig of the Special Projects crew led the creation of a functioning bar right there in the middle of all the effigies that would burn. It was a lively, happening spot as we wandered up and down the line, checking out the various sculptures created by the various teams out here now.

But the bar was where the action was at, because hey, an interactive art piece in the middle of a fire ceremony? Hell yeah!

As the effigies were put to the torch around 9 pm, we wondered how they would clear the bar of its patrons. As it turned out, they didn’t have to, because it was situated in such a way, between two small pieces on either side, that flames wouldn’t reach the structure. So everyone just stayed on it, laughing and drinking, even as the fires blazed nearby.

Patrons at the bar enjoyed the nearby flames

Eventually, a woman at the bar took a megaphone in hand and began reading Burning Man stories. People at a distance seemed to be listening with apt attention, but the people at the bar were carrying on as if nothing were happening. The roar went on.

Dave X set up a fireworks show in back of the burn line, the better to prevent teams from putting fireworks INTO their structures. The thinking was that It’d be safer this way, and it worked out well.

Later, at a crew party for the Man pavilion, Kiwi proposed to Miss Conception, and she accepted, and all was right with the world. 

Here are some more pictures from Early Man:


The big Man lift came off as expected, even if it took a little longer than anticipated. In the end it went just the way they like it: Slow and boring.

Well, it might seem slow and boring to the uninitiated or to someone with no stake in the matter, but you could almost hear the sound of nerves fraying as the operation unfolded.

“The whole crane crew [deserves credit],” Cuervo was saying at the site. “If something goes wrong, someone’s whole dream is shattered. … If this pick doesn’t go as planned, there’s going to be a mad panic to build a new Man. So every time you lift, there’s a lot of stress, a lot of pressure.

“People bring their dreams, and we help build them.”

The crane action started when the lower portion of the Man structure was still upside down on the ground. That had to be picked up, flipped over, lowered back to the ground, re-rigged, then attached to the underside of the Man pavilion.

That’s the part that took longer than expected; much of the afternoon was spent making sure the attachment was robust. By the time that was wrapped up, it was time to break for dinner, with a plan to come back for the big lift around 7.

Our hearts leapt. If the lift happened during the sunset golden hour, it would likely be the most picturesque lift in the history of lifts. There were big, white puffy clouds all over the sky, and we knew they’d explode with color as the sun was setting and the Man was rising.

The scene was lit by sunset, lightning and work lights

But those cotton balls turned grey as the evening approached, and a storm cell rolled out from Gerlach, bringing with it flashes of lighting and rolling thunder. That immediately put an end to any lift for the evening, as operations of this kind are shut down if there is a lighting strike within 25 miles.

We consoled ourselves by watching an achingly beautiful pink and purple sunset. We could see frequent bolts of lighting that looked like they were making direct hits on Razorback Mountain, and there were dark sheets of rain in the distance. Of course there was a rainbow, and, we swear, the way the sunset colored the sky, the rain in the distance was … purple. Purple rain. No lie.

The next morning was clear and bright and cloudless, and the wind was down, so work crews headed out to the Man pavilion at the break of dawn. The rigging was done by 8:30, and after Bruiser and Kimba drew everyone around for a safety talk, the lift was on.

“Let’s get ‘er done,” Bruiser, the crane operator, said, with that confident, laconic voice that your pilot uses on the intercom before takeoff. “Yeah, we’ll be cruising at an altitude of 30,000 feet, and we want you to relax and enjoy the flight.” That’s what Bruiser was saying —  everybody be sharp, and it’s going to be fine.

“(The crane operators) are like a fighter pilot trying to land on an aircraft carrier in the middle of the ocean,” Cuervo was saying. “They’re the rock stars.”

Attaching the base to the structure

Then, seeming to realize the impact that his words would carry, he quickly added, “Well, at least that’s what they like to think.” But the respect and admiration was evident, even if he didn’t want to acknowledge it so explicitly.

Bruiser is the crane boss of crane bosses. “He’d be incredibly hard to replace, and we’re grateful that he’s here,” Cuervo said.

This pick was particularly delicate, because all of the neon had already been installed, and nothing more than a slight bump would pop the tubes and send glass shards all over the playa.

“We do things out here that don’t get done in the real world,” Cuervo said.

Before the Man was put into place, the height of the Man pavilion floor was 18 feet, 11 and a half inches. Goatt was willing to bet that deflection wouldn’t amount to more than a quarter of an inch; meaning, even with 11,000 pounds added, the level wouldn’t sink more than a quarter of an inch.

As it turned out, he was off just a bit: the level sank a mere 1/32 of an inch. And the Man was placed right smack dab over the spike, which had been placed in the ground only three weeks earlier. 


Here are some more pictures from the Man lifts:

All of this, the gathering for Early Man, the big Man pick, it all combined to set your mind to wondering again, how in the world is any of this even possible?

Three weeks ago there was simply nothing here. Nothing. Now there are roads, backroads, byways, a giant Commissary operation, wifi systems for ticketing and staff tracking, hundreds and hundreds of containers, big art springing up in the open playa, the boundary flags for 1800 theme camps, and on and on.

It’s simply not possible.

The logistics are mind boggling, and the results are astonishing.

It’s more than a little ironic that the upcoming week is called “Build Week,  because all the theme camps and art projects will start rolling in. But Build Week? What the hell have we been doing out here for the past three weeks?

Anyway, it just strikes you that none of this should really be possible. There’s no way to actually pull this off. There’s no way you go from nothing to a city of 70,000 in three weeks. Nope. No way. Simply not possible.

And yet here it is, happening again.

And here are some more pictures from around and about as Black Rock City takes shape:

The Temple so far
The Head Maze so far


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.

9 Comments on “The Early Man, and More Big Picks

  • Buzzy Elder says:

    Fascinating information. Guess you can never understand the intricacies of putting this whole thing together unless you are there from start to finish. Thank you for the detailed info!

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  • Candice says:

    Thank you so much for sharing all the early photos and stories with us. Once the spike is placed I feel my heart transfers there and until I get on the road myself it becomes very hard to exist in default. See you guys in the dist soon.

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  • With Kimba and Opa working on it…of course it went up quick :)

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  • WildChild says:

    Really enjoy your reports from the Playa! It helps us appreciate all the behind-the-scenes work that makes this magical event happen. I’m bringing a modest art installation out this week and love watching the art and the city be created before my eyes. Yes it requires a lot of hard work but the meaningful things usually do… ✨

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  • Chef Dave says:

    Thanks for this! The photos look great and I can feel the buzz. I’m remorseful that I’m not there and your accounting brings me solice. My best to all of the DPW!

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  • lala palooza says:

    i love this so much.. i cannot go to burning man because, essentially, i am like a frog and would just shrivel up out there.. seriously, i have respiratory challenges and really am a water sign, too!

    this view of burning man of the beginning and the bareness and the beginning is so wonderful for me.. i have followed the live stream of the burn now for two years and it just looks so ..creative!

    so thank you and keep on sharing.. it is much appreciated!

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  • Adam Tree says:

    This is so awesome!!! Your articles are so informative and inspiring. I’m flying from the furthest place on the globe (Perth Western Australia) this weekend to attend this event. I can hardly wait!!! Just gotta nurse my old Chrysler from LA

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