Once More Unto Dust

Thankfully, it has happened again. The Golden Spike has been sledgehammered into the ground, marking the spot where the Man will be built and then later burned. And we mean thankfully quite literally, as person after person in the Spike circle expressed gratitude for their ability to be here again. They gave specific thanks to the patrons who donated to the organization to keep it alive for the three years between events. And because it has been three long years since the last Golden Spike ceremony, change and gratitude were the two dominant themes of the remarks people made as they swung the hammer and drove the spike into the dust.

When it was his turn, Burning Man co-founder Will Roger held the sledge above his head and shouted, “Let’s make this the best Burning Man ever!” And of course that’s the best way to approach this (and every year), because who knows what the future will bring. This could be the last year that Burning Man is able to have an event, or it could be the last year that you get to go, so you better make it the best. We hate to be so fatalistic but I suffered a pretty severe stroke in January of this year and it has given me a whole new perspective on the fragility of existence and the fragility of our world, so bear with me as I bring this perspective into my observations this year.

In some ways, the Spike ceremony has become very, very familiar to everyone who is involved with it. The Spike, as you probably know, marks the very spot upon which the Man will be erected and then later burned, and it marks the geographic center of Black Rock City, around which the avenues and streets will be laid out. It also marks the beginning of the Burning Man season and it, like so many things that have sprung up around the event itself, has become layered in ritual and ceremony.

On this day when it is 104°F+ in Gerlach, you wonder once again what possessed the early organizers of Burning Man to choose this godforsaken spot as the site of the event, and why they would pick the hottest part of the day to have the Spike ceremony. You get an early taste of how ungodly hot everything can be in the desert from your very first day. In addition, you are now at 4,000-ft. altitude, and you are feeling those effects as well. Because you’re in the high desert, it could not only be incredibly hot in the daytime, but it could also get incredibly cold at night. It could also be windy and sandblasted, as it has been in the past. The sky can be a brilliant gorgeous blue or it could be shaded red by the smoke from multiple fires in California. This year, it seems the grip of climate change has tightened its bony fingers around the globe’s fragile neck. What isn’t burning or baking is under water from record floods.

So you have to be prepared for everything because anything can happen, and it usually does. Howling winds and unrelenting heat and sun. You have to bring your own ‘everything’ to survive here—shade food, water, everything—because there is no escaping the sun on the barren playa. Have I mentioned that it could be warm? 

Of course, the Spike ceremony didn’t start out this big, and Will Roger remembers when it was just a handful of people. “In 1999, we had to move the city site three times as I negotiated with the BLM to get out of the mud. So three Golden Spikes that year, the third one was just me and Tony! Back then it was just a few of us—Tony, Rod, Flynn, and I were the main players.”

Coyote and the sledge in the spike circle
Will Roger and Crimson Rose in the circle

People often look at the extravagant and beautiful art that is found at Burning Man, and they ask, “Why do you burn it?” That gets to the root of the event itself—Burning Man is a celebration, or an acknowledgment if you will, of the temporal nature of our existence. Temporality—that we are on this earth for a short, short time, and all that we are and all that we hold dear will someday die with us. But now, paradoxically, Burning Man has become something of a permanent cultural institution. After 30 years of existence, many of the things that need to happen to create the event have become wrapped in ritual and ceremony, just as it is with the Golden Spike. This has been going on since the event moved from San Francisco to the Black Rock Desert in 1990, and now the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum had on display a Golden Spike that has been used in the desert to mark the beginning of the Burning Man season (as part of their No Spectators exhibition in 2018).

We can reliably tell you that there were many, many smiles among the 150 or so people who were gathered for the ceremony last Thursday, because it had been three long years since the last Spike ceremony took place, due to the COVID pandemic. People were gathering again. People who were full of gratitude because they were just plain happy to be able to do this again and to see each other. There isn’t anyone who hasn’t been touched by the last three years of the pandemic, everyone has gone through changes and now we are back in the place that looks like it never changes (even though in glacial terms it absolutely does, but for hundreds of years it has looked the same way as look it looks right now). All of us gathered here are different than the people who left three years ago, but the land we have returned to has not changed, and maybe there is solace in that, maybe there is comfort. I know I found it to be so.

Suddenly, everything seems familiar again. From the heat, to the people, to the dust, to the joy. We know how to do this. The event seems somehow permanently etched in our consciousness and the crew on playa is ready to go. Each person in turn takes a swing with a sledgehammer to drive the stake a little further into the ground, and with each swing words are shared with the gathered group. There is a great deal of personal investment in this simple action. People take it very seriously and make thoughtful comments. Burning Man Project CEO Marian Goodell relayed what Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe elders, who were also in the circle, had observed about the ceremony—that it all starts out from circles. “We start with that Spike and then we do the survey and the survey is done in circles and then the fence and then we take it away. We go in reverse. That’s a very powerful way to honor process of life and the ritual of coming together.”

Crimson Rose seemed to pick up how important this gathering was for each of the people who were there when she said, “The fire that will consume this area comes from each and every one of you. Let’s be beautiful and make beautiful things and then burn them down.”

The ceremony came to an end when Coyote smashed a bottle of champagne onto the Spike, that was now plunged into the desert floor and the glass shattered everywhere. From all points around the circle, celebrants came running out to pick up each and every last shard, and a familiar chant of “Leave No Trace!” went up amongst the entire group.

…and that is how Black Rock City 2022 was started.

The survey crew started work that very moment. We are not able to stay for survey this year, but we will return in a few weeks. See you in the dust.

All photos courtesy of John Curley

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.

35 Comments on “Once More Unto Dust

  • Nother Level says:

    John, I am grateful for the return of your insightful and wise commentary. I haven’t been to the playa in several years now, so I experience it remotely, starting with your coverage of the spike ceremony. I was fearful we wouldn’t be hearing from you this year. Thank you.
    And may your health issues blow away with the dust.

    Report comment

  • zbns says:

    I’ve been reading your writing since my first event in 2011, somehow 11 years ago now. This event is my tenth. A yearly stroll with your words in my head is a very important part of my ritual every year, and I am so glad to see it back.

    Thank you for putting forth the energy and effort to do this, especially during recovery from your stroke. It is genuinely appreciated on a level I have a difficult time describing.

    Report comment

  • Jennifer Raiser says:

    Oh, John. What a particular relief and joy to see your words and pictures convey this experience. Once more, you honor the process and the people who bring BRC to life. A hard-fought Welcome Home to all, and to you most of all.

    Report comment

  • Princess Stephanie says:

    Very well said. And hope you are recovering nicely from your stroke — very scary! And maybe instead of busting a messy glass bottle of champagne, I may have to bring my champagne saber and christen the spike with a lot less moop and mess while keeping the bottle drinkable. Maybe 2023 I’ll have to come and help build earlier than usual. Cheers! Princess Stephanie, Head
    Dude at Camp P3, & Denver RC

    Report comment

  • Papa Penguin says:

    The dream is becoming reality – and the proof is in the pictures!

    John, your words and pictures allow me, and everyone, to be part of the experience. Thank you.

    Report comment

  • Anon says:

    Thank you for your post, which I look forward to each year. And, more importantly, I wish you the best in terms of your health and a quick and speedy recovery, with many more years ahead of you.

    Report comment

  • Heather White says:

    Thank you thank you thank you John! I feel re-introduced to our friend, the playa, and I am so happy and grateful that you are here, right now with us!

    Report comment

  • Andie Grace says:

    This post makes my heart sing on so many awesome levels. <3

    Report comment

  • Doc Wilder says:

    IT’S HAPPENING. Thank you John!!!

    Report comment

  • Dennis says:

    You still got it John. Keep stretching your mind and eye.

    Report comment

  • DhammaSeeker says:

    I hope you got to take a turn at the hammer – even if it was a gentle love tap. You’ve certainly earned it. Thank you for making the journey out to tell the tale once again. May you have the best burn ever, John! May we all!

    Report comment

  • NK Guy says:

    Thank you, John!

    Report comment

  • Dave Taylor (BigBlueDoggy) says:

    There is pure joy in my heart that you were able to be there for this once again. So much has changed for everyone in these three years, and I know that is especially true for you. May you find the wings to soar above your malady and continue your road of healing. Much love.

    Report comment

  • bathsheba says:

    so glad you were out there to document this…..sending much love…….

    Report comment

  • Moze says:

    With one post you’ve set us on our course John. I’m so grateful that, kind of like that Golden Spike, your eloquent words and power of observation and ability to sum up what we’re doing out there in one of the most splendid and temporal cities, rings clear and true and centers those of us reading this who weren’t there to experience the ceremony. Only through your words.

    Burning Man is indeed back. Thank you for sharing your journey.

    See you in the dust my friend.

    Report comment

  • Terry Pratt says:

    So good to see you!

    Report comment

  • Terrin Haley says:

    john, what a great piece. now i am consumed with wanting to be there. i think this WILL be a special Burn–i know for you, it must be HUGE. I am so glad you are there. MAY YOUR SPIRIT SOAR

    Report comment

  • John! You hit the nail in the head! The world is fragile, life is fragile and the best we can do is live our best life each day! Thank you for sharing your story. Knowing Burning Man is happening and that we are returning home has been a beacon of hope and excitement for us. My husband (and Burnstream Lighthouse creator) suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage a few months after the last Burning Man which left him paralyzed on his left side. The next two year have been filled with so many challenges and family heartaches and still, we talk about going home. It is that ray of hope and and that creative excitement that helps your spirit rise above everyday issues and move forward to the possibilities of the playa. So we were pretty devastated when Bruce fell and broke his hip on his paralyzed side in late July. I think ordinary people might thrown in the towel but that burner spirit says, What do I need to do to make this happen? We are planning on seeing you all in the dust!

    Report comment

    • johncurley says:

      I am so sorry to hear of your troubles and I am familiar with them very well I too have paralysis on the left side of my body and I hope to see you out there in the dust as well I think it’ll be good for our Nuro plasticity in our neural pathways will be stimulated by being there that’s my hope and I’m sure that your help as well

      Report comment

  • Mustang says:

    “Suddenly, everything seems familiar again. From the heat, to the people, to the dust, to the joy. We know how to do this. The event seems somehow permanently etched in our consciousness and the crew on playa is ready to go. ”

    These words really struck me. Over the course of getting ready to get out there with my crew I’m getting hints of this. We’ve been working together pre playa for months now but it’s only now starting to really feel real. Seeing that the Golden Spike was in…..oh what a good bit of news it was.

    Report comment

  • Jack says:

    Good health to you, John. Hope to see you there.

    Report comment

  • Jeremy Crandell says:

    We can always count on the reliable voice of this correspondent. Thank you, Curley!

    Report comment

  • Fiona Jay says:

    How wonderful to hear Black Rock City lives again have a wonderful time you are always in my heart Fee, New Zealand, Burning Man 2014

    Report comment

  • Champagne says:

    I didn’t realize just how much I was yearning for your post until it appeared. Thank you for making the trip, managing the heat, and smithing the words.

    Report comment

  • Dr. Z says:

    Thank you so much, John! So wonderful to read your words and see your pictures and know you’re there. Following your journey of recovery is a true inspiration. I really hope I get to meet you out there one of these years — your words have always meant a lot to me, now more than ever.

    Report comment

  • Comments are closed.