No One Said It Was Going to Be Easy

I don’t know anyone who isn’t thinking that this past Burn was one of the hardest weeks of Burning Man that we’ve ever had. But why? It’s been hot before, and we’ve had whiteouts before, so how come this one felt so challenging? I say this knowing that we (Erica & I) are among the very privileged ones who are able to bring an RV out to the desert to stay inside to give shelter from the elements, but shelter isn’t what we go to the desert for. We go to the desert for interaction, for exploration, and for experiences that take place spontaneously. But there were very little of those for us this year because it seemed wiser to hunker down when the daytime heat was so appalling that as soon as you stepped outside it was almost as if you said something deeply embarrassing and your face flushed completely red and you instantly began looking for some shade and a place to sit down.

The idea of going for a walk or even a bike ride seemed deeply unwise. It made much more sense to stay near camp, because wandering outside the familiar environs meant running the risk of becoming stranded in a whiteout for who-knows-how-many hours. So mostly we stayed inside, and it would go on like that for hours; you got the sense that time was passing you by and that Burning Man was taking place without you. Much of the first couple of days was spent hoping that the heat would break and that the whiteouts would ease up so it would feel safe to go exploring. We wanted to see our friends, we wanted to see what art was out there and toward the end of Sunday, we came up with a suitable destination: the Man base was opening, and Opa had been kind enough to invite us to come by.

First glimpse of the 2022 Man Base up close

So we readied our mobility chariot—a Polaris Ranger that was big enough to enable us to bring both passengers and a cooler of cold drinks out to the Man. Having passengers was more a necessity than a luxury since I needed a care team to help me navigate situations like this. So off we went. When we got to the fences around the Man Build site we were graciously waved through. Wow! What treatment! What a luxury! We stopped in front of the Man and visited with some of the builders—Kimba Standridge, Goatt Koch, Matt and others. We marveled at the graceful design. Then we went around to the right side of the Man Base and, wonder of wonders, there was a ramp leading up to the base of the Man which meant that this year’s base was fully wheelchair accessible!

Ranger Rat in her electric wheelchair out on playa

We thought we were doing pretty well navigating Burning Man even in our diminished capacity, but we got a real lesson in overcoming difficulties when we met up with Ranger Rat and her electric wheelchair, crafted to look like a turtle. She didn’t have a group of friends helping her get around, she was doing the whole thing on her own as a part of Mobility Camp. She laughingly told us about how people reacted to seeing her wheelchair—which she had built to transform her into a crawling turtle—and she said with a laugh that it always got people talking, it was a real conversation starter. Her spirit and energy were just absolutely amazing and strong, a wonderful boost to others who might be struggling with mobility issues.

If I ruled the Burning Man world, I would make it a requirement—at least of the Man Base and Temple—to be completely and totally accessible to those of us in wheelchairs or otherwise mobility challenged. Radical Inclusion, after all! So we’re taking this as a very significant advance in raising the awareness of making art accessible to a greater number of people. It would seem those two installations should lead the way in the effort to be available to the greatest number of people.

There we were, me in my wheelchair with my band of cohorts pushing me up the ramp—to the hoots and hollers of the Man Build team who were spread around the base of the Man, enjoying some of Crimson Rose’s killer margaritas. Let me tell you, it was quite a moment—one that I will remember for the rest of my life, and it made all the weeks of preparation and anxiety worth it.

Like-minded souls just seem to find each other in the desert

After some dusty playa adventuring, it was back to camp for our favorite time of the day: when the sun gets low in the sky and everything turns golden and orange and the wind dies down. Finally we could sit outside without having dust covering our faces and everything around us. We pulled out meats and cheeses and wine and set up a table, all of which we had planned to do before we even stepped foot on the playa. Of course, back in New Jersey we would simply call it a deli tray but now we are grown-up and fancy so we call it charcuterie.

The evening was beautiful and the company was divine. And as the evening was just beginning, everything seemed possible and it felt like Burning Man was really happening—maybe for the first, maybe for one of the last times. It was as perfect as an evening could be, and we were both cheered and grateful that it was happening just as we had planned. In a normal year of course, this might have been just the beginning of a long and fun night on the playa, but because we had heard warnings of high winds we decided that going out and exploring was maybe not the best idea. We were leery of getting caught in a whiteout in the far reaches of the playa and becoming unable to get home, so we skulked back to our trailers and hunkered down again. Not exactly what we had hoped to be doing on the first night of Burning Man; but there we were—trying to let go of the burden of expectations. Surely the next day would dawn and the wind would stop and the dust would have calmed down.

Just a word about dust before we go any further. Dust is a bit of a misnomer because dust in your home is kind of invisible—it just somehow gathers on the coffee table or on the bookshelves and it gets there without you even noticing. But the dust of the desert is something else entirely. It’s more like talcum powder or dried pulverized clay; it is very fine and coats everything, including you. The dust on your skin is not always necessarily an uncomfortable feeling, and in fact some people look down right marvelous with the playa coating. Because the humidity is so low you barely even notice that you have so much stuff clinging to you. You don’t really notice how dirty you’ve become until you’re back on your home ground in the normal humidity and that’s when the dust turns to muck and you realize that your car, your trailer, all your belongings have become covered with this powder that has been blowing around incessantly for days and days.

But let’s try to figure out why it felt so massively difficult this year, even though we have been through heat and we’ve been through the dust before. Speaking personally, of course Erica & I have our own reasons for this year being particularly challenging. As we’ve shared before, I had a stroke back in January that left me in a wheelchair, with limited use of my hands and arms and legs—but what about the rest of us? Why did this year feel so hard? It could be as our friend Melissa says simply, “It’s that we and our stuff are just getting older.” Or maybe it’s as our friend Andi Grace has put so succinctly, “Recreational suffering” has always been a part of Burning Man, and maybe we’re just done with that. Or maybe the reasons go deeper and have to do with the pandemic that we’ve all been suffering through for three years, and as our friend Rosalie says, “That has changed us, but it seems that Burning Man hasn’t changed.” Is there anyone better qualified to comment on the hardships at Burning Man than Danger Ranger, the man who saw that stranded participants might need to be rescued, and therefore founded the Black Rock Rangers: “The 65mph winds that ripped through BRC early in the week caused a lot of damage, even in my wind-hardened camp.”

Carly Rhodes rocking the dusty look at Media Mecca

So is all this enough for us to turn our backs on Burning Man? In our situation we say a resounding no—because, here’s the thing: the people who are drawn to the desert for this event are our people. We live in Mexico for part of the year and the people we meet there have also made the decision to live in a different way, and with a different set of values. So we have an affinity with each of them from the outset, because they have made the same choice to have that life and even if we don’t share many other things in common we do share the idea that there is a better way to live and we have stepped outside of the normal constraints of America. We have made a value decision to live our lives in a certain way, sharing certain values and turning our backs on other things, and it’s very similar to the people who are drawn to the desert. We are all there because we chose this. We chose this way of being and interacting, and we chose this value system to believe in: Radical Self-expression; Radical Self-reliance; Communal Effort; Leaving No Trace. So you are our people, and we cherish and encourage you, and we thank you for being you, and—especially this year—we thank you for your kindness and support, with a special shout-out to the Communications team and the Man Base team; we are proud and grateful to call you our people. Thank you for letting us be your people, too.

“Paradisium” by the Folly Builders was interesting, for any number of reasons. First had to be the sheer beauty of the trees and the way they glowed. Then there was the fact that at least some of the lumber that was used in the construction had been reclaimed from the Lightning Fire Complex wildfires in Northern California. It was also heartening to hear that this installation would not be burned, as it was possibly going to be relocated—perhaps to The 360 property outside of Gerlach, Nevada.
Laurence Renzo Verbeck’s Empyrean Temple drew visitors from all over the playa

Cover image of John Curley being wheeled up a ramp at the 2022 Man Base—with gratitude to the Man Base Build Crew for making this moment possible (Photo courtesy of the author)

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.

18 Comments on “No One Said It Was Going to Be Easy

  • Digit says:

    Thank you, John, for this and all other writeups. I was with you during the Sunday toast but did not get to thank you in person. The years of storytelling and reporting on playa warmed my heart through dark times and watching your difficulties reminds me to always find joy in life, even the difficult parts — it can always get worse. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    Report comment

  • Dave Taylor (BigBlueDoggy) says:

    Always so good to hear your stories, John! I missed running across you this year, but we also spent a great deal of time hunkered down during the day. I’m so glad you didn’t let a little old stroke deter you from coming to TTITD! You are model of self reliance and radical inclusion (even with helpers) and it warms my heart to see you out there doing what you do in spite of whatever else may be happening. Thanks for another great tale!

    Report comment

  • bathsheba says:

    Thank you John!! Your words made me feel like I was there, right with you and all our other pals. Your bravery & creativity are heartwarming…..

    much love,

    Report comment

  • genghis says:

    “ Of course, back in New Jersey we would simply call it a deli tray but now we are grown-up and fancy so we call it charcuterie.”


    Report comment

  • Fred Heim & Kathy Rosen says:

    This being our firat burn, my partner and I did not know what to expect or whether this was average or otherwise. her being with an arm in a sling (broken wrist), and we being seniors 70 and 73, figured we had better go this year or maybe never! We still had a great time, and were part of a great camp (The Hotel Lobby), where we were made to feel accepted and part of it all even though we both have children older than most burners. We saw only a little of it but were glad we went.

    Report comment

  • Eden says:

    Beautiful and sometimes scary. Thanks for your story.

    Report comment

  • AG says:

    I don’t have enough superlatives to define how grateful I am for your voice and eye and heart and soul. APPLAUSE.

    Report comment

  • Jed says:

    John, You have echoed something so many of us have been saying: This will go down in history as “Brutal Man” and exploring why is critical. The heat was definitely a major factor and as a fellow aging Burner, this my 19th Burn had me asking if I am getting to old for this. The reality is the heat made everything harder from building, riding out on the playa, visiting other camps, just about everything. Some data: We had fairly accurate temperature gauges and recorded daytime temps on Thursday Friday and Saturday in excess of 125 degrees in the sun. The ground temp in the sun was 122 degrees. our triple layer shade temp was 108 degrees. We had to build our camp after sunset and strike after sunset. The temperature got very hot earlier in the day as well. The dust was the dust. We’ve all been in blowdowns for hours, it was the oppressive heat that made it worse. So after the burn my campmates and I have decided not to give up on the Playa. We are redesigning our camp for extreme heat. Everything will be scrapped and made lighter, more reflective, faster to set up and take down and we’ll include misting systems and ceiling fans. Even the packing will be redesigned. Everything will be packed in identical sized containers so that truck pack time can be reduced. It’s the best part of Burning Man to spend the off season planning and designing for a better burn. Finally, I fear that this may be “Climate Change Burning Man” and the org should seriously consider moving the event two weeks into September to mitigate the heat as well. That’s my story and I ‘m sticking to it. Thanks for your thoughts.

    Report comment

    • William May says:

      I agree with changing the dates of BM to be later in the season, when the temps have broken. Global warming is a reality. Summer temps are climbing ALL OVER the U.S.
      My personal opinion is to move it at least one MONTH LATER. Burning Man as a raw survival event is not too appetizing.

      Report comment

  • geomom says:

    For people who think a wheelchair ramp is the end of the story, as a caregiver to a lady who weighs 265 pounds (not unusual for a disabled person), those ramps are downright scary. One small slip and that wheelchair is rocketing towards the bottom. We need better solutions.

    John, ditto on the thanks for sharing all the stories. I’m glad you and Erica got to Burn. When people ask me if I had a good time I tell them. “Yes. It was good old Burning Man – I enjoyed the good, the bad, and the ugly.”

    Report comment

  • Pixel says:

    Saw a large sticker on a coworker’s water bottle this year: “You Chose This”. Might get a batch made up to hand out myself in the future because, as you write, it’s an essential truth. Thanks as always for your reporting from the field, and I hope you either recover more motor function, or continue to find creativity in adapting – and confident that you have all of these abilities.

    Report comment

  • Playa Patti says:

    I could smell the dust as I read this. Sometime during the burn I told myself I was too old for this, the desert had finally beat me. By the end of the burn I was making plans with friends for next year. Now I am making plans to better tolerate the heat and dust, or cold and dust, whatever Mother Nature throws at us. See you all in 2023!

    Report comment

  • Karina Petersen says:

    Burningman 2022 was my 2nd and last burn. My intention for going this year was to bring my son to the temple to memorialize him. He had died from fentanyl poisoning in September 2021.
    I joined a camp with a girlfriend of mine thinking it would be a good way of meeting others and also they offered an opportunity to teach a workshop. I had led many women empowerment workshops in the past, so I decided to lead a grief workshop to offer a space for others who were experiencing their own grief. That was probably the highlight of my burn. The next day I took my son’s photo, his jewelry box with his earrings and the tongue ring that we wore everyday and I left it at the temple with a short note saying how he died. He had smoked some marijuana without knowing that was laced with fentanyl.
    The next day, I was feeling ill at ease and I wanted to go check on his memorial. When I arrived, after being caught in a dust storm on the Playa that lasted over an hour, I found his photo at the temple has been defaced by someone who took a black pen and colored in his front teeth! I was mortified at the first sight of this. I felt nauseous. In disbelief, I picked up the photo to inspect it closer, perhaps it was dirt or something else, but no, I could see the lines of ink that had bled to the back of the photo. My stomach turned, I screamed and wailed and dropped to my knees at the thought of some person actually picking up my son’s photo and literally defacing him after he had already been murdered. This is supposed to be a Utopian society. How did this happen? The temple was spinning. I left the temple in shock sobbing and I went back to my camp to crawl in my van. My brain could not grasp this, my heart could not hold it. It crushed my nervous system like a wrecking ball destroys an old building. I have not been the same person since that day just a short month ago. I have lost faith in humanity. I will never go again.

    Report comment

    • Flytrap says:

      I’m so sorry.

      Report comment

    • Leslie Moyer says:

      I am so, so sorry this happened. I cannot imagine the searing pain of losing a child, and then having their photo defaced at their memorial. What a truly atrocious thing to happen. Hopefully the knowledge that whoever did this did not know your son or his circumstances personally provides some solace. I can understand if you don’t wish to ever come back, but I hope that in time you consider returning to Black Rock City so the rest of us can bring some light and love to you. Blessings on your journey of healing from this extraordinary loss. <3

      Report comment

    • Steve Wood says:

      So sorry to hear of this experience. I imagine the person who did this will someday have their own loss, or perhaps even have their first child, and will reflect on this action with pain and regret.
      It’s the way of the world I suppose that we sometimes make foolish decisions, not recognizing the impact they may have.
      But after time, I also hope you can return. Not just for your own healing, but the healing you can bring to others who will be fresher in their own painful journeys.

      Report comment

  • CeLe says:

    Hooray for Rat Lady, Book Lady and all the folks, Paul, Pete, at Mobility Camp! So glad she was there! I could not come this year, doing caregiving, but before always took the Mobility art car nighttime tours into Deep Playa. Wonderful, fun, special folks!

    Report comment

  • Bonnie ann Dirtwitch says:

    Hi john,
    Glad to see you on the mend.,and that you made it out.
    I have to say,Your description of the experience this year was exactly as if it was written about mine. the sentiment expressed, so precise.
    Yes ,MANY long time burners I’ve spoken w / or read story’s from….have expressed that that was their experience as well.
    At least we are in tune with oneanother ,together in experience , I definitely came home feeling like I didn’t get to meet all the special strangers I love and don’t know yet…
    Next year was better anyway
    See u on the flipside….sending all the healing vibes

    Report comment

  • Comments are closed.