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.

One comment 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.

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