We thought we’d seen the beginning of Burning Man before, but we didn’t know until Monday that we really hadn’t.
This will be the fifth year that we’ll be out there as miles and miles of fence get put up in a day, and we’ve always associated the fence with the beginning of the Burning Man year. But we’ve been wrong.
Coyote, aka Tony Perez, has been teasing us for at least a couple of years about fence day. “Don’t all those pictures look pretty much the same as last year?” he’d ask. And the answer has always been yes, of course, they’re the same as last year. Only different. Just like the event itself. It’s the same, but different. Different people, different feel, but still the same.
So we accepted his invitation to come up and see what the survey team does before the fence crew arrives, and we weren’t really prepared for the experience.
First of all, there are lots of people in Gerlach already. There’s a sign at the entrance to town that says, “Welcome to Gerlach – Attitude: Good. Population: Wanted.” The attitude is indeed good, and the population is booming (at least temporarily).
Logan, aka Cobra Commander, aka the guy at the helm of the DPW crews that build the city, was in the Black Rock City office hunched over a computer when we pulled into town. He said there were about 80 people on hand already. “Mission creep,” he said. “As the city gets bigger … ” so does the need for people to do the work. But don’t get the idea that you can roll into town and roll up your sleeves and volunteer to help out. It doesn’t work that way. The crews have been signed up for weeks and months, and if you’re not on a crew, it’s too late to sign up.
At least that’s the way it’s supposed to work, but there are more than a couple of people who got their start by just showing up. [Editor's note: This is not something you should think about doing. Seriously. We mean it. Do not come early if you're not supposed to be here.]
Take Feral Kid, for example. When he first showed up in Gerlach, “I told the people I had my tool belt with me.” They weren’t interested. They already had the folks they needed. But he heard that Gate might need help, and that’s where he landed. Now it’s nine years later, and he had just finished a six-day solo trip from New Hampshire in a ’71 van so that he could be here for Survey and the “Golden Spike.” And other people come from all over to do the same. We talked to Toby a little bit later and he said, “You give up everything to be here. You give up your job, you give up your girlfriend … you give up your life.”
So Feral Kid and Toby and the others had come to work and to be here for the Golden Spike. People come to the Black Rock Desert for lots of reasons – there’s an annual rocketry gathering here, and land speed records have been set on the flat, barren terrain. And of course there is the timeless beauty and overwhelming silence that you can find in only a very few places on Earth.
When the city began to evolve into its current shape in the late ’90s, it was laid out so that people would have a natural reason to talk with each other, celebrate with each other, and help each other cope with the hardships of the desert. And the place where the Man stood would be the geographic center of the city, the compass point around which the spokes of the radial city would emanate. And in 1999, the first survey crew put down a Golden Spike, and that would be the reference point for the layout of the rest of the city.
And now here we were, on a blazingly hot afternoon, ready to begin again. Coyote moved to the center of the circle, where a spike about four feet high was sticking out of the desert floor. There was a sledgehammer on the ground, and he was holding a bottle of champagne. He said that when he broke the bottle on the spike, the Black Rock Desert would begin its transformation into Black Rock City.
Before that happened, though, many people would take turns with the sledgehammer, and with the champagne, and maybe tell a story.
Will Roger and Crimson Rose, two of the founders, were there.
Will turned around and around as he spoke, and he said, “You people create the framework and the cauldron that will cook their souls.”
Cowboy Carl was on the periphery, telling stories and swigging on a bottle. When it was his turn to hit the spike, he said that he’d been a wrangler in the area when he heard about a bunch of hippies who were out in the desert having a hell of a party. “Sounds like fun,” he said. So he came out and basically never left.
Makeout Queen took her turn, and she looked sad, maybe a little overcome. It had been a tough year, she said, and a lot of heads were nodding in agreement. So many people seemed to have lost so many people this year. Makeout talked about her friend Donovan, who she lost a couple of months ago. She talked about Joey Jello.
Many people talked about Joey Jello. He was big and strong and young, and he had been killed in a car crash where a driver ran an intersection and plowed into his truck. Joey had a backwards tattoo on his neck which read, “Never Betray.” He got the tattoo so that when he looked at himself in the mirror every morning, he’d remind himself to keep true to his core principles. The Power team came up as a group and poured some beer and champagne on the spike, in memory of Joey and the other people who were gone now. There were tears.
People took their turns at the spike told how long they’d been coming out here, how long they’d been on DPW or whatever department, and what Burning Man meant to them.
“There’s no other place I’d rather be,” Logan said. “The ability to love is the only thing that will fulfill us,” Ghost Dancer said. “I’ve never been prouder than to be associated with this crew,” Joe the Builder said. “You’ve made me the man I am today,” Yardz said. “I look around and see my family,” Wild Child said.
The testimonials went on, and the spike got pounded deeper into the ground. The barren desert didn’t seem so barren anymore.
Towards the end, John Bastarrd got back in the middle of the circle and he held the sledgehammer over his head. He found the words that seemed to capture what many people were feeling. He spoke for Joey, he spoke for Donovan, he spoke for Gooey:
“To the fallen, we who remain have the absolute responsibility to be awesome. You are all awesome. Just be awesome.”
Then Coyote cracked the bottle over the spike, and people rushed in to collect the shards of glass from the desert floor, and it reminded you of how the crowd rushes to the embers after the Man has fallen.
Then the work began in earnest. Coyote and his crew took a tape measure and marked off a spot 300 feet from the spike. They put a flag in the playa to mark the spot, picked up the tape and moved it to the next point. When they were finished, they’d marked off the first circle of the city, the burn circle, the perimeter you must stay behind on burn night. Next they’d do the jump circle, the halfway point from the Man to the Esplanade, the first street of the city.
By nightfall, the Survey crew had also set up the Octagon, the eight-sided wooden structure that serves as the center of the Survey camp, the real First Camp on the playa. The burn barrel was going, the whiskey was flowing, and the blazing day had become a cool beautiful night in the middle of the desert. We were surrounded by nothing and everything, no one and everyone.