The Desert Is Spiked

Coyote called people over to begin the ceremonies
Coyote called people over to begin the ceremonies

And so it begins again.

There was a howling wind on the Black Rock Desert on Sunday, and there had been driving rain the night before in Gerlach. But now the sun was blazing and the sky was magnificent as about 75 people gathered to drive the Golden Spike into the desert floor, the first official act of Burning Man.

It doesn’t just happen, you know. Many things must come together, many sacrifices must be made, for Black Rock City to rise. Jobs must be quit, leavings must be taken, and sweat will coat many faces before the festivities begin.

But this, this vast empty timeless place, this is what draws us first. This is the blank canvas. This is where it starts.

Like so many things about Burning Man, it wasn’t always like this. The desert is the only thing that hasn’t changed. Everything else has grown, become more ornate, become layered in ritual and remembrance. The first time a spike was put in the ground to mark the place where the Man would be built, there were only four people around. But now there were words to be said and liquor to be shared. There was a consciousness and intention about the work that was about to start, and the moments did not go unremarked on.

“Are we back here already?” Crimson Rose asked. “Did we ever leave?”

As the years seem to hurtle one into the next, it seemed indeed like we had never left. But again, just as there is sameness, there is difference, too. Last year there heavy hearts, the weight of sadness and loss everywhere. But this year, you could sense acceptance. Time has passed. Distance has been gained. Perspective, and maybe some wisdom, has been achieved.

Miss Stress gave the spike a mighty whack
Miss Stress gave the spike a mighty whack

“You are my friends 365 days a year,” Makeout Queen proclaimed as she held the sledgehammer above her head.

And even though there were laughs and hijinx, there was also a somber gratefulness that those who were out here had made it through another year. “I want to thank you all for staying alive,” someone said. “This year I dedicate this to the people who are here.”

And with that another hammer blow drove the stake a little deeper into the ground. One by one, people stepped up and said what they had to say. Some people were profound, some were sad, some were funny. But everyone seemed to respect the moment, and they were grateful. “I’ve been here a month,” Miss Stress said, “and I still look like this,” she said, pointing to her hugely smiling face.

But pretty soon it was all done.

The blank canvas
The blank canvas

Coyote smashed a bottle of Champagne on top of the spike as a final christening, and a handful of folks rushed from the perimeter to scoop up the moop. Then Coyote and his survey crew chased the revelers from what was now a work site. It was time to start mapping out where the streets of the city would go.

By the time the shadows grew long and the sun sank below the hills, there were only a handful of people left. People were hammering together the Octagon, an eight-sided sleep shelter, which would offer a little shelter if a windstorm came up in the night. Coyote was showing the survey equipment to Charlie, the new guy who’s in charge of event logistics this year.

Nips and her fluffers returned from Brunos with plastic dinner containers for the crew. Spoono was setting up his cooking gear so that people would have a little something in their stomachs when the work began again at dawn. A boom box that had been playing “Freebird” at the spike ceremony gave way to D.A. playing his ukulele around a fire. People sang along: “I don’t see what anyone can see in anyone else … but you.”

“It wasn’t always this plush,” Nathan was saying as some Scotch was handed around. He remembered being out there on other first nights when the wind and sand were blowing so hard he used his sleeping mat as a shield against the dust.

The twilight gave way to true night. There was no moon, only stars and thick clouds of galaxies. K.T. challenged people to point out the constellations, but that didn’t get very far. Soon there was nothing to do but sit under the stars, tell stories, and grow drowsy. Then it was time to drift off to sleep and dream the dreams that Burns are made of.

Before things got started, Slim took a photo of the where the spike was placed
Before things got started, Slim took a photo of the where the spike was placed

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Selfies from Black Rock
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It was very hot, but not overly dry

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The first survey line was rolled out from the spike
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Coyote surveys the terrain
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There was only a handful of people left as darkness started to fall

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Looking to get a read on due south
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The burn barrel was rolled out as twilight fell
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New playa game: Bocce ball

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At the end there was nothing but a small fire and lots of stars
At the end there was nothing but a small fire and lots of stars

About the author: John Curley

John Curley has been Burning since the relatively late date of 2004, and in 2008 he spent the better part of a month on the playa, documenting the building and burning of Black Rock City in words and pictures. John is a longtime newspaper person and spent many years at the San Francisco Chronicle, where he was a deputy managing editor in charge of Page One and the news sections of the paper. Since leaving the Chronicle in 2007, he was a contributing editor on Blue Planet Run, a book about the world's water crisis, and for the past two years has been a lecturer at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. He has also started an event and editorial photography business, and is also working on a book about the "Ten Dollar Doc" from Arco, Idaho, which will make a lovely film someday.

52 thoughts on “The Desert Is Spiked

  • Last year (2012) a friend attended Burning Man for the first time. Afterwards she wrote about it on her Blog. I couldn’t stop reading her posts, it was like reading a great adventure book. She truly returned a person forever changed.

    This year she is attending again, so I decided to do some research on the BM history and people. What started out as a lunch-hour jaunt aroung Google looking for BM information has turned into a seven day, every free minute journey of epic and life changing information.

    Please know that your work on this event reaches far beyond the desert floor, the rain, the dust, the heat and the cold. So for those of us who will never experience BM in person, thank you for the work you do, the people you bring together and this wonderful place you call home.

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