Posts by John Curley

August 22nd, 2014  |  Filed under Building BRC

Things come to a head

The Man rises from behind the souks that ring the perimeter

The Man rises from behind the souks that ring the perimeter

The Man got a head today, and he’s a better Man for it.

Actually, he’s had a head for some time now, but it just hadn’t been put on his body. That was rectified this morning when Bruiser, Joe the Builder and their crews lifted the 3,400-pound thing and put it atop his torso.

His enormous face is lined with blue neon, and the skull will glow with red light from within. The neon color scheme is similar to 2008’s American Dream, and the combined colors will cast a purplish/reddish glow. “Larry said he wanted a subdued effect,” Dana was saying as he watched the Man’s head lifted into place.

The Man site was quickly transformed from a work site to an installation site, and Oopah and his crews were putting the finishing touches on the tent-like Souks that ring the man on the ground. The Souks replace the Regional art installations this year, and rumors are flying about the guests who might make anonymous appearances in them to talk with Burners, so you’ll definitely want to check them out.

Bruiser and his dad before the lift began. "I'm just here to supervise," dad said

Bruiser and his dad before the lift began. “I’m just here to supervise,” dad said

This morning’s lift was almost anticlimactic from the drama of a couple of mornings ago when the Man’s legs were raised and his torso was put on top of them. All was smooth sailing, as Bruiser’s crane didn’t seem to strain in the slightest. Pirate maneuvered a boom lift to keep track of the guide wires, and Goatt was back on playa to help lower the head into place.

The process of building the Man’s head was quite a departure this year. Normally, the Man Krewe heads to the work ranch at the end of June and spends a week or so building the normal Man, then many of them head to the desert for Fourth of Juplaya. This year, though, most of the work was done right on site, right next to the Man Base crew, which did the construction on the Man’s body.

“Honestly, I’m kind of ready to be done with it,” Bodie was saying the other day. “It’s been a lot more intensive this year.”

Instead of building the same Man as they always do, with slight variations and embellishments to distinguish each year’s Man, this year the head had to be invented before it could be built. So it meant for long days, some setbacks, but at the end, a very worthy dome. “We were bent over, leaning backwards on 12-foot ladders,” Bodie was saying.

“There the head flies, and now I fly,” Commander Bob said as he watched the lift.

Commander Bob watches the lift

Commander Bob watches the lift

For Andrew Johnstone, who did the design of this year’s gargantuan Man, the feeling was a little different: “I feel like a giant weight has been transferred to the Man’s shoulders from my shoulders,” he said.

The design of the Man germinated a couple of years ago, even before last year’s giant flying saucer was built. Andrew said Larry came to him asked what seemed to be a rhetorical question: “What if we built a giant Man?” Andrew started ruminating on the idea, and now here it is.

The man’s head seems quite nicely perched on the spine, and there was a bit of wiggle room built into the process to allow for that. After that head was lowered onto the 20×20-foot spine, holes were drilled through the wood to fix its place.

And now that the head is where it belongs, and now that Black Rock City has its focal point, the big structure will go from being various pieces lying on the ground to perhaps the most-photographed object since the Golden Gate Bridge.

And it also seems that we’re that much closer to being ready for the gates to open, and that’s a fine thing, too.

 

The Man rests on the side before the lift began

The Man rests on the side before the lift began

Getting ready for insertion

Getting ready for insertion

The first lift

The first lift

Getting ready to receive the head

Getting ready to receive the head

Bruiser during the lift

Bruiser during the lift

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The side of the Man's head

The side of the Man’s head

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Metal Shop Heather getting ready to go

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Brandon, Pirate and Joe the Builder held the guide wires in a boom lift as the Man’s head was lifted by the crane

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It was a choreographed dance as the Man’s head ascended

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Close to the top

Close to the top

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There was an opening with half an inch clearing all around that had to sit on the Man's spine.

There was an opening with half an inch clearing all around that had to sit on the Man’s spine.

And at the end, the Man stood tall

And at the end, the Man stood tall

 

 

 

 

 

August 21st, 2014  |  Filed under Building BRC

The desert time

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Summer has returned to the playa.

After unseasonably cool (even cold!) and wet weather early in the build, we’ve had blazing sun for days and days now. Early last week, we were so cold and damp, we wanted to sit by a fire in the middle of the day. Today, that thought is unimaginable. It’s hot. Plenty hot.

And just because it’s the single biggest question on everyone’s minds as they get ready for Burning Man, let’s talk for a second about playa conditions:

They’re not  great.

But here’s the thing: they haven’t been that great in six out of the past seven years, at least. The lone exception was the year after heavy fall rains covered the Black Rock Desert under many inches of water. Heavy rains re-set the playa floor. When the desert is inundated, it creates a deep, thick crust that’s more resistant to crumbling, and underneath the crust, there is a firm floor.

But that’s not the way it is this year. Actually, the playa doesn’t seem all that different this year than last year, and last year wound up being a fairly moderate year for dust. There’s general crappiness out around 3 o’clock, but there always seem to be lots of mounds out there. So again, nothing much is different than the past several years.

What does that mean for you? Be prepared for whiteouts. Bring goggles. Pitch your tent (and art) securely. Also? It might rain, so maybe a poncho isn’t a bad idea. Also? It might get cold, so have at least one warm thing to wrap yourself in if the need arises. In other words, it’s pretty much the same as every other year.

The last light on Razorback

The last light on Razorback

The playa seems the same, and many things seem the same, year after year. King Paul, the head of the Oculus crew, said, “What’s the definition of insanity? Doing the same things over and over and expecting a different outcome, right?” We agreed, and we’d heard the quote before. But we said that it’s also true that we do the same things over and over out here, and the results ARE different. So does that make us crazy too? Paul raised his eyebrows and agreed.

“You get to work with a bunch of kick-ass people,” he said, “you get the camaraderie, and the rest just comes.”

Yes, the rest just comes. We all go through changes in the offseason. We lose friends and family, we get married and divorced, we move, we change jobs. Sometimes we get sick or hurt, and sometimes our spirits suffer distance and alienation.

But then we come out here and we get to be the same again. And we get to work with a lot of the same crazy-ass people in the same crazy-ass environment, and the crazy happens again.

Paul moved to San Juan Batista this offseason, to a 2500 square-foot house that hasn’t been lived in for seven or eight years. It needs everything – foundation, plumbing, electrical, the whole works. “I’ve got my work cut out for me,” he said. But soon, he said, he’ll get the gardens going, and get some livestock, too. “I’m ready to rock and roll.”

 

Contemplation near the fence

Contemplation near the fence

Read more »

August 19th, 2014  |  Filed under Building BRC

What a big Man you are

IMG_7639 Well, now, that’s a Man. A mighty tall man. The names are pouring in – Tin Man, Skinny Jeans Man, Clown Man. You can make up your own. But there’s no getting around one thing: this Man is huge. It took a huge crane to get the huge man assembled. It arrived from Reno on Tuesday morning, and by 8 am it was out at the Man Base, along with a hundred or so onlookers plus workers from various crews of an equal number. There were to be two big lifts  – first the Man’s legs would be lifted to an upright position, then his torso would be placed on top of them. We’d only get one try, though – the cranes on site are too small for the job, and this was the only day that the big crane was available. If things didn’t go right, we’d still have a giant Man, but he’d be Reclining Man. Not quite the same. The day broke clear, but very windy. Wind is not a good thing when you are lifting very large objects into the sky. The crane operator, Leonard, was asked what he thought. “No problem,”  he said. Cheers all around. Back in the heart of the city, Booya suggested closing down the heavily used 5:30 road, to keep the dust down. Brilliant.

There was an air of surreality right from the start

There was an air of surreality right from the start

Brandon, the lead rigger in Black Rock City, called together a team of Heavy Equipment and Man Base workers and assigned them to the four guide wires. Then he explained the process of transferring the load from the guide wires to the wires anchored to the ground. The plan was to stabilize the legs, then have Metal Shop Heather weld the base. Heather is the hot-shot welder in Black Rock City, always the person who is called when something special needs to be done. We only know a little bit about welding, but we know enough to know that she lays down a mighty fine bead. But anyone can do that with a little practice. Her skills transcend the ordinary. We’ve watched surreptitiously when she has finished some complex task, because she doesn’t like to be watched when she works. But when she finishes, she pulls away from the weld and tosses her torch back sharply, like she’s just jumped off her horse and finished tying her hog at the rodeo. She’ll also be the person who does the welding in the Man’s middle, and in his neck when the head is attached. Of course she’ll have to be wearing a harness, because she’ll be working way up in the air, but in her case that has presented special problems: One, it has to be a welder’s harness, because it has to be fireproof, and two, welders are often rather big guys, and she’s kinda tiny. It’s not easy to find a welder’s harness that could do the job for her, but eventually a suitably small rig was found.

Metal Shop Heather at work

Metal Shop Heather at work

Anyway, after the Man’s legs were upright and secure, then the crew would move to the torso, get it up in the air, guide the 20×20-foot spine into the legs, then buckle down the support wires again. “The limiting factor in how quickly this will go is how fast we can do this,” Brandon said to the people gathered around him, their multicolored hard-hats nodding in understanding and agreement. There was one task left before the lifting could begin: the Man needed a lube job. Bacon fat was rubbed all over the top of his femurs, to make it easier for the spine to slide in. And then the big leg lift began, and it was almost astonishingly easy how quickly the legs went up. In contrast to last Friday morning, when a smaller crane seemed to strain under the load, eventually hitting 92 percent of its capacity, this time there wasn’t a moment’s hesitation as the legs neared vertical. Although there were people manning the guide wires, most of the stabilizing work was being done by Pope Phabulous in his Hyster, which had also been attached to the legs. As the legs neared vertical, there was an unmistakable wobble back and forth as the weight shifted. “He was twerking!” Layna said. Then the Man stopped moving, and a cheer went up all around. Done! If nothing else, at least we’d have Leggy Man.

As the Man neared vertical, he did a little shimmy shake

As the Man neared vertical, he did a little shimmy shake

As the cables were being attached and tightened to the anchor buckles on the ground, Joe the Builder was underneath the giant legs, trying to make sure the Man was standing upright. He was using a six-foot level, which looked ridiculously tiny in context. A plumb bob would have been no good, because the wind was still blowing steadily. But no matter. “We use the tools we have,” Brandon said. Finally the cables were set, and Pope could climb out of his Hyster cab. “Want to feel my left foot?” he asked. “It’s still shaking.” The simplicity of the task, and the Man himself, for that matter, was both beautiful and terrifying. He’s held together with giant bolts and, as they have come to be known, Joe the Builder’s giant nuts. The legs are secured to the ground by four cables. Yes, those cables were made of thick metal strands, probably half an inch or so thick, but still: four stinking cables holding up two enormous legs weighing tens of thousands of pounds each. Read more »

August 18th, 2014  |  Filed under Building BRC

A little of this, a lot of that, and some more of that other thing

"Embrace" so far, by dawn's early light

“Embrace” so far, by dawn’s early light

A good part of this morning’s morning meeting was devoted to the imminent arrival of the Bureau of Land Management’s law enforcement officers. They’ve bivouacked in Gerlach for now, but they will be a presence on the playa starting tomorrow.

You’ve already no doubt read the excellent advice on the JRS and the Burning Blog about how to have a trouble-free time at Burning Man.  http://www.burningman.com/media/doc/preparation/blm_stipulations/burning-man-closure-document.pdf)

The work crews got a visit from event operations manager Charlie Dolman and Government Relations Liaison Marnee Benson, who were there to go over some of the finer points and to review best practices. There were a lot of questions, and a lot of answers, but maybe the most important message was this: Stay cool. Don’t escalate the situation. If you’re going to get a ticket, the best path is to accept it and live to fight it another day, when you are off the playa and can take advantage of any number of legal resources available to you. One such resource is Lawyers for Burners, a grassroots organization with lots of success representing burners in past years.

Know your rights, to be be sure, and keep your ship tight, for doubly sure. The best way to avoid trouble is not to ask for it. But if you DO have a law-enforcement encounter, stay cool! Be professional! Be a burner! Don’t ruin your time here – if you want to dispute what happened, document your facts and have your day in court.

Of the 400-plus citations issued last year in Black Rock City, nearly all of them were downgraded after the fact.

The clearest path to trouble lies in becoming argumentative or confrontational. Guess what? You’re not going to win that battle. But as Dave X says, it might be helpful to view any law-enforcement situation as an opportunity to display Burner qualities. Who knows what culture change you might facilitate.

There were some interesting and unique hypotheticals discussed, though. Such as, if you have people riding on the roof of your vehicle on a couch, do they need to be wearing seatbelts? More info as it becomes available …

 

A big day for the big Man

My, what big arms you have

My, what big arms you have

So the Man is big. Very, very big, as we know. His legs are somewhere around 75 feet high, and when upright, the structure will be well over ten stories. And the Man is truly decked out this year. Not only is his external cladding extensive and graceful, but it will be lit from the inside as well as the outside. Mr. Blue and Smoke Daddy are in charge of the lighting, and honestly we can’t wait to see what they’ve dreamed up.

But tomorrow is a very important day. The Man Base crew has been working on the legs while they have been on the ground. Tomorrow they will be lifted skyward, and once they are secured, the torso will be picked up and placed atop his legs. It’s all very tense and high pressure, because a giant 240-ton crane is being brought in for the task. Keep your fingers crossed that the weather cooperates.

Monday was the final day to get ready for the big lift. To that end, the Man’s two enormous arms were attached to the torso, and that lift came off without a hitch. “I’m not worried about this one at all,” Chaos said. “Tomorrow’s the day.”

 “Embrace”-able You

Annie Harper and Rachel Heather Lee Kennison poked their heads out of Omega

Annie Harper and Rachel Heather Lee Kennison poked their heads out of Omega

Matt Schultz, who is building the Embrace project in the far playa, likes to jokingly refer to the heads, Alpha and Omega, which are now perched on top of towers, as Pez dispensers. At this early stage, they do look a little like that, but the skinning project is proceeding, and the closer you come, the more beautiful the figures are.

Yesterday Rachel and Annie were ensconced in Omega’s noggin, working on their murals and lighting and other effects. We couldn’t get a sneak preview, though, because the only way to get there right now is by boom lift.

“We’re trapped up here,” Rachel called down. “We’re like Rapunzel!” Read more »

August 17th, 2014  |  Filed under Building BRC

The Story of the Early Man

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The work crews setting up Black Rock City had a little get-together out near the Man last night, an annual gathering that has come to be known as Early Man.

It’s not an official thing, and it’s not on any schedule of Burning Man events, but everyone here knows that on the Saturday night before the gates open, it’s ok to take a time out and … burn some things.

It’s funny that we’ve been on the desert for three weeks now, and there hasn’t been much fire. There have been burn barrels here and there, because some of the nights have been chilly. But there haven’t been any big communal fires to gather around, but last night fixed all that.

Like so many things at Burning Man, the Early Man has organic roots. It was born of necessity, and now it has become one of the rights and rituals of the city.

The Early Man, aka the Early Burn, started in 1999, when Will Roger and Tony Coyote had finished their survey of the city, all centered around the Golden Spike, the exact spot where the Man would be built. But the problem was, in all that expanse of desert, and with no identifying markers, there was a problem. Tony tells the story:

“The next day I went out and drove around, and I couldn’t find the orange cone (that marked where the spike was). That was back when we had only one cone!

“And Will said well, we need more of a beacon, so we can find the thing, so Peter Mars back then was running wood shop, and he just put a couple of sticks together, and painted them dayglo pink, and put a triangular head on him … and that was our Man!

Tony Coyote

Tony Coyote

“And we set up the whole city, and then when the real Man showed up, we had affection for our Man, that it was the worker’s man, and so we said, well, we should burn him!

“And so that’s how Early Burn was born. Because originally, it was the burn for the DPW, the burn for the blue collar, the people that set it up, for the Rangers and for the Gate, and so it’s for the staff, essentially, because after that the general onslaught comes.”

People started gathering as darkness fell, because Dave X let everyone know that all the effigies would be set aflame at the stroke of 9 o’clock. (They are all burned at once for safety reasons – you don’t want people still wandering around in them when they might catch fire.)

Playground

Playground

The work lights dimmed and crew members put highway flares to their sculptures. Fireworks started exploding, and the burn was on. The fireworks weren’t huge, but they seemed appropriate. Because the crowd was small and intimate, the fireworks were enough to make you duck when the booms started happening. Read more »

August 15th, 2014  |  Filed under Building BRC

With the Gate folks, on the lonesome highway that won’t be lonesome for long

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It’s a big challenge to get cars to go from 2 lanes up to 16, but no doubt the bigger one is getting them from 16 lanes back down to 2.

That’s how participants make their way in and out of Black Rock City – off a two-lane blacktop roadway onto the desert floor, where the road widens to 16 dusty lanes.

“It’s got to be one of the biggest roads in the world,” GSN (Glow Stick Ninja) says as he lines up row after row after row of orange cones. “Sixteen lanes is pretty big,” the Indeed it is, and Gate Road this year is about four and half miles long.

That’s the road that will seem endless as you make your way to the city, and then again as you head back from where you came.

The Gate, Perimeter and Exodus crew have loads on the plate to make ingress and egress from the city safe and at least somewhat sane, and it begins with finding an appropriate route through the desert from the highway to the event site.

Here’s the good news: The rough weather that hit the playa this week has really tamped down the road. Dust was at a minimum as the crew did its thing, but we’ll just have to see how long the hardpack lasts. “This was a lake for a couple of days,” GSN says.

GSN in his natural habitat

GSN in his natural habitat

It’s hard to get one’s head around just how many cones are used in guiding folks into Black Rock City. “We’ve got a whole container full of them,” GSN says. We’re not good at this, but let’s do a little math: 4.5 miles, 16 lanes, a cone in each lane every 100 feet or so … yes, that’s a lot of cones. And that number doesn’t take into account the “diamonds” in the road that that guide drivers from 16 lanes down to 8 down to 4 and then down to 2.

The crew has a hard deadline; tomorrow morning, the Gate road will open for guests who will be visiting for Early Man (the mini-burns the crews stage).

Feral Kid, Nacho, GSN and Knotty Boy

Feral Kid, Nacho, GSN and Knotty Boy

They center-lined the whole thing so the cones would line up squarely, and they stuck little blue flags in the ground that are guiding their way now. They also did all the stake-pounding for the flags on either side of the road, but without all the hoo-hah of  Fence day. “There wasn’t a dawn patrol, but for us it’s a fairly big event.” They got some help from their DPW brethren for the task, and they had the whole thing done in a matter of hours. The Gate helps the DPW, and the DPW helps the Gate. It’s a two-way street.  Read more »

August 15th, 2014  |  Filed under Building BRC

Road warriors

The Transpo team

The Transpo team

The guys in the Transpo crew are a pretty rough bunch.

They were out at Trailer Row near the Depot the other evening, having a little “safety meeting” (wink wink) at the end of their big week of hauling everything from the work ranch out to the playa. And by everything, we mean allll of the stuff – hundreds of containers and trailers, living containers, boxes, tanks, supplies, vehicles … really, all of the things.

It’s a logistical and practical nightmare to manage, and it’s all done in the heat of the first days that Burning Man folks are allowed to be on the playa. While the fence is being pounded and the first pieces of the Man base are brought out and HEAT is setting up its camp, the Transpo team going back and forth from the ranch, picking up the right stuff and dropping it in the right place, making sure that everything arrives at the right time. And pretty much everyone wants it right now. “It must be a lot of pressure,” we said. “I don’t feel any pressure,” Cuervo answered evenly.

You can’t listen to the work radio here for more than five minutes without hearing Cuervo’s name. The man and his crew are much in demand. A few years ago, when the radios were extra wonky and just not working, Cuervo would go around to various spots and leave written notes for his drivers about what was going on and what needed to happen next.

“It worked,” he said. “It wasn’t pretty, but it worked.”

This year didn’t have that kind of technical difficulty, but still there were new challenges. Cuervo made sure at the end of last season that everything came off the playa in a way that made sense for when it had to go out the next year. Alas, there were procedural changes made in the offseason that changed the order, “but I think we’re reacting pretty well,” Cuervo said.

There was also a new emphasis on weight control and tie-down methods this year, and an emphasis on adhering to every safety regulation on the books. While it was the right thing to do, it still might have slowed down the pace of the move. On top of that there was rain to deal with, too. Still, as the crew stood there Saturday in the golden glow of the late afternoon, it was pretty clear that things had gone smoothly.

“I just want to thank you guys,” Cuervo said. “You’re a hell of a crew.”

And that they are, full of the kind of characters that you’d expect to find working the trucks at Burning Man. Among them are Vaughn Solo, an aggressively tattooed dirt-bike rider, Railroad Mike, who brought is six-wheel drive M931 Army surplus vehicle with him this year; and Scotty V (do NOT call him Fubar), a water-skiing grandfather. Then there is Rusty, who was born in Empire and has been coming to the playa his entire life.

“It’s in my blood,” he says.

Rusty’s nickname is Big Ugly, and while we don’t know about the Ugly part, there is no disputing the Big. The dude is large, but the thing is, he used to be a lot larger – 400 pounds with five percent body fat.

When Rusty pounded stakes, he used an 85-lb pounder

When Rusty pounded stakes, he used an 85-lb pounder

“I used to come in the bar and guys would say, man, he’s big and ugly,” Rusty says. We’re guessing that they didn’t say it out loud, though.

Rusty is an ex-military man, an ex Hells Angel, and an ex con. “I spent five years in the pen,” he says matter-of-factly. “I saw a guy beating up a woman, and I broke his back.” Read more »

August 14th, 2014  |  Filed under Building BRC

Out on Main Street, Gerlach

Heidi's been here a week; Flash hired her to work the bar

Heidi’s been here a week; Flash hired her to work the bar

Do we have time for a personal anecdote?

This is a blog about the building of Black Rock City, but we have an admission to make — we stepped away from the desert today, for a couple of reasons: 1) because we could, and 2) because it might be the last day we could make a run to Gerlach to do our laundry, get a shower, use a flush toilet and generally step back from the dirt and the heat. So we did.

Forgive us our weakness. Sometimes it feels like a contest on the playa – who can work the longest and the hardest and get the grimiest? And who can party the hardest and still be present and accounted for at the morning meeting? We can tell you that this is not a competition for amateurs.

And so we stepped away from it all, if only for a day. Folks on the work crews USUALLY get a day off during the week, sometimes two, so we didn’t feel entirely guilty.

Gerlach is a small town, and getting smaller. The gypsum mine in next-door Empire closed several years ago, and Gerlach is doing its best to hang on. But it isn’t easy, and the winter months are especially deadly. The population is down below 200, and there are only 14 students left in the school.

But Gerlach is also a haven and refuge. It sits at the edge of nowhere, “out where the pavement ends,” and summer days are mostly sultry and slow. It’s peaceful. There is no traffic. The sky is huge, the landscape is stunningly severe, and when there’s a soft breeze, like there is today, there doesn’t seem to be much reason to want to be anywhere else in the world.

And because Gerlach has gotten so small, you usually wind up seeing the same people in town every day.

Trixie on the porch of the Black Rock offices.

Trixie on the porch of the Black Rock offices.

There’s Bruno, of course, sitting in one of the deep chairs along the wall, watching the action at the bar. This time of year, people come by and pay their respects, and he mostly nods silently through clenched teeth, an expression that sometimes approaches a smile.

There’s Flash, wild gray hair flying around as he fixes a trailer that he’ll rent to a Burner, or behind the bar at the Miner’s Club. There’s always life and energy around Flash; he’s a catalyst, a dreamer, an entrepreneur and a performer, all at once. He greets you with shouts and hugs.

There’s Quinn, a former work ranch manager for Burning Man, counting down the days till he opens his pizza and taco shop.

Here come two of Burning Man’s co-founders, Will Roger and Crimson Rose, just back from their Meteor Camp about six miles past the Burning Man site, out in the middle of the Black Rock Desert. “We must have seen 40 or 50 before the moon came out,” Will said. “We had a bunch of people out with us over the weekend, and then everyone took off and it was just us.” The annual Perseid meteor shower is truly spectacular in the black skies of the desert.

There’s Heidi at the Laundromat, doing a bunch of loads for a cleaning job. She’s a newcomer in town, having moved here from Colorado just six weeks ago. She’s not a stranger, though, because her sister Lacy works behind the bar at Bruno’s. And Heidi had only been in town a day before Flash hired her to work the bar at the Miner’s Club.

Lacy's been here six years

Lacy’s been here six years

Somewhat amazingly, Lacy’s been here for six years. “This is a hard place for a single mother,” she says, “but there’s something about it that keeps me here.”

Lacy has her regulars at Brunos. The locals are the only ones who are here all year. They sit and talk quietly, eyeing any newcomers. At this time of year the newcomers are Burners. At other times, there are hunters and dirt-bikers and rocketeers. They each have their season. Read more »