Bowed but unbroken

One of the heads of the "Embrace" installation
One of the heads of the “Embrace” installation

So we got up, put on dry socks, maybe pushed some dried mud out of the tent or living container, and went back to work.

At the morning meeting, Logan quoted Coyote and said, “Next we’re going to have to work harder, stronger, longer and faster.”  Joe the Builder said it was “business twice as usual.”

The day after two big storms hit the construction site known as Black Rock City, things were bright and beautiful  – thick puffy big-sky clouds, and none of the dark ominousness of the previous days. The roads in the city were still muddy at midday, and you had to drive around the wet spots so as not to chew up the playa.

Despite the second “snow” day in a week, most of the crews were confident that they were on or could get back on schedule. The Man will have his legs raised in the air tomorrow morning, and the towers that will support the heads at the “Embrace” installation were being lifted into place Wednesday morning.

“The storm hit us right in the warp core,” Coyote said, “where we were most vulnerable. The whole west side was taken out, the Commissarry where we eat, the Black Hole is pretty devasted. Crazily enough, the east side of the city is just fine.”

Hey, Man, what big legs you have. (More than seventy-five feet, actually)
Hey, Man, what big legs you have. (More than seventy-five feet, actually)

For a time, trucks coming out of Gerlach were navigating to the city via Jungo Road, the usual path to the hot springs. But by the early afternoon, Coyote, Booya and the road team found a new path for cars and trucks to get on and off the playa. All the semi trailers and vital deliveries that had been held up in Gerlach could finally make it to the playa. The new route was immediately dubbed … River Road. It was also being called Bubblegeek Memorial Highway, in honor of the person who apparently found the dry route.

The road opening was good news for just about everyone, because the closure had led to the marshaling of certain resources, like water. The practical outcome of that action was that the showers have been unavailable for two days.

There were very healthy wind gusts in the afternoon, but instead of kicking up dust storms, they were mostly benign. The surface of the playa was drying nicely, and a new crust was keeping down the dust, at least for the time being.

“Sounds funny to say it, but you know we’re gonna have to water” the new road, Coyote said. It won’t take long for the trucks and other vehicles to break through the crust and crumble the surface to a fine powder.

The Man Base crew worked on the Man's legs (foreground) and his torso (in the back).
The Man Base crew worked on the Man’s legs (foreground) and his torso (in the back).

At this point it is unclear what long-term effect the rain will have on the quality of the playa, but the immediate effect is a good one. (more…)

Weather: Black Rock City Gets Hit Again

When it was safe to walk around again, people made their way to the Commissary
When it was safe to walk around again, people made their way to the Commissary

Black Rock City got slammed a couple of more times today, and we probably haven’t seen the end of the fierce weather.

A furious and sudden afternoon rain and hailstorm turned the city into a muddy swamp. Power went out, and hail popped the window of a work truck. The frozen balls started out about a quarter-inch in size, and then got larger.

In a little more than 15 minutes, roads that had been drying out nicely from an early morning storm became lakes of standing water again. Workers took shelter where they could find it to ride out the latest battering.

And then … sunshine. And whoops and hollers. And astonished looks all around. We made it through again, but holy crap that was amazing.

Hail nearly the size of golf balls splashed into the puddles
Hail nearly the size of golf balls splashed into the puddles

And oh wow wouldn’t a soccer game in the mud be awesome!

The mood was light, but the prospects were serious. Thunderstorms were reportedly lined up for 20 miles, but there’s really no way to predict their path. The skies can be blue one minute, then dark with a storm cell another. A timely pro tip: Never leave your camp without securing all your gear: You can sometimes see a big storm coming, but smaller squalls can pop up quickly, and your chair or table can become a dangerous flying object.

“I think there is a very very real possibility of crazy weather this year,” said Marian Goodell, who, as one of the co-founders of Burning Man, ought to know. She remembers fierce winds blowing down shade structures in 2000, and it was so cold that she remembers hunkering down near the silver trailer in Media Mecca, shivering in the sun.

So. What’s the message here?

The hail started out fairly small but got larger quickly
The hail started out fairly small but got larger quickly

Be prepared!

Things can get seriously weird in the Black Rock Desert, and while seeing the cool pictures of fabulous clouds and rainbows is great, the larger point is to be ready for the worst. One of the things that binds participants together is the sense that you’ve prevailed over the elements, but to do that you have to be ready. Here are some handy reminders from the organization:

check out this real-time useful shizzle:

and the survival guide page:

Yes, all this wild weather has a certain element of fun and wonder to it. Weldboy told one garbage-bag-wearing refugee, “You look so homeless!” And Roxy was saying that we were having “fox wedding weather,” when there are storms and rainbows intermittently.

Even before the rain stopped, the sun came out on the other side of the playa
Even before the rain stopped, the sun came out on the other side of the playa

A giant double rainbow appeared around sunrise. “I heard it,” Franny Penny said. Come again? “I heard it!,” she said. “I heard people oooo-ing and ahhhh-ing, and I went outside and saw it.”

Storm cells had moved over the city in the early morning hours, with heavy slashing rain and thick bolts of lightning around 4:30 am. By the time the sun was coming up, the intensity of the storm had lessened, and two gigantic rainbows formed over the playa. Everything seems outsized at Burning Man this year, from the Man himself to the rain to the wind to even the rainbows.

There didn’t immediately appear to be any physical damage, unlike the other morning when fierce winds near the BLM conclave near Point One took a modular office trailer  airborne and flipped it upside down. The wind also slammed a smaller jail unit into the corner of another modular office, taking out a power box with it.

“That’s why I tell the artists to make sure their installations can withstand 100-mph winds,” Joe the Builder said at the time. “Things happen out here.”

The rainbow over Black Rock City shortly after dawn (photo courtesy of Davis Galligan)
The rainbow over Black Rock City shortly after dawn (photo courtesy of Davis Galligan)

This morning, though, we were mostly just wet all over. The DPW daily meeting was initially moved from the Depot to the Commissary, because the roads were shut down, but then it was canceled altogether when more showers hit. Folks who didn’t get word showed up at the big tent anyway, and Commissary folks helped them take off their “playa boots” at the entrance. (When you walk in wet playa, thick layers of gunk build up on your shoes. Pro tip: Put plastic trash bags on your feet to beat the playa buildup.) At this point the rain seemed more of an annoyance than anything, and Cowboy Carl said, “I always thought women with muddy feet were sexy.”

Most of the crews are still confident that despite the delays and setbacks, they still will be able to get the city ready in time for your arrival.

But there is an undercurrent of danger, too. As Trailer Park Romeo said, “Mother Nature is going to do what she wants to do.”

So please, please please: be ready. Be ready to be self-sufficient. Be ready to shelter in place. Bring food and water and shelter, even a poop bucket. It hasn’t been cold for a number of years, but that doesn’t mean that this won’t be the year it gets chilly. Or worse. And if we get some rough weather, you can tune to BMIR radio for information and guidance.

The principle of radical self-reliance has never seemed more timely.

As Marian put it: “It’s not your mother’s Burning Man. Your mother isn’t here to take care of you, so take care of yourself and your neighbors. … Don’t get caught unaware … like it’s your first rodeo … be prepared.”

After the rain, people played a soccer game in the playa mud
After the rain, people played a soccer game in the playa mud


Here are some more pictures from the day:


Storm Punches Black Rock City

Folks headed back to camp as the storm got closer
Folks headed back to camp as the storm got closer

Things are drying out nicely today from the vicious storm cell that roared into Black Rock City early last night, reminding us all that Mother Nature has always been and truly remains The Man out here.

What had been a gloriously hot and clear day turned dramatic and nasty not long after sunset. One of the amazing things about being in the desert is the ability to see so much weather happening at once. So while we stood in the middle of the city in blazing sun, we could see dark clouds and jagged lighting streaks storming over Razorback.

It could have been a blessing, though. The playa floor has been extremely dusty, even at this early stage. But the water that hit us last night has tamped everything down, at least temporarily.

One of the tent poles that were snapped at the Spectrum setup near Point 1
One of the tent poles that were snapped at the Spectrum setup near Point 1

The Black Rock Desert could use a lot more rain like last night’s, actually (though preferably not over the last week of August). The surface of Black Rock used to be so smooth and even that land speed records were set here. But that has changed since the ‘80s.

“Some locals blame Burning Man” for the deteriorated playa conditions, said Rusty of the Transportation crew, “but I don’t. You can blame everyone who has a job and drives a car” for the effects of climate change.

The climate definitely changed when the storm hit Black Rock City. Fierce winds caused whiteout conditions, and the Gate crew at Point 1 halted vehicles trying to get onto the playa. When the rain came, a Level 1 weather alert was declared, and everyone was urged to shelter in place. Water turns the desert dust into sticky cement, and it immediately becomes impassible. Even walking is difficult, as inches-deep playa builds up on the bottom of your shoes.

Everything that wasn’t securely tied down, and some things that were, got blown around.

Out near the BLM compound, Shelly from Spectrum Services, who does the catering for work crews on the playa, was surveying the damage to the firm’s setup there.

The Man Krewe cleaned up after the storm
The Man Krewe cleaned up after the storm

“These are rated to withstand 100-mph winds,” she said as she held a broken pole in her hand. “This went through three-quarter-inch plywood.”

Porta-potties were knocked over everywhere, and there was standing water on the road from the highway into Black Rock City. An important shipment of electrical equipment arrived just as the storm hit, but the driver agreed to spend the night in Gerlach and make the delivery in the morning, instead. (more…)

Burning Man Put Hundreds of Free Bikes on the Playa: You Won’t Believe What Happened Next!

Ballyhoo Betty at the bike shop on the Burning Man Work Ranch
Ballyhoo Betty at the bike shop on the Burning Man Work Ranch

People basically stole them.

Last year the Yellow Bikes Crew left close to 700 nicely maintained, perfectly working bicycles for Burners to use as they made their way around the playa. This is no corporately sponsored rideshare program, and there are only three rules: Don’t steal or redecorate the bikes; after you finish riding them, leave them for someone else to use; and wear pants when riding them.

Simple, yes?

Well, things didn’t work out that way.

This week at the Burning Man Work Ranch, about 12 miles past the event site, an eight-person crew is working to get the bikes working again and restore them to their original, plain green, condition. You see, people grab those bikes and start customizing them and putting locks on them to make them their own.

So don’t do that, ok? Thanks.

While we’re haranguing you about bad bike behavior, here’s a pro tip: Don’t leave your bike behind when you leave Burning Man.

“People think that if they leave their bikes it’s like donating them,” Andrei said out at the ranch. “But it’s not. They’re just making work for us.”

Andrei scraping off the remnants of decorations put on a Yellow Bike
Andrei scraping off the remnants of decorations put on a Yellow Bike

Last year, the bike crews picked up about 2,000 bikes that the “leave no trace” crowd left behind. Again, there may have been good intentions involved: “This bike will find a great new home with someone who really needs it!” (more…)

Under the Big Top


The big move from Gerlach to the playa has begun.

For the first several weeks after work crews arrive in town to start building Black Rock City, people bunk in all corners of the struggling little desert village.

Burning Man is of course the biggest industry here. There used to be an active gypsum mine in the next-door town of Empire, but that plant shuttered several years ago, leaving not much to do and not many people to do it.

Bruno is the other big industry in town. The 91-year-old Italian immigrant owns the restaurant and casino, the motel (which we’re told used to be a school), a trailer park and seemingly just about every other commercial enterprise. There are also three bars in town, and no churches. The friends of Black Rock-High Rock have a nice visitor center, and Quinn is opening a pizza parlor and taco place any day now. You can tune to KLAP FM radio while you’re here, and they are located in a small space on Main Street. A nicely appointed post office, a sheriff’s substation, a school and a community center pretty much completes the civic presence.

There are a handful of other places, and they have some great backstories, but we’re about to leave it all behind for our home in the desert. And that also means that instead of eating in the crammed back room at Bruno’s, we’ll be fed and watered in the Commissary that’s set up on the desert site.

To that end, the giant circus tent was erected yesterday, with the help of dozens of pairs of hands plus some heavy equipment from the HEAT crew (heavy equipment and transportation). The Commissary is a … well, we can’t quite bring ourselves to call it a beloved place, but it is at the heart of the experience here. We take our meals there, and so we get to hear what’s going on with the other crews, how the work is progressing, where the evening’s gatherings will take place, and of course juicy gossip is the prime currency.

Sarah and Sylkia go over the game plan
Sarah and Sylkia go over the game plan

In many ways it’s like going back to your high school cafeteria. Where are the cool kids sitting? Who walked in with whom? What is she wearing?? (For the record, a strict “cover your bits” policy is enforced without exception; no one wants to sit where something unsavory might have been parked earlier.)

There are stitch-and-bitch sessions, impromptu participant-led seminars, Ranger training, human resources meetings and all manner of other get-togethers. And even though mealtimes are set in stone (if you miss dinner, you miss dinner, too bad), you can almost always duck in for a cup of coffee or a sport drink. And because there are swamp coolers set up in back, plus an internet connection, it is also often our workspace.

This is the third year for the big tent. We outgrew its predecessor, which often had dinner lines stretching way out into the dust. The organization also feeds many of the law-enforcement people who police the site, and as their numbers have grown, we just plain outgrew the old tent.

An all-hands call goes out when it’s time for the tent-lifting, like some twisted version of an Amish barn-raising. “The new kids look kind of bewildered,” Squirelly was saying as we were about to begin. “One minute they’re out pounding stakes on Gate Road, then it’s ‘OK, now we’re gonna put up a tent!’” But it’s a key task: as Effin Andy said, “You wanna eat, right?”

Sylkia is in her second year as Commissary manager, and she’s been putting up the tent for four. The pressure is on. She and her crew and the Spectrum catering people will be serving breakfast on the playa on Friday. “I think everybody’s morale goes up when we get out here,” she says, and she’s right. We didn’t come here to live in a trailer park; we want to be out in the desert. “I can’t wait to get them out here, seriously,” she says.

The huge white tarp is laid out on the ground, and tall metal poles are positioned accordingly. The tips of the poles have to poke out through holes in the tarp. “Hi, I’m from Camp Innuendo,” one guy said as he searched for the hole.

Chaos giving hand signals to Snake Oil
Chaos giving hand signals to Snake Oil

People then line up along one long side of the tent, and they lift it into place. Straps are secured, and then they move to one of the shorter sides. The process is repeated for the other walls. The three big center poles are last, and they have to be lifted into place with a skid steer. It’s tricky business, but Chaos and Snake Oil get it done.

The older, smaller tent ironically took more muscle to erect, but the big new one is heavier and unwieldy, so heavy equipment is used. Standing nearby as one of the giant center poles is pushed into place, it all seems perilous.

“What could go wrong?” Patches says, repeating our question. “What could go wrong is we don’t eat.”

Morning Notes: Rain? Who said anything about rain? The ominous green swaths that were showing up on the radar maps yesterday morning broke up before they reached the playa, and outside of a few very light sprinkles, it was a dry day in the desert. The sun even broke through in the late afternoon. … Haul Road is still a mess. The center area had been watered and rolled, and it seemed to be drying to a firm surface. But the outer edges that took the traffic yesterday were chewed to a fine, inches-deep talc. … Lex announced that a Gerlach Moop Crawl has been scheduled for Saturday. Leave no trace. … There was no trace of bourbon-infused peaches last night, but the Manhattans were quite refreshing.

Nobody is happier than Sylkia that the tent is up
Nobody is happier than Sylkia that the tent is up


And some more pics from the tent lift:






Stuck in the Muck

Fog? In Gerlach?
Fog? In Gerlach?

The good news is it’s nice and cool. The bad news is everyone is mostly in hurry-up-and-wait mode.

Hurricanes and near-hurricanes in the far Pacific are sucking all the wet air from East to West over the U.S., and the result is that Gerlach and Black Rock city have been under cloud cover for two days now, and there’s been enough rain to bring work to a halt for the time being.

The situation is similar to what happened last year, when storm cells blasted the playa a few days in, turning the 10,000-year-old lakebed into a sea of muck. Water immediately turns the fine playa dust to something like cement, and you can’t drive through it or walk through, much less work in it.

Lessons were learned last year, so when the threatening weather was approaching Black Rock City, managers told their crews to batten the hatches and put the tools away and be ready to rocket back to Gerlach on a moment’s notice. That notice came in the early afternoon, and the build crews got a snow day off.

People gathered around Playground's laptop to see what kind of weather was on the way
People gathered around Playground’s laptop to see what kind of weather was on the way

Skeleton crews toughed it out on the playa. About 40 well-provisioned people were manning stations at HEAT, Oculus and Power, and from what we hear, they handled things quite well. Patches even made chili for the troops, and there was a burn barrel going at the Heavy Equipment yard.

The Man Base crew took delivery of three giant pieces of the Man’s giant skeleton in the morning, and when we rolled up to get a look at the proceedings, we were asked how many folks could pile in the car to get off playa, if necessary. Three. “My hero!” Mig said. We are not used to hearing words like that aimed in our direction.

The Man, by the way, will stand on two legs that are each about 75 feet tall. They are 24×24-inch laminate boards, and they are giant. His spine is about 45 feet long. Everyone in Gerlach took a minute to look at the trailer rig that was taking the lumber out to the playa.

The Man's mighty big legs drew onlookers in Gerlach
The Man’s mighty big legs drew onlookers in Gerlach

“You lose all sense of size and distance out here,” Goatt was saying at Man Base, “but these things are huge.” Yes indeed. The Man will be huge. We wondered last year how they could ever top the giant spaceship that the Man stood on, but this is going to be pretty spectacular. Giant. Gargantuan. And relatively simple in design: A giant Man standing ten stories tall. (more…)

Pound It, Pound It, Pound It


It was dusty, it was windy, but it wasn’t hot, and for that we’re all grateful.

The combined forces of Black Rock City put up 9.2 miles of trash fence yesterday, and they finished before 2:30 in the afternoon.

“Great crew,” project leader Just George said, noting that another speed record had been set. The stake pounding was finished before 9 am, and the whole job was done and beers were being drunk before school would have gotten out.

There was no time to linger and bask in the glory, though, as a fierce wind kicked up just as the fence was finished, causing near white-out conditions. That and sprinkles of rain chased everyone to their vehicles and then back to town.

Even though it was still relatively early in the afternoon, it seemed like the day had begun in some other time zone. The first people on the playa were Fluffer Nips and her associates, and they were out there making breakfast for the crews at 4 in the morning. By the time the sluggards arrived around 5, the coffee was hot and the eggs were ready. Yes, this was going to be a tough day, but it was starting the right way.

Light was breaking as cars and trucks started coming onto the playa
Light was breaking as cars and trucks started coming onto the playa

“Can’t you feel it?” Slim asked. There’s just a tension in the air! The radio was just crackling all morning!” There were plenty of people feeling it. An impromptu dance party broke out not long after Customer Service said it was time to bump up the music.

We don’t want to project our feelings, but it seemed like it might have been a nervous excitement. The crews were there to build a damn fence, and building the damn fence meant pounding a whole lot of stakes in the ground, and then hours of dusty, grunty, finger-shredding work. But you almost forgot how hard it was going to be because of all the energy and excitement.

But just do the math: There was 9.2 miles of fence to build, so: (more…)

Getting the Lay of the Land

The Survey crew pans out on its first day in the desert
The Survey crew fans out on its first day in the desert

The sign that welcomes you to Gerlach notes, “Attitude: Good. Population: Wanted.”

The town is very much getting what it wants in these past few days, because 300, maybe more, Burning Man people have moved into town, getting ready to build the nine miles of trash fence that demarcates the city and serves to keep trash from blowing all over the desert.

We’re still in something of a quiet zone, though, and the only visible sign of progress that have taken place so far has been the precise placing of 3,000-4,000 multicolored flags onto the desert floor. These flags are the result of the Survey team’s week of work.

A million years ago when we first started coming out to the playa early (well, it feels like that long), we wanted to see what the desert was like before all the art, before all the tents, before all the RVs, before all the everything was put in place in Black Rock City.

So we came up for Fence, but we were wrong about it being the first thing that happens.

Even before the fence goes up, the very first camp will have already set up at Burning Man 2014, and they will also have already broken down their stuff and moved onward. Some folks will take up other duties on the various crews, and some folks will take off for good, having had enough of the desert and the community for another year.

Because before the fence goes up, you have to figure out where it’s going to go. In fact, you have to figure out where just about everything is going to go – where the Man will stand, where the Esplanade will be, where walk-in camping will go. That’s where the Survey team comes in. Eighteen intrepid souls who are on hand for Spike then start work immediately to lay the groundwork for the city where eventually almost 70,000 people will live for a week or so.

Black Rock City is precisely laid out around a clockwork grid. The Center Camp Café is at 6 o’clock on the clock face, the Temple is at 12 o’clock, and the Man is at the midway point between the two. The first ring of roads is known as the Esplanade, and lettered streets from A through L radiate out around it. These are intersected by spokes of the clock; there are mini-promenades at 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock, and you can find your pals out here if they leave word they are staying at, say,  3:30 and J.

Something else also happens during that week before the build begins: The eighteen people on the Survey team have their own little Burning Man gathering.

Near sundown, the first bocce ball game of the season commences
Near sundown, the first bocce ball game of the season commences

“It’s my favorite week of the year,” says Coyote, the Superintendent of the city. “It’s better than Chrisma…. Well, now I’m a family man, so I can’t say Christmas. But it’s like that. … I can imagine being out here when I’m 80, with my kids on the Survey team.” (more…)