A pause

The Temple of Grace
The Temple of Grace

We’re going to stay quiet for a little bit, out of respect for the family and friends of the woman who lost her life in Black Rock City. Keep them in your thoughts.

Just your average Tuesday

Forces atop the Alien Siege Machine
Forces atop the Alien Siege Machine

One of the things about Burning Man is that one day seems like three; when you think about what happened early in the day, it almost seems like it happened yesterday, or even the day before. So much happens in the course of 24 hours.

So you can imagine what it is like to try to remember what happened yesterday:  It seems like last week. So today, when we rode around the playa and explored the art and it wasn’t too hot and there wasn’t any dust, we could only be grateful for the rain that made things such a mess the day before.

(This post is going to be annoying if you don’t like Burning Man or are only interested in what can be done better. There won’t be much criticism, because right now we can’t think of any. Today was the kind of day that makes us like the event.)

So we’ll pick our story up where it ended a day ago. When last we visited, the rain had slammed us, but then had gone away.  The sun had come out by midafternoon, and the puddles started drying up, and there were rumors that Gate Road would soon open up. That apparently happened around 6 pm for the people who had been stuck between the gravel of Route 34 and the entry gates. After those people made it into the city, traffic control people started telling the folks who were stuck out on the highway that it was safe to travel. Then the ok was given to the people in Gerlach, then presumably the green light extended all the way to the 447 exit off of Route 80.

Don't believe everything you read
Don’t believe everything you read

We heard stories of the spontaneous parties of people trying to make the most of being stuck, of being participants at Waiting Man, and we also heard of horror tales of the hours it took to get through the lines. Louder Charlie said he heard the longest it took for one person  to make it from Gerlach to Black Rock City was 29 hours. Oof.

The population at midnight the night before last was 27,900; by midnight last night, there were 38,400 people in Black Rock City. So a little better than 11,000 folks made it through the gates by midnight Monday, the day of the big rain. But last night the city still felt small and intimate. That might have been because the recent arrivals were still setting up their camps, not going out and about.

As evening fell we went for a stroll. We ran into people we knew, which is always a happy thing: Just when you think that everything is getting too crowded, you have a reunion on the playa and it all seems like a big family party again.

We finally made our way out to the Man and wandered around the tent-like souks for a bit. The souks really were a philosophical and aesthetic risk this year; there was a lot of affection and community-building around the Regional Projects, which the souks effectively replaced. But for us the move worked on two levels; the playa area around the Man felt more open and spacious, giving the Man the space he needed to have the most impact. Plus, the souks created a gathering place at the base of the Man. It very much felt like we were in a marketplace, at least of ideas, as we were making our voyage. Canvassary, indeed.

The keyhole
The keyhole

Most of the souk displays are interactive. You wandered in and someone asked you to do something or explore something. We wandered into one souk that featured a terrycloth camel about eight feet tall. A woman was seated underneath the camel, almost as if she were milking it. You were encouraged to reach inside the camel’s udder, and there were fingers in there. So we pulled them as if we were milking them, and before we knew it we had a handful of special fortune cookies. The one we opened said, “Art is what you make other people see,” and we liked that very much.

We came back to Media Mecca, right there on Rod Road near the Center Café, where all the visiting press checks in. It is also where we call home, and this year it has a décor designed and implemented by Phoenix and her crew. It has elevated our surroundings to a new height. There are handmade Arab-y turrets and smooth flowing fabric everywhere. Window art boxes are framed by geometrically cut CDs, and the color scheme on the interior and exterior walls picks up the reflections cast by the CDs. Who knew there were so many beautiful pastel shades of purple and blue and green, and that they could be interwoven so beautifully.

Today we had an ambitious day of going to more Burning Man. We got our bikes, went to a friend’s camp, had some refreshments, and set out.

 

 

Heading out
Heading out

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Opening Day: wet, not so wild

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As Peanut put it, Burning Man pressed the “pause” button today, as heavy rains and hail prevented people from getting in and out of Black Rock City, caused widespread power outages, and intensified the misery of people waiting in the “will call” lines at the box office.

The gates to the city officially opened at 10 am on Sunday, and for most of the day it seemed like the event was off to a pretty good start, despite harsh weather during the build that forced everyone to hustle to catch up to schedule.

Things got further off track as Sunday progressed, though, with horror tales of people spending as many as eight hours in the will-call line. The scene at the gate last night was unprecedented. As people wound round and around waiting in line on foot to pick up their will-call tickets, there weren’t any cars ready to be processed through the gate.

It almost seems like there’s a new challenge in the ticket system every year, and this year it has been the backlog at the will call window. Nimbus, Burning Man’s ticketing manager, said in her seven years with the organization, she’s never seen so many people arrive at the will-call window in such a short time frame.

Megan Miller, Burning Man’s director of communication, said, “There are a lot of factors that we’re looking at. Some of it is in our control, and some of it isn’t.”

The contributing factors include the number of tickets that are sold electronically and require a check-in. Those include the 3,000 tickets that were sold in the “oh my god” final sale in July, the 4,000 low-income tickets, and the increasing number of tickets sold to international participants, who now are about 20 percent of the population (the organization does not ship tickets internationally). Plus, all the tickets re-sold through the STEP program also require a visit to the will-call window.

And then there are the vagaries caused by dependence on technology: If the wifi is down or bad weather is affecting satellite signals, the check-in process is slowed. It’s still the desert out here, you know, and things just don’t work they way they do in the default world.

The will-call line was hours and hours long
The will-call line was hours and hours long

Still, for the people who were already inside the city, although the rain and hail was scary at times, and made the roads impassible by virtually any means – foot, bicycle or vehicle, it also gave participants another opportunity to prevail over the elements.

The good planners knew that plastic bags wrapped around your shoes prevent “playa platforms” from building up on the soles of your shoes. That was really only the beginning of it, though.

There was the simple approach to getting around: no shoes at all. (The mud doesn’t stick to your feet.) Then there was the utilitarian approach: Black or clear plastic bags, zip-locked or taped. Then there was the fashion-forward approach: White plastic bags arising to mid-calf. And then there was Helen Hickman, who took advantage of the weather to invent a new genre of playawear: the trash suit.

“I must say, it’s very becoming,” Larry Harvey said as he walked around Rod’s Road, sidestepping the muddy clumps and randomly talking to people hoping to start their burn.

Helen had a message: “I have to tell everyone, trash-bag wear is going to be the thing this year.”

The fabulous Helen, aka Danger Ass
The fabulous Helen, aka Danger Ass

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Breathing Sea Monkeys

my old neighborhood
my old neighborhood

When you’re on the playa a certain number of hours, you acclimate. That number of hours depends on your constitution, but after all the preparation and anticipation, the packing, driving and making it to the event sign on 34 and pulling off the pavement then making your slow progress through the Gate and later, through Greeters, you find your camp and get your essential shit together. You unpack everything you brought with you because we have a tendency to bring everything just in case we need anything and you set up your essentials shelter and water. For a few hours you’ll spend time with camp mates who were already here and have acclimated, or you’ll wander, or you’ll just collapse into  sleep, submersed in an ambient glowing soundscape of a City that is coming alive around you.

That first sleep comes on strong, cool and windswept beneath shivering shadows cast by tents and shade structures, to sleep and to dream in this wide open space where nature is the ultimate governess. And each breath away from the barrage of the default world we are all complicit in creating, complete with alluring suggestions regarding what you should believe and buy, each breath will clear your mind of any unhappy maniacal anxious material monkeys that our society packs on your shoulders all year, those screeching little rascals who crawl up your spine and tend to make you insane daily. You’ve worked on your art to gift, planned and set aside some of the tribute you pay to the world behind to come and camp out here to contribute to a community that’s one some of us believe is something that could be better than the one we leave behind.  We’re experimenting each year, trying to fine tune this on playa situation and some of us are hoping enough of here seeps out into there.

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Three friends, the Temple, and the heart of BRC

Ziffy in the Center Cafe
Ziffy in the Center Cafe

Michael Ziff and Craig Mullin have been coming to Burning Man since 1999, which, because it was in the ‘90s, should and does garner mad respect. We think the dividing line for old school is the year 2000; if you attended before then, you’re old school; if you started coming after, well, we’re happy to have you …

Ziffy and Corky therefore qualify as old school,  and on Friday, just a couple of days before the event starts, they had one of those fundamental kinds of Burning Man experiences that you can’t make up, ones that seem to happen with an almost unsettling regularity, and which restore your faith that you’ve made the right decision to attend again.

Because honestly, it’s not easy to come here.

It’s not easy to step away from the life you know and the people you love and maybe the job you have, to put it all in a state of suspended animation, not for a vacation, but for immersion and energy and maybe even renewal and rebirth. Yes, yes, Burning Man is a dirt rave and a hippy party and a corral for sparkle ponies, we get all that.

But it is also the opportunity to burn things away, both literally and figuratively. It is looking again at the life you are living, looking at it through a different lens, and judging it by different standards. It’s hard not to do that here, because in spite of the recent (and not really new) stories about how Burning Man has become a playground for the tech elite, for most people, the experience is anything but a contest in opulence.

Layna Joy said it pretty well out at the Man Base the other day. She said, “People are the currency here, and I’m rich. Money means nothing.” The strength and freshness of your personality and the authenticity of your life is what counts here.

Ziffy and Corky first came to Burning Man in 1999, and they went to the first Temple ever specifically built for Burning Man in 2000. That was David Best’s first year, and it was the first year there was an identifiable place for solemnity and reverence and memorial and yes, sadness, at Burning Man.

And Ziffy and Corky were out at the Temple again yesterday, too, even as workers were installing decorative panels in the still-under-construction dome. They wanted to be in the Temple at the exact moment, 11:11 a.m., that their friend Daniel, back in Vancouver,  would have himself removed from life support and thus end his long battle against terminal cancer. (more…)

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

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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. (more…)