Bustin’ dunes and swattin’ bugs

D.A. was out knocking down some of the bigger dunes on the 3 o'clock side of Black Rock City
D.A. was out knocking down some of the bigger dunes on the 3 o’clock side of Black Rock City

Good news!

The playa is “harder and flatter” than it was last year, and maybe harder and flatter than it has been for the past several years. That’s not just my opinion, either. I always seem to get a little too rhapsodic about playa conditions in my exuberance to be back in the desert. “Harder and flatter” is how D.A. his own self described the condition of Black Rock City. And of course D.A. should know, because he’s the person in charge of making sure the desert looks the same after the event as it did before.

There are still plenty of rough spots. The 3’oclock side of the city is, as is usually the case, more problematic. There are mounds and ridges and tire tracks, but the “serpents” don’t seem quite as daunting. You may even be able to stay on your bike instead of having to trudge through six inches of playa dust as you make your way to the Temple.

The placement of the city is a bit closer to Gerlach this year, somewhere between a quarter- and a half-mile closer. Burning Man takes place in the same general area of the Black Rock Desert every year, but inside the event closure area, the city’s footprint is moved around so it doesn’t wear out the same portion of the desert every year. The city is always laid out the same way, so you’ll always see the sun coming up behind the Man as you stand in Center Camp. But planners do have some flexibility with where they drop the spike that marks the center of the city.

The 3 o'clock side of the city isn't perfect, but it isn't as bad as it's been
The 3 o’clock side of the city isn’t perfect, but it isn’t as bad as it’s been

This year’s city will be pretty much where the city was in 2012. And because it’s not possible to pick up every last bit of moop (matter out of place) after the event, you might find an “artifact” or two from 2012 half-buried in the dust (an anti-SOPA sticker, perhaps?). Grab the “artifacts” while you can. Fifty years from now, they’ll be designated as historic, and you won’t be allowed to remove them.

You’ll also notice a difference this year as you make your way across Route 447. The hills, at least as of this writing, are GREEN. It looks like Ireland, ferchrissakes. Here’s a picture Phoenix Firestarter took last week as she traveled to the Spike ceremony:

Phoenix Firestarter captured the green hills along Route 447
Phoenix Firestarter captured the green hills along Route 447

This is the desert, but it’s been raining. Not a lot, but often. In fact, it rained lightly in Gerlach last night. Not enough to cause any problems, but enough to tamp down the top layer of dust again.

It’s been raining intermittently all spring and into the summer. The Survey teams had to dance around the wet spots as they laid out the city, and trucks got bogged down a time or two.

And there’s another effect of the unseasonable wetness: Bugs. There are lots of bugs around, including mosquitoes. You couldn’t stand outside in Gerlach as the sun went down without getting bitten to death. We’re not sure yet how bad it will be out on the playa, but be smart and pack some lavender oil or bug spray or whatever you use.

With all the rain that’s been around, it’s surprising that we haven’t been hit by rain or hail or lightning or any of the other plagues that have haunted the build the past several years. So far, so good. The crews are making great progress. But as Coyote says, there’s no such thing as being ahead of schedule — you never know when a storm cell is going to pop up and slam you.

So far, though, it’s been dry. It’s hot, though, and it’ll get hotter next week. The wind kicked up in the afternoon, too. Silver Coon’s yurt was a casualty.

In other news: 

Joe the Builder and Cobra Commander were out in the city early
Joe the Builder and Cobra Commander were out in the city early


People gathered at the Depot to get the updates for the day
People gathered at the Depot to get the updates for the day


The morning light put Princess Riobi in a good light
The morning light put Princess Riobi in a good light


Sparky Blackrock is everywhere, all the time
Sparky Blackrock is everywhere, all the time


Speaking of being everywhere all the time, Ralph Chunks was helping everyone get their gear to the right place in the city
Speaking of being everywhere all the time, Ralph Chunks was helping everyone get their gear to the right place in the city


There's no happier sight than seeing the Fluffers pull up with cold drinks and treats
There’s no happier sight than seeing the Fluffers pull up with cold drinks and treats


Alas, Mike Garlington's photo van has seen better days. It'll get a new skin in the offseason
Alas, Mike Garlington’s photo van has seen better days. It’ll get a new skin in the offseason
Luke, Deacon and Sam were out dropping road pegs
Luke, Deacon and Sam were out dropping road pegs

The Journey to Self

Kristin Thomas at the Man Base yesterday
Kristin Thomas at the Man Base yesterday

There are only a few boxes, a few outlines of shapes, out at the Man Base just now. Plywood sheets are being carried to and fro, two by fours are being cut to length, and the big Man’s legs are lying comfortably horizontal on the ground.

We know, of course, that there will be a Man this year. Another big Man of giant proportions. Apparently gone are the days when the Man was the same size every year, built by the same Man Krewe.

But after that, figuring out exactly what the scene around the Man will look like is difficult, as the descriptions are vague, we guess intentionally so:

“This year a funhouse at the center of our carnival will contemplate the puzzle of self-consciousness. Many kinds of masks and mirrors will line the corridors and chambers of this interactive maze. Here people will confront a shuffled deck of selves: the me they want to be (but aren’t), the me they repudiate (but are), the me they can’t imagine (but might be).”

So what we know for sure is that there will be a maze around the Man, and you’ll have to make your way through it as you confront your “shuffled deck of selves.”

But what kind of maze will it be? And what metaphors will you draw as you perhaps loop around and around the same section of the puzzle, looking for a way forward, but repeating the same mistakes?

Burning Man is an organization, a large and growing one, so when it faces a problem, it does what many other large organizations do: it calls for meetings. Many meetings.

And it was at one of these meetings that the path of the organization and the path of an individual collided, in one of those meaningful coincidences for which Burning Man has earned its reputation for synchronicity. “I know how to design mazes,” Kristin Thomas said softly, maybe a bit awkwardly, at that fateful meeting about the maze.

Here's where the Man will eventually stand, but it'll take some doing to get there
Here’s where the Man will eventually stand, but it’ll take some doing to get there

And so it was that a woman who was on her first day on the job as production assistant filled a need completely separate from the job for which she had been hired. And you can trace the path that brought her to that room, with Larry Harvey and other major organizational personages, because of a crush that she had on a boy back when they were in fourth grade. And maybe also because she had found a path to the person that she wanted to be, rather than the person other people thought she should be.

Kristin Thomas grew up in Michigan suburbs, where people went to church every week (she eventually stopped going, and was considered a heathen because of it).

In high school, she was both a nerd and extremely self conscious about being a nerd. She didn’t fit in. “I was an awkward, awkward teen,” she said yesterday as she sat in the shade of a plywood sheet out in the middle of the desert.

And on her first day on the job with Burning Man, those feelings came flooding back. “I met them all and I found myself getting that kind of high-school anxiety again. … Like when I went to sit in the commissary, where would I sit? I stood there looking, where are the cool kids?” But then she relaxed, because she realized that she was with her tribe. “We were all the dorks. We’re not the cool kids.”

Kristin left her comfortable but confining life in Michigan and went to college at the University of Colorado in Boulder. And she realized along the way that she could re-invent herself, “shed the layers of not me,” as she put it.

"We're not the cool kids," Kristin Thomas says
“We’re not the cool kids,” Kristin Thomas says

A few years ago, Larry Harvey his own self was doing his yearly meeting with members of the media who were attending the Burning Man event. Now, we hesitate to cast aspersions on the group, because we used to be one of them, but honestly, some of the questions they posed were, to be kind, lame. It was clear they hadn’t been paying attention. They needed someone to explain Burning Man in a nice neat little package. But this wasn’t the time or place. The event was roaring all around them. The answers were out there, not in here in with the cameras and the notebooks.

But Harvey turned their questions into an opportunity to talk about some of the things that he had been thinking about recently. He had turned 60, and he said he had become less self-conscious, less concerned about what people thought of him, and more concerned about how Burning Man would go forward. In other words, he cared less about what people thought of him now, and maybe he had become more concerned about what they’d think of him in the future.

Kristin was fortunate enough to have made a similar realization as she moved through college into adulthood. She stopped trying to be the person other people wanted her to be, and she cared less that she wasn’t fulfilling other people’s expectations. “You know how they say that you should pay attention to the things you are doing when you are procrastinating,?” she asked. She started doing that.

She came to her first Burning Man fourteen years ago. Suddenly she was surrounded by people who were wearing the kinds of things that she loved, that she thought it was only she who thought they were cool and interesting and expressive. And now she was in a place where everyone was wearing them. And in that moment she found a calling. Eventually she started her Mythica Clothing company, and she took a part-time job with Burning Man to help put together the money to bring her dreams to life.

Eva hauled around some boards at the Man site
Eva hauled around some boards at the Man site

But what about the meeting and the maze? How did it happen that she had just the right answer to a question that she didn’t know was coming?

“Oh, I had a crush on a boy in the fourth grade,” she laughed. “And he liked mazes. So I liked mazes, too. I bought books and began studying them.” Ever since then, she’d drawn maze-like doodles, and so when Burning Man needed a design for a maze, she drew one that everyone loved. No further meetings were needed.

And you’ll be making your way through one of her mazes, one that’s been polished and refined and made sufficiently challenging, when you make your journey of discovery at the base of the Man this year.

Just try not to keep making the same mistakes. And try not to listen to people telling you where they think you should go. You’ll never get anywhere.

Makeout Queen shaking it up behind the bar
Makeout Queen shaking it up behind the bar

In other news, Makeout Queen hosted her fabulous Manhattans party at the Black Rock Saloon last night. People turned out in all kinds of finery – skin-tight dresses, sparkly jewelry, feathery boas. And you should have seen what the women were wearing!

Ok, not all the guys were dressed as women: There were a good number of formal shirts, tuxedo jackets and spats. Overall, though, it was a magnificent-looking crew. Even after a back-breaking day in the very hot sun, this group cleans up well.

And a few more pics from Man Base yesterday:

Jay was moving the wood around
Jay was moving the wood around
The wind kicked up the dust as the afternoon wore on
The wind kicked up the dust as the afternoon wore on
Wood, wood and more wood
Wood, wood and more wood


Go go go go go …

Crews celebrated the big lift of the Commissary tent
Crews celebrated the big lift of the Commissary tent

Good morning DPW!

That’s how the Cobra Commander opens his 7:30 morning meeting in the lovely al fresco dining area of the Gerlach Community Center, where the work crews take their meals while they are bivouacked in town.

We’re a couple of days into the build, and all systems are go.

The 4.2 miles of Gate road, the long and winding dusty trail that gets you from the highway to the entry gates, was pounded with stakes yesterday, and over the next day or so ropes of flags will be attached.

 Almost as far as the eye can see, there are stakes, stakes and more stakes

Almost as far as the eye can see, there are stakes, stakes and more stakes

The Commissary tent, which fits in so well with the circus-y Hall of Mirrors theme this year, was lifted into place yesterday. What a bear. Of course there was more pounding – this time 3-foot long steel stakes that hold the tent to the ground. We got to see who could wield a sledge, and the best roustabouts (those people as yet unattached to crews) were quickly recruited by other teams.

Sledgehammers play an unusually large role in the early days of the build. Those things are heavy, as you know, and just to make things interesting, people will hold sledge-tossing contests during break hours. Some prefer the spin and toss technique, others the pure power move of the underhanded toss. The definitive contest will be held after the last Spire is put in the ground, and we’ll handicap the field as we go along.

Blackthorne got off a major toss during "down" time
Blackthorne got off a major toss during “down” time

Today the intersections of the city will be laid out. “Fifteen hundred more stakes,” Booya said as he put out a call for help. Around the playa, the king posts at Center Camp are up, and the beginnings of the Depot are taking shape. The Heavy Equipment yard already looks in midseason form.

There are a couple of points to be made about all this. (more…)

How the Fence Began

Do yall know who invented Burning Man’s trash fence in 1995? Lawrence Breed — inventor of the world’s first computer animation language and system, and also the playa’s longest-running art piece besides the Man himself: Chaotick, the flaming tether ball.

“In 1996, the first trash fence was tested at Burning Man. Concieved by Larry Breed (playa name Ember), several hundred yards of 24" high netting was set up down-wind on the north side of the encampment to catch wind-blown trash. The Black Rock is visible to the right in the background of this photo.” - Danger Ranger (Photo by from Breed’s collection)
“In 1995-96, the first trash fence was tested at Burning Man. Concieved by Larry Breed (playa name Ember), several hundred yards of 24″ high netting was set up down-wind on the north side of the encampment to catch wind-blown trash. The Black Rock is visible to the right in the background of this photo.” – Danger Ranger (Photo by from Breed’s collection)

Danger Ranger, Vanessa Kuemmerle, Burning Man co-founder John Law, and other Cacophony organizers had been tearing their hair out over the sad reality of trash blowing from the Black Rock City site downwind and off into the desert during their Zone Trip. One of the Cacophony Society’s main uh, guidelines, is to leave everything better than you found it.

So Breed, called “Ember,” was and is a genius computer scientist who, with a friend, overheard these managerial woes and brought out and road-tested 75 feet of trash-catching orange fence to make sure it worked.

Breed presented his winning example of hard-plastic gatekeeping to the Operations team, who were understandably beside themselves with joy. The trash fence was and still is one of the greatest ideas in Burning Man leave-no-trace history.

The fence is also an iconic piece of Burning Man visual continuity. But this year … this year … there’s blue string. Not orange string to go with the orange fence, but some blue string. As in, not orange. Some of us, particularly Stinger, are freaked out about the blue string.

There was much talk about the addition of blue string to the fence this year.
There was much talk about the addition of blue string to the fence this year. (Photo by John Curley)

On Monday, while the Fence was being built, this writer sat in the Dispatch booth at the saloon, wrangling dusty radios and telling the Lawrence-Breed-invented-the-trash-fence-and-helped-invent-APL story to so many people that official DPW photographer-blogger John Curley — who missed his annual Fence Day photography spree because delays in arrival happen in the DPW — made us write it up here.

Do yall know what APL is? We didn’t either until we searched on it when John Law first told us about Breed being a part of our proto-DPW history.

At Stanford in 1961, Breed invented the world’s first computer and animation language and system, using it for Stanford football games to program a 100-foot-by-100-foot array of colored square cards.

Breed then corresponded with a Harvard professor named Kenneth Iverson who had invented proto-APL as a mathematical notation for algorithms.

Breed and his crew transformed Iverson’s mathematics into a computer-programming language source code devised to work with mathematics with an emphasis on array processing. They dubbed it APL (short for “a programming language”), turning it into a widely-used programming language like no other, and implementing it en machina starting with the IBM 7090 in 1965. You make spreadsheets because of Breed and co.’s APL implementation.

Then, if that’s not enough for you, in 1972, Breed and Francis Bates III wrote one of Earth’s first worldwide email systems, which they called “Mailbox.”

More than two decades later, in the non-default world of Black Rock City, Breed became an oldest-of-schools Burning Man attendee and Cacophony Society member who helped with the original Black Rock Gazette newspaper as well as later co-founding the Black Rock Beacon.

Lawrence Breed now. Most of us in DPW have never met him.
Lawrence Breed now. Most of us in DPW have never met him.

Danger Ranger didn’t even know any of all this about how Ember pretty much helped uh, invent the internet until last night when we told him at the Black Rock Saloon.

Danger just knew Breed/Ember as the guy who invented the trash fence, as well as the flaming tether ball and a half dozen genius Cacophonist-on-playa, possibly-world-helping inventions like the greywater-obliterating Evapotron, or “Gray-B-Gon” (complete with open-source online instructions).

No really, check out the Gray-B-Gon — especially if you or someone you know has a theme camp with greywater.

Burning Man setup means a constant stream of stories proving you never know who you could be talking to under that messy tutu.

The 2015 version of the trash fence is up (photo by John Curley)
The 2015 version of the trash fence is up (photo by John Curley)


Fence yesterday? Dawn Patrol was led by Just George and Cowboy Carl, as always — two proud former military men who became cowboys of sorts. They are kind and crusty-fatherly super-men who could easily be models for action figures, who represent pretty much the pinnacle of proper masculinity.

Yes we are swooning over Just George, who makes us do pushups, and over Cowboy Carl, who taught us how to scatter herds of cattle standing in the middle of the road by rolling your truck window down and banging on the door.

If a group behaves like its alphas, then these two may be a large reason why DPW is such a draw. The world has too many assholes in it, and Just George and Cowboy Carl are here to protect us from acting too much like them, and to teach us cheerfully to protect others and the earth in turn — from assholes, and from trash blowing past us to where we can’t get to it to pick it up.

Cowboy Carl and Just George (photo by John Curley, 2013)
Cowboy Carl and Just George (photo by John Curley, 2013)

The trucks had been loved up on by auto shop, loaded with fence materials, and made ready to roll the day before. Fluffers were awake by 3am; “dawn patrol” worker teams left the trailer park at 4am.

Crews ate a quick bite on the Black Rock shoreline and got to work as the sun rose pink over the fire-smoke mist. Another equally large wave of DPW crewmembers left for work at 7am.

All day long, the radios crackled with nonstop trash-fence action and beaten deadlines. Milestones were announced over the repeater over background cascades of “woo” noises. We found Bachmann Turner Overdrive’s “Takin’ Care of Business” stuck in our heads on repeat.

By 8:30am, the pounders had finished. That’s zero-eight-thirty, in Just George language. By 1:45 pm, fence was done.

Another record.

Of course, it’s only another record because pre-event DPW staff and volunteer count has grown by a few hundred people. A decade and a half ago, when there were only 30-40 of us in the DPW, putting up the trash fence took Cowboy Carl and his team two weeks.

Suggestion by suggestion, and learned lesson by learned lesson, this largely leaderless group of freaks learned together to build and strike a temporary city, all by ourselves, together. Not with ease so much as with collaboration and a crap-ton of meetings. Chaos with a thin layer of organization.

amen dude ... amen.
amen dude … amen.

Things get done much more quickly when there are fewer power relationships to contend with. Even hard labor seems easier in an anarchist city.

Good times are had most days by most people in the DPW — which is also different now, because we know enough not to accidentally overwork and underfeed a thin crew any more.

And we have an unassuming, DPW-orange fence — invented by a secret internet genius, helmed by cowboy servicemen, and constructed annually by a dusty cast of black-clad hundreds — to catch most of the trash.



Follow Summer Burkes and John Curley on Twitter.


Black Rock City Rises Again

The sledge and the Spike
The sledge and the Spike

It was right about the time that I pulled out a lens cloth from my back pocket and the cash I had stashed there came out with it and went blowing down the playa that the thought began to take shape: This might not have been the most auspicious beginning of the playa season.

It wasn’t just me, though. There was Marnee racing off into the deep playa after her hat that just wouldn’t stop rolling. Beer cans were flying in the wind. Someone lost a shoe, ferchrissakes. How is the wind so strong that it steals your shoe?

In the years that we’ve attended the Spike ceremony, when the members of the various Burning Man tribes take turns smacking an iron stake into the ground to mark the place where the Man will be built, the weather has been … let’s just say a little more welcoming. It might have been hot in years past, sure, but the wind has rarely been howling so fiercely and there weren’t pebble-sized pieces of playa hitting you in the face.

“There’s rocks in my beer,” my traveling companion noted as we sat and listened and laughed – and maybe got a little misty – as people stood in the middle of a small circle and talked about how long they’d been coming to do this thing in the desert. Some told why they started doing it in the first place, and others said how grateful they were to the people who had gathered here, because they had become so important in their lives. “Y’all were there for me when I needed it most,” one young woman said, casting meaningful glances around the circle. “And I don’t know if I would have made it without you.”

There might have been a few tears, but then again, the watery eyes might just have been because of the communal dermabrasion that was going on.

Still, the Spike ceremony tends to bring out a lot of emotions. For one thing, you’re just so damn glad to be out in the wide open space again, Razorback over there shrouded in clouds, the Calicos at the far end with the pinkish glow, and the ominousness taking shape back near Gerlach, threatening even more havoc.

Booya leaned into the wind without fear of falling overt
Booya leaned into the wind without fear of falling over

And then you start seeing all the people that you haven’t seen enough of since last year’s summer camp, dirt rave, company picnic, whatever you want to call it. But there they all are again, or at least a whole lot of them, and they’re drinking beer and Champagne, and there’s Will Roger and Coyote lighting up celebratory cigars, and there’s Genie and Paul and their little Merritt, striking a blow for the Rangers, and there’s the sign crew, the motor shop, the survey crew, taking turns in the circle …

The gang’s all here.

And then all of a sudden you’re simply happy to be among them, grateful for the chance to be a part of this again.

Hey look: We understand that everything about Burning Man has changed. We know it was better last year. We read all the blogs and all the comments, and we read all the newspaper stories that, when you think about, reveal nothing if not how stupidly difficult it is to keep pulling this off every year. And we’ve been looking at the archival stuff that the org has been posting, and we’ve stayed up crazy late watching the 20-year-old videos that Danger Ranger has been unearthing.

So maybe more than anything we kind of can’t believe that all this is still happening. Through all the contentiousness, all the battles, in the unlikeliest of settings, there are still people coming who have been coming since the beginning, and there are still people coming who’ve been coming for 15 years, or 5 years, and there are still people coming who have never been here before.

And yah yah yah, we know Burning Man is on the tech bras bucket list now, and it’s Mecca for the sparkle ponies, and almost in spite of itself it’s still one of the best places to dance all night, dance all night, dance all night till you feel alright, which of course annoys the hell out of some people, but honestly I’m not one of them.

Will and Crimson listened to the testimonials
Will and Crimson listened to the testimonials

We don’t much care about any of the distractions, because even after all this time we still can’t pretend to know what’s at the heart of the thing. The best we can come up with is that there are many hearts, and they are all encouraged to beat here, and that’s the most important thing. Dare to be you, dare to be more, dare to be great. Work like hell to make something beautiful. Gift people, and learn how to accept a gift. Don’t buy anything, don’t sell anything. Include people.

It’s not very complicated, and we don’t want it to be. (more…)

Showing Promise

alamedaApril picked me up from West Oakland BART in a little blue coupe with a white racing stripe. As we sped off into the sunshine toward Alameda, excitement crackled in the air around her as she described the opening weeks of working on the Temple of Promise.

I was fired up, too. The Temple is immensely important to me, but I’d never been to a build site for one before. I’d never seen one come together from the very beginning. (more…)

The Temple of Promise


For four years in a row, the temples of Black Rock City have been palatial, romantic, classical in design. Time’s up. Some members of the 2015 Temple crew worked on the enchantingly abstract, boundary-pushing Temple of Flux five years ago, and they have brought that same fluid, organic inspiration to this year’s design: the Temple of Promise.


The Temple of Promise is a guide. It’s a calming hand, and it’s a listening ear. Nestled in its center is a grove of trees. It’s no tower or pyramid or other such shape dictated by logic alone. It is no less a temple for its lifelike forms. It is more.

Scattered amidst the flow of the Temple area, wooden sculptures shaped like stones form a soft boundary. The tapering spiral of the main structure provides shelter and quiet. The lobed spire at its opening will tower 97 feet high. The tail of the building curls into a circle around the open-air grove, a container well suited for gatherings. The trees will be bare at the beginning of the week, but participants will leave their messages on strips of white cloth, which they will hang from the trees like the leaves of a weeping willow.


In addition to the 2010 Temple of Flux, team members have worked in the past with artist Dan Fox on some of the playa’s most imposing and impressive sculptures ever: the Trojan Horse in 2011, Anubis in 2012, and the Alien Siege Machine in 2014. Others have volunteered on past temples in 2007, 2008, 2011, and 2013. This practice and expertise will serve them well. But it is clear from the design of the Temple of Promise that this team brings with it another complementary power that cannot be learned, only listened to: intuition.

Want to get involved? The team is working on their website and volunteer intake process, but in the meantime, like their Facebook page to stay in the loop.