Fortunately, it happened again. The Golden Spike was hammered into the ground, marking the spot where the Man would be built and later burned. And we mean happily literally, because person after person in Spike’s circle has expressed their gratitude for being able to be here again. They especially thanked the patrons who donated to the organization to keep it alive for the three years between events. And because three long years have passed since the last Golden Spike ceremony, change and gratitude have been the two dominant themes of the remarks people have made as they swing the hammer and bury the spike in the dust.
When it was his turn, Burning Man co-founder Will Roger held the sled above his head and shouted, “Let’s make this the best Burning Man ever!” And of course, that’s the best way to approach it (and every year), because who knows what the future holds. This could be the last year Burning Man can hold an event, or this could be the last year you can go, so you better make the best of it. We hate to be so fatalistic but I suffered a pretty bad stroke in January of this year and it gave me a whole new perspective on the fragility of existence and the fragility of our world so please bear with me as I bring that perspective to my observations this year.
In some ways, the Spike Ceremony has become very, very familiar to everyone who attends. The Spike, as you probably know, marks the very spot on which the Man will be erected and later burned, and it marks the geographic center of Black Rock City, around which the avenues and streets will be traced. It also marks the start of the Burning Man season and, like so many things that have sprung up around the event itself, has become superimposed on ritual and ceremony.
On this day when it’s 104°F+ in Gerlach, you’re once again wondering what made the original Burning Man organizers choose this remote location as the site of the event, and why they would choose the hottest part of the day to have the Pointe Ceremony. You get an early glimpse of how unholy hot everything can be in the desert on your first day. Also, you are now at 4,000 feet. altitude, and you experience these effects as well. Because you are in the high desert, it could not only be incredibly hot during the day, but also incredibly cold at night. It could also be windy and sandy, as it has been in the past. The sky can be a beautiful, brilliant blue or it can be tinged red with smoke from several California wildfires. This year, it seems the grip of climate change has tightened its bony fingers around the fragile neck of the globe. What doesn’t burn or cook is under record flood water.
So you have to be ready for anything because anything can happen, and it usually does. Howling winds and relentless heat and sun. You must bring your “everything” to survive here: food in the shade, water, everything– because there is no escape from the sun on the barren playa. Did I mention it could get hot?
Of course, the Spike ceremony didn’t start out that big, and Will Roger remembers when there were only a handful of people. “In 1999, we had to move the city site three times while I was negotiating with the BLM to get out of the mud. So three Golden Spikes that year, the third was just me and Tony! At the time there were only a few of us – Tony, Rod, Flynn and I were the main cast.
People often look at the extravagant and beautiful art found at Burning Man, and they ask, “Why are you burning it?” It goes to the root of the event itself – Burning Man is a celebration, or recognition if you will, of the temporal nature of our existence. Temporality – that we are on this earth for a short, short time, and all that we are and all that we hold dear will one day die with us. But today, paradoxically, Burning Man has become something of a permanent cultural institution. After 30 years of existence, many of the things that need to happen to create the event have become wrapped up in rituals and ceremonies, much like the Golden Spike. It’s been going on since the event moved from San Francisco to the Black Rock Desert in 1990, and now the Renwick Gallery at the Smithsonian American Art Museum has exhibited a Golden Spike that was used in the desert to mark the start of Burning Man Season ( as part of their No Spectators exhibition in 2018).
We can tell you with certainty that there were many, many smiles among the approximately 150 people who gathered for the ceremony last Thursday, as it had been three long years since the last Spike ceremony had taken place, due to of the COVID pandemic. People were gathering again. People full of gratitude because they were just happy to be able to start over and see each other again. There’s no one who hasn’t been untouched by the past three years of the pandemic, everyone’s been through change and now we’re back to the place that never seems to change (even if in glacial terms it absolutely is, but for hundreds of years it looks the same as it does right now). All of us gathered here are different from those who left three years ago, but the land we have returned to has not changed, and maybe there is comfort in that, maybe comfort. I know I have found it to be so.
Suddenly everything feels familiar again. From warmth, to people, to dust, to joy. We know how to do this. The event somehow seems permanently etched into our consciousness and the playa crew is ready to go. Everyone in turn gives a blow with a club to drive the stake a little further into the ground, and with each blow words are shared with the assembled group. There is a lot of personal investment in this simple action. People take this very seriously and make thoughtful comments. Burning Man Project CEO Marian Goodell recounted what elders of the Pyramid Lake Paiute tribe, who were also part of the circle, observed about the ceremony: It all starts with circles. “We start with this Spike, then we do the investigation and the investigation goes in circles, then the fence, then we take it out. We are going in the opposite direction. It is a very powerful way to honor the process of life and the ritual of coming together.
Crimson Rose seemed to understand just how important this gathering was to everyone present when she said, “The fire that will devour this area comes from all of you. Let’s be beautiful and do beautiful things and then burn them.
The ceremony ended when Coyote smashed a champagne bottle on the Spike, which was now sunk in the desert floor and glass shattered everywhere. From all points around the circle, celebrants came running to pick up every last shard, and a familiar chant of “Leave No Trace!” increased among the whole group.
…and that’s how Black Rock City 2022 was launched.
The survey team began work at this exact moment. We are unable to stay for the survey this year but will be back in a few weeks. See you in the dust.
All photos courtesy of John Curley