Making The Machine: Dispatches from Burning Man
Special to The Seattle Times
Monday, August 22
Richard arrived bright and early. The crew worked until three in the morning, so they're still passed out. Only Phyxx wanders around checking progress. Richard patted him on the shoulder. "Not the sort of crew you're used to working for," he joked. DPW and Temple crew both rise early and work until the playa heats up. Here we drink coffee until afternoon and work all night. It looks like we're lazy, but for what it's worth, we're on schedule. Regardless, Phyxx is the earliest riser, he's up before the sun. He runs an espresso machine off his truck and keeps himself caffeinated. Without the rest of the crew, he's a wandering cog.
Both Richard and Pope stopped by for more coffee. They say it's the best on the playa. Considering I'm pouring the water off a three gallon stock pot, I'll take that as a supreme compliment. Not easy keeping these guys in cowboy coffee. I've nearly tripled the amount I'm pouring for breakfast.
It took about a half hour to install the last of the transmission. The pieces snapped right into place. Chris McMullen and Tom Hall joined the flying crew in harnesses and set the last few pieces. Chris is an artist, he does custom architectural metal work to make money. He was swamped under for the last few weeks, finishing the gears for the sculpture. He and his wife, Michele, are part of the core. Tom is a contractor for seismic retrofitting as well as an artist. He did sketches for the press package, and he's one of the few who knows what this thing will look like finished.
Thomas floated, climbing over the top of the structure and supervising. He may say that his dog is the one thing he loves, but I'm betting that The Machine is a close second. He's taking the construction process very personally.
The people wheel crew is hard at work finishing the first wheel and collecting pieces for the second one. They are three days ahead of schedule. As the day heats up, they wander back into the hall. It's the first time I've seen The Gabe sit in one spot for more than ten minutes.
The hall is a litter of bodies. With the arrival of the second convoy, our numbers have doubled, but it takes a day to adjust, so they won't be working much. The rest of the crew is relieved to have reinforcements, and it seems that they're lounging a bit as well. This is about as close to a day off as they're going to get until the event starts. Although it's a much needed rest, it seems that Thomas and Koolaid are getting frustrated. Neither of them have slowed down much, and most of the build crew looks like they're poolside in Reno.
With numbers growing, communication is becoming an issue. The team of expert builders are rude mechanicals again, cracking jokes and wandering aimlessly around the job site. There are more supervisors than monkeys, and the expertise is getting out of hand. Regardless, The Machine builds itself. It wants to be put together. Our relationship is symbiotic.
Susannah End and Domenica Lovaglia made a trip out to Reno for produce. Susannah is one of the founding members of Stronghold and Etherton's girlfriend. He's drinking more water now and sleeping later. She makes him eat breakfast. Domenica handed out steel pendants cut like machine logos. They are greatly prized by the crew. She left without telling anyone where they were hidden, so now some of the crew got pendants, but not all of the crew. It's like getting passed over for a medal.
Pfeif, Thomas and Tom are climbing around the transmission with mallets. The camp air is filled with the sound of ringing steel. A structure that started as graceful architectural nostalgia is now crowned in clockworks. The steel spur gears interlock with great wooden drum gears, floating in about three and a half feet of open steel frame. More than six tons of form and function tower 20 feet over the playa.
The effects of an entire week in the desert are becoming apparent. With a complete lack of outside influence, the cogs have become rather colorful. Etherton named the jar of mixed nuts on the table "Crazy go nuts." Scatalogical humor is all there is left. The new arrivals are adjusting, and I think that they're only now beginning to understand the problem with the spiders.
With the lower platforms nearly complete, Gabe's work is done for a while. He and Phyxx set to work building a few benches out of off cuts. Jordan is over there to help, but most of the time, she's just looking after Gabe.
Jackass is dedicated to the people wheels. He's wandering around out there in a pair of camo cutoffs and a sleeveless tux shirt. The skinny kid with the grin has turned tan and hardened with heavy labor. He is generally pan faced during the hours of work, and has become furtive, occasionally pulling out his megaphone and mumbling through it.
Skin on top of the machine is running thin. With a pair of Toms, and a pair of Chrises, I can imagine that it must get confusing. Coupled with the sun, hot steel and the fact that we have two metal workers trying to work in the same space, There's a good chance that the machine might destroy itself early. At least this is the rumor that I hear.
So far this blog has been a whole lot of listing, and not much intrigue. I need some drama, some conflict, or a love interest. There was that whole thing with Pfeif and Rosana, but that fizzled out. She quit sending over her leftovers. I begin to wonder if the fallout from the afternoon chili might have scared them off. Until I find some sort of conflict, I've decided to decrease portions and increase the insults in the kitchen, hoping to lower morale and breed suspicion. Perhaps if I keep them hungry, they'll finally crack.
Our camp is lively at night, working through three pots of coffee. There are more tourists than ever. It seemed sort of cowboyish to send coffee over to the temple crew. I figured it was a nice way of saying thanks and sorry for the chili. I tried to send Pfeif over to the temple camp with a bag of fresh ground, shade grown, Guatemalen go-juice, but he was too busy working the machine, so I handed it to one of the tourists from the temple that was milling around.
In retrospect, I can see that this might have been a bad idea. The Machine is going up quickly and easily compared to the other big works. It might seem a bit cocky to send over a big bag of go-juice grounds.
Sunday, August 21
Everyone has become an expert on something this morning. The Cogs are specializing. The morning meeting breaks into teams of metal, wood, and transmission crews. They're threatening to set up one of the people wheels before the rest of the crew gets here. We've been here for the rest of it and we want to see the wheel turn the works.
The injuries have begun. Stuart is walking around with a happy face bandage around his ankle. He received a second degree burn playing redneck soccer last night. Sara is running a makeshift triage out of an old surplus ammunition box. Jackass moved a shade structure over to the far side of the yard and gathered a crew to build the people wheel. He's changed from lazy prankster to some semblance of foreman, ordering Nils around, even. A few hours into the work, the wind kicked up and caught the shade. Connor grabbed the frame to hold it down and the frame crumpled, crushing several of his fingers.
When Richard arrived with the crane Gabe and Pfeif got into harnesses. They'll be the fliers, catching the piece as it comes in and guiding it to its resting spot. Nils and Stuart are on the guidelines, keeping it from spinning. The rest of the crew cleared the work area of scraps and tools. Everyone puts on hard hats. Everyone but Thomas. He's pacing the yard, climbing up and down the structure, standing on top of the transmission while they lag bolt it down. He's conductor of a kinetic orchestra, moving people around like he was pulling levers. Watching them at work the core team is obvious. They are the handful of people who know these works intimately. We defer naturally to them.
Richard lifted the first piece a few inches off the ground. The straps held it at an angle, so he and Thomas adjusted them to keep it flat. His first estimate on the weight was 4,500 pounds. Thomas said he would have liked to get a final weight, but we were in such a rush to get on the road, he never got the chance to crunch the numbers. Even so, staring at the steel and plywood structure getting hoisted into the air above his head, he guessed that it couldn't weigh that much. The boom carried it to Gabe and Pfeif. The scale read 2,200 pounds. The whole transmission, assembled, will weigh a little over three tons.
A plain black Thunderbird rolled up in front of camp just after we set the first third of the transmission in place. Most of the crew was hiding in the shade while Gabe and Pfeif lag bolted it in place. Etherton looked over at the car and sat up. "Look busy." A holler went up from the back of the camp. "Larry Harvey's here!" He walked straight over to a chunk of transmission and pushed a gear. The giant wheels spun. "It works." He said.
He's dressed in a Mexican wedding shirt and a simple cowboy hat. His hair is clean cut and he's a gracious guest, drinking a can of Tecate. Hard to believe that this is the man that founded the Burning Man festival. I suppose I ought to make some finger foods or something, but he's happy with the bag of trail mix the crew is passing around. He told us a story about a couple young kids that came out for the festival and took a ride beyond the trash fence. "They knew nothing about nature." He said. The desert is vast. Further out there are places on the playa that look like crust and hide a thick layer of mud. These guys got the car bogged down 30 miles out. The harder they worked to unstick the tires the deeper it got. Somebody got the idea that covering themselves in mud would reduce dehydration. That was bad idea number one. The mud may be nice for a few minutes, but as it dries it will draw the water straight out of them. It's a little like curing salt pork. When they went looking for something solid to set under the tire, all they came up with was the block of ice in the cooler. They braced it under the rear tire for traction. That was a really bad idea. They were half dead by the time a Ranger found them. "That's why we had to get the Rangers out here, to rescue people who do stupid things."
"I don't know if it's still on there, but I used to put 'you may die' on the back of the ticket. People get scared. It's a dangerous place." He shrugged. "People die everywhere though, they die in their apartments back in the city. People die all the time."
While the core discussed possible solutions, Larry was left in the tent with the cogs. Etherton is doing his best impression of a politician, taking Larry on a tour of camp. "Hey Cookie, you met Larry yet?" I introduced myself. He said we'd met. He's been to Seattle to visit us a few times. He came in to the Crave to get coffee once and remembered me. We ambled over towards a transmission piece.
"I feel sort of guilty." I told him. "They're out here building away in the sun, and all I do is cook."
He told me stories about the kitchens from big installations past, about how the kitchen was the key to morale. If you feed them they're less likely to fall apart mid-project. "That's one of the three principles of large scale production." He pulled a cigarette from his pocket. "Inspire them with a sense of ideal, feed them well, and lead by example." This is coming from the man who turned a bonfire at the beach into the third largest city in Nevada for one week a year. He inspired me enough to do some dishes.
While I prepped dinner I found Thomas sitting calmly at the table. An hour ago he was barking orders like a yard dog, and now he's cut heavy duty canvas to stitch into an army surplus load vest. He glances up and grins, threading a needle. "It's arts and crafts time." When people ask what he's making, he says it's a vest for his teddy bear.
Corprew's workstation is set up just outside the dining hall. He's got the tip of an arm across his desk, arranging an array of glowing red cold cathode fluorescents. They're bright enough that you can see them from center camp. He's wearing his sunglasses.
Sara grinds the placed transmission piece. Pfeif is on the top platform with a couple Org tourists, waiting to get into the works to grind down the edges of the wood. He's leaning against the crooked second piece. The gear adjustments are nearly complete. By tomorrow the works will be ready for assembly.
Thomas wandered into the hall. I asked about a part name. The next thing I knew, I was getting a lesson in gear ratios and transmission theory. Apparently the belt pulley was hitting one of the drum gears. They shaved an inch off the drum gear, reset the belt pulley and ground the ends off the pulley shaft. He drew a diagram on the table. It looked like a sketch of a tinker toy. He tapped the pen against the trouble spot. "It's going to be tight, but we'll make it."
I wandered out of the tent to take a look at what he was talking about. Stuart is packing up tools out there. Most of the build crew has finished up. They started a fire in one of Tabasco's fire pods and set it on a steel bracket in the center of the lower platform. The locusts have swept our beer stocks. As it turns out, it was us. A cheer went up when the last gear was set. Sara's covered in black metal dust and grinning. I climbed the ladder and inspected the pieces. It makes a little more sense after the gear lecture, but it still seems like a strange mechanical abstraction. The second crew is finishing up the tower that will house the first people wheel. What started as a joke over coffee this morning is already a reality.
Chris and Connor ran the first test on the audio system. There was some talk of a busted speaker, possibly damaged in transport. If we have to order one, it won't arrive until after the event. Airola will end up with seven channels and one big dead spot. After a little wire wiggling, the audio works fine. The crew partied in the center of the main structure. Nils is dressed in red shorts and a red Machine shirt. He sort of looks like a red jug with legs. The crew now calls him Koolaid.
The second convoy arrived just as we were putting out the lights. Everybody crawled out of their beds for the welcoming. The crew doubled in size. I'm glad they're happy now, cause there's no way they're all getting coffee in the morning.
Saturday, August 20
We've decided to stop explaining the machine to the tourists. Airola will be telling people that it's a piñata. Eight legs are filled with candy, one is filled with angry bees. Etherton wants to fill it with chocolate so that when the plywood is pulled to the ground, a huge chocolate machine remains. Gabe says he's going to brand the scraps and give them away as souvenirs, just so we won't have to ship it home. The answer to everything is twenty. "How tall is it going to be?" … "Oh, twenty." Most of the crew has begun to speak in a Mexican accent although no one can explain why. There is no breeze today, and already it's getting hot. Today Corprew will be watching us all for heat exhaustion.
Thomas is assembling the first piece of the transmission. He's hit his stride. A couple guys are lugging the gears over. Thomas climbs over the empty frame, placing the gears as they arrive. He's wearing welding leathers. It's a 108 degrees today. The steel is black and heats in the sun, but we've got to set it up before the crane arrives.
Airola and Connor are geeking out on the speaker boxes. They've worked side by side all morning, and we're worried that they're becoming one person. "Hey guapo," Connor says, "Would you say that we have a plethora of speakers?" Airola laughs. "Indeed Jeffe, I would say that we do indeed have a plethora of speakers." They don't take breaks anymore. I think they're just excited to get the audio up.
It's getting too hot to work. The breeze picked up, but it's a hot wind from the south. Nils is the last man left out there. He's got his momentum up. Conversation on the table is of the golden mean, Leonardo, Fibonacci and sacred Geometry. Phyxx took a minute to look around the structure and discovered that within it, there is an ancient Sufi Symbol which is used by some schools of psychology to determine personality types. He drew a mathematical equation and diagramed an enneagram on a cardboard scrap and proceeded to explain it to the group. It's hard to show a bunch of man-puddles math, but after a brief description, the table got lively. It was like sitting at a MENSA meeting in the first Mars settlement..
Etherton is cutting empty plastic water canisters in half. "Let's see if Cookie is conductive." He says. He fills the basins with cold cooler water and passes them out to the group. I'm typing at the end of the table, feet in cold water and a can of Tecate beside me. The computer is already behaving poorly. Playa is corrosive. It's all over this thing. The cursor wanders, the right click button is gone. I'm armed with wet wipes to clean the dust off the screen. This thing wasn't exactly top of the line to begin with and chances are good that it won't live through the event. One more dusty ambulance excursion and it might become a cutting board in the kitchen. That or a spike in the generator might roast me. Fitting end for a cook. Sara brought out a pair of watermelons she'd been hiding. The first one I cut into was sloshy, so I made it into agua fresca. I sent Pfeif over to temple camp with a two gallon bucket. I was going to make some more for the crew, but Jackass filled the other watermelon with vodka and sake. I guess it is a pretty good way to get them to eat fruit.
Beer seems a poor choice for the desert. As far as healthy drinks go, it's the bottom of the list, right under cola. But there's something about having a cold beer on a hot afternoon, and here, it is always a hot afternoon. We drink Emergen-c and water as well, but the cheap beer thins the blood. At least that's what I tell myself.
The Org sent Disko over to take a look at the sculpture. The Machine qualifies as dangerous art. It's his job to qualify exactly how dangerous. There's no fire on it, so that makes it a little easier, but there will be people crawling all over it once the arms are set. Already the crew seems to think it's a jungle gym. Pfeif clambers all over it like a monkey.
I'm beginning to wonder if Phyxx wasn't right about the strange enneagram thing, especially how it might pertain to the personality. The playa naturally takes us to extremity, both externally, with a dangerous environment and long work hours, but especially internally, through our personalities. The Rude mechanicals are becoming cogs. They work in what they know best. Each member is integral. Stripped of the imposed habit of the outside world, new habits are forming. The Machine herself stamps metal into the soft flesh of our former selves.
Tonight is the Early burn. It's getting to be tradition. All the early arrival crews leave off work for the evening and gather around a couple small burn platforms behind the man. This is the twentieth anniversary of the event. More than ever, the first crews on the playa celebrate before the tourists arrive. The city is forming quickly, and only a week ago, there were at least half as many people in little cluster camps, now the café at center camp is looking like a real structure. People are showing up to build theme camps, and there are half a dozen smaller sculptures going up around The Machine, a few hundred yards away. From my view in the kitchen I can see The Man lying behind his platform, and the top half of a giant purple head way off in the distance.
For most of the crew, this is the farthest from camp they've been since they arrived. They stood outside the party, staring off across the playa at the base. I can't take these guys anywhere. They're obsessed. It took 20 minutes to get them over to mingle, and they stood around talking about what they were going to work on tomorrow.
Jackass comandeered my kitchen to make what he calls the "jug of drunk". No one knows what's in it, but it's a chunky juice drink that he lugs around in a two gallon water container, grinning and offering it to the crew. It's palatable and potentially dangerous, but the crew does need a bit of a break.
Chuck Kralovich and Andy Volk arrived. Chuck was our Math man. He's a high school physics teacher, here for a few days and then he'll return to Seattle to drive Airola's girlfriend down. Andy is just here to see Airola's work.
There are a few bolts missing and the cogs are overheating, but The Machine is doing what it was made to, it is building itself.
Friday, August 19
I tried to short order cook for the crew this morning. They showed up early, in one big clump, drowsy and begging for coffee. They're eager to get to work. The whole one-plate-at-a-time thing didn't really work out. On top of that, I've got a stack of dishes sitting waist high to one side of the kitchen.
After a long morning of snapping little pieces into little places, the base is coming together. As it is, it is an impressive sculptural work, reminiscent of early cathedral architecture; a series of nine legs like flying buttresses, holding a platform fourteen feet above the desert surface. The crew crawls over it like bees in a hive, banging at coglike steps around the edges. The base platform will soon look like a gear. Watching the pieces fall into place, the crew has sped up considerably. They laugh more and take less breaks.
Corprew returned to camp looking for volunteers. The Burning Man organization needed a hand unloading the Man himself. Pfeif, Nils,and Etherton volunteered. The Org is short of workers, but we have a small army already. This weekend our numbers will double.
Ian Page-Echols followed the volunteers with his video camera. He's a quiet man with short blonde hair that stands on end now. As quiet as he is, it's easy to lose track of him. Occasionally he asks a question and we turn around to find ourselves answering a camera lens. He's set up a time lapse camera on the time out room. Every once in a while he walks around with his laptop, showing us the footage as he collects it. It reminds me of a national geographic special on bees; the crew scurrying around as The Machine climbs to its feet.
Pope Phabulous stopped by camp to eat the last of the bacon and see what was on the lunch menu. He's picked up a case of "the crud." Apparently there's some hybrid illness that runs through DPW annually. It's a blend of flu, cold, bronchitis, and the effects of playa dust on the respiratory system. Everybody gets it; it takes a man out for at least a day. I'm thinking about getting it myself.
Pope and his friend Josh Brown put together a monthly comic newspaper in Seattle, The Seattle Comic Times. A month before our departure date, the live in shop that housed their offices burned to the ground. Both Pope and Josh found themselves homeless and jobless. Someone offered them positions on DPW, so they packed up a few things and headed down to the ranch.
Pope has the keys to the fence and the "Frog pond", a natural hotspring a few miles across the playa and over the railroad tracks. As long as he was taking a day off, he figured he'd invite us all to take a break and wash the dust off. We packed a cooler with beer and piled into trucks. The shower's not up yet, so this is an opportunity to rinse off at least.
I'm working off an inverter plugged into the console of the ambulance. That inverter is my baby. It's keeping me busy. Between the coffee grinder and the laptop, it is powering my entire venture. I have a bench just behind the cab, cabinets and a cardboard desk. Airola's got the back doors open, so my office is a duststorm. I can't read the keys to type. This is not journalism, this is a prison summer camp.
We rolled up on the frog pond and found some DPW people and a few members of the Org basking in the pools. Simon was among them. He's British, with a pony tail and a beard. He's also our heavy equipment contact with the Org.. He seems to think that we're going to be some sort of black hole for machinery. We sat around the mud banks, using a chunk of floating wood as a coffee table.
Apparently the Org thinks we are David Best material. They rearranged funds to give us a very generous grant. They put that on the table, and anything they can offer for assistance. At this point, we've doubled down with a few thousand to pay off once we get back. Like Etherton says, "It's a ninety thousand dollar bet, If we win we get nothing but a scrap heap to haul back." Aside from a few missing bolts that didn't make it on the trucks, it looks like we're winning the bet.
The pond is loaded with tadpoles. I'm thinking about making them the fish special tonight.
I figured dinner would lay the crew low. Jordan and I cooked them a turbo version of franks and beans. We discovered that coffee after dinner sends the crew into a building flurry. For the first time since we arrived, the night is dead calm. No wind. No dust. A full moon and the spotlights to work by. This is an ideal atmosphere for construction. The sounds of drills, nail guns, and impact drivers buzz just below the Music. Jackass stands next to me, rolling a cigarette. "This is like psychological warfare;" He smiles. "Loud noises, bright lights, and exhaustion. Keep them awake until they slowly go crazy." He laughs and wanders off.
Gabe shrugs. "I'll go until I'm done with something; until I can stand beside it and see the next piece finished." They spend a lot of time standing beside it, gazing up at it, imagining arms stretching fifty two feet into the night sky. That sort of thing is called "a break".
Our camp is already a busy tourist attraction. The temple crew is camped a few hundred yards away. They stop by regularly and linger around the base, asking questions. There's a rumor circulating that The Machine is a big carnival ride. An eighty thousand dollar merry-go-round. At least I'm not the only one who doesn't understand this thing.
Phyxx gave a war cry when he finished framing the lower platform. It is a spiderweb of two by fours, designed to hold a half ton of steel. To me, it looks like a stained glass window. Phyxx was at that all day long.
The crew quit working just after two in the morning. Between three pots of coffee and the lights the DPW left us, they managed to finish the steps, the cogs, and the speaker boxes. In the morning, the rude mechanicals will be assembling the transmissions. There's a crane coming in the afternoon.
Thursday, August 18
In spite of monstrous hangovers, the crew managed to get back to their feet and stumble into the kitchen for coffee. I've doubled the number of pots I brew, but it's still not enough. The Machine runs on coffee and bacon, so far as I can tell.
They muttered about DPW and the drifts of empty beer cans left around camp. After breakfast they did a sweep for cigarette butts and litter, unloaded the water barrels from the truck, and set back to work on the spiral of folded OSB appendages. I still don't understand how it's going to stand, but the hinges and pins are starting to make a little more sense.
Phyxx and his girlfriend, A. Bell Sound finally arrived a few days late. Bell is a recently published author. She'll be helping Jordan and I in the kitchen. She described Phyxx as a desert dog. He's Australian. Over the past few years he's worked for DPW, and The Temple. We are lucky to have him with us. His Universal Traveling Workshop wasn't quite working when they got ready to drive out. He's got to head home to Graton in a few days for a repair and retrieve mission. There are enough tools that it won't be a horrible setback for now.
The crane crew arrived by midmorning. After a few adjustments, a cable was attached to the central steel piece. The crane lifted and the crew held the legs off the desert floor. As the center structure rose, the legs folded out into place and stood tenuously braced by all hands. The whole crew hollered and cheered as Gabe set the hinge pins.
Three days in, and already The Machine is a third its projected height. Rising from neat little stacks of pieces, it stands at the center of camp, a substantial and seemingly permanent structure surrounded by our own scrappy settlement. To the far corner, Stuart Updegrave is building a shed around the generator. He likes to call it "the time out room". Eventually it will house the tools, servers, and hardware that runs the audio, visual, and probably my office if I don't stop cussing at them during breakfast. It's built almost entirely of scraps, with little prefab work except the frame.
Stuart recently quit Microsoft and took off on his motorcycle for a long ride. He's a tall man, soft spoken, and sincere. Like everyone in this project, it seems that his life recently shifted enough that everything has changed for him. He was supposed to be in Europe now, but plans fell through. He showed up the day after first camp was established and works with an almost Zen dedication. Whatever it is that brought him here, I believe that he is working it out in wood and sweat. The rise of The Machine is catharsis for him, helping to build something only to destroy it.
Sara started the fourth truck and set out to return it to Reno. Jordan followed in Gabe's truck. In a crew that is almost entirely men, they suffer the constant testosterone well. Etherton has started calling them "team estrogen". We joke that they are headed into town for manicures, but never when they are within earshot. Although Sara may comb her hair every morning and constantly slathers herself in lotion, she's working like a teamster. Jordan has already maxed out her own credit card, and she's headed back out for more supplies. For now, she is our lifeline. There is little question who actually runs the camp.
Around lunchtime a pretty girl walked into camp with a big bowl of Chinese noodle salad. Work slowed. She introduced herself as Rosana. She runs the kitchen for the temple crew. It was right neighborly of them. Pfeif's in love, but I'm not so sure. The crew has threatened to replace me if she comes back.
Nils Christian brought fresh salmon with him. In addition to framing and wood fabrication, he is the captain of our cheerleading squad. Coach of the Franklin High school soccer team, The Franklin Quakers are mostly African immigrants. He says that they are the toughest team in the district, though they have yet to win a single game that he coached. He says he wouldn't know how to cheer for anyone but the underdog. Four years ago his mother passed away and he discovered that life is short. "He who dies with the most experiences wins." He says. He says a lot of other things too. Working with him on The Machine is a little like camping with Tony Robbins. He keeps our team motivated. As eager and dedicated a worker as he is, he is also one of the few people here who openly admits that he's in it more for the camaraderie than the art. He built a table in the center of camp sixteen feet long and four feet wide. It is reminiscent of the early Anglo Saxon Mead halls. Tonight we eat grilled salmon served family style, discussing progress and awaiting the return of team estrogen.
Working under the DPW spotlights, the crew stabilized the structure and started the base platform which will support the transmission. Thomas York arrived late in the evening, just after dinner. He works as a general contractor and owns Red Dog Industries, a metal fabrication shop in Boulevard Park. He did a lot of the design engineering for the project. He's a quiet man, accustomed to working alone. He won't tell me much about his personal life except that he loves his dog, an Australian blue healer by the name of Oso.
Gabe, Nils and Thomas stand in the kitchen, watching the crew at work, catching Thomas up on the details. They are part of the original core group that conceived and built it all. After a year of planning and fabrication, this is the first time they've seen this much of it assembled. The rest of the crew is still banging away, scurrying around the base, hands loaded with tools and cans of beer. They've threatened to quit for the night several times, but we are still missing members of the crew, so no one wants to stop.
"From paper to Playa." Thomas says. The core seems to think that he channeled the ghost of Leonardo DaVinci for some of the design. He thinks it's more gogan, but even he knows gogan went a little crackers by the end. Thomas is one of the few members of the team who understands what all the pieces do although, like the rest, he's never seen it assembled. Until now it was an abstraction to him, an idea and a whole lot of pieces laying around his shop. Staring at the structure cast in shadows he has a far away look. "It's beautiful."
"The really amazing thing is watching the crew." Gabe speaks low like someone might be listening. "Some of those guys have become excellent woodworkers in the past few days." The Machine may be conceived, designed and constructed by master carpenters and metal smiths, but most of the crew is a collection of volunteers adopted from the tech industry. They were experts in event production, planning meetings and networking before the start of The Machine. Between Corprew, Airola and Ian, they could probably entirely disassemble this PC and reassemble it as an I-Pod. They speak in Mexican accents half the time and during the meetings they buzz with wit and one-liners. But what seems a collection of rude mechanicals is quickly becoming an expert build team.
Wednesday, August 17
I slept on the trailer last night. It's nice to see the sun rise. We're all making due right now. Until the central shade structure is up, there's not much point in pitching a tent because we'll just have to move again later.
I am only now beginning to grasp the enormity of this thing. This sculpture is going to be huge. Arms, legs, platforms, pylons, gears, bolts and tools. It's like a spidery pocket watch, but wood and steel. And huge. The gears leaning against the trailers are as tall as me. In the center of the work area there's a giant steel wheel with brackets on it. I can't quite figure out which piece attaches to which, or even if it's a gear or load bearing steel. Legs are splayed out around it, presumably ready to be placed, but the huge flats of wood don't look like much. In spite of the fact that I live with a few of these people in the outside world, and I've been attending some meetings to get ready to come out here, I still have no idea what this thing is going to look like in the end.
Sara McChristian is the only other crew member awake now. In the default world, she's an event production manager. She left her career a few months ago to get involved with The Machine. Skilled in carpentry and rigging, she blew out both her ankles and her back helping with the load in, but during the drive she managed to take the weight off her feet long enough to do some healing.
After the crew set to work, Sara and Jordan packed the empty water barrels into the fourth truck and collected shopping lists. They are headed in to Reno to fill our barrels and get the last minute supplies that might have been forgotten. The trip will take them six hours drive time and two or three hours of running errands. As nice as it sounds to walk down the block to the 7-11 and buy a pack of smokes or a candy bar, I don't think we're missing it much.
People have to hunt for their wallets or for cash. Money seems useless out here. Keys, purses, credit cards and I.D.s have all been hidden in glove compartments. Water and beer are commodities, but everything is traded with open hands. It may sound communistic, but it has more to do with necessity than any academic political ideal. Working together, we're finding a side of humanity that has all but vanished from the default world, the world of lawns and boxes and fences. The nicknames chosen by the crew are more important than our given names and there's a sense of the individual identity waning.
At the morning meeting the to-do list includes site maintenance and build-out on the camp, as well as general work on The Machine. We've unpacked a couple easy up shade structures that we can move around as the sun changes, so today won't be as physically taxing as yesterday.
It's Randy's birthday. He's 29. He's walking around singing a mutant version of the Beatles' birthday song. "I say it's my birthday… nuh nuh nuh nuh." I asked him what he wanted for his birthday dinner. He joked and said "Troublemaker". It's a sandwich from Smarty Pants, down in Georgetown. They all like to ask for fancy meals, like I'll make Sara a crème brulee or make some fresh squeezed orange juice for Jordan; anything other than franks and beans. Mostly I laugh and tell them sure, but I happen to know a cook down at Smarty Pants, so I got the recipe. Tonight we're getting a decent meal. A little taste of home.
The outside world is fading away. Smarty Pants sandwiches are a nice touch, but the luxuries of home aren't as necessary as they once were. The crew is adapting to desert life. The same people you might see holding a carpentry meeting down at the 9lb Hammer are now drinking lukewarm Tecates and telling jokes like seasoned ranch hands. Our camp has become infested with barking spiders.
This crew has worked closely for months. They are a machine unto themselves, cogs in the living production line. But there's a new intimacy forming, one based on mere survival. The personal supplies that we brought were just enough to make it as individuals, but somehow everything becomes communal. We pass around Emergen-c vitamin packets, sunscreen, and wet wipes. There is no TV, no news, no time and no war. We don't gossip about co-workers or discuss politics. Mostly the crew works, and when they aren't working, there's time for levity. They mostly joke about The Machine, or try to imagine what it will look like all put together. They stand around in the stacks of pieces and discuss work tomorrow.
DPW showed up in force to find us still building; struggling under the ambulance's floodlights. DPW is hard at work most of the day, but by night they try to relax. When they found us still at it, they collected lights to set up around the work area and partied a few yards off. Gabe pulled a big bottle of Early Times out of Harold and passed it around. Randy and I scrapped together a deep fryer. We made onion rings and French fries. Jim Jordan passed out beers. He's a recent Evergreen graduate with a tattoo on his left shoulder that says: Tutto e' Premio. Everything is bonus. He's not sure what he's going to do for work when he gets back. He might help Gabe with building projects, or work light engineering with a man he met at a Machine fundraiser. For now, he's living in abundance out here.
By the time we left off work for the evening, there were half a dozen cases of beer emptied, the entire bottle of whiskey, and whatever else was floating around the party. The Machine's legs are bolted together on hinges and spiral around the central steel bracket. For now it looks like a big wood kaleidoscope. The crane arrives tomorrow.
Just before midnight Jordan and Sara finally returned from Reno with a chocolate Cake that said: Happy Birthday Etherton. The misprint in the original Seattle Times article seems to have stuck. Now he's Etherton for a few weeks at least. There are worse nicknames to earn out here.
We ate cake, sang happy birthday, and one at a time, slipped off to bed. Work starts early tomorrow.
Tuesday, August 16
We were up with the sun. Without shade, there was no way to avoid it. Only a handful of structures are up on the playa. Two weeks to the start of the event, and most of the Burning Man organization is working out of portables, back at the ranch, or in the office in Gerlach. A few shacks mark the greeters station, the commissary is open, the Department of Public Works station is set up. Off in the distance, barely visible, there's a cluster of vans, tents, and trailers that is the DPW ghetto. This is the emptiest any of us have seen the playa, and it makes the expanse of wasteland that much more desolate.
It's hard to imagine the playa without photos. It is a stretch of pale cracked dust so flat and vast that you can see the curvature of the earth. Facing north the horizon is 25 miles away and the bottoms of the foothills are lost beyond it. It's the sort of place that Samuel Beckett set most of his plays. A place he felt most mirrored the human mind when it reaches "the perilous zone", that place where habit breaks down. It is an ideal place to build the largest temporary city in the world. Looking at it now in infancy, it is hard to imagine 35,000 people in a wind-torn tent settlement. In the next two weeks the population will grow exponentially until it is every bit a thriving dust-paved metropolis.
It was good to wake in the desert. The day started cool with high whispy clouds and a merciful breeze. I say merciful mostly because the crew is living in the same clothes that we wore for the last of the loading and driving. Until we unload enough of the gear to reach our personal effects, chances are good that we'll wear the same clothes until midday.
Jordan, Gabe, and Randy left for the commissary to see about check-in and placement. The rest of us got an invitation to coffee. A guy named Pearl showed up to take tickets and give us wristbands. I'm told that he was in Thailand for the tsunami. His house washed away. Now he's at Burning Man working for DPW again.
When the ambulance returned with half the crew clinging to the top and sides, we loaded back into the trucks and the convoy headed straight out into the open playa to set up first camp. Gabe drew up a map for the truck layout and set to work surveying with Chris Pfeifel, an artist and friend of Gabe's since high school. He's been with The Machine since the conception, helping with design, wood and metal fabrication, and photo documentation. It's his first year on the playa, although he's helped build art for it in years past. He's the only one of us with any energy, excited just to be here in this brand new place.
There's a push to get the sculpture surveyed before the trencher shows up. Being a day behind schedule means we lost our chance to take it easy and let our bodies acclimate. There's no shade to speak of and humidity is steady at five percent. The dust is so close to white that it's reflective, and we'll bake slowly and lose fluids until our metabolisms adjust. Sleep deprivation and the road have us dehydrated already. Today is the most dangerous. Heat stroke can take a person out for three days and there's no medical tent yet. Corprew is as close as we've got to emergency services. We remind each other to drink water, mostly to remind ourselves.
When the cargo doors opened, the pieces of The Machine seemed to loom. We had most of the crew and a nice shop for the load. Today it was just a handful of drowsy bodies, shuffling around the four trucks. Corprew suggested that we start them up, floor them in reverse and hit the brakes. We all figured it was a good idea, but we started unloading by hand anyway.
Monday, August 15After a meager two hours Jordan knocked on windows and roused a beat and bleary eyed crew back to their feet. We were all getting silly and losing focus. Corprew handed out more energy drinks. As much as we all needed coffee, risking a stop meant another hour on our drive time. After twenty minutes to splash water over our faces and stretch our spines back into place, we set off again.
The trucks slowed to 15 miles per hour again, creeping up the shoulder of the second half of Grants Pass. Our estimated 18-hour drive time stretched on. It was another three hours before we reached a truck stop for coffee and fuel.
We did Mount Shasta at 20 miles per hour and crept up Donner Pass at the same 15 per hour. Hours crept by and the possibility of making it to Reno in time to fill our water barrels diminished. A meeting was held over the radio. It was decided that we would stop for supplies just off the 80 freeway, buy as much water and ice as we could from a grocery store and send a truck out with the barrels as soon as we got one unloaded. Jordan called ahead to the Burning Man offices and informed them that we would be arriving late, but that we were due soon.
On the downslope of Donner pass we discovered that when the brakes on the trucks overheat, an alarm sounds and the trucks shut down. The power steering shuts off. Sara McChristian, the lead truck driver, discovered this first and managed to avert a disaster by compression starting her rig and gearing down to avoid the brakes. We slowed our descent to prevent another near disaster, and the stretch into Reno looked grim. By the time we arrived in Reno, it was already getting dark. The crew bought last minute supplies and ate our final decent meal at the peppermill casino, one of Corprew's favorite Reno stops. It was past 11 by the time we got back into the trucks. Someone suggested that we park at a reststop a few miles from Gerlach, get some sleep before we made the final push into the desert. The idea was quickly voted down. Drivers were switched out. After 32 hours on the road with only two hours down time, there was not a single member of the crew who was not feeling the effects. We caught the 80 freeway headed the wrong direction, and in an attempt to turn the trucks around in a parking lot, we managed to get lost looking for the exit. I am told that the effects of sleep deprivation are similar to drinking, and it was quickly becoming apparent.
With directions back to the freeway from a gas station attendant, we found our way again. The last decent reception for cell phones started to fade, so phone calls were made back to loved ones and the cell phones went dead and were shut off. Our first taste of isolation set in. Lights from the city faded in the rear view mirrors and were replaced by a setting yellow moon and more stars than any of us remembered seeing.
We arrived on the playa just after one in the morning. The front offices were closed. A greeter met us and let us know that the camp was already asleep and that they couldn't show us to our location until morning. We circled the trucks to cut back on wind and dust and found places to sleep.
The machine and first crew had finally arrived on playa without major incident.
Sunday, August 14
We thought that the third 24-foot moving truck was a luxury, but by the time it was two thirds full, it was nearly twice the recommended gross vehicle weight and we were six hours past our estimated departure time. These things happen when you're shipping a 15-ton sculpture 800 miles to one of the most inhospitable chunks of land in North America; The Black Rock desert in northwestern Nevada. The crew was already looking haggard by the last few days of packing and preparations. At 1 a.m. we left the truck and remaining steel and returned home to sleep for four hours.
In the morning we drove the truck back to the shop in Georgetown and rearranged steel in the back. The core discussed options like there might be an easy way. The budget was stretched thin with the third truck rental. With gas and diesel prices rising by the day, there was a good chance that we were already over budget. A few members of the crew offered their private credit cards to offset fuel costs. Jordan Howland made some phone calls to find us a last minute truck rental. She found one in Kent. While she and her fiancée Gabe Stern set out to retrieve it, the crew unloaded steel from the third truck and organized it on pallets for quick loading upon their return.
As it turned out, the rental company that had the truck closed early and without notice for a company picnic. They drove all over south Seattle looking for offices, and after some footwork and a few hours, managed to return with a truck. It took us three hours to load the last of the steel and provisions into the fourth truck.
A truck at a time, we pulled out onto Airport Way southbound, four 24-foot trucks followed by the ambulance towing a trailer, two full sized pick-ups towing campers, and a makeshift pilot vehicle, a little green two-door loaded to capacity with camping gear. All in a row the convoy covered nearly a mile of highway. As Seattle traffic bogged down for Sunday afternoon, the Machine crew mounted the I-5 freeway headed south, only 20 hours behind schedule.
I'm riding in "the worm", a decommissioned ambulance with over 200,000 miles on it. Once we get there, the trailer will unload a rusted steel fire sculpture and the better part of the Arson Island theme camp. We'll convert the whole rig, trailer and all into an art car fashioned after the sand worm of Frank Herbert's "Dune". That's the least of our worries.
My traveling companion and driver is the CEO of Static Factory Media, Randy Engstrom. As a cofounder of Stronghold arts collective and head of several Seattle based arts organizations, he's been doing this sort of thing for almost ten years. After driving without a word for 20 minutes I asked if he was excited to be working on the project. He nods and shrugs. "This is the biggest thing we've ever done." He holds a crackling handheld radio to his ear, deciphering the static of the other drivers' voices. "In the 20 years of Burning Man's history there's never been a sculpture as elaborate as The Machine." He sets the radio on the center console and hunkers down over the wheel.
He deferred a new position as director of the Cooper Cultural Arts Center for a month so that he could drive a beat up old ambulance down to the playa this year. He's slept about four hours a night for the past week, and not much more in the few weeks previous, preparing for benefits shows to help raise the remaining $40,000 of the $80,000 budget. He must be doing it for love because he's certainly not in it for the money. His credit card will be helping with fuel costs as we get closer to the playa.
Everybody's missing somebody. With the exception of Jordan and Gabe, most of us left our friends and family behind for the first few weeks at least, set aside our busy schedules to take a month long sojourn in the desert. It sounds swank, if we were headed to Palm Springs, but we're headed into a dry lake bed. On those trucks is just about everything we'll need to be self sufficient for at least a month. Somewhere in this project there is something bigger than all of us, something that is worth dropping our egos long enough to build an interactive art piece way out in the middle of no-man's land.
The trouble came at Grants Pass. The lead truck slowed to 30, then to 20 and at 15 miles per hour, the convoy turned on hazard lights and crept as fast as it could. With the trucks overweight, there was no way to speed it up. Our 55 mph average estimate dropped steadily for the first and steepest climb. The crew lost momentum. We pulled off the highway at a rest stop just past the Rogue river in Southern Oregon and held a quick discussion on options. Drivers were exhausted and the next pass was going to get treacherous. Corprew Reed, Black Rock city ranger and another techie from Static Factory were already popping antacid tablets like Skittles, and the energy drinks and exhaustion left the crew a little delirious. The idea of climbing another pass in that state made most of the drivers nervous. The crew settled in, sleeping wherever they could find room; across seats, on the floor of the trucks, a few climbed into the backs to sleep on the flat spaces on the load.
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company