Updated: Dec 15, 2020
Photo by Crimson Rose
“You know you’re getting old when your tools are in museums.” These were my thoughts as I approached the exhibit that had my old sledgehammer on display, along with Black Rock City’s Gold Spike.
“Could you step back a bit from the glass please, sir?”
The fellow asking me this was a well-dressed man with an earbud in his ear like secret service. He had a gracious smile and was doing his job watching over the ancient relics of Burning Man. The manner in which my hammer was framed obliged me to obey. It was in a glass case under expensive track lighting, pro-exhibit information plaques announcing its preeminence, and accompanied by several other historic artifacts of the Department of Public Works arranged as if they were dug from the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu.
“Sorry sir,” I replied. “It’s just that - well - that’s my hammer.”
The secret service fellow tilted his head just a bit and regarded me, never losing his gracious smile. He was trying to decide whether to believe me or not - not that it mattered. He said nothing, so I left it at that. Now that my hammer was on display with museumgoers wading by it, hands clasped behind their backs, stopping momentarily to bend and peer at the info-plaques through their bookworm glasses to read its story, my cruddy ol’ hammer did seem to take on a look of ancient wisdom. It may as well have been a hammer of Machu Picchu after all.
For the last twenty-some years, this twisted thud of a tool was used for the most stubborn of jobs, from beating in the monster stakes of the circus size commissary tent, to setting the anchor pins of the hundreds of Spires that spike the city, to just being the big brute that was the last resort of persuasion. But of all the jobs, it had one of the most sacred tasks of any tool of Burning Man — setting the Gold Spike of Black Rock City. It was the only hammer that ever held that virtue.
Standing there with these thoughts in my head, I was convinced that almost anything can become a revered relic. It just needed to hold a corner of history and survive long enough to tell its story.
This hammer did have a good story. It was handed to me by Will Roger back in ‘96 as a hand-me-down tool he had bumping around in the back of his truck. It was ‘borderline junk’ that hadn’t made it to the dumpster yet and might still be good for something. It looked like hell. Flynn Mauthe had it first and pawned it off on Will after a quick-fix attempt to save it. (The wood handle had been bashed off so he welded on a metal pipe. It tore your hands up at first, but the callouses built quickly.) It was a cornerstone of my toolbox. Other tools came and went in a struggle of dust and corrosion, but my twelve-pound sledgehammer outlasted them all.
It was early spring, 2016 when I got a phone call from Will Roger with the news that The Nevada Museum of Art in Reno was curating an exhibit titled, No Spectators, and was to feature Burning Man’s story of art and culture. Burning Man was finally getting a nod from the next tier of art appreciation. One of the exhibits was to be centered on the Department of Public Works, (DPW), and three museum curators were coming out to our Work Ranch facility twelve miles north of the Burning Man site to hunt for artifacts. I was asked to join in hosting them. The three young ladies arrived in a carbonated flurry. It made for a jolly afternoon as we showed them a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes machinery of BRC. The jokes were plenty and the stories flowed.
“So, where do you keep your Golden Spike?” was one of the first questions asked by one of the ladies as we stepped out of our vehicles arriving at the Work Ranch. The question sparked an exchanged glance between Will and me. I guess she was thinking we kept it in a vault somewhere.
“Well,” I replied, “The Gold Spike is really just a three-foot concrete form stake we buy from a building supply store and spray-paint gold on the day of the ceremony. There’s really nothing special about the spike itself — it’s the ritual that makes it special.”
The woman was a bit crestfallen. I guess a three dollar concrete form stake wasn’t exactly something that would be exhibit worthy.
“Why don’t you describe the ceremony to me,” she replied. “I want to find a way to embody it somehow. I think it would be a beautiful and necessary part of the exhibit. It’s how the city starts, after all.”
“Well, It all starts in the late afternoon when we circle up the crew and I tap in the spike at the exact center of the city. I use this hammer right here.” I pulled my cruddy sledgehammer from the dust wreck in the back of my Bronco. “I’ve been using it to start the ceremony since the first Gold Spike in ‘99. I know it isn’t much to look at…”
“Oh my God! Look at that thing,” She exclaimed. “That looks a couple of hundred years old at least! It will look great alongside the Golden Spike with a short history of its purpose. Oh, this is great! If you let me take it along with the Golden Spike, we can do the paperwork back in Gerlach and it will be in the exhibit!”
“Um, I’m not sure I follow,” I replied. I was staying polite but was bristling inside. I wasn’t ready to just hand off my hammer - the hammer that’s been with me for twenty-some years and retire it to a god damn museum! Especially the one that’s been setting the Gold Spike all these years!
“We’re just asking if you will let us use it for the exhibit. We will make sure it gets back to you and will take very good care of it. You needn’t worry. After all, the whole exhibit will eventually be traveling to the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian! I’m sure you’d be fine with that!”
I had heard that this show was going to make its way to Washington DC. That was pretty big noise and one helluva story! I started weighing the odds.
“But, it’s my hammer. It’s got juju! It’s connected to the Gold Spike. I’m not quite ready to let it go.”
“But we’re talking The Smithsonian! It would be the most famous hammer in the nation!”
I wasn’t sure about that, but it did make for a pretty strong bragger. Who else has had their tools on display at the Renwick Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution? Anyone? It was starting to become a scenario that couldn’t be passed up, for the story’s sake alone! My budding grin brightened our guest.
“I take that smile as a yes?” she said.
“Yeeeeesss,” I reluctantly replied.
“Awesome! Now how do we get the Golden Spike?”
Will chimed in.
“I would suggest going to Lowes,” he said, “purchase a three-foot concrete form stake and some gold spray paint, and boom! You got it.”
“And if you bring that spike out to this year’s ceremony,” I added, “we will use that one. Just bring this hammer as well. After the ceremony, you can return it back to the exhibit and we’ll make a new spike for the next year’s ceremony. Deal?”
“Deal!” she replied. Several ravens started cawing nearby. It seemed the senate had approved.
It was the day of the Gold Spike and our well-worn circle of desert carnies mingled about waiting for it all to begin. A plume of dust appeared coming across the playa from the south. A huge black SUV formed out of the shimmer and glided into our midst. To us, it looked like a Brinks armored truck. The only thing missing was the police escort. Out stepped two very young people, (interns, I guess?) a guy and a girl, and they were very excited to be honored with the task. They were well-scrubbed and dust-free; giddy to be entering the circle of fame. The hammer and spike were solemnly brought into the circle in a rifle case of all things. This quieted the moment. They had never been honored with such a royal entrance. Their short tenure in the museum had already turned them into historic artifacts. They were placed at the hallowed site; a crusty old hammer and a three dollar concrete form stake.
After the spike was set and all had had their say, the hammer was cradled back into the SUV and whisked off to museum life. I watched and wondered what the hammer thought of all this. Was it feeling like a prisoner in a fishbowl? Most likely. Was it bored out of its mind? Probably. But this prisoner was certainly a pampered one. After a lifetime of getting banged and bashed, maybe it was enjoying this lush retirement of stardom.
A few weeks later the well-scrubbed fellow that handled the hammer texted photos of it alongside a newly painted Gold Spike. They were being placed back in their hermetically sealed microbe-free glass case. We passed the photos around the Black Rock Saloon in Gerlach that evening, howling at the comedy of two worlds colliding. The museum caretakers were all wearing dust masks and white gloves. WHITE GLOVES! Even the hammer was laughing. Suction cup lifters were applied to the glass cases and lifted to be able to place the “frail” pieces back to their careful arrangement. The next photos were even more hilarious. This time the white gloves were holding fluffy MAKEUP BRUSHES. This was for, I dunno, doing what? Dusting the dust off the dust and rust? We laughed and laughed! How will I ever disrespect this hammer again?
“Back to the bed of the truck, hammer! You’ve had your fun! Don’t get snooty with me, buster!”
Actually, it will feel good just to swing it once more. I do miss it.
And now the hammer waits with the rest of us. The No Spectators exhibit ended its tour and my trusty old tool sits in a museum basement in Reno, stuck in a covid rock like the hammer of Thor. Does it dream? Is it sad? Can it feel the shared anticipation of an entire city that sits poised for the desert? I like to think so. What I do know is that when we’re finally back in our sacred circle under the big skies of Northern Nevada to set the next spike, it will be good to hold the weight of that hammer once more. Our ceremony will have taken on a deeper tenor - something that happens when we’re reminded that none of this is a given. That any unknown turn of events can easily snatch our delicate world from us — that it would behoove us to drink in our moments as they come as though they would be our last. I wager we will be zeroed in on that moment when next the hammerhead hits the spike. Our hearts will fill double the void that our absence left, and the hammer will have a beautiful sound to it — like a ringing bell.
Photo by John Curley