Days of Our Dusty Lives 3 – Keep on Moopin’, Don’t Stop

[Part 3 of a three-part series. Part 1: “Back to the Dustbowl” Part 2: “Deep People Working”]

The sun has shone down hot on us for six days, and for six days we have worked our asses off. When everything gets loaded off the playa and micro-cleanup begins, almost everyone on the ranch (save commissary crew and a couple mechanics) ceases whatever it was they were working on and goes out to the playa to stoop and MOOP for 8 or 9 hours.

We motor down from the ranch after morning meeting in dusty trucks and clattery old school buses, meet at a given block on the wide-open playa (still marked with T-stakes and cones), and fall out. Delineator cones are placed at the block’s corners and we all line up in a huge line, “MOOP buckets” (cut-up plastic water jugs) in hand. When the team leader says go, we all walk forward together, squinting and looking for MOOP. It’s best to zig-zag as you move ahead, turning around every once in a while to scan the ground from the back angle in the blazing sun. When there’s a hot spot (lots of stuff in one place), people call for backup. A couple people with rakes help flatten small dunes for others to sift through, and the bigger dunes are marked to be either busted or bulldozed.

It sounds like mindless and repetitive work, and it is, but of course the conversation and camaraderie make it all worthwhile, even when we’re hungry or cranky or having a spat…and especially when it’s the end of the day and we’re all slap-happily delirious from the sun. Searching for tiny treasures in the dust, it turns out, is one of the simple pleasures in life. After a long day of picking up small things and digging in the alkali on a vast blank palate of Earth, when we see Combustible Russ’s truck kicking up dust towards the line sweeps and we know he’s brought a cooler of beer from the commissary…that’s almost better than finding money on the ground.

Most of the time we pick up the same things over and over. We’re out here to make the desert clean so Burning Man can continue, and the desert will be clean because we are hard workers…but I’ll be honest: the promise of buried treasure gives us extra incentive to look a little more closely. You never know what might be under a dune or buried in the playa. Most common MOOP: strings, nails, wood bits, feathers, glitter, sequins, astro-turf bits, tent stakes, hairballs, pistachio nut shells, burnt embers, and this year, twigs.

Grossest MOOP:used condoms, used tampons, chewed gum, toilet paper and excrement, half-eaten candy, one dead rat.

Best personal MOOP (I collected a lot – gonna make a collage out of it): glow-in-the-dark plastic animals and stars, sparkly jewels, tiny bells, a patch with a cartoon naked lady on it, a couple pins, some barrettes, Burning Man doubloons and smashed pennies, loose change, a bullet casing, dice, several black rocks, interestingly-rusted screws and nails, a real silver ring, a pirate earring, a pink Barbie slipper.

The greatest is going “shopping” for people you like. The gift economy lives on in the DPW after the event, and most MOOP treasures found are more likely to be given to the person they’re most appropriate for. The silver ring I found didn’t fit me so I gave it to Doyle. Doyle then gave me a lighter because I lost my lighter and a Frida Kahlo pendant. Someone gave Mutt an old dog tag and another brass tag that says “Pup Star.” Mariko gave me the Barbie slipper because she knew I was making a collage. After a long day of stooping and MOOPing, I snuck a precious Red Bull in my MOOP bucket past all the other MOOPers and palmed it to Laura, prompting her to give me a real 12-inch disco ball today. (Disco ball wasn’t MOOP, but still.) And on his last day before going home to Minneapolis, Wick even gave Tony his special MOOP bucket: a gallon jug spiked with long screws like Pinhead that says ROT IN HELL on the side in black magic marker.

The only people who got the raw end of the MOOP deal were Shooter’s crew. His is the crew that cleans up the open playa, and this year, one art installation in particular took so many people and worker hours to MOOP that nobody on this crew ever wants to see another small, playa-colored, perfectly-chameleoned-against-the-ground-and-only-visible-from-one-angle twig or leaf – ever, ever, ever ever ever again.

Shooter’s crew was over there for 4 or 5 days doing twigs and going nuts all by themselves before the entire DPW just went over to help them knock it out a couple days ago. Talk about tedious. DPW cursed the artist’s name in myriad and colorful ways as we sifted for more and still more twigs – it turns out that we shouldn’t harsh him too much, the chain of communication and approval broke down, emergencies turned up, stuff like that. Still, a good time to point out: EVEN ORGANIC MATTER DOES NOT DECOMPOSE OUT HERE. I know the Burning Man organization would rather die than actually tell someone straight out not to do something, but after a week of MOOPing, I will: Don’t bring dead trees and leaves to the playa. Don’t spit your candy or gum out on the ground. Don’t toss the pistachio nut shells and the hairballs from your brushes on the ground. Try to avoid bringing anything with feathers and loose glitter on it. And don’t bring Astro Turf to the playa without duct-taping the frayed ends first. Okay? Okay.

Six straight days of MOOPing, and the DPW is going to be here doing the same thing every day until the beginning of October – until the entire site is made of playa and only playa. As for me, sadly, the eviction notice calls me homeward tomorrow. Now it’s time to go build a new bar in the Beach Club and get ready to bartend the Special Party tonight – they’re getting a couple of kegs and Big Daddy’s making chili. I, of course, am bringing my shiny new disco ball…

Days of Our Dusty Lives 2 – Deep People Working

[Part 2 of a three-part series. Part 1: “Back to the Dustbowl” Part 3: “Keep on Moopin’, Don’t Stop”]

Out here, conversations instantly go deep and stay deep. I guess there are endless places on this planet where one can choose to connect with one’s workmates, especially when the labor is manual and frees up the mind and mouth to run wild. But your average roach-poison plant in Rooster Poot, Arkansas probably isn’t the global hot spot for interesting and witty repartee.

Not to dis’ on the average Joe. Of course we are all part of the same organism, and as the amazing Cowboy Carl pointed out to me in a 10 minute post-lunch conversation the other day that was so packed full of subjects that it might as well have lasted hours, rural and small-town people tend to find a different kind of open-eyed wisdom and peace that even the most seasoned urban sage could never attain. But the DPW cleanup scene is a pretty unique combination of the two – bursting at the seams with intensely creative and talented and intense people who have made renegade marks on society and then chosen to come out and sweat in a labor camp. Each time you load trucks with and pick up MOOP with and pound T-stakes with a fellow DPW worker, it’s another aopportunity to interact with someone incredible and learn something that you’ve always wanted to know or think of something in a way you’ve never thought of it before. It’s kind of a trip, and it’s definitely overwhelming.

Friday was a huge day for the DPW – the BLM said all the big stuff had to be off the playa and not only did we offload everything and put it in the rows in a more organized manner than has ever been done before, we finished early. Everyone was in peak performance mode, getting pre-breakfast loads in, moving fast, driving round and round the playa and back and forth to the ranch, MOOPing and throwing pallets and carpets off trucks with even more fervor than usual. The rows went from scraggled patches of material to teeming hunks of useful junk in no-time.

I’m partial to the rows. They’re a magical sight, just as full of things people have intricately and artistically crafted as they are of mass-manufactured functional stuff. Strolling through them is like taking a walk through a fantastical junkyard cartoon. The automotive section, especially – where else can you see a row of wheeled vehicles that include sharks, boats, tanks, dragons, and spaceships? Maybe I’m partial because I grew up visiting dumps and junkyards all day with my beloved Grandaddy, but dammit, it’s just all too beautiful. It gives me an inexorable sense of peace to stand on the bed of a dusty truck as we move through the rows unloading. I check out how much stuff there is that other people have discarded or sold for cheap that will be used to make the bones and flourishes of the city I love the most – a city of people who strive towards enlightenment while making the least physical impact on the planet, people who would rather make their own fun than sit back and mindlessly consume it.

An incomplete list of what’s in the rows:
Plywood and lumber
Gas tanks
Traffic cones
Burn barrels
Scrap metal
Tin cans
Road cloth (shade)

In a way, the people here are like the rows – handy things that materialistic people might first dismiss because of their roughed-up appearance… machinery that’s either banged-up or intricately decorated or deeply complicated or designed to fucking blow people’s minds or all of the above. Here in the DPW cleanup crew, we’ve got welders who make beautiful art and clothes, a noted salsa musician, a grip of gun enthusiasts, myriad photographers, girl mechanics, sugar beet farm workers, circus-performing punks and hippies, a former USMC sniper turned underwater construction worker and farmer, a mayoral candidate, bike messengers, a nuclear plant worker, an archaeologist, journalists, a network specialist, hardcore bikers, a jeweler, a top-10 pop songwriter, repo men, a pipeline inspector, a robotics engineer, social workers, real live cowboys, and too many others to mention – all with one common goal, each with special knowledge that will end up making the whole operation run more smoothly. And you know, dust is the great leveller – nobody can have status when everyone’s filthy. (Unless you’ve got a flamethrower on your truck. That’s when you’re a rock star.)

It’s 10pm on Sunday night, and the commissary is unusually quiet. People have gone to bed early in preparation for the next phase, for tomorrow, we begin micro-trashing the playa. Time to stoop and MOOP. (MOOP: 1.n. Matter Out Of Place. 2.v. To pick up MOOP.) Demilitia, head of the welding shop, has been working closely with people in town this weekend to manufacture the best dunebusting machines – chain link fence contraptions, bulldozers, homemade Bobcat attachments, and a flatbed truck weighted with hay bales that will drag a railroad tie through the biggest ones, scoring them so that they will blow away and return the playa to a blank, flat nothing. But the skies at sunset were an unbelievable shade of hot pink, and heavy with rain. We’re all praying tonight that it blows over, because mud dunes will not bust as easily, and wetness makes the MOOPing process ten times more painstaking.

So it’s time to turn in. On the walk to my camp, I’m sure I’ll have and overhear at least a couple conversations that will bust a brain dune or two. It’s a pity we have to sleep at all – there’s so much talking and working to do.

Stay tuned for more to come…

Burning Man 2002

I had been working so hard on the Airstream. Six in the morning until ten at night, gutting it out, installing new skylights, replacing the floors. The first smile came to my lips when the solar panel was connected to the two 10 Watt Halogen lights. Blue light filled the concave interior like a shower from the moon herself. The fridge was connected to the gas tanks and fired up. Today I’m finishing up the with the woodwork, which I can do in my sleep. I’m not humming yet.

We end up leaving late. Dina has to drive Kimia and Sema to Cindy, who will have six small children to take care of. She lingers to help. I’m exhausted, but extremely happy with our little mobile house.

We pack up the fridge, nice and cool, with wine and Non alcoholic beer and pre-made meals. Dina thinks the inside looks like our house: A big white room, unfinished pine panels, a black designer fridge and two Louis XIV chairs that have seen the world.

We’re on our way at 4:30pm. We have until midnight to enter Burning Man. I still manage to stop at Radio Shack to pick up a portable radio, a must in my mind. We take the windy highway 49 from Placerville to Auburn. It is the first time I’m driving with a trailer in tow. A twenty-two feet monster at that. But with the exception of a gentle sea-like rocking, it hardly manifests itself as a burden. We stop at Auburn to get gas, blocking up the entire station. The Airstream looks old, peeling paint, dented everywhere. It screams Burning Man.

Passing the Tahoe Mountains, into the Nevada valleys, the sun is fading fast. I realize the running lights on the Airstream are not working. Which means we could get pulled over by the reservation cops and that would be the end of our adventure. Every time we pass a cop, I break and gas at the same time to light up the back lights.

Finally on the highway 447 to nowhere. It’s close to 10 pm and there are not too many last minute visitors driving up. The desert is profound around us. As we come down the last hill towards Gerlach, an explosion fills the air, far far away. It isn’t thunder, but almost. Me and Dina smile at the same time. Time for scientific power in the hands of spirituals.

“So you’re our squatters” says a burly man with missing teeth. “Welcome to Camp Clutter. I’m Tony. And this is Tony. That over there is our central tent, we do yoga at sunset and tonight I’m roasting a lamb’s leg. Sick of my vegan wife. She won’t even use my knife on her bloody potatoes.”

The other Tony is wearing a blue dress with white pearls. We only saw him in dresses the whole time. Cheap polyester stuff, silk scarves. There was trouble at night, a couple of local kids tried to break into the camp without paying. When they were caught, they started shooting, but no one got hurt. We arrived late last night, parked anywhere and went out checking it out. The people is what I like best. Everyone kind, beautiful, well dressed (or undressed). We didn’t go very far, just up our street, Wheelhouse, to 135o, down to La Playa. Music coming from everywhere. Big domes burning with disco lights. I’m in a haze, directed from place to place. On the way back, I almost pass out.

Glorious morning, perfect weather. Got my heart pounding, running after the water truck, wrestling with two naked girls and three naked muscle men to get a hold of a quick shower, while the truck is still driving away. We all fall to the floor and get covered in mud. Much dirtier than before. We’re laughing and rolling, and promise to do this every morning.

Really the last day before the burn. Dina is wearing a see-through top, red shorts, a red cowboy hat and long black boots. She’s turning heads. They call her a desert apparition, and everyone gives us drinks. We’re sitting in a Mexican truck, drinking margaritas, talking to a lisping giant of a girl from Mehico and her boyfriend from Vancouver. She is loud, and drunk. The truck drives aimlessly through the flat white sand, heckling anyone in sight. An oriental girl is spotted and hauled in. She has the biggest nipples I have ever seen. They give her beads and a pair of underwear. She ties them to her nipples. They don’t need to be cold.

We get off at an odd construction in the middle of nowhere. It seems filled with optics. “The observatory”. It has a miniature model of itself, with a captain standing next to a fireplace, in a dark wood paneled study. On the fireplace is a picture of a girl. I walk in ahead. There is a back room, an exact replica of the model, with a monitor on top of the fireplace. People are staring at it and laughing. Whoever enters, cameras capture from underneath. Rude, but I’m laughing. Dina’s happy she didn’t have her period.

We walk to the cathedral. This year it is truly impressive. Much taller than last year’s. At least three stories up. It is the most ornate structure you ever imagined. Curves within curves within walls. There’s a huge pathway to the Burning Man, then to the central camp. This year everything is more architectural. Central squares, streets, streetlights (antique kerosene lamps). We sit in the patchy shade and listen to the wind. We look at the horizon and share our bottle with a beautiful African queen dressed in green feathers. She laughs deeply. We are intensely happy. For nothing.

Various installations on the way. Nothing is not impressive. Not even a small field of computerized lilies adorned with bejeweled dragonflies. We meander in the desert, I play an old organ for a small audience, repetitive riffs that carry far. Everyone sitting on wooden benches in the shape of whales. We’re near central camp. And it calls us in for the best Chai in the world. We’re exhausted already, the heat intense, and crash out listening to a young bass player with a white fuzzy hat, playing some of the best funk I’ve heard in years. He has so much class, and he’s so young and beautiful. Where do they come from. It’s as if, everyone to my liking, conspired to gather up and serve me. An older women approaches me and asks me if I want a head massage. She produces a battery powered instrument she’s made, with dangly copper extensions. I oblige and I’m immediately transported to heaven. The music is like honey and I’m melting away.

Friday Night
It is at night that the desert comes to life. As a prelude, the two Tonys rush to tell us they’ve just been at the most incredible party two blocks up. We should check it out. Just before, Dina asked me if I saw the Boob Parade. She said it was unending. Thousands of bicycles are parked ahead, the music is strange, not quite African, not quite fast. Green and gold bodies are swaying in a mini dust storm. A man dressed as a butler comes to us with a tray and champagne glasses. “Champagne?” Sure.. Dina disappears to get the camera, the dancing is so intense. By the time she comes back a real storm is brewing, and everyone is urged to leave because of the danger of thunder. The music is fading in and out of the howling wind.

Instead of coming back we head out. It is getting dark, and we walk to the Burning Man. There is an entrance at its base. You can get in only if you participate in the treasure hunt. Finding gold coins at specific locations. We have them, but I don’t want to give one up, they’re so pretty. Dina goes in. She’s gone for hours. She’s the most gorgeous tonight.

As I’m waiting at the base, and listening to two oddballs with megaphone calling for something over and over from various distances to each other, a woman in yellow transparent plastics says “Stunned” to me. I don’t understand. She says she’s bummed because she can’t get in. I give her my coin. She looks at me in surprise. She says have you seen it? I say no. She gives me a hug and goes in. I feel great. “You missed quite a sight.” Dina says, emerging and holding a love poem someone wrote for her. I feel even better.

We read the guy’s poem on the way to the cathedral. I feel compelled to write something and leave it. I write one on the future, and a sad one for my sister. We leave the guy’s poem with his coordinates there. Dina thinks it’s a mean thing to do. “Were you going to call him?” I asked? “No.”, “This way, someone else might. It won’t go to waste.” It’s a shame we won’t be around when they burn the cathedral. I keep returning to it. There’s a wedding in progress between two brides, dressed in wedding gowns. They are holding hands, and looking in each other’s eyes with such purity, such love, that I weep. They are shaking in the desert heat. Fragile little things standing against so much hatred in the outside world. The outside world. I want it gone, this instant.

We walk towards a great noise. The Thunderdome. It is a geodesic dome made of metal rods. People have climbed all over it so it looks like a dome made up of people. Inside, there’s a show going on. Something like a Cirque du Soleil. A kind of acrobatics and dance, done with ropes. It is great. I would have paid a hundred bucks just to see this one show. A woman dressed as a spider is flying, Peter-Pan-like, over her victim. The gestures are powerful and perfect. It follows a series of mock battles between fairies and mages with different kinds of power, fire, water, knives, hypnotic, and so one. Modern dance at its best. A little boy is crouched between our legs and watching it with wide eyes. I can imagine the experience. We must bring Kimia and Sema next year.

Tiredness, alcohol, hours and hours of walking, and we still can’t make ourselves leave the clubs, the shows, the conversations. I don’t remember much, there was so much. I remember waking up to a beautiful face inches from mine, while the roof was spinning overhead. We must have been on a spinning something. On and on. Until falling asleep in the Airstream, listening to the local pirate stations. And what stations! One was playing nothing but a weird stretched out version of “Dark side of the moon”, every thing laid out on the coolest rave rhythm, unending. I dreamed of the dark moon. I dreamed I was swimming in a silver lake, part of a school of fish. All reveling in each other’s company, everyone ready to sacrifice itself in the face of sharks, men, mines.

The atmosphere is electric. The music is driving. Everyone is anticipating the burn. We get up early. So comfortable in the airstream. Such luxury to have cold drinks and a good size bed. I make brie cheese sandwiches for everyone in our camp. We have visitors. Russians and Israelis. The Russians are quiet. There’s a drumming circle going strong at nine in the morning. There’s a glance at me and David, the loud guy from Israel. I shake his hand, and give him a sandwich, to show no hard feelings, which I feel none. I am easy going, offering people portraits, making signs.

We separate to meet at central camp. I put the finishing touches on a couple of poems. So easy to write in here. I’m half asleep, listening to a man with long hair playing an electric cello. He has a sampling machine and overdubs himself, layer after layer. The effect is eerie, like waves. People are loving it. Dina joins me and off we are to the “Holy church of the Buzzard” where I find another gold coin. In a floating bed, we meet a young guy that I christen “The King”, for he’s the wearer of the King card of the Go-Gos.

Go-go is a game going on, based on a single tamper-proof set of cards. In order for you to obtain a card, you must do something for a person who has a card that you want. To have the King means you went through a lot. He is cool, with a calm stare, scanning the horizon. He’s going to meet the Ace, ready.

A man comes to Dina and asks for a kiss. He says today is his birthday and he’s soliciting kisses from pretty girls. He is at four hundred and twenty and by night fall he wants to be well over a thousand. He wants to see how far he can get. He’s carrying a booklet attached to a chain on his neck. We get out before a giant yellow rubber ducky. It has been recommended to us for having the most amazing drinks. But before we reach it, an old Russian motorcycle with a side car, in the shape of a mouse, kidnaps us for a ride. The guy keeps apologizing for its condition, saying he got ripped by the Hell’s Angel who sold it to him. Dina’s loving it and keeps taking pictures. She’s always been fond of old bikes.

We end up at a shrine surrounded by a professional light setup. We have an excellent and long conversation with the installer, a guy from Texas, who’s doing standup comedy in NY. We share Kids-in-the-Hall stories and laugh away. He’s telling us about his light installation, that it requires the flight paths to be diverted overhead. This is the flash we saw from far away. He has a gigantic diesel generator that produces 30,000 Watts, enough for a couple of city blocks. We promise to come back at night, but never end up doing it.

Too many other encounters, but on to the burn. Everyone is gathered around the Man at dusk, 35,000, in the shape of a star. There are thousands of fire jugglers in the middle and all kinds of fire hurling dragons and machines of all sorts. This year there’s a heavy duty fireworks happening before the burn. They raise the arms to everyone’s cheers and the fire starts. Really thick black smoke towards south, firemen in asbestos clothes running away. It seems out of control. The heat is so intense, there’s tornadoes forming around the Burning Man. I’m a bit afraid of the energy of the fire and the crowd, but it’s all good, the thing finally crashes and the real party starts.

Resolution and Peace


We entered Black Rock City after a 2-year hiatus and were instantly overwhelmed and enfolded in strong arms full of love and friendship.

It was so cool to be so many people’s favorite surprise of the weekend – kept hearing over and over, Holy Shit! It’s Shin and Bridget!

I was a bit heavy-hearted, but very glad to get there and to discover that Magic was alive and roaring in BRC. It was home.

Friday, the day of my Grandmother’s funeral, Shin and I walked to the Temple of Joy in the midst of a white-out dust storm, and I passed quite a while meditating, sobbing, reading the words of others on the walls.

Way down low on one of the center posts I wrote:

Gladys Mary Caroll Connelly 9/18/15-8/28/02 Rest in Peace, Be Free, LOVE.

On the other side, I wrote to Dan’s Grandparents (who are major inspirations and role models to us, even though I never got to meet them in this earthly plane ):

To Bertha and Doc, Thanks for showing us HOW.

Walked out sobbing hysterically.

A wizened older man with the most intense laugh lines I’ve ever seen began making a joke at me – I didn’t get it, and didn’t really appreciate the attention – and when I looked at him sharply, he apologized and introduced himself as Dave, the builder of the Temple.

My arms flew around him and I hugged him tight, still sobbing, and thanked him over and over for this beautiful shrine.

This Temple is Joy, you know? He said.

We talked a long time – all of us crying and laughing – about what called me there, about Gladys, about JOY, about Living Well being the best revenge, about being blessed with amazing, transcendent partnership, about Donald Duck. “You may have heard this before,” he said, taking my hand, and looking deep into my soul, “Welcome Home.”

He gave us both a gold doubloon (never mind I already had a pocket full of them within two minutes of arriving in the Bleu Anchovy) so we could visit the inside of the base of the man. “Hold this for me, for a minute, will you?” he said as he placed the coin in my hand.

After that I was free, my heart lightened. I was able to Let Go and enjoy the wonders of our magical home.

On Sunday, at the Temple burn, surrounded by friends amidst a hushed, reverent crowd, a soulful voice began singing Amazing Grace – the song she always told me she wanted played at her funeral – (my father held no mass or service for her at the burial in Hayward. I was pissed off to hear that, but let it go, as I had chosen not to be part of that ceremony), and, hearing those words, “I once was lost, but now am free. Was blind but now I see.”, I knew that my Gladys, the Grandest of Mothers, was singing to me through that voice, that she Understands, that I came to the only right place there was to give her this sendoff, and I knew she was thanking me and loving me for it. Shin held me and we cried together, moved beyond words.

And then the Temple burned. It was the hottest, brightest, most spectacular fire I’ve ever experienced. It touched us all. A million voices, souls, thoughts, spirits were released. The elements danced together – fire, earth, wind swirled around the base, creating dust devils. At the climax, seven birds – some saw doves, others ducks – flew twice around the pyre and off into the heavens. Gladys is Free.

Amen! Awomen!

by Bridget

A Poem for Lee

A blood-red ball
on the chill, jagged edge of the earth.
I squeeze my bladder
like an orange
into the playa dust
and recall a dream
of beauty and grace
in a neon-lit, throbbing
desert evening
that turned into night
but never turned into…

by Denise-Christine

Days of Our Dusty Lives 1 – Back to the Dustbowl

[Part 1 of a three-part series. Part 2: “Deep People Working” Part 3: “Keep on Moopin’, Don’t Stop”]

I first pull in to Art Avenue on the 80 Acres off the gravel road past the Burning Man site at 10pm on September 9th. Even after coming out three weeks early and staying three days past the event (that’s when the dust storm hit, but we didn’t leave, we fuckin’ tore down shade structure in the dust storm, but not everybody did – yesterday DPW crew members dug some jackasses’ tarp out from underneath two literal tons of dust)…after almost a month on the playa and my skin turned to leather and my hair in involuntary dreadlocks, I had still not had enough.

I reluctantly left a week ago in the whiteouts and 80mph wind, choking back tears, feeling silly for it, dragging my feet and sadsacking back at home, singing “La Contessa” to myself constantly and unconsciously, refusing to clean the sweet-smelling dust off anything, crumpling up my dusty sweaty handkerchief and holding it to my nose, breathing in deep. Pathetic, really. The anniversary of 9/11 was nigh, and my semi-paranoid self longed to be in a labor camp full of dangerous and kind survivalists in the middle of nowhere instead of in a major city with a bright orange target of a bridge. An owner-move-in eviction notice on my doorstep sealed the deal: I am not ready for the Real World yet. It is too ugly. I want my utopia. I miss the DPW.

Burning Man is fun, but cleanup is a bitch. And so when I roll up to the commissary at 10pm, the DPW is raging. (They don’t rage every night, but when they do, let’s just say they’re not the people you’d want to try to outdrink.) Metric and Big Daddy and others are jamming on the stage, hammering out “Sweet Home Alabama” and screaming into the mic. Dusty people everywhere trade cigarettes and stories and shots. Dogs in the dark stare longingly from beyond the fence (no dogs allowed in the commissary). Dusty couches surround a beautiful, intricately cut burn barrel that’s blazing. Faces flicker in the firelight, Christmas lights twinkle above, and the impossible stars shout out above it all. It’s funny how, Out There in the Real World, people choose to live most of their lives inside buildings, even when it’s nice out.

Tonight, the Minneapolis crew (there’s a lot of them out here) have transformed the DPW bar, Jalisco’s Beach Club (named after a great man and his bar in Gerlach), into “Palmers”, a watering hole in Minneapolis where punkass bikers and old pathetic drunks throw back liquor in indescribably strong rations. Skitch has just tattooed Johnny Feral (a cutting torch) and Mr. Klean (tribal markings that match last year’s), and they show off their new ink in the trailer next to the kitchen. Big Daddy then borrows Skitch’s ink and my sewing kit and begins to administer “drunk dots” (if you look there on your middle finger and see two of them, it’s time to go home). Most everyone here is tattooed up good, so one more dot ain’t shit, why not. Someone pours me one Palmer’s shot of whiskey, but since I was so excited to get back to the desert that I forgot to eat that day, but drank 2 Red Bulls on the drive, that’s about the last thing I remember clearly besides throwing up.

Rule number one: Hydrate. At all times. And before coming up. No matter how much you hate having to pee every 15 minutes on the road when all you want to do is get to the desert.

The next day (as usual, regardless of how off-the-hook last night’s party was), the DPW is up at 7am for breakfast and morning meeting. Not me though, and even though I’ve got the altitude-acclimation excuse, I feel guilty. (I’m trying to come up with a snazzy term for “clean guilt” – the feeling you have from the moment you arrive on site until you’re just as dusty and your hair’s just as matted as everyone else.) Out here the work ethic is so strong, and everyone so motivated, that anyone who slacks, even for a second, turns around and works twice as hard to make up for it. Nobody gives guilt trips (aside from the good-natured “well don’t YOU look clean!”). Nobody has to. There’s too much to be done.

An incomplete yet formidable list of what cleanup entails:

– Dismantle all public structures
– Pack up all shipping containers (25 of them, not including private ones)
– Un-decorate, dismantle, and pack up the colossal Cafe
– Move 15 office buildings back to the 80 Acres (12 miles away from site)
– Move DPW crew camps, belongings, and trailers back to the 80
– Return unnecessary rental equipment (heavy machinery, generators, light towers, trucks, trenchers, etc.)
– Dismantle and remove water and electrical systems
– Dismantle and transport the spires
– Collapse, pack up, and remove the huge commissary tent
– Dismantle the commissary itself
– Responsibly dispose of 12,000 gallons of used motor oil
– Coordinate with Johnny on the Spot to remove portajohns
– Field calls, order materials and trucks, receive shipments, sign papers
– Remove street signs and T-stake intersections
– Transport lumber, carpet, and materials from the DPW Depot to the 80
– Dismantle and transport the Depot itself
– Remove abandoned vehicles and art
– Remove Burners left-behind trash (dude, yesterday they found a 55-gallon drum full of water, tampons, and menstrual blood. Ew.)
– Weed out hangers-on and layabouts (sometimes driving them to Reno)
– Accept, organize, remove, and offload donated food
– Take down the trash fence and pull hundreds of T-stakes out of the ground
– Remove shade structures (canvas, joints, and 4×4 posts)
– Dune-bust (shovel apart and/or drag a chain link fence over giant dunes which are created when the dust storms leave their detritus behind and are swept up against yet to be removed items)
– Unload all materials in an orderly fashion onto the long rows on the 80 (the rows look like a dusty, organized junkyard – Mad Max meets Sanford and Son)
– Clean up the rows and prepare the lot for winter
– Sort and clean the machine and carpentry shops
– Tend the garden
– Program KDPW 106.1 so that it kicks more ass than any college radio station and the workers don’t have to listen to dinosaur rock on The Hawk 92.9
– Feed the crew and wash the dishes three times a day (commissary out here is the best food I’ve ever eaten, seriously)
– And lastly, line sweeps: the whole crew walks in a big line across the desert, forward and in a circle at the same time, to catch the glare of and pick up things as small as sequins and pieces of glitter.

Strangely, though the work is hard and the sun is hot, it’s fun, even when it sucks. After a slack morning, I do my best to bust ass and make 20 signs that will label the rows and make location easier. Hammering and sawing isn’t that great for my hangover, but like everyone else here, physical labor in the boiling desert makes me feel more alive and a part of the universe than sitting behind a computer or slinging drinks at a bar ever could.

These days, the Burning Man organization is trying promote an image of a kinder, gentler DPW – after all, a department full of punks and misfits whose motto long ago was “you don’t matter and we don’t care” could maybe use some PR work in order to avoid accidentally alienating the community from the people who build it. Yes, the DPW crews know that it could very well have not been an irresponsible jackass that left the tarp under 2 tons of sand; maybe it was someone who had an emergency and had to leave – but cursing at a job you have to do is practically compulsory when it’s hard labor and the sun’s beating down. There is bitching out here, I’m not gonna lie, but it’s not the hateful misanthropic kind, it’s more like the Johnny Paycheck’s “Take This Job and Shove It” kind. The DPW’s collective, proudly blue-collar disposition and intimidating badassedness is a product of harsh conditions, extreme utilitarianism, and a teeny bit of contempt for the few bad apples in our city who don’t carry their weight – but the fact remains that we are here because we want to be here.

Truth is, on the inside, we’re all kind of mushy “pippies” (that’s punk rock hippies) out here. This project – the staging ground of a people striving towards the common goal of a more creative, interactive, and enlightened society – inspires as many relevant and lofty conversations about the world at large as it does a whole bunch of hard fucking work. It seems to be the consensus that we are all in a very important place at a very important time, at the nascence of a social insurrection. We are the ones building and striking the city that will go down as one of history’s great civilizations – a community that is, for one week per year, possibly the most socially evolved place on earth, ever.

And so the DPW takes great pride in being the uber-roadies for this massive and significant thing. I write these reports from cleanup mostly in the hopes that now and future Burners will, if they have not done the research already, get to see exactly what a huge production it all is. Everybody knows that none of those gargantuan buildings and shade structures are on the Black Rock Desert year round. Not everybody knows that little pieces of string and zip-tie left on the desert floor must be stooped over and picked up until it’s absolutely clean, much less all the machinery and people and coordinating it takes to do it.

The sun is going down on 9/11 now, and I assume since I’ve heard nothing that Out There, no major tragedies have occurred and life as we know it will go on. Here, even a tear-soaked and nation-choked anniversary such as that is overshadowed in the collective consciousness by the fact that by Saturday, every single major object has to be off the playa so that line sweeps can begin. I feel like a sissy for typing away at my computer in a trailer all day when everyone’s out there busting ass, so now I have to go pound some T-stakes and hang the signs I made before dinnertime. I wouldn’t want to be slack. And my clothes are too clean.

Stay tuned for more to come…