Burners Without Borders – Report from the Field

[This dispatch reported by Boy Scout.]
Biloxi, Mississippi

Project Update

For the past week, the Temple Crew has been clearing out lots full of debris and cranking really hard to get the temple walls done.

We’ve finally got some professionals to mud and tape the walls so that they are smooth. A few volunteers put a lot of hours into mudding the walls but it really takes a pro to make the holes and seams disappear. When the mud finally dried, the Temple Crew lucked out when a volunteer professional painter, John, showed up with all the right equipment. He ran his sprayer day and night until it finally quit working. The rest of us were charged with taping down everything and rolling a final coat to get the coverage perfect. We also put more insulation up into the attic and we got the final materials list together: doors, trim, and bathroom appliances.

In addition to the work in the temple, we’ve been clearing out lot after lot of debris. Water Street is a big project with four lots piled 4-5 feet high. The excavator makes quick work of crunching homes into toothpicks, and filling up the bucket of the loader. The loader has been a giant wheel barrow, forming load after load into long giant mounds along the street so that the contractors can take it out to who knows where. I’ve had lots of time driving the loader. It’s gotten to the point that it’s now a bit boring driving up and down the driveways.


Last Thursday was the strangest Thanksgiving Day I’ve ever experienced. Salvation Army and many church groups competed to feed many thousands of meals to the public here. On Wednesday evening a Ryder truck full of turkeys and chickens pulled into the camp. We loaded up our pickup trucks, and drove into the surrounding community. Folks came out of their tents and trailers when they heard us shouting. Several hundred turkeys and chickens were distributed very quickly to eager families in the neighborhood.

On Thursday we had four cooks, Cowboy, Michelle, Eli, and Angelina, make us the most splendid of meals. When we had all stuffed ourselves silly with turkey and were eyeing the pies, another truck surprised us by pulling into the temple with hundreds of meals and pies they needed to give away. They brought a couple of vanloads of kids and adults to convince passersby to take the meals. So we set up tables on the street, and stopped traffic for four hours until everything but a case of apple pies was gone. Luckily, the Vietnamese Catholic church next door had services right after they arrived, so we had more than the usual amount of cars passing by. Michelle had received a bag of 30 donated kazoos to bring down here, and the kids had fun making lots of noise with them.

I’ve been updating a photo blog with photos taken of the town and temple crew.

Temple Crew Mission Update

Volunteers are still needed. Over the past couple of weeks we’ve had a high turnover in volunteers helping with the Temple Crew’s mission. Some only stay for a couple of days, or up to a week or two. Many of the long term folks who have been here for 8-10 weeks are burning out. The environmental conditions are not extreme, but the physical and mental conditions demand much beyond what any of us do in ‘real life’. Just as getting used the playa takes a few days, coming into this devastated community puts most people into shock.

PLEASE VOLUNTEER to help with this monumental task of helping this community cope with the loss of everything they left behind when they evacuated. We’ve got the space for many more folks and you don’t have to worry about HOT food, a warm shower, or even a ride from the Gulfport airport. The weather is coastal with warm days in the low 70s and cool nights that may go down into the mid 30s. If you want to volunteer, please call Richard at xxxxxxx.

Some of the crew have been seeking out folks who are even more needy than this community. They found Plaquemines Parish, LA (google maps) which is estimated at 7 to 8 weeks behind even Biloxi. Folks are returning to find no power, no lights, no water, and no phone, no nothing left. We want to get them food, water, tents, blankets, and other necessities.

Burners Without Borders – Report from the Field

[This dispatch reported by Boy Scout]
Biloxi, Mississippi

Today the crew started to clear a set of four lots between Kuhn St and Sophia St near Howard Ave. The gulf is a clear shot from these lots and they got the full force of the waves that hit the shore. Every building within the path were pushed in several blocks and then washed out to the sea leaving 3 to 10 inches of white sand with beautiful full shells buried within. These houses are what is called ‘gone-gone’. They are a total loss with nothing left standing that did not leave the premises before the storm. The 4 and 5 storey buildings in the distance are casino barges that have washed up over a hundred feet from the shoreline.

One man I met across the street, John, had a yard covered with his collection of hundreds of 12″ LP records and upside down cars half sunk into the ground. He found 6 out of 8 nicely carved posts from his front porch up to three blocks away. He showed me a photo of a beautiful wood sided home taken a week before the storm.

Everyone in the camp took shifts clearing out the rubble, fallen trees, wrecked appliances, and foundation piers. We slavaged as much of the cinder block onto four pallets ready to be fork lifted out. The giant Daewoo excavator, Daawoo front loader, and tiny Kubotou tractor were running all day clearing everything into giant piles on both streets. Lunch for the crew was courtesy of a church run community recovery center. Thin meat chili and a cheese roll. Tomorrow, when the machinery finishes clearing out the big pieces, we’ll rake/shovel out whats left. Today’s find – a makeup case full of not totally wrecked wedding photos of a Viet family.

Dinner was hamburgers and corn courtesy of Salvation Army. Plain but good warm food followed by yet another burn barrel under the street light next to the dome. There is a permanently hot bonfire in the back for those who desire quiet. There is no shortage of wood to warm the night and entertain the pyromaniac burners.

Many people in the community prefer for the Temple Crew to do their clearing because we try to salvage what building supplies we can to help defray the cost of replacement. We are only doing lots for the people who were uninsured or underinsured. Mostly shrimpers and elderly who got little or nothing but free meals, blankets and maybe a FEMA trailer. Many of the folks here work the shrimp boats and used the cash to buy everything.

Although the distribution center is closed because most everyone is out in the field all day, there is a steady stream of folks coming to the temple to give or ask for aide. The community and the relief agencies are taking care of feeding us (along with everyone else) with endless carbs and sugary snacks. Last Sunday the temple had a great vietmanese luncheon for the ‘day of sorrow’ holiday the monk declared. Many many families came out for mediation and chanting. The church next door gave out a semi trailer full of blankets and warm coats. The traffic jam was worse than Van Ness Ave on a weekend day.

We are endlessly thanked for our efforts by everyone we pause to talk to. Yesterday we got an invite to eat at a six grill bbq set up next to a field of trailers.

You Can Go Back Home But Sometimes It Might Not Be There

After three years at Burning Man and reading stories of cleanup after the burn, I had a desire to return to see the playa uninhabited. When my wife Stephanie wanted a few days “out of Dodge, but not the coast this time,” I suggested a trip to the site of my wonderful experiences. She has seen the pictures and heard the stories but as many of us know, it’s not like being there. I wanted to at least show her the place. I knew my burning buddy Rick and his wife Beth needed some escape time also so I invited them to come along and they happily joined the journey.

On November 4th, after a two and a half hour drive from Woodland, we arrived in Reno for lunch at the Pneumatic Diner. After their fine vegetarian fare we headed out. Stephanie asks, “We’re going to drive for two hours, look around at nothing, and then drive two hours back to spend the night in Reno, is that right?” That was my plan and I have to say I was just a little nervous hauling all these friends along on my little outing. To what?

Going there, at that time, without the eager anticipation of getting to “the event,” was an entirely different experience than the three previous trips I’d made to the black rock desert. It was a chilly wind that blew without the massive amount of dust, as recent rain had settled every thing down. There were great grey clouds mixed with blue sky, bright light and dark shadows, and very little traffic. The beauty of the area made the trip go by in pleasant delight.

We passed the entrance to the playa not recognizing it without the city to pull us in, turned around and drove back to the rocky entrance and down to the playa floor, all crusted over with a slightly dampish look. Stephanie made me stop about a hundred feet onto the playa so she could get out and look at the tires to make sure we weren’t gathering up playa muck, heading to a stuckness that would require us all to take the long walk back to Gerlach. She was satisfied but still nervous as I sped out onto the playa letting go of the steering wheel at times with nothing to obstruct our progress. I thought that there would surely be some evidence of the road in and the streets of Black Rock City, but there was none. There was absolutely nothing to indicate that anything happened in this wide open space, unrelieved by any artifact. Nothing. What appeared to be chunks of burnt debris, possible evidence of the last burn, turned out to be … black rocks!!!

So I drove out to what seemed like the middle where Rick and I thought we might be “on site,” stopped, and we all got out. There was nothing but the sound of wind in our ears and the uninterrupted flatness of the playa. Then we started to look around. MOOP! Not much but some. Several tiny beads shaped like skulls were “floating” on the crusty surface, spread out over a twenty foot radius. We imagined somebody’s broken necklace lost in the dust, floating apart after the first rain. Then a few nuts, a bolt with wingnut attached. My mind pictured sturdily made structures of fantastic form and texture, these small parts of their fastenings left like molted feathers of birds long since flown away. We found a hair pin with a half dozen sparkly sequins and a large, nail-like stake with only the top exposed. I kicked it loose and pulled it out. I imagined the dusty playa wind ripping the tarp off of the grommet that was still attached. We walked around for a while finding a few tiny bits of wire and a couple of coins and decided it was time to leave. As I opened the door to get in the car, Rick told me to look down, and just outside the door was a two inch tall simple welded wire image of The Man. What a fantastic end to our time on the playa. What seemed like ten minutes had actually been an hour and we were all happy and content with our experience there.

The drive back to Reno was just as spectacular as the drive out and we arrived in Reno as darkness gave the downtown its brightly lit sparkly splendor. It was a sad place. All this brightness lit up to lure in the desperate seekers of a fortune that even if they won it would not satisfy their need for light in their souls. I think of the color and light on the playa during burning man and realize that we bring them as an expression of our inner light. Brought to share, and to join together the lights of our beings to create joy and pleasure and maybe a little inspiration for our lives there and beyond. As we drove home the next day I realized that I wanted to see how it happened and that some year, maybe this next one, I would spend more time after the burn helping to clean up the playa to recreate what we had just seen, the clean fresh playa, waiting for our return.

by Freeze

Burners Without Borders – Report from the Field

Biloxi, Mississippi

Been a long time since there was an update from the Katrina Relief zone, so I’m going to take a whack at it. But where to begin?

First, the weather. Cold, rain, is this Seattle or what? We had a tough day a week or so ago, when our long suffering dome cover final split down the middle and sloughed off, in a rain storm. Louie and the crew hurriedly covered our stock, and a few days later we rigged a temp cover until a new one could arrive. But if we think we’ve got it rough, all we have to do is literally look out the back door: this man lost his wife in May, and his job and home to Katrina, and is now living in a leaky tent in his front yard. We cleared out his yard, and removed the tree that landed on his house, but he can’t get back in yet because of a typical conflict with his insurance company; they’ve told thousands that since the waters rose first and THEN the storm hit, it was uncovered flood damage and not covered hurricane damage. While the lawyers argue, he and thousands more slowly loose hope.

This man lost his wife in May, and his job and home to Katrina, and is now living in a leaky tent in his front yard.
This man lost his wife in May, and his job and home to Katrina, and is now living in a leaky tent in his front yard.

Work and needs-wise, things are definitely shifting, at least in the Biloxi area. The immediate, hand out food/water/shelter/clothes part of the effort is winding down–in fact, for the time being we’ve closed the donation dome in Biloxi, so we can instead move our work crews inside where they can stay at least a little warmer, as the cold fog of winter slides across the gulf coast.

Instead, we’ve been focusing all our efforts on finding those who’ve been overlooked, like sending teams into Placemines Parish south of New Orleans. Some parts of PP were under 30+ feet of water for WEEKS, so you can imagine what the place looks like.

Austin (on Gregory's truck) delivers some clothes and food down near where the Mississippi meets the Gulf and borrows a little "protection" from one of the locals...
Austin (on Gregory’s truck) delivers some clothes and food down near where the Mississippi meets the Gulf and borrows a little “protection” from one of the locals…

The Temple crew and the burners with HANDS ON USA in Biloxi have instead been tearing into the hard, dirty work of clearing people’s destroyed homes. In some cases, it’s so they can rebuild. In others, it’s just to clear enough clean space so FEMA has a spot to part the trailer they’ll be loaned for a year.

me, Louie, Austin, George, Cab and Max, post clean up on Elmer Street. The 85 year old woman in the hat has lived here for decades; all we found that was salvageable were her son's military records, and some dishes.
Me, Louie, Austin, George, Cab and Max, post clean up on Elmer Street. The 85 year old woman in the hat has lived here for decades; all we found that was salvageable were her son’s military records, and some dishes.

The absolute best news we’ve had lately came rumbling down the street, when the _wonderful_ people at Doosan Daewoo ( a multinational manufacturing company), who had heard about what we were doing and liked it, delivered to us “to use as long as you’ve got use for em” a BRAND NEW, still-plastic-on-the-seats articulating front end loader and excavator. OK, big whup you might think–till you’ve see what these things can do to a pile of rubble.

Here Cab, Mischka, George, Phil, Richard, Chaos and others work the loaders, a tractor, rakes--it takes every piece to really clear a place out. Oh, see that big open space? A house was there just a few hours before...
Here Cab, Mischka, George, Phil, Richard, Chaos and others work the loaders, a tractor, rakes–it takes every piece to really clear a place out. Oh, see that big open space? A house was there just a few hours before…

And yes, orange “DPW” stickers are already on their way down there, so we can slap em on our new machines.

Our new toys, however, are raising the hackles of the contractors who’re being paid to do similar work, and some politicians are siding with them–what, you don’t want it done for FREE? Politics is intruding all along the gulf coast, from still-locked-down parts of New Orleans ( where we saw the Counter Current group and their mobile media bus at the very laid back New Orleans Decompression and BBQ, and hooked up again with the Third Line Circus folks, both of whom are working in some _tough_ hoods doing crucial work with forgotten communities ), to Waveland where the Rainbow Family is encountering some troubles with their _amazing_ “New Waveland Cafe,” to Biloxi and the no so subtle attempts to push out the poor of East Biloxi, to make way for new developments that are sure to follow last month’s decision to allow casinos on land again.

No matter–there’s an almost limitless amount of need for help to just clean things up so people can get back to work and on with their lives…which is exactly what we’ve been doing. And when it gets dark at around 5pm, we come home for a big group dinner, sit around what appears to be the only allowed burn barrel in the whole city (somehow the police seem to sense we’ve got fire handled ), play guitar, race wheelchairs, and tell stories–the people who have volunteered and showed up in Biloxi are without a doubt some of the most interesting, amusing, funny, well-traveled, most open minded and biggest hearted people I’ve ever had the chance to meet. Lemme tip my cap here to (apologies for whom i’m forgetting): Juan, Max, Richard, Phil, Austin, Chaos, Mischka, George, Brett, Chris, Jeff, Cab, Louie, Cowboy, Gregory, Linda, Andy, Corry, Monte, Doctor, Teresa, Peter, Angel, Erik and all the others– bless you, all

Work rebuilding the Buddhist Temple is nearing completion–which is also why we’re moving our rather large tent city seen here into the dome in the back.

So, what’s next? More of the same, more clean up, more helping people as best we can until…well, we don’t know when. Some of us are jokingly calling ourselves “BEMA” ( Burning Emergency Management Agency, as opposed to the much reviled FEMA), and starting to wonder what we could do at next year’s event to collect resources to help in other emergencies. Meanwhile, volunteers are signed up through Christmas it seems, and some are planning on coming in January. We’ve been having a blast explaining exactly who we are ( we’re the only non-organize, non-non-profit, non-for-profit, non-church group working along the area, except perhaps the Rainbow Family in Waveland) and how we all know each other. Yea, the days are long, and nerves are getting rubbed raw, and some days cleaning yet another pile of rubble gets a little old. And yet somehow we get up, have another cup of Cowboy’s brazilian coffee, another Louie omelet, another morning taping up ankles and knees, and grab our tools, and head out again.

For questions/volunteering in Biloxi, please contact Richard Scott at xxx-xxx-xxxx.

The Cyclopath

The Cyclopath rides up, and stops next to me. Moments ago, my bike suffered a broken chain in the depths of the desert. The sun beats down on my second day, in my first year on the playa.

He looks freaky. Wrapped in torn black shreds, covered in dust, he looks at me and smiles, “Your chain is broken.” I find this obvious statement hilarious and laugh. He responds by detaching a small black toolbox from the rack over his rear tire, and begins sifting through the implements within.

Pulling out a small tool I have never seen, and won’t again for many years, he squats down next to my flaccid chain. A few grunts and whistles later, my chain is whole again. I feel whole as well. The stranger introduces himself. I feel my name as something foreign, not suitable for this exchange.

The Cyclopath rides into the void.

I come again and again, hoping to find him, thank him, tell him I came back for him, because of him. I find everyone but him. But he is there, I feel it. And he must remember me, and that moment of synchronicity. Two strangers well met on the playa, providing something for each other.

by Justine Smith


I finish packing my van and begin driving to the fabled BurningMan event on the playa on Wednesday, 6:30 in the morning, with my cat Bela. Arrive in Black Rock City late Wednesday – 16 hours of driving. I’ve never driven 16 hours before. Ever. The rare air circulating about this near legendary event kindles a kind of sleepless excitement.

Wake to meet my neighbor. Lovely little woman named Ace. Her show-and-tell includes a found object, just lying there in the dust as she was walking back from the porta-potties, a butane lighter with a color image of the Ace of Hearts on it.

“Sucker works, too” she told me. Thus the magic begins.

Attribute one sparkle of this magic to use of handles. Not love handles. Handles like CB handles which take the place of names that your mother would recognize. “Playa names” they’re called. Mine is Joshua. Curiously, folks use imagery in their monikers, which could be famously flattering or perhaps quite the opposite. Beast. 2Wild. Misery. Wicked. Junkyard. Tadpole, Mysterious lovely people with unknown identities make for magic.

Ace is camped with PortaPlaya. He takes me couple of nights later to a local hot spring for a hot soak under simply magnificent stars. The $20-out-then-back-in policy lapses for staff and other early arrivals leaving to use the hot springs. Up to the time the event opens it’s OK to go soak and return free of charge as long as you have your laminates. But I get ahead of myself.

Black Rock City, the playa, Burning Man. One place, infinite characterizations. The curious first-timer needs an open mind and a near death-grip on the BurningMan.com Survival Guide. The experienced Burner still strains to relate an encapsulated version:


The town I call home in Reality Camp or Default World or the real world is one-third the size of Black Rock City. For one week every year, the magnitude of this experiment in radically self-expressed community-building challenges a vastly expanded imagination. Matt Taibbi reporting for Rolling Stone even calls it “God’s own playground”. Matt also complains that the entire event speaks to elitist, self-selected, white art snobs with techno-savvy mascots building dream machines and adult toys.

I disagree. The dream machines and adult toys, present in abundance, are manifestations of this mostly white club of “Burners.” All cultural creatives are invited, however. The irony of picturing Michael Franti next to color-restricted claims did not escape this participant. While the strife-torn black community self selects as a matter of survival, the Burner community lacks nothing in vitality or validity by virtue of being intentionally constructed. On the contrary, intentional communities notoriously fail for trying too hard. Not Black Rock City.

Larry Harvey, Burning Man’s demi-god & first Burner speaks now of a “gifting economy.” Bring what you have and give what you can. I make necklaces of ribbon and Chap-Stick. Another Burnette brings her Polaroid and lots of film. Each encounter produces a color keepsake. Playa gifts are a tradition but so are the enormous art projects.

In years before I became a Burner, commonly accepted protocol demanded “No Spectators.” Participants, well, they participated. Producing theme camps. Erecting massive art worthy of any large city. Interacting in compulsively creative applications, like the long gone drive-by shooting range. But logical extrapolation to the current 35,700+ census requires morphing the previous protocol.

Now Burning Man embraces rules, and spectators. Witness the recent “Malcolm In The Middle Goes To Burning Man” episode. Like any fair sized city, we have constructs and constructors. DPW, or Department of Public Works, builds our streets and our signs. They’re a grungy, kinda goth, highly effective bunch. Early in the week, I lose my laminates, those precious plastic ID cards we worker B’s wear around our necks. They just unclipped themselves and dropped into the dust somewhere. Several hours later and a mile from where I noticed my lams missing, I’m taking in the assembly of a 3-story wooden clock tower. A DPW rig rolls up with the driver holding up my laminates comparing the photo with my face. More magic.

Place I “work” is inside the fence the cops call home. Sign even says “Law Enforcement Only.” On the playa dust, I find a spray-painted body outline like a crime scene, with shell casings scattered about. Humorous Law Enforcement art installation. One of Black Rock City’s cops, Cladwell, has gone and left home without his shaving kit. He’s not minding the growth on his face but lacking a toothbrush and toothpaste, he’s hating the growth on his teeth. He asks me plaintively if I know the unpleasant effect of trying to get by with soap and a fingertip instead. He’s impressed to tears when I produce a case of both toothbrushes and Crest. I function as one of Black Rock City’s emergency dentists, among other things. Cladwell is his playa name and his idea of being well clad is wearing a condom on his head. He’s a virgin Burner, here for the first time and he fits right in. He’s now completely convinced of the magic in this place.

Bunny, a fellow Ranger grabs at a flying piece of paper in the wind. Turns out to be a vehicle pink slip. Walking windward, she discovers a family setting up camp and they ask if they are OK to camp here. She’s not even in uniform; she has the cutest smile. She reads out the name on the pink slip and hops away after handing the astonished participant his pink slip.

“Synchrondipity” my wordsmithed creation conveys the synchronous serendipity that permeates Black Rock City. Late in the week, I exhaust myself on the silks learning to climb and do tricks on vertical fabric ropes in Firefly Ariel Dance School. I share with Cladwell that I’ve developed a very sore throat and we both smile knowingly when he produces an unopened bag of zinc lozenges.

by Karen Tracy