The signs were not good at all.
First off, we were headed back to the Black Rock desert to visit people who, incredibly, had never left the playa. Some of them had been there since July, and it seemed the only question was just how cracked out they would be.
All their friends and everyone else who’d been to Burning Man had left them behind. They had to know that we’d been eating sushi and pizza and burritos, and we’d been showering whenever we felt like it, and when we used the bathroom, it didn’t the way only a PortaPotty can stink at noon.
So these folks had to be bitter. And they were probably resentful, too, because who wouldn’t be? By the time we rolled into town, they’d already been working Playa Restoration for days. And they had a lot more mooping to look forward to. They’d been walking slowly across the empty desert, sometimes getting down on their hands and knees, to pick up what the partygoers had left behind.
But worst of all, these lost souls might even be hostile, and that made us nervous. Who the f—were we, all clean and shiny and caught up on sleep, to come sashaying into town? What the f—were we doing there, and who the f—did we think we were?
And then there was the trip itself.
The stench of broken dreams had been with us since before Truckee. The sky was dark orange, clouded by the smoke from fires ravaging Northern California. Reno seemed like some Saudi Arabian town in the middle of a dust storm. The sky there burnt ember, and it smelled of smoke and destruction.
By the time we got to the other side of Nixon, where the beauty of the ancient lakebed usually hits us in the face, we were almost ready to turn back. We couldn’t see more than a couple of hundred yards on either side of the road. There was no sun, no glowing, golden hills. There was only smoke, and the growing sense of dread that this was all a very bad idea.
D.A. has been doing Playa Restoration for fifteen years, even though they haven’t called it “Playa Restoration” for nearly that long. He’s been around since the days when only a couple of dozen people would stick around after everything had been trucked back to the ranch, after everything had been stowed away for the year.
Brukka was telling us about the old days, too, when it was a just small bunch of really ragged people who did the cleanup. They didn’t eat well, mostly stuff out of cans, and they didn’t sleep much. They did drink pretty hard, though, which only served to make things … volatile.
There were no fluffers, there were no support teams, and no one really knew they were still out there. There was no such thing as a Moop Map — there was only the need to leave no trace.
The BLM has always made Burning Man clean up after itself. It’s pretty simple, really: Officers will come to random points in what had been Black Rock City, and they’ll put stakes in the ground, and they’ll stretch out lines. Then they’ll inspect the circles of desert defined by those lines, and if they find too much crap … boom. Inspection fail. Permit pulled. Event over.
So this Playa Restoration is serious business, and it is quite literally true that the future of the event depends on leaving the desert the way we found it.
And all the work is being done by people who haven’t seen home in months, and who have spent very little time with anyone but each other.