Remembering Spoono

“I don’t sing about myself. I sing about life. The songs don’t belong to me, they belong to those who hear them.”

– Po Campo – Camp cook for the Lonesome Dove cattle drive

If a crew is a hard working wagon wheel, then the cook is the hub. All spokes lead to him. He sits at his hearth, fanning the flame that energizes the core. He’s the crack of dawn coffee that brings you to the center so the wheel can align once more. He’s the embrace of comfort food that binds the dusk and invites the stories of the day. He’s the monarch of his humble realm and will smack the hand that tries for an early piece of bacon. He will listen with his heart wide open, but his kitchen knife will cut right through the bullshit. He will pour his heart and soul into a meaty pot of stew that’s always spiced with a dash of arrogance. It’s required to stay ahead of the cowboys that come to supper with spurs still jangling. But the fire that simmers under the stew will always come from a selfless temper. There may be big-hatted buckaroos leading the teams, but the camp belongs to the cook.

*                               *                                 *

When you camp under the stars, it’s the sliver of dawn that usually wakes you, but this morning, it was something else. It was a mellow drone. I lay in my sleeping bag for a moment thinking that it sounded like maybe the hum of a fish tank pump, or something electrical. I unzipped my bag and sat up into the chill of the morning, leaning on the wall of the Octagon – an eight-sided wind block that doubled as our survey station and campsite. “Something is out there!” I thought – which was peculiar because the survey team of BRC is always alone on playa. I stood up to peer over the wall. There was just enough morning glow to announce the vastness of the open playa once more – and there, about fifty yards away, sitting hopelessly alone with only the stretch of the desert as backdrop was a folding table with a coffee urn and a plate of still warm beignets sitting on it. The mellow drone was coming from a small Honda generator powering the urn. There was a small stack of paper cups with a carton of half and half, sugar packs, some wooden stir sticks, and a tiny wastebasket. No one was there. This could only be the work of Spoono.

“Hey – wake up everybody! You gotta check this out.” I said.

Astounded crewmembers were sitting up in their sleeping bags not believing the smell of fresh brewed coffee wafting about. The St. Nick of Survey – Spoono, had visited us.

*                                 *                                   *

I don’t remember meeting Spoono. It seems that I have always known him. It seems that he has always been our camp cook. He was a large man with a larger heart that knew better than you what you needed. 2009 was the year of the coffee urn and was also the year that he started cooking for the survey crew. Like many of the positions out here – he got the job by doing the job. He had often said that his favorite time of year was to be out on playa under the open sky, frying bacon and beating pancake batter in the pre-dawn as we lay slumbering in our bags.


We all knew that his health was slowly failing him, but he had told me over the phone that he had one more survey in him. It was always after dinner in the fading dusk that I would catch him sitting content on the couch, gazing into the pastel evening of the Granite Range. This year, his gaze held tears. I now think it was the gaze of a man coming to terms with how ephemeral our joys can be. I now think he knew it would be his last.

I will never stop missing Spoono. I will always have his voice in my spirit. I will always have his thorny western advice in my holster like a side arm. I will always love him as the magnificent man that he was.

May you rest in peace, my good friend.

A Rich Man Dreams of Paradise

[This post is part of the 10 Principles blog series, an ongoing exploration of the history, philosophy and dynamics of Burning Man’s 10 Principles in Black Rock City and around the world. We welcome your voice in the conversation.]

“Somewhere past these gravel roads and high on castle’s tower, a rich man dreams of paradise and sees a life like ours.”
Antsy McClain of the Trailer Park Troubadours

Rosie Lila deftly stated “We were all newbies once” just recently in a post titled “Radical Self Reliance and Rich People at Burning Man”. Burning Man is an event that takes years of practice. One can actually tell a five-year Burner from a ten-year Burner. You never stop learning as the “social experiment in the desert” is ever changing.  It seems that our grand tree of evolution has sprouted a new branch. It’s the much discussed topic of “turnkey camps” or “plug and plays” that seem to fly directly into the face of our principle of radical self-reliance. It’s even sarcastically been nicknamed “radical self entitlement” in rising grumblings.

Black Rock City, 2012 (photo credit unknown)
Black Rock City, 2012 (photo credit unknown)

It was about four years ago when I saw my first “plug and play” camp. From my perspective my initial impression of a camp of all brand new trailers in a horseshoe with no real social area, nothing but a giant generator and a trailer loaded with brand new bikes in the middle, and the “campmates” barely knowing each other seemed like aggressive cancer to me. The only social interaction I witnessed at the time was a worker in a pickup truck knocking on one of the trailer doors and an arm briefly jabbing out to hand him a bag of garbage. The door slammed shut and the shades were drawn. My Burner blood dropped several degrees – I immediately wanted to form a lively group of welcoming troubadours to welcome the shit out of them!

Easy now – baby steps – we were all newbies once. (more…)

Coyote Nose: Astro-not!

Was reading an article about Burning Man the other day where the writer remarks on how serious the participants can be about Black Rock City’s principle of “Leave No Trace”. He mentions a happening at a bar where someone flicks a cigarette butt down and the instant scolding he gets from his campmates. The writer also mentions how impressed he is with this because the playa was already protected with AstroTurf. Participants were so concerned with leaving no trace that they would never let it hit the ground even if it had a protective barrier on it.

Upon reading this it occurred to me that people can think that putting down yards of AstroTurf in their camp will safeguard it from MOOP.

This year’s public service announcement:

AstroTurf is MOOP!!

AstroTurf is some of the worst and most difficult to get rid of MOOP ever, and more and more camps are using it.

AstroTurf shreds and sheds worse than a dried up Christmas tree, and when you finally pull it up after an event’s worth of trampling and occasional soakings, there’s a billion little green plastic grass blades embedded into the hard pan playa. And this can stretch for a block’s worth sometimes.

The Playa Restoration crew dubbed this spot "AstroTurf camp."
The Playa Restoration crew dubbed this spot “AstroTurf camp.”

For understandable reasons, AstroTurf is exponentially growing in popularity. It gives your camp a lush and dust-free floor, and I’m betting that many believe that it doubles as a MOOP catcher. Turns out that it’s a MOOP nightmare!

We all need to get the word out far and wide that AstroTurf is right up there with boa feathers, wood chips, and pistachio nut shells as “Worst MOOP Ever”.

Leave no trace – leave no couch – leave no AstroTurf!!
Never let it hit your pack job.


Coyote Nose

The Barkinator — Testing the Limits of Radical Inclusion

[This post is part of the 10 Principles blog series, an ongoing exploration of the history, philosophy and dynamics of Burning Man’s 10 Principles in Black Rock City and around the world. We welcome your voice in the conversation.]

Someone once said to me that every year San Francisco builds a city in the desert and it’s called Burning Man. Hearing that made me think about why I came to SF in the first place 36 years ago. My mother called it a “push and a pole”. The “push” was getting out of the small town mindset that I had grown up in, and the “pole” was the fantastic “city of permission” that sat at the end of the wagon trail where all the whack-minded odd birds migrated to. I was certain that I, too, was a whack-minded odd bird. I was a starless-bellied Sneetch that had been shunned from the boat parties of the snobs and the too cool cruel schools.

I had a hunch that a more permissive place lay to the west where the radically minded set the stage, not the fad followers. On one of the first nights that I had landed in the city by the Bay in ‘79, I went to the midnight showing of Rocky Horror Picture Show on Market Street, and just like that, I had stepped into an entire nation of whacky birds and they all seemed to be crammed into one maniacal theatre! Still a small town pup, it was the most outrageous thing I had ever seen – right down to the six-foot drag queen sitting next to me handing me a lit joint. It was radical, and I was included!

DPW Parade and Green Man, 2002. Photo by Steve Saroff.
DPW Parade and Green Man, 2002. Photo by Steve Saroff.

Radical Inclusion sits at the cornerstone of the Ten Principles. It assembles the community in the first place where the other principles direct it. It’s also one of the tougher ones to hold to. Allegiances can be challenged when Techno Surf Camp, for instance, find themselves parked next to Camp Carp’s Black Sabbath Pancakes. Seems that putting up with our radical differences takes work. Wouldn’t it be easier to just surround ourselves with all things familiar so we never have to stray from our well-worn color wheels? But that’s when treasures of life start slipping by unseen – camouflaged by the shroud of unfamiliarity. We become imprisoned by our own opinions – by what we might consider to be in good or poor taste. Pablo Picasso once said that taste was the enemy of creativity. Taste forms a boundary that excludes.

Photo by Mark Peterson, 2011
Photo by Mark Peterson, 2011

Black Rock City was challenged with radical inclusion early on. Back when the Department of Public Works (DPW) of BRC was still newly forming, many of our first generation crews were members of the Black Label Bike Club. They were a brazen bunch that had the rough-and-tumble it took to pound those early cities into the summer playa with broken trucks and tools. They also knew the meaning of a good prank and had the brass to pull ‘em off. The Bike Club was pretty specific in its view of the world and every year their irritation would grow along with the swelling presence of rave and techno music at our event. They were fine with radical inclusion, as long as it didn’t include rave and techno music.

I would explain to them that all-inclusive meant just that and that rave camps were here to stay, but their irritation continued to grow nonetheless. That’s when they decided to create “The Barkinator!” They took one of the road warrior junker cars we always seemed to have on hand and loaded it up with this pretty massive sound system. Then they made a tape loop of vicious dogs barking – at ear-bleed volume – and blasted it as they drove around Black Rock City. It was the most obnoxious thing I have ever encountered out there. The complaints started flooding in.

“That’s not art!”
“That’s ugly and annoying and should be kicked off the playa!”
“It’s too loud!” (Actually, it was nowhere near as loud as a rave camp.)
“There’s nothing interactive about that horrid thing!” – and so on.

DPW Rolling in the Gremlin, 2004
DPW Rolling in the Gremlin, 2004

But the Bike Club held fast and flipped the pointing finger around back to them. “Your rave camps annoy us as much as our Barkinator annoys you! This just happens to be our form of expression.” Long story short, the court battle went up the food chain until a senior decision was handed down saying that the Barkinator had as much a place in our city as any. You can’t get kicked off the playa simply for being horrid. And so, the Barkinator barked on, wreaking havoc like a three-headed Cerberus in the night – that is until the third night when not even the Bike Club could stand it anymore and dismantled it the next day. But the point had been made!

The more mindsets we welcome, the more facets on our sparkling gem. A city that encourages a radically inclusive philosophy also encourages an environment of discovery. When you shine your one-sided beam through the prism of another’s perspective, who knows what kind of spectrums will be splashed before you.

Black Rock City – the bastard child of San Francisco – the runaway teenager that started their own production company while still grasping to the core values of their parent, which was to be a permissive city– to open their gates to any who have something to offer and to open their minds to the fanatical quirks they may bring. Black Rock City – where the Playa’s vacuum acts as the great equalizer sucking away even the biggest of egos – where dubstep can go on a blind date with gypsy music – where a billionaire’s next door neighbor is a guy in a tent – where failed art can receive just as much encouragement – where a grilled hot dog can taste as good as a filet mignon.

Coyote Nose

Coyote Nose the 10 Principles – Red Wagon

[This post is part of the 10 Principles blog series, an ongoing exploration of the history, philosophy and dynamics of Burning Man’s 10 Principles in Black Rock City and around the world. We welcome your voice in the conversation.]

di-as-po-ra noun 2. the dispersion of any people from their original homeland

Lakes of Fire encampment, 2008 (photo by Tony "Coyote" Perez)
Lakes of Fire encampment, 2008 (photo by Tony “Coyote” Perez)

It should be no surprise that Flipside was the first Burning Man regional event. Of course it would be the Texans to be the first to secede. I remember feeling slightly cheated on when we started catching wind of their “anti” event. How dare they just dump us like last week’s boyfriend and have a burning event of their own! Even the name, “Flipside”, implied that they were some sort of Yin to our Yang. Like jilted lovers we started watching close while pretending not to care. But as we watched, something new started to occur to us. Maybe they weren’t defecting – maybe they were just simply taking our seeds and planting them into new pastures.

Burning art at Lakes of Fire, 2008 (photo by Tony "Coyote" Perez)
Burning art at Lakes of Fire, 2008 (photo by Tony “Coyote” Perez)

It was as if we now had a twin and through this we were seeing the threads of similarities. Both were amassing communal bodies that were gaining strength in numbers with a refreshing free-spirited mindset. But because of this grand flourish, both were starting to feel the fast mounting pinch of growing pains. We could see our two events busting their seams and things were starting to spin out of control. They were taking off at an exponential gallop and the buckboard was getting away from us as the horses started racing toward the mirage – and like a mirage it was in all directions. Isn’t this the part of the movie where the wagon wheel flies off and the buckboard smashes into the ravine? Scrambling to find the reins, we were trying to pull the horses into a direction, but which direction? It was becoming clear that if we were going to right our spinning compass, we were going to have to polarize our energies and define its sources.

Why were our events growing so rapidly? What was it that was becoming literally life changing for so many? Why was the most popular conversation in camp about next year’s Burn? Watching the vitality of spirit burning in people’s camps was like peering into a kiln and seeing the glaze of our credos baking into the pottery. You could see a principled nation forming and needing guidance. (more…)

Vodka Socks

Coyote is Black Rock City Superintendent and an original member of the Department of Public Works. Photo by Vertumnus; click to enlarge.

Here’s an urban myth — don’t care if it’s true or not.

Story goes that a construction worker had been given his last warning about drinking on the job. Being a hardcore alkie, he solved his problem by soaking his socks in vodka and wearing them inside his work boots all day, getting drunk anyway!

I say again — don’t care if it’s true or not, I just really want to believe it. I’m sayin let’s go “MythBusters” on this one. We have the technology.

For several years, DPW Playa Restoration has been stockpiling a cellar of rotgut vodka that not even we will drink. (Have you ever tasted “Vodka of the Gods?!) All we need now is a Sunday off, some volunteers from the audience (would DPW have some takers?), and socks.

(If it works, this could be a start of a new DPW tradition … “Vodka Sock Sunday?”).


Clock Town

[Tony “Coyote” Perez first set foot in Black Rock City in 1996, where he immediately went to work, ultimately becoming the Department of Public Works’ Site Manager. He is renowned amongst the staff as Burning Man’s Poet Laureate, as well as being an accomplished saxophonist with his band “Second Hand Smoke.” This post is part of the Metropol Blog Series.]

Our twin boys turned two this spring. How much do they see already…? I’m carrying one boy down the hallway of bedtime and he points to a newly hung Black Rock City plan on the wall from years past. “CLOCK!,” he says. Wow, I’ve lived in that clock for so many years that it took a two-year old to remind me that it was a clock. It was always a clock, wasn’t it…?

Skydiver Over Black Rock City, 1996
Skydiver Over Black Rock City, 1996

When I showed up in ’96, that “communal geometry” was just starting to congeal. On the advice of my buddy/guide that was schooling me on how to “play” this thing – this Burning Man place – we showed up early to help set the “thing” up. (Early meaning about three days early…) No fence, no gate, no DPW, no commissary, no wrist bands, no lammies, no cops…. no clock. But it had form. It had a definite form. Looking back, it was like looking at an embryo. One could just start to detect the spine and budding limbs of hazy districts. They showed all the promise to one day be streets and neighborhoods. And toward the mid part of the camps, maybe the beginnings of grey matter – and maybe a brain stem.

And at the center, the translucent squirming of its beating heart – an icon doomed to be burned.

The Man Through the Camera Obscura, 1996
The Man As Seen Through the Camera Obscura, 1996

I had been artificially awake for three days and had just made a scattered and hectic launch from the city’s gravity. I would have been finding the inner meaning of bus tires at this point…

And to then be out there for the first time.

I was a snowflake in hell.

“Let’s stake down here with Will and Crimson at Check Point Station. Then we’ll be in on the tip! Hurry and set up your tent – they need our help putting up these spire lamps that are going to line this road that’s going to lead out to the Man. Pretty cool!”

“Yea – sure – whatever you say – our gallon of water is getting low. I’m not hungry but I guess we should eat.” I was feeling overdosed, badly frayed, and washed out. My brain was a thrown-off hub cap in a b-grade chase scene. “I think I see sharks in the distance.” Hunter S. Thompson was coming to mind.

Tom Kennedy's Shark Car, 1998
Tom Kennedy's Shark Car, 1998

We now have full fleets of trucks, semis, fork lifts, cranes, heavy equipment, ranch and crew, and the fortitude of powerful armies, but back then… I remember Will putting around on a mini bike, carrying form stakes from quadrant to quadrant as Crimson picked them up and paced them out on what would be the three radial roads. And intersecting these roads was to be an inner ring road. Even then it was already a clock. Just no numbers on the dial yet. I woke the next day to the amazement of cruise traffic! The roads were working. It was the slow low parade of a raw and raunchy BRC in the rough, sharks and all! It was a blood stream of madness brought right to your camp. It was the ticking second hand of Clock Town.

Hunter S. Thompson would have liked it, I’ll bet…!

Road Tripped

Skydiving Over Burning Man, 1996
Skydiving Over Burning Man, 1996

[Tony “Coyote” Perez first set foot in Black Rock City in 1996, where he immediately went to work, ultimately becoming the Department of Public Works’ Site Manager. He is renowned amongst the staff as Burning Man’s Poet Laureate, as well as being an accomplished saxophonist with his band “Second Hand Smoke.” This post is part of the Metropol Blog Series.]

Did you know that the basic layout of the city of Boston was planned by the cows? No, it’s true. It’s not just something I heard on “Cheers” from Cliff Clavin. Boston was one of the earliest-settled cities of the new world and the settlers of the times, being from various parts of Europe and such, threw down camps apart from one another to start their own separate farms and villages. The open range pastures of these early farmers allowed the cattle to roam from farm to farm and from village to village as they were raised and traded. Paths formed.

I remember my first Burning Man. No, it’s true. The ’96 burn didn’t have a fence yet and the dust plumes of caravans came from all points like slow motion meteors. People started throwing down camps apart from one another to start their own separate camps and villages. A road formed.

Put a group of people together and, given time, communal geometry happens. Old as the hills. Given time, the single celled life of pre-history took a billion-year old leap and started arranging themselves into organisms where cells started taking on tasks – started working together. In a sense, multi-celled organisms were single-celled communities. A blood stream formed. Funny how the conduits are amongst the first things that a community builds. Funny how one can get the word “communicate” out of the word “community”. Seems the words have something in… common… (more…)