Chapter 4: Inferno

Coyote Nose: Stories of the wild ’90s and the formation of DPW from Burning Man’s first storytelling fellowship recipient, Tony “Coyote” Perez-Banuet, Superintendent of Black Rock City.


It was morning number five, and I was in the back of Will’s open blue 4×4 as we were cruising across the playa. The rig was packed with guns and ammo, and we were heading to a place called ‘The Drive By Shooting Gallery’.

I had woken up, in my kiln tent where the drums of last night’s opera had turned into the banging headache of a hangover. After my fistfight with Jackrabbit, I had picked another fight with a whisky bottle. I did have recollection of stumbling back to camp, but stumbling’s not quite the word. It was more like jumping from a freight train and tumbling down the embankment, like in the movies — or maybe like a hubcap careening off a wheel during a chase scene. Either way I laid there in the oven, my skin drying into the same cracked clay that crusted Pepe’s lingam castle. Was I going to start torching from within as well? 

Will had seen my condition as I crept to the front of the camp where the morning coffee was brewing.

“Looks like you got a shiner,” he said as he noticed me touching my cheek and wincing.

“Kind of hard to explain, right now,” was all I said. Will gave me a knowing look, and handed me a cup of coffee.

“Well, I had words with one of the artist yesterday about his messy job site that had a lot of my missing tools in it,” Will replied. “When I left, I was pretty angry and not paying attention. I tripped over something and sprained my ankle pretty bad. Then I had to pull that fucking chariot around with a ten-person orgy on it for two hours!

Crimson chimed in,

“Quit your sniveling! Black Rock City Hurts.”

We weren’t the only wounded ones. It seemed the whole city was getting beat up like cars in a demolition derby. The medical tent was getting pretty busy with the casualties of living on the edge. But people weren’t complaining much; they were affectionately wounded — the kind of injuries that come from epic memory makers. The injured were stoically walking around, shouldering their red badges of courage with pride — telling and re-telling the antics of their crazy night. It’s one of my favorite parts of Black Rock City — the morning after when tattered campmates drag around the camp looking for coffee, reliving the events of the night, be they hilarious, or full of drama. Burning Man is not just an event that you go to, it’s an event that you live in. If there’s one thing that’s sure to galvanize a community, it’s common experience.

And, now, I was blowing across the playa with my head back, letting that hangover evaporate into the sky. We were accompanied by a full squadron of vehicles riding in loose formation as we headed to the far side of the Black Rock Desert, about a forty-mile drive. We were going to the Black Rock, itself, which was a massive black limestone ridge that could bee seen from anywhere on playa, even through the shimmer. Your eyes would scan the far off mountain range on the other side of the lakebed and see a dark triangle that had no business being there. It was a mountain backdrop that people have been shooting bullets into for decades. From the thirties to the fifties, the Black Rock Desert was a target range for the military where they got to play with the big stuff. We’ve even found spent army tank shells out there. This made an ideal spot for our Drive By Shooting Gallery that was stretched about a half a mile along the base of the rock, and was populated with fun things to blast away at — mostly stuffed animals. The idea was to clamor into the backs of our deserts rigs and streak past the gallery at high speeds while peppering the targets with a full range of weaponry. Sounds fun, right? Well, I thought so when Jason told me that I wasn’t allowed to miss this one.

One of the main attractions that brought these denizens of danger to the playa to commit these risky capers in the first place is that there’s room for it. Neither photo nor pen can truly capture the vastness of the Black Rock Desert. It will blow the minds of even the hardest to impress. An eye-rolling teenage princess will have to stop chewing her gum and put the phone down to look up — even if it’s just for a moment. It’s a dangerous and beautiful place that challenges your worth. It’s a wizard that can conger up calamities out of serenity with a single swipe from its wand. High winds can blow in out of nowhere with enough force to rearrange your camp; trailers included. A dust storm can swallow the entire scape with a mile high billowing cloak with no more that a fifteen minute warning. A thunderstorm can boom in with a belly full of lightning and rain, leaving a three-day mud-lake and stranding everyone.

Cowboy Carl once said,

“The true call of the playa comes from the natural need to explore. You got to step out of your comfort zone to evolve as a species. Otherwise you just end up doing the same shit every day and die a worthless death. I’ll tell you mushroom smokin’ hippies how to ‘get’ this desert,” he went on to say, “first you get in your truck, alone, and drive straight out onto that god damn playa until you think you’ve gone too far and start to feel pretty uncomfortable. Then you should stop the truck, and get out and walk until you feel uncomfortable. When you’ve gone far enough that you’re starting to scare the shit out of yourself, then you should sit the fuck down and shut the fuck up for a good long time. And then, when you think you’ve ‘got’ it, you should do it again in the dead of a moonless night. That’s when the playa truly starts to speak to you.”

I felt the 4×4 slow. Looking up I saw all the desert rigs converging on a shoreline squatting at the base of a huge black ridge. This was the Black Rock. There were about ten rigs and around thirty of us, but there were enough armories for a full battalion. I had shot a .22 in Boy Scouts for target practice, and my grandfather had a 30-30 deer rifle that I shot once or twice, so my inexperience had me pretty intimidated by this stockpile of hand cannons and war grinders. It was a show of force that would have made any Sheriff nervous with handguns, shot guns, and assault rifles piled high on every tailgate. Boxes of ammo were stacked everywhere and we were ready for the zombies.

“What are we shooting at,” I asked Jason out of the corner of my mouth.

“Stuffed animals, mostly. The hardest to hit is the purple Barney and brings the most points — that’s if anyone’s keeping score. Barney’s just on the ‘most wanted’ list for some reason.”

“Fine by me,” I said, “I’ve always hated that stupid kiddy show. So, who are these guys?”

“Most of them are from the ‘Cacophony Society’,” Jason replied. “It’s pretty much the group that brought Burning Man out here in the first place back in 1990. They called it ‘The Zone Trip #4 – Bad Day at Black Rock’. They’re an anarchist group that does things like prank billboards, or crash corporate parties in costume. They’re the ones that put ‘Helco’ together, and this is they’re idea of how to spend a Sunday morning.”

I recognized Mr. Bogman — our sumo wrestler that greeted us on the first morning we hit playa. Again, he was a swinging gun show. He walked over to us, grinning.

“Looks like you guys found some guns,” was all he said. We had received his nod of approval.

The group was sturdy looking as they gathered in a circle. They were all wearing some sort of play on desert gear, and all were rugged and alert. I was surprised to see just as many women as men, all looking sexy and sharp in their familiar control of weaponry. Two men stood out in particular. They wore the uniform hats of the French Foreign Legion with the white flaps, stark white button up shirts, and jackboots. Will introduced them as William Abernachie and Kimrick. There was also an older man there that caught my attention. He was tall and slender with a bushy captain’s mustache, cargo safari shirt, and a pith helmet. He was busy muzzle loading a black powder pistol while straddling a beautiful old Schwinn bicycle. There was a wonderful nonchalance about him. This was Kimrick’s father, Bill Smythe. They all seemed so comfortable with the danger that was about to commence as they readied their weapons and claimed positions in the desert rigs.

I would later find out that they had been making trips out here for several years in the name of gunplay. Turns out that this drive by gallery was actually the tamer of their weapon games. The year before they had made a game called ‘The Car Hunt’. That one involved a remote control Oldsmobile station wagon with a crash dummy behind the wheel. The car was sent off into the playa shimmer like an antelope with several trucks in pursuit, their rear beds loaded with small militia as they chased the Olds at high speeds and shot the shit out of it with everything they had until the car was dead. The car was given a ten-minute lead, so even finding it in the shimmer was a trick. The trucks had to keep a very close eye on each other’s whereabouts so as not to shoot one another. At least in the drive by gallery, everyone was generally shooting in the same direction. But you still had to be hyper-aware as you tried to hold your balance in the back of a speeding pick up truck over rough terrain, aiming high powered automatic rifles and huge shot guns while blasting into the mountainside. The real danger was getting knocked off the truck from the recoils. Will had handed me a sawed off twelve gauge shot gun during our run. I pointed and pulled the trigger. Grabbing the back of Jason’s shirt was the only thing that kept me from being blasted out of the truck from the mule kick. It was a dangerous game that I only played once. These folk were crazy.

My hangover wasn’t even a memory as the alcohol in my veins was replaced by adrenaline. Even through the gun range ear muffs that Will had handed me, the report of a thousand powder cannons going off point blank was collapsing my ear drums. Boom! Tat tat tat! The mountainside lit up, as stuffing ripped out of the heads of teddy bears and stuffed rabbits. Will handed me an M16 rifle. It didn’t kick as hard as the shotgun, but I was still working hard to stay on my feet. I was certain that I wasn’t hitting a thing as my shoulder was getting bashed to shit. Will noticed me rubbing it.

“That bruised shoulder will match your shiner,” Will shouted. “Black Rock City hurts!”

Then, on our second pass we came up on Kimrick’s dad in his pith helmet, riding the Schwinn. He had his black powder pistol cocked and ready. He aimed and took a booming shot that knocked him right off his bike. He tumbled into the brush with his pith helmet flying.

“Guess he had a tad too much powder in that thing,” Will shouted. 

The truck galloped on.

A cease-fire was issued and we circled the trucks. This was an elite group that was accustomed to danger, so even though a morning nip of whisky may have been passed around, when came time for a cease-fire, all bolts were open, and chambers empty. These were the safest, most dangerous folk I had ever encountered. We climbed off the trucks and filtered up into the range to tally the hits and inspect the damage. Bullet holes and exit wounds were examined with pride as many of the stuffed animals continued to wear their cute smiles in spite of missing eyes and limbs. Then there was Barney. He was still fully intact.

 “How the fuck can this be?” Kimrick asked the Gun Gods. “I had him in my sites several times!”

“So did I,” replied Bogman. “I say let’s just finish him off right here — execution style.”

“Fire in the hole!” was shouted out and the next instant was filled with the chatter of weapons getting locked and loaded. Having that many guns aimed at a little purple stuffed Barney was right out of a Bugs Bunny cartoon. There was no time given for last words, cigarette, or even a blindfold as the firing squad opened up, blasting stuffing and stitch across the hillside. It would seem that we all hated that stupid kiddy show, so he had gotten what he deserved for anesthetizing our children with his mindless dribble for all those years. Fuck Barney!

When the last of the gunpowder cleared, we got into our trucks and 4×4’s and drifted across open playa back to our outpost city. 

***

Something was amiss. You could feel the difference. The mood of the city seemed to have turned. It had a caustic thread to it. Like there was something impending that was making you worried and excited at the same time. Even though nothing had been done to the Man, he looked different somehow. Maybe the darkening mood of the city was imposing onto his faceless presence. It was as if he knew of his impending doom. His silence had been the thread holding together the fabric of the community, and now he was going to burn for it. Where things going to unravel like the pulled yarn of an old sweater? All we knew for sure was that the future was set, and we were all belted into the coaster as it clicked up the track.

The last colors of sunset had faded into the black of night. Even the quickly setting thumbnail moon seemed to be taking cover.

“It’s time to go! The Man’s arms are up — he’s going to burn soon.”

Jason and Marlow had found me in the House of Doors.

“Marlo, you look amazing!” She had made herself to resemble a raven with the purple sheen glinting out from under sleek black feathers, and a ferocious beak coming from her forehead that pulled you into the black beauty of her eyes. It was her spirit animal.

I followed them into the evening, and saw the Man with his arms up for the first time. The image spoke to me. It was a surrender — and ultimate sacrifice. Go ahead, burn me! This was his clear message. Jason’s words were ringing in my ears — 

“That’s the whole point. You get a clean slate that you can build anything on, because an the end of the week, the whole thing burns anyway.”

It was time to erase the chalkboard. 

***

The city was one collective drumbeat. It was a crescendo. It was a call to arms. The Man was the eye of a hurricane that was quickly forming, and everyone was suiting up and donning war paint like they were getting ready for battle. You could almost see the warriors crouched over sharpening stones in their camps as they sharpened their blades of war.

“Will and Crimson want us to join them in the procession down the Promenade,” said J.

“What’s that,” I asked.

“It’s where Crimson brings fire down the Promenade to light the Man. You’ll see.”

Jason, Marlow, and I pushed against the whirlpool orbiting the Man as we made our way back to camp. All the heavy players were there in full dress. It was time for celebration. They had been planning all year for this.

Crimson Rose was the ‘Naked Goddess of Fire’. She still is. A caldron had been burning in front of center camp for the duration of the event, and now it was time to carry that flame to the Man. It had been kindled at the start of the week for that purpose. It was a beautiful ritual. It started with a battery of drummers as Crimson opened the ceremony with a nude fire dance. Eventually she lit a torch from the caldron, which in turn lit a lantern to be carried to the Man. Crimson then led the slow procession down the Promenade flanked by my lantern lit spires. It was candle lit and beautiful with the slow steady boom of a drum as we moved along like monks. The surprise of ceremony quieted our chatter as we fell in step with solemn reverence. I knew that this ritual was real for the simple reason that it felt real. Twenty years later I would make this same walk with my twin seven year old sons by my side for the first time. Black Rock City had evolved, but the heart of the ceremony was the same. It awoke in their hearts and I could see it in their faces. They looked up at me and I knew that they understood. The meaning behind ceremony and ritual isn’t something that is taught — it is something that is felt. They clasped my hands and when we walked, I could see them matching my footsteps — following in my footsteps. This is a story of how a ritual is born. My twentieth time walking with my sons had the same power as the first time I walked it side by side with Will, Jason, and Marlo. The man in the hat, Larry Harvey joined along side with Bogman, and we walked without conversation. Then the drums and pace started to quicken as we neared the gravity of the Man, his arms still raised in welcome. We were getting pulled into the whirlpool. Will and Bogman were fully armed and started firing rounds into the playa as we approached the throngs. Will turned and handed me a loaded automatic rifle.

“Welcome to Burning Man,” was all he said. I opened it up, and fired several rounds into the playa just ahead of our step, the muzzle flash blinding us all. It felt great to be alive.

Meanwhile, explosives and fireworks were going off everywhere. One had to keep a sharp heads up as roman candles were being leveled into the crowd and live 

mortar bombs were being lobbed around like softballs. We finally breached the crowd and came into the inner circle. We were alarmingly close to the Man as he loomed over us, arms outstretched. It was perilous, and exhilarating. The tension was like a coiled spring as people swarmed on vapors like drunken wasps. A tribute to fire was seen in any direction. People were carrying it on lit torches, they were juggling it, they were spinning it, and they were blowing it from their mouths. Some had full fuel tanks strapped to their backs with hand held nozzles that could shoot twenty foot plums. Mad max machines were peeling around with flame cannons aboard. Everyone was clad in war paint, or fetish gear, or cartoonish ridiculousness and most carrying something that was ablaze, even if it was the simple candles that the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence were carrying as they strolled by singing hymns. Everyone was infected with the thrill of fire.

Then came the commanding presence of the mighty ‘Vegematic’ — the doomsday machine that was parting the crowds with her muzzle of flame, which was essentially a twenty foot black cannon flame thrower on metal wagon wheels. Bicycle pedals operated it as it crept along, sweeping people back and it had a mock engine at its center with no engine block — just eight flaming pistons pumping away and being spun by a giant rusty flywheel. Huge lumber mill saw blades collared the muzzle as flames shot out fifty feet or so. The heat of the blasts set up its natural perimeter as people scrambled out of the way. The Vegematic went where it liked and did what it wanted.

The time had come to light the Man, and Crimson could not hold back the fever any more. She turned and climbed the hay bales, holding her torch like a spear. All attentions turned to her. She lifted the torch over her head, and the moment hung like a suspended jewel. Then she started circling the torch and channeling the bolts of fire-lust into her control as the drumming reached a tumult and the crowd’s roar became a unified tempest. It was as if the entire city had crossed swords. Crimson finally swung the torch down and jammed it into the Man’s leg, setting the wax burlap ablaze. Then she did the same to the other leg, then floated down the steps and vanished. The Man kindled as quickly as a Christmas tree. The flames shot up fast and started blowing off the pyro that had been crammed into any nook and cranny of his body, much of it streaming straight into the crowd, the shock wave of the mortars and exploding stars turning the scene into a veritable war zone! The Man was torching fast and pieces and parts of him were breaking into burning shrapnel that was falling everywhere as pyro continued to pop and fly. His arms were fully ablaze and one by one dropped down by his sides as his head started lolling — the faceless paper long burned away. The heat of the fire was pushing the crowd back setting its natural perimeter and the Man started creaking and teetering like a drunkard. The impending collapse caused sincere panic and retreat as the guy wires holding him slackened and snapped. Then the whole thing came down in a ferocious swoosh of spark and flame and the crowd roared to new levels. People became incensed with the charged particles of true chaos and started running toward the flame — the circle around the fire became a linear accelerator that started spinning everything counter clockwise. We were a human firestorm. I, too, ran to the flame and I let the heat sear me. I crouched low and crept ever closer letting it scorch my skin and hair. The pyro was still popping off with huge explosions sending burning shrapnel everywhere and I was staring into raw danger as I let the combustion burn through me. I was knelt at the blast furnace of death and was feeling more alive than lightning. I spread out my arms, leaned my head back and let the flames roast me. 

I felt a hand grab me and pull me back. Jason and Marlo had somehow found me in the swirl of chaos.

“Come on! Let’s get out of here. These people are going nuts!”

“Jesus Christ, Tony,” Marlo shouted. “I can smell your hair burning!”

They were pulling me back from the sun’s blaze. I was flying too close to it and my wings were melting.

 “Let’s get back to camp,” cried J. “This place is going off!” 

We all three clasped hands and tried to make a run for it with Jason in the lead. We ran this way and that, not having a clue as to which direction was center camp, but only wanting to get away from the storm’s center as missiles and bombs continued to strobe the night with befuddlement. We wormed our way through the rush as any platform of reason was starting to collapse like a failed bridge.

“Which way is it to center camp?” Marlo shouted to Jason over the din.

“Fuck if I know,” Jason answered.

“I think it’s this way. Follow me!”

We got in line behind Marlo and surrendered our fate to her witch’s antenna. We tore off, but stopped short in the nick of time just as two guys with flamethrowers started shooting at each other just for fun. There were near misses everywhere as anything with wheels zig zaged the crowd, many of them carrying fire of some kind as people escaped getting crushed by inches. We even saw a man, drunkenly shoving a shopping cart around that had an actual campfire of burning logs in it. How the fuck did he put a campfire into a goddamn shopping cart? We watched as he careened into one of my beloved spires of the Promenade, crashing into it as the whole thing tipped over dumping the burning logs onto the spire base. The Spire instantly caught fire. The maniac let out a whoop and disappeared into the night, abandoning the flaming cart.

“That was my fucking spire, you idiot,” I screamed after him. “This place is going insane!”

I stood and watched the spire burn for a moment, my heart and soul burning along with it.

“Come on! We got to get out of here,” Jason insisted.

We finally got out into somewhat of a clearing and huddled up for protection.

“Jesus Christ,” I said. “I’m so spun around, I can’t tell which direction anything is.”

We all three stood for a moment trying to get our bearings. Our eyes panned the city and we instinctively pulled closer together. Black Rock City was ablaze.

“We really need to get back to camp,” said J.

In the middle of center camp was an information board. It may have been just a couple of 4×4 wood posts with a sheet of plywood in between, but it was Black Rock City’s only network. It was covered with hundreds of bits of paper with numbers and names, meeting times, and hook ups. It was our only meeting point — our switchboard — our Internet. There were no cell phones. In today’s BRC, that info board has evolved into a fully staffed camp called ‘Playa Info’. This tiny bulletin board of BRC ’96 served the same important function. It was a way for people to find one another. And now it was our beacon of safety in a world gone mad.

“I think I see the information board,” cried Marlo.

We followed her through the mayhem still clasping hands. I felt protected riding under her raven’s wings as we approached the safety of our port. But just when we were coming up on the board, we heard the clank and squeal of metal and rust, and turned to see the monstrous Vegematic war machine pulling into the scene, its drivers wearing WWII leather fighter pilot helmets with mirrored goggles. They crept into center camp like an army tank and leveled the muzzle directly at the information board. Then a woman wearing a white strapless prom dress, and full white satin gloves coming up past her elbows came running up to them waving her arms and halting them, brazenly put her body right in front of the flaming muzzle. I had never before seen such moxie! It was Harley, the woman who had been in checkpoint salon with the blue danskin straddling her bike. Organizing the camps of BRC into ‘theme camps’ and orchestrating the budding network of this community was her baby, and this information board was a main lifeline. Burning it would unravel it all. 

We could see the heated debate in their body language as the city raged around us. There gestures told the story. We saw a mother trying to protect her child. We saw two men filled with reckless abandon, sitting on the ultimate machine of anarchy. They were shrugging their shoulders at her in the language of ‘what the fuck does it matter, now? Let’s just burn the fucker,’ and Harley standing firm, one hand on her hip and the other wagging a finger at them. Then Harley finally buckled under the pressures of divine fate. She threw up her hands and walked away. Virgil’s predictions were coming true. In order to cap the explosion of chaos and turn it into the engine that drives a community, we must first watch it fall. The Vegematic’s driver hit the button and the black muzzle blasted out a fifty-foot flame blowing the tinder board of tiny papers into black snowflakes of burning ash. The nucleus of common order had been snuffed out like a cigarette butt. The final lynch pin had been pulled.

We clamored back to our camp in true fear and did not sleep as we watched a city collapse.

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About the author: Tony "Coyote" Perez-Banuet

Tony

Tony “Coyote” Perez-Banuet has been coming to the desert to build and strike Black Rock City since 1996. A professional musician for over twenty years, Burning Man culture was an easy shift for him. He co-founded the Department of Public Works of BRC in 1998 and has been the City Superintendent ever since. Known as the "Bard of the Desert", telling stories around the campfire is among the things he does best. He has been blogging under the moniker of “Coyote Nose” for many years, and he is Burning Man's first Storytelling Fellow.