Chapter 5: God’s Flashlight

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.


“Madness need not be all breakdown. It may also be breakthrough.”
— R. D. Laing

I sat cross-legged in front of my tent watching the radiant edge of the sun peep up from behind the mountains. Its rays were being choked through the black smokes of the wreckage of Black Rock City making it a dark orange ball. This was God’s flashlight coming to expose our sins in the morning light.

Nobody had slept. The air was heavy and burnt, like that of a brush fire, and thick smoke was billowing from countless points in the city, most filled with the toxic tinge of burning plastic. Jason and Marlo were curled together lying on a blanket next to me, their eyes washed out and staring. We had spent the rest of the night guarding the camp from the arsonists and pyromaniacs that were streaking the city. The magic spell of BRC had broke and was blown to the heavens along with the sparks of the Man.

“I was thinking of Icarus,” I said, breaking the silence.

“What’s that,” Jason asked through a yawn.

“It’s not a what, it’s a who. Icarus was a character in Greek mythology. The story goes that his father, Daedalus, (the creator of the labyrinth), makes wings for he and his son, but before they took flight, his father instructs him not to fly too low for the dampness of the sea will clog the wax holding the feathers, and not to fly too high, or the sun will melt this wax. It was a lesson on complacency versus hubris, or overconfidence. Icarus gets caught up in this hubris like a runaway teenager that thinks he’s bulletproof. He’s stoked by the thrill of flying and thinks he’s above the laws of nature. He flies too close to the sun, which melts the wax of his wings, and falls to his death. I think Burning Man might be San Francisco’s runaway teenager. I think Burning Man flew too close to the sun last night.”

Hundreds of camps had fled in the night, most likely sharing the same fears as our own. Our camp now had full view of what was left of the Promenade and where the Man once stood. Yesterday that point had been the herculean hub of our existence. Now it was just a tiny patch of smoldering ash. All sixteen spires had been torched. Not only that, all sixteen had been turned into mini camp sites with a circle of hippy sleeping bags around each and every one. My beloved Promenade had been murdered without ceremony. I was infuriated! This was personal.

“Fucking shitheads burned all my spires!”

“I’ve never seen people get crazy like that,” replied J. “They were burning anything they could. At one point I saw a guy just randomly shooting several roman candles at the same time into campsites. I saw people scrambling to stomp out the tent fires.”

“A huge mortar blew off only about fifty feet from here,” I said. “It was one of those star burst ones that supposed to go off in the sky. Check out the burn holes it the top of my tent.”

“I think the Vegematic burning the info board was the straw,” said Marlo. “It opened the box.” Marlo sat up and stretched. “I should get back to my Suburban and start packing up my shit. I’ll come back later before I leave.” She got up and walked into the surreal scene, getting engulfed in the haze.

Jason crawled into his tent and flopped down like a tired hound. I was too agitated to sleep yet, though. There was too much going on in my head. Having witnessed a social melt down had cracked my foundation. I was going to have to mull this one over. I had studied Aristotle in school, and it was from these studies that I had learned of the ‘Tragic Plot’ and the ‘Tragic Hero’ — the dynamic tension that creates a story. It was becoming clear to me that Burning Man was on a hero’s journey. My overdose of LSD had been a hero’s journey. This was one of the original plots of the first ancient Greek dramas. It went something like this:

Act I

  • A call to adventure — unrest and a need for a break from the doldrums — a departure from the known world.

Act II

  • Crossing into the unknown world to be tested and to fail from bad choices — the hero’s tragic flaw.

Act III

  • Resurrection – the reinvention of one’s self and lessons learned.

Black Rock City was our tragic hero that had fallen and broken its axel in act II. Who could say if there would be an act III? It was up to us to scrip it.

Feeling restless, I got up and starting walking to the front of the camp, my mind still spinning. As I approached the common area, I could hear voices. They had the tone of a serious conversation, so I crept closer so as not to interrupt. It was a group of seven or eight sitting in a tight circle, many whom I didn’t recognize. I knew Will and Crimson, and sitting next to them was Harley, the one who had tried to stop the burning of the info board. The others I had not met. Two stood out with a strong presence, however. One was tall and lanky, wearing tan kakis, scuffed up cowboy boots and a crumpled jungle desert hat that said ‘Ranger’ on it. He had pointed features that were wrinkled from laughter in the desert sun. He wasn’t laughing today, though. His face was pointed down into a serious frown. I would find out later that his name was Michael Mikel, or Danger Ranger. He was a devout member of the Cacophony Society, and one of the pioneers that had pointed the way to the Black Rock Desert back in 1990. Sitting next to him was a man in a hat. He, too, had his head bowed and his face was also knitted into a dark frown. It was Larry Harvey, the founder of Burning Man. His eyes were cast down and his hand was over his mouth in ponder. The circle carried the pall of shock and grief. Will looked up as I approached, and gently nodded. I sat in a far corner — and invisible fly on the wall. These were the creators and organizers of Burning Man, and their event was in serious trouble.

Picking up on the conversation, they had just come out of a meeting with some sort of law enforcement. It sounded like the meeting had been very heated in the wake of the catastrophic incidents that had happened in the night. The short-circuited rumor mill had been buzzing about countless injuries, some very serious, and there was even talk of a fatality. We had seen a medevac helicopter fly overhead just before dawn, and word had permeated the camps of a tent far out in mid-playa with two people in it that had been crushed by a swerving car that lost control and rolled over it. I thought of our trip in Marlo’s Suburban where we had seen many camps that were dark and invisible. But there was know way to get any facts, all we knew was that tragedy hung thick in the hovering smoke of disaster.

Larry looked up with frustration and grief in his eyes.

“The city’s gotten too big for us to do nothing,” he said. “Either we don’t do this again, or we drastically change our approach. We’d have to turn this into a real city that protects its citizens. We’ve created a dangerous environment that has become injurious. We must find a way to confine it so we can become responsible for one another. It truly takes a village.”

There was silence in the circle. If our gathering in the desert was to survive, it must, indeed, become a responsible community that takes care of its own. It would have to become Virgil’s engine of capped chaos.

“Where was Jon Law,” I asked Will after the meeting. “Wasn’t he a main organizer?”

“He stood up at the Sheriff’s meeting and told them that Burning Man would not be back — that is was done. He said that there was never supposed to be more than fifty people out here. And then he walked off. Thing is, not all of us feel that way. I think we’re on to something here. It was only a small percentage that was ransacking the city last night. We just have to reel it in somehow.”

I walked back to my tent and crawled in. I was underfed, sleep deprived, and still thirsty. I was bruised and beat. I had a shiner under my eye, cuts and scrapes everywhere, my feet hurt, I could barely move my arm from the gun recoil bruise on my shoulder, and my hair was stinking of singe. Without the excitement of the night to distract, these injuries were announcing themselves like a bar fight. But exhaustion trumped the pain, and I was out within minutes.

***

I woke to a white out dust storm. I had never been in one before. I didn’t even know of the term ‘white out’. I had been sleeping like the dead for several hours and it was late afternoon. High winds were flapping my tent around like a tattered flag. At times the gusts were so strong that the fabric of the tent pushed up against my face as I lay there. I sat up and noticed that the fine screening of the tent walls had been no more than a sifter for the dust, and all things were covered with a thick layer of talcum powder, myself included. I crawled out of my tent and into my first dust storm. I heard Jason’s voice — it was hard to tell where he was. His voice seemed near, but like it was in a different room. I grabbed a bandana and tied it around my mouth as my eyes filled with dust. After I blinked a few times, I saw that Jason was sitting right next to me.

“What do we do now,” I shouted at him.

“There’s nothing we can do. We just have to wait it out.”

So, there we sat — me and my life long friend and partner in crime. Our eyes met over the bandanas, and we could see each other laughing.

“You sure do take me to the most fuck up places, J.” I screamed at him.

“Well, you’re the fucker following me!”

“To the edges of the earth, my man, to the edges of the earth. Do you think it will happen again next year?”

“Come on — it has to. This isn’t just a party we started; it’s a full on social crusade! They better let us put it on, because we’re coming anyway. You can’t hold back shit like this.”

We hunkered down as the dust blew through the remnants Black Rock City. The playa had had enough of us, and she was wiping her desert slate clean.

That was my last memory of Black Rock City ’96. I still have no recollection of driving home, or even re-entering the outside world. The desert has blown those memories to oblivion like the frail dust dreams that they were.

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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.

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