Days of Our Dusty Lives 1 – Back to the Dustbowl

[Part 1 of a three-part series. Part 2: “Deep People Working” Part 3: “Keep on Moopin’, Don’t Stop”]

Sept. 1, 2002

I first pull in to Art Avenue on the 80 Acres off the gravel road past the Burning Man site at 10pm on September 9th. Even after coming out three weeks early and staying three days past the event (that’s when the dust storm hit, but we didn’t leave, we fuckin’ tore down shade structure in the dust storm, but not everybody did – yesterday DPW crew members dug some jackasses’ tarp out from underneath two literal tons of dust)…after almost a month on the playa and my skin turned to leather and my hair in involuntary dreadlocks, I had still not had enough.

I reluctantly left a week ago in the whiteouts and 80mph wind, choking back tears, feeling silly for it, dragging my feet and sadsacking back at home, singing “La Contessa” to myself constantly and unconsciously, refusing to clean the sweet-smelling dust off anything, crumpling up my dusty sweaty handkerchief and holding it to my nose, breathing in deep. Pathetic, really. The anniversary of 9/11 was nigh, and my semi-paranoid self longed to be in a labor camp full of dangerous and kind survivalists in the middle of nowhere instead of in a major city with a bright orange target of a bridge. An owner-move-in eviction notice on my doorstep sealed the deal: I am not ready for the Real World yet. It is too ugly. I want my utopia. I miss the DPW.

Burning Man is fun, but cleanup is a bitch. And so when I roll up to the commissary at 10pm, the DPW is raging. (They don’t rage every night, but when they do, let’s just say they’re not the people you’d want to try to outdrink.) Metric and Big Daddy and others are jamming on the stage, hammering out “Sweet Home Alabama” and screaming into the mic. Dusty people everywhere trade cigarettes and stories and shots. Dogs in the dark stare longingly from beyond the fence (no dogs allowed in the commissary). Dusty couches surround a beautiful, intricately cut burn barrel that’s blazing. Faces flicker in the firelight, Christmas lights twinkle above, and the impossible stars shout out above it all. It’s funny how, Out There in the Real World, people choose to live most of their lives inside buildings, even when it’s nice out.

Tonight, the Minneapolis crew (there’s a lot of them out here) have transformed the DPW bar, Jalisco’s Beach Club (named after a great man and his bar in Gerlach), into “Palmers”, a watering hole in Minneapolis where punkass bikers and old pathetic drunks throw back liquor in indescribably strong rations. Skitch has just tattooed Johnny Feral (a cutting torch) and Mr. Klean (tribal markings that match last year’s), and they show off their new ink in the trailer next to the kitchen. Big Daddy then borrows Skitch’s ink and my sewing kit and begins to administer “drunk dots” (if you look there on your middle finger and see two of them, it’s time to go home). Most everyone here is tattooed up good, so one more dot ain’t shit, why not. Someone pours me one Palmer’s shot of whiskey, but since I was so excited to get back to the desert that I forgot to eat that day, but drank 2 Red Bulls on the drive, that’s about the last thing I remember clearly besides throwing up.

Rule number one: Hydrate. At all times. And before coming up. No matter how much you hate having to pee every 15 minutes on the road when all you want to do is get to the desert.

The next day (as usual, regardless of how off-the-hook last night’s party was), the DPW is up at 7am for breakfast and morning meeting. Not me though, and even though I’ve got the altitude-acclimation excuse, I feel guilty. (I’m trying to come up with a snazzy term for “clean guilt” – the feeling you have from the moment you arrive on site until you’re just as dusty and your hair’s just as matted as everyone else.) Out here the work ethic is so strong, and everyone so motivated, that anyone who slacks, even for a second, turns around and works twice as hard to make up for it. Nobody gives guilt trips (aside from the good-natured “well don’t YOU look clean!”). Nobody has to. There’s too much to be done.

An incomplete yet formidable list of what cleanup entails:

– Dismantle all public structures
– Pack up all shipping containers (25 of them, not including private ones)
– Un-decorate, dismantle, and pack up the colossal Cafe
– Move 15 office buildings back to the 80 Acres (12 miles away from site)
– Move DPW crew camps, belongings, and trailers back to the 80
– Return unnecessary rental equipment (heavy machinery, generators, light towers, trucks, trenchers, etc.)
– Dismantle and remove water and electrical systems
– Dismantle and transport the spires
– Collapse, pack up, and remove the huge commissary tent
– Dismantle the commissary itself
– Responsibly dispose of 12,000 gallons of used motor oil
– Coordinate with Johnny on the Spot to remove portajohns
– Field calls, order materials and trucks, receive shipments, sign papers
– Remove street signs and T-stake intersections
– Transport lumber, carpet, and materials from the DPW Depot to the 80
– Dismantle and transport the Depot itself
– Remove abandoned vehicles and art
– Remove Burners left-behind trash (dude, yesterday they found a 55-gallon drum full of water, tampons, and menstrual blood. Ew.)
– Weed out hangers-on and layabouts (sometimes driving them to Reno)
– Accept, organize, remove, and offload donated food
– Take down the trash fence and pull hundreds of T-stakes out of the ground
– Remove shade structures (canvas, joints, and 4×4 posts)
– Dune-bust (shovel apart and/or drag a chain link fence over giant dunes which are created when the dust storms leave their detritus behind and are swept up against yet to be removed items)
– Unload all materials in an orderly fashion onto the long rows on the 80 (the rows look like a dusty, organized junkyard – Mad Max meets Sanford and Son)
– Clean up the rows and prepare the lot for winter
– Sort and clean the machine and carpentry shops
– Tend the garden
– Program KDPW 106.1 so that it kicks more ass than any college radio station and the workers don’t have to listen to dinosaur rock on The Hawk 92.9
– Feed the crew and wash the dishes three times a day (commissary out here is the best food I’ve ever eaten, seriously)
– And lastly, line sweeps: the whole crew walks in a big line across the desert, forward and in a circle at the same time, to catch the glare of and pick up things as small as sequins and pieces of glitter.

Strangely, though the work is hard and the sun is hot, it’s fun, even when it sucks. After a slack morning, I do my best to bust ass and make 20 signs that will label the rows and make location easier. Hammering and sawing isn’t that great for my hangover, but like everyone else here, physical labor in the boiling desert makes me feel more alive and a part of the universe than sitting behind a computer or slinging drinks at a bar ever could.

These days, the Burning Man organization is trying promote an image of a kinder, gentler DPW – after all, a department full of punks and misfits whose motto long ago was “you don’t matter and we don’t care” could maybe use some PR work in order to avoid accidentally alienating the community from the people who build it. Yes, the DPW crews know that it could very well have not been an irresponsible jackass that left the tarp under 2 tons of sand; maybe it was someone who had an emergency and had to leave – but cursing at a job you have to do is practically compulsory when it’s hard labor and the sun’s beating down. There is bitching out here, I’m not gonna lie, but it’s not the hateful misanthropic kind, it’s more like the Johnny Paycheck’s “Take This Job and Shove It” kind. The DPW’s collective, proudly blue-collar disposition and intimidating badassedness is a product of harsh conditions, extreme utilitarianism, and a teeny bit of contempt for the few bad apples in our city who don’t carry their weight – but the fact remains that we are here because we want to be here.

Truth is, on the inside, we’re all kind of mushy “pippies” (that’s punk rock hippies) out here. This project – the staging ground of a people striving towards the common goal of a more creative, interactive, and enlightened society – inspires as many relevant and lofty conversations about the world at large as it does a whole bunch of hard fucking work. It seems to be the consensus that we are all in a very important place at a very important time, at the nascence of a social insurrection. We are the ones building and striking the city that will go down as one of history’s great civilizations – a community that is, for one week per year, possibly the most socially evolved place on earth, ever.

And so the DPW takes great pride in being the uber-roadies for this massive and significant thing. I write these reports from cleanup mostly in the hopes that now and future Burners will, if they have not done the research already, get to see exactly what a huge production it all is. Everybody knows that none of those gargantuan buildings and shade structures are on the Black Rock Desert year round. Not everybody knows that little pieces of string and zip-tie left on the desert floor must be stooped over and picked up until it’s absolutely clean, much less all the machinery and people and coordinating it takes to do it.

The sun is going down on 9/11 now, and I assume since I’ve heard nothing that Out There, no major tragedies have occurred and life as we know it will go on. Here, even a tear-soaked and nation-choked anniversary such as that is overshadowed in the collective consciousness by the fact that by Saturday, every single major object has to be off the playa so that line sweeps can begin. I feel like a sissy for typing away at my computer in a trailer all day when everyone’s out there busting ass, so now I have to go pound some T-stakes and hang the signs I made before dinnertime. I wouldn’t want to be slack. And my clothes are too clean.

Stay tuned for more to come…

About the author: Summer Burkes

Summer Burkes

Summer Burkes has been rousting about at Burning Man since 1998. She first met her dusty DPW / Cyclecide / Bike Club fam-dambly on the back of The Bucket. A Cacophony Society enthusiast, Summer loves explosions and cake.