Phoenix: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of Cape Carnival

When I left Burning Man in September 2012, I thought I might never again see the alkaline dust that lines the dried lake bed we burners call home. I had a rough go of it. After helping build a theme camp and an art car, I was left feeling disinterested in both by the time they were finished, so much so that when I had an opportunity to bask in the gift of a week in the most amazing place on Earth, I had trouble enjoying it. If not for a Saturday experience at the Temple, a place that the citizens of Black Rock City, NV consider sacred.

For those who don’t know me, I’m basically the guy who grew up as the all-American kid. I played sports all my life. I spent a large amount of my adolescent life in the Boy Scouts, achieving the rank of Eagle Scout on the eve of my 18th birthday. I was a letterman in football in a town that lived for its local team. I graduated high school in 2000 and two weeks later left for the Marine Corps, in which I served as an infantryman. At that point, it was all looking up for me and my future. I had no idea of the impact that decision would have on my life going forward.

As we all know, about a year after I joined the military, this country entered a state of war the likes of which our generation had never seen. Of course, with the job I signed up for and the way things went, I found myself leading young men into the deserts of Iraq at the ripe age of 20. I turned 21 somewhere on the way to Bagdad. I look back on that time and can say I did everything honorably and got my guys home to their families. For that, I will feel pride until the day I die.

The ravages of what war can do to a man’s psyche have been well documented, but nothing can prepare a tough Marine for a weakness he can’t feel physically. I spent at least six years trying to drown the pain and sorrow of having lost so many friends with liquor and beer. I tried to ignore the nightmares and the anger. I buried all of the pain and guilt from losing so many people who were close to me and sat on the pile of dirt. None of these solutions worked to assuage my issues.

In 2009, I experienced my first regional burn. I truly felt a connection to the people I met there the second I rode through the gate. I quickly ensconced myself in the community and jumped into helping out with any project I could. I found some peace in the creativity. I found love in people I had never seen before. Over the next few years, I did everything I could to get myself to the playa and other regionals. I even threw an orphan burn in 2011 when I couldn’t make it to Black Rock City, Nev.

Getting back on subject, I returned home to Florida from my second trip to Black Rock City in 2012 battered and beaten by my own ego. I tried to find somewhere to place blame, but I knew where it belonged. I went to Afterburn, our fall regional here in Florida, with a whole new mindset. I knew I would draw inspiration from my home crowd and did; it was a great weekend of laughter and love. I returned with a reinvigorated light that I was looking to aim. My roommate, Mike, who I had collaborated with in the past, didn’t make it that weekend, but he had apparently been bitten by the same bug. As soon as I dropped my bags and sat down, he said “Let’s do another project,” and we decided to go for the Circle of Regional Effigies at Burning Man.

In December, the 2013 theme was released: “Cargo Cult: The Art of John Frum.” Being a Marine and a history buff, there couldn’t have been a better theme for me to sink my teeth into. I felt Florida’s connection to space travel would be the perfect thing to draw on for inspiration. I threw out our other concepts and began sketching up a rocket ship that would be wrapped in bamboo, matching the theme perfectly. After it was suggested by one of my friends, I named the rocket Cape Carnival to reflect its Florida roots. I thought we were going to get into CORE for sure; Florida would have its home on the playa.

Along with other things I did in my adolescence, I was an accomplished draftsman in high school, taking every class I could in the subject and excelling at each level. I spent the better part of December 2012 reacquainting myself with AutoCAD. I actually reached beyond my former capabilities, creating a full 3D model of the plan, something I never really tried prior to this experience.

I went through all the right channels. I applied for CORE. I ensured nobody else from Florida applied, giving my project the status of being the only CORE project from the state. My vision was coming to life before I even made the first cut.

On March 14, I received an e-mail from the CORE coordinators stating that the project “didn’t seem to have as much community support as many of the other effigies proposed do.” Of all the things that could have gotten the project turned down, it came down to something completely out of my control. The coordinators did encourage me to bring it out as a standalone project, though. I talked to some friends and they encouraged me to do it. I knew I could pull it off with the amount of support I had, and they even gave me ammunition to rally more. So you know what? I threw caution to the wind and went for it. I always saw doing the CORE as a step toward doing playa projects anyways.

On my birthday, March 26, I had lunch with one of my collaborators, Tony, and came up with the idea for the Nexus of Disavowed Effigies. We identified other projects that were turned down, which led us to the crew from Seattle that brought the POSIWID – which stands for the Purpose Of Seattle Is What It Does. They had a similar idea, and now we had people with a sister project that we couldn’t let down.

Once I rallied a crew to help me build the project, I proceeded to do something I had never done before: I promoted the project. I hit the Florida community with everything I had, spamming Facebook pages as well as shaking hands and kissing babies at our spring regional. I started a Kickstarter campaign to raise the $3,000 I needed to make my plan a reality. I begged for, pleaded for, and coerced every bit of financial support I could from the community in Florida, all while putting out good vibes and helping as many people as I could at our regional burn.

I then headed home to Tennessee for Serendipity to work as a member of the Department of Public Works. As this was only the second time that this regional burn had taken place, I felt I could set a good example for the newer members of their immediate community. This was the place to make my intentions for this year’s Burning Man clear. I put as much of myself into that burn as I ever have, but it wasn’t for the project or a pat on the back; it was to help build something where I came from. Of course, I still did my fair share of promoting while I was there, and the support I got from Tennessee was monumental.

At the end of May, Burnt Oranges, the nonprofit responsible for burns in Florida, put the remaining $700 I needed to reach my $3000 Kickstarter goal into the campaign. I was able to get this support based on the amount of effort I put into our local community. It was all coming together.

Over the summer months, my crew and I cut wood, raised more money and cut some more wood while sweating in the Florida heat. We built the effigy twice at home. After painting it, we left Fort Lauderdale Aug. 16 for the 3,500-mile trek to Black Rock City. If everything went right, we’d hit the playa Wednesday of build week, giving us plenty of time.

Of course, it’s never that easy. Five miles outside of Empire, Nev., and about 15 miles from the gates of Black Rock City, we had two tire blowouts on the same side of the toy hauler we used to transport both Cape Carnival and my friend Brian’s art car. Ouch. I built two extra days into our schedule in case dust storms or whatever else the playa decided to throw at us caused delays. It took us three days to get there from Gerlach, Nev. Brian got a new trailer, and we hit the playa early Saturday morning.

Over the next two days, we worked like dogs to get everything done in time for the gates to open. The last thing I wanted was to build a project on the playa while everybody flooded into their camps. We got our camp up in record time, and on Sunday evening, we finished Cape Carnival. It was 18 feet of beauty lit by three shop lights for the evening. I couldn’t have been prouder of myself or the team that helped me get it up. So what did we do from there? Celebrate! I drank a two-liter bottle of champagne and wandered the playa that night with my friend, John Noggin. On Monday, we mounted the LEDs, and we thought we were done until the time came to burn it down Thursday night with our fellow CORE rejects.

The tricky thing about Murphy’s Law is that it’s a law. For some reason, we seemed to be snake bitten. We were turned down by CORE, worked though the hot Florida summer, broke down in Empire, and got there late. Yet, we persevered and made it happen. On Tuesday night, I cursed Murphy one last time. At some point in the evening, a vehicle ran over one of our grounding stakes. It was a small act, but losing the strength of one guy wire proved to be catastrophic when a windstorm blew through. Cape Carnival collapsed on itself. I had been robbed of my burn; I was devastated.

While I did everything I could to make sure no one was hurt on what had become the biggest dark wad at Burning Man, my friends and campmates brought me lights, beer, cigarettes, love and laughter. I can’t thank the people who helped me out that night enough. I tried to tell myself all of the right things about how it wasn’t a failure or a defeat, but deep inside I had never felt so beaten. I vowed to myself that the playa had not seen the last of me. It might have beaten me, but I would return with a project that could handle anything the world threw at it.

At daybreak, we returned to camp. Overcome with exhaustion and finally in a comfortable space, I lost it. I could do nothing but cry. I cried because I felt I’d lost even though I put everything I had into it; I cried because I failed to come through for the family I have grown to love in Florida; but most of all I cried because I couldn’t take it any more. As I was dealing with these emotions, a thought struck me: I knew some awesome people who could fix it, but I couldn’t ask anybody to help at this moment. The last thing I wanted to do was infringe upon other peoples’ burn or expect anything of anybody regarding my project. Hours later, I cried myself to sleep, which was a whole new experience for me.

I woke up a few hours later to the camp moving about its day. Knowing how depressed I was, everybody expressed their concern. They offered me bacon and breakfast. Nobody really knew what to do. I was numb and broken. I’d been through hell and back in the sands of Iraq, but I’d never felt so hopeless, so I cried some more. An hour after I awoke, Brian came into camp with the people I envisioned before I went to sleep. I collapsed on his shoulder and wept. As much as I couldn’t ask them to help, I knew these guys would be able to fix it. They said they were going to take me and figure out some way to bring my smile back. So I grabbed Brian’s whiskey, a drink I usually stay away from due to past indiscretions, and rode off on our friend’s golf cart. They drove straight toward the project and asked me for permission to fix it. At this point, what else could I do but accept?

So Brian, Darren, Jimmy, Miles, Richie and Tan went to work rebuilding the rocket. With their beautiful wives in tow, and the rest of my core work crew able to do nothing but stand back and watch, these awesome people put my labor of love and my broken heart back together. Once again, it didn’t work according to plan, but it couldn’t have worked out more perfectly. Just before the sun said goodnight, a boom lift arrived and Cape Carnival stood again, shorter, stronger, and with more Florida love.

Thursday night, we burned it down. The conclusion I sought for this project came, and it burned exactly as I dreamed when I first put pencil to paper. It was beautiful, awesome everything I wanted it to be. It gave the Florida community something to enjoy and call our own. It was amazing how easy it went after all of the trouble. In the end, I was amazed at how awesome it was to be at the center of it all.

A year ago, I knew that I had to give more to Burning Man to better understand what it’s all about. I knew it would lead me to a happier place. As much as I worked to improve myself in the years prior, I knew I wasn’t done, so I took on something I knew would be bigger than me and represented the Florida community on the playa. I understood I might take myself to the limits of stress my mind could take. I stepped outside my comfort zone in so many ways and came out the other side reborn. I never expected the clarity of mind that came with it. With this project, I bid goodbye to the anger and self-doubt I’ve felt for so many years. I’ve been reborn, just like Cape Carnival when it was rebuilt, and like the mythical phoenix, I’m on fire.

by Josh Boyer

About the author: Tales From the Playa

Tales From the Playa

Tales From the Playa are dreams and memories of events that took place at Burning Man, as told by participants. Submit your story here.

9 Comments on “Phoenix: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of Cape Carnival

  • BrotherMichael says:

    To me, this is what Burning Man is all about.
    Thank you for sharing your story.

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  • Jet Fuel says:

    Here’s to doing it wrong!
    Great read.
    Semper Fi.

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  • Sandra Grubbs says:

    Josh, I was so touched by your story, your insight, and your “resurrection” from the ashes. Thank God for people like you and the friends who supported you.

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  • Bo says:

    That is an amazing story. You’ve truly captured the Burning man spirit, and I think that it has truly captured you as well. Thank you for sharing.

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  • Whoa!

    Your story and courage are brutally wonderful. Thanks for sharing, thanks for building, thanks for being willing to fail, and more importantly, willing to accept help to accomplish your mission.

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  • London fogg says:

    Thanks Josh,
    I needed that (share from you).
    Perfect timing…
    Xo -I

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  • Rock says:

    Great tale, Josh… making art on the Playa is all about accepting what the Playa allows it to be, and it always allows it to be just what you need. Good job, and I look forward to seeing what you bring next year!

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  • Willing n Able says:

    A wonderful story and so true to the gifts the playa imparts. A great testimony for anyone planning a playa build.

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  • Crusher says:

    As a Marine and ex-cop, I am so thankful to hear how Burning Man and more importantly, the Burning Man community, have been able to help you move forward. The willingness of Burners to open themselves to others is, for me, the greatest part. Hope you can make it to the 2014 Burn. Would love to meet you and swap jarhead tales. Crusher (Iron Monkeys, seattle)

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