The Litterati

You probably remember the moment you realized it was time to leave Burning Man.

As good a time as you had, and most of the time it was a pretty damn good time, it was still time to go. It was time to go RIGHT NOW. The heat, the noise, the sleep deprivation, the frikken DUST, the crazy people – they had all taken their toll. Yes, it was time to go. RIGHT NOW.

So you packed your stuff, jammed it in, around, and on top of your car, truck, trailer, RV or what have you, and then waited in exodus lines that were ungodly long (but you made the best of it), and then, finally, at long last, you reached the blacktop and off you went.

Now you know we love you and we’d never criticize you, and believe us when we say that we know that you might not have been at the peak of your cognitive and motor abilities when you were packing up, and maybe, just maybe, not every last thing you packed up and put away got packed up and put away properly.

Some of it may, in fact, have flown off your car or truck or trailer or RV or what have you, and landed along the side of the road on 34 or 447.

That’s where the highway crew that has been newly dubbed the Litterati come in.

For quite a few years, a hardy band of people from the DPW have traveled those same highways and byways, looking for things that might have escaped your grasp. And, just like many things about the DPW these days, the efforts have gotten sharper and more focused, and the hard work seems to be paying off.

D.A. is addressing the highway crew before it heads out for the first day of work. The mood is upbeat and fun, but things turn serious in a hurry.

“The number one thing is safety,” D.A. says. “Do not be a liability out there — be smart, look out for each other.

“Other cars won’t be expecting you, and you might look kind of amazing, and they’ll be like, ‘Holy s—!’ so just remember that this is a highway, and there are trucks, and you do not want to create a dangerous situation.

“You have to wear the vests.”

Yes, everyone who works on the Litterati team has to wear the bright orange safety vests (with the smart neon lime trim). This is a non-negotiable.

“You guys are the public relations aspect of this as well,” D.A. says to the gathered crew. “You’re going to be out there meeting people, and they’ll be asking what you guys do. So make sure you remember that you guys represent Burning Man, playa restoration, highway cleanup.”

DA is passionate about cleanup. He’s been helping to make sure we Leave No Trace and that the playa is in the same condition as we found it for 17 years, and he manages all things Restoration.

“People love us,” he says before the highway crew heads out, “And let’s keep it safe.”

This bag didn't make it all the way home
This bag didn’t make it all the way home

You might have noticed one of the pieces of literature included in the packet that you got when you came through the Burning Man gates this year. It was bright green, had a handy slot so you could hang it on your rear-view mirror, and it listed no fewer than 20 places where you could dump your trash, take your recycling, even empty your gray water on your way home. There was no need to drive the whole way home with the stinky aroma of garbage surrounding you.

And the “Leave Nevada Beautiful” message seems to have gotten through. Reports from the field, and first-hand observation, confirm that there was less trash strewn along the roadways on the way back to civilization. Maybe the nastiest were the places where toilet entangled itself in the scrub brush along the road, but there were also some mattresses, and some rugs, too.

When we cruised the road, we didn’t see much junk, but, “When you slow down to a snail’s pace, that’s when it all comes out,” Sansa Asylum said. She’s been on the crew for years, and is the leader of the field team. She was kind enough to give us an account of her experiences this year:

I, Sansa Asylum, am the manager of highway clean-up.

 Our department falls under Resto, has a short contract, and kicks major butt on the highways cleaning up the aftermath of the festival. We clean up the areas that the locals and commuters see every day as well as interface with locals, law enforcement, etc in a friendly PR manner.

 I take my job very seriously, as most DPW do. And, when we’re out working, I treat it like a football game; a very dangerous and biohazard-filled football game. I’m writing this ember because I feel that this year my crew of 12 was especially victorious and I wanted to share with you what new things we did this year that I believe made that so.

 First off, let me say that every year we clean up about 200 miles of trash. Every year there is SO MUCH TRASH. Half my job is strategizing, managing, picking up trash, interfacing, etc. and the other half of my job is keeping all 12 of us safe and happy enough to keep going. This year I was worried there would be even more trash for us to clean up since I heard intel from Gate that there were something like 40% newbies this year. I was secretly afraid our crew would be overwhelmed up to our necks in refuse on the side of the highway.

 Au contraire!! I did some damage control during the event, and DA had inserted his wonderful ‘Leave Nevada Beautiful’ hangtags in all the welcome packets passed out to every participant at Greeters. Low and behold, and after some praying on my part, we surveyed the 447 and it was NOT messier than years past. In fact, I would say it was CLEANER. My crew was able to go out and kick butt all day and leave the highways not only clean, but positively sparkling. I could finally feel the countryside buzzing as we left sites cleaner than ever.

 This is the kind of feeling that keeps me coming back to this dirty job. (That and the big trucks they give us.) Why was it cleaner and what can we do more of next year? Well, I believe DA’s hanging tags noting sites for trash drop-off, recycling, and RV dumping made quite a difference in the number of intentionally left trashy items. Let’s have those next year too!

 I also believe the damage control I did may have had an effect on the number of unintentional, or fly-away items. I talked to Exodus, Collexodus, and did a BMIR PSA informing and empowering participants to tie down their items before leaving. I was dating one of the shift leads on Exodus and he rallied everybody to watch for badly tied loads, and made participants with dangerous loads pull over and re-pack.

 There were also at least three serious accidents this year due to items falling off of people’s vehicles on the 447. Not tying down properly is a very dangerous issue aside from the fact it produces most of the litter.

Sansa always seems to have a good outlook
Sansa always seems to have a good outlook


Thanks, Sansa, and thanks to the crews for all the hard work, and thank you, dear reader, for helping to Leave Nevada Beautiful.

Here are some more pics of the Litterati doing their thing:


About the author: John Curley

John Curley (that's me) has been Burning since the relatively late date of 2004, and in 2008 I spent the better part of a month on the playa, documenting the building and burning of Black Rock City in words and pictures. I loved it, and I've been doing it ever since. I was a newspaper person in a previous life, and I spent many years at the San Francisco Chronicle. At the time I left, in 2007, I was the deputy managing editor in charge of Page One and the news sections of the paper. Since then, I've turned a passion for photography into a second career. I shoot for editorial, commercial and private clients. I've also taught a little bit, including two years at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and a year at San Francisco State University. I live on the San Mateo coast, just south of San Francisco in California.

12 Comments on “The Litterati

  • Mark McCormack says:

    I didn’t attend this year, but wanted to say thanks to all the literatti crew – yout guys and gals ROCK!

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  • BDog says:

    2016 was my first year (I’m planning for ’17 now). As I was leaving BRC I was surprised to see the trash left by some of the burners around me, tossed what I could find in my trailer. But I was sad to see the trash along the road. I’m hoping it was all accidental release, but either way Thank You Literatti Crew. You are amazing.

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  • Miles says:

    You guys are amazing and appreciated. You should be proud of yourselves. Thank you for all your hard work!!

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  • Motor says:

    I love the idea of checking loads during exodus. We thought the same thing this year! Perhaps that could become a new job for several people, that could save a lot of work for the resto crew. We stopped several cars ourselves, but it sure makes sense for a few volunteers to focus just on that. We even had to tell someone that they were about to lose their mutant vehicle off of their trailer!

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  • Lexi Fey says:

    Thank you Litterati! You guys are amazing!

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  • Phil says:

    I don’t know how saying “THANK YOU!!!!” can even come close for all the work you’ve done and are still doing. Thanks to all of you there will be a place for Burning Man to happen again.

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  • David says:

    I’d love to be a part of that team. Thanks for helping others leave no trace.

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  • BlueBerry says:

    Thanks Litterati! Good On Ya! Goodness knows this is a large task that needs to be done well, thanks for all you do!

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  • Sas says:

    Great job you legends! I’ve only been to BMonce in 2010 but I have never littered a cigarette butt on the planet ever since and BM taught me that! I try to spread the ethos wherever I goss know you are doing a great thing litterarti!

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  • Jonathon says:

    Each year when I left the playa, I had such frustration and sadness about the stuff on the side of the road. I am so glad to hear that you guys exist. I did not know. Yes, load checkers, and yes I I would like to join your team.

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  • Ranger Stumpy says:

    I’m glad you guys exist! Thank you so much for your hard work!!

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  • champagne says:

    Go Litterati! Maybe during pulse on exodus, there could be load tie down assistance teams…..I am sure the hang tags were very helpful.

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