One Last Look


(This post was written after a visit to Playa Restoration last week; the BLM inspection was scheduled to take place today.)

They are still out there, you know.

Still out there, walking zombie-like across the empty playa, looking for any stray bits of Matter Out Of Place that may have escaped other well-intentioned but imperfect cleanup efforts.

We are talking about the Playa Restoration team, and they have been out there for weeks now, making sure that the playa will look the way it did before Burning Man happened, before the Golden Spike went into the ground under hazy red skies back in July.

(You can read the official reports on the team’s progress right here on the Burning Man Journal.)

Resto is, like the event itself, many different things. It can be a way of making the party last a little longer. It can be a way of prolonging the profound desert experience (for better or for worse). It can be a way of easing back into the default world — you give yourself time to formulate an exit strategy, develop a transition plan.

Some people on the Resto team have homes to return to. Some don’t. There are folks who are waiting for a sign to point them in the right direction, to whatever adventure or ambition comes next.

And all of this takes place in an intense emotional landscape. You work side by side with the same people who have been in this harsh and isolated place for months. At the beginning of the work season, it was ungodly hot. Now it is cold, and getting colder. You need heavy jackets in the morning and at night. It hasn’t rained yet, but it’s coming, and so is the ice on the windshield.

Nerves might be ever-so-slightly on edge. It is a time of sadness and joy, change and growth, and everything is centered around the fact that it is all coming to an end. When Resto is done, when the inspection happens, Burning Man 2018 will be over for good.

At its core, Resto is serious business. It is the thing that must happen so that the event can take place again. The Bureau of Land Management will be inspecting the work on Monday. If the Resto team fails, if the BLM finds too much stuff that doesn’t belong in the desert, there will be no permit for next year. Simple as that. In that context, there is an underlying seriousness to Resto’s surface loopy-ness.

Resto is 180 people wandering in rough lines across each and every square inch of Black Rock City, all of them looking down at the playa, inspecting every square foot that’s inside the nine-mile perimeter of the city. They’re carrying moop sticks and buckets to scoop up the detritus, and they are dressed in that DPW dishabille chic that only they can pull off so well.

D.A., the inventive leader of the Resto team  who always seems to be coming up with ways to tweak the process, knows how much you want to see how your camp did in cleaning up after yourselves, and he takes care to manage the flow of information constructively. So watch for his updates, but for now, the most official thing we can say is that “things are looking good.”

A ten-vehicle caravan leaves Gerlach and makes its way out to the playa a little after 8:30 am, kicking up dust, heading for the shoreline work camp. There are cars and trucks and school buses carrying the people who will comb the desert floor. The morning is beautiful, as it has been for just about every morning this year. There is no wind, no haze, and the temperature will eventually climb up around 80, but not much more. And the playa looks absolutely flawless, and empty.

But that’s only from a distance. Once you get closer, you see the road stakes still marking Black Rock City’s intersections, and lots of orange cones. When they walk across the city, the line crews will pick up what they can, but if an area needs more attention, they drop a cone. Other teams will come later with rakes and shovels, looking to bust those cones.

“Resto is hard because there’s no prize at the end,” Weldboy says. “When you’re building things, you get to go to Burning Man. Here, you get to go home.”

The Moop Map is genius in its simplicity, and a marvel in its technological sophistication. Every orange cone becomes an orange or red or black mark on a digital map of the city. Everybody knows exactly how everyone else did in leaving no trace.

So Resto is all very serious and important and precise, but there is still plenty of crazy, because … Burning Man.

The lines have to curve around the outline of the city, and people tend to wander as they walk, lost in thought. Or somebody is telling a joke. Or some people are moodily silent. Or some people are throwing mud clots, you know, for fun. The music is loud, and it comes from everywhere. All the pickup trucks have loud speakers, and all of them are playing different songs. Some of them are playing the same song over and over again.

Then the lines are re-formed, and everything is all straight and tidy, but then the walking starts again, and so does the wandering, the clot-throwing, the laughing, the music, and you either find it hysterically funny, or it gives you a headache that makes you murderous, or something in between.

And you do that from 9 am until 5 pm, with a half-hour break for lunch, which is usually a stale sandwich you packed into a bag at breakfast. Oh, and you get a break around 3, which is called “morale.”


The other night, Weldboy set up a “confessional” in the back room of the Black Rock Saloon, where, he said, you could confide your deepest, darkest secrets to a “cranky nihilist,” who of course would offer no judgement, and who would keep your secret safe until he went to his grave.

You almost can’t help but get introspective sometimes during Resto, and the confessional might have offered a way to get some things off your chest, to rob those secrets of their power. You might face yourself, maybe take your first wobbling steps toward moving on.

There was already someone inside when we got there, and three other people were waiting patiently, even solemnly, for their turn. We said, “There ought to be a wall or something between him and the person he’s talking to.”

“Oh, there is,” Juicy Jake replied. “This is legit.”


On Friday night, the Saloon hosted a “Folsom Street Fair,” and participants were urged to wear fishnets, always a popular choice, for men or women. And the annual Talent Show would take place on Saturday night; we were unable to document it, which might be best for all concerned. A very loose definition of the word “talent” applies here, but there are always a few truly and completely stunning performances, too. People will travel from the Bay Area or Portland or beyond for this one special night.

To call the Talent Show wild is an understatement. To call it wonderful lends a nice-ness that isn’t right, either. Let’s just say that it’s a fitting climax to the work season.


Maybe Resto is decompression for the people who need it most, the ones who have been out there the longest. In this environment, people tend to get introverted or very very extroverted, and they can act out in all kinds of … interesting … ways. But Resto gives them a place to do all this, to work this stuff out, and you can do it while you are still among people who care about you, who maybe even love you. Maybe.

Because this is by no means to say that everything is kumbaya and we’re all holding hands and everything is wonderful. No and no. There are, and will still be, people you don’t like, and who don’t like you. It’s just that it seems like everything in Resto is a little edgier, has a bit more tang.

There is nothing left in the desert, or almost nothing, and it feels like you have nothing left but yourself. Resto is when the season comes to an end, and you don’t have anything left to look forward to, at least not here. You have only yourself, and the path ahead.

Moustachio has spent five months around the playa in each of the past six years, and he says his favorite day of Resto is the day they pull up the Golden Spike. The fence is long gone, and all the cones and stakes are gone, too. Soon all the people will leave, all but a handful who will stay at the work ranch. Others will stay for a few more days in town, wrapping up paperwork, making sure everyone gets their stuff and goes home.

“That last day,” Moustachio said, “when they’re about to pull up the spike, I like to walk away, walk around the outside, and just look out” at the hills, the sky, and the clouds.

If everything has gone according to plan, that’s all that will be left.

Here are some more pics:

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.

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