The following is an excerpt from BUILT TO BURN: Tales of the Desert Carnies of Burning Man by Tony “Coyote” Perez, the first book ever published by Burning Man Project.
Click below to hear Tony read this clip in his own voice:
We turned off the highway onto gravel and rolled to a stop. My headlights were now pointed out into nowhere, their beams fizzling into the ether. We sat stunned, our city ears ringing in the silence.
“There’s nothing out here, Jason.”
“There’s supposed to be a trailer out here somewhere. There should be someone camped here with the compass settings to find Burning Man.”
“Compass settings? We’re supposed to just drive out into the middle of nowhere and hope we find it?”
“Well, yeah, man. This ain’t no warehouse party.” We sat for a few more moments as our eyes adjusted.
“I think I see something down there to the left.”
We crept further, the only sounds being the idling motor and the wheels crunching on the gravel. Then I saw a reflection off our headlights. It was the broken back window of a very small gray trailer with the words “Burning Man Trauma Unit” painted on its side in red. We slowed to a stop and rolled down the window. The morning smell of desert sage came in. It was the first of the brambly spirits that would come calling. It put its hands on either side of my face, breathing into my nose and saying, “You’ve been asleep in the city for a long time, haven’t you?”
“I have,” I muttered under my breath. Jason had seen how deep a sleep that had been, so I trusted him when he came to me one day and said, “You’re coming with me to Burning Man.”
In many ways this desert trip reminded me of an earlier one, when I had left Michigan for California at age twenty. I had grown up in a house of women, living with my mom and older sisters after our father had ditched us at a very early age. I had never been west of the Mississippi, seen an ocean, traversed a desert, or crossed a mountain. My manhood was out there, and I aimed to prove it. So I grabbed a backpack and my saxophone, and tied it onto my only ticket out of there: my Suzuki 550 street motorcycle. It was barely big enough to be allowed on the freeway, but a twenty year old with big dreams of stardom and Grammy awards doesn’t let such things stand in his way. A week later I was homeless in San Francisco with ten bucks. I did manage to make a full career out of music for the next fifteen years, but this was slowing into the ruts of a North Beach blues band as the dreams of a Grammy grew thin.
And now I was facing the Black Rock Desert at dawn. “What is this place?” I muttered.
I could feel the comforts of a familiar planet start to unravel as this hostile Martian landscape started to take on a red glow from behind the distant mountains. It’s times like these when excitement and fear become difficult to disentangle.
“Roll up on that trailer,” Jason said.
The light was getting stronger, and for the first time, I was looking at the marvel of the playa: a prehistoric lakebed that had dried up into cracked, flat clay for 1,000 square miles. My city eyes were hopeless, as they had nothing that could allude to scale. My sense of perception seemed stripped of its clothes, standing naked in the blankness. We rolled a bit closer and I could see the trailer creaking on its springs. Then the door flew open and an extremely large person climbed out, barking at us.
“How does a guy that large fit into a trailer that small?” I asked.
“He’s telling us to turn off the headlights. We’re being rude.”
I shut off the lights and my eyes widened. This giant was wrapped in weaponry.
“Jesus Christ! That’s more guns on one person than I’ve ever seen!”
“Of course. It’s fucking Nevada.”
This corpulent fellow dressed in black stepped menacingly to the driver’s window and leaned in on his elbow. He had a round face with black hair pulled back into a small bun, making him look like a sumo wrestler. This was the ’96 version of the Gate, which is now staffed by hundreds of volunteers and takes hours to get through.
“If you guys are looking for Burning Man, you’re too early,” he said.
I was pretty rattled by all that steel swinging just outside my window, so Jason did the talking.
“We’re camping with Will Roger and Crimson Rose. We’re here early to help set up and shit. We also know Larry Harvey and John Law.”
He was dropping every name he had, and it worked. Speaking the secret passwords loosened our sumo wrestler’s stance a bit.
“So, you guys are here to work? All right. My name’s Boggman. Ever been to the Black Rock Desert before?”
“Yeah, it’s my third year,” Jason replied. He was trying to play it cool. I, however, was starting to feel a weird rush of stepping into the unknown.
“You guys got water and provisions?” Mr. Boggman asked.
“Yeah,” we lied.
“You guys carrying guns?”
“No.” Figured we’d tell the truth on this one. I thought I saw a brief wash of disappointment on Boggman’s face.
“Did you bring a compass?”
Jason started digging in his pocket. He had checked that same pocket constantly as we skittered about like moths trying to get out of town. I had wondered why he was so bent on the compass. I was finding out.
“Yup,” he said, pulling it out.
“Ok. Set your odometer to zero and go one mile due east, then turn north by northeast and go about sixteen more miles and you’ll see it.”
We thanked him and rolled on. We would be seeing more of Mr. Boggman and his “Boom Sticks,” as he called them. Jason would later ask him if he kept them loaded.
“Of course I keep them loaded,” he answered. “If it’s not loaded, it’s just a stick!”
I nudged the gas and inched out onto the playa like stepping out onto thin ice. The cracked lunar surface seemed to be no thicker than a pie crust as I braced for the wheels to break through. But after we rolled for a bit, we discovered the surface was flat and firm, not unlike concrete. You could open up your motor and skim like a speedboat with nothing in your way for the next forty miles! I’ve since heard legends of locals in the past who would traverse the playa by tying off the steering wheel with a piece of rope and setting a brick on their accelerator while they hung out in the back of the RV drinking beer.
As we slowly gathered speed to the one-mile mark, a deep excitement started to flutter in my gut. It was the second of the brambly spirits that came to call: radical freedom. The open span that lay ahead was a jail door left open, and we were about to make a run for it. We crossed the one-mile point and turned the Mazda north-by-north- east. There was no road, no lanes or markers, no cops, no other cars, no anything! I turned to Jason and mirrored his mania. His blue eyes were the devil’s pinwheels. Then thirty years of suppressed rumbling kicked through my cellar door and burst into a geyser as I aimed that blast into the emptiness. I let out a war cry and buried the gas pedal! Even the car seemed thrilled as she finally got to open up her heart and barrel away in full stride. Our adrenaline rose with the speedometer that was quickly topping out at 120. We were a launched rocket! I heard someone screaming. It was Jason hanging out of the sunroof with his arms outstretched as we reached orbit. The car floated as it devoured the playa and stress blew off me like broken armor. But the mountains still looked to be standing still. There was no way to tell if something was half a mile away or twenty. The car scorched on and it seemed we were getting nowhere. The sun had gone from an orange ball to blazing yellow; we were in full daylight now. The morning shimmer was coming up as it stretched to the horizon, warped and glassy. A million years of instincts were telling me to get away from this waterless, inhumane place, and the deeper we went into the playa, the more uncomfortable I became.
“We’ve been going for a while now! Where the fuck is it?” I managed to bellow through the sunroof.
“Just keep driving! It’s gotta be out here!”
Further and further we went. I couldn’t tell if it had been five minutes or twenty-five as the sixteen miles rolled by. Still, there was only a shimmering mirage, like a distant lake, growing closer as the sun continued to rise. Then, I thought I saw something that started as a floating speck on the horizon. I kept losing it, then finding it again as my eyes searched. As we got closer, it seemed like two hovering smudges, one above the other. It was morphing and growing like a cell dividing under a microscope. Who could tell? Then it started to take shape.
“There it is!” Jason shouted from the sunroof, wildly pointing leftward.
I slowed and adjusted the wheel a bit more north, squinting while I leaned into the windshield. A few moments later the object revealed itself.
“It’s a Doggie Diner head, Jason! Where the hell are you taking me?”
We were streaking toward an unearthly place that was starting the joke with the punchline.
“I told you you’d love it,” shouted Jason.
BUILT TO BURN: Tales of the Desert Carnies of Burning Man is now available in paperback and ebook. An audiobook is in production.
Want to hear more? Tony joined the Burning Man LIVE podcast crew for more background on the book and additional live readings – and a lot of laughs. Listen here: