“What is this? Is it a baby wipe? No wait, I think it’s a sock.”
We’re clustered around the tailgate of a government pickup truck, holding up zipped and labeled plastic bags of detritus. Most are looking pretty empty; others less so. And then there’s this little white ankle sock, crusted in dried mud — and with enough surface area to signal instant failure for one of the 126 randomly selected testing areas. Ten more like that and we’d be up to the 10% threshold set by our agreement with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Eleven more and the whole inspection would go down as a failure.
“It’s always nerve-wracking when we do the inspection,” says ChAos, head of Burning Man’s Department of Public Works (DPW). Because we know there’s going to be stuff that we find out here — we just don’t know what it’s going to look like. But it’s always worked out in the past, so we have to go into this believing that it’s going to work again.”
DA, who heads up the DPW’s Playa Restoration team, agrees. “People were projecting that it’s worse than it is, but I’m feeling pretty good about it. And that belief is based on 25 years on this crew, watching this community and the way it behaves and leaves no trace. So that confidence isn’t just made up.”
Just about every aspect of the Black Rock City experience is subject to the whims of nature, and the annual process of cleaning up after ourselves is no exception. Some years, the weather is glorious and it’s no big deal to leave no trace. Others, like last year, are complicated by dust storms, which can alternately hide and reveal stray bits of matter out of place (MOOP), and extreme heat, which makes it harder for us humans to do our part in picking it up. This year the X factor was rain, and the mud flats it created on our temporarily not-so-dry lakebed.
I came out to see the inspection process first-hand, and until that sock got peeled up and dropped in a sample bag, I saw a whole lot of nothing. The good kind of left-no-trace nothing, starting on the drive up Highway 447 from Wadsworth, which was as clean as I’ve ever seen it on both shoulders, and out onto the Black Rock Desert, which, other than a few rough surface areas, was its usual blank canvas. The roughly 10,000 acres formerly known as Black Rock City looked at first glance very much like the rest of the desert around it.
A month earlier, on my way out of BRC after the event, I had seen quite a few vehicles stuck in the mud, and passed some camps that looked hastily abandoned. And of course this angle was played up pretty sensationally in social media. So I asked DA what the Resto team had encountered. This is what he had to say:
“Generally with what we call abandoned items, it usually fills up four dumpsters. Four or five. For 75,000 people – if you think about it, per person, that’s next to nothing. This year we had six, which is still nothing really when you think about it. There was a slight uptick, but right around the average. So people either came back for their stuff, or somebody else took it home for them. It was all taken care of.”
The more lasting consequences of people leaving early had to do with their vehicles carving ruts into the playa surface, which later dried rock-hard and often filled with buried MOOP. Towels, bathrobes, car floor mats — everything people had stuck under their wheels to try to get traction — all spun down into the mud and left behind.
“You could really tell where people left it clean and where people were struggling,” DA adds. “You could look at a site and say either ‘these people panicked’ or ‘these people hung out for 48 hours and drove themselves off the playa.’ But where people panicked or had a hard time or were struggling, they left a lot of ruts.”
Smoothing out those ruts turned out to be a complicated process involving what the crew calls “the playa Zamboni,” actually three heavy vehicles in convoy — a box grader, a roller and a water truck — followed by a MOOP team to pick up anything churned up to the surface.
“We did the equivalent of about 300 miles of grading out here,” ChAos explains, “to smooth out the ruts and the chunked-up areas. All we’re really trying to do is just put the material back where it belongs so the weather can have a chance to do its job smoothing out the playa as it’s done for thousands of years.”
So what about that sock? Turns out there were quite a few of them sucked off people’s feet by the mud, along with plastic bags and bits of tape, and at least one pair of boots, sans feet. But all generally easy to spot and remove. I was surprised to learn that the biggest MOOP culprit this year was cardboard. Folks would put it down to be able to walk in their camps, then put down more when it got soaked, and it all got squashed down into the mud. “By the time we got to it, it was like cement,” DA says. “And even if you pulled it up it would come apart and leave layers of paper stuck in the playa.”
Whatever the results of this year’s inspection (and we may not know for another few weeks), the big takeaway for me is how good our community actually did at Leaving No Trace in a very challenging year. The Resto team’s efforts are heroic, but there’s no way on Earth that 100 people could clean up a city of 75,000 if the citizens didn’t do the lion’s share of the work before they started. Whatever the elements may throw our way, we clean up after ourselves, no matter how hard it is or how long it takes, because that’s who we are: a community and an organization committed to values of Self-reliance, Communal Effort, and Leaving No Trace.
And mud boots. Next year, I’m bringing a pair. Just in case.
Cover image of BLM Inspection, October 2023 (Photo by Stuart Mangrum)