Notes From a (Mostly) Empty Playa

“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.

ChAos at the BLM inspection, October 2023 (Photo by Stuart Mangrum)

“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.”

The post-event Black Rock Desert, October 2023 (Photo by Stuart Mangrum)

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.

Drone image of the BLM inspection, October 2023 (Photo by Taz)

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. 

Walking the line at the BLM inspection, October 2023 (Photo by Stuart Mangrum)

“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.”

Scanning for MOOP during the BLM inspection, October 2023 (Photo by Stuart Mangrum)

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)

About the author: Stuart Mangrum

Stuart Mangrum

Stuart is the director of Burning Man Project's Philosophical Center and host of the Burning Man LIVE podcast. Since his first Burn in 1993 he has participated as a theme camp organizer, artist, and year-round staff member contributing to the Project's communications, education, and storytelling efforts.

31 Comments on “Notes From a (Mostly) Empty Playa

  • James says:

    Glad to hear the playa is doing alright. Thanks Stuart and Resto!

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    • Stan says:

      This is what I find amazing. I talk to people about Burning Man all the time. I still get the, it’s just a bunch hippies on drugs list to music.???? I always say that it’s much more than that. I remember the mess that was left by the hippies and space cadets at Woodstock, and Woodstock 98! We take pride in cleaning up after ourselves. In a world where no one will take responsibility for their own actions, the burn community is a breath of fresh air. Thank you guys for the mopping up operations. See you next year.

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    • Greg Sequichie The Biggest of Bears says:

      Selfless Service has brought me home

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    Pictures looked good to me… shame our Cities aren’t held to the same standards our deserts are…… good job guys.

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  • dennis tomlinson says:

    keep up the good work…very much appreciate all the dedication and passion you put into BM….am a 2017 burner….my son has done BM for 9 years! …we both are part of the camp named ORGANIC FRUIT AND VEGGIES AT 3 AND K. take care …be good….and hope to come again soon….the most fun in the most iconic place…BRC.

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  • Tailgate says:

    So awesome to have been a part of the last week of cleanup. It was really something! SO MANY SOCKS.

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  • rainer says:

    You guys are my heroes. Without you BM would not happen and you guys do this incredible job after everyone else went home.
    Thank you thank you thank you

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  • Delmer Buddy Totten says:

    Resto and Stuart y’all are amazing!! Thank you for taking care of the place we all love so much!!

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  • Eden says:

    Oh my loves. I have been waiting for a report on how we did. I have been literally scared we blew it this year, not so much for the sake of our agreement with authorities, but so as not to betray the Playa. Thank you for the write up.

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  • Kalamitee says:

    It would be amazing to extend these rules to our outlying towns and cities!! The parking lot at Grand Sierra Resort was full of PILES of trash!! I was absolutely disgusted and embarrassed. Is anyone addressing these issues as well??

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  • Omega says:

    Thank you all soooo much. You are the guardians of our Principles and Saints.
    (hands together saying, Nameste!)

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  • Banana says:

    Resto rules!! Volunteering was great way to see how resto works as well as being able to lend a brief but helping hand. I recommend it (if they continue to do it) for anyone who has an interest.

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  • Two Coats says:

    Thank you Resto team, you people rock!! Hoping to join in the fun next year!

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  • G says:

    Just curious does Resto use metal detectors to find hidden tent stakes and such?

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  • MoSunshine says:

    So much gratitude to you all….I’ve thought so many times while driving along the highway to BM, enjoying BRC during BM & especially while driving exodus & along the highway just outside of BRC HOW AWESOME you all are! Thank you, thank you for all your efforts, seen & unseen. MoSunshine

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  • Brian B says:

    Thank you so much! Truly appreciate the hard work :)

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  • Dylo says:

    I thought there were many fewer attendees this year because of the gate lockdowns (and indicated by the pre-event ticket abundance). Playa rumors I was hearing was around 50k attendees. Was that totally off? Did we hit 75k again?

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  • Helpful says:

    I knew this community could do it! THANK … YOU! to each and every person who could help with this effort! I wish I could have been there!

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  • Zumzar says:

    Great work. Hope that the inspection will pass and that instructions to burners will include a better prep for rain conditions.

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  • CeLe says:

    I hated the major news coverage this year – more than usual! I KNEW Burners were up to dealing with rain/mud/whatever! Thanks for proving that my Beloved Burning Man/Playa/Burners kept up Leave No Trace!
    Big shoutout to Earth Guardians! Miss you!

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  • Chancey "PlanC says:

    Oh goodie!! Love reading these updates!! Fence day was the best first time experience for me this year! I hope to do it again And stay long enough to be a part of resto next year! DPW ROCKS!! Go team!!

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  • Cool Whip says:

    Thanks Cool Whip!

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  • Violet says:

    This is very heartening! I saw a lot of us trying our best but I was still worried it wasn’t going to be enough. Thank you Resto, thank you DPW. Extremely glad we didn’t have cardboard at camp; we mooped til we could moop no more, but holy cannoli next to the portos it was like…how much playa is bad to remove because a lot of it is coming up with these tiny scraps of tp…SO CUTE see you next year )*(

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  • Kitti says:

    This is awesome. Thank you so much for reporting this as well as the clean up. To bad we couldn’t get this positive report on a challenging situation plastered all over the news. We all know the negative reports are the only thing the front page sees anymore. Here’s to another yrv of BM

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  • Harley says:

    Much gratitude for all the hard work.

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  • Charles F Bryce says:

    You giys rock! Keep up the good work! You dont know how happy i am to know that resto did an awesome job and the Black Rock City actually does pick up after themselves. Next time I go hopefully I can git on the Resto team and help clean up. Burn on!

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  • Josh Pearlman says:

    Great job DA, the Resto Crew, the DPW and the majority of Burners!
    Making us proud year after year.

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  • James Hunt says:

    Can’t wait until I see my dusty friends again.
    On of my mottos is: “Leave No Trace”.

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  • Cosmo says:

    So it’s now Nov. 18, and I can find zero reports of how the BLM post event inspection went. I was told that it happened over a month ago. Does anyone have anything to report on that?

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  • CASTLE says:

    This article beautifully showcases the resilience of the Burning Man community during the “Animalia” theme. Despite sensationalized media coverage, the commitment to the 10 Principles and a creative life prevails. Explore more inspiring stories and experiences at Castle. Open the door to the extraordinary world of Burning Man!

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