Flame Retardant: a questionable account of Burning Man 2012 (8 of 8)

LEAVE by Damian

The sun isn’t up yet when Medium Tim sounds off “Woodstock is over, you dirty hippies! Escape from Black Rock City!”

I’m not quite coherent or cohesive when my body rises and begins stuffing things into a duffle bag. I don’t snap out of autopilot until Tim announces we should leave in 15 minutes.

God knows why I didn’t put more of my belongings in the truck yesterday. I’m taking apart my tent while brushing my teeth and getting dressed. There’s no way any of us are leaving in 15 minutes, but it is important we beat the Exodus. The line to leave Burning Man can be a brutal stretch of your sanity. I remember once being stuck in a car for 6 hours before even reaching the highway.

Of course, I also remember the time I got stranded here without a ride home.

And the year before that, a miserable few of us were left to breakdown the entire camp by ourselves. We didn’t finish until 4:30 am.

There are many terrible epilogues a burner can be dealt. If we can just dodge a few more bullets, we’ll have gotten away with murder.

I cram the last of my gear into the back of the truck and put the lock on. I’m climbing into the driver’s seat when I spot a familiar someone riding by on a bicycle.

Quick! What was her name?

“Francesca!” I call out. She glances back and skids to a stop.

“Gimme, like, 90 seconds,” I tell Tim.

“What the fuck, Damian,” he sighs. “You better make that shit count!”

Nearly falling out of the truck, I resist the urge to sprint to the black-haired girl in the road. She’s wearing a shaggy blue parka and has obviously been out all night. Still looking hot, though.

“You remembered me,” she croaks. Her voice is almost gone.  “Good eye and good memory.”

“You make an impression on both.” She smiles, happier to see me than expected. Great smile.

“How was your Burning Man?”

“Relaxing,” I say. “Stress-free. Exactly what I wanted.”

“Your camp doesn’t waste any time, does it?” she asks as she looks over at the few straggler tents that remain of the Duckpond.

“We’re not big on long goodbyes. How long are you here for?”

“Leaving after the Temple burn. Will you be around for that?”

“Naw. I’ll leave it for the people who need it. Let the shushers and the chatterboxes duke it out.”

“Very generalizing. And which category would you fall into?”

“That would be ‘truck driver’. We’re about to haul away the camp’s parts and pieces in about a minute.”

“42 seconds!” shouts Tim from the truck.

“Well that’s too bad,” Francesca says. “You never came back to dance. Guess you’ll never know if I’m any good.”

“Guess not. Just like you’ll never know if I’m a good kisser.”

“Ha! Well I guess we have a burning conundrum.”

“You have a fiery lexicon.”

“So you think you’ve earned a kiss?”

“Oh, absolutely not. But seeing as how I reached out and seized such an unlikely gem of synchronicity today, it would be a shame to let such a rare playa moment go to waste.”

I can’t believe I just said something that stupid, but I don’t flinch.

She squints her eyes at me and says, “Maybe you earned a peck.”

“A peck?”

“A little peck.”

Green light. I make this one count.

When I get back to the truck, the engine is on and Tim is scrolling through his phone for driving music.

Without looking up he says, “Nice to see you pull a rabbit out of a hat back there.”

“And for my next trick…” I say, shifting the gear into “D” and slowly rolling our asses out of the near-empty lot we called home for the past week.

The roads are so clear that staying under 5 mph is like a Zen exercise. I can’t believe there are no other cars. We’re actually beating the Exodus. I want to floor it so bad. I want to step on the gas before the Universe, the playa and God all change their minds. The entire way to the gate, we creep along like the Pink Panther behind the back of that guileless inspector.

And then, freedom. Open highway. I’ve never felt such triumph from something so unremarkable.

Leaving unscathed was our last stunt. We’ve had our fill. Next comes hot showers, warm beds and the glory of survivors mistaken for returning heroes.

Exit stage west. Restore default settings.

Flame Retardant: a questionable account of Burning Man 2012 (7 of 8)



I’m watching the Man burn from roof of the Death Star art car. It’s owners were generous enough to give a few of us Ducks a ride out into the playa. We couldn’t have asked for a better view. The burn itself is a fine display of pyrotechnics, even though it hasn’t emotionally moved me since my virgin year. Likewise, the Duckpond has become adept at breaking down camp and packing the trucks by mid-afternoon. Very few of our veterans and de facto leaders stay for Burn Night anymore. It’s ultimately a night for the virgins. I’ve come to vicariously enjoy this denouement of their week-long adventure. I’m with a group of them now. Seeing the firelight and wonder on their faces reminds me of my own virgin year.

I’ll continue coming back here until the light is too far from me to validate the effort. I miss the innocence of my first couple of burns, but have no need to mourn them. Most people’s taste for this event has a finite timeline. I’m already a relic. The magic of Burning Man will favor the newer burners, the newer Ducks, as much as it will be shaped by them. The sooner I embrace this reality, the more gracefully I’ll age.

But a couple of them did wear their clubhouse T-shirts tonight instead of actual costumes. Maybe we’ll work on that for next year.


So the Man is burning and I had to go drop a deuce of spades. Blame it on the Adderall. Unfortunately I couldn’t find a port-a-potty and ended up walking all the way back to the ones across from the Duck Pond. When I came out the fireworks had already begun. I’m circling the blaze from a mile away like some wary animal. Walking towards it doesn’t seem like a realistic option. I don’t know where to go or what I want. Too tired to dance and too numb to care. It’s fitting. The event and I have grown estranged. Some time apart might be in order.

I can hear the faraway cheers of the city’s population declaring in no uncertain terms that they are where the action is. They are a mirage. I’ve been chasing them for years but have never pinned them down.

I see the Man and it sees me. The party rages on and leaves me in the dust. I can admire the poetry in that.


They burn the thing. Great.

The massive assembly scatters quickly and the chaos of Amateur Night begins. Maybe that’s a little harsh, but Saturday is the time of the week that feels most like a Spring Break free-for-all. As the effigy collapses, so do many pretenses of civility.

Just today, Nadine caught two strangers fucking in her tent. Right on her bed. The dude had the casual, apologetic attitude of someone who had just caused a light fender bender.

I’m with Medium Tim, Nat and a couple of other Ducks making an abridged exploration around Burning Man. A few of us need to sleep enough to drive the trucks in the morning. But who knows? Maybe we’ll get into some last-minute mischief.

Probably not.

We find a bar that’s only serving drinks to people who pick up 10 pieces of MOOP (ground litter). I try but can’t find any. A rotund young fellow in a lizard-print kimono looks way more frustrated than I am. I let him have my flask and its contents.

Passing by Ashram Galactica, there’s a woman sitting outside with a boy maybe 8 years of age. His face is painted up. He likely did it himself. The kid, who I assume is her son, looks tired and unhappy. It’s clearly past his bedtime. Tim tells me to shut up even though I don’t say anything.

Flame Retardant: a questionable account of Burning Man 2012 (4 of 8)


A mutual friend told me that Ivy would be dancing at Distrikt today. Since Distrikt is almost directly across from the Duckpond, I don’t mind making a sweep of the massive, gyrating crowd. But 15 minutes was the limit I put on this little Where’s Waldo? exercise. I’m not chasing anyone this year. Searching for people, waiting for people, at Burning Man will devolve into “Waiting for Godot” before you know what happened.

I’m about to leave when here comes a tall, beautiful woman. She has jet black hair and is wearing some sort of skin-tight, space corset adorned with esoteric symbols. She very beautiful. Many would say she’s too tall for a man my height. Honestly, I’m a little intimidated.

Then I remember that I don’t give a shit. I’ll never see this woman again and have nothing invested in this interaction. I go for the easy opener.

“What do those symbols mean?”

She stops and stares at me without a hint of emotion.

“You’re the first person to ask me that,” she says.


I look again and realize her techno-corset is actually painted on; she’s completely topless. It’s so well done that it really resembles a textured fabric from a short distance. Better to just pretend I knew that the whole time.

Her green eyes are already searching for a more interesting location than my immediate company.

I ask, “Are you saying most people are too busy gawking at your body?”

“Pretty much.”

“I guess you should keep better company.”

“And that would be you, right?”

“I may have a little time later.”

“I’m flattered.”

“I’m Damian.”


“Good to meet you.”

“Excuse me, folks,” says a young guy walking up to us. He’s wearing a steampunk vest, an army helmet and has a video camera wrapped in plastic. “How’s it going? I’m doing a project and I need some volunteers. I’m making a time capsule for people who come to Burning Man 10 years from now. Can I record both of you separately giving some brief advice to future burners?”

“As long as it’s from the neck up,” Francesca say. He points the camera at her face as he steals a quick glance at her sci-fi painted breasts. Which are fantastic.

“And… go,” the man says. I wonder why he didn’t say “action.”


“Ouch!” I say. “That’s a serious preemptive scolding for the future.”

“You can’t coddle them,” she says without looking at me. This whole moment is clearly a forgettable interlude for her. “Who says there’ll even be a Burning Man 10 years from now?”

“Your turn, sir,” says the camerman. I think for moment.


The young guy laughs, turns off the camera and thanks us. Francesca is staring at me.

“That came from deep,” she says, holding back a smile.

“Yours was so good, I felt I had to escalate. I don’t even know what most of that meant.”

She squints her eyes at me me for a moment then says “You ever think about sitting down with someone?”

I grin and say, “My camp’s bar has some comfortable seating. It’s right across the street.”

She laughs.

“I’m actually going to dance at Distrikt for a while. You can join me… if you can find me.”

“You any good?”

She makes a gasp/scoff like she genuinely can’t believe I had the nerve to ask that. Interestingly, she had barely flinched when I said the crazy shit.

Without another word, Francesca does a saucy little strut towards the dance floor to the beat of the music, looks back at me once and disappears into the crowd.

I take my bike and pedal out into the street feeling strangely satisfied.

I’m not chasing anyone this year.

Flame Retardant: a questionable account of Burning Man 2012 (2 of 8)


I had a plan to maximize the use of my time at Burning Man. In classic playa fashion, my lofty camping resolutions have fallen completely by the wayside.

– Directive 1: Complete the construction of all costumes and accessories before coming to Burning Man.

– FAILED. My nighttime costumes and daytime apparel are at various stages of completion.

– Directive 2: Keep an itemized list of all personal effects and their stowage designations. Maintain proper stowage throughout the week.

– FAILED. I did afford myself a minimum level of organization with the purchase of a pair of 3-drawer carts. Six drawers labelled for toiletries, food, etc. It may sound efficient, but it was improvised. The point was to have it plotted out in advance.

I’m crouched on the carpeted floor of my tent surrounded by costumes, hardware and scrap material. The Nevada sun shines brightly through the Nylon walls. We are well into Day One of the event and I have only left my tent for tools and bathroom breaks.

– Costume A centers around a Mad Max jacket I constructed in 2010. Football shoulder pads are painted and riveted to the jacket with a couple of spikes for accent. A piece like this threatens to take itself too seriously. That’s why I’ve lightened it up with a few goofy buttons on the lapel. I also slapped on a large Duckpond sticker. It further softens the looks, fills in a blank spot and shows my campmates I’m not too anti-branding to represent.

– The only work this requires is the addition of the LED touch lamp. Multidirectional and nicer than the ones at Walgreens, I can attach it easily with wire and zip ties.

I recall a conversation with Joe while using the machines in his workshop. I said that if given the choice, I’d rather wear an unlimited array of sophisticated costumes than have amazing sex everyday on the playa.

Toiling away, I try to ignore the music and the cheers outside.

– Costume B is the “Tactical Tux.” It consists of a paintball vest, amber safety glasses, white formal gloves, and any combination of pants, footwear, and thermal top. The vest has been outfitted with various metal, plastic and nylon parts to not only give it a “future SWAT” look, but also resemble a tuxedo.

– This takes a lot of hole punching, drilling and screwing. The outfit will do for the Wednesday formal. I wish I had been smarter with the trousers.

I’m covered in sweat. My fingers are sore. This is detention. Purgatory. Follow-through is the only escape.

“Bolivar,” a man’s voice calls from outside. Judging from the opaque shadow, he’s standing about 3 feet from my tent.

“Yeah,” I call back as I struggle to fit the last screw into the vest.

“Hey bud! The fuck you been?”

Fantastic. It’s Pinball – the absolute LAST person I need to talk to when my own mistakes are keeping me from having fun. I already know how this conversation will go.

“In here, trying to finish up some projects,” I say.

“Projects, you say? You mean you’re not entertaining a lady or two?”

“Why, did you bring any?”

Pinball laughs, “Well the games have just begun.”

“Not for me they haven’t.”

“You really been in there all day? Everyone’s been asking about you.”

His condescension is thinly veiled today. All of the veils we wear in the default world become very thin out here.

“Everyone?” I say, thankful that I don’t have to look at his smug face. “That’s a stretch. I’m sure you’re keeping the Pond wildly entertained in my absence.”

“You must be making your world-famous costumes,” he continues. “You’ve got some discipline, Bolivar. It’s mid-afternoon and I for one have been waiting all goddamn year for this. I would’ve said ‘Fuck it!’ and dropped everything hours ago.”

“That’s your philosophy, right?” I deflect, trying not to reveal my shock that it’s mid-afternoon. “Not just a camping strategy, but Pinball’s world-famous approach to living.”

“It’s a Zen principle with universal applications. You should try it sometime.”

“I look forward to purchasing your calendar of daily affirmations.”

“Ya wanna know what the calendar says today? It’s Day One of motherfucking Burning Man!”

“Well, shit. I must’ve lost track of time.”

“Get outside and play,” he says, finally walking away. “It’s fucking bananas out here.”

“Thanks for the forecast,” I shout after him.

In the distance, I hear him reply, “Quack!”


Pinball, like the actual game, is better in occasional, nostalgic doses. Some of the ducks seem to like him. I’ve never been impressed with the tales of his supposed sexual misadventures. The playa has enough psychic vampires.

– Costume C (FAILED) is maybe my 5th reimagining of the “Clockwork” look. The bowler hat is opened in the back and fit with a brain-shaped piece of plastic from a Halloween gelatin mold. LED “shoelaces” loop into holes drilled into the brain. Joe cut and assembled this “thinking cap.” I’ve also bolted a longhorn belt buckle to the padded, martial arts codpiece that is worn over the pants.

– Unfortunately, I fucked up the army jacket. It needed a tiger-print fur yoke, lapel spikes, and a few odd and ends. But it’s only adornment is the “Nietzsche is my Co-pilot” patch I pinned on the back, and several letters have fallen off of that.

So what? Let it go.

Fucking Pinball. My mind has been running in circles all day in this goddamn tent. My inner voice didn’t need encouragement for skepticism. I brought all these materials and half-finished pieces out here. I’m won’t leave them to take up space in a corner while I go around Black Rock dressed like a pedestrian.

You’ve been unemployed for months. Getting this done before Burning Man was the least you could’ve achieved.

My budget was small and my funding came late. I had to take care of the essentials first. Costumes and accessories are a premium package.

But the premiums ARE essential for you. Plenty of people are having a great time right now (RIGHT NOW!) without the cosplay. What do you get out of this?

That’s the point. Not enough burners are stepping up. Virgins try too hard to fit in. Veterans don’t bother to stick out. Creativity has taken a backseat to debauchery. I want to demonstrate how Burning Man is a blank canvas. That anyone can shape the culture in the moment.

So you want to be an inspiration? What a pretentious contribution!

Maybe. But “Radical Self-Expression” implies a risk of ostentation, doesn’t it? That’s what an expression does. It tells the world something. And I’m willing to sacrifice an entire day of Burning Man to do that.

Oh, you are. It didn’t have to come to that.

Live and learn.

You never learn. You’ve been making this same mistake all your life. No real organizational skills. No follow-through. This is why you washed out of your last job.

That wasn’t my world. This is.

Someone in the camp shouts that it’s dinnertime as the final piece snaps into place.

Flame Retardant: a questionable account of Burning Man 2012 (1 of 8)

ARRIVE by Damian

It’s Saturday afternoon and we’re finally approaching Black Rock City. We’ve been on the road since dawn hauling our camp’s infrastructure in a rental truck. Our early morning disorientation was a fitting precursor. Now Pandora’s box is finally in sight and the familiar unreality is setting in.

My friend and driving partner, Medium Tim, is in the passenger seat looking dispassionately at the ever-slowing procession of cars in front of us. Don’t be fooled by the name; he’s 6’3” and built like an Alabama cinderblock shithouse. You’d never guess from his intimidating physique that he was a San Francisco software engineer with a heart of gold. (That proverbial heart, by the way, is cast entirely from the thin gold flakes that float in bottles of Goldschläger.)

Traffic has now slowed to a stop. We’re officially in line. A few people have gotten out of their cars and are socializing. One acne-scarred young man is walking aimlessly in a utilikilt without a shirt. His thin pale torso and unconfident posture suggest he doesn’t attend many outdoor festivals.

“No!” Medium Tim shouts. “It’s not time to party yet. Get back in your fucking cars! Express yourselves later. Or how about you don’t?”

I chuckle and he asks if that was mean of him. A cheesy rock song is playing on the radio. It will be the last of the non-electronic music we hear for the next week.

I glance over at the SUV next to us. There’s a man with long hair, a woman in a sequin-studded cowboy hat and a little boy in a child safety seat in the back.

“Well the good news,” I say to Tim. “is that we finally made it to Disneyland.”

“You got a problem with children?”

“I love children. Just not at the movies and not at Burning Man.”

“Whatever, dude. You’re a monster. Child-hater! You should just dress like Freddy Krueger and creep around Kidsville every night. They’ll beg their parents to never bring them to Burning Man again.”

“That’s so wrong… and genius. Let me rephrase this. There should be some limits to the age and/or number of kids running around out here.”

“So you’re not Freddy Krueger. Maybe just the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”

“I’ve never actually seen that?”

“Are you shitting me? You’ve seen Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas 700 times but you’ve never seen Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? You are a goddamn monster.”

“I’m a child of the 90s. Fuck yourself. Look at that kid in the car next to us. He’s, what, 3? Does he really need to be here? How many parties would you bring a baby to?”

“My kids is a dog and she’s almost 20. That’s beyond octogenarian in dog years.”

“She looks good for her age.”

“I’m not on the pro-kid side of the debate,” Tim says. “There are too many fucking debates. I just like to bust your scrote. You’re always nostalgic for an era of Burning Man you’ve never been to.”

“Let’s not deny we’re in an age of decline here. We got the ticket lottery, plug-and-play camps, growing police presence, guerilla commodification stunts…”

“Yeah, yeah. I’ve read your blog. It’s like the rantings of the Unabomber. You spend too much time feeding the Facebook trolls.”

“So you’re not cynical, Tim? This is like your 12th burn.”

“13th. And I am cynical. I don’t know if I’m getting everything out of it that I want anymore.”

“But we still come back. There’s still something here we can’t get elsewhere, right? Something more than the sum of its parts?”

Tim doesn’t answer. Neither of us subscribes to the myth that BRC is a utopia where everyone’s dreams come true. Make no mistake: You can be left to wallow in your misery like some archetypal tragic fool. Every year, burners come here with their hands out and their hearts open, ready for the playa gods to gift them some grand, serendipitous blessing. At the end of the week, more than a few find themselves alone in their own custom-crafted hell, holding onto the random pieces of a puzzle that don’t fit anywhere.

We’re almost to the gate when the DJ on the radio announces that someone has lost a cat. As he gives a description of the animal, the restrained contempt in the DJ’s  voice suggests that his disgust at such an avoidable occurrence matches our own.

“Now I gotta worry about running over toddlers and cats,” I say. “God, wouldn’t that be fucked up? People die here every year, but if a kid died it would be a catastrophe.”

“You think that’d be the end of Burning Man?”

“Potentially. I don’t know. That would definitely be the end of the accused.”

“You would go to prison if you ran over a kid,” Tim says. “Even by accident, the courts and the media would crucify you along with the whole fucking event. They’ll say you were a anarchist and a hippie and someone will rape you in Nevada prison.”

“Are you saying I’d be raped because of the ‘anarchist/hippie’ label?”

“No, you’ll be raped for the label of ‘sweet meat’ you’ve got written all over your androgynous face. Quit worrying about yourself and your own violated poopshoot, you selfish bastard! The goddamn future of Burning Man is at stake here!”

“Eat a medium dick.”

We finally reach the ticket takers. I roll down the window and say, “What seems to be the problem, officer?”

The ticket guy grins. “Wanna tell me why you were going so fast?”

“My wife here is going into labor,” I say.

“I just need to make it to Camp Stork-n-Torque in time to have a safe and blissful delivery,” says Tim.

The ticket guy looks at the large, muscular man in the passenger seat and chuckles as he scans our tickets and early arrival passes. He says, “Newborns are always party-appropriate.”

I open the back of the truck to show him we’re not hiding stowaways or contraband. While I’m back there I retrieve my goggles and the over-decorated respirator I call a “riding mask.”

“Speaking of the Unabomber,” Tim mutters.

I say, “If you can’t handle the freaks, make haste exiting the kingdom.”

The ticket guy hands us back our papers and says, “Well you folks drive slow and have a good one. Welcome home.”

Tim screams “God bless us everyone!”

“That’s a mighty fine lady you got there.”

“She’s a looker,” I say.