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Why I Left Burning Man—and Why I'm Returning

by Deuce of Clubs

(Written for Piss Clear, 2005)


"Are you coming to the playa next year?"

For years, my standard response to the ubiquitous Burning Man query was always: "No. See you then."

But after Burning Man 1999, I just said No, and more or less slammed the door behind me with a website called Why We're Not Returning to Burning Man.

Unlike my pal Dr. Cliff, well known Burning Man antagonist and Evil Dentist, I wasn't angry so much as disappointed. When I took part in the Larry Harvey / Hairy Larvae imposter book signing prank at Center Camp, or the mock picketing of BMORG up in Portland, it was all in good fun. You know—like Children's Highlights magazine: "Fun with a purpose."

You'd be as likely to find Children's Highlights in Dr. Cliff's waiting room as find Dr. Cliff back in Black Rock City. But I wasn't staying away from Burning Man because I faulted Larry Harvey and BMORG for getting strong-armed by government. In these dark times we've all discovered that upholding our nation's grand tradition of freedom apparently requires that we live in near total subjection to authority. Even erecting a small toolshed on one's own remote Arizona desert property without a mother-may-I from one county whimwham or another breaks some law, it turns out. It seems that National Security can be threatened by just about anything.

Who therefore can blame law enforcers for invading a carefree, playful event minding its own business in the middle of nowhere? After all, the threat that decent civilization faces from extreme self expression is obvious (at least, to the sort of people who have no problem accepting the existence of "X-treme" sports or "X-treme" sports drinks). Black Rock City is a mere hundred miles from the de facto navel of our nation's conservative Family Values®: Reno, Nevada. Perhaps you haven't heard, but The Children Are Our Future™, and so forth. So it's critical that the casual inebriation and relaxed morality of Burning Man should in no way be allowed to disturb the alcohol-fueled gambling and whoring that goes on in Reno—these selfless civic activities finance Reno's school districts. It's for the children, people. Besides, you can't have adults enjoying themselves as they see fit, not even in the middle of nowhere. Others might hear about it and next thing you know, everyone will want to rule their own lives. Double-plus-un-something-or-other!

Okay, enough irony. Cops? At Burning Man? That's just dumb. Anyone who worries about voluntary drug use at all, let alone so far from civilization, probably lies awake at night wondering whether intelligent beings might exist on other planets and, if so, whether they might be altering their consciousness in ways unacceptable to Congress. It probably won't be long before NASA reports to the Office of Drug Enforcement Policy.

Government intervention at Burning Man probably would have been enough to drive me away, but maybe even more irksome were the non-governmental impositions. One of my former campmates, Dr. Brody Culpepper (formerly of Bigrig Industries), used to say, "Burning Man is just like Disneyland—only there are more rules." Brody gave up Burning Man a year before I did, citing the increasing restraints and forecasting more.

He was right. Some examples:

  • In 1999 our favorite Festival of Fire banned the enjoyment of camp tiki torches after a BMORG member [cough Joegh Bullock cough] managed to burn his own camp to cinders with one. That seemed unjust; were blow jobs illegal after Bill Clinton (illegal, that is, in states other than the 18 where blow jobs were already illegal)?
  • When the Disgruntled Postal Workers began their appointed rounds in Black Rock City in 1999, we were forbidden to carry our guns. How disgruntled can a postal worker be with a fake gun? (Actually, pretty disgruntled, as it turned out, but that's not the point.)
  • Then there were the comical new BMORG camera regulations: "There will be NO videography or filming without permission. ALL cameras must register whether for personal or professional purposes. Different colored numbered tags will be used to differentiate."

Well, damn it all. Here I thought we'd come to the playa for "radical self expression." The classic Burning Man bumper sticker used to say:

BURNING MAN: Granola, guns, & videotape

"Because the iron fist of 'community' is clenching tighter," predicted Dr. Brody, henceforth the stickers would have to read:


After Burning Man '99, I realized I could stay home and battle the county for toolshed hegemony if I wanted government scrutiny. It seemed crazy to keep making 1,600-mile round trips for it.

So, the years passed. Five incarnations of Black Rock City came and went without me.

Then I read Brian Doherty's This Is Burning Man. And I totally got suckered. Doherty got me thinking of all the unique experiences and fun I'd had at Burning Man—even in 1999. I thought of friends I hadn't seen since I'd left; how great it'd been to gather each year with people I otherwise talk with only by email; how I'd always wanted my good pal Babs to see Black Rock City.

Chiefly, though, I remembered that what set Black Rock City apart from the rest of the world and made the increased presence of law goons on the playa so incongruous was that there had always been so much more freedom in Black Rock society than in ordinary society. In 1999 it seemed as though extra loads of cops and rules had been dumped onto the Burning Man side of the liberty scale, to bring its freedom back in line with the depleted level favored by bureaucrats. The gulf between the playa and the rest of the world had narrowed too much for my liking.

Since 2001, however, personal freedom in the U.S. has taken such a vicious beatdown that whatever 2005's police presence in Black Rock City, the cherished gulf is bound to be back: there's guaranteed to be more liberty at Burning Man than we're allowed the rest of the year everywhere else.

So here I am, back at Burning Man after five years away. Maybe it's really that I can't cope for long without seeing naked hippies. Or maybe I just Can't Ignore Your Techno. I can, it turns out, deal with the downgrading of Radical Self Expression to Above Average Self Expression.

But if Above Average gets further downgraded to "X-treme," I'll swear off Burning Man forever this time. I swear. I mean it. See you then.

© Deuce of Clubs

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