Burning Man staff are not rushing anyone off the playa this year, as a massive cleanup still needs to take place amid some quickly hardening, alkali mud.
For some burners, 2023 was still a good burn, with the added weather and hardship being markers of the annual, collective experience of radical self-reliance and rebirth. For others, this will no doubt go down a living hell of mud that traps cars, shoes, bicycles, and everything else, with the ultimate humiliation being a day-long traffic jam to get out of the mess.
The New York Times had a reporter out on the playa who was surveying the detritus that was left behind Wednesday, following Tuesday night's Temple Burn and two full days of a slow Exodus.
All that trash left behind, known as "matter out of place" or "moop," isn't something that Burning Man organizers like to talk too much about — though they have volunteers out there every year who "spend three weeks after the festival collecting trash and raking the ruts and hillocks out of the dirt to smooth and restore the alkali playa." As the Times puts it, "They draw maps showing the dirtiest spots, and crawl on all fours to pluck sequins and plastic scraps from the barren ground." Only this year, there will no doubt be more, including what one attendee called a "shoe cemetery" buried in the hardening dust, and plenty of other crap like rugs, clothing, tents, and whole vehicles that got so caked with mud they were just left behind.
"No one’s rushing anyone out this year," says 36-year-old Alexander Elmendorf, speaking to the Associated Press. “I think more so people are rushing themselves off."
Normally, Elmendorf says, unless you're volunteering for cleanup duty, Burning Man staff would be shooing people out of the gates by Tuesday. But the schedule is different now — and they likely need all the help they can get with cleanup.
Still, some veteran burners will insist that this was just par for the course, and all the more special because of Friday and Saturday's rains. "Best burn yet," says Mark "Stuffy" Fromson, 54, speaking to the AP. "The old, crusty burners who have been out there for 40 years would just laugh at us with all the creature comforts we come onto the playa with."
Marc Lowery, a tribal member on the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation, tells the Times that burners always leave behind "a ridiculous amount" of still usable stuff, including barbecues and bicycles. He has a little business every year along the road out of Burning Man, charging $5 per trash bag, collecting people's trash in a dumpster and reselling items after cleaning them off. Lowery claims to be able to make $25,000 from one year's trash.
Members of the Reno Bike Project will be coming in this week to collect abandoned bicycles that can be refurbished and resold — in 2017 alone they said they collected 3,000 abandoned bicycles.
And it seems like an unusually large number of whole vehicles may have been abandoned, due to the mud situation. Pershing County Sheriff Jerry Allen said Tuesday, "There are numerous vehicles strewn all throughout the playa for several miles. Some participants were unwilling to wait or use the beaten path to attempt to leave the desert and have had to abandon their vehicles and personal property wherever their vehicle came to rest."
The Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the Black Rock Desert, collects nearly $3 million in fees each year from Black Rock City LLC — something that was the subject of a 2019 lawsuit over these fees being "inflated." And they will be sending inspectors out to randomly comb over random sections of the playa in October to assess whether BRC's cleanup is up to snuff.
How many half-buried shoes will they find still out there? We shall see.
Photo: Bryan Ignacio/SFist