Lost & Found At Burning Man

by Katy Tahja, September 11, 2013

As I stood for the third time trying to wash the travel coffee mug I took to Burning Man free of playa dust I marveled at how insidious this dust is. No matter how many times you wash it off something there are still traces in the nooks and corners and folds and it will probably stick there for months. That’s how memories of Burning Man remain with you. I was standing there at the sink scrubbing the mug thinking “A week ago today I was on the playa at Black Rock City.”

While many writers take to print and electronic media to pooh-pooh the event after it finishes every year with pronouncements about false values and carbon footprints and financing I personally question whether they have ever actually attended the event. It’s easy to sit back and criticize activities seen only through the eyes of media but I think if they actually came out to Nevada and participated they might offer a different story.

Last year I thought I was doing a “once in a lifetime” excursion joining my daughter for a trip to Burning Man. That story ran in the Anderson Valley Advertiser last year titled “Elder on the Playa” and told the story of this senior citizen, like in “Alice in Wonderland” tumbling down the rabbit hole and emerging in a new and different world. It was hot, dusty, visually enticing, educational, fun and in my humble opinion the greatest party on earth.

The thing that brought me back to the playa this year was not the art or the partying but the friendships I made last year with a camp of strangers who became friends. We all kept in contact and made the commitment to return again if we could. A recent issue of Nevada Magazine published the story I wrote on our Mobility Camp and Burners came by this year to tell me they came because of what they read in my story.

Mobility Camp has gone by many names over the years. This year it was the Black Rock City Dimensions of Accessibility camp, but basically we’re the gathering place for the physically challenged who want to be in the center of everything. We’re an active camp of disabled folks with “we can do it” attitudes. Congenitally handicapped, war vets, accident victims, folks dealing with the ills of aging, we laughingly called ourselves the “gimp camp”. Four times a day we loaded an open trailer seating 12, with space to tie down wheelchairs, hooked to a golf cart and took off to explore the art spread over miles of playa, or watch the sun rise, or visit pubs and dance scenes late at night.

The playa dust I mentioned earlier is the top level of 10,000’ of compacted dust forming the surface of the playa. It’s the remains of prehistoric Lake Lahontan, which was about the size of today’s Lake Erie. For folks with mobility issues it’s a nice place because it is really really flat to walk on. But run 61,000 people, bicycles, and art cars over it and it gets dusty. It’s hard to push wheelchairs miles through this environment. Our vehicular playa tours got lots of people out together. Note: One good rainstorm after Burning Man, an inch or two of water standing on the playa, then drying out, and it becomes hardpan again.

Last year as I wandered the playa I often passed Playa Info where you went to get questioned answered like “Where’s Lost and Found?” A seeker found the location and would look at the line and think, “Oh, I’m not the only one…” Wondering what all these Burners lost I obtained a “contributing writer” letter from the Anderson Valley Advertiser, got a press pass, and became a “fly on the wall” in the air conditioned trailer housing what was found in a city of 60,000 for a week.

First, as I am sure much of Burning Man is behind the scenes, Lost and Found was computer heaven. Hence air conditioning to keep the equipment happy. Generators provided the power to do thousands of data entries to tag and identify items and store them in a logical manner for retrieval. Extreme individualized attention was given to passports, driving licenses and any electronic device that had owner’s identification on it. It was all kept under lock and key. Being a self confessed computer “dweeb” myself I can’t describe the sorting system but there were categories including Electronics, Bags, Cameras, Clothing, Jewelry Gadgets and “Who Knows What?”

Lost and Found had volunteers, called wranglers, who met the people in line and took info. Found items were brought in and piled on a table to be processed. People searching for lost items gave their name and the wrangler wrote a description of the lost item and came in to search. If it was something distinctive “I had a purple rhinestone dog collar and it says Billy on the back” that was an easy search. It would be in the jewelry or “Who Knows What” bin. You might be in luck. But if it was a “black camera in a black case with no I.D.” you have problems. There were hundreds of unidentified phones and cameras in bins.

By midweek Lost and Found had 1,400 tagged items. In one observation I saw data entry for IDs from VA, GA, MT, FLA, WA, HI. France, Britain, Western Australia, Switzerland and Singapore. How dozens of people could be separated from their identification every night was beyond me. While no money changes hands in Black Rock City except for coffee and ice there is alcohol freely gifted, but youngsters are carded. They put ID on the counter, accept a drink in their mug, and wander off. A day later they are thinking “Was I in the Deviant Playground or the Lost Penguin Bar when I took my ID out?” Handfulls of lost identification arrived every morning brought in by helpful bartenders who realized revelers would sober up and start worrying.

Some things were not dealt with, like bicycles. At the end of 2012 there were 7,000 bicycles left on the playa. People would not bother loading them up and dragging them home. Burning Man critics will get in whole philosophical conversations about this behavior. Spare me. Anyway, lose your bike, keys, sunglasses or water bottle and you’re out of luck. But lose something you were smart enough to put identifying marks on and you might have a chance.

I swear iPhone users were the dimwits of the playa. There were boxes of these phones waiting for their owners to realize they were gone. Lesson learned? Make a photo of yourself holding a sign with you name and phone number and address and put is as the first photo in a camera or phone. Why iPhone users from MA lose more phones will remain a playa mystery.

When a lost item and its owner were reunited it was done in direct view of all the people standing in line waiting. This resulted in “happy dances” featuring shrieks of joy, high fives, tears, hugs, kisses and gave those in line hope. I saw a Brazilian passport, a yellow duct tape wallet and a Oscar the Grouch backpack all returned to overjoyed owners.

I asked volunteers for their favorite stories. The biggest “lose” of the year seemed to be a drone. Yes, these little remote controlled flying vehicles with cameras were always buzzing overhead. Somewheres, somehow, one landed out of sight of the operator and was never seen again. That’s losing a very expensive play toy. One person, perhaps in search of a Darwin Award, lost an item, found it at Lost and Found, and promptly lost it again the next day. Walkie-talkies that started broadcasting in the lost electronics bin at Lost and Found were answered with “Would you like to know where your handset is?” Deer antlers tied to a hat I saw there were claimed and someone rode by my camp wearing them later. I had nothing but immense admiration for the volunteers who gave hours of their time here, many were elders. In 2012 this group had a 50% return rate overall and they keep lost items for months trying to get stuff back to the owners. The last day of August they still had 343 I.D.’s awaiting owners. Did Burners realize all the lost luggage turning up at Reno’s Airport was being delivered daily to Lost and Found? Whose art car was missing three foot long propellers? I left Lost and Found to wander more on the playa.

I walk with crutches and I have to say I could not walk from point A to point B without having an art car or mutant vehicle stop and offer me a ride. I rode on a golden dragon named Abraxas and watched the Man burn from the dance floor on top of a Mendocino County art car that once was a 40’ RV. I was photographed up there with my daughter by other revelers who said “I want to prove to my Mom that other old people come to Burning Man with their family.”

The freedom men allow themselves to be silly and dress up is one of the things I like best about Burning Man. Body paint may constitute your entire costume, plus shoes. Kilts and skirts on men are common. One man went by dressed like SpongeBob SquarePants and another Where’s Waldo. On TuTu Tuesday a passing fellow wore a tutu made of a shredded black plastic trash bag. Clothing designs I’d expect to see on a four year old boy at bed time was sported by grown men. And nudity was everywhere in the parade of humanity passing our camp. Don’t go to Burning Man if you can’t deal with naked folks. But then again, the endless variations of the nude human form in all ages I find personally fascinating.

Every good party has to come to an end and leaving Burning Man tests everyone’s good spirits. No matter when you leave it’s crowded. Eleven lanes of traffic on the playa narrow down to two for entry to the paved state highway. It took me six hours to get four playa miles and traffic never exceeded 20 m.p.h. on the 90 miles to I-80. The long waits allowed people to socialize. A mom and 2 kids came down the row with a clipboard to write down where drivers were from. They had an atlas in the car and would look up the place names. A man passed with a sign saying Sands Casino was offering a $30 room rate with the following special code number. Someone in an RV came out with a pot of coffee and a jug of tomato juice on a tray and went car to car sharing.

And yes, I will probably go back. Strange thing to become a Burner at my advanced age, but I like it. I saw a bumper sticker in the exit line that said, “My best vacation is your worst nightmare.” I want to go back and be part of a instant city of amazement, watch unbelievable fire works, sit in silence with thousands a day later at a Temple burn, and smile all week long surrounded by friends. Now — if I can just get my husband to come. That’s my challenge for next year. ¥¥

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