Updated: Apr 15
Most every Burner has done the Burning Man Interview. Be it in the back of Ubers, on city busses, the bank teller asking, or the Xfinity representative on the other end of the line as you’re opening an account - sooner or later someone perks up and says, “I’ve always wondered about Burning Man!” I’ve even had a dentist asking me about it when my mouth was full of machinery! I had to walk away from the interview once at an airport bar in Grand Rapids, Michigan when the friendly conversation that started with the innocent, “So, what do you do for a living?” quickly deteriorated into a crescendo of persecution with the dude scream/preaching at me how I was going to burn in hell for the sins we all commit at that heathen Burning Man event! I had to down my cocktail and scram out of there to the adjacent gate, only to sit down and have the woman next to me quietly put her book down and whisper to me, “So you work for Burning Man? I’d never go myself, but tell me — what’s the meaning behind it all?”
After 25 years, I’ve been fronted by just about all of the openers:
“What’s the meaning of Burning Man?”
“Did it really start because of a divorce?
“I hear Burning Man is all corporate now.”
“I heard they sold out!”
“Does Jeff Bezos really go there?”
“Do you have showers out there?”
“Isn’t Burning Man some sort of cult or something?”
“Is there live music out there?”
“I hear rich people are taking it over. Is that true?”
“You actually have offices in San Francisco?”
“You have an AIRPORT??”
“Can you get me a ticket?”
And then this one:
“You work for Burning Man? Cool! Do you know Richie? He goes to Burning Man!”
“Um, I’m afraid it’s not ringing a bell yet.”
“Come on! Ya gotta know him! He goes out there early and shit. He’s the one with the tattoos and a nose piercing. He knows everybody out there. Are you sure you go to Burning Man?”
As always, we must be polite and help to satisfy the genuine curiosity of the growing numbers that ask. It is a curious thing, indeed, especially from the outside looking in.
But there was a time that I flat-out refused to give the Burning Man interview. I damn near told the guy to fuck off, actually. And to this day I still feel I was justified.
Several seasons ago (around 2004 I’m thinking) I was on a Reno run in a DPW fleet truck to grab supplies. It was after dark on my way back, and about ten miles before the Wadsworth exit my headlights winked out. Just like that. Not too surprising considering the bashed-up dust-rig I was driving. I jumped behind a big-rig and snuck into Wadsworth, wondering how I was going to make the trek to Gerlach in the black of night without lights. I made it to the school before I got pulled over by a Wadsworth patrol car. A fixit ticket and directions to the nearest motor lodge were what the officer handed me, along with some glaring put-downs regarding “my kind”. After he cut me loose, I popped the hood, found the culprit wires, and after a spit-and-scrape got the lights working and made it back to Gerlach.
A couple of years pass. I forget about the ticket. It becomes a bench warrant.
Sheriff McNeil was the new sheriff in Gerlach. He didn’t take much shine to all this Burning Man nonsense in general and was out to set an example of his authority right off. That example turned out to be me. It was a blind turn just south of Fly Ranch where he clocked me at 62 mph. The limit was 55. Here we go. Good thing I just happened to be driving that same DPW fleet truck that had the bad headlights two years prior. Up popped the bench warrant. Sheriff McNeil beamed. He knew he had a live one. Now I’m standing on the side of the road with Mr. McNeil going through my pockets as he’s got my hands pinned behind my head. Now I’m being handcuffed. Now fellow DPW crew are zipping by on the highway watching the bossman get busted. Now I’m in Gerlach getting processed. FOR A HEADLIGHT FIXIT TICKET! Then it was back into the back seat of the patrol SUV to be taken to Reno to pay the fines. Wait, what??
“Mr. McNeil, sir — can’t I just pay the fines here in the Gerlach Sheriff’s office? I’m sure you can bring up the file on that computer sitting there on your desk. I mean, it’s just a headlight ticket.”
I had to be handed over to a deputy at one point — again on the side of the highway at a mile marker meeting point. Now there were two patrol SUVs dealing with my criminal ass! At one point I actually had TWO pair of handcuffs on as they transferred one set to the other. The Deputy that showed up looked about 14 years old and had a buzz cut that he was likely born with. He was pretty jacked up to be receiving the “prisoner” as they both were finally getting to use the perp-training they’d been feeding on like burnt bacon. I was surprised they didn’t have me in a straightjacket being wheeled around on a dolly with a goalie mask strapped over my face like Hannibal Lector! FOR A HEADLIGHT FIXIT TICKET! Did they think I was going to tear off into the desert and take my chances with the coyotes? Sheriff McNeil was enjoying every bit of this as much as I was infuriated by it. But I kept my cool. I knew better than to feed the sharks.
Then, it was into the back seat of the pre-pubescent deputy’s SUV. This featured a hard plastic back seat that was designed to be uncomfortable. I’m in this charlie horse seat with handcuffs still behind my back for the remainder of the trip into Reno, still sixty miles away.
By the way — did I mention this was all on the day before Golden Spike? I had to start surveying Black Rock City at dawn. There was a very dark cloud on my brow.
After about twenty minutes of chilly silence, the young deputy ventured to start a conversation.
“So, what’s this Burning Man all about anyway?”
It was the fucking interview! NO WAY! THIS CHUMP DOES NOT GET THE GOD DAMN INTERVIEW!! I spewed out an answer,
“IF YOU WANT TO FIND OUT WHAT BURNING MAN’S ABOUT — GO SEE FOR YOURSELF!”
The young deputy glanced at me in the rearview through his mirrored glasses. “Well, you don’t have to be an asshole about it! Maybe you’ll watch the speed limit next time!”
That was the end of that interview.
I spent the evening handcuffed to a chair facing a wall. They eventually cleaned out my bank account. Hot August Nights, a Reno classic car festival and drinking binge was in full swing, and the drunk tanks were full. At one point, eight police officers wrestled a perp into the station who was in a straightjacket and did have a goalie mask duck taped around his head; we overheard one officer say he had already bitten several people. He got his very own room.
“What are you here for?” asks the dude handcuffed next to me. Oh great! Another goddamn interview!
“Broken headlight,” was my surly response. It was going to be a long evening.
It was around 2:00 am when I was released into the wild. My one phone call was to the Gerlach office and a faithful crewmember was dispatched to gather up any dignity I had left. I got into another of the DPW fleet trucks and settled back after eating a 7-11 hotdog. Survey was to start in three hours. I could see the crewmember bursting with curiosity as to what the hell was going on. He wanted an interview.
“So, what the hell happened, Coyote?”
“There’s a new sheriff in town. He’s got it out for us. It’s going to be a long summer.”
And that was the end of that conversation. I had no more interviews left to give.
As for Sheriff McNeil, he tried his best to disrupt our heathen event in sin city but failed like so many others. We went along and had fun without him. Just as well. He only lasted that one summer. Word came back that he got his payback in the end after all. But that’s a story for a whole other interview!