Burning Man’s Muddy Aftermath: A Desert Full of ‘Moop’

After days of rain and mud, blocked exits and postponed parties, the last of Burning Man’s crowds trudged out of the Nevada desert on Wednesday morning. The “moop” remained.

That is Burning Man argot for rubbish, short for “matter out of place”: a galaxy of jetsam scattered across the muddy alkali flats, after torrential rains temporarily stranded tens of thousands of people at the annual revelry of art and music.

Orphaned tents lay caked in dried muck. Toilet paper and carpets were churned into the sodden dirt. They are part of an epic cleanup that lies ahead for Burning Man.

“This is a lot worse than last year,” said a volunteer who used the Burning Man moniker Raven, as she surveyed the scene.

The work of tidying up the remote site after Burning Man gets far less attention than the festival’s flaming pyres, psychedelic art installations and charter planes packed with tech bros and celebrities. But a meticulous restoration of the Black Rock Desert is required under the federal permits that allow a 70,000-person pop-up city on remote public lands in northwestern Nevada every summer.

It is also part of the ethos of the event: Organizers include detailed cleanup requirements in the instructions they give to attendees, and they track every campsite’s performance. No garbage cans are provided, and every camper is supposed to remove all of their own trash.

The Man structure, which is usually burned on Saturday night of the festival, still loomed over the Burning Man encampment on Sunday after a severe rainstorm.Credit…Trevor Hughes/USA Today Network, via Reuters

A Burning Man attendee soaked in the muddy water on Saturday after a rainstorm doused the festival.Credit…Trevor Hughes/USA Today Network, via Reuters

Even so, volunteer crews 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. They draw maps showing the dirtiest spots, and crawl on all fours to pluck sequins and plastic scraps from the barren ground.

In early October, agents from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management will survey random parts of the 4,000-acre site to judge whether the cleanup was sufficient, said John Asselin, a spokesman for the agency.

Mr. Asselin said the festival’s restoration teams typically do an “outstanding job,” but if the government’s inspectors are not satisfied, they will work further with Burning Man to do additional cleanup.

Burning Man and the Bureau have spent years in legal disputes over money. Burning Man filed a lawsuit in 2019 claiming it was being overcharged for the $2.9 million it pays in annual permit fees to cover the government’s cost of overseeing the festival. The Bureau of Land Management says it spends $2.7 million a year on the event.

This year, heaps of abandoned, mud-covered trash have turned the early stages of the cleanup into a slog, testing the environmental mettle of a nine-day celebration that prides itself on its “leave no trace” ethic, but that also generates mountains of garbage.

Sheriff Jerry Allen of Pershing County, Nev., said in an email that numerous vehicles had been abandoned and strewn across the playa this year.

“Some participants were unwilling to wait or use the beaten path to attempt to leave the desert,” he wrote, “and have had to abandon their vehicles and personal property wherever their vehicle came to rest.”

Sheriff Allen also provided details on the death of a Burning Man attendee, identified as Leon Reece, 32. The sheriff said the cause of death had not been determined, and that deputies’ efforts to reach the playa on Friday evening were delayed by the wet conditions. After medical teams at the site administered C.P.R., a doctor there pronounced Mr. Reece dead before deputies arrived, the sheriff said.

The work of cleaning up was already underway Tuesday afternoon. A truck rumbled around the emptying festival site to pick up abandoned bicycles for recycling or donation.

A cottage industry of roadside garbage haulers has sprung up along the 120-mile drive back to Reno. On the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation, Marc Lowery, a tribal member, set up orange dumpsters and charged $5 apiece for each kitchen-size bag of trash he accepted. He said he could make as much as $25,000 from the festival’s garbage.

Campers leave behind “a ridiculous amount” of usable gear, he said, including bicycles, tents, and even barbecues. Much of it can be salvaged or donated, he said. And this year, he added, people are also dumping a furniture showroom’s worth of muddy, waterlogged carpets and couches.

Some attendees gave up trying to haul away tents and carpets weighed down by the muck, and simply left them on the playa. Others abandoned entire campsites and drove off, leaving behind black plastic bags bulging with wet trash.

Some Burning Man attendees left trash and abandoned bicycles between Gerlach and Reno, Nev., as they traveled home from the festival.Credit…Emily Najera for The New York Times
The rain disrupted the festival’s schedule and stranded many attendees. Hundreds of people who had planned to leave on buses waited for information on Monday about when they would be able to leave.Credit…Trevor Hughes/USA Today Network, via Reuters

“It was a lot harder to clean things up, and people did leave things behind they shouldn’t have,” said Norman Brooks, 78, who has been to Burning Man 16 times.

Then — brace yourself — there were the portable toilets. People tracked in so much mud that the doors could no longer close, and the playa was so soggy that maintenance trucks could not drive in to the site to empty them during the festival, attendees said.

“Pretty nasty,” said Lauren Bugeja, 39, who left late on Monday night to return home to New York after combing through the ground where her 100-person camp had been. “There were people leaving bottles of urine there, and all kinds of not nice things. That was kind of disappointing.”

Still, thousands of people who stuck it out to party despite the rain said they took pains to preserve and clean the desert plain that they have come to see as a hallowed place. Ms. Bugeja said she went on patrol, picking up handfuls of cigarette butts and zip ties, and saw members of a neighboring camp shoveling out portable toilets.

“If there was ever a year to show our love of the playa, it’s this one,” said Fausto Zapata, 51, Los Angeles, as he and three other people exhumed partially buried carpets from the mud. “I don’t think we’re practicing what we’re preaching if we don’t.”

By Tuesday afternoon, volunteers had already made several sweeps of the site, but there was still work to be done to free garbage trapped in the mud.

Adriana Spadiras 36, of San Diego, said she left her shoes outside her 12-person tent one night, only to realize the next morning that they had been gobbled up by the playa. As she dug them out, she found shoe after shoe, all trod into deep into the mud. Some never emerged.

“It was a shoe cemetery,” she said.

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