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"I showed up at Burning Man with nothing and survived!"
Interview with a freeloader
by Adrian Roberts

By now, you've heard the litany. Hell, it's even spelled out explicitly in the Burning Man Survival Guide: "You must bring all necessities to the desert: food, shelter, water, fuel÷everything you need to survive."

But... what if you don't? Could you still survive÷comfortably÷if you showed up out here with nothing? You could if you were Jamie Conway.*

You see, Jamie is one of those delightfully jaded, cynical sorts. And while he was notably wowed by his first Burning Man experience, back in 1996, he felt like he had missed out on the days when Burning Man had a bit more of a, shall we say, survivalist edge to it. "I read the Survival Guide," says the cute, roguish, 24-year-old San Franciscan. "And I totally had this impression that Burning Man was going to be this dangerous sort of place. And when I got there, it turned out to be no big deal at all."

Over the next year, I would run into Jamie at parties around San Francisco. Inevitably, our conversations would turn to Burning Man. One night, during a particularly lengthy drunken chat, we ended up discussing the increasing "urbanization" of Black Rock City. I argued that Burning Man had remained admirably uncommercial, and that it was still a fairly challenging environment to be in. He vehemently disagreed. "I bet you I could show up at Burning Man with nothing but the clothes on my back and a pocket full of cash, and survive just fine!" I scoffed, daring him to try it. Drunkenly, he accepted my dare.

It should have ended there, but it didn't. "It was a crazy idea," he admits, "And of course it ran counter to everything the Burning Man Project tells you. But that was exactly why I wanted to try it÷just as sort of big 'fuck you' to prove that I could do it."

Realizing that Jamie was serious, I pitched him an idea: we would drive him out to Burning Man. But after that, he was on his own. He would arrive in Black Rock City on Friday morning with nothing, save for the clothes on his back, and $100 in cash. If he pulled it off, I'd write this article. And if not, well...

"It was kind of scary at first," recalls Jamie. "I mean, I figured that if worst came to worst, I could always come crawling back to the Piss Clear camp and you guys could just laugh at me."

But as it turned out, Jamie had little to worry about. In fact, with his guile and charisma, he survived just fine. "The first thing I realized was that I had to play it off cool," he says. "I never let on that I had no place to camp, or that I had no water or food. I would have been doomed had anyone thought that I was a Clueless Newbie."

Basically, Jamie survived by being a very charming leech. "I needed to get water and a water bottle, that was my first priority. I noticed a camp having trouble setting up their shade structure, so I offered to help. They were using those big long rebar stakes, you know, the ones that you cover with 2-liter plastic bottles? I asked them if they had any extra bottles, since my water bottle had cracked. They gladly offered me one, and even filled it up with water for me. After that, I ended up kicking back for a while, enjoying a beer with them in the shade."

"The thing I discovered real quick," offers Jamie, "Is that if you're just friendly and nice to people, they'll offer you stuff. Water, sunblock, Pop Tarts, whatever. I thought that I'd have to go to the Frontier Store in Central Camp to buy stuff, but as it turned out, I never did. Instead, I just hung out with people, telling jokes, making them laugh, and then I'd ask, 'Hey, I'm sorry, can I bum some water? I'm almost out and I'm camped way the hell on the opposite end.' And it was usually no big deal. I don't think anyone felt like I was imposing."

Okay, so getting and drinking water wasn't a problem. But what about food? Jamie laughs. "Who the hell eats out in the desert?" Still, you've got to eat sometime. Jamie acquiesces. "Okay, I admit it. At night, I lived off of grilled cheese sandwiches from Bianca's Smut Shack. And during the day, I ate hamburgers from that crazy Flash guy, or Papa Satan, or Daddy Love, or whatever the hell his name is. Plus, there was the occasional trail mix hand-out from whoever I was hanging with. I didn't have to mooch food at all."

Okay, so food and water is taken care of. What about shelter? "During the day, I would just wander from theme camp to theme camp, hanging out underneath various shade structures. I really dug that tropical theme camp, with the mist tent set-up. I napped once in the Fandango camp÷they had an awesome parachute tent, but no one was really using it. So I think they were kind of excited to see someone crashed out in there all day.

"I didn't really sleep much at night÷go figure. On Friday night, I did fall asleep on one of the couches at Bianca's, before the dawn woke me up. On Saturday night, I ended up buying a hit of Ecstacy off this cute boy-girl couple, who I ran into again later that night at the opera. Of course, the opera went on for fucking ever, and we were all X-ing pretty hard at that point, so we left and went back to their camp, where I had a real cute, mushy scene with them in their tent."

So Jamie prostituted himself in order to find sleeping accommodations? "Well, I wouldn't put it that way!" he replies, scoffing at me. "I would have slept with them anyway, even I had gone out there with a fully-provisioned RV!"

When I mention that he must have been pretty skanky, having lived in the same clothes for four days straight, Jamie laughs. "Yeah right! I went to the hot springs every day! I don't know how I would have survived without them. I would soak my clothes and them let them dry, while I hung out in one of the pools. Then I'd bum some sunblock off somebody, and I was good to go."

Periodically, over the course of the weekend, I would run into Jamie, who always snarkily assured me that he was surviving in Black Rock City just fine, thank you very much. My only worry was, how was he going to get home? "Oh, puh-leeze!" replies Jamie. "Getting a ride home was easy! All I had to do was ask around a bit, and pony up some gas money. I ended up going back to San Francisco in an RV full of really cool drag queens!"

So would Jamie recommend this sort of "show up with nothing" Burning Man experience to anyone? "Kids, don't try this at home!" he laughs. "There were definitely some moments where I was worried," admits Jamie. "Not knowing where I was going to scam my next water, or where I was going to sleep. It's definitely not the way to go if you're not very sociable, or if you can't deal with uncertainty. But I had a ton of fun. I think I'll probably try it again next year."

Black Rock City denizens, you have been warned.

*Names have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent.

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