"I showed up at Burning Man with nothing and
Interview with a
by Adrian Roberts
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."
if you don't? Could you still survive÷comfortably÷if you showed up out here
with nothing? You could if you were Jamie Conway.*
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."
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.
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."
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...
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."
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
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
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."
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.
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."
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!"
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."
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!"
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."
City denizens, you have been warned.
*Names have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent.