Burning Man's Donner Award
a retrospective by Genevieve J. Petrone
Named after the ill-fated 1846 wagon train, Burning Man's Donner Award was given each year by the Black Rock Rangers to the individual or group who pushed the limits of personal survival through stupidity, inattention, poor timing, or just bad luck.
During the early days of Burning Man, survival was a matter of personal choice. Throwing a three-day party somewhere in the middle of a 400-square-mile dry lakebed required some knowledge of survival - especially when you invited the craziest people you knew. Add alcohol, guns, and sleep depravation. Then, factor in high winds and blinding dust storms. Compound the odds with cars doing 100 mph and take your chances with the occasional lighting bolt.
Oh yes, and on the last night, set fire to a giant wooden man in the middle of your camp and then burn everything else. Ah, those were the days.
1992: Danger Ranger gave the first Donner Award to the pilot of a Cessna single-engine plane, who, after dramatically buzzing the camp three times, managed to land upside down on the playa just south of camp. The crash site, which was strewn with Oreo cookies, gave new meaning to the term "cargo cult.' This popular art installation remained on the playa for three weeks, until it was finally visited by the Federal Aviation Administration and then carted out on a large flatbed truck.
1993: The Donner Award was given to an HBO video crew. They were so afraid of getting their RV stuck in the mud that they high-tailed away at the first sight of storm clouds.
1994: The prize was given this year to two young men who got lost at night and ran out of gas at the edge of the playa near the old historic mining town of Sulfur. Since they were cold, they set fire to one of the historic buildings, burning it to the ground.
1995: Three local teenagers drove off in the wrong direction at night and got stuck in the treacherous Quinn River area at the northeast end of the playa. Without water or supplies, and wearing only t-shirts and pants, they spent the night in their Mazda RX-7. In the morning, they walked away in separate directions. After an extensive, day-long search by a Black Rock Ranger search and rescue team, they were finally located, one at a time. The last boy was found lying near the railroad tracks just before nightfall, suffering from severe sunburn and dehydration. Their car has never been found.
1996: This year the Donner Award was given to all the reckless drivers who turned the playa into a risky game of chance, thereby changing the driving rules for everyone. The top winners were: Fourth place - the college student who rolled his parents' Isuzu Trooper just south of camp. Third place - the two local kids who flipped their Suzuki Quadrunner while playing tag with another moving vehicle. Second place - the drunk driver who sheared off the rear end of another pickup truck during a dust storm. And finally, first place - the spaced-out junkie who borrowed his girlfriend's rental car, and then plowed it into an occupied tent, causing severe injuries.
1997: The prize was taken by the former Burning Man medical coordinator, who severely burned his hand when he attempted to remove some steel cables, which had been in the flames of the burn a few minutes before. Runner-up was an attempted gate-crasher whose truck spent four days stuck in the mud.
1998: This Donner Award was carried in style by the Burning Man organizer who set fire to his own tent with a tiki torch. Close runner-ups for this year's award were: the pilot of a giant windsailer who crashed into the Tower of Rudra; the Black Rock City DPW truck driver who got stuck while crossing the railroad tracks where there was no crossing; the gate crasher who attempted to sneak in by driving down the railroad tracks.
Both of the vehicles which got stuck on the tracks were completely destroyed by fast moving freight trains. The giant windsailer was dismantled with a cutting torch by the artist who built the tower.
1999: After a much calmer event, the award was given to a participant who did a swan dive from the top of three-story tower. Somehow, he landed on the playa with only minor injuries. The runner-up was a DPW driver who, over the course of the event, managed to roll two vehicles.
2000: The Donner Award was given to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), not for putting themselves at risk, but for putting the entire community of Burning Man at risk. This was the year that the BLM secretly decided not to patrol the open playa around Black Rock City, and instead moved all of their BLM Rangers inside the city, with orders to concentrate on issuing tickets for social infractions, like peeing on the ground and making pot busts. This unannounced change in policy left our city defenseless against cars roaring through the perimeter fence at 60 mph, thereby seriously endangering participants and resulting in the loss of thousands of dollars worth of admission tickets. It was on Thursday morning at 4 AM, after discovering another break in the fence and seeing tire tracks straight through walk-in camping, that a particularly outraged Danger Ranger drove his trusty Electrolux 4WD into the middle of the agency's sleeping camp and switched on his siren. His words were: "When any government fails to defend its citizens, someone must sound the alarm."
Has the call for safety had an effect? Perhaps. Last year, in 2001, there was no Donner Award winner. The message in the Survival Guide is now well-spread. Many new safety regulations and driving restrictions are in effect. The men in black have applied technology to defend our perimeter, the BLM is still protecting our morals, and the Burning Man is even further away.