Friday, February 21, 2014

Bad Times on the Green Tortoise

A report of my trip to Burning Man 2001 via the Green Tortoise (which comes with a preface or introduction, should you find the word "preface" too off putting) follows. As I said before, it has been mirrored on Webring Webspace. The site and this blog interlink extensively, so if this copy is running slowly because of server load or for some other reason, one may go over to the other copy without needing to worry about any difficulty in returning to one's ring or to this post, for that matter, should one wish to do so. What you're seeing is what I wrote, back in 2002, when I first posted this to another site of mine. One might note with mild amusement that the comment that follows in the first paragraph, about thinking better about doing a Burning Man page, now appears on what is primarily a Burning Man journal at the moment, and which is associated with other Burning Man sites and journals of mine.

My earlier remarks now begin.

For a while, I was not really not sure of the direction I wanted to take this page in, but clarity would later come. Originally, I was going to do a whole Burning Man page on this site, with its own subdirectory. I've since thought better of that. Yes, I've had some very positive experiences at Burning Man, and with burners. I've also had some bad ones, some more than a little nasty, some online, some offline. What could I tell you about some of the less than delightful moments this $200 per ticket festival can offer the traveler?

I could mention my trip with Green Tortoise, which the Burning Man organization seems to view as being its partner. I found that I was having great trouble getting out, because I can't drive. Not that I'm unwilling to, but I just literally can't, and it's not from lack of trying. Of course, those park benches have been replaced since my last attempt to learn, and my ex-instructor's therapist says he's coming along quite well, now, so maybe ... maybe heavy equipment and me just aren't a happening combination. Generally speaking, if one has even a mild case of cerebral palsy, this will be the case.

Is there no other way to do my part, though? I had offered to pay for more than my share of gas money, cook for people while they were out there, or make up for my lack of driving ability in some other way, but, no matter. If I couldn't drive, they weren't interested. So, in a spirit of "what else is there left to try?", I went online and asked if there was any way to get out to Burning Man, or if this was a pipe dream that I'd do well to give up on. "Of course you can get out there", somebody said. "Just call the Green Tortoise and book through them. You can buy plane tickets to San Francisco at a discount on You'll love it. There's a real sense of community on those trips". That sounded good.

I called in, and asked them about their tour package to Burning Man. $240 (including meals) was the quote I got. Just to be absolutely sure, I mentioned that I was gluten intolerant. Medically speaking, unpleasant things happen to me when I consume wheat (and, to a lesser extent, barley and oats). I was assured that this would not be a problem. The $240 was rung up on the credit card my father had lent me for this purpose. Airplane reservations were made on United, leaving me with a four day layover coming and a one day layover going back. I made reservations at the Green Tortoise hostel, and asked if I could pay for the room on the same card. "No problem", said the lady on the phone.

Hold your horses. A server can only load images so quickly, you know!

I got to San Francisco, and arrived at the hostel. BIG problems. I was just a starving student with no checking account and no ATM card. Imagine my amazement as I pulled in, struggling with heavy luggage, and was told that the room wasn't payed for! "$88 dollars, please". $88 dollars out of what was already a tight budget. I started to say that I was told otherwise by the person on the phone, but was cut off quite rudely. "She didn't say that. That's not our policy". "No", I countered, "that may well not be your policy, and she may have been out of line, but she did say that" ... and she cut me off again. "Are you seriously telling me that it's physically impossible for your representative to give bad information on the phone?". Apparently, it was. I'd say that she was saying this with a straight face, but as incredible as it should seem, she was actually getting indignant!

Would it surprise you to learn that when I spoke with one of my roommates that night, that I learned that the same thing had happened to her? I just had to phone back to Chicago, a "mere" 2000 miles away. This poor girl had flown here from Thailand. We ended up in the same boat - almost penniless, and unclear as to how we were going to buy food for the next few days. Suffice it to say that there are a great many things that I would have enjoyed doing during my stay, but the sudden disappearance of most of my budget put an end to that.

The logic of the situation was certainly curious. "But, you have charged the ticket and the package on the credit card?" Maybe, but you'll have to check in tomorrow, she said. "So, why don't you just charge the stay on the same credit card that you charged the package on. Dad's home, you have his number, and I'm sure he'll approve it. He did before". Nope, came the reply, that's not our policy. One branch of the Green Tortoise takes credit cards, the other does not. Never mind the fact that we were told otherwise on the phone, because they weren't about to admit to that. Never mind the fact that none of us had ever heard of such a thing, one branch of the same corporate entity handling plastic, while another set financial policy independently, and went cash only. We were supposed to know. "How?", I asked. Some vacuous comment about "taking care of your own stuff" followed. But, within reason, that is exactly what we did. How were we supposed to know that the representative was lying to us?

What are you going to do? I was none too mobile at that point. As much as I wanted to tell them to shove their reservation, and head over to a nice, if odd (and inexpensive) hotel I stayed at once, on the edge of the Tenderloin, grabbing my suitcases and heading for the nearest Borders books on foot (to find a tour guide and the location of that hotel) wasn't a practical option. I payed the 88 dollars, and a very hungry and frustrating four days began.

The stay in the hostel was, at times, surreal. We had small footlockers and no desks or tables in most of these small, crowded rooms. Yet the policy was, if you can believe this, that the managment claimed the right to steal any garment or other personal possession found on the floor. These items would be put in a bin downstairs. I saw that bin. There was a sign over it, announcing that this was free stuff, found on the floor. Just take what you want, it said. Incredible. The latch on my locker wouldn't stay closed and things would just tumble out. All I could do was put my suitcase up against my locker to hold it closed, balance whatever didn't fit on top of it, and hope for the best.

"Hoping for the best" was something that I got to have a lot of practice at. During my stay going, I was assigned a top bunk, only to discover that there was no board on the side of the bed to keep somebody from falling out and hitting the ground, about 6 feet below. I've been told that I came within inches of doing that particular swan dive on one night, but I guess I was lucky. I felt a little less lucky on the return trip when I discovered that one of my roommates was psychotic. He threatened to attack me in my sleep, after I awoke from a nap. He was personally offended that I snored, and informed me that he wasn't going to tolerate it. What I was supposed to do about having an obstructed air passage, that night, wasn't made clear. This was reported to the staff downstairs, and I think that you can guess what they did. Nothing. Nada. Bupkus. It didn't make the night that followed, very restful.

But, we're getting ahead of ourselves.

Those of us who suddenly found ourselves short on cash, had to find some way to recoup our unexpected losses. Lacking a bank account (starving student, remember), I called home and got my dad, who asked if he might send a check out to help. I went back and asked the people at Green Tortoise travel if they'd be willing to cash a check. Their answer : No. Just because they had created the problem, that didn't mean that they'd feel like doing anything to fix it. Not that they were about to be honest enough to admit that they had created the problem, even to those who were on the phone with them as they had done so.

Plan B : send money by Western Union. Problem: I had just had a birthday when I called Dad and my state ID had just expired. In the real world, this isn't much of a problem. One doesn't age all that much in a few days, or even a few months for that matter, and the only purpose of the ID is to prove that you are you. However, I wasn't in the real world, I was in California. It took a few days to find a Western Union station that would take my slighly expired ID, during which I was barely fed at all. A few dollars per day doesn't buy one that much food.

Finally, the weekend was over and management returned. Dad was able to get a hold of a manager of one of the Western Union branches, conveniently located in a food market downtown. The manager agreed to let me pick up the money without an ID, as Dad had agreed that this arrangement would be set up at his own risk. If somebody showed up at that particular spot and claimed to be me, Dad would be out the money, and Western Union would not be responsible. I showed up, and discovered that the employee the manager left on duty had decided to stage her own little mutiny.

She didn't like her boss' decision, so she wasn't going to abide by it. Oh, and no, he wasn't going to be back for the rest of the day. Change can run out very quickly when one has to use pay phones, especially in downtown San Francisco, because, it seems, they haven't invented change machines there yet. Soon, on wobbly legs, I found myself pounding my feet to a pulp as I went from place to place, on one bad tip after another as to where I could get change to use the phone. Finally, after much looking, I was able to leave a message on Dad's answering machine telling him about what happened. Word got back to Dad, who got in touch with the manager.

The offending employee who had defied her boss' order, was soon giving me the money that Dad had sent, as she had been ordered to in the first place. She did this with a distinct air of resentment. What did she have to be angry about? What could she possibly have said in defense of her own insubordinate and unprofessional conduct? What else?

"It's not our fault, if you don't take care of your own stuff". Hey, if your town has a good braindead cliche, why not run with it? This seems to be a standard response that the locals give whenever they screw up and somebody else gets hurt. I would call this "foreshadowing", but I was already in the middle of this mess of a story, with no way out of it but to go straight ahead. Too tired to point out to this worthless assistant that the only "us" that was being a problem here was her, I took my money, offered a silent prayer that she'd be one of the casualties in the Big One, and left. Food felt very good after that forced (and unexpected) fast, but I was still feeling very feeble as I left.

It didn't help that I hadn't had even four hours of sleep on any one night since I had arrived. The room they had placed me in was next to an emergency exit. So was a bathroom. The Hostel had placed a sensor near the door to detect anybody going down the stairs, so they could catch them and, as the staff explained, toss him out without a refund. However, the sensor was set up incorrectly and picked up anybody going down the hall, going to that bathroom or otherwise not hugging the wall on our side of the hallway closely enough. "Beep-beep-beep-beep" it went loudly, all night long. "Sorry, the guy who set that up won't be back for a few weeks". "You're in the middle of the Bay Area, and you can't find a technician to work on this?", I thought. Whatever. I left the girl at the desk, who had been as unhelpful as usual, and went back to sleep. Sort of.

I wonder if I should have the theme music from "Vacation" playing on this page? There were a large number of things that I wanted to do during my stay in San Francisco. The lack of money and energy that the Green Tortoise's actions had left me with ruled out doing any of them. My stay in San Francisco was altogether ruined at that point. However, while it may have seemed like an eternity already, I had only been there a few days, and the trip to Burning Man hadn't even started yet. Just like Clark Griswold, I found the upcoming change of scenery a reason to think that "with each new day, there's fresh hope". What a shame I didn't have Beverly D'Angelo there to bring me back to reality.

One of my worries had already been taken care of. When my ticket arrived, here in Chicago, I got a bit of a jolt when I read a small little detail that had been left out until after they had my hard earned $240. They would not let us use any of the water for showering, on this $240 trip into the 100 degree heat of the desert. Imagine the pleasure of swimming in your own sweat for a week. Fortunately, I was able to hook up with a very friendly and pleasant group of people at one of the camps. For $60, I was able to purchase a membership which gave me access to sun showers, and shelter. (A very pleasant, comfortable little dome tent). The only shelter that the $240 paid to the Green Tortoise got one was on the bus, which would have made the trip even hotter and stickier than it already would have been. That many bodies sleeping head-to-toe in such a small space generate an awful lot of heat at night.

So, let's see. They had my $240, and I ended up having to get my showers and shelter elsewhere. Truly, I had to. Remember, I was flying out on United? Where would I have packed my own tent, had I brought one? In the overhead luggage compartment? Under my seat? Bringing my own was just not an option. So, one might ask, what exactly was I getting for my 240 dollars? This was a question that I would find myself asking a number of times, in the days to come.

But again, we are getting ahead of ourselves.

The trip, in the telling, seems anti-climactic, but it surely didn't feel that way at the time. The next few surprises came as we prepared to leave. We were told to gather for the bus, not in front of the hostel, but South of Market street, a few miles away. We were on our own when it came to getting to the pickup point, but at least somebody was kind enough to take our luggage there. Oh, but here was a surprise - we were now limited to two pieces of luggage per person. It would have been nice to have been notified of this, in advance. Much like it would have been nice to have been notified about the lack of showering facilities before I payed for that trip or the "no-credit-card" policy before stumbling in with my luggage, or ... etc. Again, what could I do?

I had to empty one of my bags into my suitcase, ram it all in as well as I could, the collapsed bag included, and close it. The suitcase was damaged in the process, as were some of the contents, as one might guess. But that was my problem, as far as the staff was concerned.

We assembled near what was left of a greyhound station. After relieving myself into the excrement encrusted remains of what I can only assume used to be a toilet, I joined the others as they waited for the buses to Burning Man to come. And waited. And waited. It could have been worse. While the staff itself seemed to have little to offer but attitude, the customers were a pleasant group and fun to talk to. We shivered the hours away cheerfully until the buses came, one by one, each taking a bunch of us away, leaving the rest to wait another half hour for the next bus to leave.

The rest of the ride to Black Rock City was peaceful enough, unless one counts the speed bump riding that we kept doing as the driver kept dozing off. Getting out of my upper bunk took a creative bit of navigating, even more so than getting into it, as I had maybe 18 inches of space overhead to maneuver in as I tried to turn over (no mean feat) and lower myself onto the floor five feet below without falling. Much senseless griping followed, late during the night, as I found that I had to climb over people to get to where I was required to leave my shoes during a late night trip to the washroom. "What am I supposed to do, wet the bed?", I asked. "If you want to wake people up, that's fine", was his reply. I stumbled over the sprawled bodies as well as I could, gingerly placing a knee into the space between two bodies as I searched for a place to lower the next. I found my shoes and headed off, my kidneys rejoicing at the promise of imminent relief.

No doubt about it, we were in Nevada. I crossed a vast expanse of trucks and pumps, shivering in the startling cold of the high pass we were in, entering the welcome light and warmth of the restaurant at the center of the stop, to the sound of slot machines. I found my way back to the bus, this time leaving my shoes back the back door, now that I knew where my assigned sleeping space was. Huh?! Somebody was sleeping in my space! And I couldn't find an empty spot or even the people I was with, with everybody hudding under blankets to protect themselves from the chill. Eventually, it hit me. We had caught up to the other buses, and I was on the wrong one. Oops. I ran to catch my own bus shortly before it was due to leave. Good thing, too, as the Green Tortoise doesn't check to make sure that everybody is present before leaving.

I returned to the coffinlike setting of my bed, after a moment of and slept reasonably soundly. The preceding few days made that easy, and for once there was peace and quiet. Except when the rumbling of the speed bumps could be heard. "Don't think about it, just don't think about it", I told myself, finding some small pleasure the next morning as I noticed that I had awakened.

I came to, to the sight of the sun lighting up the sky from behind the Black Rock mountains. We pulled up to a sign reading "welcome to nowhere" just uphill from a chicken coop. The scene was familiar, and yet not. Not a sound in the air, not a bird singing, not even the buzz of an insect. Just an unearthly silence in the dead, windless air. The gas station underneath it had a few portolets we put to good use. My neighbor on the opposing bunk apparently put it to very good use, because he ended up being left behind. I guess he had the gas station attendant to keep him company. Oh, and there were the chickens.

Fortunately, the bus behind us picked him up. Eventually.

Spirits lifted as we encountered the signs leading into Black Rock and enjoyed the jokes they told. The tape that the driver popped in was a nice touch that set the perfect mood for entering the "city", sort of a "Mad Max" feeling. In we went.

Over the next few days, a lot went right, all of it due to people unassociated with the Green Tortoise. A lot went wrong. Did I mention that we had payed $240 for this trip? Guess who was expected to put together the meals? Yes, the paying customers, who took forever to get the job done as one would expect out of a group of people with no kitchen experience. Meanwhile, the staff "supervised". No joke, it took everybody over two hours to put together the first dinner. That must be some dinner, you might be thinking? We had chicken fajitas. You know, the same stuff you can go to a taqueria and see people toss together in a few minutes? The other meals took even longer.

The paying customers were "ordered" by the staff to stick around during those two or more hours each meal was slowly and painfully put together. Ordered? Huh? I had this funny idea that the person doing the paying was the one who made the rules, more or less. Since when do the staff at a travel company treat paying customers as if they were subordinates?

Aside from that, let's do a little math : 3 meals/day times over 2 hours per meal equals over six hours per day of doing kitchen work, for people one had payed 240 dollars to, for the privilege of traveling with them. Yielding to this unreasonable demand would have been incompatible with being able to experience the event, because one would never be free to leave the Green Tortoise Camp. Not only would one be trapped at the camp site during the six hours of meal preperation, but one would have so little time in between obligatory work times that one wouldn't be free to wander.

Did this produce a "community atmosphere"? Perhaps, if a cult is considered to be a community. Any complaint or criticism of a decision made by a staff member, resulted in an attack upon the paying customer who made it. In my own case, I had run into somebody I had met online and had arranged to meet her later. I went back to help with dinner, and was kept, and kept, and kept ... until I was an hour late, and sure that she would be annoyed. (She certainly would have good reason to be). I HAD to leave. It would have been wrong not to.

I asked if I could toss a quick dinner for myself together. The answer was "no". Excuse me? I wasn't asking for charity. I had payed for that meal. I was entitled to that meal. I pointed out that making this meal had already made me an hour late to some place that I was supposed to be. The staff member - pardon me, the employee who had made that outrageous announcement, then turned to the other paying customers, who were working the kitchen, and loudly said "ignore this guy, you aren't doing anything wrong". Yes, that's right, he responded to a customer complaint regarding his own actions by pretending that it had been an attack on the other customers and playing politics at the customer's expense. Yes, by bluffing as he attacked a paying customer and tried to get the other customers angry at him. "Unprofessional" doesn't begin to fully describe this behavior.

This was soon to prove to be beside the point as the event organizer, now that we were out in the middle of the desert, announced that "we can't accommodate special dinner requests" when, surprise, surprise, it turned out that many of the dinners served WOULD include wheat, and I asked about those alternative, wheat-free meals that I had been promised, before I was sold that ticket. Again, excuse me? I was told, in so many words, back before I made my purchase, that such an accommodation could be made. I wouldn't have done business with the Green Tortoise otherwise. This was breach of contract. He responded by saying that he would refund my meal money, a promise which, when the time came, went the way of the other promises I had been given. Also, it hardly answered the problem. Here I was, in the middle of the desert, with no cooking facilities, and no refrigeration available. Even if I could have found a place to buy food, how could I have prepared it, with the staff stubbornly refusing to let me use the cooking equipment, even when it was not otherwise in use and would not be for hours? What was I supposed to do? Eat my meat raw?

The response of the burners around me was heart-warming, but futile. There are no food stores on the Playa. Food and water were scarce. Yet, so many were so eager to help, sharing some of the little they had left to spare. The body was in bad shape, but these little gifts did so very much for my spirits that I could almost put the physical hardship out of my mind. Almost.

I spent the next few days passing many fascinating things that I would have liked to explore. No go. I was too busy going from camp to camp begging for food, barely keeping ahead of the game as I was burning calories walking around on increasingly blistered feet, almost as quickly as I was taking them in. My walking speed was steadily dropping as my energy ebbed away during the week. How much was it that I had payed for the pleasure? Oh, yes. 240 dollars. Plus another 200 dollars for the ticket to get into a festival that I was hardly having the time to enjoy.

Meanwhile, many of my fellow paying customers were working on good cases of Playa foot of their own. Their feet were cracking and bleeding. Why? Because while the Playa dust isn't as nasty as alleged (it won't burn through your tennis shoes), it is hard enough on skin that, in combination with the dry air, it can do slow, measurable damage. The remedy is to take periodic foot baths to take off the dust that is left in the pores and crevices of one's skin.

The staff didn't allow the paying customers to wash the dust off their feet. Water was too precious and expensive to waste on people who had payed them a paltry quarter of a thousand dollars to be there, more or less. For that matter, they weren't about to allow them to use paper toweling to wipe off the grease that they had accumulated in the course of doing food preparation work for the people they were paying to be there. Nor were they allowed to use anything other than a small communal pan of heavily food laden water to wash their hands off afterward. Those who were careless enough to break these rules, apparently got screamed at by the staff.

Gee, sounds like fun, doesn't it? What a deal! So, let's see. I got my food, almost all of my water, my showers, and my shelter from elsewhere. So, what was I getting for $240? Oh, yes, a really expensive bus trip. And, a lot of attitude and abuse.

Thank God I had a slight weight problem before leaving Chicago? That fat sure came in handy. People really tried to help, but there just wasn't that much spare food to be had. I lived off of my excess weight to a large extent. As the last day came, I watched the Mausoleum burn with a mixture of regret and relief. As damaged as the experience was, it was a memorable one. As bad as a lot of it was, it was the first time in a long time that I had witnessed anything resembling freedom. I was sorry to have to go. Unfortunately, slow starvation was making the choice for me.

The bus was leaving at Midnight on Sunday, which meant, as "Sugar Mama" pointed out, we were missing the best day of the event, when the city itself was burned. Typical - we had arrived on Tuesday, missing the start of the week. How fitting that we would be missing the end as well. Some were kind enough to offer me a ride back to San Francisco. I would have been delighted to take them up on that offer, but I already had my luggage in the storage container the Green Tortoise had set up for my luggage. There I was, naked and 2,000 miles from home. I really couldn't risk having losing all of my stuff, money included. How would I get home?

I hopped one of the music cars which was headed in the right direction, roughly. Time was counting down to Midnight all too quickly. The driver said get off. We were as close to 6:30 and lover as we were going to get. It was then that I discovered that the street signs were gone. I ran frantically on wounded feet, looking for landmarks to tell me where I was, in a Black Rock City that was half-disassembled. Panting and sweating, I arrived with two minutes to spare. Thank GOD!

The owner said that it was good that I was there, as they were about to leave. He told me not to look in the iron car that served as our luggage container, because he was sure that all of the luggage had already been loaded. I wasn't so sure. I asked for a flashlight, and was refused. Peering inside, by the faint moonlight lighting the interior, I saw the vague outlines of - something. I felt my way through the murky semi-darkness to find, yes, my luggage. I lost my water bottle and a few other small items in there, not being able to really see what I was doing, but I got most of what I had. Most importantly, I had my clothes. Getting back to Chicago without those would have been difficult.

The trip back was less pleasant. Once again, we had to leave the bus, as its interior was rearranged to make it suitable for sleeping. I entered to find that my sleeping bag had been hidden under the lower platform that had been set up for sleeping, in an apparent bout of spite on the part of the driver I was going back with. (The same winning person who had attacked me in front of the other customers, when I complained about not being allowed to eat). I shivered in the cold of the high pass we went through on our return to California, with nothing more than a spare set of clothes to serve as a makeshift blanket. I slept in only short stretches through the night. Half-awake, I stumbled back into the hostel.

This immediately led to a confrontation with the girl at the desk, who, contrary to her boss' decision, didn't want to let us in to take some long awaited real showers (with water pressure backing them up). I got in, showered, shaved, and slept as well as I could, with the aforementioned psychotic roommate in the same room. But, at least this time, I was assigned a room that wasn't near the offending alarm. I awoke later than I intended, not surprising since I was now without an alarm clock, but with plenty of time to make my flight out.

I waited for the shuttle to take me to the airport. You know the drill by now, don't you? I waited. And waited. And waited. I had missed the previous shuttle because the same girl at the desk who had given me a hard time about the shower the previous day, decided to take her time about checking us out. The following shuttle never came, and the one after that was due to arrive after my flight was due to leave.

I didn't have enough money to hire a cab, so I had to go out, and frantically start begging for money, as the time of scheduled departure fast approached. Finally, one of the people who had gone to Black Rock helped me out with $20, which got me there. God bless him, that money was really a life saver. I hopped a cab, and watched nervously as the minutes clicked away on the clock.

I don't think that I've ever been so glad to board an airplane. There were several movies playing, but my favorite show was that little graphic of a plane crossing the country. I found myself smiling a little more broadly as each state was crossed, and home came a little closer. I landed, Dad was lost in traffic, and I was stuggling on blistered feet, but it was OK. I was home. Forget Chicago, I wanted normality and peace. The suburbs, it was. I went to Chi-Chis and pigged out. The waitress couldn't believe that I wanted to eat that much, and seemed fascinated by my story when I told her why. Ah, if only I had been up to telling it! She was cute.

Several weeks later, the phone bill arrived. The private pay phone company that the Green Tortoise had hired, apparently had an interesting fee schedule. Those few, brief calls I had placed from the hostel, telling Dad about the lovely surprise at the front desk, cost $190. The Green Tortoise had gotten one last shot in, and it hurt. But, at least it was over. At least, so I would hope.

Hope, in a case like this, comes in degrees. Having posted this account on my website, I soon found myself (and this article) to be the subject of gossip in a number of online forums, with those talking about it showing the level of reasonability and truthfulness gossips have long been renowned for, especially online. "Your man slagged the (green) tortoise off 'cos they didn't cater to his obscure food allergies" wrote one, leaving the reader with the impression that I had simply shown up, announced my gluten intolerance, and was angry that it wasn't catered to. As you can see, my complaint in this area is not that I wasn't catered to, but that the Green Tortoise did not live up to the commitments it made some months in advance. (Thus leaving it with all of the time in the world to write or call back and say "sorry, Joseph, but we were mistaken, we can't do that" and refund my money before I even bought my plane ticket).

Not that this came as a complete shock, as I had found the regulars in the Burning Man forums to be unpleasantly odd and irrational, even by the standards of Online forums.Originally, I balked at the idea of saving letters, the way I did posts for another rebuttal site of mine, if for no other reason other than that these incidents became so formulaic that the whole idea was too tiresome for words. Originally, I merely posted summaries with the names changed in order to tell my side of the story to those who may have heard some of the rumors being spread. It wasn't until I found that some of the efforts at defamation of character were getting more aggressive, that I caved and started documenting the events, and naming names.

What was interesting, though again not surprising, was that a number of members of BMORG were among the ringleaders when I found myself being attacked on e-Playa, and weren't at all shy about resorting to censorship when I started defending myself. This passage from the Afterburn 2001 report says it all (paragraph breaks mine):

"The Gerlach shuttle service provides a different type of challenge. Because we operate on public roads, our shuttle carrier must have the appropriate commercial license and insurance to run this sort of service in Nevada. The local 'casino bus'-type operators, however, would be a very uncomfortable cultural fit for our event.
We have been thrilled with our partnership with The Green Tortoise, which has been able to save us the cost of transporting the shuttle buses to the playa by using those same buses to transport non-car-driving citizens to our event. To accommodate those riders who would otherwise have access to the buses for storage, relaxation, sleeping, etc. during the day, we provide the (Green) Tortoise camp with a container for storage of their passengers' goods and a shade structure for lounging.
Gardner Kent, the founder of the (Green) Tortoise, is a kindred spirit and a particular fan of Burning Man (it's a mutual admiration society). As any of you who have ridden the Shuttle will attest, the (Green) Tortoise drivers are perfectly culturally suited to the task of transporting our motley community back and forth between our playa home and the pay phones and cash registers of Gerlach and Empire."

Get the picture? If the Burning Man Organization (BMORG) and the Green Tortoise were in bed together any more than they already are, they'd be legally married in some states. Gardner Kent, of course, is the man who reneged on his company's commitment to meet my dietary needs and left me begging for food in the middle of the desert. Did their friend do something unethical to one of his (and their) customers? No problem! In a manner very reminiscent of what that bus driver did when I asked about getting that meal I paid for, all they had to do was throw a little mud at the customer and hope that it would stick.

I had never been looking for a fight and that, perhaps, is why I got one. Those who were looking for a fight to win, or wanted to win popularity for themselves by attacking somebody unpopular, saw me as being an easy target. The formula was a simple one : Group regulars argue silly point. I point out why it's silly. Reason and common sense are equated with trolling. Online mob is gathered in response. Regulars start getting abusive in lieu of offering coherent counterarguments. They pat themselves on the back, as they speak of their abuse as if it were reason, much as they spoke of reason as if it were abuse earlier. I get annoyed, and leave quickly. One can't help but notice that the "peace and love" business goes out the window the moment that dissent makes its appearance, and people realize that the dissenter won't back down, or change his mind, merely because he is being ganged up on.

"Yes", you say, "but this all took place on the Internet, where unpleasant strangeness is to be expected". Perhaps so, but not all of the unpleasantness took place online, as you have seen. Also, even if one doesn't expect much out of the people one meets online, one should be able to expect better out of the event organizers, a number of whom were, as I said, among the ringleaders. When, at an event that is purportedly held for the sake of radical free expression, there are calls on the organizers' own webboard to have people murdered because they disagree with the group consensus or haven't minded their place, something has gone very, very wrong in an unpleasantly ironic way. Not to mention, a very expensive one: let's calculate the damage:

$ 0200 Burning Man Ticket
$ 0240 Green Tortoise Tour Package
$ 0100 Hostel Stay
$ 0280 Plane Ticket
$ 0190 Phone Bill, Calling Dad
$ 0------ ---------------------------------------
$ 1010 Total (Not counting other expenditures)

$1010 to go from camp to camp, begging for food. What a deal! And then how many weeks of my time wasted dealing with the rumors spread by people in the forums online? In exchange for this trouble, I got what? In response to a query about how to get out to Burning Man if one can't drive, I got a zero effort answer to go call the Green Tortoise, a link to whose homepage can be found on the main Burning Man site (meaning that I wasn't being given any information which I wouldn't have otherwise had). And, taking that advice lead me to the experiences mentioned above. So, again, I found myself left with the question "was it worth it?". Answer: very clearly not.

My Original Conclusions

This is what I originally wrote, more or less, with a few ambiguous phrasings cleaned up:

"What did I learn? "Don't do business with the Green Tortoise" is a good lesson to walk away from this one, with. But if that was the only lesson that I had learned, I would only be walking in the direction of the next bad experience. So, in more general terms, how could I have avoided this?
What did I do wrong? What could I have done better? The coordinator for the camp I was staying at said it, and she was so right. My problem was that I had approached my attendance at Burning Man in a manner contrary to the nature of the event. Burning Man is a non-commercial event, and here I was getting there using the Green Tortoise, which was commercial to the hilt. She was right, it was a dysfunctional combination. One starts with a subculture in which everything is being done as a favor for everybody else, which gets people out of the habit of thinking that demands can legimately be made of them. Then one makes the experience a chance for commercial gain, which brings in the element of greed, which is now free to run unchecked. Open thievery can now be mixed with self-righteous pride without the mix seeming odd to those inflicting it on their customers.
Plus, to be perfectly blunt, half of the Green Tortoise people seemed half-stoned most of the time, anyway. A lot of what we mistake for "peace and love", very often, is nothing more than the bliss of those who expect that they will get their way without resistance. Let that happy expectation be lost, and one may end up seeing a whole new side of these people, as I did. If these people were what they seemed to me to be, their past abuse of recreational pharmaceuticals would have shorted out much of their sense of personal responsibility. That loss of anxiety can make for bliss, but taken to excess, it can make a sociopath of one, albeit a lazy sociopath. One who will turn vicious if others don't do one's work for one, for example. Potheads are really not nice people when you get to know them, any more than alcoholics are.
Again, like the lady said, it was a matter of looking at the people who made the event happen and made it work, and see how far what I was doing was from what they were doing. Yes, what they did was non-commercial, done for the pleasure of doing and done for the pleasure of the others, not for money. Being with the Green Tortoise changed that equation. But that wasn't my entire mistake. I was looking for help and information online, and I should have known better than that. That older rebuttal site I alluded to above was written to document the widespread lunacy of netizens; why did I expect a higher standard of rationality from the Burning Man forums than I had seen elsewhere on the Internet?
Back before they started taking themselves so psychotically seriously and the event acquired its dark side instead of being the badly needed bit of lightheartedness that it reportedly used to be, the creators of Burning Man didn't shyly hide behind a computer screen and use it to connect to others. They went out aggressively and made things happen. I should have done the same. I have found plenty of the sort of places that would-be burners would enjoy. Some of them are listed on Burning Man link page here. Wherever I went when visiting these places, it was easy to find people who were interested in the idea of Burning Man. The only real question was how to convince them that the idea had been made a reality well enough to justify the expense and the 2000 mile trip. Movie nights in other cities have been a very effective start.
The answer wasn't for me to go around semi-passively and look for people who were willing to drive me. The answer was for me to go out, get involved in the activities you see mentioned on those links, and get "peeps" of my own involved in creating something that they'd like to do in Black Rock. Strangers might leave me stranded. Newfound friends who wanted to make the theme camp we had assembled a reality, wouldn't want to. This is what those very successful early burners did. This is the spirit that I should have approached this burn in.
This is why I don't do the forums, any more. They're a pointless diversion from more enjoyable and more productive pursuits. They are the haunt of people who'd rather stand out by sabotaging the efforts of others than by making the most of their own. They, like the commercial concern that I made the mistake of doing business with, have lost the personal touch, if they ever even had it, which I doubt.
I don't know if Burning Man is the best place to pursue them any more, but better options are all about us. If it has degenerated into an old boy's club, in which newcomers are expected to "mind their place", so be it. The idea of what it was supposed to be about will remain and be good, even if the event itself ever ceases to be. It's a big world out there, and if one man's show is no longer worth being part of, there is always room for another.
Either way, let's see what works.

Addendum: March 17, 2003

(revised March 20)

I never did go back to Burning Man and I'm not sure if I ever will. After a few months of regular food and sleep, I listened to the tapes of one particular Playa radio program which I had thought was so very well done, and found that I could not have been more embarassed. The material was shallow, the host shied away from anything resembling a hard question, the guests and crowd were visibly stoned ... and in a real sense, between the lack of food and sunstroke, so was I that day. A lot of what I thought I would have enjoyed had I only been up to it, turned out to be an illusion. Not all of it, to be sure, or even most of it, but enough that with a less clouded mind, I could see that I had grossly exaggerated the merits of the event. But that is not the reason why I hesitate to return. Concern about the past (and probable future) behavior of BMORG is. As I discovered, the attitudes of the Green Tortoise staff fit in all too well with the attitudes of BMORG, their alleged partners.

Before, I said that clarity eventually came and it did, in the most unpleasant form that I could have asked for. Knowing exactly what to make of this subculture was difficult. Yes, the Green Tortoise had been an unpleasant, cultlike experience and one could reasonably say much the same about the online forums. This seemed so much at odds with experiences like the one which I linked to an account of above, that I knew I couldn't see the big picture with regard to this event. But then, I heard about Hermine.

Hermine (I don't know her last name) was an artist from Los Angeles who, like many others, had heard that she could work her way into Burning Man, something which I've heard also here in Chicago, thousands of miles away. As Hermine and her boyfriend tell the story, she and her boyfriend, encouraged by this (being almost penniless) arrived at Black Rock City (the Burning Man Camp) to join in on the construction efforts in order to work their way into the event.

They arrived a few days late, but BMORG, in its infinite compassion, soon helped them make up for this by having Hermine work almost around the clock in the desert heat. One of the details they left out was that they didn't have any food for Hermine and, if I understand correctly, very little water. Each day, Hermine would get into the dinner line only to be told "sorry, we don't have any food for you today, maybe tomorrow". This continued for a while, allegedly long enough that if BMORG had been paying Hermine and her boyfriend 1/2 of the legal minimum wage, they would have earned enough to pay their way in and have money left over. Surely, this should be enough? BMORG felt otherwise. Some days later, weak from heat, dehydration and lack of food and realizing that BMORG had been leading her along in order to get free labor out of her, Hermine was nearly hysterical. If this story is true, could one really blame her for being so?

Reportedly, BMORG could. Threatening to have the sheriff arrest Hermine and her boyfriend if they didn't leave, they then followed the woozy couple forty miles out into the desert to make sure that they wouldn't return. Fortunately, the couple's car didn't break down because if it had, in the shape they were in, it sounds like Hermine and her boyfriend would not have been able to make it to the next town. As so many of us have asked, so many times, do these people know that they're running a recreational event? "Don't call it a festival. It's something more serious than that", says "Actiongrrl", one of the organizers. I guess not.

Any doubts which I might have had about Hermine's story evaporated when I went over to e-Playa and saw the response of one of the members of BMORG, which could be summed up by the words "so what's wrong with that". This attitude would soon be mimicked by almost all of the regulars on the board with no contradiction from any of the BMORG members online. You can probably guess why I not sure I want to go back, now. I've already been informed that I would not be welcome back at Burning Man, because of the disagreements I had with people online. If I show up, am I going to given the unhappy surprise of being immediately escorted to the edge of town to be left to walk home through the desert? Are the people I come with going to be thrown out, too? It's just not worth it, and wouldn't be, even if I would be getting in for free.

Clarity? Yes, I got it. The news about Hermine confirmed an impression I gained in the Burning Man forums : fear is a major motivator in the Burner subculture. A member of the drug-saturated nighttime crowd on the Esplanade, the "hard core burners", if thrown out of Burning Man would have lost a big chunk of his world and as the incident with Hermine showed, BMORG is so volatile in real life that unless one is seen as being indispensible (like the people at Playaphone), one can get thrown off the Playa for little reason or no reason at all.

Our hardcore burners aren't being nice when they cooperate, they're just going along to get along, and if they should turn on you for no good reason, where's the surprise? As I noted in the account of what happened on the night of the burn mentioned earlier, the good vibes I sensed that night, in retrospect, seem to have been more a mirage than anything else. Think of the barfly crowd, so pleasant and happy at first glance, which can turn ugly so easily. Burning Man at night is the world's biggest bar, at which it is always happy hour and we can only thank God that nobody will be driving home for a while.

Question: So what's going wrong, here? If the direction Burning Man is taking is so bad, then why are people choosing to take it?
My POV: Click here

Not that I mean to suggest that total cynicism is the key to understanding people at Burning Man. Quite the contrary.

A lot of the people I met at Burning Man during the day seemed very reasonable, very intelligent and very nice, and I suspect that they seemed that way, because they were that way. "Because of the positive vibes of the event?" No, because owing to its reputation, Burning Man attracts a lot of well educated professionals, in academia, medicine, engineering and the arts, and engineers, physicians, professors and artists tend to be nice, intelligent, reasonable people and being at Burning Man won't change that. Not being part of that whole conformist "join in on attacking the latest victim of the mob so that you won't become the next victim, yourself" circuit of hate probably helps.

Question: "So, why doesn't the previous argument apply to these people as well, you effete snob?"
My POV: Click here

This is one reason why, despite all of the unpleasantness which I've described, I'm not going to tell you to boycott the event - it is a rare opportunity to meet a pleasant group of people, without a lot of arbitrary rules imposed by small, power hungry people getting in the way. At least, as long as those small, power hungry people don't notice you, in particular. It can be a chance to be yourself. You just have to exercise a little discretion, and know what to avoid. Like volunteering to work for BMORG, taking part in one of their forums, or otherwise getting their attention.

Like I said, go with friends. Oh, and be sure to make an effort to get up earlier, because the daytime crowd seemed to be a much different, much more pleasant group of people than the nighttime crowd. You go to the Esplanade at Burning Man at night for the spectacle; you go to the back streets during the day for the people.

Am I still writing a Burning Man page? Yes and no. While I have not the slightest shred of respect left for BMORG, the concept of Burning, itself, is not only cool, it's indispensible. Remember when a trip to a city used to feel like an adventure? And now it doesn't any more - at the most, it is an ordeal. Why? Because spontaneity is dead. Because "restoring order" has degenerated into a willingness to treat respectful, law abiding citizens as cattle to be bullied and herded. Because all that one is left able to do in most places is to watch somebody else do something, instead of doing something oneself. Burning, at its best, offers an interactive alternative to that kind of mass vegetation and the existence of that kind of alternative means far more than the presence of a pink flaming rectum in the middle of a dust patch in Nevada. That is something worth keeping alive, regardless of how a handful of people in San Francisco choose to behave - and maybe something worth bringing a little of, back into our own hometowns.

You're still here? One thing that I haven't addressed, yet, is this:

Let's say that you can't drive, and you can't find friends to go with out to Black Rock City. A distinct possibility for most of the population, given the long drive that we're talking about. (One doesn't normally drive to Nevada from anywhere east of the Mississippi). What does one do? I'm still working on that one, sort of, but here are a few small items to consider.

Reno is a sizable community, with its own airport, so let's start our trip there. Checking a few sites, I've found mention of a "daily transport" from Reno to Gerlach, which does take passengers. As this is only a daily transport, you'll want to plan a layover of at least a day in Reno of at least one day, unless, of course, you like the idea of wandering the streets of an unfamiliar city late at night burdened with luggage, looking like a prime target for a mugger, loaded with lots of expensive things to steal and much too slow to get away quickly enough. Some people do, and God rest their souls. For the rest of you, after you enjoy a day or two in Reno and check out of your lodgings, the name of the company is Reno-Gerlach stage lines, for which an search turned the number (which you obviously should call well before you get out there)

(775) 331 - 5181

When I have a little more time, I'll call those folks and ask them about prices, pack limits and other relevant information. Fine, then - you've gotten to Gerlach. Have I abandoned you to die in the middle of the desert at this step, to be scavenged by the playa chickens? A question which you should instinctively be asking yourself, given the nature of the countryside that you're traveling through, but no, not really.

There is a motel in Gerlach, believe it or not: Bruno's Country Club and Motel. A slightly wider area map for Bruno's can be found here. That gives us lodging at the end of one segment of our trip, IF we can get to Gerlach. The number given for Bruno's in Yahoo! local is

(775) 557-2220

Not at all surprisingly, given the small size of Gerlach, the 'Let's go' page for that town tells us that Bruno's provides the only lodgings in town. It also provides dining, but as it is best known for its ravioli, this may not be completely good news for anybody with Celiacs or other gluten sensitivities. Still, a much more pleasant bit of information does come as a surprise, followed by a predictable point of difficulty, should one wish to buy groceries:

"Several restaurant/saloons line Main St., but the nearest store lies south on Rte.447 in Empire, NV."

Don't mistake Empire with Gerlach-Empire, which appears on the wider area map for Bruno's. As one can see from the driving directions, Empire is noticeably further away. (6.5 miles). A trivial distance to drive, yes, but on foot that would be a respectable hike even along sidewalks on level ground. This would be through the desert, and as trips to the grocery store go, it doesn't strike me as being a pleasant way to get my morning yogurt. If you don't drive, during your stay in Gerlach, you'll probably be limited to those local restaurants, plus whatever you've brought with you. With apparently several restaurants to choose from, you have a decent chance to find something you can eat; all the same, I'd pack a little extra jerky and dried fruit just to be on the safe side.

From Gerlach, the directions on the Burning Man site read

From Gerlach, go northwest on Highway 447 for one mile to the fork. Take the right-hand fork, Hwy 34, and continue 11 miles to the Burning Man entrance. Note: The 3-mile playa entrance (first turn-off) used in previous years should not be used. The 12-mile playa entrance just beyond ours will not take you to Burning Man and will be patrolled by BLM Rangers.

In other words, you are now 12 miles from the entrance to Black Rock City, and so far haven't had to count on seeing even a single burner keep his word. You're not there, yet, but we've made definite progress. I'm still working on this, and will see how much closer we can get. Right now, I can give you some very quick good news and bad news on that one: the good news is that there is a Burning Man shuttle to the towns of Empire and Gerlach according to this page on the Burning Man site. The bad news is that the service is apparently often provided by the Green Tortoise, so you may be in for an unpleasant encounter, but it's a short ride and only a $5 ticket, so just keep to yourself in the back of the bus and you'll probably have few problems.

Personally, I wouldn't do it, but that's just a matter of the personal history with these people that you've just seen me describe. If that isn't an issue, the going might be easy. Getting your gear from Gerlach to the Playa may be another matter, but seeing as you and your stuff are now 12 miles from the gate, so to speak, if you plan in advance, maybe you could find somebody to pick up you and your load, if there's too much of it for the shuttle to carry? Whether there is an alternative local transportation system, a local cab or anything else of the sort in Gerlach, I don't know. Yet. I'll look into it, but let's understand that this is probably not going to be cheap. Given the limited competition over these routes, the fact that there is only one place to stay in Gerlach, and the remote location that you're going to, I doubt that there is a cheap alternative.

WARNING! The shuttle might - might get you TO Burning Man, but if this is your only connection between Gerlach and the Playa, getting back out might be worrisome. The Green Tortoise, as I mentioned, arrives late and leaves early. I can offer you no guarantees that there will be any shuttle service at the end of the festival. While I would have been able to find a ride out of BM2001, had the Tortoise stranded me there, the consequences of not finding a ride out of there could be kind of harsh in a lethal kind of way. That 12 miles from Gerlach doesn't get you to Black Rock city, it just gets you to the gate that restricts movement through the pass in the Black Rock mountains that leads into the Playa. From there, it's still some miles across hardpan desert, with no shade or water in side - was it 40 miles? So, please don't just set up the trip there, and assume that you're set. You've got to get back, preferably alive.

Side note, posted June 14, 2006. "Gone, but not forgotten". Much to my amazement, I recently learned that I am still an active topic of conversation on ePlaya, about four years after my departure from it, and so is this article! Ray Russ of Stanford University (aka "Badger" or "Isotopia") wrote in a private message to "Observer" on ePlaya, dated Fri May 26, 2006 at 4:52 am

Actually, it is all a bit creepy - even for this bunch. Dunphy most especially. He was here a few years back and had a damn meltdown over his expreiences (sic) with Green Tortoise while on the playa. I think the crux of his problem was that he wasn't prepared to clean up after himself and assumed that because he paid money that he was off the hook for dealing with your own shit. If the guy wasn't so damn sick it would've been funny. Actually, it WAS funny. I think the thread is archived on the eplaya somewhere.

In reality, as one can easily confirm, I've never started a thread about the Green Tortoise on ePlaya. I would know better. But how very, very interesting that expecting people to live up to their contractual obligations and keep their word is considered to be "sick" in this little world in which Badger / Ray Russ has taken up residence. Almost as interesting, perhaps, as the man's description of what my complaint was and is - a description which the reader, having just read my article, can see to have been a baldfaced lie. Some will ask, "Joe, why don't you just let go of things like this". Part of the answer to that question can be seen in a moment like this - because people like the ones I have written about in these accounts never reform, and because their bad attitudes and worse behavior seldom, if ever, prove to be aberrations.

Take a look at how viciously this ePlaya regular was willing to behave just to continue a four year old fight in which his side of choice was 100% in the wrong, as he spread rumors behind the back of his target. Notice how weak his ethics were, as he defended the weak ethics of others. Look, not just upon his fanaticism, but at the indefensible nature of what it was, that he was willing to be fanatical about. To continue to view people like that dimly is not to fight to hold onto a grudge, it is to be realistic about what can be expected of them, which is to say "not much, not ever".

Something that those who would follow in my footsteps would do well to think about, if they would rather not have some of the same experiences.