Burning Man is underway this week. The art gathering and do-it-yourself festival traces its origins to 1986, to a beach in San Francisco. But these days, the massive event takes place outside Reno, Nevada. Almost 70,000 “Burners” are expected to convene in the dry alkali desert, or "playa," along with their bicycles.
When it ends, most of the festival’s structures and artworks will be ritually burned, or dismantled and taken away. But bikes are one item that many participants don't "pack out." Year after year, organizers have had to repurpose, recycle or even throw away hundreds of abandoned or lost bikes.
This year, a shipment of those Burning Man bicycles ended up almost 400 miles south, in the farmworker town of Arvin, in California's Central Valley. That's where the Dolores Huerta Foundation organized a free bike giveaway at Haven Drive Middle School.
Seventh-grader Jorge Rocha said he raced to the school office when he heard about the giveaway. “I needed a bike,” Jorge said, “and I kind of want something to ride to school because I don't really have anything else.”
Jorge's last bike fell apart two years ago, and he's been walking to school ever since.
Jorge got his bike, along with about 30 other students. They whizzed by on pink, black and green single-speed cruisers. “We're going to go riding to a friend's house," a girl shouted joyfully after she got her bike. "To the store! To the school! To the Frosty King!" her friends replied, laughing.
Fine white dust from the playa of Black Rock Desert still clung to handlebars and chains. Some of the bikes were rather beat up. Mechanics from the nonprofit Bike Bakersfield showed the kids how to fix up their new wheels.
The bikes have some problems that are unusual, even for used bikes. Adam Kahler, a volunteer mechanic, pulled a string of lights out from between some rusty spokes. “As part of the initial screening of these bikes, there was a lot of stripping of fur, and psychedelic-colored duct tape, and things like that,” Kahler said. “The desert kind of did a number on some of them.”
Burning Man is huge — about 5 square miles -- and the only kind of motorized vehicles that are allowed are art cars.
“If you walk, it would take you forever to get anywhere,” said Joie Adams, a five-time “Burner” from Fresno. “So bicycles are the mode of transportation.”
Adams says they’re also a means of self-expression. “You get furry bikes, you get lit-up bikes,” she said. “I had a friend that put a bubble maker on the back of her bike.”
And yet every year, between 1,000 and 2,000 bikes are left behind on the playa. It’s an uncomfortable reality, because one of the festival’s guiding principles is “leave no trace.” In fact, trash is such a big deal that Burners have given it a special name: MOOP, for Matter Out Of Place.
“You do not leave trash," Adams said. "You take it with you. And there is a huge community of Burners that stay behind and they scour every little grain of sand for cigarette butts, for anything that’s left behind.”
A bike is a big piece of MOOP to leave behind for someone else to deal with. One burner calls it “unforgivable moopage.”
So why does it happen? Some Burners are careless and overwhelmed, and just abandon their bikes. Others are flying home and don’t know what to do with them. And some simply lose their bikes in the chaos of 70,000 people trying to be everywhere at once.
Over the years, Burning Man volunteers have experimented with different ways to reuse the bikes. Some get recycled into the festival’s own bike-share pool. And others are used in art projects or donated to nonprofits like the Dolores Huerta Foundation.
The donated bikes will help the children exercise and be outdoors, said Elizabeth Martinez, who works on health issues for the Foundation. “In order for you to be healthy, you’ve got to eat healthy, you have to be active, and a lot of the times there's barriers, especially in our little cities," she said.
In Kern County, where Arvin is located, up to 10 percent of residents have been diagnosed with diabetes. County data show that Kern ranks near the top in California for its high rate of diabetes-related deaths. In Arvin, almost a quarter of the 20,000 residents live below the poverty line.
But Martinez says the bike donation program is not just about promoting exercise. It’s also about giving kids a new way to be independent and a new skill. “We're teaching them how to fix their bikes on their own,” she said.
Overall, it seems like a win-win: Abandoned bikes are recycled for a good cause, in keeping with the Burner principle of civic responsibility. And yet some Burning Man representatives were reluctant to discuss the issue, even the donations. They are afraid Burners might leave even more bikes behind, with the assumption that volunteers will simply pass them along to charities.
Rather, they want Burners to be responsible for their bikes and take them along when they go home. At the very least, Burners should leave unwanted bikes at designated "drop points." That would make getting them to places like Arvin, and to kids like Jorge, much easier and cheaper. It would also keep a bike from becoming leftover MOOP, and thereby delay its eventual reincarnation as a seventh-grader’s favorite new possession.