RENO — Lindsay Weiss once lost her cellphone and got it back, so she and a friend knew what they had to do when they discovered a camera under a pew during a festival in the Nevada desert — even though it meant giving up their coveted, shady seat for a musical performance.
The friends snapped a quick selfie and took the device to the lost-and-found, so the owner could claim it and the pair could “forever be a part of their journey,” Weiss said.
“Losing something out there on the playa makes its mark on your trip,” she said of the sprawling counterculture gathering known as Burning Man. “Kinda makes you feel like a loser.”
Cameras and IDs are among the more common belongings that end up in the lost-and-found after the event billed as North America’s largest outdoor arts festival. Other items left behind in the dusty, 5-square-mile (13-sq. kilometer) encampment include shoes, keys, stuffed animals — even dentures.
Still missing are a marching band hat with gold mirror tiles, a furry cheetah vest, a headdress with horns and a chainmail loincloth skirt .
“As of mid-November, we’ve recovered 2,479 items and returned 1,279,” said Terry Schoop, who helps oversee the recovery operation at Burning Man’s San Francisco headquarters. “We have about a 60 percent return rate,” he told The Associated Press.
Not bad for a temporary community of 60,000 artists, free spirits, old hippies and young thrill-seekers who descend on a dried-up ancient lake bed in the Black Rock Desert for an adventure combining wilderness camping with avant-garde performance 120 miles (193 kilometers) north of Reno.
Most lost items
The usual suspects top this year’s list of Most Frequently Lost in the land of drum circles and psychedelic art cars: 582 cellphones, 570 backpacks or bags and 529 drivers’ licenses, passports or other forms of identification.
Unclaimed items are listed on Burning Man’s official website with photos and lot numbers. They include more than 200 shirts or tops, 100 jackets, 80 hydration backpacks, 50 pairs of eyeglasses, six suitcases and several dozen water bottles, including one with the desert-appropriate warning: “Stop Not Drinking.”
“Your item may look different after rolling in the dust,” the website advises.
It links to the online e-Playa forum, which has no photos, just brief descriptions of things Burners found: a “big bag of ladies clothes,” a piano tuning kit, a “small stuffed cow with cowboy hat” and one black Dr. Martens combat boot — the latter of little consolation to the gal looking for a GREEN Dr. Martens boot (size 5).
If it was just one sandal, she’d be out of luck altogether.
“I’ve told our people to no longer accept smashed straw hats or single sandals,” Schoop said.
Other articles lost-but-not-yet-found include a wedding ring, a flute, “fire nunchucks,” a stuffed bunny — “daughter’s since birth” — and a “dark-leafy-print bandanna lost on the playa somewhere around the giant flamingo.”
The high rate of return doesn’t surprise Mike Kivett, manager of a company that has provided port-a-potties and trailers at Burning Man since 2003. He remembers when his co-worker dismissed his suggestion to check the lost-and-found for his missing phone, saying the odds of recovering it were slim.
“I told him there’s a good vibe out here,” said Kivett, who’s worked with other festivals like Coachella in California and Bonaroo in Tennessee. “If somebody finds it, they’re going to return it because they know what it’s like to lose something out here — a sense of obligation, duty to fellow man.”
Ninety minutes later, the co-worker had his phone back.
Collecting and returning
Burning Man has been collecting and returning items since the event moved to Nevada in 1992 from San Francisco’s Baker Beach, where it began in 1986 with about 20 people burning a wooden effigy in a celebration of art for arts’ sake.
Schoop started working with the lost-and-found in 2005 as a community services manager.
“I inherited a spiral-bound notebook with about three pages of listings,” he said.
Since then, Burning Man’s technology team has developed a sophisticated database people can search onsite at a Wi-Fi center. Afterward, volunteers scour the web and emails.
Most institutions donate lost items to charity if they aren’t claimed in about a month. Burning Man does that too — just not as fast, Schoop said. Volunteers concentrate first on IDs and cellphones.
“We spend about three or four months trying to hook people up with lost items,” he said. “We went through about 800 emails last week.”
His most unusual recovery?
“A partial pair of dentures,” he said. “The man showed up, took them out of the bag they were in, popped them in his mouth and said, ‘See, I can prove it’s mine: It fits!’ ”
Values of goods vary. Some carry hefty price tags, others more sentimental worth. A professional photographer saw a Facebook post that eventually helped reunite him with his expensive camera.
“He thought he’d said goodbye to his high-end, digital Nikon,” Schoop said.
Schoop also remembers a cellphone returned to a woman who lost it shortly after her father died and her home burned down.
“She said the phone we gave back to her was the only record of any photographs she had of her father and, I think, some voicemails from him,” he said. “We thought we were just returning a phone, but it meant a lifetime to her.”