Mississippi Half-Baked Downstream Toodle-Oo


Chicken John, one of the major characters in, and inspirations for, my book This is Burning Man (now, at long last, out in durable and attractive paperback form from BenBella, and makes a great stocking stuffer) is featured in today's New York Times for his current endeavor: building a giant makeshift art-raft for various collectives of punk rock mechanics, carnies, dancers, and street freaks to float down the Mississippi bringing chaos, art, and entertainment down the spine of America. An excerpt starring Chicken himself, and one that helps sum up the entire, delightful or maddening depending on your own perspective, spirit of Burning Man and these sorts of Burning Manesque endeavors:

And then there's Chicken John, a longtime adventurer and circus man, a necessary figure. "Chicken John is the king of jakey design," Mr. [Jeff] Stark explained. "It was his bus that brought us here, and he is the one who is figuring out how to make these motors work."

Mostly, Chicken John plays the heavy who has little taste for the whole collective approach. He and his buddy Nick Bindbeutel were piecing together the engines based on a design Chicken John saw in Thailand. When it became clear that the water pump was misplaced, Mr. Stark mentioned that "we decided it would work here."

Chicken John said, "Why is it always 'we' when something goes wrong?"

A cynical optimist, he said he would make sure there was power—the converted engines will run on fryer grease, theoretically—to make the trip, but he would not join the voyage. "I'm needed elsewhere."

"This is the best-case scenario," he said, rising from an engine he had been working on. "Nobody knows what they are doing, they don't work smart, but none of them have left."

Later he updated a friend on the telephone: "We are ensconced in a small makeshift refugee village on the river, engaged in a form of indentured servitude, and I'm not sure when they are leaving."