White-grey and cracked yet firm, the Black Rock Desert playa stretches for miles in every direction. Flat as the dead ancient sea it once was, cold, hot, stark and often windy, for a brief week each year this barren moonscape is filled with exuberance and alive with humanity. All manner of noises, colors, banners and vehicles descend on this place to celebrate life in a temporary community. This is Burning Man, billed as radical self-expression and radical self-reliance. Or Clown College turned on its head.
The Black Rock Desert is a huge, dry lakebed in northwestern Nevada, near the little town of Gerlach, off of state highway 447. It’s absolutely in the middle of nowhere. But every year, thousands of returning pilgrims plus wide-eyed newbies come to this forbidding place to experience Burning Man. The name stems from “The Man,” a 50-foot tall wooden effigy erected in the center of the community, with theme camps and art installations jutting out in ever widening concentric circles. At the conclusion of the weeklong festivities, the Man is lit on fire.
This noncommercial happening, gathering, festival (take your pick) brings together a uniquely compelling and positively unpredictable combination of art, energy, Mardi Gras, fashion show, Halloween, road warrior, light show, heat, cold, wind, Castro Street, grunge, star gazing, dust, spontaneity, laughter, community, nudity, and retro clothing into one surreal, boundless landscape. The mix of imagination, crazy fun and physical challenge lures more and more people each year. “At Burning Man, everyone’s personal space is relaxed—you can walk right up to anyone, at anytime and it’s okay,” says Richard Woodsen from Phoenix, AZ. Indeed, the event is incredibly peaceful, particularly given the numbers of people who come to play.
Designed to be a wholly participatory gathering, every person is encouraged to participate and express his or her creativity. And Burners really do … something. For example, Red, a free form musician from Palo Alto, California, exhibited her own unique talents by playing her tuba while riding a unicycle up and down the playa. Other Black Rock citizens celebrate their individuality through wild performance art, walking poetry, song, drumming, theater, dance, painting, sculpting and fire eating. Alongside dedicated artists, an army of carpenters, mechanics, and metal smiths, together with their friends and associates, team up to haul and build huge art installations out in the desert. Residents of this temporary city exert tremendous effort designing, transporting, and then constructing their artworks and theme camps on the playa. Then everything has to be carefully packed and taken away. The 2016 Burning Man theme is "Da Vinci’s Workshop.”
Burning Man began in 1986 as a small, improvised event of only 20 people at Baker Beach in San Francisco. Co-founder Larry Harvey designed the first man, and then burned it, in honor of Summer Solstice. It has since evolved into a major annual happening drawing an expected 65,000 participants this year. Tickets this year were $390 each, while 1,000 special tickets went for a whopping $1200 per! Burning Man tickets are, however, fully transferable, and many people resell theirs through various channels such as Craig’s List.
What started as a small, local phenomenon has blossomed into a giant, worldwide event with collaborators arriving from around the globe. Theme camps are fashioned from the boundlessness of human imagination and include rollicking raves, broadcasting radio stations, nude mass sing-alongs, mega-jungle gyms, actual swimming pools, living sculpture and other art forms that can only be imagined. If you can dream it, someone has probably built it and painted it electric purple. Virtually every camp invites outsiders to come in and enjoy the camaraderie. Money is eschewed at Burning Man and the concept of “gift economy” is highly encouraged (hint: a few tins of Altoids can go a long, long way). Burning Man is an easy place to meet new people and discover common ground underneath the paint, clothing, hair and music that might separate people “on the outside.”
Make no mistake, though Burning Man can be glorious, life on the desert playa is difficult and forbidding, even for a short period of time. Temperatures often exceed 100 degrees and the desert is brutally dry, sapping all fluids and requiring constant vigilance against dehydration. It can also get very cold and windy at night. Every person must bring in all his or her own food, water and shelter. Burning Man is a totally noncommercial event and only two items are offered for sale: ice—and coffee. “You can’t camp anywhere else like at Burning Man. It’s so free and inviting, yet civilized too,” said Jocelyn Kane of Berkeley. Her friend Loren Lunge, a systems analyst, likes the concept of “People seeking solace together.” She also enjoys having great martinis in the desert.
The flat Black Rock Desert is an immense space, smooth and extremely well suited for the endless array of vehicles that dot the scene. Bicycles are the transportation of choice and you can ride for miles, but other ingenious contraptions locomote around the desert too. People bring in colorful “art cars:” cannibalized old motorcycles, cars and funky trucks reborn as motorized insects, comic book characters, chariots and rolling, living pieces of art. Considering the remoteness of the location, the American love affair with the car is fully on display—like everything else at Burning Man.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management administers this arid Nevada desert and the Burning Man organization works hard, hand in hand with the BLM to emphasize the important creed, “leave no trace.” All evidence of humanity must vanish after Burning Man has concluded. All garbage, all ashes, all clothing has to go. Every cigarette butt, every nail, discarded food container and water bottle—absolutely everything—must be trucked out by the participants. There are no exceptions.
Whether it’s playing naked cowboy croquet, listening to “blind” poetry, seeing stars you never new existed or watching UFOs drive around in the desert, Burning Man is an unforgettable sensory feast. An open mind, a powerful sense of humor, lots of water and a strong will to survive in the desert are de rigueur requirements. As Vince Beardsley, artist and foundry owner from Denver said, “This is by far the best party in North America.”