Burning Man is a temporary city of approx 70,000 people created every late August on the arid "Playa" of the Black Rock Desert of northern Nevada. It's re-built with grid precision annually on an alkaline prehistoric lake bed. The city is completely vaporized without a trace when the event is over.
It's considered the hardest to get to event in North America. Ticket prices are prohibitive often $350-$800 each (cheaper if you're poor) and sell out instantly months before. The after-market ticket price soar far beyond, but the organization will void any tickets they catch at gouging prices. There is an ethic to gift tickets or re-sell at face value. The ticket and car passes get you absolutely nothing but entry into the hard packed dust perimeter. It's heavily patrolled by state and federal law enforcement.
It's said that describing Burning Man to someone who hasn't gone is like describing color to a blind man. It has become a global cultural phenomenon that is being copied with other "Burns" from Australia to Africa. I ran into Brits stocking up their rental RV at a Reno grocery who said it's like a pilgrimage for them. What started in 1986 as a small SF beach event to burn a wooden man has morphed into a monstrous Dada Brigadoon.
There is no commerce at Burning Man. No bands. No advertising. No promoting. No money. No garbage collection, virtually nothing can be bought. It's not a festival nor concert. Everyone must pack in and pack out what they need to survive. Normal vehicles can not be used once in. Instead an impossible collection of "Art Cars and Mutant Vehicles" sail across the desert amidst tens of thousands of bicycles. There is no trash or waste blowing about -- it's all very pristine generally (minus the Sani-Huts). Cars are searched at entry for prohibited items. Most at event are rigorously Eco to leave no trace. Even dirty water is taken out and not poured on the Playa. There are 10 Principals to be followed.
Burning Man has become a Byzantine ragù of Blade Runner, Mad Max, Hieronymus Bosch, National Geographic, the Phantom Tollbooth, High Plains Drifter, Lawrence of Arabia, Purim, Medieval, Victorian, Shinto and Wicker Man. It's like really camping on a moon of Star Wars. It's real and unscripted and sometimes fatal. Soaring Temples and boulevards and impossible art installations and events in sometimes choking dust storms. The holy and profane mix. From the nude to the elegantly top-hatted on rambling contraptions or pirate ships.
Past month I measured over 50 miles of dead stopped traffic trying to get in. The Black Rock City "BRC" created is approximately the size of downtown San Francisco. At night it's a bewildering and often scary throbbing neon Tokyo underwater on acid. Flame throwers and lasers and nightmarish blinking machines pierce the harsh black cold night from horizon to horizon. My first time, I was lost in near panic by 4 a.m in a freezing desert in a swim suit and rusty bike. But Burning Man promotes and teaches radical self reliance.
The cream of the cream of Silicon Valley execs and Hollywood get themselves there and mix anonymously with doctors, architects, old hippies, artists, dancers, clerks, fashion designers, royals, models, housewives, monks, CEOs, artists, roofers, stock brokers, Parisians, detectives, college students, infants all living in tents and trailers and most offering open doors to hospitality. Norwegians, Brits, Israelis, Dutch, South Americans, Polynesians, Brooklynites, Japanese all swarm in the dust in their keffiyehs and goggles.
Free bars and bicycle fixing camps are set up. There is unconditional generosity. A stranger might hand you a freezing Popsicle in the hot desert or spritz your parched back with a mister, or hand you a frozen bag of steak or bottle of whisky or handmade jewelry and disappear. Keep a metal cup with you, as there are no disposable ones at that draft beer bar they corralled you into. A thick book of the 10 days of events is handed out for those that actually have time in the chaos to read it.
Reno is about 120 miles south of the event. The tribes gather there every late Summer from around the world to stock up their 80 gallons of water and dry ice and petrol cans and spare bike chains and crates of alcohol and sunscreen and top ramen to make the ascent. I call it base camp and am a resource for any Cambridge alumni brave, curious, or dumb enough to go.
J D Deming
photography by Frances Melhop