Heat, Dust, Art and 40,000 People
Stir Up the Burning Man Festival in Nevada
I’m sitting in my dust encrusted car, just a few feet away from my dust-laden tent where my rather scruffy looking son is still asleep after another late night. My hands are dirty, my clothes are somewhere between soiled and completely filthy, and my skin is slathered with greasy sunscreen…and, I’m having a ball. I’m at Burning Man, in Black Rock desert just outside of the town of Gerlach, NV – a town of 600 residents located two and a half hours north of Reno.
Burning Man is a nearly indescribable event, for several reasons. First, it’s immense. When you look out across the desert – referred to as the playa – to try to grasp the scope, you have to keep turning your head. It can take you 45 minutes to bike from Center Camp to the far edge of festival territory and back. There’s an airport, a police force, medical facilities and several newspapers and radio stations. Black Rock City, as Burning Man refers to its seven square mile desert home, houses nearly 40,000 people who live in tents, RVs, or other variants of temporary sites including geodesic domes and mosque-like structures.
Despite the clever decorations that people bring with them (an official-looking road sign in front of one tent said “Caution: Children at Playa”), Burning Man’s tent city is the lackluster part of the festival, because along the Esplanade – Black Rock City’s main thoroughfare – there are hundreds of colorful, artistic, and sometimes garish places of … well, I’d say “business” but commerce is not allowed here. So they are places offering entertainment, food and drink, and services such as psychic readings or massages for free to the citizens of BRC. Those buildings range in style from elaborate structures on multiple levels to a simple Hollywood-style front entrance with nothing behind it but playa, a few tables and a bar. In the center of it all is the huge, green and pink neon-lit Man. He stands some 100 feet high and is supported by a ramshackle building that entices you in for a closer look, but then puts a maze between you and the gigantic symbol of this annual event.
There’s another important reason that Burning Man is indescribable besides its scope: everybody who comes sees it differently. It’s a subjective event that, for many, is life changing, life affirming or just plain scary. Some people come and go quickly, but the ones who stay frequently return and speak of their annual trek as an addiction.
I’m here because my son Eric asked me to accompany him. And when there is a 40 year age difference between father and son, you don’t turn down a chance to do something together. Eric did some careful research before suggesting we sign up for Lamplighters Village – a “themed” campsite where everyone is part of the crew that nightly puts up some 1,000 kerosene lanterns on a network of light posts erected across the city’s main arteries and in Center Camp. It was an inspired idea. At Lamplighters Village, we’ve staked out a place for ourselves in the great wheel of activity that is Burning Man. We work about three hours each day preparing the lamps, then putting them out.
One evening, I volunteered to lamplight a route that included the Temple, which is built annually at Burning Man by a dedicated architect and a group of skilled craftsmen. This year’s Temple theme is an Oriental one, and the building reflects the style of a Buddhist shrine that might be found in Japan.
At Burning Man, people have some rules to follow, but many of the regular societal conventions we live with are tossed on their heads. At the Temple, for example, graffiti is encouraged. People are invited to write their own messages on the newly created structure. Anything and everything can be written, and no one will ever complain or white it out. Then there’s dress, which ranges from ultra casual at its most conservative level, to nothing at all. It’s startling at first to share the walkway with a naked or nearly naked person, but it gets to be mundane after a day or two.
Then there’s the burn. On the event’s next to last night – the Saturday of Labor Day weekend – the Man is burned in an elaborate and colorful spectacle. The safe perimeter set up around the Man is first surrounded by some 500 fire spinners (who artfully spin two sets of burning squares on the ends of ropes), fire jump-ropers, and other fiery entertainers. Next, what is billed as the world’s largest drum circle begins playing, while fire dancing continues. After 30 minutes or so, the activity reaches a crescendo and the building holding the man suddenly bursts into a ball of fire. Shooting up from the building is a fireworks show worthy of a big city Fourth of July – but it’s all compressed into five minutes of elaborate fireworks that plays like a speeded up film. By this time, the man has caught fire and the crowd eagerly awaits his fall to the ground. When that happens, the mass of onlookers rushes across the safety perimeter for another Burning Man tradition – running as close as you can get to the Man.
The next evening, the Temple is burned in a more somber ritual. It’s suggested that you let go of something that’s bothering you when the burns occur – perhaps a smoking habit, or a grudge against someone.
Burning Man is an exercise in unbridled, enthusiastic non-conformity. It celebrates the right of self-expression, and puts its money where its mouth is. Each year, the Black Rock Arts Foundation – Burning Man’s charitable arm -- funds tens of thousands of dollars in artwork to be shown during this one week event. This stream of support has created a unique art-style that I can only call Playa Art. A unicorn statue that seems to be rising out of the desert, a giant flower on a cherry picker that opens and closes and changes colors while it travels throughout the city, the art car with half of a huge neon circular saw that appears to be cutting into the playa are just a few of the examples at Burning Man this year. There are hundreds of pieces of art, most of them created just for the event.
Not all of the art is funded by the Foundation. I met two men who had created their own version of the Man in steel and neon. It stood about 50 feet high and was more angled and modernistic than the simple Man himself. They told me they had self-funded the $5,000 project through their own fund-raisers. Therein lies the spirit of Burning Man. It’s a uniquely American proposition, demonstrating three key characteristics of this country: rugged individualism, against-the-grain thinking, and innovation. It turns out that this counter-culture festival, far from being what some view as un-American, is all-American.
One other fascinating aspect of Burning Man is the Leave No Trace Behind culture. After the Burns are over and the people have left, the Burning Man team brings the land, which is owned by the federal government and maintained by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) , back to the same pristine state as it was before the work of building Black Rock City began. Burning Man continues to receive its permit to operate in the Black Rock Desert year after year because of the Leave No Trace practice, and BLM has said that the Burning Man Festival sets the standard for mass events in terms of ecological care. Everyone coming to Burning Man knows about Leave No Trace, and it’s promoted throughout Black Rock City. It is so thorough that you are not permitted to put any “gray water” on the playa. If you wash or brush your teeth outdoors using bottled water, you must capture that water in some sort of receptacle (we used a blow-up kiddie pool), then either let it evaporate or take it home with you. All your garbage must be packed out with you, and there are signs warning you not to toss trash in the nearby towns.
Burning Man is not for everyone. The environment is harsh – hot sun and wind storms that sometimes cause dust-laden white outs, practically no vegetation or shade, and minimal services. The free expression can sometimes be shocking. And there’s plenty of drinking and drugs for those who seek that experience. But it’s truly whatever you want it to be. Nobody demands that you participate in anything that you don’t want to do, and you can literally walk down any of Black Rock City’s streets day or night and feel perfectly safe. Peace is in the air.
But even for the most conservative and reserved of us – a category that I surely belong in – it’s a mind-stretching event where new things are happening all around you. It’s almost impossible not to get caught up in it and begin to let down your own barriers for awhile. Once a year isn’t too often to do that.