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Annual Black Rock Desert gathering is the ultimate display of free expression.
Photo: Charlie Johnston (all)
When I think about Burning Man the first memory that comes to mind is surprisingly short and not even my own. Last year one of my friends went a little overboard and wound up passing out in the middle of the playa one night. He awoke the following morning to find that someone had covered him with a blanket.
Take a moment to let the last sentence sink in. For one week out of the year the large camp in the Black Rock Desert—affectionately known as Black Rock City—is one of the state’s 10 largest communities with nearly 50,000 residents. In no other city on earth could a person pass out in plain sight and wake up with all of their possessions, let alone something extra. And that’s what Burning Man is about. It’s unexpected, it’s free expression, it’s kindness for the sake of kindness, and, on occasion, it’s going a little overboard.
Born as a celebration of the Bohemian lifestyle on a San Francisco beach in 1986, Burning Man has grown into a worldwide cultural movement. Events modeled after and in tribute to Burning Man have sprung up in the U.S., United Kingdom, Europe, and Australia. To define it as a festival or event is an extreme understatement. While breathtaking art, radical self-expression and self-reliance, and unflinching acceptance are central themes, Burning Man is so much more.
Some participants‚ referred to collectively as “burners”, have attended the event almost since its inception, a testament to the strong ties many have to Burning Man. I am a relative newcomer; this summer will mark only my third year as a resident of Black Rock City, but I can say in all seriousness that, much like veteran burners, I feel more at home during my week on the playa than I do the rest of the year.
The eight-day event, August 29 - September 6, is art show meets camping trip meets rock concert meets utopian society. Participants bring everything they need to survive and entertain themselves and literally build a city. While there are countless activities at every hour of every day, there is no official schedule except for the burning of the Man and temple on the final two nights, respectively. Much like the schedule is left to play out naturally, the burning of the Man himself is left to open interpretation, his blank face and generic form representing whatever individual onlookers project.
Black Rock City itself is a massive five-square-mile semi-circle. At the center stands the Man himself. Roughly a half-mile from the center, the Esplanade represents the start of the residential section of the city. Beyond the Esplanade, lettered streets form concentric circles. Perpendicular to the lettered streets are numbered streets based on a clock starting at 2:00 and ending at 10:00 with a street every 30 minutes. All across the playa between the Man and Esplanade and into the deep playa beyond the residential limits, massive pieces of art stand out against the stark desert backdrop like ungainly, otherworldly creatures. Within the city, clusters of tents and RVs comprise individual camps and themed camps, each with its own unique interpretation of what Burning Man means.
Burning Man has won its way into so many hearts as much for what it isn’t as for what it is. First of all, Black Rock City isn’t a city like any you have ever known. It is a leave-no-trace, negative-carbon-footprint city—one week it is there, the next it is completely gone, taking with it literally every piece of waste produced.
While most cities are along a river or near a natural harbor, Black Rock City is smack in the middle of one of the most hostile environments on earth. Burning Man’s founder, Larry Harvey, describes the Black Rock playa as “a space so vast and blank that only your initiative can make of it a place, swept by fearsome winds and scorching temperatures, and only by your effort can you make of it a home.” Surviving in this environment while preserving its natural beauty is not easy. It takes vision, passion, and cooperation.
Another aspect of Black Rock City that makes it so unlike any place else on earth is that, with the exception of ice, there is nothing for sale. It is a gift-giving community. People share meals, supplies, and everything else imaginable. Last year our camp had a bar. Patrons paid for their drinks with handmade jewelry, dances, hugs, stories, jokes—whatever.
By removing money from day-to-day interactions, Burning Man makes its participants equals and encourages free exchange and interaction. Some of my most cherished possessions are trinkets traded at Burning Man, not because they hold any monetary value, but because they contain a part of the people who gave them to me and capture the days I shared with those people. The lack of money means that there are no titles or social classes in Black Rock City. In fact, many people even use playa names while at Burning Man (as shocking as it might be, “Speedracer” appears nowhere on my birth certificate).
What this all comes down to is that Burning Man is an experience, something that, much to my chagrin as a writer and photographer, transcends words and even photographs. Perhaps Harvey put it best in a lecture he gave to a group in Minneapolis in 2000: “I have been to the Black Rock Desert. I’ve seen a new heaven and earth, and I invite you all to come out and experience what is possible.”
Every year, Burning Man provides participants with a survival guide. Below are some key necessities. Visit the website for more information and a downloadable survival guide.
What You Must Bring:
• Your ticket or Photo ID and confirmation number for will call
• 1.5 gallons of water per person per day (for drinking, showering, washing, and food preparation). Carry a bottle of water with you at all times.
• Enough food/beverages for your entire party
• First-aid kit
• Warm clothing
• Bedding and shelter of some type. Winds can exceed 75 mph, and temperatures can exceed 100 degrees.
• A good camp tent is recommended along with warm sleeping bags, evening temperatures can drop into the 40s
• Garbage bags
• Any required prescriptions, contact lens supplies, and anything else you need to maintain your health and comfort in a remote area with no services
• Flashlights and spare batteries
• Sunscreen and sunglasses
• Fire extinguishers
Where: Black Rock Desert
When: Aug. 29-Sept. 6
WORTH A VISIT
A Tribe of Artists: Costumes
& Culture at Burning Man
Western Nevada College, Fallon
July 19-Sept. 10
Sierra Nevada College, Incline Village
Sept. 20-Nov. 12
Burning Man Fashion Show
Junkee Clothing Exchange, Reno
Film—Dust & Illusions: A History of Burning Man
Nevada Museum of Art, Reno