Light My Fire
In the Nevada desert, the annual Burning Man event reimagines reality in more ways than one.
WELCOME TO NOWHERE. Its name is whatever you name it. Its wealth is whatever you bring. Next week it will be gone, but next week might as well be never. You are here now.” So wrote Stuart Mangrum, a pioneer settler of Black Rock City, the yearly pop-up home of Burning Man in Black Rock Desert, Nevada, in 1995’s issue of the Black Rock Gazette. The greeting is still relevant today. In 1986, friends Larry Harvey and Jerry James took to San Francisco’s Baker Beach and burned a human in effigy, spontaneously drawing a small crowd. Within four years, the gathering had moved to its now-notorious home (referred to as the playa), the man had grown from eight to 40 feet and one of the world’s unique pop-cultural events was born. Annual increases in population, infrastructure, art and ostentation combined to create the fully fledged Burning Man, which now draws around 70,000 people to the desert for the week ahead of Labor Day. For nine days, the dusty desert landscape is transformed into a radially mapped city, the Man at its center, replete with theme camps, sound systems, bars, nightclubs, art installations and an inescapable vibrancy.
“There’s everything you can imagine out there,” says Inverness resident Greg Watson, 50, who has attended Burning Man since 2012, joining sculptor David Best’s storied Temple Crew for the artist’s last year on the playa in 2016. “There’s a marathon that’s run in the middle of it. There’s babies and there’s 90-year-olds and everyone in between. You can find whatever you’re looking for, and things you never thought existed.” So what is Burning Man? If you ask a Burner, the festival is nothing less than everything.
Who are the Burners? Though Burning Man does run on 10 Principles — among them Radical Self-Reliance, Radical Self-Expression and Gifting — a Burner seems to be defined loosely as any participant who has allowed the event to truly inform his or her life. Corte Madera’s Steve Kepple, 55, who has attended Burning Man for the past 17 years, is a Burner. “For me Burning Man is a lot about the art and a lot about the community,” he says. “To gather with people, some who I only see once a year, and spend a week together in a place that’s endlessly interesting.” The artist Best, whose intricate temples have sat due north of the Man each year since 2000, and who is now engaged in an endeavor to take the structures and their celebration of ritual off the playa and into the default world (what participants call anything that occurs outside Black Rock City) — he’s a Burner. For Sausalito-based clothing designer Rebecca Bruce, an inaugural journey to the playa in 2013 inspired a completely transformed aesthetic, and she began creating custom ensembles for the event. “We are walking art forms,” she says. “Our minds, our bodies, who we are as beings and how we morph and grow with experience, and what we share with others. So my contribution to Burning Man is to help people embody who they are in that moment.” She’s a Burner, too.
Why do people make the trek to the playa? A craving for creativity, awe, freedom, in-the-moment experience and authentic interactions pulls attendees to Burning Man. “For that week, [Black Rock City] is the third largest city in Nevada. The amount of infrastructure that pops up out there is nothing short of breathtaking in its dusty, janky complexity,” Kepple says. “Just to have an experience in a place that only exists for a week out of the year is a unique thing.” For Tiburon’s Robin Russell, 49, it’s the organic spontaneity that continues to appeal. “I like putting away the phone for a week and wandering around the city, being pleasantly surprised and meeting humans,” she says. “A lot of times the weather can be really unpredictable, so some of my favorite times have been being caught in a dust storm and having to duck down into some camp and then just meeting some amazing people.” Troy Cowen of Mill Valley, 28, who has been going to Burning Man with his father and sister for the past seven years, agrees the human element is key. “You can meet somebody and have some crazy connection, or you may meet someone and have a quick conversation, look them in their eyes, and just enjoy that. And you may never see them again. But it’s that real interaction that is just so meaningful in that moment, that grounded, present time.”
How can one join in? Longtime Burners unanimously suggest seeking association with an established artist collective with infrastructure (think showers, access to food and water systems, shade structures, a commitment to Leaving No Trace) and general know-how — once you’re able to secure a ticket, that is. Prepare to contribute to the experience, and for things to get real. “It’s really a challenge for people, especially if it’s their first time, because the conditions can be really severe,” Kepple says. “They have to dig deep in their ability to prepare for and endure some real existential hardships. It can even be emotionally challenging.” As such, practicality is key, which goes for costuming as well. “Have an amazing outfit, but think about having to ride a bike all day, and the weather suddenly changing, and making sure you have your dust mask and your goggles. Have shoes that allow you to climb things, because it’s highly interactive,” Russell advises. “And outfits that you can easily get into a port-a-potty with.” But more than anything, if you want to go, just practice the event principle of Radical Self-Reliance and make it happen. “It’s not for everybody,” Watson says, “but the only way you can find that out is if you go. And if you go with an open mind.” burningman.org
Some Burning Man terms to know, straight from the official online glossary.
Esplanade In Black Rock City, the innermost ring road facing the Man.
Decompression A party held one month after Burning Man to give participants a brief chance to return to Black Rock City (in spirit). Offers relief from the Reality Bends.
Default World The rest of the world that is not Black Rock City during the Burning Man event.
Man, the Term used for the Burning Man figure.
Playa The Spanish word for beach, also used to describe dry lake beds in the American West, such as the Black Rock Desert.
Reality Bends Cramps felt in the mind and spirit after returning to the “real” world after spending a week in Black Rock City. Best remedied by Decompression.