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 north western 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 statue 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 week long 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 “do something,” in order to 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, or ancient dry lakebed. 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 building their artworks and “theme” camps on the playa. The 2014 Burning Man theme is "Caravanasary” celebrating the ancient coming together of disparate people.
Started in 1986 as a small, improvised event with only 20 people at San Francisco’s Baker Beach, Burning Man’s Co-Founder Larry Harvey designed the first “Man” and burned it, in honor of the summer solstice. It has since evolved into a major annual happening is expected to draw some 60,000 participants this year. (The last tickets are all long gone, but check sites such as Craig’s List for people selling their tickets) Today Burning Man 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 various, breathing art forms, and much more. If you can dream it someone has probably built it. Virtually every camp invites outsiders to come in and enjoy the show and the concept of barter 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 to 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 one hundred degrees and the desert is brutally dry, sapping all fluids and requiring constant vigilance against dehydration. (It can also get very cold at night) Every person must bring in all their 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 surface is immense, 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 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 of “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, banana peel, 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 knew existed or watching UFO’s 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, an artist and foundry owner from Denver said, “This is by far the best party in North America.”
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c. Bob Ecker, 2014