The first thing you need to understand about Burning Man is that it is a culture more than an event. A radically expressive culture that converges on the barren Black Rock Desert of Nevada for one week a year to share gifts of art, music, and friendship. For the past 29 years the event has grown exponentially, attracting newcomers interested in this experiment of temporary community steeped in the burner ethos known as the 10 principles.
Aside from being able to buy ice and a cup of coffee, there is nothing for sale at Burning Man. You have to bring everything. This means food, water, shelter, and whatever contribution you wish to share with your fellow Black Rock Citizens. This could be popsicles on a hot day, an impromptu performance, a 60-foot sculpture of a woman who subtly breathes if you look close enough, a mutant vehicle in the shape of a jellyfish, or a giant sound camp where thousands will come to dance.
Real burners participate, and it takes time to teach the new people who first show up as mere attendees (or tourists) how it works. If you are lucky, those who have been before show you the ropes. The participants who really get it are the contributors who understand the burner ethos and live it. The toughest of them all don’t just roll in a few days before. These crusty burners are the people who build the city. They spend months before the gates open building an infrastructure for what will become the fifth largest city in Nevada. All for one dusty week in the desert known as the playa.
It’s hard to get to Burning Man, it’s hard to be there, and it’s hard to return to the default world when it’s over.
Difficulties start with getting your hands on one of the $400 tickets. For the last three years, the event has sold out in minutes; 60,000 people come from all over the world. Additionally you need costumes and functional attire. It also might take you 12 hours to travel the last 90 miles on a two-lane highway in stop-and-go traffic.
Once you get there you should be prepared for the best and worst. The back of the ticket explains that attending the festival “may result in loss or damage to your property, personal injury or even death.” The weather at Burning Man is like no other place on earth. Days are brutally hot, and nights sometimes dip into the 30s. Dust storms, also called white outs, on the playa are something that must be experienced to be fully understood. The playa can go from a beautiful blue sky to 50 mile-an-hour winds that carry fine dust in the air and limit visibility to two feet in front of you, even with standard burner attire—proper goggles and a dust mask. This year was no different. Whiteouts stopped traffic early on as participants tried to arrive, and then crippled the city later in the week. The dust finds its way everywhere imaginable and stays there. You will usually come across something that you own months later coated with playa dust. It overcomes the senses and serves as a tactile reminder of your experience and usually gets you excited about the coming year. One burner laughed and said, “Your worst nightmare is my favorite vacation.” A white out, just like a cold desert night, is part of the experience – sometimes the best part.
Black Rock City is spread out over miles, so it doesn’t seem that densely populated until the night the man burns. The majority of the city converges on and nearly fills the mile-wide inner concentric circle that shapes the city where the effigy of the man stands. Ask ten burners what burning the man represents, and you’ll probably get ten different answers. You get to decide what it means for you.
There are actually several burns during the week, and the man is just one of them. This year, someone burned a piano and flung it across the playa with a trebuchet. The man burn, on Saturday night, is a raucous affair—loud, bright, and celebratory. The temple burn, on the final night, is silent, contemplative—even spiritual. Fire rituals can be cathartic. Fire destroys, but in its consumption, it makes room for new growth. What we burn is another symbol of the event itself—it’s temporary. Afterward, it’s highly disorienting to find landmarks, like the man, that you used for reference to guide you all week are suddenly not there.
Part of the Burning Man experience is having an open mind and letting go of expectations of what it should be. It will never go as planned because there is too much to see and experience and it is happening 24/7. If you are on a day schedule you will miss out on the city coming alive with fire and state-of-the-art multimedia installations. And if you stay up at night you will miss everything happening during the day. Everyone needs sleep at some point.
Some burners decide to bring a backpack, a tent, and a thoughtfully decorated playa bike for transportation across the immense landscape; others bring a million-dollar art car, an RV to sleep comfortably, and enough food and drink to feed a small army. Because of this dichotomy in the culture, many people say Burning Man is over, or that it has changed. Of course it has over three decades. It went from a handful of friends camping in the desert to a massive display of artistic creativity. Sadly it is probably those who have refused to change themselves who are watching the event morph over time and are either unwilling to participate in the experiment in a new way or are holding on to a self-enforced ideal of what Burning Man should be. One thing that hasn’t changed is the notion of leaving no trace. After the man burns the playa is returned to its natural state—a blank canvas for next year’s participants to be inspired and inspire others. What are you bringing to Burning Man next year.
Tyler Smith calls Salt lake City, Utah his home where he spends his time as a college professor of broadcast television and documentary film. Smith is a photographer, filmmaker, artist, and DJ (aka DJ Better Homes & Gardens).
CLICK on any image to see it larger. All Images © Tyler/Jodi Smith unless otherwise noted.