Updated: Nov 10, 2019
By Adam Snyder
Ok, while I didn’t go to Woodstock (but I could’ve and should’ve), I have gone to Burning Man – twice.
For those not familiar with this annual “happening,” Burning Man, aka “Black Rock City” (BRC), is a thriving metropolis which appears every August out of nowhere – like the fictional Brigadoon – in a vast desert in northwest Nevada. Then miraculously, after eight days the city disappears with not a single trace. 70,000 people, thousands and tents and campers, art installations are completely erased, turning city to desert in a matter of weeks. This year's theme was Metamorphoses.
This temporary metropolis is created in a 1.5 mile diameter circle, two-thirds of which are “avenues’ inhabited by “burners” of all ages and life experiences. At the literal center of the circle is “The Man,” the towering symbol of Burning Man which is set aflame each year on the final Saturday night.
Burning Man got its start in 1986 not in a garage, but on a San Francisco beach when two friends, Larry Harvey and Jerry James, built an 8-foot tall “man” out of scrap lumber and burnt “the man” in effigy. Suddenly it became an annual event dedicated to art and community. As it grew, the location was changed to a desolate, dry lake bed in the Black Rock Desert.
Once you cross the threshold into BRC, you’ve entered “the playa,” the Spanish word for beach, and you’re expected to follow Burning Man’s rules and regulations. The first requirement is if you are a first timer and you admit it, you’re required to disrobe and roll in the dirt. The group I was with was warned to tell the greeter that we had all been there before, so we escaped this initiation. Burners wear the number of times they’ve attended with great pride, but then again, so do the first-timers!
Like every urban area, maintaining peace and order is vital and there are hundreds of volunteers overseeing BRC’s infrastructure, which includes a governing body, a police force, fire and sanitation departments, and traffic and healthcare facilities. There are detailed plans in place in case of an emergency. The community also has 10 unwavering principles created by its late founder, Larry Harvey, on which BRC’s ethos and culture is based:
1. Radical Inclusion (welcoming and respecting the stranger)
3. Decommodification (no commercial sponsorships, transactions or advertising)
4. Radical Self-reliance (encouraging the individual to discover and rely on his/her inner
5. Radical Self-expression
6. Communal Effort
7. Civic Responsibility
8. Leaving No Trace
10. Immediacy (overcoming the barriers that stand between people)
So what does all this mean? First of all. No money is exchanged. Secondly, people offer an infinite number services and goodies for free – from massages, to fortune-telling, to meditation, to music, to margaritas (a lot of booze is consumed). Last year a 10-year-old was handing out $2 dollar bills. I’ve been carrying mine across the world ever since.
The city is divided into “theme camps,” which reflect the giveaways. Here’s a sampling, described by the “burners” themselves:
1st Bank of BRC – “We are the bank for the gifting economy, and we have what you need! Visit the bank each day during business hours, or visit one of our 24 hr ATMs to make a deposit or withdrawal.”
Palm Tree Country Club – “Our camp welcomes you to come sneak a groove at our bingo night on Thurs for a chance to win many fun prizes, including the opportunity to metamorphosize into the most majestic of unicorns.”
Burners live in tents and campers, but there’s a billionaire theme camp with fancy 5-wheelers. I was told there was a heliport for them on the far outskirts of the circle.
While some people walk around without clothes, most everyone else is dressed in flamboyant garb. In fact, last year two friends of ours (male and female), wore tutu’s and gave away homemade margaritas.
Burning Man is also about creativity and art. This year there were 440 official art installations, and an untold number of unofficial ones. To say they are extraordinary doesn’t even come close to describing them. I've posted four below, but if you want to see them all go to the Burning Man website's art installations.
Four art installations. I loved the pay phone which obviously didn't work!
My favorite this year was “The Folly,” an elaborate 4 story-structure that looked an Escher drawing meets Wizard of Oz castle. It’s creator, Dave Keane, described it to us as “an imaginary shantytown of funky climbable towers and old Western storefronts.” He told us it was cobbled together from salvaged and reclaimed lumber from original San Francisco Victorian homes, then reborn in the desert. He also said it took twelve semi-trucks to bring all the parts to the desert and several weeks to assemble it.
This installation, just like “The Man” and other installations was set afire. If you go to “The Folly’s” website, it says, “Sorry…The page you were looking for was blown away in a dust storm.”
Here's a link to "The Man" burning and a glimpse of Burning Man participants (burners) observing.
Yes, there are dust storms, sometimes severe. You are told to bring goggles and masks in case there’s a bad one. The heat can also be severe, so many people end up reversing their internal thermometers and sleep during the day after partying during the evenings, which are cool and beautiful.
When the sun sets, Burning Man comes alive. It’s Times Square in the middle of nowhere! Lights! Color! Music! Food! Magic. The night I was there this year was “Fire Night,” where many installations were using gas to blow flames, often timed to music. The entire metropolis was lit, including the bicycles, which is what most people use to get from one place to the next. If you do have an approved vehicle (like the bus we were in), it must be decorated in an outlandish way.
To be a part of this unusual extravaganza comes with a price. Most tickets sell for $425 a person, but you’ll also have to buy a $100 vehicle pass to park . About 4,000 pre-sale tickets are available in March 2020 at $1,400 each. Kids 12 and under are free.
Lucky for me I was a guest of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, but to tell you the truth, I would pay. I’ve never experienced anywhere like it. Even a skeptic like me is forced to see beyond my cynicism to know that this is something special -- an optimistic, 8-day utopia where people are supportive, happy and giving. There’s definitely a feeling of kumbaya. It’s what you hope will happen when the world as we know it comes to an end…a place more like Plato’s Republic or Eden than Mad Max. Oh, if it were only so.