For one week every year, thousands of people gather in the Nevada desert for a festival dedicated to community, art, self-expression, and self-reliance. Ron Perrier was one of them.
Burning Man has become one of the most popular festivals on the planet and I had wanted to go for many years but getting tickets can be a challenge. I finally went in 2014, which was the festival’s 28th year. The concept of Burning Man is difficult to understand and can only be experienced.
Burning Man always happens in the week before Labour Day at the end of August/beginning of September. The gate opens at 10:00a.m. on Sunday, the event starts at 10:00a.m. on Monday, the MAN burns on Saturday night, the TEMPLE burns on Sunday night, and the event officially ends on Monday at noon. Everybody must leave by Tuesday at noon.
The first 4 years the event was held at a beach outside of San Francisco, and since 1990, it has been held on a dry playa in the Black Rock Desert of northwest Nevada. It is a forbidding environment – treeless, rocky, hot with temperatures well over a hundred degrees Fahrenheit, and frequent dust storms that often evolve into whiteouts. The closest town is Gerlach, north of Reno, a tiny place with barely 100 residents.
It takes weeks to ‘build’ the site and the event gets bigger every year. Twenty-five came the first year and the MAN was eight feet tall but this year there were ~73,000 Burners. About 40,000 are estimated to be virgins. They come from all over the world. The average age is 36. Surprisingly, there are a fair number of children.
Black Rock City is carefully laid out in the weeks before the camp into a massive semi-circle with “avenues” numbered like a clock from 10 to 2 and 12 “streets” labeled A to L so that everyone has an ‘address’. All the avenues point directly at the MAN. In the very center of the semi-circle is Center Camp with most of the organizational facilities – Black Rock Rangers, Volunteer Center, Census, Arctica where ice is sold, and a Coffee Shop under a massive open-air tent. Rod’s Road surrounds the inside of Center Camp. Volunteer entertainers provide music for 12 hours per day and a speaker program provides nonstop speakers from 11:00a.m. to 5:00p.m.
Lit walkways lead to the MAN and TEMPLE. Hundreds of art installations are spread randomly throughout – an amazing variety of creations. Mutant vehicles, fantastic creations, many of which spew huge balls of fire, roam the entire site. Most vehicles have music and are one continuous party as they move throughout the city. Most people get around on bicycles, almost all creatively decorated with lights and glow sticks. There is a strong police presence with 6 different law enforcement agencies on the site.
I felt and looked like the straightest guy in the whole place. I wore normal clothes, did not go nude, did not ride in a mutant vehicle, met virtually no one, and participated in few “theme camps”.
One is given a 260-page book (~10 events per page) that lists all the events sponsored by different theme camps during the week. There is something for everyone. During the day, I spent most of my time at Center Camp at the Coffee Shop listening to the speaker series. A lot of it was poetry but in fact people spoke on almost everything. There are often opportunities for anyone to get up, especially during the Open Mike. I actually talked for about 15 minutes about marijuana and the legalization movement happening around the world.
It was a good place to escape the heat, have a lemonade, and sit around and people watch. And there was the most amazing variety of people to watch. Most people dress up in some way (radical self-expression). For example, Tuesday was tutu-Tuesday and it was amazing how many people had tutus.
During the evening and night, when it cools down, are good times to explore the playa and the camping area that is usually abuzz with events spread all over the place. Several huge sound stages were set up on the Esplanade (the area at the boundary between the camp area and the open playa). At night, it looks like a giant, spread-out midway, all lit up in brilliant colors. The mutant vehicles with fire displays were fantastic. It is necessary to be lit in some way at night as the cyclists and vehicles need to see you.
The thing I found most refreshing was the radical acceptance – you could be or do anything you wanted and would not be judged in any way. The tone was that people were extremely nice all the time. It is a very harsh environment and one needed to be completely self-reliant. Unconditional gifting is central to the Burning Man philosophy. Everything (except ice and drinks in the coffee shop) is completely free. With some effort it could be possible to eat, drink alcohol and survive without bringing anything of your own for the week. The environmental principle of leave no trace is crucial to the event being held in the Black Rock Desert and everyone behaves responsibly.
The climax of the week is when the MAN burns. A ceremonial procession carrying several torches leaves from a cauldron in center camp at 8:00p.m., makes its way to the MAN, and 70,000+ burners encircle the area. A remarkable display of fire dancing occurs at the periphery of the circle around the MAN. Lasers dance over his body and head. Mutant vehicles breathe fire. The MAN is lit and within 20 minutes, he was totally ablaze and most of the wood ‘clothing’ was gone. The incredibly strong skeleton would have taken a while to come down, and I did not wait to the end.
One must be totally self-reliant at Burning Man. I have the ultimate Burning Man vehicle – a truck with a camper that has all the conveniences – 50 gallons of fresh water, 25 gallons of grey water storage, solar power, a large refrigerator with a freezer, and a full-sized bathroom. Having a place of refuge in the whiteout dust storms seemed crucial to me.
The only things that can be purchased are ice and drinks (espresso, ice coffee, lemonade, electrolyte drinks) at the Coffee Shop. So you need all your own water and food and my refrigerator was a godsend. Anyone without a fridge is reliant on ice to keep all their food cold – lineups can be huge and it seemed that some people spent a good part of every day getting ice that then has to be hauled back to their camp.
Ski goggles and bandanas or dust masks are essential to deal with the dust storms. Good sun protection, especially a large ventilated hat, is essential. Earplugs are worthwhile especially if near a noisy theme camp and you hope to sleep. Bring a portable ashtray (mint tins work best) for ashes and butts if you smoke. A headlamp will make you noticeable at night and help you navigate. One ply toilet paper is recommended in the portable toilets.
The traffic jams to leave Burning Man are legendary. You can imagine the mess as all those vehicles that take several days to arrive leave in less than 36 hours. I initially thought it would be best to leave in the middle of the night but instead left right after I returned from the burn. The traffic was minimal and my exodus was quick.
When looking back at my experience at Burning Man 2014, I was happy that I had gone – it is something that everyone should experience. But I don’t think I would ever go back. It is not exactly my cup of tea. Alcohol is the main drug and partying the main activity. If I would have made a more concerted effort to participate and met more people, I may well have had a more fulfilling experience.
Ron Perrier, a Canadian, is travelling the world and writes a blog about it at http://www.ronperrier.net. This edited and condensed excerpt is published here with his permission.