"That Thing in the Desert"
Out in the Nevada desert, during just one week each year, there is a very special festival called Burning Man. Over the course of the festival, it participants build a large city full of art and artists, express themselves in art, drink, get dirty, and step outside the social norm. It's all about self-expression, being creative, and doing your own thing.
I live in Reno, Nevada, the closest large city to Burning Man, so I see the participants coming and going to this event. Plus, I've been there myself and loved it. So, check out the page below to learn more about this fantastic and outrageous festival in the desert.
Unless otherwise noted, pictures are by me, AlishaV.
Black Rock Desert
Burning Man is held in the Black Rock Desert, which is a hundred and twenty miles from Reno, Nevada.
Reno is the largest city close by. The nearest town is Gerlach, which is a small town where only a few hundred people live.
BM is held on a playa, a dry lakebed, which is miles across and surrounded by mountains. The playa is just one of several remnants of the ice age lake that covered much of Nevada, prehistoric Lake Lahontan. It is also one of the largest and flattest spots on Earth and has even been used for land speed trials like the more famous ones at Bonneville in Utah.
Burning Man Location
The Playa Lakebed Surface
Playa Dust Devil
Black Rock Desert is very hot and dry, especially during the summer including late summer when Burning Man is held.
This dry and hot environment can be challenging to BM participants and if they aren't careful it can send many to the medical tent. Most people combat the dangerous arid environment by not traveling about a lot during the hottest parts of the day and carrying backpacks full of water.
The dry lakebed and strong winds can cause some massive dust storms, engulfing the entire city and making it nearly impossible to leave camp. Since these dust storms can come up suddenly, many participants carry with them dust masks and goggles so they'll at least be able to find a place to hunker down until it passes.
Even with the sometimes extreme heat, the nights can get downright cold, so it's important to bring warm clothes and blankets for after the sun goes down.
The occasional thunderstorms can dump lots of water on the desert quickly, so the dry lakebed may suddenly become a sticky mass of mud, bogging down camps and vehicles in the mire. In 2014, it rained the first day of the festival, so many people couldn't get inside until it dried up a little.
The Climate Can Be Dangerous
The extreme environment where Burning Man is held means it's important to prepare carefully before attending Burning Man and that not everyone should go. Those with major health problems or unable to handle such extreme weather may be better off staying home. It isn't a walk in the park by any means.
Playa Dust Storm
Black Rock City
Black Rock City or BRC is the name of the city that appears during Burning Man. At over 50,000 people (even more since I wrote this article!) BRC is, while it exists, one of the largest cities in Nevada, then it disappears back into the desert.
It is laid out in a circular shape, which is labeled as though it is a clock face. The structure known as the temple sits at 12 o'clock, and Center Camp, the camp where you can find most available services, is at 6 o'clock. The Man, the figure that Burning Man is known for, sits near the center and the streets radiate out in spokes around his hub.
The center of the city near the Man is open and filled with art, sort of like a desert park. People have their homes on the streets encircling the center open area.
The circle shape of the city is further divided into concentric circles which are named in an alphabetical fashion. Beyond the first couple of streets each year there is a street named for "A", then one a little further out for "B", and so on.
In 2011 the streets were named for rites of passage since that was the theme, so "A" street was Anniversary and "B" street was Birthday. In 2011 our camp was located at 3:40 and Divorce.
This makes a sometimes chaotic and confusing place easier to navigate.
Black Rock City From the Air
Look closely at the image above and you can see The Man standing tall in the very center of the city and The Temple in the open area on the right. You're looking at the city from the 3 o'clock side.
Burning Man was originally created by a group of people getting together in San Francisco to burn a straw man. From there more and more people came to burn a bigger and bigger man until where we're at now, with over 50,000 people getting together to burn a huge wooden man that takes months to build and is sometimes over 100' tall including his platform.
Each year The Man is designed differently. 2011 was the first year his feet were placed apart and that was due to the theme of the event that year, which was Rites of Passage.
Throughout the week-long event, The Man is on display, allowing people to come and visit, then on Saturday night he burns.
The chaotic energy of the event rather reminds me of Lord of the Flies. Everyone gathers around, art cars pull up from all over, then there are fireworks, followed by The Man getting set on fire while participants dance around his base and holler and play.
It's a frenzy of activity and the night they burn the Man is very much the party night.
Fireworks as the Burn Begins
Burning the Man
Skilled technicians set fire to the prepared platform, and the man blazes up. He burns and eventually collapses into his ashes.
Around the base is a frenzy of activity. It is the biggest party of the event, as the thousands of festival goers converge on the burn and there is music and screaming and laughter.
People dance and celebrate, basking in the glow of the burn and celebrating life.
Each year a group of artisans build a special building called the Temple. The Temple is designed differently each year, but most often looks like a spiritual building from somewhere around the world.
The Temple is a special spot and is spiritual for some people. It is not a party spot. In fact while inside most people feel reluctant to speak or take pictures because there is a feeling of trespassing on the sacredness of the site.
People use the Temple to worship, meditate, and just commune with their selves. Many people also write messages to loved ones or people that passed on, or about things they regret or want to say goodbye to. Some people leave mementos or ashes. It is all about communicating and cleansing one's soul. Even people who aren't religious find the ceremonial aspects soothing.
On Sunday night people gather from all over and sit on the ground packed closely together surrounding the Temple.
The group of thousands of people gets quiet, some hold hands, and a meditative silence descends as each person ponders the week and the experiences that filled it. Some people think about what they wrote on the Temple walls or what feelings they left inside.
The Temple is set on fire, which is very emotional for some people. I cried thinking about how the week was over. The person next to me held my hand tightly as a few tears dripped down her cheeks. Other people aren't affected at all, either they couldn't connect to the ritual or just had nothing left after the week.
It is silent for a long time as the fire burns hotter and hotter, eventually the Temple crashes in and people begin to break up, some heading inward to circle the ashes as sparks fly high into the night sky. Others wander out into the dark to spend some quiet time by themselves.
Getting in the Gates at BRC
There are so many people trying to get into Black Rock City the first couple of days that the wait times are horrendous. I spent four hours in line, and I was one of the luckier ones.
The people at the gate have made efforts to make the entrance easier. Traffic is pulsed, so groups of cars will move ahead in groups, which means there's no need to leave your car running. There are lots of volunteers checking out the cars, making sure there are no extra people or any pets, and ensuring you have your ticket. It still takes time to get thousands of people into the city within such a short amount of time.
It's best not to leave your car or air conditioner running since overheating problems are common as the dust chokes radiator vents. It's all part of the experience though.
Inside the City
At Burning Man there are no bathrooms or no running water. Remember, this is the middle of the desert.
Porta potties are how everyone goes and as you can imagine, they aren't the nicest accommodations.
The people who service them come often during the week and do a good job, so they aren't as bad as they could be, but the heat on the playa makes them pretty ripe regardless.
Only so many people are allowed to attend Burning Man each year. This is due to the several organizations that BM has to interact with and the ability of the highway to handle the increase in traffic.
The playa is a very large place and can fit many more people than attend, but the highway that leads to it is only a small two-lane one and there are already traffic issues on it. With no room to pull over along most of the way, if a car breaks down it can nearly obscure traffic completely.
BLM manages the area where Burning Man is held, and of course they have to yield to public opinion, which isn't always in favor of the event since not everyone likes the type of people who go to BM or even the thought of people being able to relax and not conform to society norms. BLM must ensure the playa is not harmed by the event and that everything goes okay. Thus they don't want tons more people attending each year, they require only slow growth.
The local counties and sheriffs and other groups also have rules that must be followed, and don't allow a lot of growth, even when more and more people want to attend.
In 2011, Burning Man sold out every ticket for the first time ever and had some growing pains in their ticket selling structure. So in 2012 they revamped the ticket system, no longer selling tickets in stores, and making people have to win a sort of lottery to get a ticket since demand was much more than available tickets. This was considered an utter-flop, with many people who had gone for years not getting tickets, so much so that out of entire camps, only a couple got tickets. In 2013 they changed the system again, and it is now first-come-first-served, but tickets still sold out within hours of going on sale. So wanting to and being prepared to go to Burning Man is not enough, you have to be one of the lucky ones to get a ticket.
People are what make Burning Man what it is. It is a participant-driven event, which means everyone is supposed to participate and make the community a better place.
What that means depends on the abilities of each person, some people make sculptures, others make art cars, and others make lunch. Whether it's making their camp a fun place to be or going out and sharing their idea of art, each person contributes to the whole.
This doesn't mean everyone has to inherently be a classical artist to attend. There are tons of different types of people at Burning Man, everyone you would see in any society. There is a Math Camp because some people find beauty in geometry. Another camp does spankings and another suspension bondage. It's all about being who you are and contributing accordingly.
There is a wide range of social classes as well. You never know at one moment whether you are talking to a CEO of a major company, a rock star, or an artist who barely breaks even. It doesn't matter either. Those are just jobs someone has outside of Burning Man, inside Black Rock City it is who you are that is important.
As one would imagine, most Burning Man attendees are in their 20s, 30s, or 40s. There are plenty of older people, even some amazing people in their 90s, but the extreme environment can be too harsh for older people in poor health. They are eagerly welcomed when they do attend though.
There are some kids at BM too, and even a place called Kidville, where things are a tad toned down. Taking care of a child in the chaotic environment can be tough and is not to be undertaken without serious thought. Burning Man is a wonderful experience and enlightening for kids, but I think it's too much for most kids to take in. I've seen kids ready to fall asleep while walking because they are so exhausted. Burning Man and the harsh environment makes most adults tired and cranky, it tends to affect kids worse.
The Rainbow Man
Burning Man is very much an art festival. I was worried the first time I attended since I had heard so many disparaging remarks and I'm not into drugs or a heavy partier. I was very happy at what I found though, there's something that appeals to everyone and the festival was filled with tons of art. Every way one looked there was art.
There were tons of giant sculptures. People work around the year on their contributions and it shows. Most of the very big sculptures are in the center area. There are also smaller pieces of art scattered around the city. Some hanging in Center Camp, others at individual camps.
It wasn't all static art either. Many people perform all over the city. Whether it's just dressing for fun or swinging fire, there are as many art forms as there are people.
My biggest disappointment in attending Burning Man is that it's impossible to see all the art available. A week just isn't long enough and so many pieces beg to be enjoyed, so rushing steals the appreciation from you. If you go it's best to just slow down and enjoy what you do see.
Rain Tree Art Sculpture
I really liked the sculpture in the above picture.
Standing underneath it felt like a weeping willow, like light draping across your skin, I kept comparing it to Avatar and the scene where they walk underneath the draping trees.
From outside the sculpture looked like it was raining inside. It was very pretty, both close and from across the playa in the night.
Each year, regions around the world contribute art to Burning Man.
Some of these art projects, 24 in total each year, are featured in an inner circle on the playa. These regional effigies are created by the people in that specific area and are made to represent aspects of that community.
In 2011, Austin, Texas contributed this sculpture of Ouroboros.
The jellyfish above moving across the playa in the darkness were amazing.
They looked like a bloom of jellyfish indeed, especially as those carrying them jiggled them a little and made them move.
Burning Man Art Cars
An art form found criss-crossing the playa is the art car. People turn motor vehicles into rolling sculptures. There is a huge variety, but a lot are either animals or vehicles such as ships.
Since there is no driving allowed in Black Rock City, art cars must be approved to be allowed to run. Creators must submit applications to the DMV (Department of Mutant Vehicles) proving that the art car is creative and drastically different than the vehicle it is built upon. Bonus points are given to art cars that can carry extra people and give rides, it's all about contributing to the community.
It may seem on the surface that Burning Man is a free-for-all, but there are rules that everyone must obey. Because there are so few official rules the ones that exist are even more important.
No selling: Nothing is allowed to be sold within Black Rock City, except official booths which sell coffee and ice. You can't even buy tickets to the event there. This is to create an atmosphere of non-commerce and increase generosity. You can give things away, and most people do, but no money should ever exchange hands.
Bring everything you need with you: There is no water available. No corner store to go pick up supplies. If there is something you're going to need, you have to plan for it and bring it yourself.
Leave no trace: Leave no trace, means leave no trace. Don't leave even the tiniest piece of trash, not so much as a nail or piece of wood. The Black Rock Desert is an arid environment and things don't break down quickly, if they ever do. Everyone has to keep the area clean and that means not making a mess as well as picking up any trash you see. This is a requirement for us to even use the playa, so it is extremely important.
Burning restrictions: You can't just burn everything everywhere. Burning is only to be done in appropriate containers on top of heat resistant barriers, and it can't scar the playa. Things that create toxic fumes aren't allowed at all and there is no setting fire to anything that doesn't belong to you. This includes the Man and other sculptures. It is not okay to set fire to these things.
No glitter: No glitter is allowed on the playa because it makes too much of a mess. It's been nicknamed "playa herpes" because it's so easy to spread but impossible to get rid of. As part of the leave no trace rule, each speck has to be cleaned up and it is just too difficult, so it's a banned substance.
No feathers: Although glitter and feather boas seem like they'd be great at Burning Man, they are both banned for the same reason. Feathers cause too much mess that is too difficult to clean up, so don't bring them. Recently, feathers have been allowed at Burning Man again, but all it takes is one molting mess to cause havoc, so don't bring anything feathered that might shed.
No pets: No pets are allowed at the event. At one time they were, but it was decided that it is simply too dangerous for them. The environment is harsh on people, who have options about where they go and can get water when they need it. Pets can't tell you when they need more sunblock or are about to get sick from the heat. In addition, pets were getting loose and running off. So no pets allowed other than service animals with appropriate paperwork.
No motorized vehicles: Other than approved art cars, ranger and police vehicles, and getting to your camp or leaving Burning Man, there are no cars allowed to drive in Black Rock City. It creates far too much dust and is dangerous.
Participants only, no spectators: Burning Man is a participant-driven event. You make the art, you are the art. This isn't a place to sit back and just watch "the freaks". What are you going to contribute? Are you going to wear fun outfits? Draw designs on people? Do performances of belly dancing? Play guitar? Each person contributes to make the community a better place.
Dusty Dusk from Deep Playa
Questions & Answers
Question: Do you feel the environmental impact outweighs the party & art of Burning Man?
Answer: Nope. Unlike most events, Burning Man actually makes an effort to lessen the environmental impact. Is it a ton of people living and breathing in one area? Yep, and that is going to be a problem no matter where. Those same people would probably be using more in their daily lives as they tried to be good little consumer cogs. A huge part of Burning Man is the importance of doing without and making do with what you brought with you, and sharing what you have. Sure, there are jerks who go out there in big RVs or people thinking it's just a big party and so not caring about the basis of the event, but the average burner tries to live by the 10 Principles and behave like a decent Black Rock City citizen. Just the peer pressure against trash alone is huge. And culturally there is an emphasis against disposable items, so you won't find piles of Solo cups tossed everywhere like other events.
The biggest impact is, of course, the gas required to get there and get the city's infrastructure in place. When building the city, most of the volunteers actually live out there, so no commuting. And there is a limited number of vehicles allowed inside the event, so most people carpool and share what they bring.
Other than a couple of art pieces such as The Man and The Temple, most art is reused by cities looking for beauty. Other items are recycled. Tents are folded away, and people leave with all they brought with them, then the organization spends months restoring the playa to a condition better than before the event. Much better than recreational campers and off-road enthusiasts who often cause a lot of damage out there.
Is there an environmental impact from Burning Man? Sure. Even going to the gym has an environmental impact, but people still do it. Is the environmental impact as bad as party events like Coachella or NFL games? Nah, because the participants and the organization work hard to be better people that take civic responsibility seriously. Yes, they could do better. We could all do better every day of our lives, but that's where a cultural emphasis on being more environmentally conscious becomes important.
Check out BMO's environmental impact reports if you're like to know more.
© 2013 Alisha Vargas
Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on June 04, 2015:
I've always thought Burning Man looks cool. Don't know if I'll ever have the guts to go.
Very cool article.