And just when you think you've gone too far, you see it: The hardpan alkali playa of the Black Rock Desert: One of the largest, completely undeveloped desert valley floors in the United States. It is the largest flat area in North America - the remnant of a prehistoric lake that at one time was over 8,500 square miles in size. All that remains today is a perfectly flat dry lakebed (called a playa) 12 miles wide and 25 miles long. Nothing lives here. Nothing grows here. There is not a single tree, nor blade of grass as far as the eye can see.
Yet on this arid, crusty sea of beige, a spectacular cultural event takes place each year.
For one week out of the year, nearly 40,000 dot-com tycoons, unemployed artists, musicians, freaks, geeks, survivalists and mad scientists flock to this desolate blank canvas, living in tents, RVs and hand-made shelters to participate in the annual Burning Man festival - A wild, week-long carnival filled with creativity, amazing art projects and good-natured sarcasm that culminates with the ceremonial torching of a 40 foot wooden figure of a man - its arms outstretched to the heavens as people dance, scream and cheer. It's an event as challenging to describe, as it can be to attend: Part neo-hippy art fest, part post-apocalyptic techno-geek camp out, part clothing-optional, alternative lifestyle bacchanalia, Burning Man is totally unlike any other event in existence, and that is exactly the way the organizers like it.
A quick history:
In 1986, a guy named Larry Harvy and a few friends built an 8 foot tall figure of a man out of 2x4's and set in on fire on a nearby beach in San Francisco. There was no big underlying message in this, other than it seemed like a fun thing to do on a Summer evening. But as soon as the wooden man was on fire, people started converging on the figure. They started singing, dancing and before long, Larry knew that they would have to do it again next year. A tradition had been born.
As the gathering grew in popularity each year, they eventually out-grew and wore out their welcome on the San Francisco beach. A decision was made to hold the event in the most remote place possible and in 1990, they moved out to the Black Rock Desert and formed the temporary community known as "Black Rock City". In the first few years of being out on the playa, only a few hundred people made the 5 hour trek from San Francisco. But in 1996, Wired magazine ran an issue documenting the event. From that point forward the population has grown exponentially, morphing into the carnival of cacophony it is today.
One of the many things that sets Burning Man apart from other festivals is the environment itself. Mother Nature does her part to remind you that you are a guest in her home at almost every minute of the day. 100 + degree weather, an environment that wicks moisture out of you just by breathing (drinking at least a gallon of water per day is mandatory), and dust devils - nomadic mini tornados of swirling dust and wind - randomly touch down and rip through sections of the temporary city. These swirling funnels of dust and wind usually cause only minimal damage. Any lightweight items that aren't staked down are picked up and tossed several hundred yards. But to the inhabitants of the event, they treat them a lot like a playful poltergeists. Some people chase after them and attempt to stand in their vortex. The sensation is a little like being sandblasted with talcum powder.
One of the bigger aspects that sets Burning Man apart from any other event is the organizers strict policy against commercial vending. Capitalism is frowned upon in Black Rock City. Other than ice and coffee sold at its "center camp cafe" - the proceeds from which go to the local high school - nothing is sold inside its perimeter. Instead, the idea of "gift giving" is encouraged. People exchange gifts of food, water or hand-made items in exchange for products or services. This system creates an interesting phenomenon: people are more friendly.
A perfect example: you are straining under the unrelenting August sun. The temperature is well above 100 degrees and you can feel your energy waning quickly. Suddenly someone rides up in a bicycle powered ice cream truck and hands you a perfectly frozen popsicle, then quickly rides away. Its odd juxtapositions such as this that help make the event what it is. The harsh realities of living in the desert force people to realize quickly that community and teamwork are crucial to survival in an environment like this. As a result, everyone seems to look out for each other, and that goes a long way to building a closely-knit community of kindred spirits.
I first attended the event in 1997 and have watched first-hand the evolution of its existence transform from an underground party into a globally-known cultural phenomenon. Every year it gets a little bigger, every year it gets a little weirder.
I started volunteering with the organization (jokingly referred to as "the Borg") as a greeter. The greeters job - as their name implies - is to greet all the people as they enter the event. A colorful bunch of freaks, the greeters make sure everyone feels welcomed into the community. And if this is your first time to the event (a "virgin" in Burning Man speak) expect to be treated extra special, as you are welcomed into the fold.
After working with the greeters for a year, I moved on to the Gate / Perimeter department. Their job is a bit more serious than most of the other volunteer positions. They have the responsibility of taking the tickets of every person entering the event, in addition to preventing people from sneaking in.
With ticket prices ranging in price from $300 and up, there are a number of people that feel they can take advantage of the community and try to get in for free. The mantra of "No Spectators" is uttered quite a bit at the event and usually the people that try to sneak in, end up contributing nothing to the city. The gate department's goal is to prevent these people from getting in.
The gate is arguably one of the toughest jobs to volunteer for. Day and night for seven days, these individuals stand in the hot sun living on a heavy diet of car exhaust, playa dust and warm energy drinks, climbing into every RV, every overloaded rental truck, and searching every car for people trying to take advantage of the event. And they do it all wearing black shirts.
The interesting aspect is that the gate staff are not the power-hungry, authority-hoarding group of individuals one would expect to inhabit such a thankless position. To the gate, all the volunteers know that it's just a game: people will try to sneak in, the gate will try to catch them. Nothing more. And their success rate at catching them is truly impressive.
It's amazing the lengths some people go to avoid paying for a ticket. But the individuals that search the vehicles and scan the event's boundary know all the tricks in the book and take great pride in finding someone that may be rolled up in a giant roll of carpeting, or buried underneath an enormous pile of gear in the back of a tiny hatchback.
Once someone is found, the gate makes a good show of embarrassing the individual and the driver (in a good-natured way) and will charge a "stupid tax" for their effort. In years past, the stupid tax used to involve seizing half of the group's alcohol supply (a large, and somewhat costly fine for someone camping a week in the desert) but now it's usually just a slap on the wrist (literally) and a premium attached to the ticket they are forced to pay at the box office. Usually people laugh it off, pay for the ticket and are then welcomed into the event like everyone else. But if the individual becomes belligerent, the gate staff can quickly turn up the heat, getting the Federal Bureau of Land Management involved where the individual could be fined for trespassing or even arrested if the situation calls for it. I feel incredibly privileged to have been a part of such an army of talented individuals.
To watch an entire city grow literally out of the dust, complete with radio stations, an airport and three daily newspapers - then completely disappear back into the dust without a trace of human existence is truly inspiring. It's the unsung heroes of the gate and countless other departments that make Burning Man such a success every year.
This is more than a big party out in the middle of nowhere. It has certainly become much more than just the torching of a wooden figure (veterans to the event mockingly refer to it as "the stick.") This event has the potential to change the way people think: to actually reprogram preconceived ideas and perhaps shape the world around them into something more positive.
The future of Burning Man is unwritten. The people who attend and contribute will ultimately shape what it will become. These individuals provide the passion to carry the event's core ideals of community and teamwork back to the mundane reality of life outside of the playa. They provide the fuel to keep the fire burning every year. And just maybe, they can change the world with this philosophy.
"For those who have never been, no explanation is possible.
For those returning, no explanation is necessary."
-Signpost along the entrance road to the Burning Man Festival
Photos courtesy of Don Jackson and the Judge