It is Tuesday August 23rd, 2016 and I have been excitedly driving westward toward Nevada for two days. I parked for the night just off I-80 in “somewhere” Nebraska. It is early morning and still dark as the sun has yet to rise, but I can’t sleep so I stumble out the door of my R.V. into an empty strip mall parking lot. It’s cool outside and the air is still. As I stretch and yawn, I can smell the farmland and hear a train faintly clacking into the distance. I scan the surroundings and see a McDonalds sign at the other end of the lot. The lights are on. Odd at this hour, but I’m hungry and it looks open so I walk over. As I get closer, I notice a car parked in front and a twenty-something kid gets out. His pretty girlfriend squirms in the passenger seat for a comfortable position to sleep. I stop momentarily to scope out the weird accouterments adorning his vehicle and wonder to myself. Hmmm. Are they going to…? He looks over at me and smiles. “Going to The Burn?” I ask. His smile broadens. “Yeah man! You?!” I nod. “I’m Mark” he offers. I smile back. “Steve”, I reply and I stick out my hand. He’s having none of any handshake from me and he strides over for a big bear hug. I laugh out loud.
And so it all began…
If you were to tell your friends that you planned to go camping in a remote Nevada desert for eight days and joyfully ride your bicycle around an empty, blazing hot dry lake bed of corrosive alkali dust all day long surviving only on what food and water you brought with you, your friends would probably think you’d made excessively liberal use of Canada’s new pot laws. However… if you added another 69,999 people to the mix and then created over a thousand interactive “theme camps”, brought in dozens of wild looking, flame belching, music blaring, “mutant art cars”, built countless dance venues for all night raves, (some highlighting world renown D.J.’s), placed hundreds of incredible art projects all over the desert playa, wrote humanist founding principles that participants are encouraged to abide by, provided police, medical and fire services essential for public safety… and then you lit the whole thing up at night in a mind blowing kaleidoscope of vibrant color that would make Las Vegas green with envy… you would be at the wonderfully bizarre art, music and theme camp event known as “Burning Man.”
On the summer solstice of 1986 two friends, Larry Harvey and Jerry James, went to Baker Beach in San Francisco to throw a party on the beach and burn a nine foot tall wooden effigy of a man that they had cobbled together earlier that night. The party was a huge success so they repeated it each following year and the crowd that gathered to watch “the Man” burn grew exponentially. Now, 34 years later, “The Burn” has migrated to Nevada and morphed dramatically from its tiny beach beginnings into a massive annual event held in a desolate desert… an ideal place for monstrous fires to be deliberately set without the risk of igniting adjoining land.
The core ethos of Burning Man are the “10 Principles”, crafted by Larry Harvey in 2004. “Radical Inclusion” is a primary tenet. Everyone is welcome at Burning Man. “Radical Self Expression” is another… with “radical” being the operative word. It motivates participants to adorn themselves in outrageous costumes… or… as occasionally happens in the blistering mid-day heat… not dress themselves in anything at all. “Radical Self-Reliance”, “Gifting”, “Communal Effort”, “Civic Responsibility”, “Decommodification”, “Leave No Trace”, “Immediacy” and “Participation” round out the list.
“Decommodification” is the prohibition against any form of selling, advertising, solicitation, or barter. Consequently, there are only two things for sale at the burn. Ice is sold as it is essential for people to keep food supplies from perishing, and, oddly enough, coffee sold at center camp is the other. Everything else is gifted from Burner to Burner. The principle of “gifting” (my personal favorite) encourages participants to gift things to others without expectation of recompense. When I ride the playa on my bicycle, I carry a binder of 8.5” X 11” prints of my photography in my day pack to gift to people whom I think would appreciate my art. I have a nice collection of hand made necklaces and other items that have been gifted to me.
Burning Man isn’t just an art and music event. There are literally over a thousand interactive theme camps which are groups of anywhere from six to 400 people who work together to provide a creative service, entertainment, art or some other experience for everyone to enjoy. Every Burner is welcome to wander into any theme camp to enjoy what the camp offers and the list of experiences that camps create is varied beyond imagination. Yes, the rumors are true, and there are indeed a few “risqué” camps for the more adventurous. (*cough* *cough* ORGY DOME *cough* *cough*). For those camps that gift alcoholic drinks the Nevada minimum drinking age of 21 is strictly enforced, as are all federal, state and municipal laws governing narcotic use. Never forget that three levels of police are constantly on patrol at Burning Man. They keep things safe for everyone.
It takes several weeks on each side of the event to build the infrastructure up and then tear it all down afterward (by the “Leave No Trace” rule), so that Burning Man can properly host the 70,0000 people who descend upon it worldwide to “get their freak on”, and for a fleeting eight days of the year, “Black Rock City” becomes the tenth largest city in Nevada.
This August will mark my fifth consecutive Burn and my fourth working as a volunteer firefighter. I am proud to serve with the brethren at Fire Station 3. Each time I return and enter the main gates now I smile. The volunteer greeters who welcome everyone in don’t shake hands with you. Even if it’s your first Burn you will be invited to step out of your vehicle so they can look you in the eye, give you a big bear hug and offer you a sincere, “welcome home.” As much as I chuckled at his introduction to me in a Nebraska parking lot four years ago, Mark knew exactly what he was doing… and he did just fine.