It's hot. It's dusty. It's far from civilization as most know it, which is exactly why people go. It's Black Rock City. It's Burning Man.
In 1986, a couple of guys set ablaze an eight foot tall wooden figure on San Francisco's Baker Beach to honor the Summer Solstice. Modest beginnings indeed. In 2001, over 25,000 people gathered on a dry lakebed in Nevada's Black Rock Desert to watch a 40-foot tall wooden and neon man go up in flames, accompanied by fire works. Pretty spectacular but hardly worth a yearly pilgrimage in and of itself.
Today Burning Man has become much more. Part festival, part experiment, part runaway phenomenon - all in the form of a community. Black Rock City springs up from the desert floor once a year only to disappear a short time later. It boasts a daily paper, several radio stations, well-marked streets, an airport and a D.M.V. (Department of Mutant Vehicles).
But it isn't physical characteristics that make it unique. It's the group effort at individuality that sets it apart. Black Rock City challenges you to skew your world view. A haven for radical expression, you are encouraged, even pressured, to participate. You must think outside the box, you must color outside the lines. Art is everywhere, from ornate plywood structures soon to be incinerated to avant-garde arrangements of luncheon meat. But mostly the art is you. It's what you wear, should you choose to wear anything at all. It's how you get around. Bicycles covered in fur are popular but motorized couches are more fun.
Whatever you choose to do, chances are you'll do it at a theme camp, the suburbs of Black Rock. You can dance inside a refrigerated semi-truck at Antarctica, get painted nude (that is, actually have paint applied to your body) at Camp Picasso or climb around on The Death Guild's Thunderdome while rooting on a match. There's Golf of Mexico, Pyramid Lounge and Hair of the Dog. Some camps have techno music and a light show; others simply put a trampoline out front.
Your money is of little good within the City limits. Black Rock runs on gifts and barter. It promotes the reverse of consumerism. Give. Those that put together theme camps spend thousands and charge nothing. Corporate logos are taboo. How rich you are is a mindset, not a number on a bank statement. Naked Santas are likely to greet you at the entrance just to see that you are prepared for this alternate reality.
There is, however, one bastion of commercial vending. Center Camp Cafe is the anchor of the mini metropolis. They sell coffee and offer a fashion show, tribal dancing and an open stage for preachers and poets. Here, refugees from the casts of "Mad Max" and "The Adventures of Pricilla, Queen of the Jungle" discuss the difference between the profanely sacred and the sacredly profane over a mocha latte. For example, just because you have the word freedom tattooed on your ass does that make you any more free?
The Man should not be thought of, however, as Utopia's dusty doppelganger. It has its own cultural voids and pitfalls. Mother Nature often seems eager for you to move on. Forty mile an hour winds and one hundred-degree plus weather is common. Discouraged are cell phones, dogs, public drug consumption, and public sex (but I saw some of each). Packing up all your trash may be inconvenient but is the law of the land and creature comforts without aesthetic merit are frowned upon.
Participation can be downright exhausting. Still, playa residents stick it out by sticking together. Occasionally it can appear as though everybody is trying so hard to be different that they all end up the same, but everything about Black Rock is to be taken with a grain of salt, or few thousand grains of sand. Underlying it all is not so much the desire of having everyday people thriving at Burning Man, but having Burning Man thriving in everyday people. It is by no means for the faint of heart, but for those who wish to take the trip, it's there for you and probably will be for some time to come.
© Melt Magazine 2001