For one week every year, a town dedicated to radical self-expression magically sprouts from the hot, arid floor of a Nevada desert.
Like a mirage shimmering into view, a city materializes on the edge of an ancient Nevada lake bed. Where only a month earlier there was nothing but achingly flat playa beneath the burning sun, a tidy network of streets appears; then a post office; radio stations; temples; an airport. And from across the desert come the citizens of this metropolis. For a single week they eat, sleep, and play here. And then the entire city vanishes again, like breath on a mirror.
It sounds like a ghost story. A Lost City of Atlantis myth. But Black Rock City is real. I know because I lived there. For the past three summers, my friends and I have gathered our whimsical possessions and journeyed in late August to a site some 120 miles north of Reno. We are joined by more than 25,000 fellow pilgrims, all there to create a new reality on the blank slate of the Black Rock Desert. It is a spectacle, a social experiment, a community. It is the event known as Burning Man.
Sometime around 9 a.m. on my first morning in the desert I am introduced to one of the cornerstones of Burning Man: radical self-expression. I am walking down a still-quiet street, heading for my first look at the wooden figure in the distance, when I hear the squeak of a rusty wheel. From around the corner, a sun-bronzed man wearing nothing but a leather loincloth and a giant boar's head comes riding past atop a 10-foot unicycle and disappears down a side street, leaving me staring into the retreating cloud of dust.
At the next intersection, I encounter a group of people holding hands in two long lines. "Red Rover, Red Rover, send Santress right over!" chants one line, and a woman in a Santa skirt and thigh-high red boots charges across in an attempt to break through the arms of two men in red body paint. Come to think of it, everyone in the game is wearing red. Red hoopskirts, red wigs, red Viking helmets, red glitter.
I step backward into the street and am almost run over by a large metal snail shell. "Good morning!" bellows the driver and zooms away. I am still standing there, trying to catch my breath, when a man approaches. "Excuse me," he says. "I was wondering if you might hold this can of Spam and jump on a trampoline while I take your picture."
The answer seems obvious. "Yeah, sure. Why not?"
That's what happens to you in Black Rock City. You are bombarded by so much bizarre behavior that the outlandish quickly becomes normal. Before you know it, you are posing in midair with a can of meat.
Of course, not everyone here chooses to make a public spectacle of herself. But every Black Rock City resident is expected to participate in some way—whether that means building a theme camp, creating an art installation, greeting new-comers, or just getting to know the neighbors. Action and interaction are the key to what Larry Harvey, the 53-year-old founder and director of Burning Man, calls "real experience"—the antidote to the passive anonymity of consumer culture. Back in 1986, Harvey took his own artistic action when he spontaneously decided to build and burn an 8-foot-tall wooden man on the sands of Baker Beach in San Francisco. The burning figure evoked such a powerful response in friends and bystanders that Harvey knew he had to burn the Man again the following summer. What he didn't know then was that this single act of self-expression would grow into a certifiable phenomenon.
Standing at the very center of Black Rock City, I gaze up at the latest wooden Man, a stylized figure standing a horizon-dominating 52 feet high. Stoic and imperturbable—even in the face of his impending immolation—he stands watch over the festival that has weathered 15 years of struggle, growth, and evolution: the 1990 move to the Black Rock Desert after the San Francisco Police Department banned the event from Baker Beach; wrangling to obtain Bureau of Land Management usage permits; a tragic 1996 motorcycle fatality; soaring operational costs and ticket prices. That the Man still stands today is a testament to Harvey's dedication, the full-time Burning Man staff, and the thousands who volunteer both on the playa and off. As I look out at a city brimming with creativity and life, their efforts seem more than worth it.
In the late afternoon, the storms arrive in Black Rock. From our camp I watch them sweep across the playa—swirling clouds of white dust that send people scurrying into their geodesic domes. A man with a bullhorn comes whizzing by in a golf cart. "Everybody panic!" he directs. "Do not stay calm! Water will make you wet! I repeat, water has been linked to wetness!"
My friends and I decide to thumb our noses at the weather as well, and set out into a city made even more surreal by the form-obscuring dust. Several blocks down, we spot a group of revelers unfazed by the drops of rain that have begun to pelt the desert floor. As we claim stools at their pink fur-covered bar, the barkeep names his price: one joke for one drink. Luckily I am prepared.
"What does a bartender get on an IQ test?" I ask the blond, dreadlocked server.
He looks suspicious. "I don't know, what?"
With a pained snort, the man hands over a tropical concoction. It's my first barter at Burning Man, and as close as I'll come to a commercial transaction during my time here. With the exception of coffee and ice—true necessities in a 24-hour desert society—nothing can be bought or sold in Black Rock City. No commemorative T-shirts, no $7 nachos, not even bread or water. Instead, participants are encouraged to bring everything necessary for their survival, barter for what they lack, and, whenever possible, engage in the ancient art of gift giving.
People take this last tenet to heart, showering their fellow citizens with impromptu presents: a slice of honeydew melon, help with a broken bicycle chain, a candy necklace, a spritz of ice water, a serenade. Many work this magnanimous spirit into their theme camps as well. Camp Sunscreen offers protection from the blistering sun; Glitter Camp will assist you with self-decoration; Astral Headwash Camp will shampoo your mud-caked hair; the Body Hair Barber Shop will . . . well, you get the picture.
But perhaps the most heartfelt gifts on the playa are the artistic ones—often highly personal works that offer themselves to all passersby. Near the center of camp, I encounter such a present: a 24-foot-tall copper face crying tears of real fire. Farther on, I find a giant metal heart that is being stuffed with wood in preparation for its nightly burn, when huge flames will shoot out of its atria. Nearby, a jungle gym-like metal rib cage allows me to seek vengeance on all overzealous museum security guards as I climb, jump on, swing from, and touch the exhibit. My $145 ticket fee—part of which goes toward funding many of these installations—seems a small price to pay for such art therapy.
As I pedal my bike home through the dusty streets, the vast desert sky blushes pink against the mountains. It's my favorite time in Black Rock—the collective deep breath between daytime antics and nighttime revelries, when people gather to share food and conversation. All around me I can hear the sounds of pots banging and cocktails being stirred. At the corner, the lamplighters are raising lanterns onto wooden posts—flickering beacons that will guide me home at night's end. I turn down my street and pass my neighbors—the Sprongs, Tribal Thunder, Naked Slip and Slide—and raise a hand in greeting. In a world where face-to-face communities are vanishing and Internet affinity groups proliferate, I have somehow found a modern-day Mayberry here, in the middle of nowhere.
A few hours later, the drums begin beating out an anticipatory cadence—a death knell for the Man. In the center of the playa, a procession of fire dancers weaves through the rapidly swelling crowd, swirling swords awash with fire. From atop a huge golden bull, a woman takes a swig of lighter fluid, lifts a torch toward her lips, and breathes out a spray of flame.
A collective roar goes up from the crowd as the Man is ignited, the fire licking hungrily at his wooden legs. When the flames reach the explosives-stuffed torso, the sky erupts in a flash of hot white magnesium and rocketing fireworks. "Burn! Burn! Burn!" a group chants next to me, cheering when a 12 1/2-foot arm plummets to the ground. The old order is losing its grip. Mentally, I cast my troubles and insecurities into the fire and hope that, unlike the Man, they do not possess phoenixlike powers of regeneration. When, finally, the center of our universe comes crashing down in flame, there is a sense of release, a twinge of sadness, and, ultimately, an uplifting feeling of possibility.
Whoever said time exists to keep everything from happening at once has never been in Black Rock City after the Man has fallen. The mayhem is instantaneous and simultaneous: Bonfires flare up as artists ignite the labors of their love; high-tech wizards roll out their lightning-producing tesla coils and 80-foot fire fountains; the rave camps begin pumping out sternum-rattling techno; and revelers begin walking, riding, skipping, and dancing toward whatever catches their eye first. It is a party of mythic proportions, and even as I crawl into my mud-caked tent at 5 a.m., it is still going strong—a pounding bass providing its insistent, familiar lullaby.
When I emerge later that morning, the exodus has already begun. Expecting to see the familiar shape of the Sprongs's trampoline hut, I am instead confronted with stark, dun-colored playa—as if someone has peeled back a colorful corner of wallpaper to reveal the wood beneath. Piece by piece, the pattern disappears, as shade structures are dismantled, AstroTurf is rolled up, and the minutiae of our social experiment—boa feathers, bottle caps, tent stakes, fake eyelashes—are painstakingly removed. "Leave no trace," whisper the keepers of Black Rock and the city complies, disappearing back into oblivion. Before long, the sun beats down on an empty stretch of desert and the wind tells no tales of what has passed. All that remains are our stories—ghost tales and legends of a magical metropolis, a place we called home.
Photography courtesy of Stepheng3/Wikimedia Commons
This article was first published in July 2001. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.