Adventure.com photo editor Nicola Bailey surfaces from the dust at Burning Man to show us what life is really like at this annual desert gathering, a utopia of hedonistic human connection and mind-bending art installations.
“Burning Man is the place to find out who you are, then take it a step further. It’s a community, a cultural movement and a temporary city.” That’s how this annual week-long festival in the Nevada Desert bills itself.
Perhaps most importantly, Burning Man, a gathering that began in 1986 to celebrate the summer solstice, is a place free of any corporate sponsorship, where money is of no use, where all the entertainment is provided by its citizens, and where connection, creativity and collaboration are key.
I’d heard about Burning Man over the years, but knowing the challenges of getting a ticket and actually getting out into the desert, I never expected to one day find myself there. So when an opportunity came up to join a crew who would be building an art project at Burning Man, I jumped at the chance.
Getting ready for the trip was no easy feat. I’d spent my life going on camping vacations, but preparing for a week in the harsh environment of Black Rock City—the name of the city that is built for Burning Man—takes camping to another level. Burning Man was founded on 10 principles designed to provide guidelines around the culture and ethos of the community.
One of the principles is radical self-reliance. So when packing, it was important to think of everything—water, food, dust masks for the storms, wet wipes for cleanliness, white vinegar for removing dust from clothes, goggles to see, hydration tablets to survive, and of course, all the quirky dress-up outfits you could muster.
The campsites vary wildly depending on who you know and what kind of vibe you’re after. While some have the very basic bare bones needed to get by, with camp members contributing to the construction and running of the camp as a community, others—criticized by the more veteran burners—will cater to the Paris Hiltons of the world (yes, she attended one year) and even … drum roll please … have showers and staff on hand to help.
In addition to your camp basics—food, water and shelter—many camps adopt a theme or offer a gift of some sort to the community. Some provide a bacon or Bloody Mary breakfast, others might entertain you daily with comedy, live music or burlesque. You’ve got camps providing back rubs, massages, steam rooms and safe sex spaces, others offering spiritual enlightenment and crystal-infused water. One of the greatest joys of Burning Man is in discovering the range of spaces out there and giving back something of yourself in whatever way you can.
It says something of my experience that I went to Burning Man two years in a row. And I probably would have gone again this year if I didn’t have other commitments preventing me from doing so.
The first year we arrived a week early to construct our art project—the Lumiphonic Creature Choir, a massive 12-headed interactive art installation. We had spent a grueling few months working on it and we weren’t weren’t sure would withstand the conditions. Getting there early was a special experience in itself; to see the whole city come together, ready for the arrival of everyone else.
In what felt like an unlikely yet miraculous achievement, we managed to get our art project working. The Lumiphonic Creature Choir was a hit, with Burners able to interact with each of our 12 ‘heads’ that did everything from delivering prophecies to sharing intimate stories and feelings.
It’s near impossible to make plans to meet up with people at Burning Man; the hours slip away into a vortex, overtaken by adventures and random encounters. It’s an adults’ playground (though there are a number of people who take their kids, too) and if you’re not spending time at the camps or taking some time out for yourself, there is so much art to discover.
Getting your artwork into Burning Man isn’t easy, which means the art you’ll see is of a really high caliber. Unlike seeing it in a gallery, most pieces can be touched and interacted with, making the experience all the more rewarding. And just when you think you might have seen everything, in a moment of unexpectedness, you’ll end up in a part of the desert far away from everyone and stumble across something else.
Then the twist. At the end of the event, many of the artworks are set on fire. On the one hand, it’s almost painful to see months or even a year’s worth of expensive work disappear into burning ash; on the other hand, there’s something cathartic about letting go of something so important. This is particularly the case for the Temple, a structure built each year as a site of remembrance and mourning. For a week, people will sing, pray, chant and cry at the structure, and as it burns, so too do the thousands of notes and memorials that have been left behind.
Once the event starts, cars aren’t allowed to leave the camps. The only exceptions are the art cars which have been modified enough to look nothing like a regular vehicle. These drive around the ‘playa’—the open expanse of desert where most of the main art pieces are found— picking up and dropping off passengers as they go. The effort that goes into these art cars is really quite amazing. You get everything from small two-person numbers to huge vehicles capable of carrying at least a hundred people. Each one with a different theme, some encourage quiet relaxation and even snuggling, while others have DJs on-board and throw all-night parties.
Dust is one of those things you don’t really think about much in life. But when you’re at Burning Man, it’s everywhere, covering all your clothes, matting your hair, and in every orifice. It’s a very special alkaline type of dust too, so your fingers and feet—if you allow them to be exposed—soon end up covered with fine cracks. But seeing a dust storm coming is kind of magical. You know the inevitability of it, that in any moment you’re going to get coated, yet it’s strangely captivating to watch it roll in.
Every afternoon before sunset, you will witness torch bearers take to the playa to light the main ‘arteries’ leading to the ‘man’. The ‘man’, while structurally slightly different every year, has maintained the same basic look since Burning Man began, and as the name suggests, the ‘man’ is burned every year to an audience, these days, of tens of thousands of people.
Leading up to the ‘man’ from the camps, the main arteries at the position of 3, 6 and 9 o’clock are integral to any basic navigation around Black Rock City. As such, the torch bearers that light these streets up each day are much revered.
In terms of one of the best hours to be out, sunset really takes the cake. The heat drops off and, slowly at first but then in what feels like a sudden flash, the sky becomes illuminated in glowing orange, magenta, yellow and pink. You’ll see people on top of their RVs, on art cars or just pausing on their bikes to admire the spectacle.
Just as quickly as sunset comes, it’s over. And if you’re not already prepared, you need to make a dash back to camp to prepare for the evening. As soon as the sun goes down, temperatures drop but, more importantly, so too does visibility. The desert out there at night is pitch black and it’s a must to go equipped with EL (electroluminescent) wire to light up your clothes and bike at night. There are horror stories of people without lights who simply haven’t been seen and hit by art cars or bikes.
Despite beginning with a small bunch of friends on a beach in San Francisco in 1986, nowadays, Black Rock City homes some 70,000 people and counting.
As with any city, there may be some people you connect with more than others, but when people ask me what I love about the event, it’s often the people that I refer to first.
It’s a rich tapestry of personalities. You’ll find wealthy 1-percenters, supermodels presumably there to get some good photos for Instagram, unprepared international tourists, and of course, veteran Burners who’ve been there since the start and often lament the direction the event is taking.
As one of the newer attendees, I’ve only got the past couple of years to judge it on, and despite everything, my feelings are overwhelmingly positive.
If while you’re there, you don’t make an effort to embrace the culture of Burning Man, there’s every chance that you will hate it; it’s not easy to sleep in and eat dust daily in extreme temperatures. But if you throw yourself into it, the vibe is contagious. You’ll find yourself meeting the most creative people, having the most fascinating conversations, and going on countless surreal adventures with random strangers.
The principles of Burning Man—radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation and immediacy—are inspiring. To me, they seem to be principles the world could benefit from on a day-to-day basis. While we obviously live in a cash-based economy and not all these principles are practical back in the ‘real world’, there are many that could be.
So while there may be some who feel critical of the more mainstream crowd that the event now attracts, to me it seems there is still good to come out of it. Whether you choose to make community and creativity your focus for just one week of your life, or you take those principles into your ‘real life’ back home, you’ll be benefiting either way—and so too will the people you interact with.