The infamous gathering (it’s most definitely not a festival) just finished for another year – but what’s it actually like to pitch up for the full nine days?
In the dark hours of the morning, deep in the open desert, long-time “Burner” Stewie sits with his back to a flimsy orange plastic fence. Ski goggles perched on his head despite the lingering dust storm, he turns an embroidered badge over and over in his fingers. Bearing a map of where we are, it reads “EDGE OF THE KNOWN WORLD”.
“I always do this,” he tells me. “Every year I come here and just look back at it all.” Sitting on the floor at the furthest point of Burning Man, where the low fence in place to catch drifting rubbish gives way to remote nothingness, we both look ahead at the blinking neon in the distance. The tinny thump of music from a passing giant cat-shaped car halts the reverie. Two cyclists, one in a tutu, one in a spacesuit, follow behind.
Which pretty much sums up my evening. I’ve spent this, the second night of the now notorious annual gathering in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, getting deliberately lost.
For nine days every year, in the week prior to and including the US Labor Day weekend, Black Rock City rises from the dust. The event – which this year took place from 27 August to 4 September – has become a pilgrimage of sorts for those who want to leave the banality of everyday life behind and participate in, as Burning Man itself describes it, “an experiment in temporary community”.
According to organisers, the event is “the place to find out who you are, then take it a step further”. For those who haven’t been, images of either elaborately dressed or naked attendees posing next to huge art pieces in apocalyptic-looking conditions may spring to mind. For those who have, returning to the 70,000-strong temporary city is called “coming home”.
“Welcome home” are also the first words I hear from a greeter at the gate who hugs me before making me roll around in the dust for being a Burning Man virgin. Traditions matter here.
Tonight, leaving the crescent-shaped streets of the city behind, I’ve cycled out (bikes are essential) into the deep playa to explore. The whole site, situated on a dried-up lake bed, covers around seven square miles. While the city is where participants set up camp, the open playa makes up a vast proportion of the area. Home to some of the most pivotal landmarks for citizens, such as the Man itself, and the Temple, it serves as a blank canvas for artists to place their work.
Caught by a dust storm so dense I could only see to my elbow, I’ve been cycling along the rubbish fence to gain some semblance of where I am. After waving goodbye to Stewie, I find two guys drinking shots of whisky in a bathtub, and receive an offer of a blanket and hot soup from an Australian guy stood beside a giant Campbell’s can. Everyone who attends is required to participate, and to gift something to the community. My stint helping to run a British pub, complete with draught ale, sees me dancing on a bar to techno with a middle-aged Leonardo da Vinci.
“Radical self-reliance” is a prerequisite for surviving in an environment that’s actively looking to kill you. And organising your visit is a lot of work. With money banned at the event (the only things you can buy are coffee and ice), everything you need you bring in with you. The process of being here is unflinchingly and deliberately absurd. And – factoring in travel, vehicle rental and supplies – expensive.
So, what keeps people coming back? Burning Man may have a reputation for being a little hippy dippy, or knowingly “out there”, and it’s true that there’s some element of truth to the stereotype. But Burning Man is exactly what the people who attend it make it. And mostly, it doesn’t take itself too seriously.
What it offers is space, physical and mental, to play, shrug off your life and be yourself. If you want to be naked for a week, you can be. No judgement. Or if you want to learn to say, weld, you can do that too. It’s a place where you can (and I did) find yourself partying in the cockpit of a real Boeing 747 come midday, climbing through the butthole of a giant sheep art car by midnight, and watching fire tornadoes sweep across the playa come dawn. What really makes the Burning Man experience is the sense that you’re a vital part of it.
Yes, there’s ample hedonism too. But it’s a balance. Our neighbours include a spa that douses the weary with chilled lavender water before a shoulder massage and a BDSM dungeon. I hear the slap of leather on skin every time I pop to the toilets opposite. Seeing a poster for kinky life-drawing lessons, I take a note of the details. Well, when in Rome.
By mid-week I’m feeling a bit jaded. Crawling out of my sweatbox tent, I decide to go for a walk. No sooner do I set off than a voice hollers: “Need a ride?” I duly spend the next few hours riding around on a fire-breathing dragon car, stopping at various camps for cocktails and games of pinball.
I started the week trying to get lost. Did I eventually find myself? Probably not. But if I go back and keep looking, maybe I might. And maybe, that’s the point.
Burning Man takes place every year in the week prior to and including the Labor Day weekend in the Black Rock Desert, 120 miles north of Reno, Nevada. The nearest international airport with direct service to the UK is San Francisco.
Ticket prices can vary from year-to-year, however the 2017 event cost USD $425 before fees. To buy a ticket you need to complete a Burner profile.