Burning Man. It’s an ephemeral utopia.
Everything started at the beach in San Francisco, California. The unique insanity that is Burning Man dates from 1986, when an artist named Larry Harvey made a 9-foot tall wooden sculpture of a man, and spontaneously decided to burn it for Summer Solstice.
Fast forward thirty some odd years later, when 70,000 people gather in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert to create hypnotizing wooden structures. After a week of partying, everything is burned down.
Welcome to the capital of worldwide locals, who feel so at home anywhere they wander, they build a vibrant city in the middle of the desert. Enjoy this guide where you’ll learn the best ways to experience this event.
Burning Man Basics
There are some questions with easy answers. Where is Burning Man? It’s held annually in the Black Rock Desert in Northern Nevada. When is Burning Man? It falls from the end of August to the beginning of September. What is Burning Man? This is much harder to answer, but this guide will take a crack at explaining the wild madness of the festival.
Even if only temporary, this is a city designed to take you out of your comfort zone, or at least out of the usual. The experience is supposed to be fairly surreal and dedicated to proving other ways of co-living. The Burning Man festival believes in transformative change, happening only through personal participation. No idea can replace the experience.
Imagine being in a place where everyone, even for just a few days, gets to be whomever they want to be, careless, creative, and/or wild. The Burning Man mindset is that life is an unexpected journey. Anything can happen here; and even though there are organized events, most people end up just roaming around, exploring the magic.
Imagine a place where everyone partied as if there were no tomorrow. At the same time, however, everyone is responsible for their own waste and is thoughtful about others.
Imagine being inside of John Lennon’s song, “Imagine”:
“Above us, only sky
Imagine all the people living for today (…)
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one.”
Participants are not called visitors, but citizens. Rooted in Cacophony Society principles, the festival gathers free spirits in the pursuit of experiences beyond the mainstream.
Burning Man does not divide art-space and living-space. Here everything is a statement. Art explores a yearly theme, chosen by the organizers. In 2019, it is Metamorphosis.
Burning Man “Do”s and “Don’t”s
Though anarchistic in nature, Burning Man does have rules. Many of them starting from the word “radical”: radical meaning, ethics of inclusion, self-reliance, and self-expression. An important part of the culture is gifting. Once you pay the entrance fee, there is no more exchanging of money. Festival founder Larry Harvey says, “Burning Man is like a big family picnic. Would you sell things to one another at a family picnic?”
It’s not even a barter system, as you just give without the expectation of being rewarded. Basically it is like karma, even if good deeds return to you, it will probably be from a stranger.
Building a functional community of strangers, even good-willing ones, in the middle of nowhere cannot be all that dreamy, right? It is in fact a great place for real Scouts. Basic camping skills come really handy! Igniting the fire, washing yourself in minimum amount of water, cooking with the burden of the omnipresent sand…
Worldwide Local Tip: Something you normally do not take to festivals but is of use here, is vinegar. Your feet might need a vinegar soak, as the alkali dust in the desert can cause chemical burns.
True Burning Man locals, called “Burners,” live for the event. The next trip’s preparations start right after the current year’s edition has finished. Packing is not an easy task. You’ll want to prepare for everything you’d need to sustain yourself during the midday desert heat and cold nights. This includes a mandatory 1.5 gallons of water per person per day. With that said, most of the effort goes to costumes, props, fantastic vehicles, and all that jazz. This is not the place for hitchhikers!
Worldwide Local Tip: Have you seen those Burning Man steampunk photos? Well, there is a good reason behind the wearing of goggles. Goggles not only look cool, but protect your eyes during dust storms.
The Who’s Who of Burning Man
Burners are made up of a peculiar variety of people. This includes hippies, circus performers, Google CEOs, and Hollywood celebrities. Tesla Motors CEO, Elon Musk, once named Burning Man an essential hang out of Silicon Valley.
How Has Burning Man Changed?
In the beginning, the community grew by word of mouth alone, doubling every year. The more popular the idea, the more wide-spread stories became, and so the more difficult it has been to keep to the original principles. Burning Man has been struggling in recent years to preserve its unique identity. Though the gathering used to be free, Burning Man tickets now range from $424 to $1400. Celebrities are known to pay for luxurious camps, consisting of fancy RVs with air-conditioned beds and service staff, nicknamed sherpas.
The way to escape commercialization is to attend the local version instead. There are plenty of Burning Man children across the world. For example, AfrikaBurn in South Africa, NoWhere near Zaragoza in Spain, or Midburn in Israel are great options, to name a few. Australia has its Burning Seed in Matong, during September, which is widely considered, “Burning Man as it used to be.”
Worldwide Local Tip: After the event, it is common to find decompression events in the main cities that aim to keep the momentum, allowing community spirit to flourish in so-called “real life”.
There is a secret that every worldwide local will understand: As with any true journey, Burning Man is not meant to be read about, but to be experienced.