TWENTY YEARS AGO, a pair of San Francisco bohemians, Larry Harvey and Jerry James, burned a handmade wooden effigy on San Francisco’s Baker Beach. That simple gesture, through word of mouth, attracted more participants in following years, and by 1990 the crowds pushed it off the beach and out to the Nevada desert. It developed into a seasonal settlement of 40,000 or so, known as Black Rock City. For one week each year, Burning Man becomes the most quintessentially American city in America.
The city, dedicated loosely to art, community and general post-Merry Prankster high jinks, gets built, lived in, and then disappears the week before Labor Day in the Black Rock Desert playa, a dry lake bed 100 miles from the nearest “real” city, Reno. The week of fun ends each year with a giant bonfire of an elaborate, 40-foot-tall wooden man, in a ceremony that means whatever you want it to.
Over its two decades, the festival has earned a matching set of devotees and detractors. For the latter, saying you enjoy Burning Man is like admitting you still like pigging out at Chuck E. Cheese -- it’s a confession of childish self-indulgence, with annoying pretension to boot.
This hostility arises largely because it’s hard to describe what actually goes on there (I spent a whole book trying). Burning Man is like a theme park, but where the customers build the rides. It’s like an arts festival, but with no plaques telling you what anything is or who built it. It’s like a giant party, but held in a godforsaken wasteland no rational person would ever otherwise choose to be.
There’s no water, no vegetation, hundreds of square miles around you of high-desert desolation, prone to unpredictable, powerful windstorms that can destroy any shelter and turn the world into a phantasmagoric, dust-filled haze where you can’t see three inches in front of you. It can be a scorching 100 degrees in the day and near-freezing at night.
In sum, it’s a pretty ridiculous place for a camp-out, or an arts festival, or a party. The communal self-awareness of this ridiculousness, and the shared struggle for comfort and survival that the desert requires, make the experience unique and create powerful bonds.
Burning Man pushes people to strange experiential edges, creating beauty and a stage for re-fashioning civilization on the fly in an anything-goes atmosphere. That makes people want to talk about it, a lot, which undoubtedly exasperates the naysayers who think -- after hearing Burners rave about all the wonderful things we saw and did -- that we have been sucked into a cult.
But because Burning Man demands no belief other than you want to live through it, that characterization is not quite right. The best way to understand it is as a city with an expiration date, built for the sheer fun/hell of it -- with emphasis on both “fun” and “hell.”
It has grown over the years because the ability to act out the human impulse to create is not widely available in day-to-day American life. It’s sweet and refreshing to live in a world, even temporarily, where the presumed social norm is that we’re all in something strange and difficult together -- and that any way we want to express that, however silly or personal, is OK.
If that sounds too hippie, tell it to one of the wild-eyed gearheads who have built some insane device shooting jets of fire hundreds of yards into the air.
What Burning Man really is, is American. Burners went off the beaten path seeking liberty and a new way of life, a place for eccentrics to be themselves. It’s capitalist at heart -- the festival is a ticketed event, and people can afford to live in its “gift economy” only because of the wealth accumulated in the commerce-filled outside world -- but it’s also uneasy about that capitalism. It demands rugged individualism because you have to bring everything you need to survive, yet it pulls together a very social community.
Burners can justly say to those who sneer at our temporary homeland that they hate us for our freedoms. We can and do use our freedom in ways that might strike others as distasteful, self-indulgent or wasteful. But like America at its best, it’s a place to forge your own identity, be reliant on yourself and your community, all without worrying too much about what others think.