|Black Rock City, Nevada is an ephemeral town that exists for only one week each year during Burning Man, a radical arts festival. At its maximum occupancy, the town has about 35,000 citizens and a post office, an emergency services crew, a volunteer police department, roads, houses, bars, clubs, restaurants, and hundreds of art installations and participatory "theme camps". After a week, the city is completely disassembled, much of it burned leaving the stark, white desert exactly as bare as it had been when the event started. |
The Burning Man festival is an annual event started in San Francisco in the late 1980s and moved to the harsh and unforgiving Black Rock Desert of Nevada in the early 1990s, where it continues today. The event happens each year in late August and early September, during the week before Labor Day weekend and over the weekend itself. 30,000 plus artists, partiers and weirdoes converge on the desert location -- otherwise empty throughout the year -- to create a temporary city on the desert lake bed ("The Playa"). The event culminates on Saturday night when the event's eponymous mascot -- a 50-foot-tall anthropomorphic statue known affectionately as The Man -- is set on fire in a huge bacchanalian party.
The Burning Man community, although widespread and anarchic, has some guiding principles, codified in somewhat hackneyed catch phrases, that make the event manageable and possible. First and foremost is the concept of self-sufficiency. With few exceptions (see Buy below), there is No Vending of any kind in Black Rock City. Attendees are expected to bring along all their own food, water, shelter and any other supplies they need to live in the desert during the week. Most attendees are helpful and generous, but travelers should do as much research as possible before leaving for the desert in order to be ready.
An extension of this principle is the Leave No Trace policy; all attendees are expected to clean up any and all trash they create, including burned material, cigarette butts, sawdust or peanut shells. In previous years leftover detritus at the site of the event has caused alarm for the federal officials who provide the permits for it, and a strict policy of absolutely zero tolerance for leftover trash is needed to keep the event alive.
Burning Man is organized by a small group of volunteers and paid employees of the Burning Man organization, who deal with the local, state and federal officials in charge of the desert region, and who provide most of the infrastructure services such as emergency medical care and media relations. According to the principle of No Spectators, however, all Burning Man attendees are expected to participate in some way: by making art, by doing performances, by doing volunteer work, or just by being freaks. The idea is that spectators would feel no ownership -- or the consequent responsibility -- for the event, while participants will consider the event their own, and will act as responsibly as if they were throwing the party themselves. In fact, they are! There's some "us vs. them" feeling between participants and the "Org", but by and large the No Spectators concept ensures smooth operation and wide participation.
Lastly, the community encourages radical self-expression. There's an "anything goes" atmosphere, pretty much only limited by legal and safety concerns as well as respect for other participants. Nudity is widespread -- although many participants will decorate their bodies with paint or ornaments -- and drug use, although by no means mandatory, is common. Most art projects on the Playa have an element of danger -- the use of fire in art is quite common, as well as explosives or other dangerous substances. Many participants speak later of the life-changing nature of the Burning Man experience -- that the experience of self-expression changes the way they look at the world.
The City itself is laid out in a circle -- centering on the Man -- about one and a half miles in diameter. The center of the circle is empty desert, punctuated by large art installations. Participants live on a series of 6-8 circular streets that ring the outer edge of the circle; about 20 radial streets cross these at various points. The inner 2-3 streets are reserved for registered theme camps -- groups who build large structures and installations with a particularly "interactive" point. Theme camps are open to the public for investigation and use; a typical theme camp has 20-50 members, but some grow to hundreds of campers. Some groups of theme camps agglomerate into villages, which usually share an overarching meta-theme.
The street names change each year, based on the theme of that year's event. Combined with the fact that the city is torn down and rebuilt each year, so that different services and theme camps are located at wildly different places in the city, this makes for a lot of disorientation and difficulty in finding friends and cohorts. Participants argue that this can make traveling around the City more adventurous; it definitely leads to serendipitous discoveries. The night of the annual burning of the Man, volunteers take away all existing street signs, making navigation even more confusing.
Some things are constant, though, in an unofficial way. The radial streets are usually labeled according to clock time (e.g., "10:00" or "4:30"), and spaced about every half-hour. A large circular village known as Center Camp is (almost always) located at 6:00 on the circle; most of the Burning Man organizations services are located here. Other villages are usually placed near 9:00 and 3:00. The innermost circular street -- which looks out directly to the central desert area -- is called The Esplanade; most of the bigger theme camps line this street. And, of course, The Man is always dead in the center of the City -- a convenient landmark.
The Black Rock Desert is an extremely harsh environment. Temperatures are regularly over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, with no natural shade, and almost zero percent humidity. Hundreds of Burning Man participants are treated for dehydration every year; all attendees should drink about 4 liters of water per day, one of which has added electrolytes. More important survival information is available in the Burning Man Survival Guide, a copy of which is given to each participant.
The art installations and theme camps present at Burning Man change, sometimes radically, each year. Those listed below may or may not be present, or may be significantly altered. You can check the Who, When, Where guide -- available at the Gate of Black Rock City or at the "Playa Info" tent in Center Camp -- for locations of theme camps and other installations. (Note, though, that theme camps' descriptions are self-reported, and usually greatly exaggerate the interest-factor of the camp.)
• The Man, mathematical center of Black Rock City. First created in 1986 by Burning Man founder Larry Harvey, this is central art piece and symbol of the Burning Man event: a 50-foot-tall anthropomorphic wooden statue with a triangle-shaped head, mounted on a pedestal or stand that changes with each year's theme. The Man is lit by neon at night, and due to its location can be seen from most of Black Rock City. Usually you can climb up onto the pedestal and get a good view of the rest of the City from there -- but ask the Black Rock Rangers at the Man before climbing up. Despite its name, the Man is purposefully androgynous, or, rather, sexless.
• The Temple, somewhat past the Man on the main road from Center Camp. Since 2001, artist David Best has created monumental structures on the Playa in the form of 3- or 4-story temples. Although the design, name, and nominal purpose changes each year, the Temple is usually dedicated to lost friends and relatives. The Temple is a beautiful and meditative place to spend a few minutes during the day or night.
Other art can be seen in the central Playa area surrounding the Man. Typically there are 40-50 art installations of various complexity and interactivity on the central Playa. Usually, a wandering path on bicycle or on foot can turn up any number of hidden treasures; ask other participants for this year's "must see" piece.
Burning Man has a "No Spectators" philosophy so, theoretically, everyone should be "Doing" something most of the time. Many camps revolve around some participatory activity. There is an official calendar of events, but not everything on it happens, and many things not on it do. Some of the favorites include:
• Yoga Several camps offer yoga sessions, both "serious" and silly.
• Morning run
• Body Painting
• Fire Dancing
• Belly Dancing
• Arts and Crafts
• Meditation There are daily meditation sessions at sunrise and sunset
• Weddings Legal, temporary, faux, and every other possible combination. Get married to your true love by a legal minister or marry yourself to a sock.
In keeping with the non-commercial, self-sufficient nature of Burning Man, there are (with one exception) no food stores or restaurants within the borders of Black Rock City. Participants are expected to bring in all the food they need for the week, as well as any cooking equipment needed to prepare it.
That said, many theme camps give away food on a daily basis or have special events with free food. Scan the theme camp listings and the Who What Where event guide for details. Talking to neighbors can also garner invitations to more informal meals.
• Center Camp Cafe, Center Camp (large circular canvas tent in the middle of Center Camp circle). Open 24 hours. Run by the Burning Man organization and staffed with volunteers, this large dusty cafe is one of the very few places in Black Rock City where money changes hands. Specialty coffee drinks and tea drinks are available. There are also musical performances at all times of day or night, as well as yoga classes and the like. You can meet veterans and newcomers alike in the Cafe $3-$5 (per item).
Again, non-commercialism means there are no paid bars in Black Rock City. However, a large number of bars exist at Burning Man. Participants can walk up and order or be given a drink at any of these bars scattered around the city, but most will have supplies limited to a house specialty drink or a few hard liquor choices and mixers. Barter bars depend on donations from "customers" to keep going; providing ice, cups, mixer, liquor, limes or entertainment will make you a much more welcome guest.
• The Golden Cafe is generally open days only and has the only true glassware on the playa. Live music (no covers) improvised between house and guest musicians. Lucifer is the proprietor.
• Hair of the Dog (also known as "Spanky's Bar"). Open 24 hours, more or less. A venerable establishment in BRC, HOTD is a large and spacious bar with a number of couches and tables for guests. Musical groups perform on the provided stage. Bar owner Spanky is friendly and knowledgeable.
• Newt's Bar, Blue Light District. Hours vary; usually open in the afternoons or around dusk. Features a wide variety of cocktails, and occasionally Newt's delicious homebrew beers and wines. The Blue Light District is home to many of the oldest of the old-timers in the Burning Man community, and most of them hang out at Newt's at least part of the day. A great education can be had from any of your neighbors at this bar.
There are no paid accommodations in Black Rock City. Participants should bring their own camping accoutrements such as a tent and sleeping bag; it's also a good idea to have some sort of shade structure to make napping during the heat of the day bearable.
Many theme camps feature a "chill space" or other area for lounging. In a pinch, these can make for good naptime stopovers during the day or night, but don't overstay your welcome or you might have some problems with the locals.
To minimize the impact of the event on nearby communities (not least to minimize levels of airborne dust), participants are expected not to leave and re-enter Black Rock City except in case of emergency. To leave the event and re-enter in a car, a $20-per-person fee is charged each time.
Buses do leave Center Camp once or twice a day for trips to the nearby towns of Gerlach and Empire; they require a $5-per-person payment. Empire has a small store for buying groceries or camping supplies, but it has a meager selection.
The exodus from the event on Sunday and Monday are notoriously traffic-ridden and crowded, as practically all participants try to leave on the same one-lane road off the desert at the same time. Waits of up to 6 hours to travel the 10 miles or so to the blacktop are not unheard of. Veterans often leave on Saturday -- before the Burn -- or wait until Tuesday when the event is officially concluded.
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Black Rock City is located in the remote Black Rock Desert about 2-3 hours north of Reno, Nevada. Most travelers arrive by car, bus, truck, RV, or other motor conveyance. From Reno, take Interstate 80 east to exit 43 (Wadworth), then highway 447 north about 100 miles to Gerlach. Head east (right) at the fork in the road north of Gerlach, and exit onto the Black Rock Desert after about 11 miles (signs should be posted). The festival requires all participants to hold tickets; they run about $200-300 at the gate, but can be significantly cheaper if purchased in advance.
Attendees from locations too far away from driving usually fly to Reno or San Francisco and either rent cars or other vehicles there, or hook up with locals for rides. Rideshare boards are available on the Burning Man Web site. There are special air shuttles offered this year through Advantage Flight Solutions from Reno and the Bay Area directly to the Black Rock desert for a reasonable price.
The Green Tortoise Bus Company runs a few bus tours from San Francisco to Black Rock City during the event; food, shelter, and transportation are all provided in the tour package.
Black Rock City has its own airport for small private planes, run by volunteers. Mountainous desert regions are extremely dangerous for inexperienced and experienced pilots alike, however, and it's not recommended to fly into this airport unless you are experienced with desert flying.
Once participants have arrived in Black Rock City, they are expected to leave their cars or other motor vehicles parked and travel around the city under their own power. Cars should only be used in an emergency, or when leaving or entering the city. Law enforcement officials and the Black Rock Rangers will stop vehicles and may give you a ticket.
Bicycles are de rigueur for most BRC citizens; the alkali dust of the Playa causes severe damage to bikes, so bring a cheap one that you don't care much about. A good lock is also important; many bikes every year are "accidentally" borrowed and later abandoned, or stolen outright.
Walking is also a great way to get around; although slower, it's easier to stop and see the many sights if you don't have a big clunky bike to park, lock, unload, etc.
Radically-altered motor vehicles called art cars are an exception to the no-cars rule in BRC. These cars -- or buses, or trucks, or what have you -- must be permanently and creatively altered to qualify for the exemption. They must also be licensed by the Black Rock City DMV (Department of Mutant Vehicles). Many art cars have high passenger capacity and will pick up participants on the Playa for a ride, but don't expect or demand a ride from anyone. Be careful when boarding or disembarking; one person died in 2003 stepping off a moving art car.
Because of the no-vending rule, there's really not all that much to buy in Black Rock City. However, many artists, performers and participants bring tchotchkes of various worth to the event -- pins, stickers, buttons, clothes, jewelry, doodads and trinkets -- for bartering and trading with other people there. Stopping to talk with anyone at a theme camp or at an art installation will probably garner you a tchotchke of some kind. Bringing your own personalized trinkets, or commercial products like cans of beer or sticks of lip balm, to give away or trade can help grease the wheels when meeting new people.
There are three places you can spend US tender, however. One is at the Center Camp Cafe (see below) for coffee and other snacks. Another is Camp Arctica (in Center Camp), where Burning Man volunteers sell bags of ice at $2 a pop for participants to use in their coolers. (The short lifespan of ice in the desert, even in the best of coolers, makes this nod to commercialism an unfortunate necessity.) Lastly, most drug dealers will not take credit, stickers, or cans of beer for any product. Be prepared to pay slightly more than street prices for most pharmaceuticals, as dealers take on considerable risk bringing them through Nevada (a zero-tolerance state) and into the event.