What is Burning Man? What is it like? Black Rock City, where the festival is held every year, is a little like Vatican City, only those who have been inside really know what it’s like, and those who go there are usually fervent believers. Of all the popular festivals, Burning Man is the enigmatic pilgrimage. It is the unlikely combination of a hardcore and idealistic experience. So, in order to understand it completely, let’s start at the beginning and see what is known about this esoteric phenomenon in our beginner’s guide to Burning Man.
In the beginning, way back in 1986, Larry Harvey and Jerry James created a fire ceremony on a beach in San Francisco to burn a wooden sculpture in the form of a man. It continued annually until 1990, when police stopped the burning of the statue. That set a transformation of Burning Man into motion. A new location was required and the meaning behind the celebration began to morph. The Black Rock desert in Northern Nevada was eventually chosen to be the best possible place to hold the event and light up the Burning Man. The first journey to Black Rock gave participants the exhilarating thrill of adventuring into the unknown, the primitive desert. The 80 or so attendees gathered in the alien desert environment and they just knew it was the right place.
Decades after the first Burning Man at Black Rock, the population for the event is now around 50,000. A city of people come together for a short time each year to celebrate art and interact. The purpose is to create a unique experience and to bring that influence back into everyday life. The city that emerges is founded on the Playa, an exceptionally flat ancient dried lake bed spanning 400 square miles. Temperatures above 100 degrees and windstorms help create an environment for Burners to stretch the limits of imagination and autonomy.
Burning Man is not intended to be just a drunken week in the desert. It was envisioned as a place for pursuing an elusive idealistic community. To ensure this experience, there are ten principles to Burning Man created by the co-founder of the festival, Larry Harvey:
- Inclusion – respecting and welcoming everyone
- Unconditional giving – giving without expecting anything in return
- Decommodification – or life without buying and selling things
- Self-reliance – discovering your inner ingenuity
- Self-expression – as an individual or group expressing individuality and making art
- Communal effort – whether creating with or helping other Burners
- Civic responsibility – respecting others and not harming their experience
- Leaving no trace – leaving the environment as it was before the festival
- Participation – the greatest part of Burning Man, to join others in play
- Immediacy – focusing on the experience as it happens, interacting
Needless to say, those sound like very hippie ideas, but for the most part, they are pulled-off every year. When it comes to art and entertainment, bring instruments, costumes, body paint, or sculptures. Everything is an opportunity to make art, including your own body, and anything goes as long as you don’t infringe on anyone else’s adventure.
If you need more of an idea of what it’s like, there was a Kickstarter campaign to fund artistic beacons to lead people through the dark of night to porta-potties (maybe bring your own toilet paper).
To fulfill your own personal Burning Man, it’s up to you to bring everything you need to survive in the desert for a week. Bring water! A single person should bring at least 1.5 gallons of water for each day. Although radical self-reliance is one of the principles of Burning Man, you don’t want to end up drinking your own urine Bear Grylls style.
Ideas for what you need to bring:
- Ticket and photo I.D.
- 1.5 or more gallons of water per person per day for drinking, washing, cooking
- A reusable water bottle to carry with you all day
- Food for three meals a day
- Warm clothing for night temps (which can be in the 40’s) and cool clothing for day (sometimes 100+ degrees)
- Camping supplies
- Gear for rain
- Supplies to deal with dust storms
- Sunscreen – industrial size
- Battery powered electronics
The most important thing is planning. However, if you do get to the desert and decide it’s too intense, there are daily shuttles back to consumer culture driven civilization. Keep these guidelines in mind, and most of all, enjoy your journey.
Stay in the Burning Man know!
Article by Kate McCrory