July – August 2017
Embrace the ethos in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.
STORY & PHOTOS BY ERIC CACHINERO
They were the first words I remember hearing as I was received with open arms at the greeter station to participate in my first Burning Man. I was a Burning Man virgin in 2011 with no true concept of the weight of the words that welcomed me. I had walked through the gates of the unknown and unfamiliar, and spent the first several days trying to understand what I was witnessing. My moment of clarity and understanding came later that week while hundreds of toga-donning people pulled a 50-foot tall wooden Trojan Horse along by ropes, before launching flaming arrows at it and watching the entire thing burn to the ground. I understood in that moment that experiences like these are why people make the trek year after year to one of the most inhospitable places on the planet.
Is Burning Man a model of a psychedelic futuristic civilization? Is it a lingering flicker of ancient man? Is it an abstract radical idea? The answer to those questions isn’t entirely clear. But what is a bit clearer is that in 1986, Burning Man founder Larry Harvey and several friends descended upon Baker Beach in San Francisco and burned an 8-foot-tall improvised wooden effigy to celebrate the summer solstice. The ritual ignited a chain reaction that would lead to the creation of an annual gathering of more than 70,000 in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.
Since the flames of Burning Man were first kindled on Baker Beach, they’ve gathered fuel and fervor. Quickly outgrowing its California location, the event moved to the Black Rock Desert in the early 1990s, where it has been held effectively each year since. In those early days, however, the event paled in comparison to its modern form. Burning Man was largely a word-of-mouth counterculture event, and only saw crowds of several hundred to several thousand in the early years. By the turn of the new millennia, however, Burning Man would see more structure, deemed necessary by a growing population. Held each year from the last Sunday in August to the first Monday in September, the modern Burning Man is a temporary city and experimental community that embraces art, self-expression, and self-reliance, among other principles.
The foundation on which all of Burning Man thrives is the participants, and those who attend are expected to do just that—participate. Burning Man is not a place for spectators. It thrives only when the people who comprise it participate with it. And its up to each person to decide how they will contribute. The scope of participation covers everything from volunteer work to artistic expression.
What burners do at Burning Man is entirely up to them. Upon arrival, each person is given a book that lists many of the planned events throughout the week. Burners can choose to attend activities that interest them. Between belly-dancing classes, chakra workshops, ice cream socials, and a lot of cocktail dance parties, the events are endless. But for those who burn with a bit less structure, a simple bike ride without any destination in mind can be one of the best ways to explore.
Burning Man embraces 10 main principles (see sidebar) that are vital to the event. The principles are not so much rules; they were developed to reflect the community’s ever-changing ethos.
One such principal is radical self-reliance. Participants are responsible for bring- ing everything to ensure their wellbeing, safety, and comfort (including food and water) as they survive in the desert during the event. There are no goods purchased or sold (except ice and coffee drinks). The community operates on a gifting principal, in which gifts are given without any expectation that something will be given in return. It’s principles such as these that set Burning Man apart from any other event in the world.
Black Rock City—the name given to the temporary gathering place—is a fully functioning city, complete with post office, airport, law enforcement, and intricate network of roads with speed limits and street signs. And although Black Rock City does resemble other cities in many ways, it equally embraces the bizarre. People are encouraged to radically express themselves, and artistic expression abounds throughout the city in unimaginable ways. It may be more common to see a giant flame-throwing octopus driving down the street than a normal vehicle. For more than a week the city is alive with various eccentric goings-on that disintegrate the bounds of familiarity.
The event culminates on Saturday night, when tens of thousands gather to witness the man burn. The ritual is preceded by a brilliant fireworks display, before the structure is engulfed in an unfathomable inferno.
They Grow up so Fast
The first wooden effigy stood 8-feet tall when it was burned in 1986. The following year it stood 15-feet tall, and was again doubled the year after that. It grew a bit more and 40 feet became standard until it was placed on a raised platform in 1996. The platform grew in size and shape over the years, and reached 104 feet in 2010. In 2014, the man was built without a platform and stood at its tallest level ever, an impressive 105 feet. The platform height and design change annually, often reflecting the year’s theme.
Each burn adopts a theme for the year, and often times the art is constructed with it in mind. Past themes have included The Body (2000), American Dream (2008), Rites of Passage (2011), and Da Vinci’s Workshop (2016). The 2017 theme is Radical Ritual.
Burning Man is radically inclusive. Anyone with participation and adventure in their heart and who finds being covered in playa for a week satisfactory will find something that interests them. Everywhere you go at Burning Man is a chance to learn something about yourself: music you never knew you liked, foods you have never tried, art you never knew interested you, and people you never knew you’d meet.
Along with regional burns, the community also promotes the arts. Burning Man offers art grants both for those bringing projects to the event, as well as global arts grants to share creations with the world. A separate civic arts program works with the goal of placing Burning Man art in public areas. Some of these projects have been on display across Nevada.
Burning Man is a place where you can wander all day and never feel lost. You can take a sunrise yoga class, roller-skate to disco music, attend a poetry reading, and even run an ultra marathon. You can dress like a narwhal and dance for 24 hours straight. You can behold brilliant pyrotechnic displays. Or you can simply find a spot that makes you comfortable and watch the world go by.
Black Rock City