Burning Man on Fire

April 05, 2017


For years, I had been hearing about the Burning Man Festival that’s held annually in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, but I had never talked to anyone who had actually been there. My overall impression was that this was an event attended by 5,000 hippies wearing leather Birkenstock sandals while eating kale adorned with alfalfa sprouts and sprinkled with wheat germ.

Burning Man himself goes up in a tower of orange-and-red flames

Imagine my surprise when I said this to an art director I was working with and he replied, “Well, you’re dead wrong on all counts. And I know this because I attended Burning Man last year.” That stopped me cold as he explained, “First of all, the people who go to this event have money. When you plan to attend Burning Man you either have to own or rent a RV, trailer, camper van, tent or canopy and bring food and water for eight days. It can be quite costly.” Comment: In 2013, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook helicoptered in for one day and CEOs Jeff Bezos of Amazon and Larry Page of Google attended in 2016.

Based on his description, I was very interested in an article I came across recently in the February/March 2017 issue of the National Geographic Traveler. This piece is titled Feel the Burn, and is written by Don George, an editor-at-large for the magazine. He describes his experience as a first-time attendee and it makes for riveting reading. Based on this article and what I gleaned from the nonprofit Burning Man website, I have put a brief overview together.

WHY IS THIS EIGHT-DAY EVENT CALLED BURNING MAN? Every year there is a ritual burning of a large, 40-ft. wooden Burning Man that traditionally occurs on the Saturday evening before the end of the event. For example: in 2017 the Festival officially starts on Sunday, August 27th. This means that on Saturday, September 2nd, the burning of this effigy takes place. Then, the next night, the burning of the Temple occurs. The Festival itself ends on Monday, September 4th (Labor Day).

WHERE DOES ALL THIS TAKE PLACE? The Festival occurs on 4,400 acres of arid desert located 110 miles north of Reno, Nevada. A C-shaped city grid is laid out that consists of 12 semicircular streets with a center called “The Playa” where artworks, Burning Man and the Temple are located.

The temporary Burning Man city as seen from above, the Playa with Burning Man, the Temple and 200 artworks are in the center

HOW DO 70,000 PEOPLE FUNCTION WITHOUT MONEY? Cash is forbidden except to purchase coffee, chai and lemonade at the Center Camp Café and ice at three ice-dispensing stations. Don George reports that, “As we cycled around, we were invited to stop for wine, beer, mimosas, hot dogs, grilled cheese sandwiches and pizza – all for free because participants are asked to bring gifts.” And yes, 70,000 people attended in 2016.


Burning Man: one travels everywhere by bike

WHAT IS IT LIKE IN THE MIDDLE OF A DESERT? Here’s what first-time attendee, George has to say about this. “Dust is everywhere. It coats you, your food and even your sleeping bag. Sleeping was a challenge also. I could hear music coming from somewhere all through the night.” 

HOW LONG HAS BURNING MAN BEEN AROUND? It was started by two people: Larry Harvey and Jerry James, who burned a wooden man in a spontaneous ceremony on San Francisco’s Baker Beach in 1986 or 31 years ago. Now, festivals based on the Burning Man experience are held throughout the U.S. and around the world, including Australia, Austria, France, Israel, Japan, New Zealand and South Africa.

WHAT’S THE THINKING BEHIND THE ARTWORK? Create, enjoy and participate. There are 200 pieces displayed on the Playa, each one seemingly set randomly and each inviting interaction. For example, George describes one piece as “an arcing 50-ft. humpback whale mother and calf made with tens of thousands of tiny pieces of stained glass.”


There are spectacular artworks at Burning Man

HOW DO YOU START THE BALL ROLLING? If you want to go, check out the Burning Man website at: burningman.org where you’ll see that a basic ticket costs $390. In addition, you’ll need survival essentials such as: water (1.5 gallons per person each day), easy-to-prepare food, sunscreen, headlamps, dust masks, a number of gifts and big trash bags for cleanup.


Shaun Nelson-Henrick  


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