Location: Black Rock Desert, Gerlach, Nevada
Dates: week prior to and including Labor Day weekend (first Monday in September). 26 Aug-2 Sep 2013; 25 Aug-1 Sep 2014; 29 Aug-5 Sep 2015.
Level of participation: 5 – stay alive in the desert and contribute to Black Rock City
Burning Man is more than a festival; it’s a utopian society that springs up on the cracked terrain of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. The survivalist happening’s 10 principles include radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort and, above all, participation. These 10 hippy commandments lead to a 45,000-strong ‘city’ (the fifth largest in desolate Nevada), where inhibitions are left at the gates and freakery courses along the dusty streets.
Measuring 5 miles across, the camp is arranged in a semi-circle around the neon-shrouded Man effigy, which towers 12m above the tent roofs. The surrounding area, a prehistoric lake known as the playa, has served as a military bombing range and a track for breaking the world land-speed record. Wandering across the playa at sunset is an unbeatable festival experience.
Virgin visitors accustomed to music festivals are blown away by Burning Man’s visual impact. Teams of entrepreneurial artists arrive from across the US with truckloads of materials, which they assemble in the heat – temperatures can reach up to 40°C. The results range from a colossal sculpture made of two lorries to the poignant Temple of Forgiveness. This plywood structure is torched on the last night, by which time it is covered in thousands of messages from people hoping to leave some emotional baggage in the desert.
Between the sculptures are all sorts of performers, from the theatrical to the downright surreal. Some comment on the world outside Black Rock City but most just take your mind off the heat. Wandering the shantytownlike streets, you might meet the boardroom takeover posse, sweating in their suits as they punch chunky calculators, or pass a ringing payphone with a wisecracker on the line.
After the stiflingly hot day, the festival’s population of ‘burners’ comes out to play. ‘Art cars’ – ranging from floats to one-man contraptions, swathed in neon or fairy lights and seemingly powered by psytrance – zip between the monumental sculptures dotting the plain. A great way to tour the artworks is by boarding a vehicle and having a boogie on the top deck until the next stop.
Towards the festival’s end, the Critical Tits topless bike parade is followed by an unsurprisingly popular afterparty. The topless parade, like the parallel Critical Dicks parade, is only natural at a festival where many are in a state of undress, often for no deeper reason than they fancy an all-over tan.
Of course, there’s plenty of music. Sound systems such as Opulent Temple cater to the party kids and Silicon Valley types who increasingly descend on the playa, much to the irritation of purist burners. Before you dance under the stars, drop into a bar – the choice includes English, Irish and German pubs. This is where Burning Man really enters another dimension, because the drinks are all free. The only items for sale in Black Rock City are coffee and ice. The presumption at bars, pancake stands, barbecues and the glitter body-paint shop is that customers also do their bit, whether by giving the bartender a glowstick, picking up litter, decorating the port-a-loos, or simply donning a costume and spreading smiles on the playa.
The week climaxes with the incineration of the Man, a fitting end to a festival where flame-throwers regularly split the night sky. This ritual has always been integral to the event: founder Larry Harvey and friends burnt a Man (a large wooden statue) on San Francisco’s Baker Beach as a summer solstice ritual, then changed the location and date in 1990 following pressure from the city’s police force.
Essentials: where to begin? Goggles and bandanas for the dust storms and that Mad Max look; 2 gallons of water per person per day; a gardener’s spray can, because it’s the closest you’ll get to a shower; lip balm and vinegar to stop your lips and feet cracking in the dry, alkaline environment; tarpaulin for evaporating away dirty water (otherwise, carry it home; it’s a ‘leave no trace’ event); a bike and lock; gifts for kindly bar staff; and the craziest costumes.
Local attractions: before entering the fray, eat a ‘last supper’ among the neon casinos in Reno, ‘the biggest little city in the world’.
More info: www.burningman.com
Any burning thoughts or questions on Burning Man? Join the Thorn Tree travel forum.
See other top festivals in August here.