Although Burning Man has become known for its location in the middle of the Nevada desert and for attracting people from all over the world, it actually started within the city limits of San Francisco on June 21, 1986 by founder Larry Harvey. In honor of Summer Solstice, Larry and his friend Jerry James decided to build a 6 foot tall wooden man and burn it on Baker Beach, and the tradition continued on the same date for four more years. By 1990, the event had attracted crowds of hundreds, many of whom were involved in the design, construction, and burning of the Man. Unfortunately, the authorities were also attracted to the 40 foot tall structure being lit on fire, as the Man was far taller than the legal limit for structures that could be burned on the beach. The leaders of Burning Man agreed not to burn the Man to appease the police, but this decision angered the hundreds of bystanders who had come to watch the burn, eliciting an almost violent reaction. It was later decided that the venue would need to be moved to a place where the burn would be allowed by law. Larry and the other leaders decided to move forward with burning the man that very year over Labor Day weekend in the Nevada Black Rock desert. The playa, as this stretch of desert is called, is a dried lake bed, and is rated as the second largest and flattest part of the United States at 400 square miles. 90 burners from San Francisco would make up that first Burning Man in Black Rock City. By 1993, 1,000 burners showed up, and only 5 years later in 1998, 15,000 arrived. This number grew to 30,000 by 2003, and according to the Bureau of Land Management, this is the year that Burning Man became the largest Leave No Trace event in the world. The first year I went, 2010, was also the first year attendance reached 50k.
Burning Man is everything you have heard about it and also very misunderstood. Yes, it is dirty, yes, it is hot, yes, there are drugs, yes, there is nudity. But the "dirt" is really talc-like dust that never really feels dirty, the heat never seems to really bug you, and the drugs and nudity are just options for those who are into those scenes. The drugs and nudity have mostly evolved because Burning Man is about everyone doing exactly what they want to do at the exact time they want to do it without judgment. You can ride a bike naked. You can drink a beer at 10 AM. You can wear ridiculous clothes you wouldn't be caught dead wearing in real life. You can not shower for 5 days and feel great about it. The only rules that exist at Burning Man are there for the purpose of assuring that Burning Man can continue each year: do everything you can to avoid littering "moop" (matter out of place) and pick up every shred of garbage you see, whether its yours or someone else's; be smart about doing drugs; don't urinate on the playa; be safe and make smart decisions; generally don't be a jerk.
This year, we joined a Supperclub camp named Santopalato, part of the French Quarter theme camp, through the efforts of our good friends and amazing chefs David and Stephanie. The aim of Santopalato was to put on several dining events for the camp and for important figures around Burning Man. Dave and I donated a lot of beer and our old BBQ to the camp, I tended bar for one dining event, helped prep and cook for a beer and bratfest, and made white chocolate covered strawberries with rainbow sprinkles for an intra-camp brunch. Although it took a lot of work, it was very rewarding to see our efforts pay off and how much people enjoyed each contribution. It is no wonder that every year, hordes of volunteers take on bigger and bigger roles to ensure that Burning Man continues to be an incredible experience for everyone participating.
This year, many of my closest friends chose to go to Burning Man, several of them for their first time. This was a huge part of what made Burning Man so much fun for me this year. You have the option of either camping or renting an RV, and for Dave and me, the choice of an RV is a no brainer. It is pretty costly, but you are rewarded with beds, a kitchen, and most importantly in the desert, air conditioning. This year, like in 2010, we shared an RV with two of our best friends, Robby and Kim. Although Burning Man officially started the Monday before Labor Day, we drove up on Wednesday, caravaning with another RV full of good friends, Lindsey, Melissa, Adriane, Tim, and Sarah. Several other friends of ours were already up there when we arrived.
The playa and the camping area are covered in art sculptures, some permanent for the week, some only there for the day or night. I had the great luck to be there for both years that Marco Cochrane built gorgeous women out of mesh steel - in 2010 it was 40 foot "Bliss Dance" which now graces Treasure Island, and this year it was 55 foot "Truth is Beauty." Both years these art exhibits were by far the most captivating projects in the desert. Art exhibits that light up in fire at night are also very popular, such as the octopus that throws flames out of its tentacles ("El Pulpo Mecanico"), a repeat attraction that is always a crowd favorite. By far one of the coolest thing we saw this year was Lizzy the Flaming T-Rex, who originated at AfrikaBurn, a Burning Man spinoff that now occurs every year in South Africa.
Another important, artistic part of Burning Man is art cars. These are real cars that have been turned into something else - they are not supposed to resemble cars at all once they are finished, and in fact each car has to go through a fairly rigorous application and inspection process before it can drive around the playa - there are different inspections for both day and night. For the daytime, the primary concerns are that the car is generally safe, but more importantly, that it looks cool. At nighttime, there has to be enough lights on it that it does not become hazardous to the people walking and biking around in the dark. This year, our group of friends, led by my husband Dave, worked on an art car, The Freaky Tiki, that was already mostly put together, fixing it up and adding more lights and an impressive sound machine. Atop the Freaky Tiki was an enclosed platform filled with pillows and blankets (and of course a cooler full of beer) that could fit 12-15 people. The Freaky Tiki was a big part of why Burning Man was so much more enjoyable for me this year. For one, it makes you feel a part of Burning Man - you are participating in the art, and it was always fun to be stopped while on the Tiki by people wanting photos. Second of all, it was nice to be able to cover a lot of ground without walking or taking your bike to see various things in the playa, and it also protected you during dust storms. My most memorable evening at Burning Man this year was spent atop the Freaky Tiki, when our friend Justin was nice enough to be sober driver and take several of us around to see various exhibits and music performances all night. That was the night that I "understood Burning Man."
Of all the items on the bucket list, Burning Man has to be one of my top recommendations. This would probably be the case even if I hadn't enjoyed myself this year. I have tried to paint a picture of what Burning Man is like, but I haven't even scratched the surface. There is nothing else like it - it has to be seen and experienced to be understood. The verdict? Definitely a must-do.