Why Would Anyone Go to Burning Man?

You can meet God—and his name is Larry.

Slate/May 21, 2011

Twenty-five years ago, in the summer of 1986, Larry Harvey and a few friends built an 8-foot-tall man out of wood, dragged the sculpture onto a beach in San Francisco, and set it aflame. A small crowd of strangers gathered to watch. It couldn't have been more than 20 people. The wind pushed the flames in one direction, and a woman ran to the unburning side of the man to briefly hold his hand before the spreading fire engulfed it.

Harvey isn't quite sure, if you ask him now, what he was trying to accomplish that evening. He has hinted that he was mourning a traumatic break-up with a girlfriend. He's also suggested it was simply a random act—inspired by his lifelong fascination with sacred ritual, and steeped in the bohemian, Bay Area subculture he counted himself a part of in those days.

Whatever his purpose, Harvey burned the man again the next year, and each year after that. Word spread and the crowds built steadily until they numbered in the hundreds. When the ceremony outgrew the beach, in the early 1990s, the burn was moved to a barren alkali flat in an empty corner of northwest Nevada. Still, people came.

In 1993 there were 1,000 participants. In 1996 the attendance was 8,000. 1999: 23,000. 2006: 39,000.

This year, for the first time, the event sold out. Despite face-price tickets ranging from $220 to $360. (Scalped tickets soared to well more than $500.) The population of the weeklong festival this year—according to Burning Man's volunteer media relations team—reached a peak of 53,000 on the Saturday when the man was burned.

Among the faces in the flickering firelight were me and my photographer pal Sam. We'd been sent by Slate to explore a phenomenon a quarter-century old, yet still expanding—and one that, to most of America, is still either a mystery or an easy punch line. What, I wondered, could lure a population roughly the size of Biloxi, Miss., out to a remote desert encampment providing no plumbing, no food, no trash service, and almost nothing in the way of commercial entertainment? What was this cult of unshowered vegans, ecstasy-gobbling ravers, nerdy techies, and jet-setting art freaks?

In short: Why would anyone go to Burning Man?

Well, for one thing, you get to baffle your friends. "Which bands are playing?" pals would ask me when I told them I was going, thinking the event was something akin to Coachella or Bonnaroo.

"No bands that anybody has heard of," I'd answer. "It's more about creating a new kind of utopian society that exists for only one week each year. Also, there's some weird, interactive art. And a lot of drugs and nudity. And no running water." This last part was generally met with open-mouthed stares. "Think of it," I'd helpfully suggest, "as a combination of Woodstock, Jonestown, and the Park Slope Food Co-op."

A good friend who's been to many Burns but (to his tremendous disappointment) couldn't make it out to the desert this year insisted that I visit him at his New York apartment to receive some pre-Burn instruction and advice. "Burning Man is an effort to reinvent the culture of Earth," he told me, in dead serious tones. "If you go, you must surrender to the spirit of the endeavor. You have a duty to participate. You can't just observe. You'll bring everybody down." He then solemnly handed me a white fur vest, a spangly blue cowboy hat, and a pair of ski goggles. I wasn't sure what I was meant to do with them. He assured me all would become clear soon enough.

The flight out to Reno featured a female passenger in rainbow dreadlocks and six-inch platform boots, and a man wearing a top hat with a red rose tucked into its band. They nodded at each other knowingly. As Sam and I drove our rental car north on two-lane Nevada highways, we passed an increasing flow of buses and RVs with psychedelic paint jobs and strange objects lashed to their roofs—40-foot-long bamboo poles, giant stuffed animals, bicycle frames covered entirely in thick, purple fur.

At the gates, after we'd rumbled down a long dirt road in a caravan of Burners, a shirtless man in a tutu commanded us to hop out of our car. He told us his name was Sweet Cheeks, and he had us ring a gong and then threw some desert dust on our clothes. "You're going to love it here," he said. "Where else can a straight man wear a tutu and look right at home?" As we got back in the car he yelled after us: "Remember, no means no. And yes means yes. And if you're at all on the fence about it, you should probably say yes."

The plan was for us to meet up with a large camp of people who'd be providing us shelter and food for the week. But as we pulled into the encampment—really a makeshift city—we couldn't find our group. And the sun was setting. We gave up, parked the car, and began to wander around.

And this is when my brain melted a little.

Out in the open desert, beyond the tents and cars, we encountered the most bizarre, most visually stimulating environment I've ever seen. A giant metal octopus rolling across the sand, with actual hot flames spewing out of its tentacles. A pirate ship blasting eardrum-crushing hip-hop music, with a slew of bare-chested women writhing atop its decks. A frigging full-scale Thunderdome, complete with shrieking spectators rattling in its rafters, and a pair of gladiators in animal costumes attacking each other with Nerf bats. Lasers careened across the sky. Choking dust storms howled into our eyes and noses. Everyone was in aviator goggles, and knee-high leather boots, and fur vests.

At a road-blocked intersection labeled "Terminal City," people started shouting at us with bullhorns. A half-naked woman demanded my identity papers. I stammered. "We accept bribes," she said with a wink. I gathered I was now supposed to engage in some sort of improvised scene—I should kiss her on the cheek, or recite a poem, or show her my wang. But I wasn't yet ready to be anything more than an observer.

Sam and I wandered away. We had no lights or glowsticks on us, and when a bicyclist nearly hit Sam because she couldn't see him she angrily shouted, "Watch out, darky darktard!"

We still couldn't locate our camp, so we went back to the rental car and slept in the front seats. Techno music boomed outside all night. The dry desert air stabbed at my nasal passages each time I spasmed awake.

When dawn came, we unfolded our limbs and stumbled out into the quiet morning, still dazed. We'd only walked a short way when a bearded man in his 60s came out of his RV and strode right toward us. He was holding a tray of individually wrapped cinnamon buns, which he offered us with a smile as kind as any I've ever seen. He told us his name was Chuck. He asked if we'd been to Burning Man before—though I'm certain he could deduce from our shellshocked faces that we hadn't. We hungrily munched on our pastries as he recounted his first time here, more than a decade ago.

"It was a happening then," Chuck said, his eyes in a faraway place. "It was all new, and primal, and pagan. Now it's an event. It's a re-creation of what it once was. Everyone sits around and waits to say 'huzzah' when the man burns."

But you're still coming here, we pointed out.

"It's still the best place on earth," he said with a laugh. "This is the real world, out there is fake," he proclaimed, surveying our freakish desert city with pride.

We thanked him for breakfast and ambled away. A short while later, I finally spotted our camp. We were welcomed with hearty hugs. I felt tranquil. At home. Ready at last to play my own part in this madness.

The truly interesting thing about Burning Man isn't the large-scale, neon, interactive art. Or the bowel-wobbling bass mixes from the techno DJs. Or the battle for survival against the blazing sun, the sudden dust storms, and the dehydrated desert air.

Don't get me wrong, all those things can be fascinating. Particularly if you're on mushrooms. But to me, the most intriguing aspect of the event is the group effort by Burners to create a new culture—one in which the rules of the societal board game have been slightly tweaked.

For instance, among the guiding principles of Burning Man is that participants must "leave no trace." This means, somewhat counterintuitively, that there are no garbage cans in any of the public spaces. You are expected to pack out of the desert any waste you create that hasn't come from inside your body.

Folks are serious about this. Cultural norms get enforced. People shout "MOOP!"—meaning "Matter Out Of Place"—whenever someone drops a glowstick or a set of fuzzy bunny ears on the ground.

This practice had profound effects on the way I viewed things like product packaging. Tearing open a granola bar for a snack while you're out wandering past 70-foot-long praying mantis sculptures means stuffing the empty wrapper in your backpack, bringing it back to your camp site, and eventually lugging it out with all your other trash inside your car trunk. Whenever anyone offered me beer I was of course grateful—but I also couldn't help but contemplate the fact that I'd need to crush the empty cans and tote them around in my pack all day. Even an apple core became an enemy.

There are several other deliberate cultural differences. Perhaps the most immediately apparent is the tolerance of nudity. Nudity comes in all shapes, sizes, and genders at Burning Man. Twenty-year-old women wearing nothing but sequined hot pants. Seventy-year-old men wearing nothing but pith helmets. People of every sort wearing nothing but knee-high, rainbow-fur boots.

At times the nudity can feel political. The "Critical Tits" bike ride featured hundreds of topless women, on bicycles, making a vague statement about torso equality. To my amazement, gazing at that many breasts at once actually managed to de-eroticize them. (For a few hours, anyway. And please let's not talk about all the dudes eagerly snapping photos or—it was rumored—engineering a bumpy stretch of sand to enhance jiggle-osity.) Most of the women in my camp remained fully clothed all week, but a couple of gals whipped 'em out on Critical Tits day in what seemed to be an act of sisterly solidarity.

The counterpart male bike ride, "Critical Dicks," was a tidal wave of schlong. And no one cared. Save perhaps for people who might wish to sit on those bicycle seats (many of them presumably rentals) in the future.

There was, however, one form of nudity that everyone seemed to agree had no place within the Burning Man community. This is the type of nudity known as "shirtcocking." Shirtcocking is when a man wears a top but is naked from the waist down. I have also heard this look referred to as "the toddler," or "Porky Pigging."

For reasons that are hard to fully explain—if you've witnessed the phenomenon you know this is true—shirtcocking is disquieting to the observer's soul. Visually disturbing to an extreme degree. People at Burning Man are so averse to shirtcocking that I saw several posted signs vehemently denouncing the practice. And yet there were shirtcockers.

Shirtcocking aside, the culture of Burning Man is generally free of judgment, and thus tends to encourage experimentation. People try on new personas. They take stupefying amounts of drugs. They make out with total strangers.

Sometimes the experimentation seems ill-advised. A campmate who went inside an orgy tent told me he saw two men near him engaged in what he termed "vigorous, unprotected sex. The kind that spreads bad diseases."

Other forms of experimentation seemed pretty harmless. "I got spanked today," a friend announced to us when he returned to camp one afternoon. "I figured I should see if I liked it. I mean, maybe I like to get peed on, too, but I've just never known that because I've never tried it."

"I doubt it," said one of the girls. "I think whatever you masturbate to, that's what you want. But whatever. Did the spanking do it for you?"

"Not really. It kind of hurt. It still kind of hurts."

For better or worse, I never strayed too far outside my comfort zone. One of my campmates urged me to give public nudity a try—on when-in-Rome grounds. He said he'd taken a leisurely, naked bike ride around the perimeter of the city and quite enjoyed himself.

I've never personally had the urge to just hang out with my wang out, and that hadn't changed since I'd gotten to Burning Man. But late one night I biked deep into the desert, turned off my headlamp, and removed some clothes. It may have been solely for the benefit of the Federal Bureau of Land Management rangers who surveil the desert with night-vision goggles. But let it be said: Reader, I shirtcocked. And I sort of liked it.

My favorite of Burning Man's 10 guiding principles (you can read the complete list here) is the directive commanding "radical inclusion." In practice, this means that everyone is welcome to take part in every formal event and even every informal shindig. No one gets made fun of—at least not publicly—for the way they look or what they wear or their preferences with regard to sexual congress.

It's pretty delightful when you see this actually work. For instance, gays and straights partied together all the time. (Absent the directive, I suspect that it's more likely the gays who would have shunned the straights than vice versa—the gays were way cooler.) When I went with some pals to the Madonna dance party at the suggestively named Pickle Bar, I never once felt the least out of place. This despite the fact that I was wearing a shirt, my pecs were not tanned and oiled, and I had on a pair of shorts with an inseam that extended past my testicles.

The overall warmth of the interactions at Burning Man is off the charts, fostered by an event-wide agreement that everyone endeavor to be kind and accepting. When one amateur musician's electric backing tracks crashed, and he was left nervously hemming and hawing on stage, a woman in the audience shouted, "We love you!" and ran up to give him a big hug. She was adorably dressed in a pink wig, pink windbreaker, and pink skirt, and as she started swaying around the stage the musician created an impromptu song to accompany her. The crowd clapped along, and laughed and cheered. This turned out to be my favorite live performance of the week. It wasn't because of the music or the dancing. It was because of the lovely moment of humanity we were all a part of.

I have been to a variety of press conferences in my years as a journalist. There was the somber one at the 2010 Winter Olympics, held right after an athlete died on the luge course. Or the one I accidentally stumbled upon in Dubai, where I learned all about the fresh water situation in the Middle East (BREAKING: There is very little fresh water in the Middle East). Until now, though, I had never attended a press conference at which the reporters wore bikinis and bustiers.

Such is the nature of Burning Man. Even the press corps, with its mandate to observe, is encouraged to get in the spirit and participate. A few journalists used the pronoun "we" when referring to Burners in their queries. And I was a bit startled when a friend and colleague from the East Coast media elite—a guy I've only ever seen wearing jeans, business casual, or suits—suddenly appeared behind me in the media gaggle, adjusting his floral-print dress as he stood to ask a question.

With its temporary population of 50,000, Burning Man ranks among Nevada's largest cities (if only for the week). Like any city, it has its amenities and its community focal points. There are press conferences, held by the volunteer media relations department. There are multiple newspapers released during the week by Burner press collectives. There's a tiny, 18-seat silent movie theater at the far reaches of the desert, where—because there is almost no exchange of money at Burning Man—admission and even candy concessions are free. There's a temple, where people mourn loved ones they've lost during the past year. There are also various academic institutions that pop up around the city. Some of these present talks on philosophy and politics. Others list courses like "How to Give a Perfect Handjob."

(Somewhat relatedly, overheard at Burning Man: A middle-aged woman introduced herself to a man on the street, brightly saying, "My name's Mountain Mama!" Her new acquaintance, a muscular guy in nothing but a g-string, said, "Nice to meet you, my name's Handjob!" I can only hope he was the presiding lecturer at the above-mentioned educational offering.)

There's security at Burning Man, too. With scalped tickets going for $500 or more, there are teams of people whose job is to prevent freeloaders from sneaking in. One security guy said he'd confiscated the best counterfeit ticket he'd ever seen this year. He explained that it was flagged by a deaf woman who works in the ticket office—when she held the ticket in her hands she noticed, presumably employing her heightened senses, that something was slightly off about the paper stock.

As for real cops, they're on site but largely out of mind. I chatted with a couple of Bureau of Land Management rangers sitting in their SUVs on the outskirts of the madness. They said this assignment was a good gig and that they'd returned after working Burning Man in previous years. If you smoke a joint right in front of them they'll arrest you. But they told me they don't go looking for drug offenses.

They do, on the other hand, go looking for boobs. I noticed they showed up for the Critical Tits topless bike ride exactly on time and close to the action. Watch your back, potential topless malfeasants! Because the rangers will be watching your front.

The Burning Man medical center featured the strangest hospital lobby I've ever seen. There were at least two topless women filling out induction forms on clipboards, and a fully nude man in a cowboy hat was accosting an EMT. I noticed one patient chart with the words "staples in arm" hastily scrawled on it. A very sweet RN named Wendy described for me a few of the incidents they'd dealt with during the week. Lots of sprained ankles and "broken tib/fibs," as, for instance, 35-year-old women on ecstasy decide to scale the Thunderdome to watch the sunrise—and then inevitably crash to the hard desert floor. There was at least one cock ring accident (apologies, but I'm not totally clear on the mechanics of it) that swelled a man's testicles to the size of a bowling ball, necessitating transport to a nearby real hospital for draining.

Worst by far was when a man—clearly high on some sort of psychedelic—barged into the medical tent shouting, "I'm so stuuuupid! I'm so stuuuupid!" He'd hacked his thumb nearly all the way off with a machete. It was dangling by a ligament. Bummer of a trip, man.

Meanwhile, high above this busy civilization sits its creator. I refer, of course, to Larry Harvey. The first Burner. The O.B.

I interviewed Harvey on the high-up platform in the center of the camp where he spends the week. His perch looked out over the whole, impromptu city, to the open desert and the mountains beyond. Born in 1948, Harvey wore a Western shirt and his signature Stetson hat as we spoke. He ashed his cigarettes into an empty Altoids tin.

Harvey is a thoughtful guy who loves to talk about things like the radial, "enfilade" design of the 9-square-mile city (which presents dramatic views of the massive wooden man at its center from every angle). He held forth on the role of the wooden man himself—how any community, religion, or nation needs some sort of rallying point, and how the man serves that purpose while allowing adherents to imbue him with all manner of meaning and resonance. "I don't think we'd inspire the same sort of feelings if we were burning a giant toaster, like a postmodern joke," he says, responding to the notion that the man is an arbitrary stack of kindling. "At the same time, if I were to declare what the man means, people would commodify that—try to make it into a capsule so you can pop it."

In 1996, there was a struggle for what Harvey calls "the soul of the event." Some saw the week in the desert as a platform for total chaos. "There was this anarcho-punk-renegade faction with a transgressive sensibility. They wanted to act recklessly and disruptively. Their idea was to set up warring fortresses and fight each other with flamethrowers." (He's not exaggerating. I talked to a few Burners who remembered the old days when people would toss live grenades around and fire machine guns from the back of pick-ups.) "The side in favor of civility and civilization won out. We were more interested in fomenting community."

Recently, the New York Times ran a story outlining the slightly opaque business structure of Burning Man. Harvey owns the festival in a partnership with a handful of other people, but he is now converting the operation into a nonprofit tasked with administering the event and sponsoring art projects. He will take a cash-out as part of the process and will sit on the board of the new foundation. Given that the event must be grossing something on the order of $15 million a year, Harvey could be a wealthy man if he wanted. But he says his payout will not make him rich and he will still have to work for a living.

More interesting to me than the potential for money is the realization of power. Sitting up there serenely above it all, hidden under his big hat and sunglasses, Harvey seems a bit like the Wizard of Oz. Or maybe even something more.

He created this entire civilization from nothing. He decreed its 10 principles (though he says they are not prescriptive but descriptive—an attempt to codify the norms Burners themselves created together over the years). He continues to shape this hermetic world and rule over it.

"No, I don't feel like a god," he chuckles when I ask him. "People imagine the power, but they never imagine the responsibility part. 'I will be powerful! I will attend endless meetings! I will be blamed for everything!'"

I suppose he's right. But when the man burns in a raging inferno at the end of the week, it's sort of easy to see Larry Harvey as the Father sacrificing his Son—watching the flames reflect in the eyes of his growing flock. Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

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