For you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.
To round out an amazing two month road trip adventure, Justin and I excitedly grabbed our bikes, still harboring a fine coating of year-old playa dust in the crevices, and joined thousands of others on the way back to Black Rock City to participate in Burning Man. Last year, the gates opened at 10am on the first day, but this year the organizers allowed earlier entry starting at midnight, as they were hoping for a more staggered passage for participants and less backed up traffic on the roads. Admittedly, the trek in still chipped away at the hours, and we waited a similar length of time to gain entry as compared to the previous year. This time, however, we were greeted by the desert in the cool, dark of night rather than the blistering heat of the midday afternoon, which was much more comfortable while we all sat impatiently in our cars. Despite being in line at midnight, Justin and I didn’t arrive to our campsite until right before sunrise.
Once a year, volunteers erect Black Rock City (BRC) into a 24hr, participatory community dedicated to art, self-expression, and self-reliance. BRC is a fully functioning metropolis, complete with a post office, an emergency services crew, a volunteer police department, sanitary infrastructure, bars, clubs, and restaurants sprinkled with hundreds of art installations and theme camps. Despite the amenities BRC provides, participants still have to face the fact that they are camping in the middle of a desert location that has limited to no resources for roughly 98% of the year. The weather can swing dramatically from scorchingly hot with zero clouds to provide relief, to freezing cold and perfectly still at night, to high winds whipping up dust that obscures the sight of anything greater than 100ft in front of you, to thunderstorms wetting the playa and jagged lightning bolts ripping through the sky. In these conditions, individuals are more or less expected to be self sufficient with regards to food, water, sunscreen, clothes, shelter, etc, all while maintaining the strict leave no trace principle.
Black Rock City is set atop the dusty playa of the Black Rock Desert outside of Gerlach, NV, which represents the former bed of Lake Lahontan that occupied the area approximately 15,000 years ago. It is one of the largest, flattest, surfaces on Earth, covering hundreds of square miles in northwestern Nevada, and contrasted by intermingling mountain ranges jutting up from the smooth surface. The durability of the playa changes between periods of moisture, ranging from sticky and muddy, to dry and cracked, to soft with temporary rippling across the surface. Needless to say, coupled with the unpredictable desert weather, the Black Rock Desert certainly provides an interesting setting for Burning Man to take place!
This year’s theme, entitled Da Vinci’s Workshop, was inspired by the Italian Renaissance of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries that led to the modernization of Europe. Once again, the inspiration and creativity was abundantly clear on the playa, from the camp events to the art installations (a favorite this year was a bear made entirely from pennies!) to the Man himself, balanced in the center of a rotating ring. One thing is certain, there is never a shortage of colors, lights, textures, and sounds at Burning Man!
Even the street names in Black Rock City change annually to match the theme. While that may sound chaotic, the basis of the city remains the same: an annular-shaped city with the Man at the center. Now imagine the city ring as a clock, with numbered streets cutting their way through RV’s, tents, yurts, and vans every “15 minutes.” Curving around within the city are the cross streets with variable names each year; however, these streets always move alphabetically from A to L, so I still know where I am despite camping last year on “Jolly” and this year on “Justice.”
Image from the Burning Man 2016 City Plan.
Coinciding with the annual theme of Black Rock City, the Man and the Temple evolve each year, as well. While the Man may always have the basic structure of a sexless wooden effigy with a triangular head, the way in which it is mounted changes. The Temple, however, can change radically in concept from year to year, although one thing seems to remain consistent: it continues to be a beautifully intricate, open space for individuals to reflect, grieve, mourn, celebrate, laugh, cry, and pray together.
The theme isn’t the only thing that varies from year to year – the events can, too. Upon entry to BRC, participants are provided a booklet of anticipated events for the week, although by no means is the schedule complete (numerous camp events aren’t even listed in the booklet and are simply advertised on chalkboards outside of camps, spread via word of mouth, or just accidentally stumbled upon). From arts and crafts, to educational seminars, to meditation and massage, to exercise ranging from relaxing yoga to the annual 50k ultramarathon, to concerts and even a roller disco – you’re bound to find something interesting!
Even the change from day to night seems to create two separate worlds – one of hot, sunny days filled with sunscreen, free food, workshops, and the search for shady spots, and another world of cool, starry nights with loud music, dance parties, LED lights, and lasers cutting through the dark sky. Art installations seen in the deep playa during the day can present entirely different at night when lit up, so you certainly don’t want to miss revisiting your favorites. Long story short, Burning Man is undoubtedly a source of never-ending activities and a nonstop feeling of FOMO.
If you didn’t guess by now, Black Rock City is an accepting, open, fun-loving community, and attire doesn’t fall short of this. From everyday shorts and T-shirts, to costumes that seem plucked straight from a SciFi movie, to wearable LED’s strung through colorful furry jackets, to rockin’ the classic birthday suit – just about anything goes as long as you’re comfortable strutting around the playa in it. That being said, don’t forget the essentials of desert safety: sunglasses or large brimmed hats to help block the staring sun, sealed goggles and face masks to help deter the blowing dust, and multiple layers for the brisk chill of night.
Shelter is unquestionably a vital component of Black Rock City, as rest and relief from the elements are important in keeping safe, healthy, and energized for endless exploration. Essentially nothing brought to the playa is impermeable to the fine playa dust, but selected shelter should be able to withstand both wind and rain. (Seriously, nobody wants to be that person whose tent is dancing 100ft overhead because it was caught in an updraft and wasn’t properly tied down.) Shelter can vary from rudimentary tents, to complex yurt structures, to large arcing domes, to RV’s and trailers; however, radical self reliance persists beyond simply bringing your own roof. There aren’t any utility hook-up’s at BRC, so all your power has to be brought in with you, whether that’s through ecofriendly solar power or more powerful gas generators (but, from firsthand experience, please consider your neighbors and try to get a quiet generator!).
In the end, it’s no lie that Burning Man can be a source of nonstop, week-long fun, but it’s important to not lose sight of survival basics to get you there and back safely. Once again, I could write on and on about the many dimensions of Burning Man and this post is by no means an exhaustive guide, but hopefully this year’s post focusing more on the physical environment is a helpful addition to the more experiential post from last year.
As expected, our time spent at Burning Man this year was nothing short of amazing. Justin and I hope to be afforded the opportunity to continue attending, although it’s no secret that the ticket buying process can be brutal! (Just imagine twice as many people as there are tickets vying for a trip to the desert.) For now, though, Justin and I are busy dismantling our lives to move from Woodland, CA to Reno, NV to be closer to the Lake Tahoe area we have easily come to love. At least that means we’ll be closer in proximity to BRC next year! 😉
It feels so good to be lost in the right direction.
Interested in learning more about Burning Man or experiencing Black Rock City for yourself?
Check out the Burning Man website for additional information!