What began as an intimate gathering of 20 people on a Bay Area beach in 1986 has become a 35,000-person annual trek into the Black Rock Desert, 100 miles outside Reno, Nevada, for a celebration of radical self-expression. Many of the artists who attend work year-round creating the large-scale sculptures and interactive installations that rise from the desert floor. Burning Man has become a tribe for some participants, with people coming from as far as Europe and Asia to attend.
There are few rules guiding behavior or self-expression at Burning Man. Participants decide individually how they will contribute and what they will give to the community.
Despite daytime temperatures of 100 degrees and winds up to 70 miles per hour, the spirit and determination of people attending Burning Man shows in the celebratory and welcoming atmosphere. Wild dancers, loud music, fire breathers, decorated golf-carts, meditation tents, cocktail bars and naked, colorful, dusty campers (“burners,” in the parlance) are all part of the scene in this temporary desert community referred to by its citizens as Black Rock City.
Vending is not allowed at Burning Man; unconditional gifts are the norm. Interspersed among the art-based theme camps at this year's festival were people serving pancakes, giving massages, teaching yoga, and offering eco-friendly showers that use homemade evaporation systems to avoid introducing gray water into the desert. In 2003, the Bureau of Land Management declared Burning Man the largest Leave-No-Trace event in the world.
After sundown each evening, Burning Man's campground, with its thousands of colorful lights, sounds, and people on full display, becomes an odd mix between the parking lot at a Grateful Dead show and a Halloween party. In the surrounding desert, colorfully lit interactive artworks up to 80 feet tall draw moonlight explorers both on foot and bicycle.
As the festival winds down each year, and participants begin to pack up, people gather around a giant human effigy which is burned to the ground. For some, this represents the end of a life-changing week or a new beginning. For others, it resets the clock counting down to the following year's burn. By the time the volunteers complete their post-event cleanup there is no trace of the city that was, for a week, the fifth most populous town in Nevada.