Where the Wild Things Are
Thousands of free-spirited people descend upon Nevada’s Black Rock Desert for Burning Man, a colorful week-long event where art and self-expression is celebrated
Fold in one part art festival, two parts party and a generous helping of community spirit. Stir, and bake on high for a week in the desert. The colorful result is Burning Man, the annual summer camp for adults in the Black Rock Desert northeast of Reno, Nevada.
Every year, the week before Labor Day, adventurous RV enthusiasts are among the 50,000-plus revelers at the art event and community based on “radical self-expression” and “self-reliance.” Owners of tent trailers, motorhomes, truck campers, van conversions, Airstream trailers and all manner of painted vehicles will all metamorphose into citizens of the post-apocalyptic utopia named Black Rock City.
Attempts to fully describe Burning Man inevitably fall short. No clear picture of what to expect from those who have been there exists, and the Internet is rife with conflicting accounts. Like the parable of the blind men and an elephant, the experience looks, sounds and means something different to each participant.
Simply stated, Burning Man is a spectacle of memorable performances, eclectic music, ironic wit, wacky vehicles, stirring massive-scale art and naughty good fun. (Despite what you’ve heard, if you’ve been around the block a few times, nothing there will shock you.) The “Ten Principles” — including Leaving No Trace, Civic Responsibility and Radical Inclusion — serve as the guiding concepts for the 27-year-old project.
Some common perceptions about Burning Man are accurate. Yes, the habitat is extreme: It’s hot, exceedingly dusty and the Porta-Potties can be terrifying (don’t look around). There’s no plumbing and nothing to plug into other than the community. Nothing is for sale except bagged ice and coffee. Alcohol flows freely and other substances are consumed (though resources for a clean and sober experience abound and various “anonymous camps” are welcoming).
Some perceptions are the stuff of myth. Not everyone cavorts naked (but you should be copacetic with the nudity of others — or your own, if naturism calls). And not all the action is after sundown — activities are scheduled around the clock, and some of the most delightful take place at sunrise.
“Burners” — a nickname for the participants — utilize all manner of RV to comfortably enhance the festival experience on the unforgiving desert playa. Shelter from the windstorms and choking dust, generator-powered air conditioning, running water, a clean(ish) bathroom, full kitchen and escape from the noisy, swirling city top the list of welcome perks enjoyed by those camped in RVs.
Eclectic Mix of People
“It was much worse than I ever anticipated,” said A.B. of his arrival at the gate during one of the area’s legendary dust storms. “I have a friend who just comes here in her truck and sets up a tent and I thought, ‘well, I could do that,’” he said. “Now, being here, I don’t think I could ever just camp in a tent. I’d need an RV.”
A San Francisco, California, resident soon retiring from practice as an attorney, A.B. used his initials as his “playa name,” a moniker usually bestowed by fellow campmates that allows a Burner to adopt a week-long persona for his or her “radical self.” He took possession of his all-original, vintage 1979 Dodge Apollo motorhome a mere month before driving it to Nevada from Texas. When I talked to A.B. about his initial impressions, they were “still being formed” after his first 24 hours in Black Rock City, but he declared that the festival is “awesome, amazing and eye-opening.”
“There are so many things that are surprising and incredible,” he said, including being visually accosted by a thousand naked bodies on bicycles during his first afternoon strolling the playa. “It was fun,” he laughed. “Just the overall scope of how big it is, and how many people there are, and all the lights and the mutant vehicles,” he said. “It’s incredible to me how much work went into all of that.
“It surprised me how diverse the age population is,” he continued. “I thought it was going to be a lot of 20- and 30-something-year-olds — which there are — but it’s a real mix. Those crazy, wonderful things you see could be the work of a 60-year-old or a 25-year-old.”
Ed Coffman first “Burned” four years ago. “I didn’t even really know much about what it was, except that it was an art festival in the middle of the desert,” he recalled. “I had some time off so I bought a tent, some wine and a cooler, a sleeping bag and a bicycle, and I flew down here and bought a ticket at the gate.” (Walk-up tickets are no longer sold at the entrance.) “I liked it enough I bought an Airstream!”
Ed’s younger brother Bill accompanied him in the 1998 Airstream Safari the following three years, and baby brother Quentin joined them in 2012 — marking the first time they had traveled together since they were kids in North Carolina.
“Anything you read online is never going to indicate what Burning Man really is,” said Bill. “I knew it was an art event and I knew it was a party event, but it’s a lot more spiritual than I thought it would be. It’s also so much bigger than I could’ve ever imagined; when you go out on the playa that first night, it’s just phenomenal. It’s something you’ll never forget.”
Quentin cautions other first-timers to take care of themselves and observe the obvious safety measures for life in an environment that receives only 0.055 inch of rain per year.
“Make sure you’re hydrated,” he said. “Don’t get drunk and go out into the middle of the desert. And keep your sense of humor about things — it’s pretty extreme out here.”
Bell Sound (enjoying her seventh year at Burning Man) and Trace Elements (on his 15th) are Suzanna and Charles back home in California. Like many couples at the event, their love story began in Black Rock City, where they met.
A member of the “Brain Freeze” camp of creative RVers, Bell interacts with astrophysicists and other scientists in the Burning Man community. “It’s a huge playground for scientific innovation here,” she said, “because of the openness of the environment, the kind of exchanges people have, and the stimulation and creativity.”
“Most people’s perception of Burning Man is about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll,” said Trace. “There’s some of that, but that’s not the majority of what goes on out here.”
“Even the music has changed in the last bunch of years,” Trace continued. “There’s more mellow music and not just this heavy beat — a lot more jazz and blues and hip-hop that people are dancing and hooping to.”
“Burning Man changes you, in a lot of ways,” said Trace. “It changes your whole attitude toward the culture in your default world. For the other 51 weeks of the year you take back some of this energy.”
The Neverwas Haul
“Our mission as the Traveling Academy of UnNatural Science is to bring good culture and good whiskey to the denizens of Black Rock City,” said Katherine Becvar aboard the Neverwas Haul, the group’s rolling Victorian house built on the chassis of a gutted dual-axle fifth-wheel trailer.
Built in 2006, the flagship of the steampunk fleet of art cars at the Obtanium Works factory sails the playa, sounding its cruise-ship like horn, piercing siren and clanging bell. Burners react to the vehicle with applause, cheers, praise (“Bravo! One of our favorites!”) and beg for tours inside. The three-story house, much of it made from recycled material, is outfitted with a bar, plush seating, books and framed photos, and a periscopelike camera obscura in the salon that projects outside images upon the ceiling.
Street legal, the wildly modified Neverwas Haul still has one original part: its California license plate. For highway travel, the crew removes the upper level construction to avoid snagging on overpasses and tows the art car with a three-quarter-ton truck. “When we’re pulling it down the road it looks as if the Beverly Hillbillies built a fifth-wheel trailer house,” laughed crewman Kevin O’Hare.
Packing In and Out
For the first-time Burner, shopping and preparing can be daunting and confusing — it’s the packing equivalent to extreme boondock camping, seven-day Halloween party and weeklong potluck all in one. The replies you’ll get to, “What should I bring?” will range from, “Just a pirate costume and liquor,” to a list of provisions as long as your arm.
Physically and mentally prepare by reading and obeying the current 20-page Survival Guide, downloadable from the Burning Man website. Peruse it early and pack accordingly.
Burning Man is the largest gathering on U.S. Public Lands and the largest practicing Leave No Trace event in the world. The festival site is inspected annually for “MOOP” (matter out of place) and impact to the playa. There will be no evidence of your camp when you pull away, so plan in advance how you’ll minimize the trash you’ll pack out.
Dress the Part
You don’t have a thing to wear? You do! Raid your Halloween box for random accessories: post-apocalyptic leggings, fake fur, belts, fishnets, devil horns, capes. Check the back of your closet for forgotten bridesmaid dresses, outdated formal wear and platform shoes. Uniforms, too, will do just fine — scouts, Catholic school, postal worker, military surplus or marching band, as well as ethnic garments. You’ll need a big hat to block the sun and a veil or bandanna to protect your face from the dust. That lingerie you’re embarrassed to wear around the house? Bring it. If you don’t currently own a tutu, get one. Dump it all in a box and mix and match when you get there; bring scissors for inspired field alterations. At a bare minimum you can get by with a sarong, bikini top and kitty ears (works for all genders). Express your inner self, but skip items that shed feathers, sequins or glitter.
Plan to participate, not just spectate.
Bring something fun to share with others, and don’t be intimidated. “Participation” means nothing more than applying the simple manners your mother taught you to bring to any party: Dress for the occasion and don’t come empty-handed. Be friendly — mingle and get to know people, and pitch in and help with the clean-up.
Enjoy the Journey
Having fun on the trek to and from Burning Man is half the point. Brace yourself, though, for travel hardships other than the aforementioned dust storms, desert temperature extremes and absence of plumbing. More than 50,000 people crush the area and traffic on the way to the festival and exodus weekend can be a misery. Think of the long line at the gate as part of the celebration, but for a variety of reasons, do not show up early. And be aware that a long, undeveloped, rutted, dusty and/or muddy access road leads to the festival.
Dealing With the Dust
Mitigation is possible; elimination is not. The pervasive, flourlike dust “doesn’t scratch, it corrodes,” said Trace Elements. “It’s so alkaline, it attacks steel like salt.” Burners often use a vinegar solution in a power sprayer to wash their rigs after leaving the area (the sooner the better). “That’s a really good trick for bicycles and everything,” noted Bell Sound, who also uses Mrs. Meyer’s natural sprays.
Some RVers swear by sealing all exterior openings, vents and window seams with gaffer tape or aluminum covered bubble wrap. Others simply tolerate the dust. At the very least, shroud your upholstery with sheets, and cover every inch of the floor with towels and thrift-store throw rugs for easier clean up.
Despite the dust and dirt, every Burner I talked with answered the question, “Is the experience worth the hassle?” with a resounding “yes!”
“After Burning Man, your RV will be different,” said Trace, and Bell agrees. “It will be changed — and so will you.”
About the author
RG Coleman is a trailer travel and lifestyle writer who Burns in a 16-foot Design Within Reach Airstream. Visit her blog for RV destinations, history, humor and tips for tiny trailering at www.airstreaming.net.