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.