The epic journey there
Black Rock City is located some distance northeast of Gerlach, which is in turn located some distance northeast of Reno, which is not conveniently situated to anyone outside of a few nearby gamblers. At least it has an airport, which allows the many foreign Burners somewhere to fly into, but whether you fly or drive, getting to Reno will entail several hours of transit.
Only past Reno is when the enormity of your isolated destination starts to sink in. After you turn off I-80, the road stretches deep into desert. The only sign you’re going in the right direction is the many fellow Burners headed the same way, easily identified by their overladen cars and bike racks covered with layers both fuzzy and bright. There are so many people headed to this remote outpost that neither the highway nor the eight-lane funnel on the Playa proper can sustain movement for the first 48 hours of the festival. Expect to sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic that stretches to both visible horizons for hours on end if you arrive on Monday.
The long hours, desolate surroundings, and incongruously heavy traffic all drive in the point that your final destination is a place definitely not in sync with society at large.
The merciless Playa weather
Once you finally arrive, brave the greeters with their ringing bell and dust baths, and set up camp, there’s another environmental factor that will constantly remind you this is not a place humans normally spend time: the weather. Without fail, it is piercingly hot with no clouds every day, and close to freezing, incredibly windy, or both at night.
The wind works together with the dust to wreak havoc on your eyes and mouth, which explains the goggles and dust mask on every savvy BRC citizen. You can’t escape the harsh conditions, which persistently remind you where you are — somewhere people usually aren’t.
How there’s no such thing as money
The face cost of Burning Man is high — $380 for the ticket on top of gas to get out there and enough food, water, and supplies to survive for a week in the middle of a desert. But by the time you pass the entrance gates, you’ll have spent your last cent for the week. Except for ice bags and coffee available for purchase from Center Camp, the use of money is forbidden within Black Rock City.
That doesn’t mean goods won’t be exchanged. Walk down the streets and you’ll pass bars, coffeeshops, watermelon stands, kissing booths, or some combination thereof. It’s been described as a “barter economy,” but really it’s just a giving economy. Everyone wants to give you things, just for the sake of giving it. Ideally, you give away enough goodies to keep the karma flowing (my chosen gift was lollipops), but it’s more about the act of giving than receiving.
In the real world, ‘free’ always comes with strings attached. Here, it’s done because it’s a nice thing to do, with a smile to boot.
How the outlandish becomes the mundane
At first I kept track of the number of naked people I saw, but I quickly lost count. Nudity is one of the many things that would turn heads on a normal street but become normal on the Playa. I drove there in my friend’s beat-up white school bus, in which we’d always caused slight alarm and sustained stares when we took it out around town. On the Playa, it was only one of dozens, and supported far fewer modifications than its brethren. The only thing it did was attract other bus owners eager to talk about how special theirs was.
Other crazy things that became normal included people using bullhorns for fun, white people sporting dreads, men wearing kilts, and cavernous metal dome-yurts built out of interlocking bars.
How the routine becomes incredible
The flip side of all the desert craziness is that the simplest things become the most exciting — like a camp that offers hairwashing services. Some of the coolest camps I saw were things that could be part of Anytown USA — a ’60s-style diner, a roller rink, a cinema, a bathhouse, a playground gym.
Yet these things become incredible once you realize somebody went to the trouble of getting the whole apparatus out here and working in the desert. It makes you appreciate the little things.
People who readily greet you
It varies from city to village, and by region, but in general when you walk by somebody on the street in the default world, you’re both too busy to say hello. At Burning Man, nobody has anything particularly important on their agenda, which means there’s no excuse not to say hello. Which everyone does — it becomes strange not to wander into a stranger’s camp and join the conversation.
I was walking back from the bathrooms one day with a slightly pursed face due to the heat, when a passerby stopped me, picked up a handful of air from the ground and handed it to me, saying, “Excuse me, you dropped your smile.” Needless to say he certainly put it back on my face.
The art cars
It’s one thing to say engineers sink tens of thousands of dollars and months of their time turning the rusty chassis in their backyards into three-story kinetic monsters — and another thing entirely to see them up close. During my first night on the Playa, I turned a corner and was almost run over by a duck the size of my house. From hovering LED TIE fighters to double-size trail wagons to mobile stadium-strength speaker stands, there are countless vehicles out here that are the coolest things you never thought of.
There are so many art cars roving around it’s impossible to see them all, but it sure is fun to try. The best way to get around the city is undoubtedly on the upper floor of a giant submarine that emits whale noises…or is it within the gaping maw of a giant angler fish with a disco ball for a lure? You’ll be able to decide for yourself.
The thrill of Deep Playa discovery
On the spacious Deep Playa where nobody is allowed to camp, discovering what the many indistinct shapes on the horizon are is the best use of time. Artists make pieces unrestrained by size limits or safety codes, which results in as wide of a creative spectrum as the art cars, only these pieces won’t come to you. In normal life, it’s hard to find places that yield dozens of cool things per square mile, but on the Playa, they literally stretch as far as you can see.
During one expedition, I happened on an oasis complete with palm trees, couches, and bottled water far away from camp proper. After refreshing myself there, I continued on to find a giant dodecahedron that vibrated continuously, a boulder as large as me suspended from a hulking arch, and an ichthyosaur skeleton that I could make swim with a combination of ropes and pulleys.
This was but one expedition of many — every time I exited camp proper I was awash with the thrill of new things to find.
The accessibility of famous people
The egalitarian nature of the festival, coupled with the lack of any preexisting walls or red tape, mean nobody is out of reach. And there are some big names in attendance. I stumbled onto casual performances by the likes of Major Lazer, the All Good Funk Alliance, and Datsik. Their stages didn’t have a VIP section, nor was their arrival heralded with much fanfare — they just happened to be there.
My friends caught sight of James Cameron and P. Diddy walking around the streets, so the fame isn’t restricted to behind stages. What other event mixes such clientele with the masses so nonchalantly?
The vast age range of attendees
There are other festivals in the world that sport tens of thousands of attendees, onsite camping, and arts and music on display in the middle of nowhere. Burning Man is unique among these because the experience is crafted by the participants rather than a promoter, but beyond that it stands out because it’s not predominantly composed of 18-35 year-olds. I was struck by the vast differences in ages of my fellow Burners; I saw children as young as 8 cavorting in the dust next to a couple that could have been my grandparents.
It’s a testament to the open spirit of the festival that it attracts and sustains such a wide range of maturity. My friend commented that it makes the operation of the week-long process much easier, because older attendees are wiser and more likely to have figured out exactly what preparations are needed in order to survive unaided in the desert. While the diverse age range is something you can encounter in the default world, it’s not something you usually encounter at festivals, which makes it all the more impressive.