Written by: Brandon Davis
His hug was deep and powerfully authentic. Truth resonated behind his actions, unobstructed by a need for reason. I was just a dust-covered vagabond walking through the city temple when I saw a simple man, standing and bowing with slight reverence to each person who passed through the temple and into a solemn and quiet courtyard. I walked up to him, took my hands into a prayer pose, humbly lowered my head, and then without speaking, we hugged. It lasted for ages as far as hugs go. Maybe 35 seconds. We inhaled together and when we pulled away, our eyes were brimming with the happiest tears. I didn’t know this man’s name, and I didn’t need to. He was my brother, and that was enough. I bowed again and walked back the way I came.
This desert was strange, this city was bizarre, and these citizens were peculiar. I felt right at home.
Black Rock City Temple at Night. Photo: Courtesy Scott London, 2015
Friends, there is a wild, incredible, and near other worldly place in the desert of Nevada. If you haven’t heard yet, consider this an informal introduction. It is not for the faint of heart, and yet exists for everyone. Filled with all the delights of human fantasy and determination, a desert metropolis known as Black Rock City comes to life every fall. You won’t find it on a map; it does not exist with roots. The vast and empty desert may be outlined, but the city itself can only be found for one brief week out of an entire year.
Photos: from left to right: @whogaveheracamera, Burning Man Twitter @burningman, @illadelphia
Photo: Karuna Tanahashi, 2015
In this fleeting time, a complete town digs its stakes in the dirt and a rough skyline pushes up from the desert floor. From far off, the city has a simple exterior, a kind of calm bass note beating steadily across the sand. It looks like a village, perhaps sitting in the watery puddle of a heat mirage. Move in a little closer, and an overwhelming, haphazard scene begins to reveal itself. If you didn’t know better, you could be stumbling upon a stronghold for survivors of some type of nuclear-zombie disaster. Hundreds of tents, trucks, and tarps bunch together as 70,000 people create and enjoy eateries, bars, art galleries, temples, dance halls, back alleys, even a roller-skating rink. In-your-face deliberateness greets you immediately in this environment that touts radical liberty from traditional perspectives. Emphasis on radical.
Nudity! Drugs! Costumes! Music! Shamans! Psychics! Lovers! Performers! –You got it. Absinthe parties! Circus acts! Live bands! Hatha yoga! Silent discos! Tai chi flash mobs?! – There’s that too.Feel like dancing? Good. The best DJs in the world are here to cater to your desert jam sesh, often anonymously – at the sound camp just down the street. Maybe you feel like a little jog? Join the marathon, which goes for 31 miles in the Nevada heat. (That’s right, 31.) Need to chill for a hot second? Visit the Black Rock Observatory where you can glimpse Saturn’s rings and moons. Or go attend a guided meditation within a Native American tipi. Feeling more adventurous? There’s the spectacle known as the Thunder-Dome, where you can go to watch people duke it out gladiator style (for real). Or if you are feeling frisky, there’s the Orgy Dome. Self-explanatory. And according to their website, nearly 5000 people made that part of their Burn.
Photos: @bridget_london, @leopollock (Thunderdome), @noahu
The full incarnation of Black Rock City is as layered and transitional as the residents who make up its population. Unlike any other city in the world, this one is comprised entirely of ticket carrying participants. Everyone who is here, has a desire to be here, and it shows. Its evolution is constant; not just day-to-day, but also moment-to-moment. New sculptures are put up; new theaters open their doors; new people amble everywhere and all the time.
Photo of Postcard: Brandon Davis
The consistent transformation of this transitory town mimics the very nature one goes through by participating as a citizen. It starts the instant you check your tickets at the gate (read: passport to a foreign wonderland).
Invited out of your vehicle, a line is literally drawn in the scorched earth before your feet. On one side of the line is the “default world”: Civilization, jobs, houses, finances. You get the picture. On the other side is the promise of something different, and a creation of your choosing. Everyone, from humble artists to millionaire software engineers, embrace this concept. Drug-rattled hippies sit with their ultra kool kid counterparts and chat with esteemed doctors. People from all walks shed their monotonous skins and reveal what can only be described as a cacophony of human liberation.
Art screams at you around every bend, and it is luminous. Canvases line the streets with invitations that say, “Paint Me”. (Brushes and colors are provided, too.) Art installations, interactive noise-making dilly-dallies, climbable bridges, mazes, it’s all here. Mobility takes another form of expression, too, as cars are only permitted when transformed into a “Mutant Vehicle” or an “Art Car”. Up and down the streets, mobile dance halls and robot cars parade as yachts, fire-breathing dragons, spaceships, airplanes, abstract color orbs, you name it. There is even a shark, whose neon red outlined fin can be seen inching closer towards unsuspecting patrons across the night horizon.
Photo: Courtesy Scott London, 2015
Overwhelmed yet? We haven’t even gotten started.
Aside from the bustle of freedom and intrigue surrounding you here, this city is unlike others for another reason; its guidelines.In 2004 co-founders and friends, led by Larry Harvey, 67, organized 10 basic principles, which they hoped would perpetuate the feeling of Burning Man even outside its city limits. In a recent interview, the co-founder, executive director, and “chief philosophic officer” talked to me about these values:
“The thing I say about the 10 principles is that they don't come from outside you. These are values you internalize, and that's your choice. But they are values that can work for you once they are internalized. They serve as a unifying force just the way the man standing there at the center of everything is a unifying force.”
The man he speaks of is the very namesake of this desert party. A nearly 40 foot tall wooden dude, built to be destroyed.
Larry Harvey (Courtesy of Burning Man Project), 2015 Man (Courtesy Scott London)
As essential reading, a “survival guide” is sent along with your ticket. Page one outlines this set of commonly understood values, things like: “Immediacy,” “Radical Inclusion,” “Radical Self-reliance,” “Gifting,” and “Leaving no Trace.”(You can find the full list on their website, burningman.org )
Larry says that when people are in the city, “They are surrounded by its customs and structure.” It is “social engineering that formed that community, and then they created all this culture.” But when the participants get home and find themselves without the city surrounding them, they fall back on all the different versions of everyone else’s experiences. “I wrote the principles in a way that didn't dictate. They’re descriptive of values, but they don't tell you what you have to do.”
Even the guidelines here are just commonsense suggestions, not commandments. He continued: “And I think it's succeeded to some degree. You know, it's a pretty anti-authoritarian community. In many ways it's pretty libertarian in some respects.”
A libertarian-esque, radically inclusive, artistic community of desert dwellers. I was finally starting to organize some type of description for this place...
Leaving the normal world includes forgetting the standard notion of democratic proceedings and political structure. The people of Black Rock nearly govern themselves entirely in this gifting society. Money is irrelevant; and gifting is just that, gifts. Not a barter system, no trades necessary. Neighbors beckon with free booze, quesadillas, and clothing options. But it goes further. People shared bicycles and tools, or gave away handmade art, jewelry, and sentimental keepsakes. Expelling the use money sets a different tone immediately. It gives a sense of equality within the freedom of experience available, and emphasizes a different way to view transaction.
Photo: Courtesy Scott London, 2015
Even with all these new gifts, most participants adhere strongly to 'Leaving no trace'. Not a loose feather, cigarette butt, or flip flop is to be left on your campsite or in the street. This leads to Burning Man being one of the cleanest get-togethers of a population its size. Larry Harvey tells me that, “The participants do a remarkable job of not leaving things that need to be cleaned up.”
As my journey continued through this pre-historic, futuristic, wasteland, I took time to interview more of the citizens who call Black Rock City by its other name, ‘Home’.
The first of several was five-time burner, Devon Werkheiser. The talented singer and actor, known for his Nickelodeon television series and numerous film appearances, indulged in playful honesty as we conducted ‘hard hitting journalism’ with British accents. For your added benefit, dear reader, I encourage the use of your imagination with the latter part.
When I asked what he loves most about this place? He replied with a sigh of excitement:
“Oh my goodness. I mean this city. Like, there are festivals, right? And then there's a f***ing city, you know what I mean? “
I knew what he meant.
He then proclaimed, “This is a city, and like any city you choose to inhabit, it changes you. Even if it’s a temporary city. Even if it's only eight days long. This could possibly be the most present, most meaningful, longest eight days of your life, in the best way. And yet it goes by in the blink of an eye. So you gotta pay attention. You gotta be here for it.”
Apt advice for anyone going.
He took a quick pause, then continued: “This city accepts me. And this city is expansive. It allows me to be all the aspects of myself that I know me to be, but people in my home hold me to a role or a mask. They hold me to the idea that they have of me, but I'm so much more than that. And this city is a space for me to be all that I am, you know? And it's magic.”
(Photos: @devonwerkharder, @s_wats_) Devon with his girlfriend, Sara
We turned the British off as we stopped the recorder.
He was on to something for sure. This city is magic, and it’s evidenced in all the unexpected opportunities and moments that take you by surprise. Synchronicities are commonplace; random strangers high five each other on bicycles, and it’s not unusual to encounter mystical elements in this sandy other world. For many, that may just be the drugs though. Who knows?
Being a first-time participant in this desert gathering of some of the world’s most full-bodied and bravadoed artists is original in every way. The person who sold me my ticket told me that whatever I thought Burning Man was going to be, to expect it to be different from that. Following that direction I tried to come with little to no expectations. He says that "70,000 people show up to Burning Man, and 70,000 people have different experiences." I laughed and said, “Just like life.” He agreed.
When I met Steve Calzone and his wife, Nancy, from Atlanta, GA, both 53 years old, I was excited to know what their experiences would become. We would be part of the same camp, so it was inevitable that we get to know each other. Both are responsible, lively adults, with children raised and out of the house already. They were down with all the cool new music, and could school you on the bands of yesteryear, too. Grounded in business, they have leading jobs with a good tech firm. This was their first time going to Burning Man.
I sat down with Steve just after the week ended. First things first, I was curious what his initial expectations had been:
“I had no clue what to expect. I had not a clue. I left there with a feeling of enlightenment that I cannot describe.” Steve says. “I thought it was going to be more commercialized in a weird way. I thought it was going to be a big party in the desert, lots of party, lots of drugs, lots of sex. But also lots of named talent putting on shows.” He went on to say that, “It doesn't have to be about sex, and drugs, and rock and roll, and in fact it's not. “
It was becoming clear that this big party lead to something more for many of the participants. I wondered what that might be for each one. “Had you ever felt this feeling of enlightenment before in your life?” I ask Steve.
“Never. Never like that. It was a completely new thing that I had never – I didn't have a clue I could feel that way. This was enlightenment of another kind, and it was a beautiful thing.”
Photos: Instagram #BurningMan
Not everyone seemed to share this 'enlightenment' about Black Rock City. Another participant I came across got three days in and then decided all this craziness just wasn’t enjoyable any longer. She had been to one of the first Burning Men on the beaches of San Francisco, but this was a world apart from that.
From 1986 to 1990, Burning Man was just a ragtag group of bohemians who went down to the beach and, in an afternoon or an evening, would burn the figure as a ritual.
“In 1990, the authorities intervened, but we did raise the figure.” They later disassembled and stored the wooden man in the city, informing their clan to go to the Black Rock desert, says Larry Harvey.
If not for these intervening police officers back in the day, there might not be an epic, wild-child, party-for-all in Nevada. Many thanks.
Back then, the fresh Bay air wafted over the small group of patrons cleanly, a far cry from the Nevada dust storms that can white out everything for miles. After waking from a dream of being buried alive, this participant told her husband she was done. The next I heard, they were at a Ritz-Carlton, far from breathing dust and naked hippies painting each other. Some readers are probably siding with the sanity of that decision. To each his own, I’d say.
Larry Harvey went on, “It's kind of funny. We started on a beach, and ‘playa’ means ‘beach’. [In Spanish] So we went from one beach to another. But instead of it being water in front of us, you could walk on water. It’s so flat you could make anything. It took us a long time to wake up to the full possibilities.”
The possibilities he speaks of are pretty much endless, and people who go nowadays increasingly play with what can be done and built.
“We slowly awakened to the possibilities, but it took a few years. We were like … you know when granite is exposed?” He asks, immediately continuing, “It begins to flake off like bark, layers of it, because suddenly it's not under big pressure under the earth. There's no pressure and it starts flaking off. And that's what happens to our brains. It constrains. We internalize living in a more civilized environment, and suddenly that no longer applies. That’s a realization because we're so bound by barriers of one kind or another. It took a while to get used to that freedom. These were people who craved freedom, but it took them awhile to realize how much freedom they had.”
Photos: Courtesy Scott London, 2015
How were other participants effected by all this freedom? Nancy Calzone, the Atlanta mother, wife and business professional, sat with me on a wobbly, dusty RV for an interview that might shed some light.
“With all this liberty and free reign, were there any challenges for you personally?” I ask.
“I think self-expression was challenging for me. I am, uh, I don't know, pretty tolerant of people, and pretty self-reliant. But expressing is difficult because I live in a conservative society. And it's not open to that, so that takes a little bit.”
“How did you express yourself this past week?”
“Uhm, I wore a crocheted top without a bra. It was way out there for me…!”
“And how did you feel?” I said.
“It was a little uncomfortable, but I was so much more covered up than so many other people. So I still felt clothed, and I felt like nobody gives a shit, so I was good with that.”
She’s right. Nobody cares what you wear or look like in Black Rock City. Fashion is self-expression, and anything goes. This free-for-all inevitably delivers some unpredictable sights, too.When I asked Nancy what the craziest thing she saw was, she said:
“Sex on the playa on the last day. In the bright sunshine, right there in the center of town. That was... weird. I mean I don't care, but... I don't know, not necessary.”
Exhibitionism isn’t always so blatant throughout the city, but it certainly comes with the territory. Nancy, who says that she initially had zero interest in attending Burning Man, now relishes its atmosphere.
“All in all it was awesome. Awesome. Awesome. Never expected it. I did not expect it to be like it was.”
“Is there one word that really fulfills what your experience was?” I ask.
“It really can't be limited to one word. Amazing. Incredible. Phenomenal. Holy shit."
One thing I was very curious to know from those I interviewed was if they had a standout moment or a takeaway tale in all the madness. Nancy’s was uplifting.
“Do you have a favorite aspect of the adventure?” I ask
“I think people can come together and really honestly put everything aside. I think people were just saying, you know, ‘I'm going to have this week that I am going to just be here. I'm going to enjoy this, and I'm going to be open, and loving, and giving, and receiving.’ I think that was the coolest part of it. I love that.”
Photo: Courtesy Scott London, 2015
This perception was something I came across more than once, and it made me wonder if it was ever bothersome to returning citizens, or even the founding staff, that so many people view Burning Man as a big party and nothing more? I took my question to Larry Harvey. His answer was simple:
“Well, not really. Very few people who return over any period of time probably think that. If you just judge according to the pictures you see, it's certainly a party. It's a celebration.”
“What would you say people are celebrating?” I enquired.
“I think they're celebrating their being. They're given license to a sense of freedom to be. It's like a big birthday party. Everyone being intensely, as if for the first time. Birthdays reaffirm that you are. You know? Again and again and again, repetitive, but of course every time you have a birthday you have to reflect on everything that happened throughout the year, and you start reflecting on what may come, and you realize you've changed. Through every birthday you're a different person.”
Photos: Courtesy Scott London, 2015
Never static, always changing, and yet somehow having a core sense of its awareness. Sounds like some type of ancient philosophy. Was I making too much out of this annual “ritual” in the desert, or was there a reverence to be found in this big party? My curiosity prompted my next question:
“Does it feel sacred to you?”
Larry doesn’t take time to ponder; he jumps right in:
“For me, yes it does. It's a place apart, not governed by the normal context of society. It's a cosmic space, it feels sacred, a lot of people say that. I say so too. And really, it’s something that's placed apart for purposes of contemplation. Taken out of the world.”
Black Rock City Temple, Photo: Courtesy Scott London, 2015
The irony, he says, is that they took it so far out of the world, that it made survival difficult, especially once they encountered larger governmental entities. They had to get really worldly, fast.
“It was a crash course in politics, economics, and nobody had any background in doing this kind of thing. We invented it as we went along. We have to deal with authorities all the way up to Washington, DC. And we really had to struggle to survive out there,” he says.
“How is Burning Man's relationship with the government?” I ask.
“Yeah well, we've got the county government, we've got the state government, we got the federal government, and we have a [new] challenge coming up. The state government decided to impose an entertainment tax on us and others, which is somewhat astoundingly 9% of gross income. That's a lot of money to charge people for entertaining themselves.”
I interject: “What's to say we're not just a group of people all camping together? All at once?”
We both kind of chuckle, Larry continues:
“We don't have paid performers. Or any of the venues you would associate with a big entertainment event. It is principally people entertaining one another, and that's an odd thing to tax. So that's a challenge and we're going to be up for that.”
Photos: (Left and Right) Courtesy @tanis_law, (Middle) @burningman twitter
He suggests that Burning Man’s influence on the local economies is substantial nonetheless. By state, the second largest attendance comes out of Nevada. In the weeks before and after Black Rock City’s existence, millions of dollars are brought in to the state.Casinos, hotels, and restaurants all report higher earnings. Attendees spend money all the way up to the city gates. California supplies the greatest number of attendees, but the fastest growing sector of the population is international. Air travel and transportation are seeing a boost, too.
Larry expanded, “This year was remarkable. If you walked a few blocks you'd hear 12 different languages.”
When I asked him if he thought the city could ever get too big, he was determined it was about proper growth over time and not all at once. Still, he didn’t limit the idea of expansion.
“I don't think, if it was in a limited space, I wouldn't exactly say what the limit was. What makes that city work is the ethos and the culture people internalized. If you grow too fast I think you reach a point where you're not educating initiating people.”
He alluded that in comparison to other cities, Black Rock is not nearly the largest out there. If other, more normal cities can properly function with larger populations, he didn’t see why this one couldn’t either.
I continued the interview with that old-time great and simple question:
“Did you have a favorite moment this year?”
He pauses for a moment, and then replies:
“Yeah, I had a favorite moment. The more I go, you know, people come for the art but they stay for the people. This year I was in first camp [where many founders stay], and they were commencing the burn. The first act is to secure the perimeter around the man. But the first act after that is ceremonial procession of this fire troupe out to the site that leads to Burning Man. It was led by women on stilts, bringing torches…and there's just something very attractive about women on stilts carrying torches. I was there with my son, and we just started walking out. I've never done this before, I walked out with the parade.”
Photo: Courtesy Scott London, 2015
He says they threw their shoulders in with these “splendid performers”, and went to the man along side them.
“We were marching in perfect cadence to sort of an andante pace, to their long strides, and with a family member… It was probably the most joyful thing that I experienced.”
The burning of the man is obviously a pretty big occasion in Black Rock City. The entire community gathers to witness it, and it is really the first and last time that everyone will assemble together. Many burns occur, usually starting on Friday and going to Sunday, ending with the burning of the temple structure.
Fireside portrait of a BRC citizen watching the Temple Burn, 2015. (courtesy: @rafikib)
The meaning surrounding the burn is left to each individual to sort out. Some people make the man a sign of oppression to be burned down with vigor. Others see aspects of themselves they wish to leave behind. For many, it’s just a fun bonfire with 70,000 of their closest friends. I was curious if Larry would tell me what it was to him.
“Does the meaning of ‘The Man’ change for you personally every year, or does it represent a constant thing?” I ask, half expecting a tacit response of individualized significance…
“The meaning of the man? I don't know, it’s hard for me to be entirely objective about it. My father was a carpenter of more than ordinary height, stature, and a kind of moral paragon who I looked up to. So I mean, there's a little of my father the carpenter in it. There's a little bit of my son. You know, I used to joke and say that in my early middle age, I grew up between the shadow of my father and my little son who was seeing the world through his eyes, and he saw me as the father. So, to find that connection with it, it’s deep. It's a personal love of my endeavors all these years.”
He humbly approaches his next words.
“It probably wouldn't --- I don't like to brag --- but I don't believe it would exist. It couldn't have reached what it is without me, so in some way... it is me. But not just me, it's all these other people at the same time. And that's perhaps the greatest thrill of all.”
It is certainly a thrill, regardless of the value you place on the burn. Slowly, the neon-lit arms rise from its sides, and an elaborate fireworks display begins. It mesmerizing for minutes until eventually the man erupts with a crowd-pleasing explosion of hot-fueled flames reaching four stories tall.
Photos: (Left and Right) Courtesy Scott London, 2015, (Middle) Anonymous Friend
It’s a lot, this city. It’s a lot to experience; it’s a lot to write about. It’s a lot. I was still wondering about Steve Calzone’s recent enlightenments. Too many people seemed to feel at least the tinge of a different way to live; I wanted to know what was stirring this up the most. I made sure to ask him before wrapping up our interview. His answers were layered.
“What do you think brought your enlightenment on? What was it about being there that made you come to that point in yourself?” I enquired.
“I found things out about my surroundings that I didn't know. I found things out about myself that I didn't know. I found things about my lovely wife that I didn't know. My wife of 30 years. And you know, I found a kinship with everyone there that I had no idea I could feel. And the biggest thing that I feel I was enlightened on is really not just tolerance for other people, but acceptance.”
He pauses and takes one of those intentionally longer breaths that help quench the emotional uprising of something deeper. Tears well up in his eyes and the first syllables of his following words are hushed as his resilient voice begins speaking again.
“Acceptance of the beauty of things is just unbelievable there. It really is. Sunrise on the playa was the best thing I'd ever seen.It was just amazing. The pure majesty of the desert is out of control.”
(Left) Steve Calzone playing on the playa. Photos: Brandon Davis, 2015
He went on to say that as he looked straight up in the sky, he saw the dome that we all live in. He saw shooting stars, and the beauty of the universe. He says, “I saw the infinite wisdom that we could have, that we don't.”
He continued, “I think one of the things I tried to figure out, and it's going to be a test of my abilities to follow through on, is how to take the things that I learned into the real world. Because it's not a real world there.”
That is a big lesson to grasp. Like so many things, it’s easier said than done, but it feels possible to this novice journalist.
As flame throwers and kissing booths shut down, the great exodus of tens of thousands of cars and RVs begins. What was a thriving and robust cityscape will slowly begin to vanish, until eventually the city itself becomes an art installation that burns away.
Photo: Brandon Davis, 2015
Before I concluded my interview with Larry, he takes a second to ask me a question: “Would you go back?”
A wave of experiences washes over me. I see artists, healers, goofballs, dancers, party animals, freaks, innovators, and people generally filled with childlike wonder. I think of being exposed to nature's forces with hot days, cold nights, ferocious dust storms, and endless noise. Going to sleep every night in a sandy tent with filthy clothes. I thought for a brief second of the thousands of other perceptions for this free badland. Other adventures, hiccups, and amusements in a place that staves off easy categorization — “art festival,” “hedonistic desert rave,” “social experiment” — and yet somehow manages to be all of these things at once.
How could I not want to see it come together again?
I took a breath and said, “It’s probably inevitable at some point. It just depends on life.”
He understood and said, “Well it’s a ritual and it recurs, so we’ll be there.”
☐ ☐ ☐ ☐ ☐ ☐ ☐ ☐
Brandon Davis (left) with Friend, Black Rock City, 2015
Special thanks to those who sat with me for interviews, to Jim Graham and Larry Harvey with Burning Man, to the many photographers whose work has enhanced these stories, to scottlondon.com, and to the Larry King Team who allowed me to cover this story.
The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ora Media, LLC, its affiliates, or its employees.