Pleasanton Weekly

Cover Story - August 26, 2011

The ultimate festival

Burning Man: a 50,000-person celebration in the Nevada desert for one week each year

by Glenn Wohltmann

Every year at the end of August, parts of the East Bay start to empty out; people go on unexplained, mysterious vacations they may seem reluctant to discuss.

If you don't go, there's a good chance that you know somebody who does, or maybe know someone who knows someone, just a few degrees of separation from what may be the biggest festival in the world: Burning Man, an event that, for the first time in its history, has sold out.

For some, it's a huge outdoor art show. For others, it's a chance to get away from their normal professional lives - 68% either have a bachelor's degree or higher -- and run wild. Burning Man is rowdy, often bawdy, and for many it's a chance to exhibit behavior that would be totally inappropriate and unacceptable anywhere else. People come from as far away as Europe, the Middle East and Hawaii for the event, and while most are in their 20s and 30s, it's not unusual to encounter a septo- or octogenarian, and there's a kids camp as well.

Nudity, drugs and alcohol abound, although many Californians don't realize that they're subject to Nevada's harsher penalties for marijuana and that driving an art car around the desert (known as the playa) while intoxicated can get them a DUI and an overnight trip to the local jail.

That doesn't mean everyone there drinks or does drugs. There are at least four sober camps for recovering alcoholics and drug addicts at Burning Man and a fair number of people who choose to not partake for other reasons.

"It's much bigger than a bunch of hippies running around naked and high on drugs," said Gil Saenz, a seven-year attendee who lives in Pleasanton. "Be ready to be impressed, to see a side of humankind that you would never expect -- the creativity of man. Be prepared to be around some incredible, creative people and be open-minded and be ready to share and be shared with. People are extremely friendly and inviting. If you're kind of a loner or an introvert, be prepared to be an extrovert or get out of your comfort zone."

Saenz's first year was 2001, and he and a team of friends built a carousel in the desert.

"It was huge. The art of burning man (Black Rock Arts Foundation) gave us a $10,000 grant. That was when I realized that this was a worldwide thing. The press came out and they went to all different art installations and interviewed us all," he said, adding he deliberately decided not to find out anything about the event beforehand. "I actually went out of my way not to know what it was, to read any books or magazines."

Even the participants can have a hard time explaining exactly what Burning Man is.

"It's so hard," said Kaley Oldani -- known as Phoenix on the playa -- a Dublin resident who attends with her father. "There's something for everyone at Burning Man and it just depends on the kind of person you are. If you're an artist there's all kinds of art, there's fire for people who are into fire art, and there's the community aspect: You're in a small little city. You set up camp and get to know your neighbors."

It may be easier to explain Burning Man, simply referred to as "the burn" by most "burners," by what it isn't. The Burning Man website explains that it's not: a pagan event; a modern Woodstock; a hippie festival; based on "The Wicker Man" (a '60s-era thriller featuring Edward Woodward); or an apocalyptic anarchist party, although there are some aspects of each at the event.

All that begs the question of what Burning Man actually is. There's an element of William Golding's novel "Lord of the Flies," with its theme of civilization vs. savagery/order vs. chaos and the notion of creating a new type of society. There's Burning Man's gift economy: Bartering or selling items isn't allowed, except for ice and coffee sold by the Burning Man organization itself (although admittedly, there must be some exchange of goods for services when it comes to the buying and selling of illegal substances).

Pleasanton resident Richard Schnetlage -- known as Boingo on the playa -- will be attending his third burn this year after being encouraged by friends to go the first time.

"I was going through a lot of life changes -- I was getting divorced and needed a vacation," he said. "I had been to multiple, multiple Grateful Dead concerts and I had hung around the Santa Monica piers and seen a lot of performing art. The carnival atmosphere was all I had anticipated and more. ... To me it was a very friendly, open-minded community."

Contrary to popular myth, Burning Man wasn't founded when Larry Harvey -- the man who is single-handedly responsible for it -- burned a statue on a San Francisco beach more than 25 years ago that represented himself, his broken heart or his ex-girlfriend.

Burning Man culture was quite different when Harvey and 20 friends burned an eight-foot statue on San Francisco's Baker Beach in 1986. In fact, it wasn't called Burning Man until 1988, when the crowd had grown to 200 or so and the man had grown to 30 feet. Trouble from law enforcement forced the burn to the Nevada desert in 1990, and the burn -- but not the party that preceded it -- moved to Labor Day weekend. By that time, the man was 40 feet tall and the event attracted 800 people.

Harvey has never been afraid of recreating the burn and what it means. According to Burning Man legends about those first years in the Nevada desert, the event included guns and explosives, which are now forbidden. The gift economy, art and the notion of radical independence grew over time, as did the population, which now comes to nearly 50,000 people, making the Burning Man site, Black Rock City, the third largest city in Nevada once a year.

Radical independence was summed up simply by Oldani.

"You've got to be smart and take care of yourself," she said. That means bringing everything needed to survive a week in the desert, where the high altitude means temperatures can top 100 degrees in the daytime, then plummet to the low 40s at night. The ticket price includes admission only.

Water, food, costumes, swag and everything else required to survive must be brought in. Nothing grows on the playa. There are no animals, insects or even plants, and the Burning Man survival guide includes in its lengthy list of "must haves" a mask and goggles for the frequent dust storms and whiteouts that can kick up in minutes and last for hours.

Which brings up the notion of radical interdependence. Participants -- which is what attendees are called by the Burning Man organization -- who find themselves lost in a storm walk into the nearest camp, which can provide shelter while those who are lost help keep the camp from blowing away.

"My first year, I was supposed to meet up with people who were bringing in water, so I didn't bring any myself," said one participant who asked not to be named. "I mentioned it at a camp and within 15 minutes, I had enough water donated to me to last the week."

While some people choose to go nude for parts of the week when it's not too cold, costumes are very much a part of the Burning Man experience, and can range from simple outfits "gifted" by a group that operates the Black Rock Boutique to elaborate garments that can take weeks or even months to prepare.

"I love to do costumes. I love glitter and jewels and color," Oldani said, adding Burning Man "lets me do my creative side."

Theme camps are also a big part of the experience. Groups of every type offer the opportunity to participate in everything from the carnal to the sublime to the bizarre: Strip poker at the Filthy Gentleman's Club (one of the milder carnal experiences available), massage, reiki and yoga at HeeBeeGeeBee Healers and mutilated Barbie dolls at Barbie Death Camp & Wine Bistro.

Jon Ciampi and his wife Darby are part of Sunrise Coffee Camp, which shares "from sunrise until our pots run dry."

"We want to create a community that fosters conversation, to provide people something nice in the morning to greet their day," he explained.

Ciampi said he was taken by Burning Man at his first burn, five years ago, when he encountered the greeters who welcome everyone who enters.

"Just driving up, and you get the biggest hug," he said, adding, "At coffee camp, people just open up to us."

That's just one of the many camps that offer free food or, in many cases, free liquor.

Music never ends at Burning Man, from live rock to DJs spinning everything from old school funk and classic rock to techno and dubstep, a relatively new form of music that incorporates drum and bass beats and reggae-influenced sounds. The survival guide suggests earplugs for people who want to get some sleep.

Art and art grants have become part of Burning Man's prime missions, and a big draw for some.

"You will see art there that you just can't experience in a museum. Peoples' imaginations are put to the test. It makes you have to open up your mind," said Bruno Gonzalez of Pleasanton. Although he's only attended the event once, Gonzalez has been aware of it since Harvey was still burning the man on Baker Beach.

"I love that it's a place for radical self-expression. You see things that make you uncomfortable, but you're safe," Gonzalez added.

In addition to the huge art installations on the playa, there are slews of art cars and "mutant vehicles," some of which ferry people around Black Rock City and are popular places to watch the man burn and are just part of the art at Burning Man, where theme camps run the gamut of expression and even getting dressed is an exercise in self expression.

"The art -- not just drawing a picture or sculpture, but personal expression as being art in all forms -- the human creativity is what I'm really fascinated by," Schnetlage said.

There are typically three big burns at Burning Man. On Friday night, there's usually a burn that changes from year to year and is centered on Burning Man's theme for the year. In 2010, for example, the theme was Metropolis, and a large structure resembling a skyline was torched.

Saturday night brings the main burn, the man, and the design of that structure changes yearly as well. The event begins with drummers and fire spinners as the crowd gathers and moves into a huge fireworks display. The man generally takes some time to light, but when it starts, the structure burns with an intensity that can leave the participants even 50 yards away sweaty and hot.

Sunday night is the temple burn, and all through the week, items are dropped off there to be burned: photos of loved ones, messages from people with issues they're having a hard time letting go.

"The temple burn is a very spiritual experience," said Saenz. "It's a letting go: letting go of the past, letting go of loved ones, letting go of resentments, it's a very healing experience."

The spiritual nature of the temple burn was echoed by Gonzalez.

"I went to the temple and found a lot of release of hurt from my past and when I left, I thought, I'm not sure if I'll come back, but if I come back, I'll help out. You can only go a first time once."

Getting people into and out of Black Rock City is a chore. The city lies outside Gerlach, Nev., about three-and-a-half hours outside Reno. The road to Gerlach is a simple two-lane road, with traffic backups that can run for miles, as cars, RVs and trucks loaded with equipment make their way to and from the burn.

Burning Man is a leave-no-trace event. Members of each camp are charged with cleaning up MOOP (Matter Out Of Place), a job that can last for hours.

"It's a pack in, pack out event," Oldani explained. "It's such an innovative concept -- it's not easy, but people do it."

Tickets ranged from $210 to $360 this year, depending on when they were bought. So many hopeful burners clog the organization's phone lines to get cheap tickets when they go on sale in January that the servers crashed and some people were literally on hold for half a day.

With 50,000 people expected at Black Rock City for the burn, dressed in every kind of outfit imaginable, one question begs to be answered: Are they rebellious or simply conforming in unconformity?

Both, according to Ciampi. Some people go out as a rebellious act, to, in his words, "put their finger up at the world," while others seek out a sense of community.

"There's no sense of pecking order. Everybody's the same and money's taken off the table," Ciampi said. "Where else can you just dress up and go crazy? You get to be anyone you want to be."

Burning Man also seems to be a way of life. Many people strive to bring back the ideals of the city -- radical self expression, gifting and a sense of being part of a larger community -- to what people call their default lives off the desert.

"I keep in touch with the Bay Area Burning Man tribe," Gonzalez said. "I affiliate myself with the East Bay burners."

10 ways to tell if your neighbor's a "burner"

1. A wistful look in the eyes at certain times of the year, especially at the beginning of August and end of September.

2. An unalterable schedule that requires a week off just before Labor Day.

3. She or he goes on a mysterious camping trip with a bunch of friends in the desert at the same time every year.

4. Your neighbor returns from that camping trip more tired than when he or she left.

5. Sunburn in unusual places.

6. A closet full of unusual clothes that never seem to get worn.

7. Feverish work on unexplained trinkets during the month of August.

8. Uncharacteristic mellowness for most of September.

9. A tendency to give unprovoked hugs before and after the trip.

10. A thick coat of dust on her or his car, body, hair, clothing and camping gear.

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