Black Rock City, Nevada is an ephemeral town that exists for only one week each year, during Burning Man, a radical arts festival. At its maximum occupancy, the town has about 60,000 citizens and a post office, an emergency services crew, a volunteer police department, roads, houses, bars, clubs, restaurants, and hundreds of art installations and participatory "theme camps". After a week, the city is completely disassembled – much of it burned – leaving the stark, white desert exactly as bare as it had been when the event started.
The Burning Man festival is an annual event started in San Francisco in 1986 and moved to the harsh and unforgiving Black Rock Desert of Nevada in 1990, where it continues today. The event happens each year in late August and early September, during the week before Labor Day weekend and over the weekend itself. Around 50,000 artists, partiers and eccentrics converge on the desert location – otherwise empty throughout the year – to create a temporary city on the desert lake bed ("The Playa"). The event culminates on Saturday night when the event's eponymous mascot – an 80-foot-tall anthropomorphic statue known affectionately as The Man – is set on fire in a huge bacchanalian party.
The Burning Man community, although widespread and anarchic, has some guiding principles (codified and exemplified in catch phrases) that make the event manageable and possible. First and foremost is the concept of "self-sufficiency". With few exceptions (see Buy below), there is "No Vending" of any kind in Black Rock City. Attendees are expected to bring along all their own food, water, shelter and any other supplies they need to live in the desert during the week. Most attendees are helpful and generous, but travellers should do as much research as possible before leaving for the desert in order to be ready.
An extension of this principle is the Leave No Trace policy; all attendees are expected to clean up any and all trash they create, including burned material, cigarette butts, sawdust or peanut shells. In previous years leftover detritus at the site of the event has caused alarm for the federal officials who provide the permits for it, and a strict policy of absolutely zero tolerance for leftover trash is needed to keep the event alive.
Burning Man is organized by a small group of volunteers and paid employees of the Burning Man organization, who deal with the local, state and federal officials in charge of the desert region, and who provide most of the infrastructure services such as emergency medical care and media relations. According to the principle of No Spectators, however, all Burning Man attendees are expected to participate in some way: by making art, by doing performances, by doing volunteer work, or just by being freaks. The idea is that spectators feel no ownership – or the consequent responsibility – for the event, while participants will consider the event their own, and will act as responsibly as if they were throwing the party themselves. In fact, they are! There's some "us vs. them" feeling between participants and the "Org", but by and large the No Spectators concept ensures smooth operation and wide participation. A "burner" is common title or descriptor for a participant of this event and this community.
Lastly, the community encourages radical self-expression. There's an "anything goes" atmosphere, pretty much only limited by legal and safety concerns as well as respect for other participants. Nudity is widespread – although many participants will decorate their bodies with paint or ornaments. As a component of the "anything goes" atmosphere of personal freedom and personal choice, drug use is common, though generally discreet. Furthermore, out of respect for other participants and their individual choices, it would be very unusual for anyone attending the event to ever feel any pressure towards drug use whatsoever. Alcohol, however, is plentiful, and free bars exist throughout the city. Fundamental elements of the festival are individual choice and personal freedom. Numerous art projects on the Playa have an element of danger; and the use of fire in art is quite common, as well as explosives or other dangerous substances. Many participants speak later of the life-changing nature of the Burning Man experience: that the experience of self-expression changes the way they look at the world.
The City itself is laid out in a circle – centering on the Man – about one and a half miles in diameter. The center of the circle is empty desert, punctuated by large art installations. Participants live on a series of 8-10 circular streets that ring the outer edge of the circle; about 20 radial streets cross these at various points. The inner 2-3 streets are reserved for registered theme camps: groups who build large structures and installations with a particularly "interactive" point. Theme camps are open to the public for investigation and use; a typical theme camp has 20-50 members, but some grow to hundreds of campers. Some groups of theme camps agglomerate into villages, which usually share an overarching meta-theme.
The street names change each year, based on the theme of that year's event. Combined with the fact that the city is torn down and rebuilt each year, so that different services and theme camps are located at wildly different places in the city, this makes for a lot of disorientation and difficulty in finding friends and cohorts. Participants argue that this can make travelling around the City more adventurous; it definitely leads to serendipitous discoveries. The night of the annual burning of the Man, participants take away all existing street signs as souvenirs - much like matchbooks - making navigation even more confusing.
Some things are constant, though, in an unofficial way. The radial streets are usually labeled according to clock time (e.g., "10:00" or "4:30"), and spaced about every half-hour. A large circular village known as Center Camp is (almost always) located at 6:00 on the circle; most of the Burning Man organizations services are located here. Other villages are usually placed near 9:00 and 3:00. The innermost circular street – which looks out directly to the central desert area – is called The Esplanade; most of the bigger theme camps line this street. And, of course, The Man is always dead in the center of the City, a convenient landmark.
The Black Rock Desert is an extremely harsh environment. Temperatures are regularly over 100°F, with no natural shade, and almost zero percent humidity. Hundreds of Burning Man participants are treated for dehydration every year; all attendees should drink about 4 liters of water per day, one of which has added electrolytes. More important survival information is available in the Burning Man Survival Guide, a copy of which is given to each participant.
Black Rock City is in the remote Black Rock Desert about 120 miles north of Reno, Nevada. Most travellers arrive by car, bus, truck, RV, or other motor conveyance. From Reno, take Interstate 80 east to exit 43 (Wadworth), then highway 447 north about 100 miles to Gerlach. Head east (right) at the fork in the road north of Gerlach, and exit onto the Black Rock Desert after about 11 miles (signs should be posted). Note that while without traffic the drive takes 2-3 hours, this does not apply during the peak arrival and exodus times, when it can take several times as long. It is best not to think of the drive taking a discrete number of hours, but rather that you will arrive when you arrive. The festival requires all participants to hold tickets; they run about $240–420, and can be significantly cheaper if purchased early in the year. Less expensive tickets are also made available through their Low Income program.
Attendees from locations too far away for driving usually fly to Reno or San Francisco and either rent cars or other vehicles there, or hook up with locals for rides. Rideshare boards are available on the Burning Man Web site. There are special air shuttles offered this year through Advantage Flight Solutions from Reno and the Bay Area directly to the Black Rock desert for a reasonable price.
The Green Tortoise Bus Company runs a few bus tours from San Francisco to Black Rock City during the event; food, shelter, and transportation are all provided in the tour package.
Black Rock City creates its own airport (88NV) for small private planes, run by volunteers. The field is a (very hard-packed) dry lake; most flying clubs do not allow non-emergency landings by rental planes on dirt fields. Mountainous desert regions are extremely dangerous for inexperienced and experienced pilots alike, and it's not recommended to fly into this airport unless you are experienced with desert flying.
Once participants have arrived in Black Rock City, they are expected to leave their cars or other motor vehicles parked and travel around the city under their own power. Cars should only be used in an emergency, or when leaving or entering the city. Law enforcement officials and the Black Rock Rangers will stop vehicles and may give you a ticket.
Bicycles are de rigueur for most BRC citizens; the fine alkali dust of the Playa rapidly penetrates all moving parts and can cause damage to bikes if not cleaned and oiled several times over the week, so bring either a cheap one that you don't care much about or be prepared to do maintenance. A lock is also important; many bikes every year are "accidentally" borrowed and later abandoned, or stolen outright. Many people choose lightweight combination locks for the ease of not carrying a key and because these are generally sufficient to prevent other participates from confusing your bike for theirs.
The most suitable types of bikes are hybrid, low-end "mountain," and cruiser bikes. The Playa sand can be very soft and/or bumpy in places, so wide tires are highly preferred. Bikes should have a kickstand, as many camps will not have bike parking (or it may be full).
Lighting is very important for bicycles at night, both for the rider and others. At a minimum bicycles should have bright front and rear lights, and many participates will decorate their bikes extensively with LEDs.
Walking is also a great way to get around; although slower, it's easier to stop and see the many sights if you don't have a big clunky bike to park, lock, unload, etc.
Radically-altered motor vehicles called art cars are an exception to the no-cars rule in BRC. These cars – or buses, or trucks, or what have you – must be permanently and creatively altered to qualify for the exemption. They must also be licensed by the Black Rock City DMV (Department of Mutant Vehicles), and if running at night must be extremely well-lit in order to prevent human-vehicle accidents.
Many art cars have high passenger capacity and will pick up participants on the Playa for a ride, but don't expect or demand a ride from anyone. Use caution when boarding or disembarking from any moving vehicle on-playa. While all vehicles within the event's perimeter are required to drive slowly, this does not mean the vehicle is safe to leap from. In 2003, a participant died after falling from an art car.
The art installations and theme camps present at Burning Man change, sometimes radically, each year. Those listed below may or may not be present, or may be significantly altered. You can check the Who, When, Where guide – available at the Gate of Black Rock City or at the "Playa Info" tent in Center Camp – for locations of theme camps and other installations. (Note, though, that theme camps' descriptions are self-reported, and usually greatly exaggerate the interest-factor of the camp.)
- The Man. Mathematical center of Black Rock City. First created in 1986 by Burning Man founder Larry Harvey, this is central art piece and symbol of the Burning Man event: a 50-foot-tall anthropomorphic wooden statue with a triangle-shaped head, mounted on a pedestal or stand that changes with each year's theme. The Man is lit by neon at night, and due to its location can be seen from most of Black Rock City. Usually you can climb up onto the pedestal and get a good view of the rest of the City from there, but ask the Black Rock Rangers at the Man before climbing up. Despite its name, the Man is purposefully androgynous, or, rather, sexless.
- The Temple. Somewhat past the Man on the main road from Center Camp. Since 2001, artist David Best has created monumental structures on the Playa in the form of 3- or 4-story temples. Although the design, name, and nominal purpose changes each year, the Temple is usually dedicated to lost friends and relatives. The Temple is a beautiful and meditative place to spend a few minutes during the day or night.
Other art can be seen in the central Playa area surrounding the Man. Typically there are 40-50 art installations of various complexity and interactivity on the central Playa. Usually, a wandering path on bicycle or on foot can turn up any number of hidden treasures; ask other participants for this year's "must see" piece.
Burning Man has a "No Spectators" philosophy so, theoretically, everyone should be "Doing" something most of the time. Many camps revolve around some participatory activity. There is an official calendar of events, but not everything on it happens, and many things not on it do. Some of the favorites include:
- Yoga Several camps offer yoga sessions, both "serious" and silly.
- Morning run
- Body Painting
- Fire Dancing
- Belly Dancing
- Seminars on anything from world affairs to love potions
- Arts and Crafts
- Meditation There are daily meditation sessions at sunrise and sunset
- Weddings Legal, temporary, faux, and every other possible combination. Get married to your true love by a legal minister or marry yourself to a sock.
- Massage - ranging from legitimate bodywork to Reiki to Rake-i.e. to "You look tense, let me rub your shoulders in my tent"
- Thunderdome Watch some of the greatest warriors of our time battle for their lives
- Roller Disco Enjoy some funk-a-fide jams as you skate the rink (skates provided for all burners)
Because of the no-vending rule, there's really not all that much to buy in Black Rock City. However, many artists, performers and participants bring trinkets of various worth to the event – pins, stickers, buttons, clothes, jewelry, doodads and tchochkees – to gift to other people there. Stopping to talk with anyone at a theme camp or at an art installation will probably garner you a tchotchke of some kind. Bringing your own personalized trinkets, or commercial products like cans of beer or sticks of lip balm, to give away or trade can help grease the wheels when meeting new people.
There are a few places you can spend US tender, however. One is at the Center Camp Cafe (see below) for coffee and other snacks. Another is Camp Arctica (in Center Camp and at the 9 o'clock and 3 o'clock plazas), where Burning Man volunteers sell bags of ice at $3 a pop for participants to use. (The short lifespan of ice in the desert, even in the best of coolers, makes this nod to commercialism an unfortunate necessity.) RV service trucks can be flagged down, as well, to pump greywater and sewage tanks. This costs $50 (cash), or more, depending on RV size.
Outside of these select situations, vending of any kind, including barter exchange for goods and services (including illegal substances) is, by general communal consent, frowned upon. This can range from "trade you some of my poetry for some of your food, man" to "yo, I gots lots of goodies for sale, come back to my camp". Most individuals will automatically assume that anyone requesting to purchase anything, from food to water to ice cream to illegal substances, is either a new participant who didn't bother to read the Burning Man website, or (in the case of requests for purchase/sale of illegal substances) law enforcement officers. In either case, while vending does occur at the event, it's generally considered classless on par with selling life insurance at a funeral home.
To avoid this, most participants purchase all of their items prior to entering the event, and/or make do throughout the week without the things they didn't bring.
In keeping with the non-commercial, self-sufficient nature of Burning Man, there are (with one exception) no food stores or restaurants within the borders of Black Rock City. Participants are expected to bring in all the food they need for the week, as well as any cooking equipment needed to prepare it.
That said, many theme camps give away food on a daily basis or have special events with free food. Scan the theme camp listings and the Who What Where event guide for details. Talking to neighbors can also garner invitations to more informal meals.
- Center Camp Cafe, Center Camp (large circular canvas tent in the middle of Center Camp circle). Open 24 hours. Run by the Burning Man organization and staffed with volunteers, this large dusty cafe is one of the very few places in Black Rock City where money changes hands. Only specialty coffee drinks and tea drinks are available (no food). There are also musical performances at all times of day or night, as well as yoga classes and the like. You can meet veterans and newcomers alike in the Cafe. $3–5 (per item).
- Black Rock Diner. Grilled cheese sandwiches and good vibrations served from midnight until the supplies run out.
Again, non-commercialism means there are no paid bars in Black Rock City. However, a large number of bars exist at Burning Man. Participants can walk up and order or be given a drink at any of these bars scattered around the city, but most will have supplies limited to a house specialty drink or a few hard liquor choices and mixers. Barter bars depend on donations from "customers" to keep going; providing ice, cups, mixer, liquor, limes or entertainment will make you a much more welcome guest.
- Golden Cafe. Is generally open days only and has the only true glassware on the playa. Live music (no covers) improvised between house and guest musicians. Sometimes runs a candlelit supper club at night (reservations must be made in advance), and is said to have introduced the first live lobster tank to Burning Man. Lucifer is the proprietor.
- Hair of the Dog (also known as "Spanky's Bar"). Open 24 hours, more or less. A venerable establishment in BRC, HOTD is a large and spacious bar with a number of couches and tables for guests. Musical groups perform on the provided stage. Bar owner Spanky is friendly and knowledgeable.
- Black Rock Brewery. Is a collaboration by home brewers from many other theme camps, producing ales, ginger beer, lavender mead, and other strange brews which they distribute around the city.
- Newt's Bar, Blue Light District. Hours vary; usually open in the afternoons or around dusk. Features a wide variety of cocktails, and occasonally Newt's delicious homebrew beers and wines. The Blue Light District is home to many of the oldest of the old-timers in the Burning Man community, and most of them hang out at Newt's at least part of the day. A great education can be had from any of your neighbors at this bar.
There are no paid accommodations in Black Rock City. Participants should bring their own camping accoutrements such as a tent and sleeping bag; it's also a good idea to have some sort of shade structure to make napping during the heat of the day bearable.
Many theme camps feature a "chill space" or other area for lounging. In a pinch, these can make for good naptime stopovers during the day or night, but don't overstay your welcome or you might have some problems with the locals.
- 1 the Grand Hotel at Ashram Galactica, Address varies; 2015 address was 6:15 & Ersatz. Rooms are gifted by raffle to denizens of BRC in nightly drawing. Tickets are given away from 8-10 by the concierge and the drawing is held at 10:30pm or thereabouts. n/a.
Black Rock City is not without danger. The odds are unlikely that you will suffer a major catastrophe, but every year something bad does happen to a handful of people. Black Rock City is far more regulated than it once was (much to the dismay of many jaded old burners) but it is still on the fringes of being a lawless society.
- There are multiple art installations and interactive creations throughout the city that aren't exactly "OSHA compliant". Be aware of the stability of the structures around you, especially in the event of a wind storm. A giant unstable shade structure (sometimes weighing hundreds to thousands of pounds) can be sent flying through the air if attached to a parachute or something similar. The wind can be VERY powerful there and if someone doesn't properly secure their camp people can be severely injured.
- There is a "Burning Man Survival" guide. It is important to read this guide and take it seriously. It outlines the basic necessities to be self-sufficient and survive the event.
- There is widespread drug use at the event; it is an open environment but do not tempt fate. There is law enforcement, and they WILL arrest you if they see you in possession of, or especially selling or purchasing. Don't be stupid. Also be leery of any drugs randomly offered to you by strangers.
- Make SURE that you drink enough water so that you are pissing clear (the name of a local event newspaper is "Piss Clear". The desert environment at a high altitude will make you EXTREMELY sick if you do not respect it and take proper precautions.
- Don't be a darkwad. Always illuminate yourself at night unless you want to risk getting hit by thousands of people flying across the playa on bicycles, motorized scooters, and art cars ranging from tiny to enormous. As the population increases, so does the traffic. But remember, glowsticks create garbage, so use LEDs and/or ElectroLuminescent wire.
- Black Rock City is an accepting, open, fun-loving community full of great people. Unfortunately as in any other city in the world there will always be a few bad seeds. There have occasionally been rapes, and bicycles and other things will end up stolen from a few unlucky people. Just remember that if you are in trouble, yell for help! People there absolutely WILL help you.
- Remember when driving to, or exiting the event, to be patient. It is only a two-lane road, and passing is difficult. Many people are driving huge, awkward loads, that are not properly secured. The key is just to be patient, stay in line, and you'll eventually get there. People look like huge jerks when they take off flying down the other lane in no-passing zones just so they can get two cars ahead in the SAME line. This endangers the locals who use those roads too. Be a courteous driver!
- Avoid trampolines.
To minimize the impact of the event on nearby communities (not least to minimize levels of airborne dust), participants are expected not to leave and re-enter Black Rock City except in case of emergency. To leave the event and re-enter in a car, a $20-per-person fee is charged each time.
Buses do leave Center Camp once or twice a day for trips to the nearby towns of Gerlach and Empire; they require a $10-per-person payment. Empire has a small store for buying groceries or camping supplies, but it has a meager selection.
The exodus from the event on Sunday and Monday is notoriously traffic-ridden and crowded, as practically all participants try to leave on the same one-lane road off the desert at the same time. Waits of up to 6 hours to travel the 10 miles or so to the blacktop are not unheard of. Veterans often leave on Saturday – before the Burn – or wait until Tuesday when the event is officially concluded.