When a crowd of less than two dozen people watched an eight-foot wooden man burn on Baker Beach during the Summer Solstice of 1986, could any of them have possibly imagined that the ritual would repeat itself 25 years later in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert before a sold-out crowd of more than 50,000 people?
Even if man-builder Larry Harvey could have dreamed that big and strangely — and, most assuredly, he did not — it’s even harder to imagine the dimensions, staying power, and creativity of the massive temporal city that has formed up around the Man, Black Rock City, or the impact that it’s had on the hundreds of thousands of people who have cycled through it.
I first attended Burning Man in 2001, when the event was half its current size and when the country’s sociopolitical landscape was about to undergo a profound and lasting change, with 9/11 and the launching of a war in Afghanistan that continues to his day. It is against that backdrop that this culture — with its core values of self-expression, communal effort, and rejection of commodification — has flourished.
I’ve had the privilege of closely covering Burning Man and its many leaders and luminaries continuously since 2004, when I launched a long series of Guardian articles that later evolved into my book, The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture (2011, CCC Publishing), so I’ve had plenty of time to ponder what has always seemed to me the central question: Why?
Why do so many people devote so much of their time, energy, and resources to preparing for the pilgrimage to the playa? And we’re talking months worth of work, in drab workspaces around the Bay Area, sacrificing other social and economic opportunities and sometimes even their sanity. Why do they do it, and why do so many burners find that experience so transformative?
There are, of course, the obvious answers. There’s the mind-blowing art pieces, which seem to get more ambitious and innovative each year. It’s also the greatest party on the planet, a truly 24-7 city with engaged citizens exploring endless options, all offered for free. Then there’s the surreal setting, the DIY spirit, the gift economy, the experiments in urbanism and community, its smoldering sensuality, and an endless list of other appeals.
And that’s all great, but I’ve come to believe that there’s something else at the core of the question: Why do we do this? We do it because we have to, because we can’t think of any sane way to respond to the insanity of modern American life. So we pursue our mad visions, and organize our lives and social circles around that pursuit, collectively building a fake, doomed city in the desert that seems to us so much more real and authentic and purposeful than anything the default world is providing.
We do it because it’s become our home, a place that is now an important part of who we are. And we at the Guardian hope the burners among you find some useful tidbits in our first-ever playa prep guide.