"This creed of the desert seemed inexpressible in words. And indeed in thought." —T.E. Lawrence, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom
It took some convincing to get me to Burning Man, even though—or because—friends couldn’t shut up about it. Their pictures were intriguing, sure, but the camp back then resembled nothing so much as the costumey parking lot of a Grateful Dead show.
Not a sell for me. And I like people fine, but when I go camping I generally hope to see fewer of them. Finally, worn down by heartfelt entreaties—and especially the assurances from my great friend John Law, a main mover in the festival’s start-up era—I drove overnight from San Francisco and made the Black Rock Desert shortly after dawn.
What I will never forget about that first trip to northwest Nevada was striking out onto the playa, the vast, vacant deceased lake bed. It was 1994—the ninth Burning Man, the fifth in the desert—a time before cell phones, and the map of the area I was headed to was blank. Directions? Look for the second traffic cone and a line of those small red-flag wire thingies. Leave the road. Drive eight miles, turn right for two more. Really, that was it.
Five minutes out, I found myself in an alkaline whiteout, partly of my own making because of the rooster tail of dirt I was kicking up. When I finally made camp it felt like an achievement, and I had adrenaline to burn. So, despite being sleep deprived, I wrapped a kaffiyeh around my head and took off on a walk.
Immediately, I started to get what I’d been missing: the almost gravitational communal spirit (needed for survival) and the permission, even insistence, to get your freak on. Everyone seemed busy: erecting tepees, hanging wind socks, painting their bodies. It was Montessori for grown-ups, in the most astonishing void.
Eighteen years later, tens of thousands have made the pilgrimage, some a bit too avidly, it’s fair to say. As the event grew, a pop-up metropolis formed—Black Rock City, whose population this year may top 60,000. The outfit that stages the festival, Black Rock City LLC, is now a $23 million-per-year concern with 40 full-time employees, hundreds of volunteers, and a non-profit arts foundation that doles out grants. Demand for tickets is so great, the organizers used a lottery system this spring. That turned out to be a mistake. Big-time artists and veteran volunteers were shut out, while scalpers ran the tickets ($250 face value) up to $1,000 on eBay.
For Burning Man’s principals, the ticket fiasco was merely the latest crisis they’ve had to overcome to keep the dance going. They’ve been faced with such challenges every year, it seems, and somehow they’ve always managed to meet the task—or to finagle someone who could.