The Burning Man Guide

27 August - 6 September 2011. Filed under category Travel.
Larry Harvey, Burning Man founder.

Larry Harvey, Burning Man founder.

Burning Man is a unique and annual festival that I first went to in 2009. I immediately fell in love with it. It was like opening your sock drawer and finding a fist-sized diamond. What so fascinated me was the near impossibility of it being there, as well as its natural beauty and craftsmanship. It became a truly life-changing event.

I will break up this post in two parts. This first part deals with what you can see and do at Burning Man. The next focuses on the ten principles of Burning Man. Alone, neither makes much sense; together they provide only reflection of the true splendour of this gem. No matter the effort, Burning Man is beyond the power of any pen or camera to capture. It has to be experienced. Nevertheless, I can try.

Humble Origins at Baker Beach

Burning Man started 1986 when Larry Harvey (eternal godfather of Burning Man) gathered twenty friends on Baker Beach in San Francisco, built a wooden statue of a man and burnt it as the culmination of a small one-day fire festival. The original motivation for this seems lost in a mist of misinformation, but the official stand is that it was a summer solstice celebration. (Wicked tongues say Larry burnt an effigy of his ex-girlfriend in a fit of jealous rage, but let us not propel such unfounded speculations.)

The burning of the Man became an annual event and rapidly grew in size until 1990 when the police prevented the burn due to the obvious fire risk. The crowd’s natural reaction to this was to take the Man, drive hours into the most inhospitable part of the Black Rock desert and burn it there. In doing this, they founded Black Rock City.

Black Rock City

Burning Man Aerial Photo

Burning Man Aerial Photo

Black Rock City is a unique city in that it only exists one week out of each year, during which it hosts Burning Man. For the majority of the year, the location is an indistinguishable part of the inhospitable Black Rock Desert with not a trace of life. However, during Burning Man, the city rises out of the dust like the phoenix out of the ashes and boasts a population reaching up to fifty-five thousand citizens! (Yes, it is officially a city with its very own postcode.)

Due to its temporary nature, Black Rock City is not built out of bricks and mortar. Instead, the citizens primarily live in tents and motorhomes. Many also group together to create themed camps and those often have larger structures like domes or Bedouin tents.

Black Rock City has a unique clock-like layout. The Man stands in the centre and from him run roads like spokes on a wheel. These are named after whole and half hours of the clock, running from 2 o’clock to 10 o’clock. There are also concentric roads named alphabetically from A to L. Addresses in Black Rock City are thus written as, for example, 2:30&B. The innermost concentric road is the Esplanade, and it encircles a large open area, the Playa, which is an enormous art gallery and playground.

Black Rock City is huge. The Playa has a diameter of 1.6km, the outermost liveable road, L, has a diameter of 3.1km and the deep Playa stretches out to a diameter of 5km!

Black Rock City Landscape

Black Rock City Landscape

The Man, the Camp and the Temple

The Man

The Man

There are three main structures at Burning Man that return each year, in varying guises. The most obvious is the Man. He stands as a beacon at the centre of Black Rock City, and you are welcome to fill him with whatever significance your eager little heart can muster. However, don’t grow too attached because on the Saturday of the event, the Man must burn! This he does to the cheering and partying of almost everyone at the festival.

The second is Center Camp, located at 6:00&Esplanade. Center Camp is a large circus tent that serves many purposes, for example as an art gallery, open stage, café and a place to hang out. Center Camp stands out as one of the few large structures at Burning Man that the fire-loving population does not burn.

Then there is the Temple, located at 12:00&Esplanade. This is a nondenominational temple for quiet contemplation, prayer or meditation. Many write heartfelt messages on the walls of the Temple, usually expressing something that they wish to honour or release. Many of the messages deal with the loss of a loved one. Some people bring photographs or even the ashes of their dearly departed and leave them at the Temple.

The Temple burns on the last day of Burning Man. The Temple burn is very different from the burning of the Man. There is no music or cheering. Instead, thousands of people sit and watch in silence. The only thing you can hear is the crackling of the fire and perhaps somebody’s quiet sobs. It is deeply moving and my personal highlight each year.

Centre Camp

Center Camp

Inside Center Camp

Inside Center Camp

The Temple

The Temple

Click to see a video of the Man/Temple burns.

Click to see a video of the Man and the Temple burn.

Theme Camps

The Burning Man organization creates the basic infrastructure of Black Rock City, e.g. roads and toilets. The organization also builds the Man and Center Camp as well as gives grants to artists to build the Temple and other large art installations. The majority of the city, however, is built by the Black Rock citizens. Thanks to their unrivalled creativity and imagination, there is more to see and do at Burning Man than you could ever fit into one week. Theme camps range from the useful (At Solar Station, you can recharge your cameras using their solar panels.) to the bizarre (The Barbie Death Camp is dedicated to the mass torture and eradication of Barbie dolls). Some theme camps mix the two. (The Pony Girl Express has volunteering women dress up as ponies and deliver intra-city mail.) Some camps are for pure enjoyment, such as the many varied bars that give out alcohol and huge parties like the Opulent Temple. My personal favourite is the Mad Max inspired Thunderdome. If you have a score to settle with someone, go there with your adversary, get strapped up in bungee jump ropes within the dome and beat each other with padded sticks to the cheering and jeering of a mad crowd hanging off the sides of the dome.

Crucify that Barbie!

Crucify that Barbie!

Arbeit Macht Plastique Frei

Arbeit Macht Plastique Frei

How firmly is that attached, dear?

How firmly is that attached, dear?

Click to see Thunderdome fights!

Click to see Thunderdome fights!

Art

Art is everywhere at Burning Man. However, the art looks and feels very different from the art you’re likely to find in a normal gallery. The art at Burning Man is often large, interactive, climbable and somehow involves a flamethrower. Like everything else at Burning Man, you are encouraged to participate, not just spectate.

Nothing is duller than listening to someone talk about the art they’ve seen, but I’ve got two favourite examples that give a good sense of the kind of art that is created there.

The first is from 2009, where a giant metal butterfly balanced on top of a tall metal cone. With a bit of skill, you could climb up the cone and out onto the butterfly wings, earning yourself a fantastic view of the city. The butterfly also spun around with the cone as the axis, giving the people hanging off the butterfly wings a thrilling ride. Large, climbable, interactive.

An awesome piece this year was Charon, a giant upturned wheel with equidistantly spaced skeletons in varied positions of rowing lining the inside of the wheel. On either side of the wheel, giant pulleys and ropes invited the public to heave-and-ho, making the wheel go faster and faster. When enough speed and energy had been collected, a stroboscope engages, lighting up one skeleton at a time. The wheel seems stationary while the skeletons look animated and rowing down the river Styx. Large, interactive, awesome.

The butterfly (2009)

The butterfly (2009)

Dancing Lady (2010)

Bliss Dance (2010)

Whispering Manikins (2010)

Whispering Manikins (2010)

At night, everything is lit up.

At night, everything is lit up.

They only eat children.

They only eat children.

Trojan Horse

Trojan Horse

Charon

Charon

Transportation

Exploring Burning Man on foot is great, but Black Rock City is huge, so you’ll want to bring a bicycle. (Light it and yourself so you don’t get run over at night!)

There is a public transport system at Burning Man, but it is as unreliable as it is fun. Although normal vehicles like cars and motorcycles are prohibited, certain vehicles, ‘art cars’, are given special permission. An art car is any vehicle that has been mutated in some artistic way. They range from the small one-person sized Dalek to huge pirate ships sailing the sand dunes. The large art cars are usually open for anyone to jump on and off as they please, but there is no telling where it might go. Who cares? You are at Burning Man and the immediate experience of dancing on top of the roof of a moving steam-punk house is what counts!

Some art cars are also moving dance clubs, pumping out beats through their huge speakers.

Steampunk Motorhome (2009)

Neverwas Haul (2009)

Spider Vehicle (2010)

Spider Vehicle (2010)

Party Yacht!

Party Yacht!

Me vs. Dalek

Me vs. Dalek

Giant vs. Tiny Teeth

Giant vs. Tiny Teeth

Charlie the Unicorn

Charlie the Unicorn

Dead Cow

Dead Cow

Flame-throwing Scorpion

Flame-throwing Scorpion

Sex, drugs and flower-powered hippies?

South Park's View on Hippies

The most common misconception I get from people who have heard about Burning Man but never visited is that Burning Man is a hippie festival where weirdoes go to get high on a witches brew of drugs and granola before chanting their way through an orgy.

The sex, the drugs and the hippies are all there, so if that is what you are looking for, then welcome and enjoy. However, Burning Man also features a child-friendly area called Kidsville, a seldom-mentioned fact in the news. As always, take what you hear in today’s sensation-oriented media with a pinch of salt.

The point is that Burning Man offers something to everyone, from sluts to saints. This makes it an excellent place for self-discovery. So which is it: slut or saint? Come find out!

Next Post

This part of my Burning Man guide focused on what you might see and do at Black Rock City. However, the heart of Burning Man is the community, and to understand it we must look at the ten guiding principles of Burning Man, which is the topic of part two.

When is Burning Man?

Burning Man takes place the week prior to and including Labor Day weekend. This means it is usually at the end of August and start of September.

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What is your favourite Burning Man memory?

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  1. Patent Pending says:

    I love what you’ve written! Keep it going, please. As a no-longer-Birgin, I can’t seem to get enough.

  2. kimera azriel says:

    The pony express is mentioned here !!!! We love you!!!

  3. Pip says:

    I now realise that I knew nothing about Burning Man – enlightening. Thanks darling. I especially love the “Me vs Dalek” pic. You’re looking HOT! How was the wedding?

    1. Pip – you still know nothing about Burning Man… and you won’t until you go! So when can we expect to see you there? :)

      The wedding was nerve-wracking, and nothing went according to plan, apart from the fact that we actually managed to get married in the end, so nothing else mattered :)

      Rich

      1. Pip says:

        CONGRATULATIONS to you both! Sending lots of love and wishes for laughter, love and happiness in abundance. xxx

  4. Gustav, the Modern Nomad says:

    I’ve just edited the post slightly to take into account the following correction that one of my readers (I love you!) sent me:

    Your statement that Burning Man provides three things, and the community does the rest is not entirely accurate. Burning Man does not provide the Temple. Artists must submit art proposals to vie for the opportunity to contruct the temple, and then the winning design is awarded an art grant by BMORG to make it happen. The same goes for the large scale art that you see on the playa. Burning Man provides much more than just Center Camp and the Man. There is an airport, medical facilities, playa information computers, ice stations, they map out the streets, provide the portopotties, etc. Basically, they provide the entire infrastructure,and the citizens do the rest.

    Thanks for the input. I hope the edited parts (Too numerous to point out in-line.) will reflect the above correction.

  5. BrotherMichael says:

    I have been to Burning Man for twelve consecutive years. Every year is a little different. Burning Man is so many things, it can be a different experience for every person who attends.
    However, I can say without a doubt, one of the most magical and fulfilling things that has ever happened to me at Burning Man, one of my favorite Burning Man experiences, is that I met Gustav there.
    Our entire relationship is not completely “of this world”. It has always had an aspect of something that denies the regular laws of reality, as does the playa itself. When I returned home after the first time I met Gustav on the playa… I had many moments where I had to wonder if meeting him was just a dream. That when the city disappeared from the face of the earth after the event, that I would wake up to realize that he was just something I dreamed up. The truth: I’m still not sure.

    1. Gustav, the Modern Nomad says:

      I share the experience of our meeting somehow sidestepping normal reality and my normal frame of mind. Michael has an uncanny ability to go straight for the heart and draw forth tears of joy, like now. So thanks a lot for watering down my morning coffee, you big handsome angel!

      I love you, forcefully and forever.

  6. Paul says:

    Loved the blog again Gustav… SO wish I could see BM sometime… looks like quite an experience! Will have to come with cubling sometime. Again, you make make sub-Saharan Surrey in the home counties of England look positively freeeezing and dull! lol lol lol – enjoy!

  7. Chris Dunphy says:

    This is a fabulous writeup of Burning Man, and you have some great photography too.

    And — I totally love your blog design. Beautiful and clean.

    Best wishes from another nomadic burner,

    – Chris

  8. Maida says:

    Wickedly cool! You write so well. I am now eager to check this festival out next year. Have you always been such a great writer?

    1. Gustav, the Modern Nomad says:

      Oh no! You should have seen the scribbles I made as a toddler. Utterly unintelligible.

  9. sara raintree says:

    Great info well told! One suggestion, when discribing distances in Km also include miles for the American readers. Thanks.

  10. Hilari Scarl says:

    My favorite Burning Man memory was standing in line late at night to scale The Man. I had the gift of meeting Carol the Beautiful, who was celebrating her 90th birthday on the playa. She had on her miner’s light, but her smile lit up the night. She scampered up the man at an astonishing clip, not needing a bit of assistance. Carol – you are my inspiration and truly one of my highlights during my virgin burn.
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/hilariphotos/6124356653/in/photostream

  11. Calico says:

    Ten years in a row on the Playa, and my favorite memory is still from my second year. My Lady is in a wheelchair with numerous issues. I went the first year alone to see what I would have to do for her to go.

    We arrived on Monday for her first year, on Wednesday evening she turned to me and said “I’m sorry, but I am coming here ever year for now on… if you go or not!”. Nothing has made me happier than hearing her say that to me!

    We missed it this year, only because she has been in the hospital since Aug 3rd (Recovering from surgery for an aortic aneurism & loosing both kidneys!!!)

    We will be there next year.. as soon as we figure out how to handle her needing Dialysis every other day! (any suggestions???)

    1. Gustav, the Modern Nomad says:

      I love hearing these stories about overcoming difficulties to get to Burning Man. The burner spirit burns bright, does it not?

      Dialysis. Tough one. Try sending an e-mail to 911(at)burningman(dot)com and ask for suggestions from them.

      My thoughts go out to you and your Lady and I hope for a swift recovery!

      1. at1ment says:

        Dialysis on the playa? Indeed a tough one. But if anyone or any group can solve it I’m betting on Burning Man. Stay tuned.

  12. [...] like to understand the basics without having to wade through a mass of opinion-laden material.  The Burning Man Guide and Principles of Burning Man each do a credible job of presenting in simple terms a concept that [...]

  13. at1ment says:

    Loved your Burning Man write-up. This was my first year and I had a totally wonderful experience. Like you, many of my friends wanted to hear about it so I wrote up something surprisingly similar to yours. Here is my Burning Man report on Google docs.

    1. Calico says:

      Your write up is awesome!

      Most importantly is the link to the dimensions app…. actually makes BRC seem smaller to me… but then I regularly bicycle 5 times that distance… daily!!! And I have friends that WALK 6 times that a couple of times a month! I overlaid it with downtown LA… BRC covers the area from the 110 to the 5 to the 10!!!!!

      Of course I compared the Glasonbury festival… its about HALF the size of Black Rock City! Then again the Kumbh Mela festival covers the area from near long beach to ventura!

      Thanks for both!!!

  14. Loli says:

    The butterfly you mention is “Portal of Evolution” by Bryan Tedrick. check out his website. He has been a funded artist at BM for many years. 2011 was the tall burn barrel called “Orgasm”. you can go to BM website: Honorarium art for each year and see the titles and the artists names…we like to acknowledge them! Great article! thanks

  15. Jasper says:

    Hey, I remember you! I was the one that let you use the sonic screwdriver to fight the Dalek! :D Short guy, longish hair. I don’t know if you remember me, but I want you to know that fighting that Dalek with you was one of my favorite experiences at the Burn. :D

    1. Gustav, the Modern Nomad says:

      Phew! That was a close call, wasn’t it? I thought I was toast for sure before you tossed me that sonic screwdriver! Thanks for saving my ass!

  16. Mr. Lucky says:

    I know one of the “Wicked Tongues”, who was there, and believe their story more than the sanitized version. After all, Larry Harvey’s only human.

    But I still appreciate your take on the rest of meaning, and find that my favorite BM memory changes every time I go, this being my 8th since 2001.

  17. neil says:

    Hiya Gustav

    I just wanted to say how much pleasure I am getting from reading this blog and watching the videos.
    What a journey man, big big thanks.
    I heard about Burning Man years ago from hippy friends of mine and could think of anything worse to do in my whole life!!!!!
    Then I met a dear friend ( last Nov in LA ) who who had a friend that had been doing it for years, I was open to the possibility of it being not bad, in August I heard about it saw pics of it and then was drawn to your blog about ‘nomading’ ( am one too, in my heart, and have been afflicted with insanity where I stay in a place I have out grown for far to long.
    However there is good news I have been ‘travelling’ around London at least for now, for the last 18 months. currently I’m in Hoxton, just outside the city, its a wonderful vibrant place, I love it :)
    I am making plans already to be at BM next year as it was a little toooooo ‘impulsive’ to go this year.
    I love the blog and the motivation and spark reading it has re-lit in myself.
    sincerest thanks
    Neil xx

  18. Jason Athen says:

    Wow i found this post extremely informative! Thank you for sending me the link. Now where can i buy Previously Purchased Tickets?

    1. Check out the Burning Man Ticket page. That should have all the information you need.

  19. S. says:

    hello! Im 19 and from the Philippines. Ive never heard of Burning Man before until I came upon it on your site. Initially I thought it was just some sort of race (forgive my ignorance). But after going through some of your BM related posts, I could not believe how such an incredible event actually exists! It’s something I hope to personally experience someday and I hope I get to bump into you at Black Rock city when that day finally comes. So thank you for taking the time to document all these exciting experiences in your nomadic life and in turn stir the wandering soul in people like me who have yet to truly experience what the world has to offer. The idea of being a nomad was always something I find myself mulling over and though the thought of becoming one feels so liberating, I honestly dont know if I have the guts to do what youve been doing for four (FOUR!) years. Your courage is unbelievably inspiring.

    1. Wow, thank you! I write this blog to inspire others to reach a bit further, and I’m always so pleased to hear from those who are indeed inspired. So thank you for your comment! And yes, Burning Man is amazing indeed!

      Welcome to the blog! Make sure you subscribe so you don’t miss future posts. :-)

What is your favourite Burning Man memory?

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