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What Is Burning Man?

One man’s quest to find out what draws people to the bohemian party in the Black Rock Desert


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Text and photos by Reg Kittrelle

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My ticket to enter another world.

As an aging, quasi-hippie with a suspicious view of humans as a species, I’ve always viewed Burning Man through a very skeptical lens. Despite this, I decided to attend this annual event held in the Nevada desert. Encouraged by waves of apathy and head scratching by friends and family, I decided to do it on my Triumph Tiger 800XC.

Burning Man traces its origins to a small beach at the edge of San Francisco where, in the 1980s, a handful of people gathered to celebrate the Summer Solstice. The highlight of the celebration was the burning of a wooden man slightly larger than life size. In 1990 the event moved to the remote Black Rock Desert, a hundred or so miles north of Reno, where it’s been ever since. In the intervening years the wooden man grew to more than 40 feet tall, giving the event its name, and the site itself came to be known as Black Rock City.

Just what Burning Man is depended on whom I asked. To some attendees it was spiritual, an emotional catharsis; to others it was performance art. “Freedom” and “being yourself” came up often, as did the phrase “bacchanalian orgy.” The organizers weren’t much help: “Trying to explain what Burning Man is to someone who has never been to the event is a bit like trying to explain what a particular color looks like to someone who is blind.” I suspected it would be some or all of the above, whatever I wanted it to be.

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The 55-foot tall “Truth and Beauty.”

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Afternoon dust storms occurred regularly, like clockwork.

There’s one thing I was sure of, though. By all accounts the Black Rock Desert––a.k.a the playa––was not a place for a motorcycle. It’s an ancient lake bed, Lake Lahontan, which went dry about 9,000 years ago, leaving behind a highly corrosive alkali/gypsum surface that eats metal, burns the eyes, and clogs the nose. In recent years the area has been used for amateur and commercial rocket testing, and as an alternative to the Bonneville Salt Flats for speed runs. The conditions on the playa on any given day are pretty much limited to one of two choices, very dusty or very muddy. And, of course, there’s the heat; temperatures in the 105-degree range are not unusual.

Burning Man takes a toll on your wallet, too. This year’s ticket was $380, and with the handling charges to have it waiting for me at the Will Call gate, it went up to $420. Once inside, you can’t use your own vehicle to get around. You can hitch a ride on an authorized “Art Car,” as long as you want to go where it’s going. Instead, I paid $150 to have a rental bicycle delivered to me on the playa. After adding in my dried food, travel expenses, and the odds and ends I always need, I beat the hell out of $800.

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A length of 3-inch ABS pipe was my makeshift storage for carrying three pints of water.

On a motorcycle you make or break your Burning Man trip when you pack, as there is nothing to buy there other than ice and coffee. The most important item on any Burner’s list is water. Staying hydrated isn’t optional; you do it, or you die. Very generally, about one-and-a-half gallons per day is the minimum. I arranged for a friend to cart in seven gallons of water for me. Additionally, I fitted the Triumph with a length of 3-inch ABS pipe in which I stored three 20-ounce water bottles, and stuffed another six pint bottles wherever I could. This gave me a little over eight gallons of warm-to-hot water; not the most pleasant of stuff to drink, but certainly lifesaving. Bathing? That’s what wet wipes are for.

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Study this a bit. This is a hand-built VW, but scaled up from normal size by 130 percent!

Most Burners arrive in cars, trucks, or RVs. The back up at the entrance to the playa can stretch for 20 miles, making for a wait of up to 12 hours in the hot sun, on a bike, with no air conditioning. Which is why I left my home in Santa Cruz, California, at 4:45 a.m. on the Tuesday morning after the opening. This put me in Gerlach, the nearest town to the playa, at about 1 p.m. I was on the playa at the ticket office 20 minutes later. Timing is everything.

My longest wait, 50 minutes, occurred once I picked up my ticket at Will Call and got back in line to be let in. Stopped dead, things began to heat up a bit. I had water with me, but it was approaching ambient temperature. Possibly seeing the face I was making while drinking it, a man walked over from an RV and handed me a cold bottle of water and then, soon after that, two young women came up and gave me one of those frozen pop things. I offered to adopt them on the spot. I experienced many similar instances of this generosity during the event.

Black Rock City is laid out like a clock face. The camping areas start at 2 o’clock, and curve around to 10 o’clock. This area is then divided up into annular rings, or roads, starting with “A” closest to the center, and continuing out to “M” at the outer edge. Though large theme camps are assigned, the rest is first come, first served. You can camp just about wherever your gear will fit. I was at 5:45 & J at the invitation of a small group called (for reasons I never understood) El PescaPlayans.

I brought my small, one-person tent and a 10×12 shade tarp. The freestanding tent packs small and light, but it turned out to be the wrong size for Burning Man. Although I slept fine in it, all my gear had to stay outside under the tarp where the playa’s daily dust storms deposited alkali dust in everything, even bags that seemed tightly closed. The tarp kept the inside of the tent relatively cool in the 95- to 100-degree temperatures. Without it the tent would have doubled as a sweat house.

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Part of the 13 members in my camp.

Other tent-related tips I learned included bringing longer tent pegs to stake down the tarp. Early August saw severe thundershowers hit the area, flooding it a couple of times. By the time Burning Man opened, the playa was relatively firm under the first six inches. Without those rains the soft dust can go quite deep. Had I used my normal 6-8-inch stakes, the tarp would have become debris against the trash fence a couple of miles distant. Instead, I substituted 12-inch stakes; problem solved.

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In the distant background behind me is the “Burning Man, pre-burn. Bringing or renting a bicycle is essential if you’re going to see much of this spread out event.

It wasn’t possible to see everything going on at Burning Man––there’s just too much of it spread out over too big an area. The organizers helpfully provide a 160-page book with a full listing, but all it did was give me a good idea of what I missed. My rental bicycle got me around while my motorcycle was parked, snug––or as snug as possible––under a Geza cover. The company I rented from probably had a couple of hundred on hand, mostly beaters. Mine held up fine, but several people I spoke with had continual problems with parts coming loose, chains coming off, and flat tires. Motorcyclists should have no problem with these minor irritants.

So then… just what the hell is Burning Man? As I indicated, prior to attending I couldn’t get a straight answer out of anyone. And after attending, I can’t give you one. On the surface, it is probably one of the largest displays of street, conceptual, and performance art in the world. Some of it is whimsical, much is interactive, beauty is pervasive, and more than quite a bit is astounding. One of the focal points of this year’s event was the 55-foot “Truth and Beauty” sculpture, constructed from stainless steel and wire mesh. Burning Man authorities must approve each artwork, so there are no hastily thrown together garbage pieces cluttering the playa. This art alone justifies a trip to Burning Man.

It is also a huge, constantly moving party that ignores the clock. There were theme camps featuring just about any music type you can image (including roller disco), degrees of, uh, intimacy, and numerous bars offering small free drinks. I noticed that late in the week there was an influx of partiers whose only intent appeared to be getting loaded, getting laid, and getting gone.

DSC 0106 300x198 photoFor me, I was fascinated by the art, particularly in the more creative, ingenious pieces, but only dipped in and out of the party scene, mainly because it really didn’t kick off until late at night. I camped with a group that was quite a bit younger than me, and it wasn’t unusual to have them just going to bed as I was getting up to greet the sunrise. And, yes, nudity is an accepted part of Burning Man. But then, so is dressing as you’d like, howling at the moon if the mood strikes, and honoring a departed loved one a The Temple, the secular, spiritual heart of the Man. Some of my most enjoyable time was spent in various camps just talking with strangers.

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More important than any of this is the feeling that creeps up on you …and if you’re open to it… changes the way you see the event. This is the reason it is so difficult to explain Burning Man to someone who hasn’t been there. After about two days on the playa it dawned on me that I was on, for lack of a better term, neutral ground. The openness, absence of ridged judgment, and sense of freedom was hugely enjoyable.

Burning Man culminates with the burning to the ground of the The Man, this year affixed atop a large saucer-like structure. This was the largest, the loudest, most surreal, most fire-filled, most …everything event I’ve ever attended. And for many, this ends their Burning Man, but on the next, the last night, The Temple is burned. The mood with this is the polar opposite of The Man burn as it is very quiet and highly emotional.
Though not a motorcycle event, per se, I recommend adding Burning Man to your trip bucket list. Because of the often-harsh conditions, and the lack of food and water, it really taxes your self-reliance and camping skills. I wouldn’t think about attending it on anything other than a motorcycle.

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A view of the Burning Man from within its base. The traditional close of the event is marked when this entire structure is set ablaze.

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