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An Oral History of Burning Man

Burning Man, the annual super-rave in Nevada, has become Independence Week for a worldwide tribe of inventors, artists, and desert freaks. Brad Wieners talks to founders and fans about how the party got started—and the death, mayhem, and power struggles that almost shut it down. Written by Brad Wieners for Outside Magazine, 2012.


"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.
In this light, Burning Man is partly the story of a half-dozen eccentrics—an unemployed landscaper (Larry Harvey), an art model (Crimson Rose), a struggling photographer (Will Roger Peterson), a dot-com PR gal (Marian Goodell), an aerobics instructor (Harley Dubois), and a signmaker (Michael Mikel)—who made good. Less charitably, it’s the tale of a group of slackers who grabbed hold of the one thing that brought them notice—and, eventually, a paycheck—and have ruthlessly ridden it for all it’s worth. The truth contains elements of both, of course, but one thing’s for sure: it’s never boring.
IN THE BEGINNING: 1986–1989 Before it drew thousands of determined pilgrims to the Nevada desert, Burning Man consisted of a small group of friends torching an effigy on San Francisco’s Baker Beach, just west of the Golden Gate Bridge. Was it a summer solstice party? Guerrilla art? Or, as legend had it, one man’s attempt to exorcise his heartbreak?
LARRY HARVEY
(co-creator and executive director of Burning Man): My friend Mary Grauberger had done a celebration down on Baker Beach for years. In 1986, she’d decided not to do it again, and I thought we’d recreate that, but in our own way. I really wasn’t an artist. I was hanging out with these famous latte carpenters, all of whom, in their spare time, were writing novels or painting pictures or playing music. I think Jerry [James] may have asked me to repeat my statement on the phone so he understood what I was telling him: “Let’s burn a man on the beach.”
JERRY JAMES
(co-creator): There wasn’t much more to it than that. Larry called me and asked, “Do you want to build a figure and go burn it for the solstice?” OK, sure.click for moreā€¦