Burning Man 2012: The Truth Behind the Mysterious Nevada Festival


For one week of every year, an American metropolis like no other takes form; Black Rock City. Those who know this event know it as “Burning Man,” a gathering of over 50,000 people in the playa region of Northwestern Nevada celebrating art, music, dance, and community. It culminates in the burning of a human effigy created on an increasingly staggering scale every year.

Having never been myself, I sought to understand Burning Man beyond a factual level. Many outsiders view this as a week of naked dancing, desert heat, sand, hippies, and drugs, lots of drugs. Hoping to uncover and understand more, I spoke to friends, and friends of friends, and friends of enemies all who had been to Burning Man, and they all, after telling me detailed, exciting stories of their experience, said something to the effect of, "you will never understand Burning Man until you go." One even quoted Hunter S. Thompson saying, “What he said about the edge, I'll say about Black Rock City, ‘There is no honest way to explain the edge because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.’” Alas, it is my job to look for the edge, so I continued searching.

On a very basic level, the first Burning Man took place in 1986 in San Francisco when a few friends on a beach burned a wooden man and a smaller wooden dog in an act of “radical self-expression.” This would become one of the ten driving principles of Burning Man; among them are unconditional giving, inclusion, self-reliance, and communal effort. Some of the few things that cost actual money include a ticket into Black Rock City, coffee and ice (being an avid iced coffee drinker myself, this seems like worst part of Burning Man).

Many that I spoke to were not even aware of the guiding principles, though they agreed unanimously that community was essential to the experience and the people of Black Rock City were consistently altruistic.

I was regaled with tales of strangers helping strangers: A 70-year-old woman sharing her Chapstick and dry shampoo, cookies passed around from a camp oven, the sensation of finding a stranger during a “white out’ when the wind picks up scattering sand everywhere and together stopping to share the moment. I was told about driving to Burning Man with Uhauls filled with water and tarps and beer and stopping along the way to help fellow “burners” change a tire. I was informed about the other 51 weeks of the year and how they are often referred to in Black Rock City as “the default world” and that although often conversations between two burners begin with the typical “what do you do?” there is rarely a judgment present.  

I was told of the beautiful stillness of the temple, a huge wooden structure built every year for Black Rock City, a place where it does not say explicitly to be quiet but no one talks, an area of remembrance where writing a message to a lost loved one is encouraged, a place that at the end of the week gently burns to the ground as quiet onlookers watch together.

And paradoxically, after all these tales of strangers, kindness and oneness,  everyone I interviewed seemed to say the same thing -- Burning Man had been a journey of self-discovery. “I met the strangest and most incredible strangers, one friend said. And that was what made it so great. You could become a character, stay yourself, or generally guide your own way.”